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Caste An European Phenomenon

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Caste An European Phenomenon
#50
http://heathenfaqs.org/kb/?View=entry&EntryID=99

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I. Is the Caste System an Experiential Reality of the people of Karnataka?

<b>(a) The myth of unified system of Caste and sub-caste units.</b>

1. The caste system as delineated in the modern research is not an experiential reality of the respondents. The empirical reference points to the terms like ‘caste’, ‘caste system’, ‘caste hierarchy’, ‘caste restrictions’, ‘purity-impurity’, etc. as they are conceptualized by the scholars are either ambiguous or totally absent.  The respondents simply do not understand our questions if we talk in terms of caste system or hierarchy. Therefore their answers are either arbitrary or learnt from the text books in the modern educational system on this issue.

2. The units called jati can not be equivalent of caste if we go by the definitions provided by the scholars on caste system. These jati units do not betray any such clear-cut characteristic features or constituent properties assigned to castes. In fact, people use many other terms like jana, paiki, pangada, olapangada, kula, nammavru, etc. in the place of jati which renders much more complexity to this category.

3. No systematic arrangement could be discerned in the way these jatis are related mutually as well as with other units like mata, pangada,(group) etc.  Thus though there are different social units, they do not provide empirical reference to any kind of systematic arrangement that the caste system presupposes.

4. Scholars usually take the unit Lingayat, Brahmin, etc. as  castes and the jatis within these units as the sub-castes.  It was found during the field work that the members of different jatis belonging to these broader categories are largely ignorant about the broader categories excepting certain traditional practices associated with them.

<b>(b) The caste hierarchy:</b>

The caste hierarchy, according to the scholars, makes sense to its members within the framework of an ideology.  Castes are supposed to have been organized within a hierarchy, and this hierarchy is modeled after the Varna divisions or concept of purity or impurity. How could one verify whether or not the caste hierarchy makes sense to its supposed members? At the very least, one should get a minimally consistent set of answers from those who are supposed to have a background ideology which functions as a rationale for the hierarchical ordering of the caste system.

1. The responses to the questions regarding the hierarchical arrangement of the jatis were inconsistent: a) Some of the respondents could not make sense of the question and confessed that they can not arrange the jatis in clear cut hierarchical order. b) For some others jatis, can not be understood as a hierarchical system we can only understand them as varieties. c) Majority of the respondents have a vague notion of hierarchy, but when asked failed to provide a hierarchical arrangement of the castes in their locality. d) There was no unanimity among the respondents, excepting about the lowest status of the untouchables. e) Ordering of jatis in a hierarchy by some is contested by the others, and the usual tendency is that each jati claims itself to be superior to the other. f) The claims about the higher birth are usually contested among the jatis belonging to a broader cluster like Brahmins, Lingayats and untouchables. g) Many of those who answer the questions also confess that each jati thinks itself superior, thus indicating that it is a subjective preference.

2. When we ask for the reasons for ranking a jati higher or lower, large number of respondents does not know the reasons. Some of them said that they are merely following traditions in treating other jatis as higher or lower to them. Yet others ventured to give reasons, but without any logic or consistency. The usual explanations revolve around food habits, cleanliness, profession, education, etc. The problem with this data is that people seem to provide some arbitrary answer to the inquiry about caste hierarchy. It is as though this question is unintelligible to them.

3. The basic question we have to address, then, is whether the sense of higher or lower births is related to a fixed hierarchical system or to something else. It requires further research to understand the implications of the local terms which are supposed to indicate the status of these jatis. The terms like melu(superior), kilu(inferior), Melina(upper), kelagina(lower), dodda(big), sanna(small), etc. do not seem to imply all the presuppositions made about the social status hierarchy.

<b>© Purity and impurity as guiding principle of the hierarchy:</b>

1. There is a problem of reference point in the local vocabulary. There are practices like shuddha, asuddha,  madi, mailige, muttu chittu etc. .(all these terms are broadly taken to be indicators of purity-impurity, however these are neither  exact translations,  nor exact references of the words.) These practices are to be found among all the jatis in their internal transactions right from Brahmins to the Untouchables and they hold it to be a significant practice. Their connection with the hierarchy is not discernible and there seems to be no causal connection between the practices of exclusion, untouchability, etc. and  madi, mailige, muttu, chittu etc. No one told that some caste is lower because it is less madi, or it is afflicted by muttu-chittu.  Academic study of caste system has so far assumed certain items and practices cause impurity, like meat eating, corpse of cow, consuming liquor. Respondents also at times refer to these practices of the other castes to claim their superiority, for which the term they use is shuddha-ashuddha. Our field work suggests that such answers are provided by the respondents precisely because they feel compelled to answer our question. When pressed further  they confess that they do not know and they are simply following the ancestral practice.

2. Our field work also brings out certain practices by the same people which negate their notion of shuddha-ashuddha, which shows that these people are not guided by any ideological notion of impurity with a fixed reference.

<b>(d) Caste restrictions and the problem of constituent properties:</b>

The same inconsistency is to be found in other data also. In the case of inter-caste marriage, commensality, or any other so-called characteristics of caste hierarchy or caste observances, people are ready to accept aberrations for a variety of reasons.

1. Quite interestingly, out of the 600 Panchayat members, majority of them did not endorse strict endogamy, commensality, untouchability. Nonetheless these respondents, did express their willingness to continue their jati tradition. This makes sense only when they think that these are not constituent properties of the jati traditions. Otherwise how can they disagree with the so called constituent properties of the jati and yet are willing to continue with their affiliation to their jati.This either indicates that none of the so-called characteristic features of the caste system are valid for these jatis or that the jati structure can include or exclude anything and still survive.

2. Those who consider the jatis as the referential points of the term caste, hold endogamy to be the most fundamental to the caste difference. However the Swamis of some of these jatis  advocate for inter jati marriages for various reasons, like for survival of the jati against shortage of brides, or to unite different jatis belonging to the same cluster like Lingayat, Brahmana.. Though they have their own preferences of jatis to be accepted for inter marriage, this at least indicates that endogamy is not a constituent property of the jati units The Havyak Brahmins preferred  inter-jati marriage  as a means of saving their  jati  from the crisis of brides. In the case of Lingayat swamis, inter-jati marriage is viewed as a way to unite the Lingayats.

3. It appears, even birth is also not compulsory for a jati membership. This is evident from the presence of rituals to allow membership to others, especially in the case of inter caste marriages.

4. People accept that the food habits, dress and other social practices are influenced by climate and regions, so the practices may vary. What is prohibited in one place and context may be allowed in other places and contexts. There is no universally applicable dress code and food habit for many jatis. 

5. Recently a lot of educated and employed people from the Brahmin and Lingayat jatis are consuming meat and liquor, which is not accepted by the elderly members of the families. They say that the time itself has changed; therefore they can’t but accept it, unwillingly though.

6.  At present no jati is excommunicating her members for this violation of jati practices.

In the past also excepting a few of the Brahmin jatis, no other jatis appear to have such practices. We came across only two such excommunicated jatis among Brahmins, which are again being absorbed into the main jati.



<b>II. The question of textual sources or ideological guidelines for jati practices: </b>

Generally, the explanation almost all of the respondents provided for the practices related to jati was that they were following ancestral practices. Any explanation in terms of the varna system came from respondents who were educated in modern schools and who were informed about Indian society through textbooks.

1. To the question as to what dharma is, we get as many varieties of answers as there are respondents. No one referred to Dharmasastra texts or varnadharma, including the purohits and Sanskrit scholars. Broadly speaking, the answers refer to ‘good actions’, ‘helping others’, ‘generosity’, ‘respecting one’s elders’, ‘hospitality’, ‘doing puja’, ‘avoiding bad things’, etc. It is striking that the respondents never associate any texts or deities with dharma. It is exclusively conceived as human action, without reference to the deities. Though the modern scholars use this term to translate religion, the respondents are absolutely unaware of the English connotation of this term..

2. There is no connection between Varna concept and these jatis. Including the Brahmana jatis, people do not cite any authoritative Brahmanical texts as guide to their actions. Brahmana jatis do not even cite purushasukta as their origin story, instead they have different other accounts. Even those who have the knowledge of Dharmasastras do not think that their dail practices related to their jati are guided by them, tradition they say, is what guides their action.

3. Brahmins jatis consult the Dharmasastras in certain cases, when  they face a problem in relation to a particular ritual practice.  This again is done only to find out alternate ways of action. The interpretations of the sastras are made in such a way that they can go ahead with the intended act when the intended act apparently goes against the established tradition. Through a clever interpretation they can legitimise any deviation from the established practice.  There are instances where a jati itself creates a text and interpolates it in some Puranas and cites it for its claim to be Brahmin jati or sanction of certain practice.

4. The non-brahmin jatis have their own origin stories which have nothing to do with the varnas, There are several  stories about the origin of the lower jatis,. What is the function of these stories? Are they indicative of multiple ideologies, or of multiple notions of hierarchy? To conclude, we would like to state some basic problems: (1) the first is that not all of the non-brahmin jatis possess such stories. (2) Where such accounts are provided, they often do not make sense and cannot serve any purpose for guiding the actions of jati members.  (3) People tell different stories to account for the origin of the same jati. Or the same person repeats different versions himself.  Such instances are rules rather than exceptions in so far as the origin stories are concerned. (4) The majority of the members of a jati are not aware of such stories.  (5) These stories, even when looked as texts, make no sense as ideologies of hierarchy because they do not claim a superior status for the jati.  Thus, these stories are not truth claims.

<b>Conclusion</b>

Many anthropologists and sociologists also have come up with similar data after their field works, but they still see ‘caste system’ constituting the social structure.  Our study shows that a singular system, guided by an ideological structure does not exist. Nor does the “Caste System”. The field work also reveals that jati is not the same as caste. The so called constituent properties of are equally ambiguous.

<b>Note</b>: The report is only ad hoc. The field work is not over yet. The purpose of posting it on the website is to invite remarks/suggestions from others.<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
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