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.

Claiming power over language

How did the Aryans at the apex claim power over a vast sea of non-Aryans in those days of yore? Specifically, how did they treat non-Aryan languages? Here’s an excerpt from The Pyramid of Corruption (Ch.4 India’s Ancient Pyramid):

The corruptors also assumed ownership over the human voice from which stems language. They ensured that the victim was both ashamed and afraid of voicing his opinion, even when it came to pleading for release from the corruption of the corruptors. The voice of the victims was ‘proven’ by the corruptors to be not just inferior in general terms but also to militate against divinity. The voice of the corruptors, on the other hand, was ‘proven’ to be not just superior in general terms but also to be the voice of divinity itself. When the victims gathered up courage to suspect the truth of such positioning, the corruptors claimed it as further proof that the victims were habituated to suspect and disrespect divinity, of which they claimed to be the protectors and messengers. Some corruptors even claimed to be divinity itself. At every opportunity, the corruptors pointed out that it was better for the victim not to utter his word, because it was incorrect by definition. By thus claiming power over the word of the victims, the corruptors also positioned themselves as teachers of the word, the ones who lent voice to those who they themselves had rendered voiceless. The teacher was further elevated to the status of God, and questioning his judgment or teaching was taught to be sacrilegious. His word was command. His word was also worth repeating over and over again, and was taught to be equivalent to the voice of the divine. It did not matter that the victims did not understand the word, because it was not the meaning of the word which mattered but its repetition. Thus, the victims came to disassociate meaning from word, and their minds were paralyzed.

The victims were discouraged from any pursuits of life other than those licensed by the corruptors. They were thus barred from discovering their own unity, and from raising their voice, because anything they might speak was inferior and unworthy of being heard. Writing was also usurped and it was proven to the victims that they were unworthy of it. It was also filled with unnecessary alphabets and words meant only for the language of the corruptors. The inability of the victims to employ them correctly was offered as proof that the victims did not deserve to employ the written word. Thus was gradually destroyed the victims’ potential to create, retain, reuse and share knowledge—especially knowledge of the corruption to which they were subjected.

Their languages, thereby, were thrown to disuse, and the corruptors declared it to be the natural end to the voice of the ungodly and corruptible. The corruptors, on the other hand, used the written word of their own language to create, retain, reuse and share knowledge amongst themselves—including knowledge of the corruption to which they subjected their victims. Those among the victims who were non-Aryan, and who were treated most inhumanly, were barred from even accessing this writing, and severe punishments were suggested and proffered if access should occur. The quoted reason for this secrecy was simple: the inferiority of the victims, their low birth; and this reasoning emanating from the wielders of public power gradually made the general public feel actually unworthy of accessing such writing.

The importance of language

If you have been following some of my recent Facebook posts about languages and history, you might be wondering what they have to do with The Pyramid of Corruption. Well, the connection is diversity. Those posts were essentially the unconscious assertion of my love for diversity, especially linguistic diversity. It must be protected and allowed to assert itself. India tends to suppress linguistic diversity for not only modern but also historical reasons.

I have dedicated an entire chapter (Ch. 3, Diversity and Corruption) to discussing how the mishandling of diversity can be viewed as corruption – the abuse of public power for private gain. This corruption increases with the diversity distance between the private (the government) and the public (the people), which is a measure of how different the two are.

I also argue that linguistic diversity is the most important type of diversity when it comes to modern nations, especially in multi-lingual nations such as India. Needless to say, we need to handle linguistic diversity without allowing for any language to assume power over others and abuse it for its own gain. Language is extremely important in modern nations. Let me quote from the book a bit to make my point (Ch. 10, Language and Corruption):

Language […] does play a role of central importance in the business of a nation, because it enables the gear-wheels to mesh with each other. Language is that link which enables a most basic feeling of kindred between two individuals: the one that arises when they are able to exchange their thoughts and feelings using the spoken or written word. This feeling of kindred makes a linguistic area ideally free from corruption stemming from the mismanagement of linguistic diversity, for, ideally, there is no linguistic diversity within it which can be mismanaged. Practically, of course, there is always some linguistic diversity even within the most scrupulously created linguistic area, and there will be corruption inasmuch as it is mismanaged. But scrupulously created linguistic areas are by degrees better than arbitrarily created administration zones and language policies which mishandle linguistic diversity—and in politics, one must settle for the best option available.

While language-related corruption acts as friction for the national machine and thereby renders its work difficult, good language management acts as a lubricant which makes its work easier. Language makes the gear wheels of the nation—the people—create meaningful motion in one another. Without it, the machine would either come to a grinding halt or move in wrong directions. This language, however, cannot be any language, but the language that all the people who are part of the machine can use for communication and cooperation. Those gear-wheels that do not speak the language of the machine are automatically rejected as incompatible with the work of the machine; they would not be able to turn other gear-wheels or be turned by them. It is in their self-interest to organize other gear-wheels that speak their language and get another machine going, instead of getting included in existing machines as gear-wheels with inferior meshing capabilities.

The language of a people is an extremely important tool for education and employment of that people, and it is nonsensical to believe that a foreign language can replace it. A foreign language can act as the medium of education and employment for a few, but not for all, and is a perfect recipe for building an Aryan Pyramid with the speakers of the foreign language on the top and everybody else assigned their level of inferiority below the top, right in the land of the people under question. It is only when education is misunderstood to be the transmission of information from foreigners, and employment is misunderstood to be the gift of the means of livelihood by foreigners, that a foreign language seems to be absolutely fine for education and employment.

It is for these practical reasons that language forms the basis on which nations get created in the world. Europe, in particular, provides the most striking example of nations created on the basis of language, and this is because it is in Europe that nations were first properly understood to be systems of politics and commerce run by organized self-interest. It is for the ‘mechanical purpose’ of materialism that nations are founded, and it was in Europe that this fact was first understood. In Europe, language actually works as a meshing agent within each nation and not merely as a nominal agent of demarcation between other nations. And, unlike in post-colonial nations such as India and those of Africa, the nations of Europe do not import foreign languages to mesh a select few gear-wheels and make them run the national machine: they use their own languages.

On distance, caste, and language

Distance is a fundamental and natural regulator of social relations, for men and women all over the world tend to interact with people who are close-by. This is for two commonsensical reasons: first, distance requires the additional hassle of transport and communication, which may or may not be available or affordable; second, proximity creates the feeling of kindred which is both necessary for, and is facilitated by, social interactions.

Language is a fundamental and natural tool for and outcome of social interactions, and distance, therefore, has a fundamental impact on it: the speakers of any given language tend to cluster geographically, and it is possible to draw very accurate geographical boundaries between any two linguistic peoples and earmark well-defined linguistic areas. To put it in another way, people who live together and who are isolated from other people either geographically or otherwise, develop their own language. For all practical purposes, language is equivalent to distance in regulating social interactions. Marriage is a fundamental and natural social institution, and distance has a fundamental impact on it, too: marriages also tend to form geographical clusters, as men and women tend to choose their spouses from nearby. But most marriages happen within the same linguistic area, because communication and cooperation, which are facilitated by a common language, are essential ingredients of successful marriages.

Therefore, matrimonial and linguistic clusters have significant overlaps worldwide. Even with the coming of modern means of transport and electronic communication, the importance of distance as a regulator of social relations has not reduced by any significant degree. Fast cars, ships, airplanes, mobile telephony and the internet have had negligible impact on the geographical clustering of languages and marriages. On the contrary, the existing geographical clustering of languages and marriages has had a significant impact on the patterns of social relations that have emerged on these new technological platforms.

In the Indian subcontinent, caste is an additional regulator of social relations. But it is neither a fundamental nor a natural regulator in the sense that distance and language are; it is an artificial one which has come to be due to the mishandling of racial diversity. Caste, however, impacts both marriage and language. That caste impacts marital relations—even appears to be its fundamental purpose—is a well known fact. But it is perhaps less known that caste also impacts language, creating different caste-based dialects and usage patterns within the same language.

Despite these impacts, caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than distance, and one must concede that it is therefore not as fundamental a regulator as distance. The artificial regulations imposed by the caste-system on marriage and language fail to supersede the fundamental regulations imposed on them by distance: we find the people of almost all castes finding their spouses within tens of kilometers and living within well-defined linguistic areas. That is, it is very rare to find people crossing the barrier of distance to marry within the caste. Therefore, by and large, both languages and marriages are primarily distance-limited, and only secondarily caste-limited. I say ‘by and large’ because languages like English and marriages of the higher castes such as the brahmanas tend to go beyond geographical limits, but these are trivial exceptions from a percentage occurrence perspective.

Caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than language, too, and therefore less fundamental than it. Different castes, because of their geographical co-location, have no choice but to communicate with each other, albeit while maintaining the social restrictions imposed by the caste-system. This communication cannot happen without a common language, even though there may be dialect and usage differences due to the isolation between castes. Essentially, therefore, castes are contained within well-defined linguistic areas. Once again, it is only the numerically trivial upper castes that provide an exception to this rule.

(Excerpted from The Pyramid of Corruption)