Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2

Caste, Democracy and Reform


Sri Aurobindo*



The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity


The Bengalee reports Srijut Bal Gangadhar Tilak to have made a definite pronouncement on the caste system. The prevailing idea of social inequality is working immense evil, says the Nationalist leader of the Deccan. This pronouncement is only natural from an earnest Hindu and a sincere nationalist like Srijut Tilak. The baser ideas underlying the degenerate perversions of the original caste system, the mental attitude which bases them on a false foundation of caste, pride and arrogance, of a divinely ordained superiority depending on the accident of birth, of a fixed and intolerant inequality, are inconsistent with the supreme teaching, the basic spirit of Hinduism which sees the one invariable and indivisible divinity in every individual being. Nationalism is simply the passionate aspiration for the realization of that Divine Unity in the nation, a unity in which all component individuals, however various and apparently unequal their functions as political, social or economic factors, are yet really and fundamentally one and equal. In the ideal of Nationalism which India will set before the world, there will be essential equality between man and man, between caste and caste, between class and class, all being as Mr.Tilak has pointed out different but equal and united parts of the Virat Purusha as realised in the nation. The insistent preaching of our religion and the work of the Indian Nationalist is to bring home to every one of his countrymen this ideal of their country’s religion and philosophy. We are intolerant of autocracy because it is the denial in politics of this essential equality, we object to the modern distortion of the caste system because it is the denial in society of the same essential equality. While we insist on reorganizing the nation into a democratic unity politically, we recognize that the same principle of reorganization ought to and inevitably will assert itself socially; even if, our opponents choose to imagine, we are desirous of confining its working to politics, our attempts will be fruitless, for the principle once realised in politics must inevitably assert itself in society. No monopoly, racial or hereditary, can form part of the Nationalist’s scheme of the future, his dream of the day for the advent of which he is striving and struggling.

     The caste system was once productive of good, and as a fact has been a necessary phase of human progress through which all the civilisations of the world have had to pass. The autocratic form of Government has similarly had its use in the development of the world’s polity, for there was certainly a time when it was the only kind of political organisation that made the preservation of society possible. The Nationalist does not quarrel with the past, but he insists on its transformation, the transformation of individual or class autocracy into the autocracy, self-rule or Swaraj, of the nation and of the fixed, hereditary, anti-democratic caste-organisation into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims. In the present absolutism in politics and the present narrow caste-organisation in society he finds a negation of that quality which his religion enjoins. Both must be transformed. The historic problem that the present attitude of Indian nationalism at once brings to the mind, as to how a caste-governed society could co-exist with a democratic religion and philosophy, we do not propose to consider here today. We only point out that Indian Nationalism must by its inherent tendencies move towards the removal of unreasoning and arbitrary distinctions and inequalities. Ah! He will say, this is exactly what we Englishmen have been telling you all these years. You must get rid of your caste before you can have democracy. There is just a little flaw in this advice of the Anglo-Indian monitors, it puts the cart before the horse, and that is the reason why we have always refused to act upon it.

      It does not require much expenditure of thought to find out that the only way to rid the human mind of abuses and superstitions is through a transformation of sprit and not merely of machinery. We must educate every Indian, man, woman and child, in the ideals of our religion and philosophy before we can rationally expect our society to reshape itself in the full and perfect sprit of the Vedantic gospel of equality. We dwell on this common sense idea here at the risk of being guilty of repetition. Education on a national scale is an indispensable precondition of our social amelioration. And because such education is impossible except through the aid of state-finance, therefore, even if there were no other reason, the Nationalist must emphasise the immediate need of political freedom without which, Indians cannot obtain the necessary control over their money. So long as we are under an alien bureaucracy, we cannot have the funds needed for the purpose of an adequate national education, and what little education we are given falls far short of the nationalist ideal, being mainly concerned with the fostering of a spirit of sordid contentment with things that be. Apart from the question of the cultivation of those virtues which only come in the wake of liberty, apart from the question of reorganisation of the country, if we were to look into the problem in its purely social aspect, even then we are confronted with the primary need of political emancipation as the condition precedent of further fruitful activity.

      The Nationalist has been putting the main stress on the necessity of political freedom almost to the exclusion of the other needs of the nation, not because he is not alive to the vital importance of those needs of economic renovation, of education, of social transformation, but because he knows that in order that his ideal of equality may be brought to its fullest fruition, he must first bring about the political freedom and federation of his country.

                                                          (Bande Mataram, September20, 1907)               

Caste and Democracy


      We fear our correspondent who has criticized on another page the consistency of our views on caste, has hardly taken any trouble to understand the real drift of our articles. His attitude seems to be that we must be either entirely for caste as it at present exists or entirely against the institution and condemn it root and branch in the style of the ordinary unthinking social reformer. Because on the one hand we protested against the ignorant abuse of the institution often indulged in simply because it is different in form and spirit from European institutions, and on the other hand emphasised the perversions of its form and spirit and the necessity of its transformation in the pure spirit of Hinduism, our correspondent imagines that we are inconsistent and guilty of adopting successively two different and incompatible attitudes. Our position is perfectly clear and straightforward. Caste was originally an arrangement for the distribution of functions in society, just as much as class in Europe, but the principle on which the distribution was based in India was peculiar to this country. The civilisation of Europe has always been preponderatingly material and the division of classes was material in its principles and material in its objects, but our civilisation has always been preponderatingly spiritual and moral, and caste division in India had a spiritual object and a spiritual and moral basis. The division of classes in Europe had its root in a distribution of powers and rights and developed and still develops through a struggle of conflicting interests; it aim was merely the organisation of society for its own sake and mainly indeed for its economic convenience. The division of castes in India was conceived as a distribution of duties. A man’s caste depended on his dharma, his spiritual, moral and practical duties, and his dharma depended on his svabhâva, his temperament and inborn nature. A Brahmin was a Brahmin not by mere birth, but because he discharged the duty of preserving the spiritual and intellectual elevation of the race, and he had to cultivate the spiritual temperament and acquire the spiritual training which could alone qualify him for task. The Kshatriya was a Kshatriya not merely because he was the son of warriors and princes, but because he discharged the duty of protecting the country and preserving the high courage and manhood of the nation, and he had to cultivate the princely temperament and acquire the strong and lofty Samurai training which alone fitted him for his duties. So it was with the Vaishya whose function was to amass wealth for the race and the Sudra who discharged the humbler duties of service without which the other castes could not perform their share of labour for the common good. This was what we meant when we said that caste was socialistic institution. No doubt there was a gradation of social respect which placed the function of the Brahmin at the summit and the function of the Sudra at the base, but this inequality was accidental, external, vyavahârika. Essentially there was, between the devout Brahmin and the devout Sudra, no inequality in the single virât purusa of which each was a necessary part. Chokha Mela, the Maratha Pariah, became the Guru of Brahmins proud of their caste purity; the Chandala taught Shankaracharya: for the Brahman was revealed in the body of the Pariah and in the Chandala there was the utter presence of Shiva the Almighty. Heredity entered into caste divisions, and in the light of the conclusions of modern knowledge who shall say erroneously? But it entered into it as a subordinate element. For Hindu civilisation being spiritual based its institutions on spiritual and moral foundations and subordinated the material elements and material considerations. Caste therefore was not only an institution which ought to be immune from the cheap second-hand denunciations so long in fashion, but a supreme necessity without which Hindu civilisation could not have developed its distinctive character or worked out its unique mission.

     But to recognise this is not debar ourselves from pointing out its later perversions and desiring its transformation. It is the nature of human institutions to degenerate, to lose their vitality, and decay, and the first sign of decay is the loss of flexibility and oblivion of the essential spirit in which they were conceived. The spirit is permanent, the body changes; and a body which refuses to change must die. The spirit expresses itself in many ways while itself remaining essentially the same, but the body must change to suit its changing environments if it wishes to live. There is no doubt that the institution of caste degenerated. It ceased to be determined by spiritual qualifications which, once essential, have now come to be subordinate and even immaterial and is determined by the purely material tests of occupation and birth. By this change it has set against the fundamental tendency of Hinduism which is to insist on the spiritual and subordinate the material and thus lost most of its meaning. The spirit of caste arrogance, exclusiveness and superiority came to dominate it instead of the spirit of duty, and the change weakened the nation and helped to reduce us to our present condition. It is these perversions which we wish to see set right. The institution must transform itself so as to fulfil its essential and permanent object under the changed conditions of modern times. If it refuses to change, it will become a mere social survival and crumble to pieces. If it transforms itself, it will yet play a great part in the fulfillment of civilisation.

      Our correspondent accuses us of attempting to corrupt society with the intrusion of the European idea of Socialism. Socialism is not an European idea, it is essentially Asiatic and especially Indian. What is called Socialism in Europe is the old Asiatic attempt to effect a permanent solution of the economic problem of society which will give man leisure and peace to develop undisturbed his higher self. Without Socialism democracy would remain a tendency that never reached its fulfillment, a rule of the masses by a small aristocratic or monied class with the consent and votes of the masses, or a tyranny of the artisan classes over the rest. Socialistic democracy is the only true democracy, for without it we cannot get the equalised and harmonised distribution of functions, each part of the community existing or the good of all and not struggling for its own separate interests, which will give humanity as a whole the necessary conditions in which it can turn its best energies to its higher development. To realise those conditions is also the aim of Hindu civilisation and the original intention of caste. The fulfillment of Hinduism is the fulfillment of the highest tendencies of human civilisation and it must include in its sweep the most vital impulses of modern life. It will include democracy and Socialism also, purifying them, raising them, above the excessive stress on the economic adjustments which are the means, and teaching them to fix their eyes more constantly and clearly on the moral, intellectual and spiritual perfection of mankind which is the end.

                                                         (Bande Mataram, September 22, 1907) 


Caste and Representation     


       The policy of the Bureaucracy in the face of the national movement, so far as it is anything more than crude repression, is a policy of makeshifts and dodges, and, though skilful in a way, it shows throughout an extraordinary ignorance of the country they rule. The latest brilliant device is an attempt to reshuffle the constituent elements of Indian politics and sort them out afresh on the basis not only of creed, but of caste. The Pioneer has come out with an article in its best style of business-like gravity, in which it settles the basis on which representation should be given to India. For two years of unrest have brought us so far that Anglo-India is awakened to the necessity of giving some kind of representation to the Indians, and petty details of administrative reform, the demand for which was then considered as much a crying for the moon as the cry for Swaraj nowadays, are fast coming into the range of “practical politics”. Great are the virtues of unrest! Of course it is only representation and not representative government which Anglo-India is bending itself to think within the range of possibility; for government means control and control is the last thing which they will consent to yield to us. When Viceroys and Law Members talk of giving us a larger share in the government of our country, they mean of course not control but what they call a voice, and they will take good care that this voice shall be vox et praeterea nihil, a voice and nothing more. But even a voice may be a serious inconvenience to an absolute government and pains are therefore to be taken to substitute an echo for a voice, an echo of bureaucratic whisperings for the living utterance of a nation. In the representative institutions which the bureaucracy are likely to give us, it is the drone of many notables and the mechanical squeaking of officially manipulated puppets that we shall hear, and this, the world will be told, is the voice of the Indian people.

     But Anglo-Indian statesmanship will not rest satisfied with tuning the eneffective voice with which they desire to delude our aspirations, to the character of a flat and foolish echo; they will farther make every arrangement to turn it into a source of fresh weakness to the growing nationality instead of a source of strength. They began of course long ago, the attempt to make capital of the religious diversities of Indian society and recently the policy of setting the Mahomedans as a counterpoise to the Hindus has been openly adopted. In the new Legislative Councils the Mahomedans are to have representation not as children of the soil, an integral portion of one Indian people, but as a politically distinct and hostile interest which will, it is hoped, outweigh or at least nullify the Hindus. The bureaucratic Machiavels have not realised that the conditions of the new struggle which has begun, are of so different a kind from any yet known in British India that the Mahomedans cannot be turned into an effective tool in the hands of the bureaucracy without becoming at the same time a danger to the artisan of discord who uses them. For the field of the struggle is not nowadays in Simla or on the floor of the House of Commons or on any lists where outside opinion can have a decisive or even a material influence. It is not a voice which they have to set against a voice or a show which they have to outface with a better show, but a force which they will have to call into being to oppose a force. The Hindus have become self-conscious, they have heard a voice that cries to them, “Arise from the dead, live and follow me,” and they are irresistibly growing into a living and powerful political force. Unless the Mahomedans can be built up also into a self-conscious, living and powerful force, their assistance to the rulers will be a mere handful of dust in the balance. But the moment they become a living and self-conscious power the doom of bureaucracy will be sealed. For no self-conscious community aware of its strength and separate life will consent to go on pulling chestnuts out of the fire for Anglo-Indian Machiavel. Even if they do not coalesce with the Hindus, they will certainly demand a share of the power which they maintain. Not in that direction lies any permanent hope of salvation for the absolute power of the bureaucracy. Perhaps the more thinking part of Anglo-India perceives this truth, hence the desire to find additional points of support and other principles of discord by which Indian Nationality can be hopelessly divided and cut to pieces in the making.

       Of course the Pioneer does not avow the real object of this scheme for creating and perpetuating as political entities divisions which every healthful political organism progresses by subordinating and discharging of all political significance; but it is obvious enough. If it were possible for the bureaucracy to turn the social divisions of the community into political divisions, there could be no more fatal instrument of political disorganisation, and just as a natural indigenous rule finds its safety in better political organisation, so an unnatural alien rule finds its safety in disorganisation of what it preys upon. If it can, it destroys all centres of political organisation except itself; otherwise it tries to create unnatural centres whose action will hamper and distract the organic growth. Caste with the proper safeguards is an admirable means of social organisation and conservation, but it has not and should not be allowed to have any political meaning. In India with the exception of Maharashtra it has had no political meaning at all. In the old times it was different. All the executive power and functions of war and politics were in the hands of the Kshatriyas for the good reasons that the whole work of war and protection of the country from internal and external disorder was assigned by Society to them, and classes which did not give of their blood to preserve the peace and freedom of their country could not claim a direct control of administration. The Brahmin legislated, but legislation was then a religious function which implied no political power or position, and the people at large exercised only an indirect control by the pressure of a public opinion which no ruler could afford to neglect. Afterwards when Chandragupta and Asoka had created the tradition of a powerful absolutism with a strong bureaucratic organisation to support it, things changed, but not in the direction of a polity based on caste. On the contrary all classes, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra could and did rise to any position of political power, even the throne itself, and except in Rajasthan where the Kshatriya ideals and institutions were preserved, caste came to count less rather than more in politics as time went on. All the great nation-builders have ignored caste as a political factor and it was only when the national spirit of the Marathas declined after Panipat that a cleavage on the lines of caste took place which is still a slight danger to Nationalism in the South. It is curious to find the British rulers who have done their best to undermine caste as a social institution now dreaming of perpetuating and using it as a political instrument. We do not think they will make much by this move. The centripetal impulse in Hindu society is already too strong and with most of us political division by castes is too foreign to our habits of thought to take root. The very idea of making a constituency of Bengal Kayasthas or Bengal Brahmins is absurd. Only where certain classes are much depressed and submerged a temporary strife may be created, but the onward sweep of the national movement, profoundly democratic as it is, will lift these classes to a nobler function in society and give them prizes which a Government post or title cannot hope to rival. If we listened to our Loyalists and continued to depend on alien favours and look on them as the crown of our political life, then indeed discord might be sown and castes learn to view themselves as distinct and hostile political interests, but against the force of the National movement such devices will array themselves in vain; its democratic and unifying spirit will make light of all such feeble attempts to divide.

                                                             (Bande Mataram, December 6, 1907) 


The “Reformer” on Moderation       


   The Indian Social Reformer has discovered that the moderate programme needs revision. Moderation is defined by this authority as a desire to preserve the British Raj until social reform has accomplished itself, for the reason that an indigenous Government is not likely to favour social reform so much as the present rulers do. The Reformer would therefore like the Moderate programme to be modified in order to tally with its own definition of moderation. We presume that, in its view, the Congress instead of demanding Legislative Councils should ask for the forcible marriage of Hindu widows; instead of the separation of the judicial and executive, the separation of reformed wives from unreformed husbands or vice versa; instead of the repeal of the Arms Act, the abolition of the Hindu religion. This introduction of social details into a political programme is a fad of a few enthusiasts and is contrary to all reason. The alteration of the social system to suit present needs is a matter for the general sense of the community and the efforts of individuals. To mix it up with politics in which men of all religious views and various social opinions can join is to confuse issues hopelessly. It is not true that by removing the defects of our social structure we shall automatically become a nation and fit for freedom. If it were so, Burma would be a free nation at present. Nor can we believe that the present system is favourable to social reconstruction or that self-government would be fatal to it. The reverse is the case. Of course, if social reform means the destruction of everything old or Hindu because it is old or Hindu, the continuance of the present political and mental dependence on England and English ideals is much to be desired by the social reformers; for it is gradually destroying all that was good as well as much that was defective in the old society. With the programme of becoming a nation by denationalisation we have no sympathy. But if a healthy social development be aimed at, it is more likely to occur in a free India when the national needs will bring about a natural evolution. Society is not an artificial manufacture to be moulded and remodelled at will, but a growth. If it is to be healthy and strong it must have healthy surroundings and a free atmosphere.

                                                                       (Bande Mataram, May 1, 1907) 


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati