Generalization Is Inevitable When Talking Meaningfully about India

Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc. I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.

Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc.

I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.

Prof Balagangadhara will agree that words like Hinduism and caste system are huge generalizations. But generalization is inevitable when one is compelled to account for innumerable and diverse phenomena. European colonial writers had to generalize what they saw because their Empire had spread itself recklessly wherever possible. The colonizers didn’t have any reason to stop their conquests at any sort of previously existing boundaries because easy money didn’t stop at those boundaries. How does one talk meaningfully about such a recklessly spread Empire without making generalizations? It’s impossible.

To make matters worse, the list of collective nouns the Europeans used to describe and generalize what they saw has another entry in it which Prof Balagangadhara doesn’t seem to have paid attention to: India. As long as we wish to take this entry seriously, there is no escape from generalization. Every statement about India is a generalization because the very word is the result of European generalization. I’m not saying that we must refrain from making any statement about India. I’m only saying that we must recognize the fact that we’re compelled to generalize when we make one.

I think it’s still possible to make a very good generalization, but we have to be careful. If we aren’t, what we end up calling the Indian way to generalize will continue to have European generalization at the base because European generalization thrives in the very word India. In some sense, we have to remove Europe from India before making our generalization, and it’s not an easy task. (In passing, I have to point out that even European is a generalization, but we can live with it because Europe is quite far away from us and we’re not interested in describing Europe but India here.)

Fortunately, we can talk much more easily about generalization by a Vedantin, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Lingayat, a Shudra, and so on, without including European generalization by default. Similarly, we can also talk about generalization by a Kannadiga, a Tamil, a Telugu, a Gujarati, and so on. These categories were attested before our brush with European colonialism, and continue to exist even today. But we have to be very careful when we talk of an Indian way to generalize because the very category owes its birth to our colonial experience.

Let me end with a few comments on how we could think in order to arrive at an Indian generalization. In some sense, we must arrive at the least common denominator of all the pre-attested categories described and implied in the above paragraph. We must arrive at what is common to all of them and lodge ourselves in that common frame of reference before making our generalization. Most importantly, our generalization must apply to the new India, which is a product of European generalization, and which we also like to call as a democracy.

The task is neither impossible nor simple. Until we come up with such a generalization, there is no option but to use what the Europeans have left us with — Hinduism and caste system. Unfortunately, it is also true that different people will naturally come up with different ways to tinker with these concepts in this interim period. They will infuse them with their own meanings, knowingly or unknowingly retain the European-ness in them to different degrees, and try to explain their version of reality as well as they can.

Some thoughts on the apex of the Pyramid

In his 1955 classic History of South India: From Prehestoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar, the famous historian K. A. Nilakanta Sastri writes:

[The] institution of caste with all its social and economic implications was accepted almost universally, and the upholding of the social order organized on its basis was held to be the primary duty of the ruler. This accounts at once for the prevalence of  much social exclusiveness in matters of food and marriage among different sections of the people, and for the readiness with which they came together and cooperated on matters of common concern like the management of a temple and its adjuncts, the regulation of land and irrigation rights in the village, and the administration of local affairs generally. The emphasis was throughout on the performance of duties attaching to one’s station rather than on the rights of the individual or group. The general atmosphere was one of social harmony and contentment with the existing order; differences and disputes there were – there has been no society without them – but they were seldom acrimonious. Even the quarrels between ‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ castes, a distinction which has an early start and whose origin is a mystery, did not attain the violence that characterized them in subsequent times. Both in towns and villages, the castes tended to live in separate quarters of their own and follow their own peculiar customs and habits. The outcastes who tilled the land and did menial work (under conditions little different from slavery) lived in hamlets at a distance from the village proper. [p. 289]

Sastri is writing about South India in the period from the sixth to the seventeenth century, A.D. Clearly, there is hardly any criticism of the caste-system in the above passage. There isn’t anywhere else in his book, either. Of course, it’s a book of history (an excellent one, in fact) and one doesn’t expect the author’s personal views to influence it. But as I have argued before, selection and emphasis are inevitable to the historian. Sastri has clearly selected and emphasized only those facets of the caste-system which he likely considered positive. The negative facets are buried in vague terms like ‘social and economic implications’ and ’emphasis on duties’; even the slave-like situation of the outcastes finds a mention only within brackets. Before the reader even notices them, the narrative moves on to what Sastri seems to be more interested in.

But why exactly was the caste system, with all its ‘social and economic implications’ that is to say with all its social and economic injustice to the lower castes, ‘accepted almost universally’ (I don’t doubt Sastri’s knowledge of facts)? Sastri himself hints: because the rulers were concerned with upholding the system. It would have been impossible for the people subjected to a monarchy not to accept what the ruler considered his duty; death would have been an easy way of getting rid of dissenters. So then, why did the rulers uphold such an unjust system? This is also quite straightforward: the more subdued and ‘well-behaved’ the people are, the less the threat to the ruler’s authority. This does not mean the people welcomed it, only that they must have had no option but to display ‘social harmony and contentment with the existing order’.

We must also realize that this ‘existing order’ was hierarchical, meaning every layer in the hierarchy had inferiors of their own to oppress, i.e., exploit socially or economically or both. This is what makes it a Pyramid of Corruption where every layer assumes power over layers below and abuses it for its own gain. This structure yields further stability to the whole system because when everyone is corrupt, seldom does anyone raise a voice against the system. I explain this further in The Pyramid of Corruption (Ch. 4):

The Aryan Pyramid of corruption has exhibited an inordinate degree of stability; it has endured for thousands of years. But why is it so stable? It is stable due to a unique feature of its: the most visible and active castes possess not just a certain quota of inferiority, but also a certain quota of superiority. Each of them is inferior to the castes above it in the hierarchy, assuming they exist, but is superior to the castes below it in the hierarchy, assuming they exist. Therefore, the people in the middle of the Pyramid who are most vocal and most in charge of material wealth are equal in that all of them have their quotas of superiority and inferiority. So, all of them can assume power over those southwards of them and then abuse it, at the cost of giving away power to those northwards of them who then abuse it. Life is not only roses but thorns too, and everyone accepts this as normal. The brahmanas at the top of the Pyramid, however, have no inferiority whatsoever and they assume power over the entire Pyramid which lies to their south. The shudras at the bottom of the Pyramid have no superiority whatsoever because all superiority lies to their north; they have their voice removed from them, and, therefore, no complaints are heard from them, even if there is the urge to voice them. Thus, the opportunity that all the vocal and active people in the middle of the Pyramid have to abuse public power for private gain, together with the suppression of the voices of those who lie at the bottom of the Pyramid and an overall reverence for the top of the Pyramid which abuses its power over it, lends stability to the entire Pyramid.

It may now be asked why the brahmanas, not the kshatriya rulers, were (and are) at the apex of this Pyramid. After all, weren’t the rulers the ones who wielded the sword of enforcement? Why didn’t they place themselves at the apex? One easy answer is that the ruler cannot openly declare himself supreme. Among other complications in doing so must have been the fact that he would become the laughing stock of the people should that inevitable defeat in war occur. Instead, the kshatriyas seem to have found it useful to bow down to the brahmanas and spread the belief that their job is to act according to eternal rules laid down by the brahmanas: the dharma. And of course, the brahmanas presented no political or economic threat to the kshatriyas. As Sastri points out, they indeed ‘stood outside the race for wealth and power’. By power Sastri means political power, but the brahmanas were certainly in the race for social power, i.e., social status. Their word was literally taken to be the word of God, and nobody throws that sort of respect away; hardly anyone dislikes kings falling at their feet.

Were the brahmanas the authors of this whole system? Clearly the system required help from the kshatriyas, but they cannot be called its authors. They were merely its protectors. In fact, if the brahmanas had cared, they could have refused to become party to this whole business even if it meant corporal punishment. Many must have actually refused. One expects such adherence to values from the brahmana, not to mention the possibility of escaping to the forest. But the fact is, a good number of brahmanas seem to have happily entered into an alliance with the kshatriyas and considered the creation and sustenance of this system good for one and all. This together with the lower status of the kshatriyas makes them the authors, although Sastri is almost right in pointing out that they ‘lived on voluntary gifts from all classes of people from the king downwards’. It is also true that the brahamanas were the last ones to have benefited materially from this (some refuse to attribute authorship for this reason), but that was not the benefit they sought to begin with. The caste-system is proof that one can make a complete mess of society even if, or just if, one has little self-interest in the material world of politics and economics. Of those who only faked it, on the other hand, there is nothing to be said at all.