(Sketch by Karen Haydock)
This post has some quotes (and my reflections on them) from the book The Annihilation of Caste by B. R. Ambedkar. The book has an essay of the same title which Ambedkar was to give in a Conference of a anti-caste mandal in Lahore. This particular speech, unfortunately, was never delivered. The organizers of the speech objected to certain ideas and words in the speech, which Ambedkar refused to remove, this ultimately resulted in cancellation of the event. In the book before the actual essay begins, it has a series of letters exchanged between Ambedkar and the organizers. The letters show how many feathers can be ruffled, just by words which are well thought out, well chosen and well aimed. The analysis of problems of caste by Ambedkar, and its possible solution is a radical one. This surely unsettled people then, as it will now, even though lot of water has passed since Ambedkar wrote this essay, people and their thoughts have not changed. But Ambedkar was not only man of words, he was one who had the will to put his words in action too. And he indeed left the fold of Hinduism, under which he did not believe there was any emancipation for the dalits.
The radical approach of Ambedkar was not looked upon kindly by most people, especially the leaders. It exposes the ineffective steps taken by both the National Congress as well as Socialists in eradication of caste. Ambedkar argues that their efforts will never
be successful as the problem of caste is inherent to the way of Hindu religion and is essential for its survival. I think in all
this analysis, it sort of became pressing on Gandhi to write a counter to the essay, so Gandhi wrote against this essay in
Harijan. The the appendix has sections of Gandhi’s view on the essay and Ambedkar’s reply to it. Ambedkar’s reply to Gandhi, to put it mildly, is brutal. The force with which he tears apart the argument put forth by Gandhi in his defence of the varna system,
and his idea of following saints as exemplars of religious faith, is something which must have been brewing in his mind for long. He bisects Gandhi in to two: the politician and the saint, which are trying to live by the philosophy preached by him. And he shows that this philosophy is just clinging on to “archaic social structure of the Hindus”.
Ambedkar gives a rationale for why he wrote a reply to Gandhi:
This I have done not because what he has said is so weighty as to deserve a reply but because to many a Hindu he is an oracle, so
great that when he opens his lips it is expected that the argument must close and no dog must bark. But the world owes much to rebels who would dare to argue in the face of the pontiff and insist that he is not infallible. I do not care for the credit which every
progressive society must give to its rebels. I shall be satisfied if I make the Hindus realize that they are the sick men of India
and that their sickness is causing danger to the health and happiness of other Indians.
This essay is an eye-opener regards to views of Ambedkar on caste system,and gives us his ideological position on the issues. What
emerges from the reading is that Ambedkar was a rational person. In the sentiments that he has expressed in the essay you can feel the urgency about the things he talks about and at the same time they are not just emotional blurts, but well thought about and
exemplified rational arguments. He elaborates profusely with examples from history and his own times and quotes from many, and builds a convincing case for his ideas, and radical they are.
It is a pity that many of his (so called) followers of today don’t follow his ideas in principle or in spirit.
Prelude to the speech which was never delivered
Ambedkar in his reply on cancelling the Conference for which the speech was made he takes the organizers to task for being not able to keep their word.
I did not expect that your Mandal would be so upset because I have spoken of the destruction of Hindu Religion. I thought it was only fools who were afraid of words. But lest there should be any misapprehension in the minds of the people I have taken great pains to explain what I mean by religion and destruction of religion. I am sure that nobody on reading my address could possibly misunderstand me. That your Mandal should have taken a fright at mere words as destruction of religion etc. notwithstanding the explanation that accompanies them does not raise the Mandal in my estimation. One cannot have any respect or regard for men who take the position of the Reformer and then refuse even to see the logical consequences of that position, let alone following them out in action.
Ambedkar makes it clear that he is not ready to give up his ideological commitments, just for the sake of this speech.
When I see you object even to such a passing and so indirect a reference, I feel bound to ask did you think that in agreeing to preside over your Conference I would be agreeing to suspend or to give up my views regarding change of faith by the Depressed Classes If you did think so I must tell you that I am in no way responsible for such a mistake on your part. If any of you had even hinted to me that in exchange for the honour you were doing me by electing as President, I was to abjure my faith in my programme of conversion, I would have told you in quite plain terms that I cared more for my faith than for any honour from you.
I told you when you were in Bombay that I would not alter a comma, that I would not allow any censorship over my address and that you would have to accept the address as it came from me. I also told you that the responsibility. for the views expressed in the address was entirely mine and if they were not liked by the Conference I would not mind at all if the Conference passed a resolution condemning them.
And finally in exasperation he gives up on the idea of speech thus:
All the grace has by now run out and I shall not consent to preside even if your Committee agreed to accept my address as it is – in toto. I thank you for your appreciation of the pains I have taken in the preparation of the address. I certainly have profited by the labour if no one else does.
I think the fact that speech was indeed never delivered makes it even more powerful, while reading it almost seems that ambedkar is talking to you, directly. And profited, even I have been, by reading this essay.
From the Speech that was never delivered
In the speech itself, Ambedkar makes it amply clear that he knows that he is hated by caste Hindus and the reasons for it. And he makes it also clear that it was not his, but the organizers choice that he be there. And it is no wonder that the offsprings of these Hindus hate him still.
I have criticised the Hindus. I have questioned the authority of
the Mahatma whom they revere. They hate me. To them I am a snake
in their garden. The Mandal will no doubt be asked by the
politically-minded Hindus to explain why it has called me to fill
this place of honour. It is an act of great daring. I shall not be
surprised if some political Hindus regard it as an insult. This
selection of mine cannot certainly please the ordinary
As for myself you will allow me to say that I have accepted the
invitation much against my will and also against the will of many
of my fellow untouchables. I know that the Hindus are sick of
me. I know that I am not a persona grata with them. Knowing all
this I have deliberately kept myself away from them. I have no
desire to inflict myself upon them. I have been giving expression
to my views from my own platform. This has already caused a great
deal of heartburning and irritation. I have no desire to ascend
the platform of the Hindus to do within their sight what I have
been doing within their hearing. If I am here it is because of
your choice and not because of my wish.
Ambedkar then traces the history of social reforms for caste eradication, in which the National Congress and Socialists choose
political and economic reforms respectively as the approach. The socialists eventually were outnumbered and the National Congress had their way, in bringing political reforms first and then the social ones. Ambedkar thinks that social reforms should be primal over others and without them neither the political nor the economic reforms hold any value. But then he asks :
Does it prove that the victory went to those who were in the right? Does it prove conclusively that social reform has no bearing on political reform ?
Who is fit to rule? Does just the mandate for the political party make it fit to rule? This question is pertinent more today, as we
have experimented with democracy for over six decades now. This is something that we need to ask our political class, why should even after so many reforms and so many years and so many promises many of the facts which Ambedkar states are still existent in India?
Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow a
large class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use
public school ? Are you fit for political power even though you do
not allow them the use of public wells ? Are you fit for political
power even though you do not allow them the use of public streets
? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow
them to wear what apparel or ornaments they like ? Are you fit for
political power even though you do not allow them to eat any food
they like ?
And on social reformers who have done some reforms he says the following. The reforms were more of cosmetic nature, which did affect only a few amongst the masses and that too mostly from the privileged classes.
It (social reforms) consisted mostly of enlightened high caste
Hindus who did not feel the necessity for agitating for the
abolition of caste or had not the courage to agitate for it. They
felt quite naturally a greater urge to remove such evils as
enforced widowhood, child marriages etc., evils which prevailed
among them and which were personally felt by them. They did not
stand up for the reform of the Hindu society. The battle that was
fought centered round the question of the reform of the family. It
did not relate to the social reform in the sense of the break-up
of the caste system.
On a side note Ambedkar does not mention the work done by Phule in regards to caste eradication here. He is also critical of the
approach of socialists who consider economic reforms to be primal over religious and social reforms. Here he concludes that any reforms that do not tackle the issue of religion and society first will be futile, like drawing line on surface of water.
The fallacy of the Socialists lies in supposing that because in
the present stage of European Society property as a source of
power is predominant, that the same is true of India or that the
same was true of Europe in the past. Religion, social status and
property are all sources of power and authority, which one man
has, to control the liberty of another. One is predominant at one
stage; the other is predominant at another stage. That is the only
difference. If liberty is the ideal, if liberty means the
destruction of the dominion which one man holds over another then
obviously it cannot be insisted upon that economic reform must be
the one kind of reform worthy of pursuit. If the source of power
and dominion is at any given time or in any given society social
and religious then social reform and religious reform must be
accepted as the necessary sort of reform.
Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order ?
And what do the socialist promise after the revolution? Just assurances do not suffice for him. Is there a concrete plan he asks?
The assurance of a socialist leading the revolution that he does
not believe in caste, I am sure, will not suffice. The assurance
must be the assurance proceeding from much deeper foundation,
namely, the mental attitude of the compatriots towards one another
in their spirit of personal equality and fraternity. Can it be
said that the proletariat of India, poor as it is, recognise no
distinctions except that of the rich and the poor ? Can it be said
that the poor in India recognize no such distinctions of caste or
creed, high or low ? If the fact is that they do, what unity of
front can be expected from such a proletariat in its action
against the rich ?
How can there be a revolution if the proletariat cannot present a
If Socialists are not to be content with the mouthing of fine
phrases, if the Socialists wish to make Socialism a definite
reality then they must recognize that the problem of social reform
is fundamental and that for them there is no escape from it.
This is only another way of saying that, turn in any direction you
like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have
political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill
Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a
division of labourers.
As an economic organization Caste is therefore a harmful
institution, in as much as, it involves the subordination of man’s
natural powers and inclinations to the exigencies of social rules.
We see the point that Ambedkar is trying to get across to the Socialists. He sees what they are missing and tries to bring them to
the reality of caste which, if not tackled earlier will have to be tackled. It seems many a leaders at that time were under the impression that caste was a minor problem, in time it would magically get resolved, when the society is developed economically and politically. But the current state of affairs just proves how wrong they were. Though there is some political and economical and social development, the deep roots of caste that have permeated to the core of the Indian society are strong as ever.
In defense of the caste system some seemingly rational people broughtin “scientific”eugenics. When Ambedkar wrote this speech, it was a time when still the ugly face of eugenics was not seen in its full force. Attempts to incorporate “survival of the fittest” and of
“improving the human stock” were in vogue. It fitted the imperialistic policies very well. I think the eugenic movement was a zeitgeist of those times, as Indian thinkers also jumped into the bandwagon for the protection of pure-blood strains, origins some of which can be puranically traced to the creation of the Universe itself. And many of the idealogues passed on this jumping to their subsequent followers, who are now in full throttle regarding the purity of the Aryan race and its “contamination” by others. But Ambedkar argues that this is not the case as neither the inter-marriage nor the inter-dining, which are two pillars of caste establishment, helps anyway in selecting the best.
Caste system does not demarcate racial division. Caste system is a
social division of people of the same race. Assuming it, however,
to be a case of racial divisions one may ask : What harm could
there be if a mixture of races and of blood was permitted to take
place in India by intermarriages between different Castes ? Men
are no doubt divided from animals by so deep a distinction that
science recognizes men and animals as two distinct species. But
even scientists who believe in purity of races do not assert that
the different races constitute different species of men. They are
only varieties of one and the same species. As such they can
interbreed and produce an offspring which is capable of breeding
and which is not sterile. An immense lot of nonsense is talked
about heredity and eugenics in defence of the Caste System. Few
would object to the Caste System if it was in accord with the
basic principle of eugenics because few can object to the
improvement of the race by judicious mating. But one fails to
understand how the Caste System secures judicious mating. Caste
System is a negative thing. It merely prohibits persons belonging
to different Castes from intermarrying. It is not a positive
method of selecting which two among a given Caste should marry. If
Caste is eugenic in origin then the origin of sub-Castes must also
be eugenic. But can any one seriously maintain that the origin of
sub-Castes is eugenic ? I think it would be absurd to contend for
such a proposition and for a very obvious reason.
Again if Caste is eugenic in origin one can understand the bar
against intermarriage. But what is the purpose of the interdict
placed on interdining between Castes and sub-Castes alike ?
Interdining cannot infect blood and therefore cannot be the cause
either of the improvement or of deterioration of the race. This
shows that Caste has no scientific origin and that those who are
attempting to give it an eugenic basis are trying to support by
science what is grossly unscientific.
To argue that the Caste System was eugenic in its conception is to
attribute to the forefathers of present-day Hindus a knowledge of
heredity which even the modern scientists do not possess.
This shows that the Caste System does not embody the eugenics of
modern scientists. It is a social system which embodies the
arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindus who
were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who
had authority to force it on their inferiors.
And for a Hindu society he says that the term itself has a foreign origin. This might ruffle some feathers now, especially of those who are trying to save the “Hindu” cause.
The first and foremost thing that must be recognized is that Hindu
Society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was
given by the Mohammedans to the natives for the purpose of
distinguishing themselves. It does not occur in any Sanskrit work
prior to the Mohammedan invasion. They did not feel the necessity
of a common name because they had no conception of their having
constituted a community. Hindu society as such does not exist. It
is only a collection of castes.
Since our childhood, we were fed on the by the media and society that India is a nation that embodies “Unity in Diversity”. We have so much which is diverse, languages, customs, costumes, foods and yet it was told to us that in every one of us there is a thread of being an Indian. This is something which the state propaganda machine has dutifully and very well filled in the Indian mindset. Even during his era, this phrase was much used. The very idea that there is a Hindu society, is something which is not acceptable to him.
In every Hindu the consciousness that exists is the consciousness
of his caste. That is the reason why the Hindus cannot be said to
form a society or a nation. There are however many Indians whose
patriotism does not permit them to admit that Indians are not a
nation, that they are only an amorphous mass of people. They have
insisted that underlying the apparent diversity there is a
fundamental unity which marks the life of the Hindus in as much as
there is a similarity of habits and customs, beliefs and thoughts
which obtain all over the continent of India. Similarity in habits
and customs, beliefs and thoughts there is. But one cannot accept
the conclusion that therefore, the Hindus constitute a society. To
do so is to misunderstand the essentials which go to make up a
society. Men do not become a society by living in physical
proximity any more than a man ceases to be a member of his society
by living so many miles away from other men. Secondly similarity
in habits and customs, beliefs and thoughts is not enough to
constitute men into society.
He summarizes his idea thus:
To have similar thing is totally different from possessing things in common.
And about the anti-social spirit which is so permeating in our society he gives roots in caste system.
An anti-social spirit is found wherever one group has ” interests
of its own ” which shut it out from full interaction with other
groups, so that its prevailing purpose is protection of what it
has got. This anti-social spirit, this spirit of protecting its
own interests is as much a marked feature of the different castes
in their isolation from one another as it is of nations in their
isolation. The Brahmin’s primary concern is to protect ” his
interest ” against those of the non-Brahmins and the non-Brahmin’s
primary concern is to protect their interests against those of the
Brahmins. The Hindus, therefore, are not merely an assortment of
castes but they are so many warring groups each living for itself
and for its selfish ideal.
And on why the aboriginal tribes exist, even when we others are reaping fruits of “development”.
Civilizing the aborigines means adopting them as your own, living
in their midst, and cultivating fellow-feeling, in short loving
them. How is it possible for a Hindu to do this ? His whole life
is one anxious effort to preserve his caste. Caste is his precious
possession which he must save at any cost. He cannot consent to
lose it by establishing contact with the aborigines the remnants
of the hateful Anary as of the Vedic days. Not that a Hindu could
not be taught the sense of duty to fallen humanity, but the
trouble is that no amount of sense of duty can enable him to
overcome his duty to preserve his caste. Caste is, therefore, the
real explanation as to why the Hindu has let the savage remain a
savage in the midst of his civilization without blushing or
without feeling any sense of remorse or repentance.
And on comparing cruelty inflicted by Hindus and Muslims, he sees that the former are actually worse off than the later.
The Hindus criticise the Mohammedans for having spread their
religion by the use of the sword. They also ridicule Christianity
on the score of the inquisition. But really speaking who is better
and more worthy of our respect—the Mohammedans and Christians who
attempted to thrust down the throats of unwilling persons what
they regarded as necessary for their salvation or the Hindu who
would not spread the light, who would endeavour to keep others in
darkness, who would not consent to share his intellectual and
social inheritance with those who are ready and willing to make it
a part of their own make-up ? I have no hesitation in saying that
if the Mohammedan has been cruel the Hindu has been mean and
meanness is worse than cruelty.
And on why Hindu religion cannot have people converted, as again caste factor comes in and has been detrimental to its spread.
Hindu religion ceased to be a missionary religion when the Caste
System grew up among the Hindus. Caste is inconsistent with
conversion. Inculcation of beliefs and dogmas is not the only
problem that is involved in conversion. To find a place for the
convert in the social life of the community is another and a much
more important problem that arises in connection with
conversion. That problem is where to place the convert, in what
caste ? It is a problem which must baffle every Hindu wishing to
make aliens converts to his religion. Unlike the club the
membership of a caste is not open to all and sundry. The law of
caste confines its membership to person born in the caste. Castes
are autonomous and there is no authority anywhere to compel a
caste to admit a new-comer to its social life. Hindu Society being
a collection of castes and each caste being a close corporation
there is no place for a convert. Thus it is the caste which has
prevented the Hindus from expanding and from absorbing other
religious communities. So long as caste remain, Hindu religion
cannot be made a missionary religion and Shudhi will be both a
folly and a futility.
Ambedkar does not see kindly towards the so called “tolerance” of the Hindus. He instead says that they are tolerant because they cannot be otherwise.
The Hindus claim to be a very tolerant people. In my opinion this
is a mistake. On many occasions they can be intolerant and if on
some occasions they are tolerant that is because they are too weak
to oppose or too indifferent to oppose. This indifference of the
Hindus has become so much a part of their nature that a Hindu will
quite meekly tolerate an insult as well as a wrong. You see
amongst them, to use the words of Morris, ” The great reading down
the little, the strong beating down the weak, cruel men fearing
not, kind men daring not and wise men caring not.”
And on social exclusion which was the principal way in which the caste system was forced upon the individual. This fact the entire tyranny of the caste system against the individual, is detrimental to the cause of the caste system. Those of us (like me) who are more or less living in urban areas, cannot perhaps imagine what complete exclusion from the society means, as we always have places to go and in the era of the internet new people to meet, if only virtually. And even there most of us do want social recognition by peers, above everything (How many likes on Facebook? How many views? How many tweets?). Peer pressure is very
demanding and we as an individual are devastated if we do are on the wrong side of it.
Now a caste has an unquestioned right to excommunicate any man who
is guilty of breaking the rules of the caste and when it is
realized that excommunication involves a complete cesser of social
intercourse it will be agreed that as a form of punishment there
is really little to choose between excommunication and death. No
wonder individual Hindus have not had the courage to assert their
independence by breaking the barriers of caste. It is true that
man cannot get on with his fellows. But it is also true that he
cannot do without them.
A caste is ever ready to take advantage of the helplessness of a
man and insist upon complete conformity to its code in letter and
in spirit. A caste can easily organize itself into a conspiracy to
make the life of a reformer a hell and if a conspiracy is a crime
I do not understand why such a nefarious act as an attempt to
excommunicate a person for daring to act contrary to the rules of
caste should not be made an offence punishable in law. But as it
is, even law gives each caste an autonomy to regulate its
membership and punish dissenters with excommunication. Caste in
the hands of the orthodox has been a powerful weapon for
persecuting the reforms and for killing all reform.
Then he talks about the idea of Democracy with reference to the caste system.
Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a
mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It
is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards
What is your ideal society if you do not want caste is a question
that is bound to be asked of you. If you ask me, my ideal would be
a society based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Ambedkar also talks about the effects of the social capital in assigning opportunities to people based on their merit, when equal
opportunities are presented to all – would not lead to an equal society. This is perhaps the seed of what was to become the quota
reservation system in the Constitution for different castes in the future.
It may be desirable to give as much incentive as possible to the
full development of every one’s powers. But what would happen if
men were treated unequally as they are, in the first two respects
? It is obvious that those individuals also in whose favour there
is birth, education, family name, business connections and
inherited wealth would be selected in the race. But selection
under such circumstances would not be a selection of the able. It
would be the selection of the privileged.
Ambedkar also dismisses the Chaturvarna theory of the Arya Samaj. In which people would be divided into the four categories dependent on their /qualities/ and not by their /birth/.
Even dependence of one class upon another may sometimes become
allowable. But why make one person depend upon another in the
matter of his vital needs ? Education everyone must have. Means of
defence everyone must have. These are the paramount requirements
of every man for his self-preservation. How can the fact that his
neighbour is educated and armed help a man who is uneducated and
disarmed. The whole theory is absurd.
And on why Manusmriti is still being followed and seen as a rationale for perpetuating the caste system and how it is connected
with the social status quo in India. Perhaps this also explains his burning of this particular book in 1927.
There is no code of laws more infamous regarding social rights
than the Laws of Manu. Any instance from anywhere of social
injustice must pale before it. Why have the mass of people
tolerated the social evils to which they have been subjected?
There have been social revolutions in other countries of the
world. Why have there not been social revolutions in India is a
question which has incessantly troubled me. There is only one
answer, which I can give and it is that the lower classes of
Hindus have been completely disabled for direct action on account
of this wretched system of Chaturvarnya. They could not bear arms
and without arms they could not rebel. They were all ploughmen or
rather condemned to be ploughmen and they never were allowed to
convert their ploughshare into swords. They had no bayonets and
therefore everyone who chose could and did sit upon them. On
account of the Chaturvarnya, they could receive no education. They
could not think out or know the way to their salvation. They were
condemned to be lowly and not knowing the way of escape and not
having the means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal
servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate.
…the weak in Europe has had in his freedom of military service
his physical weapon, in suffering his political weapon and in
education his moral weapon. These three weapons for emancipation
were never withheld by the strong from the weak in Europe. All
these weapons were, however, denied to the masses in India by
And regarding the caste amongst other religion vis-a-vis Hinduism, he makes the comparison and makes the distinction regarding the two. This is something that I have experienced personally being in Nagpur. People are never satisfied with your name, they want to know your surname, so that they can place you in hierarchy of how they want to treat you. If they assume that you are from so and so caste, their behavior towards you will abruptly change, and there is no law, no social sanction against this, against being rude to you based on your caste.
Again it must be borne in mind that although there are castes
among Non-Hindus, as there are among Hindus, caste has not the
same social significance for Non-Hindus as it has for Hindus. Ask
Mohammedan or a Sikh, who he is? He tells you that he is a
Mohammedan or a Sikh as the case may be. He does not tell you his
caste although he has one and you are satisfied with his
answer. When he tells you that he is a Muslim, you do not proceed
to ask him whether he is a Shiya or a Suni; Sheikh or Saiyad ;
Khatik or Pinjari. When he tells you he is a Sikh, you do not ask
him whether he is Jat or Roda ; Mazbi or Ramdasi. But you are not
satisfied, if a person tells you that he is a Hindu. You feel
bound to inquire into his caste. Why ? Because so essential is
caste in the case of a Hindu that without knowing it you do not
feel sure what sort of a being he is. That caste has not the same
social significance among Non-Hindus as it has among Hindus is
clear if you take into consideration the consequences which follow
breach of caste. There may be castes among Sikhs and Mohammedans
but the Sikhs and the Mohammedans will not outcast a Sikh or a
Mohammedan if he broke his caste. Indeed, the very idea of
excommunication is foreign to the Sikhs and the Mohammedans. But
with the Hindus the case is entirely different. He is sure to be
outcasted if he broke caste. This shows the difference in the
social significance of caste to Hindus and Non-Hindus. This is the
second point of difference. But there is also a third and a more
important one. Caste among the non-Hindus has no religious
consecration; but among the Hindus most decidedly it has. Among
the Non-Hindus, caste is only a practice, not a sacred
On another note I was told that in Kerala, the converts to Christianity are treated as per the caste lines. Those who before conversion were from the lower castes, remain so, even in churches and are treated differently. Is that why even after they have become Christians many in the state of Goa, add GSB (Goud Saraswat Brahmin) as a postfix to their names, just to denote their higher pedigree? And even amongst Muslims, I have seen the idea of caste like structures. The leaders who are nostalgic about the “golden era” of India make the argument that Hindu civilization has survived so many onslaughts, hence it is the fit one, needs a retrospection.
For, I fear that his statement may become the basis of a vicious
argument that the fact of survival is proof of fitness to survive.
Among the solutions to the problem of caste, Ambedkar proposes that inter-marriage between different castes is the solution. The ban on inter-marriage between the castes as the origin and operating mechanism of the castes is something which he elaborates in
another essay of his Castes In India, their Origin and Mechanism, Here he concludes that the custom of endogamy is the main vehicle for propagation of caste.
I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of
blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin and
unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes
paramount the separatist feeling – the feeling of being
aliens – created by Caste will not vanish. Among the Hindus
inter-marriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in
social life than it need be in the life of the non-Hindus. Where
society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an
ordinary incident of life. But where society cut asunder, marriage
as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real
remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will
serve as the solvent of Caste.
This will give nothing for the holders of caste to cherish for, the pure-blood lines will be mixed and lost.
And on courage of the social reformers he says:
Political tyranny is nothing compared to social tyranny and a reformer, who defies society, is a much more courageous man than a politician, who defies Government.
And given the power of social exo-communication that the society at large holds against the individual, and the trauma one has to go through for defying social norms, from the family members, friends and people around is demanding indeed.
And Ambedkar hits the nail on the head when he writes in his analysis that caste is not a physical object at all, but rather it is a mental state. And the people who have this mental state (dalits included), do not recognize it as a problematic one as they have never thought otherwise but are one with the very idea of caste. This appears a natural order of human society to them, which has divine origins in the /Vedas/ and /Shastras/.
Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of
barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which
has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a
state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore
mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional
change. Caste may be bad. Caste may lead to conduct so gross as to
be called man’s inhumanity to man. All the same, it must be
recognized that the Hindus observe Caste not because they are
inhuman or wrong headed. They observe Caste because they are
deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my
view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this
notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy, you
must grapple with, is not the people who observe Caste, but the
Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste.
The only way in which this immense hold on the entire society of
Hindus can be released is when they no longer believe in the divine
origin of the caste system. And in order to do this, we have to
destroy the entire system of religion based on sacred books from
antiquity, which inherently is unequal in nature. As regards to make
people inter-dine and inter-marry in order to abolish caste, he sees
them as only cosmetic changes, which will follow naturally when the
above is attained.
The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the
Shastras. How do you expect to succeed, if you allow the Shastras
to continue to mould the beliefs and opinions of the people ? Not
to question the authority of the Shastras , to permit the people
to believe in their sanctity and their sanctions and to blame them
and to criticise them for their acts as being irrational and
inhuman is a incongruous way of carrying on social
reform. Reformers working for the removal of untouchability
including Mahatma Gandhi, do not seem to realize that the acts of
the people are merely the results of their beliefs inculcated upon
their minds by the Shastras and that people will not change their
conduct until they cease to believe in the sanctity of the
Shastras on which their conduct is founded. No wonder that such
efforts have not produced any results. You also seem to be erring
in the same way as the reformers working in the cause of removing
untouchability. To agitate for and to organise inter-caste dinners
and inter-caste marriages is like forced feeding brought about by
artificial means. Make every man and woman free from the thraldom
of the Shastras, cleanse their minds of the pernicious notions
founded on the Shastras, and he or she will inter-dine and
inter-marry, without your telling him or her to do so.
He then asks the people of the /Mandal/:
You must have courage to tell the Hindus, that what is wrong with them is their religion – the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of Caste. Will you show that courage?
The destruction of Caste is a reform which falls under the third (first two are inter-dining and inter-marriage) category. To ask people to give up Caste is to ask them to go contrary to their fundamental religious notions. It is obvious that the first and second species of reform are easy. But the third is a stupendous task, well nigh impossible. The Hindus hold to the sacredness of the social order. Caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which Caste has become invested. In the last analysis, this means you must destroy the authority of the Shastras and the Vedas.
And he was correct in his analysis that just the inter-marriage or inter-dining is not the solution. Open any matrimonial ads and you will find sections and subsections of caste-brides and caste-bridegrooms looking for prospective partners. Unfortunately even
the followers of Ambedkar, the dalits, seek marriages amongst themselves, this is rather sad, as they are holding on to their
identity of the caste against what Ambedkar said. Just putting his images in same caste marriages, which uphold the very notion and essence of what caste is, is a dishonor to the great man.
And this is a quote from a British, which no people in power would relish, but speaks volumes about the character of people who are in power.
The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who
becomes a Pope and that a man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be
And on the social reason why caste persists Ambedkar says:
…the Caste system has two aspects. In one of its aspects, it
divides men into separate communities. In its second aspect, it
places these communities in a graded order one above the other in
social status. Each caste takes its pride and its consolation in
the fact that in the scale of castes it is above some other caste.
This is the rule of the game, you ought to invest those under you with some powers over some others. This is a complete hierarchy of
positions, with only those at the lowest pedestal not having any say, but those are mentally bound and are the most downtrodden of all. Here he also explain that everybody who is part of this system, has some stake in it, hence a Marxist revolution is not possible.
The higher the grade of a caste, the greater the number of these
rights and the lower the grade, the lesser their number. Now this
gradation, this scaling of castes, makes it impossible to organise
a common front against the Caste System. If a caste claims the
right to inter-dine and inter-marry with another caste placed
above it, it is frozen, instantly it is told by mischief-mongers,
and there are many Brahmins amongst such mischief-mongers, that it
will have to concede inter-dining and inter-marriage with castes
below it! All are slaves of the Caste System. But all the slaves
are not equal in status. To excite the proletariat to bring about
an economic revolution, Karl Marx told them “You have nothing to
loose except your chains.” But the artful way in which the social
and religious rights are distributed among the different castes
whereby some have more and some have less, makes the slogan of
Karl Marx quite useless to excite the Hindus against the Caste
System. Castes form a graded system of sovereignties, high and
low, which are jealous of their status and which know that if a
general dissolution came, some of them stand to loose more of
their prestige and power than others do. You cannot, therefore,
have a general mobilization of the Hindus, to use a military
expression, for an attack on the Caste System.
But then, how do people who do break the norms of the caste are able to save the caste? There is a solution for that in Manusmriti, for every major and minor offence there is a penance in which the direct beneficiary is the Brahmin. So in this way everyone is happy and the caste system goes on.
He breaks Caste at one step and proceeds to observe it at the next
without raising any question. The reason for this astonishing
conduct is to be found in the rule of the Shastras, which directs
him to maintain Caste as far as possible and to undergo
prayaschitta (penance) when he cannot. By this theory of
prayaschitta, the Shastras by following a spirit of compromise
have given caste a perpetual lease of life and have smothered
reflective thought which would have otherwise led to the
destruction of the notion of Caste.
The rationale for the caste system given are not based on reason or morality, but on some rules which were written by men in antiquity and its defenders are the most learned people in the Indian society, who unfortunately see no reason but only rules. They do not follow principles but rules, which are already written. And it is these rules and the unquestioned belief of people in them that are the biggest problems in the eradication of caste.
Reason and morality are the two most powerful weapons in the
armoury of a Reformer. To deprive him of the use of these weapons
is to disable him for action .How are you going to break up Caste,
if people are not free to consider whether it accords with reason
? How are you going to break up Caste if people are not free to
consider whether it accords with morality ? The wall built around
Caste is impregnable and the material, of which it is built,
contains none of the combustible stuff of reason and morality. Add
to this the fact that inside this wall stands the army of
Brahmins, who form the intellectual class, Brahmins who are the
natural leaders of the Hindus, Brahmins who are there not as mere
mercenary soldiers but as an army fighting for its homeland and
you will get an idea why I think that breaking-up of Caste amongst
the Hindus is well-nigh impossible.
But whether the doing of the deed takes time or whether it can be
done quickly, you must not forget that if you wish to bring about
and breach in the system then you have got to apply the dynamite to
the Vedas and the Shastras, which deny any part to reason, to
Vedas and Shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must
destroy the Religion of the Shrutis and the Smritis.
Rules are practical ; they are habitual ways of doing things
according to prescription. But principles are intellectual; they
are useful methods of judging things. Rules seek to tell an agent
just what course of action to pursue. Principles do not prescribe
a specific course of action. Rules, like cooking recipes, do tell
just what to do and how to do it.
Doing what is said to be, good by virtue of a rule and doing good
in the light of a principle are two different things.
A religious act may not be a correct act but must at least be a
responsible act. To permit of this responsibility, Religion must
mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of
rules. The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be
Religion, as it kills responsibility which is the essence of a
truly religious act. What is this Hindu Religion ? Is it a set of
principles or is it a code of rules ? Now the Hindu Religion, as
contained in the Vedas and the Smritis, is nothing but a mass of
sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and
regulations, all mixed up.
In his analysis Ambedkar rightly makes the claim that what is practised as religion by Hindus (though I would add all other major
religions here too) is just rituals. There may be a spiritual side to religion, but it is lost in the labyrinth of rituals, based on rules,
which are performed to please the Gods.
What is called Religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions.
Religion, in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, is not to be found in them, and if it is, it does not form the governing part of a Hindu’s life. That for a Hindu, Dharma means commands and prohibitions is clear from the way the word Dharma is used in Vedas and the Sinritis and understood by the commentators. The word Dharma as used in the Vedas in most cases means religious ordinances or rites.
The first evil of such a code of ordinances, misrepresented to the people as Religion, is that it tends to deprive moral life of freedom and spontaneity and to reduce it (for the conscientious at any rate) to a more or less anxious and servile conformity to externally imposed rules. Under it, there is no loyalty to ideals, there is only conformity to commands. But the worst evil of this code of ordinances is that the laws it contains must be the same yesterday, today and forever. They are iniquitous in that they are not the same for one class as for another. But this iniquity is made perpetual in that they are prescribed to be the same for all generations.
I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed and I say, there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion. Indeed I hold that it is your bounden duty to tear the mask, to remove the misrepresentation that as caused by misnaming this Law as Religion. This is an essential step for you. Once you clear the minds of the people of this misconception and enable them to realize that what they are told as Religion is not Religion but that it is really Law, you will be in a position to urge for its amendment or abolition. So long as people look upon it as Religion they will not be ready for a change, because the idea of Religion is generally speaking not associated with the idea of change. But the idea of law is associated with the idea of change and when people come to know that what is called Religion is really Law, old and archaic, they will be ready for a change, for people know and accept that law can be changed
Then he asks this question that why is not profession of a priest regulated? And also sees the logical consequence of this as complete upheaval of the notions that people cherish above their lives. To attain this would be a true revolution.
Every profession in India is regulated. Engineers must show proficiency, Doctor must show proficiency, Lawyers must show proficiency, before they are allowed to practise their professions. During the whole of their career, they must not only obey the law of the land, civil as well as criminal, but they must also obey the special code of morals prescribed by their respective professions. The priest’s is the only profession where proficiency is not required. The profession of a Hindu priest is the only profession which is not subject to any code. Mentally a priest may be an idiot, physically a priest may be suffering from a foul disease, such as syphilis or gonorrheae, morally he may be a wreck. But he is fit to officiate at solemn ceremonies, to enter the sanctum sanctorum of a Hindu temple and worship the
Hindu God. All this becomes possible among the Hindus because for a priest it is enough to be born in a priestly caste. The whole thing is abominable and is due to the fact that the priestly class among Hindus is subject neither to law nor to morality. It recognizes no duties. It knows only of rights and privileges. It is a pest which divinity seems to have let loose on the masses for their mental and moral degradation. The priestly class must be brought under control by some such legislation as I have outlined above. It will prevent it from doing mischief and from misguiding people. It will democratise it by throwing it open to every one. It will certainly help to kill the Brahminism and will
also help to kill Caste, which is nothing but Brahminism incarnate. Brahminism is the poison which has spoiled
Hinduism. You will succeed in saving Hinduism if you will kill Brahminism. There should be no opposition to this reform from any quarter. It should be welcomed even by the Arya Samajists, because this is merely an application of their own doctrine of guna-karma.
This means a complete change in the fundamental notions of life – it means a complete change in the values of life. It means a complete change in outlook and in attitude towards men and things. It means conversion but if you do not. like the word, I will say, it means new life. But a new life cannot enter a body that is dead. New life can center only in a new body. The old body must die before a new body can come into existence and a new life can enter into it. To put it simply: the old must cease to be operative before the new can begin to enliven and to pulsate. This is what I meant when I said you must discard the authority of the Shastras and destroy the religion of the Shastras.
And this is something the apologists for the golden past of India should keep in mind. But they want the golden past in toto, as it was, with its caste system and aided rituals. This I think was in reference to the general wave of Hindu extremism which was raging in 1930s, which was agreeable to the masses in general, and also is raging on now.
” Every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse… As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to conserve and transmit, the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future
society.” — John Dewey
” An individual can live only in the present. The present is not just something which comes after the past ; much less something produced by it. It is what life is in leaving the past behind it. The study of past products will not help us to understand the present. A knowledge of the past and its heritage is of great significance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise. And the mistake of making the-records and remains of the past the main material of education is that it tends to make the past a rival of the present and the present a more or less
futile imitation of the past.”
For his own views Ambedkar puts it rather humbly as:
If you will allow me to say, these views are the views of a man, who has been no tool of power, no flatterer of greatness.
Finally he says that just having freedom (from the British) without the social reforms would mean just giving in to another form of
slavery. And unfortunately this is just what happened.
There is no use having Swaraj, if you cannot defend it. More important than the question of defending Swaraj is the question of defending the Hindus under the Swaraj. In my opinion only when the Hindu Society becomes a caste-less society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself. Without such internal strength, Swaraj for Hindus may turn out to be only a step towards slavery.
The caste system is very much alive and kicking and we cannot just wish it away. People still insist on marrying in their own caste, as long as this is true, we are not going to have any respite from this evil of the society. And the belief in puranical texts for all source of knowledge is ever increasing. Rationality is going for a toss, and the future looks bleak.
Gandhi’s take, and Ambedkar’s response
What Ambedkar wrote did make people uncomfortable. Perhaps he wrote in a way to make people uncomfortable. Gandhi wrote article against Ambedkar’s address, in Harijan. He says:
No reformer can ignore the address. The orthodox will gain by reading it. This is not to say that the address is not open to objection. It has to be read only because it is open to serious objection. Dr. Ambedkar is a challenge to Hinduism. Brought up as a Hindu, educated by a Hindu potentate, he has become so disgusted with the so-called Savarna Hindus for the treatment that he and his people have received at their hands that he proposes to leave not only them but the very religion that is his and their common heritage. He has transferred to that religion, his disgust against a part of its professors.
One can see the agitation in Gandhi’s mind in the following words regarding Ambedkar.
Dr Ambedkar is not alone in his disgust. He is its most uncompromising exponent and one of the ablest among them. He is certainly the most irreconcilable among them. Thank God, in the front rank of the leaders, he is singularly alone and as yet but a representative of a very small minority. But what he says is voiced with more or less vehemence by many leaders belonging to the depressed classes.
Gandhi gives an argument regarding caste and religion, which might appeal to people who believe in ideal world. But nonetheless this analysis is wrong for the real world in which we live in. Gandhi himself might not be subject to the caste discrimination that he was talking against, which Ambedkar was, hence maybe Gandhi was oblivious to see the things as they are in the real world.
Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the
satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to spiritual and national growth. Varna and Ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes. The law of Varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling it defines not our rights but our duties.
And then Gandhi goes on to say something which I find hard to digest. This is like making martyrs out of people, just to warn others that they will too suffer the same fate if they followed suit.
A religion has to be judged not by it’s worst specimens but by the best it might have produced. For that and that alone can be used as the standard to aspire to, if not to improve upon.
If Caste and Varna are convertible terms and if Varna is an integral part of the Shastras which define Hinduism, I do not know how a person who rejects Caste i.e. Varna can call himself a Hindu.
That caste should be removed or eradicated, is something Gandhi does not say, as he again gives in to their divine origin and considers them to essential to a Hindu. And this is something that you find even now deeply rooted in the people, even when the dalits get converted to another religion, and by definition are no longer Hindus, they face the same atrocities.
Ambedkar, in his reply, one by one dissects the arguments put forth by Gandhi. The fierce nature in which he tears apart some of them, and his tone tell us something of his character, that he was fighter and a rebel to the core.
First he takes on the idea that it is the good specimens of religion who had more spiritual basis, to be followed. But this is something not for the common people, but for great saints only.
A saint therefore never became an example to follow. He always remained a pious man to be honoured. That the masses have remained staunch believers in Caste and Untouchability shows that the pious lives and noble sermons of the saints have had no effect on their life and conduct as against the teachings of the Shastras. Thus it can be a matter of no consolation that there were saints or that there is a Mahatma who understands the Shastras differently from the learned few or ignorant many. That the masses hold different view of the Shastras is fact which
should and must be reckoned with.
And relying on high-caste Hindus for emancipating the low castes is not possible!
But nonetheless anyone who relies on an attempt to turn the members of the caste Hindus into better men by improving their personal character is in my judgment wasting his energy and bugging an illusion. Can personal character make the maker of armaments a good man, i.e. a man who will sell shells that will not burst and gas that will not poison ? If it cannot, how can you accept personal character to make a man loaded with the consciousness of Caste, a good man, i.e. a man who would treat his fellows as his friends and equals ?
As a matter of fact, a Hindu does treat all those who are not of his Caste as though they were aliens, who could be discriminated against with impunity and against whom any fraud or trick may be practised without shame. This is to say that there can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be.
(emphasis in original)
Ambedkar uses the example of Gandhi himself, regarding his preaching. Here Ambedkar points out two things, one regarding marriage of Gandhi’s son to a Brahmin girl, and second regarding the occupation which should be ancestral. Applying Gandhi’s own principle recursively to Gandhi himself, Ambedkar exposes absurdity and impracticality of these ideals.
The Mahatma is not known to have condemned him (Gandhi’s son) for not following his ancestral calling. It may be wrong and uncharitable to judge an ideal by its worst specimens. But surely the Mahatma as a specimen has no better and if he even fails to realize the ideal then the ideal must be an impossible ideal quite opposed to the practical instincts of man.
And on ancestral calling, which has been practiced for ages by
Brahmins Ambedkar says:
Not only must such a person be deemed to be bankrupt of all spiritual treasures but for him to practice so elevating a
profession as that of a priest simply because it is ancestral, without faith, without belief, merely as a mechanical process handed down from father to son, is not a conservation of virtue; it is really the prostitution of a noble profession which is no other than the service of religion.
Gandhi’s varna is something that Ambedkar understands as a masquerade for caste. It is just caste reincarnate in another form, as it is connected to birth, and does not say anything about the qualities of the person.
The essence of the Mahatma’s conception of Varna is the pursuit of ancestral calling irrespective of natural aptitude. What is the difference between Caste and Varna as understood by the Mahatma? I find none. As defined by the Mahatma, Varna becomes merely a different name for Caste for the simple reason that it is the same in essence -namely pursuit of ancestral calling. Far from making progress the Mahatma has suffered retrogression. By
putting this interpretation upon the Vedic conception of Varna he has really made ridiculous what was sublime.
If the Mahatma believes as he does in every one following his or her ancestral calling, then most certainly he is advocating the Caste System and that in calling it the Varna System he is not only guilty of terminological inexactitude, but he is causing confusion worse confounded. I am sure that all his confusion is due to the fact that the Mahatma has no definite and clear conception as to what is Varna and what is Caste and as to the necessity of either for the conservation of Hinduism.
In the following line he asks Gandhi, whose interests he is serving? Gandhi seen here seems to have lost the rational element, and is trying to reason something in which he believes to be true. And here what is seen is the cunning nature of Gandhi’s politics, that of being the saint and the politician at the same time.
Why this prevarication ? Why does the Mahatma hedge ? Whom does he want to please ? Has the saint failed to sense the truth ? Or does the politician stand in the way of the Saint ?
The real reason why the Mahatma is suffering from this confusion is probably to be traced to two sources. The first is the temperament of the Mahatma. He has almost in everything the simplicity of the child with the child’s capacity for
self-deception. Like a child he can believe in anything he wants to believe. We must therefore wait till such time as it pleases the Mahatma to abandon his faith in Varna as it has pleased him to abandon his faith in Caste. The second source of confusion is the double role which the Mahatma wants to play – of a Mahatma and a Politician. As a Mahatma he may be trying to spiritualize Politics. Whether he has succeeded in it or not Politics have certainly commercialized him. A politician must know that Society cannot bear the whole truth and that he must not speak
the whole truth; if he is speaking the whole truth it is bad for his politics. The reason why the Mahatma is always supporting Caste and Varna is because he is afraid that if he opposed them he will lose his place in politics. Whatever may be the source of this confusion the Mahatma must be told that he is deceiving himself and also deceiving the people by preaching Caste under the name of Varna.
The image of Gandhi that we have is of a mass leader and a rebel. Both he was, but we have to make certain reservations regarding these qualities attributed to him. But on closer examination, we conclude for some things and certainly when issue of caste was concerned he was very conservative Hindu. What would have happened if the social structure of caste was attacked by Gandhi himself? Maybe many of his devout followers would have left him, maybe he was not yet ready to give up on his dharma just for the sake of caste.
Gandhi accuses Ambedkar for setting a benchmark for Hindu religion, in which all religions would fail, he responds thus:
… I maintain that the standards I have applied to test Hindus and Hinduism are the most appropriate standards and that I know of none that are better. The conclusion that every known religion would fail if tested by my standards may be true. But this fact should not give the Mahatma as the champion of Hindus and Hinduism a ground for comfort any more than the existence of one madman should give comfort to another madman or the existence of one criminal should give comfort to another criminal.
And the problem with the Hindus is their ideals, which Gandhi is trying to defend in some garb or other. And this is what Ambedkar sees through clearly.
If I am disgusted with Hindus and Hinduism it is because I am convinced that they cherish wrong ideals and live a wrong social life. My quarrel with Hindus and Hinduism is not over the imperfections of their social conduct. It is much more fundamental. It is over their ideals.
They still have a mystic respect for the earlier forms which make them disinclined – nay opposed to any examination of the foundations of their Society. The Hindu masses are of course incredibly heedless in the formation of their beliefs. But so are the Hindu leaders. And what is worse is that these Hindu leaders become filled with an illicit passion for their beliefs when any one proposes to rob them of their companionship. The Mahatma is no exception. The Mahatma appears not to believe in thinking. He prefers to follow the saints. Like a conservative
with his reverence for consecrated notions he is afraid that if he once starts thinking, many ideals and institutions to which lie clings will be doomed.
And these final words in the response unmasks Gandhi’s image as a saint, and paints him as an hypocritical, opportunistic, conservative, irrational, lingering on to antique systems for spiritual satisfaction.
In so far as he does think, to me he really appears to be prostituting his intelligence to find reasons for supporting
this archaic social structure of the Hindus. He is the most influential apologist of it and therefore the worst enemy of the Hindus.
And in the words of Mathew Arnold are “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”, which was true when it was said eighty years back as it is now.