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Varna and Jati aka ‘Caste’ System Was Hugely Damaging to Indians: 3

September 1, 2018 6 comments

In the previous post of this series– I talked about how the older Varna system, though bad, was not that different from similar social hierarchies present in other societies of that era. In any case, it was certainly nowhere as inflexible and divisive as the ‘caste’ system later became. It also helped that the vast majority of people fell into one particular Varna, not unlike plebs in the Roman Empire. It also did not undermine the type of social cohesion necessary to field large and competent armies, nor did it create the anything close to the static and inward looking mindset seen in later centuries. To put it another way, it wasn’t a great system by any standard, but it was nowhere as atrociously bad and self-sabotaging as ‘caste’ system ended up becoming.

Which brings us to the second and later component of the ‘caste’ system aka Jati system. So what is a Jati anyway? The simplest definition of that wretched concept is as follows: Each Jati is an endogamous, self-governing and closed community usually associated with one particular occupation or vocation. Coincidentally the word used in many Indian language to describe what we know as ‘species’ (animals and plant) is also Jati. The more perceptive among you will immediately see that artificially dividing any society into anything analogous to a myriad of human “species” is a recipe for chronic conflict, social disunity and many other bad outcomes.

I should also point out even a civilization as obsessed with social hierarchy as China did not implement anything remotely as stupid and disastrous as ‘caste’- and for good reason. Even the most basic analysis of its “pros” and “cons” clearly show that a society based on the ‘jati’ system would be full of constant low-level infighting in addition to lacking the social cohesion necessary to do important big things such as recruiting a large and competent army, running a competent administration.. well getting anything big or important done properly. I mean.. how can you run a large society when there is no unified system of rules, laws, procedures, common culture, even the most basic feelings of kinship? Well.. you can’t, and that is the point.

Did I also mention the part where every single one of the thousands of those self-created Jatis (all over India) was constantly obsessed with the need to show it was somehow “higher” than the others in its immediate neighborhood? But it get better.. or worse. Not only did the concept of Jati create dozens of ‘castes’ in even a medium-sized village, it also permanently separated their social worlds. So, for example, it was possible for two extended families of different ‘castes’ to live in adjacent houses/ farms for decades or even centuries with almost no worthwhile informal social interactions between them. Compare that a similarly sized village in medieval Europe or China- where peasants, artisans and laborers knew exactly which social class they belonged to.

Imagine the levels of chronic tension in a society with totally arbitrary rules about who you could marry, dine or even informally socialize with- and all with the end purpose of showing who was higher on the “caste ladder”. To make matters worse, one ‘caste’ could split into two or more and this process could keep on repeating itself till nobody was sure about the relative social position of their latest ‘caste’ on the “caste ladder”- a concept for which there was, also, no universally accepted definition. Now you can start understanding why Indian society has always been so prolific at producing traitors and defectors. I mean.. what positive incentives does the ‘caste’ system have to prevent or reduce defections? Can you think of any?

It is therefore no wonder that after the 10th Century AD, significantly smaller but much more cohesive armies of Muslims and Europeans could defeat larger but highly disorganized and non-cohesive armies of local Hindu kings. To make matters worse, the ‘caste’ system had an overall narrative that people who worked with their hands were somehow belonged to innately lower and unworthy species. That is why, for example, archers (who almost exclusively came from the lower castes) were not considered worthy of the honor of fighting alongside warrior castes. Also, the Indian longbow progressively became a “dirty” weapon and was therefore shunned by the warrior castes. Surely nothing bad can come from such beliefs.. right?

It is worth pointing out that longbows were probably the best weapons against cavalry of the type used by Muslim invaders. But it gets even better.. or worse. Repeated defeats against Muslim cavalry units did nothing to make the warrior castes or Indian society reconsider the weapons they used, let alone analyse each defeat and develop counter-measures, because nobody wanted to go against the allegedly “ancient” ways or do anything which might increase ritual pollution, since by that time everyone was mentally invested in perpetuating the ‘caste’ or Jati system. The fact that each Jati had a vocation which allegedly determined its position on the “caste ladder” was also the reason an incredibly useful weapons such as the Crossbow never caught on in India. Confused by that statement? Let me explain..

Hindu warrior castes usually decided how “clean” or “high” a weapon was by two criteria- cost and tradition. So a quality steel sword, which was both expensive to make and traditional, was held in far higher esteem than something like the Longbow. The Crossbow, which almost certainly arrived in (South) India through indirect trade with China through South-East Asia in the first few centuries AD never caught on because it was relatively inexpensive to make and not traditional. Also, nobody wanted to start a totally new caste to build crossbows- because newer castes were lower on the “caste ladder” than more established ones. A similar reason was also behind the grudgingly slow adoption of gunpowder weapons in India.

Well.. I am almost a thousand words into this post and the topics I intend to tackle next such as the connection between vegetarianism and caste system and role of arranged marriages in perpetuating this abomination require at least the same number of words. I also hope to show you the connection between the demise of Buddhism and India and the rise of the caste system. More importantly, I will talk about why the ‘caste’ system most likely started as something imposed from above by a particular north Indian dynasty which ruled between 4th and 6th century of the common era.

What do you think? Comments?