The Untouchables‘ Rejection of Hinduism and its Relation to Racial Ideologies
‘God, religion, Shastras, Puranas and Itikasas (legendary narratives) are the powerful weapons in the hands of the upper caste people to subjugate the sons of the soil and treat them as fourth or fifth castes
under the vicious Varnasrama Dharma system.‘
- Periyar E. V. Ramaswami, The Modern Rationalist, Sept. 1975, as cited in Diehl, 1977, pp. 39f.
Traditionally, a person’s Untouchability derived from his or her occupation with materials considered ritually impure, e.g. leather, carcasses or blood. By the time of the low caste leaders and social refom movements this paper is about, Untouchability had long since been hereditary. Social exclusion was inherited and Untouchables1 were met with a kind of racial prejudice as their supposed inferiority was based on descent. Untouchables may have even begun to consider themselves to belong to a different race other than socalled caste Hindus.
The above quotation by Periyar vividly illustrates his aversion against the religion of the ‘upper caste people‘ which is commonly referred to as Hinduism. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries there have been many different strategies by means of which the Untouchables have tried to escape their subjugated position within the discriminatory Hindu social order that Periyar so despises. Along inevitably came the need for the formulation of a separate identity that, obviously, did not emphasise their supposed ritual impurity or their long history of oppression, but rather a prestigious heritage and equality, if not superiority not only in a moral, but cultural and even biological sense. In line with the nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that drew much of their inspiration from Orientalist knowledge and colonial ethnographic theories regarding the racial origins of Indian society, another factor may have contributed to the Untouchables‘ rejection of Hindu orthodoxy: That of a racialised thinking and pronounced, separate ethnic identity. Thus, in what ways is the Untouchables‘ rejection of Hinduism related to racial ideologies?
This paper will deal with the concept of race as configured by low caste movements and social reformers seeking to abolish Untouchability and to improve the status of lower castes by way of opposing Brahmin hegemony2. It will be shown that the formulation of a distinct racial identity often goes hand in hand with the rejection of Hinduism, the religion the discriminatory caste system originated from.
Before beginning the analysis, a few introductory remarks regarding caste and race as well as the mergence of both concepts need to be brought forward. Physically, an Untouchable person is impossible to distinguish from caste Hindus. Neither skin colour nor facial features, scientifically analysed or not, constitute a reliable indicator for caste affiliation. Obviously, caste does not equate race: Throughout history, members of one regionally contained jati have switched to another. More recently, in the course of colonial ethnographic efforts, castes have managed to climb the hierarchical ladder to become Vaishyas, Kshatriyas or even Brahmins. One’s race cannot be altered, though. Race is commonly understood as the intellectual and physical integrity of a group. Although the existence of human races is not a scientifically supported notion, it is still very much alive to this day, not to mention in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ethnicity on the other hand is defined not solely by ancestry, but cultural heritage, language, customs and so forth. Complicating matters, both terms are often used synonymously, also in the works this paper is based on. Therefore, it is most difficult to draw a clear line between these two concepts. This paper uses them nearly synonymously as well, except when the respective view analysed explicitly states a distinction. The Veda, of which the Rig Veda is most important, provided the initial information about the Aryans upon which Orientalist scholars constructed the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) and the idea of a Vedic Golden Age3. According to the classic paradigm, India was invaded by the Aryan people in the second millenium BC, imposing a cultural as well as social hegemony on its original inhabitants. This AIT was used throughout the centuries in multiple ways; an ancient Aryan heritage linked the Brahmins to their British rulers, but some nationalists could also claim affinity with the rest of the Indian population, thus creating an ideal ground for the making of nationhood.
It was thus European influence that has shaped the process of ethnic identity-building to a great extent. The social category of caste being an indicator of race is no longer a widely accepted notion. It was only with Orientalist thinking that caste came to be equated with race. At the end of the 18th century, the Indologist William Jones discovered the relatedness among classic Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, proposing all three languages must stem from a common source. He therefore assumed a racial division between Northern and Southern India as well as between high and low castes, to be observed along linguistic lines, an idea that was further elaborated only during the next century (Bates, 2011, p. 233). Indian languages of the South show no relatedness to the Northern ones; they were termed Dravidian. Consequently, speaking a non-Aryan language, most famously Tamil, meant to belong to a whole different race. Jones‘ academic successors viewed caste Hindus as being of Aryan blood, whereas the remaining population, variously described as aboriginal, tribal, Dravidian etc., allegedly originated from a different racial stock. Race and caste thus merged, a notion that spread not only within Indian elite circles. Out of the new-found linguistic affinities between European and Indian languages, racial categories were constructed. Max Müller himself vehemently opposed the equalisation of linguistic with racial relationships. By the end of the 19th century, the theory of the racial origins of caste was firmly established in academic and administrative discourse. It was soon picked up both by Hindu nationalists and low caste movements. The latter obviously did not believe in the general superiority of the Aryan race. The Aryan-Dravidian-dichotomy is the essential, overarching principle of a number of these movements, many of which shall be discussed below. Both races came to be juxtaposed so as to signify the essential division of Indian demography into an Aryan-dominated North and a Dravidian South. In some discourses Dravidian came to be synonymous with low caste, even Untouchable, while Aryan was always connected to the higher castes, especially the Brahmins (Ballantyne, 2002, passim).
It is within this ideological context that the Maharashtrian social reformer Mahatma Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) fought his battle against the injustice and discrimination that befell the Shudras and the Untouchables of his time. The Satyashodak Samaj was founded by Phule in 1873. Though sociopolitical in its objective, it can also be considered a religious community as it explicitly went against Brahmin Hinduism and instead spread new forms of religious living and practice. He viewed the divide between upper and lower castes as an ethnic one and paralleled the status of the lower and Untouchable castes with that of the Blacks in the USA, juxtaposing the white American enslavers with the Brahmins who kept the majority of India’s inhabitants in slavery for ages. One of his main propositions was the claim of Shudras and Untouchables being the original inhabitants of India. Their ancestors were forced into a subjugated position by the invading Aryans that enslaved them by means of religious tracts. Phule’s rejection of these tracts was at least partially based on a pronounced ethnic identity that separated the bahujan4 from the Aryan Brahmins in the first place.
1 Quite confusingly, the fourth and lowest varna of the Shudras is sometimes not clearly distinguished from the Untouchables, and where it is, there is often no differentiation made concerning both groups‘ level of discrimination. In some places, the terms ‘Shudra‘ and ‘Dalit‘ or ‘Untouchable‘ are even used interchangeably; Periyar referred to any non-Brahmin as a Shudra (Diehl, 1977, p. 62); as was the case with the Satyashodhak Samaj, both Shudras and Atishudras needed protection from Brahmin oppression (Dr. Y. D. Phadke in Phule, 1991, p. xix). This paper will use the term ‘Untouchable‘ instead of ‘Dalit‘ as it only deals with some of the earliest movements, long before the self-designation ‘Dalit‘ was established.
2 This paper does not venture deeper into the various low caste movements that drew their inspiration from the foundational writings of movements and reformists as analysed in the following, be they contemporaneous to them or striving just these days; Gopal Baba Valangkar (unknown-1900) e.g. adopted Phule’s belief that Aryan invaders took control of Western and Southern India, subjugating the indigenous population that he considered Dravidian, and heavily borrowed from Phule’s ‘Gulamgiri‘ (Constable, 1997, p. 322). Struggles such as his may thus represent an important mark in the history of Untouchable emancipation, but further describing them would go far beyond the scope of this essay.
3 Modern research has shown that a purely metaphoric or ‘ideological‘ view on the Rig Vedic passages that have usually served as proof for racial interpretations can be applied just as well and perhaps more justifiedly so. The Sanskrit terms of ‘white‘ and ‘black‘, traditionally signifying racial belonging, can also translate as ‘light‘ and ‘darkness‘ and thus describe the dichotomy of good and evil (Figueira, 2002, p. 146). The Vedic terms arya and dasa would then no longer have a racial, but an ‘ideological‘ connotation, with the Aryans being those of noble spirit, high status or simply a people who spoke Sanskrit. There is an on-going discussion as to what is actually meant with the adjective arya, but reliable scholarship seems to have come to an agreement about the Rig Veda not actually describing different races.
4 In contrast to Periyar, Phule viewed any non-Brahmin as belonging to the bahujan, a term that encompasses Kshatriyas as well as Shudras, Atishudras and the Tribals.