The Indian Analyst

Caste had nothing to do with 1857 events

 By Aravind Sitaraman

Aravind is the editor of The Indian Analyst, a web-based think tank. He can be reached at 

Through his opinion piece Mr. Raja Shekar Vundru explores the ”underlying facts” to the 1857 incident that, depending on one’s perspective, is variously called Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence (see ”1857: The untouchable story, Times of India, August 25, 2005). His basic argument is that the ”lower-caste” British Madras and Bombay armies defeated the ”high-caste” Bengal Army. He cites examples of how the ”pariah” and ”mala” untouchables of the Madras Army defeated Tipu Sultan and that the Maharas won the Anglo-Maratha wars for the British. He also refers to the Lord Bentick’s criticism of the Bengal Army and uses Sir Napier’s comment on castes to show that given a choice between caste and military discipline, ”higher-caste” Hindus would choose caste. He says that it is poetic justice that the discriminated low caste (through the Mazhabhi Sikhs, Madaras, and Bombay Armies) defeated the high caste Bengal Army when they finally lifted the siege in Delhi. This is a very interesting but sad take on events of 1857. It is also indicative of the polorization of contemporary society in India through narrow definitions of our culture, heritage, and history. 

It is true that the caste system as we know it has been harmful and continues to be harmful for India. But to gloat over the slaughter of compatriots for a colonial power does not do justice to the bravery of the sepoys of the Bengal Army or to the efficiency of the sepoys of the Madras and Bombay armies. It is important not to bring caste into everything that we dicsuss today. There is no shred of evidence that the sepoys of the Madras and Bombay armies fought against caste or against Brahmins. They just followed instructions of their superiors just like the Baloch and Gurkha sepoys followed Gen Dyer’s instructions some 60 years later. Following instructions implicitly has never been a virtue. While this is a requirement for any Army, the question is who is this army oriented against. To be part of a colonial army which recruits able-bodied, unemployed youth with pay to kill fellow citizens is not something to be proud of. Those in the employment of the British Army or East India Company were just mercenaries who gave up their identity, compatriots, and culture for personal gain. 

Having said that, we need to look at caste anew and not in the politicized angle that is potrayed today. It is abject lack of understanding Indian culture, history, or heritage. When the Dravidian parties were on the ascent in Tamil Nadu they potrayed Ravana as a hero and Rama as the villain. They even planned a temple for Ravana till they found out that Ravana was a Brahmin and Rama was a Kshatriya. Similar political themes are visible all over the country where political and activist propoganists start something for personal gain which leaves the country further in the dark. 

According to Swami Vivekananda, acknowledged as one of the most advanced thinkers of modern India, the word ‘Hindu’ is the Persian pronunciation of the word ‘Sindhu’ — ‘S’ getting pronounced as ‘H’. The Greeks pronounced ‘Sindhu’ as Indus. Thus, the land surrounding ‘Sindhu’ river where the invaders came first was called India from Indus and Hindustan from Hindu. The confusion arises when this word ‘Hindu’, which has no mention in any of our scriptures from the Vedas to the Upanishads and Gita, or even in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, is used to describe the Vedic or Sanatana Dharma. 

One of the primary reasons for the continued survival and success of “Hinduism” is the far-reaching structures and deep foundations by savants of India. The Varna system of classification of society into four distinct groups is one of the foundations of this civilization. The Brahmins (Teachers, priests, savants, social workers), Kshathriyas (rulers, warriors, and administrators), Vaisyas (traders, merchants, artisans, and farmers), and Sudras (servants) made up the four broad groups. The origin of this Varna system can be traced back to the Purusha Suktham in the Rig Veda. In this poem, these four groups are associated with organs of a Cosmic Man (Purusha) who is one manifestation of the Supreme Diety (Purusha). The Brahmin is associated with the mouth, Khastriyas the arms, Vaisyas the thighs, and Sudras the feet. 

Originally this Varna system was not hereditary and was rather conferred on the basis of the individual's intrinsic nature and aptitude. The Rig Veda says: "I am a composer of hymns, my father is a physician, my mother grinds corn on a stone. We are all engaged in different occupations." In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira clearly states that a Brahmin is one who is truthful, forgiving, and kind, and that being born in a Brahmin or Shudra family does not make one a Brahmin or a Shudra. Much later, Adi Shankaracharya proclaimed that every human being was by birth a Shudra, and only education made one 'twice born' (Dwija). The Upanishads clearly state that the soul, whether of a Brahmin or a Chandal, is divine. What then is the basis of considering its outer covering (body) as pure in one case and impure in another? 

Apart from philosophy, there are allegorical examples too. The great sage Vyasa, who organized the Vedas, was the son of a fisher woman. The noble Vidura in the Mahabhratha was the son of a servant woman. Of the 63 Shaiva revered devotees only 5 were born Brahmins—notably the famous Nandanar was born a butcher was addressed as a Brahmin by all his contemporary Brahmins. Vishwamithra was a King. They became Brahmins because of their wisdom and knowledge. There are innumerable such instances of reverence of saints of low caste origins, just as there are examples of low caste entrepreneurs who became mighty kings and elevated the status of their entire caste groups. Rama, Krishna, and Buddha are considered avatars of Vishnu but were not Brahmins by birth. 

Similarly, there were Brahmins who were considered Asura (lowest type of individual) because of their behavior. The Asura King Ravana is one such example of a grandson of Brahma, although an ardent devotee of Shiva, is downgraded because he kidnapped Sita who was another man’s (Rama) wife. Ashwathama, the son of warrior guru Drona, of Mahabharatha was devalued because of undharmic (unacceptable behavior of a warrior or Brahmana) activity of killing warriors who were asleep. 

Although the Varna system was not created to be hereditary, large-scale invasion of people of monotheistic and narrow orientation caused more confusion. Just as the way of life in the South Asia was called “Hinduism,” invaders could not understand how a son of a priest could not be a priest and how the son of a servant could be a priest. Hence, they confused occupation (Jati) with their classification (Varna) and created what we know today as the “Hindu caste system.” Historian AL Basham says "A strong king was always a check on brahmanic pretensions, just as the Brahmans were a check on the pretensions of the king." Similarly, Romila Thapar says: "The gradual politicization of the office of purohita can also be seen in the purohita becoming a check on the monarch." The classification of Jatis into four Varna set them up as a check on each other. This check, despite its weaknesses, led to better governance in our history. Indian civilization survived while most other civilizations, along with their Dalits, perished. 

This structural damage to the ancient civilization had massive repercussions. Over the centuries, those who were born to Brahmins, however undeserving, became Brahmins. Those who were born Sudras, however deserving, became Sudras. Worse, Jatis within the non-Brahmin classes vied with each other for domination and relegated those who are economically susceptible to a new class that was so low that they could not be “touched.” These untouchables called “Harijans” or children of God by Mahatma Gandhi are now called Dalits. 

India has an ancient tradition of concern for the lower castes. As seen from the Bhakthi movement in India, the saints have worked assiduously to raise the status and lifestyle of lower caste groups. In modern times, Sri Aurobindo and others argued passionately against the exclusion of one-sixth of the nation from social equality and fraternity. Mahatma Gandhi sought to invest the Untouchables with dignity by making upper caste inmates of his ashrams clear night soil. Throughout the freedom struggle, the Congress was sensitive to the problem of the lower castes. 

Therefore, let us desist from seeing caste, creed, sex, and ethnicity in everything and further spread hatred and divisiveness. 

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