Perspectives on Caste: The Nineteenth-Century Bengali Literati

in Article
Published on: 19 September 2018

Neha Chatterjee

Neha Chatterjee has submitted her PhD at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi. Her research is related to the idea of caste among nineteenth century Bengali intellectuals.


In 1879, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, the leading public intellectual of the day, published an essay titled ‘Samya’, meaning ‘equality’ in Bengali. There he stated that of all the artificial and unnatural differences that men created between men, the institution of caste hierarchy in India was, especially, one of the most acute and the most sinister. Illustrating the injustice of caste, Bankim noted that according to Puranic rules, while it was a cardinal sin to kill a Brahmin, killing a Shudra was just a minor offence, and went on to criticise the same: ‘No doubt this is against natural law’ (Chattopadhyay 2008:866–67). Bankim underlined caste discrimination as the root cause of India’s degeneration. Of course, he said, man-made distinctions existed everywhere and in all ages. But, he also argued that social revolutions directed against tyrannical power, cured the malaise in some measure in ‘progressive’ societies. He gave the examples of the American Civil War that abolished slavery and the first and second French revolutions. The more effective revolutions, Bankim observed, were but free of blood-thirstiness and wanton destruction. And he cited the instance of the emergence of Buddhism in ancient India as the first egalitarian and non-violent revolution in the world (Chattopadhyay 2008:867).


While speaking of the social background that necessitated the Buddhist revolution in ancient India, Bankim criticised the Vedic religion for the discrimination it sanctioned. Interestingly, Bankim did not differentiate between an early Vedic era, supposedly pristine, and later degeneration—a trope to come in vogue, even within lower-caste assertions, in a little more time. 'Samya' stressed that social justice was central to the progress of a civilisation: ‘The Sudra is bound by scripture; yet he knows not a word of it…The Sudra must serve the Brahman unconditionally; yet the Sudra and Brahman are both human beings…Even the master-slave relation in ancient Europe was not as cruel as this’ (Chattopadhyay 2008).  Bankim argued that a civilization or a nation prospered only when ordinary people checked the powers of their superiors and governors The assertion of the Plebeians in Rome and that of the Commoners in England had facilitated the self-correction of their superiors’ (Chattopadhyay 2008). Caste-authoritarianism was antithetical to such democratic principles. No wonder, he stated, the thousand years of Buddhist India constitute the golden era of Indian history (Chattopadhyay 2008:868).


To put Bankim’s chastisement of Brahminical domination into perspective, we may recall that caste-hierarchy had begun to be regarded a social evil and a vice of Hinduism by the Western-educated intelligentsia, however ambiguously, ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century. While Bankim was usually bent upon rebutting missionary critiques of Hinduism, his opinion on caste in 1879 was not very different from Reverend M.A. Sherring’s description of caste, in his 1872 book Hindu Tribes and Castes (quoted in Dirks 1992:67), as a Hindu peculiarity that was ‘a sworn enemy to human happiness’, that was ‘opposed to intellectual freedom’, that set ‘its face sternly against progress’ and was ‘intensely selfish’. As early as in 1821, Rammohun Roy had identified jatibheda or caste-distinction as the root of India’s political disadvantage and as standing in the way of the development of patriotic feeling among Indians (Biswas 1963:62–63). The nineteenth-century intellectuals were critical of caste as it was seen as hindering the processes of gradual unification of the Indian people. And, as Sumit Sarkar (1997:365) notes, ‘the social injustice argument, while not absent, remained secondary.’ Five years after Bankim published 'Samya', Sibnath Sastri brought out his 'Jatibheda', which was initially delivered as a public lecture before an audience of two thousand to list the evils of caste. As Sarkar (1997:366) observes, these Calcutta elites criticising caste-distinction for being ‘the enemy of the country’ operated in a world far removed from any ‘awareness of concrete lower-caste grievances or protests’, which were showing themselves in suburban Bengal, at least, since 1872.


In the elite world of predominantly ‘Brahmin Reformers’ and some European sympathisers of reform, it became common knowledge, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that Bengal had gone through a ‘social revolution’ since the early nineteenth century (Lethbridge 1907: Chapter 5, ‘The Beginning of Social Revolution in Bengal’). To quote Roper Lethbridge (1907: Preface), British politician and academic, the mid-nineteenth century was ‘the period of awakening in Bengal that saw also the birth and early growth of English education in the country, and of the various schools of reform in religion and morals that have so mightily changed the whole aspect of Bengali life and thought.’


In these accounts, instances of renunciation of the sacred thread by Brahmin reformers were narrated as exemplifying their heroic social radicalism. On Ramtanu Lahiri’s throwing off the sacerdotal badge, Max Mueller observed, ‘We must remember that, in those days, such open apostasy was almost a question of life and death’ (quoted in Lethbridge 1907:168). Caste was not just seen as one of their many targets of reform but as the site where these reformers were most uncompromising. Lethbridge (1907:xi–xiii), in the editorial introduction to his English translation of Sibnath Sastri’s account of Ramtanu Lahiri’s life, noted that Ramtanu, who was otherwise inclined towards ‘the truly Conservative line of reform’ and would refrain from exacerbating ‘the differences between himself and his more orthodox relations and friends’, was a resolute radical ‘on the subject of his own Brahminical caste, which he threw off as his own personal sacrifice for a great cause.’ Yet, we learn from the same account that Ramtanu did not go so far as to employ a non-Brahmin cook in his household (Lethbridge 1907:153). And even the ‘wildest Derozians’, to use Sumit Sarkar’s (1985:37) expression, who, in their youth, vigorously attacked Hindu socio-religious orthodoxies, would not have their sons and daughters married to relatively inferior castes. Many Derozians and Brahmos turned to spiritualism and Theosophy in their later lives (Sumit Sarkar 1985:31). Ideologies favouring hierarchy had a fundamental connection with the domain of faith in occult powers. In fields such as Theosophy, the Brahmin of ‘high descent’ would be regarded as entitled with greater spiritual assets than caste inferiors.


Even if these elites remained removed from the actual world of downtrodden castes, their call to ‘break down everything old, and rear in its stead what is new’ (Lethbridge 1907:75) resonated even a century later when lower castes asserted themselves in the early twentieth century. What continued from the Derozians to the rural subaltern caste leaders of the early twentieth century was the identification of the several ‘hypocrisies’ within traditional religion. In other words, their defiance of caste and religious taboos ‘in the name of a new conception of integrity’ and ‘truth’ inaugurated a certain break with the past (Sarkar 1985:33): while Hindu tradition habitually combined abstract intellectual freedom with rigid social orthodoxy, social protest from now on would, in particular, target this dichotomy. Moreover, a novel space of rational debate and public argumentation was initiated, through new modes of communication such as print, which was, by definition, universal in character, that is, open to all irrespective of in-born identities such as caste. There was the emergence of a conversational public, to use Jurgen Habermas’s (1966:424) term.


The inauguration of a conversational public fostered two simultaneous processes. On the one hand, the new structures of communication and voluntary associationism subsequently gave rise to the formation of ‘plebeian public spheres’ (Habermas 1966:426), say, lower-caste publics, beside the ‘hegemonic public sphere’, on the basis of their own premises. On the other, the self-constitution of the early reformers and journalists as advocates of ‘liberal’ views and as vigilant subjects inaugurated and gradually emboldened the idea that the power of the praja/the subjects—prajasakti—was the true basis of state power. Even if the Western-educated elite remained removed from common people (sadharan praja), the latter started becoming their pre-eminent reference point in public discourse. Continuing in that line, we find Bankim (2008:880) asserting in 'Samya' that the history of the world has proven beyond doubt that the rights of commoners must be the basis of power in a polity, and Vivekananda (1905:50) asserting in 1899 that sovereign power was solely grounded in the sadharan praja and that they could not be forcibly governed by scriptures if they did not consent to it.


Vivekananda’s 1899 tract Bartaman Bharat, while remaining equally unaware of ongoing lower-caste assertions, brilliantly anticipated the fundamental grounds of difference that were soon to express themselves between the hegemonic public (the steadily nationalist intelligentsia) and the rising caste-subaltern plebeian public. Taking a dig at the underside of bhadralok radicalism, Vivekananda (1905:62, 64) wrote: ‘The West has taught us that Caste is a despicable institution, so we have learnt that caste-distinctions must vanish…The West tells us that the ill-clad, ignorant, unlettered inferior-caste men and women are non-Aryans, so we have learnt that they are none of us.


Vivekananda also noted that so long as the state was autocratic, as was the case with British rule in India, it remained autonomous from society. The different classes of Indians were subjects alike of the Empire—none more privileged than the other. Neither the Brahmin nor the Shudra had any power over the ruler. But in a republic (prajatantra), one section of society would exercise its domination over the other. It could be a reinstatement of Brahmin rule, he feared (Vivekananda 1905:55). Lower castes would be arguing the same thing in a few years.


Vivekananda, who was confident and hopeful that the twentieth century would usher in the rule of the Shudra (Vivekananda 1905:47), who regarded Brahminical circumscriptions and regulations as absolutely despicable (Vivekananda 1905:54), nevertheless, set alight a new fire that groped for a hidden substance—a deeper metaphysic—to the institution of caste. There was a new trend in the late nineteenth century to see varna distinction as deriving from nature. If Bankim argued that caste was a set of wholly unnatural divisions, this other theory, increasingly dominant, claimed that the four-fold varna distinction ideally signified natural qualitative differences between human beings, that were to be found in ‘all civilized societies’ (Vivekananda 1905:18). The four varnas—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra—related, as it were, to the accumulation of differential proportions in human beings of sattva (the quality of knowledge and virtuosity), rajas (the quality of sprightliness) and tamas (the dark and slothful qualities of the soul), the three primal qualities or gunas that inhered in nature. A predominant way of looking at jatibheda through the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was through the lens of this triguna theory and a common refrain was that as long as these qualities inhered in nature, jatibheda, in some form or the other, would exist everywhere in the world (for one instance, Bijoykrishna Goswami told this to his disciples who asked him about his opinion on jatibheda, see Kuladananda Brahmachari, n.d.:95, 161; for another, see Majumdar 1902). India, it was argued by nationalists, rather provided a solution to a universal social question by classifying and restraining social functions.


The sudden defense of jatibheda by educated men of reason caused some surprise to others within the literati, who had, now for more than a generation or two, known jatibheda to be a social evil. Tagore represented the conflict well in his novel Gora (1910). Sucharita, a young girl brought up in a liberal Brahmo milieu, is curious to know whether Gora is truly reverent towards the institution of caste or whether he defends caste merely because he is overly nationalistic (Tagore 1961:81). Binoy, Gora’s friend, explains to Sucharita that there could perhaps be a sublime metaphysic underneath the apparent worthlessness of caste:


Our society was designed in the form of a ladder. The purpose was to inspire human beings to rise to a higher level of existence. Society and this world never constituted our ultimate destination…If it had been so, we could have each competed with the other, like men and women in Europe, to make greater personal gains…It is because we, Indians, have sought to transcend the world through our work in the world that we have not based our social functions on the soil of desire and competition…We have regarded our social functions as religion because we have sought liberation, we have desired no other kind of success. Our society devised Varna-distinction to realise the twin goals of fulfilment of worldly functions and ultimate liberation. (Tagore 1961:82)


Of course, asserted Binoy, the institution had completely failed to realize its spiritual goal and society was diseased by its ill-effects. But that failure did not necessarily prove that ‘the idea’ (Tagore 1961) beneath it was all perverse. When Sucharita, with her Brahmo upbringing, asks Binoy if he really thought that the Brahmin was worthy of reverence, Binoy tells her that the Brahmin-principle, if not a single flesh-and-blood Brahmin, was indeed worthy of reverence. He writes:


The ideal Brahman exists in India’s distinctive spirit, in her deepest intentions and needs. Other countries have sought military geniuses like Wellington, scientists like Newton and millionaires like Rothschild; our country has sought the Brahman – the Brahman, who knows not fear, who knows greed as perverse, who has conquered sufferings, who lives from hand to mouth but does not even feel it, whose soul is ever attached to the Absolute, who is unruffled, composed and fully liberated… (Tagore 1961:83)


This construction of ‘the creed of Brahministic India’, to use the words of Romain Rolland who was all praise for it (Amulpada Chattopadhyay n.d.:56), continued as a very influential ideology through Gandhi, with his emphasis on non-possessiveness, and beyond him for the greater part of the twentieth century. ‘Caste, like India itself, has been seen’, in this construct, ‘as based on religious rather than political principles’ (Dirks 1992:57). The emphasis on self-sacrifice and non-possessiveness as quintessential Indian virtues regularly delegitimised lower-caste social protests, when these came to be articulated in terms of ‘rights’ and ‘interests’.


Arguably, lower-caste protest developed weakly in Bengal in the early twentieth century, compared to some other Indian provinces, because of this ambiguous history of nineteenth-century elite social radicalism in Bengal. Caste was never considered a serious social problem demanding specialised modern solutions in twentieth-century Bengal because of this legacy. It was as if Bengal was always already liberal and, therefore, required little reform. In fact, some early-twentieth-century Bengali journalists would extend Bengal’s proverbial liberal culture to pre-modern times and voice the opinion that the classification of some castes as ‘Depressed Castes’ by the British government made no sense as these groups were perfectly happy and prosperous in medieval Bengal. In the opinion of these upper-caste men, caste humiliation was just a recent phenomenon, rather inaugurated by the British; Bengal’s liberal soil never gave place to it (Bandyopadhyay 1951:386–88). Yet caste subalterns in Bengal were acutely aware of how deeply the intelligentsia, which was predominantly upper caste, loathed them. They were aware that the babu despised the Shudra chasha becoming his equal. Sporadically, therefore, in the first half of the twentieth century, a range of lower castes would be putting themselves in a new stance in relation to the abhijatasreni—the Brahmins, Kayasthas and Baidyas—the caste-elite inheritors of liberal education in Bengal.




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