Things can fall apart
June 25th, 2010
Those who are optimists about the future of India see the glass of its economic advancement since Independence as half full, while those who are pessimists see the same glass as half empty. Both, in my view, miss a more basic point. And this point pertains to the table on which the glass is kept. If the table gets weaker by the day, on account of its wood being eaten by termites, it would soon crumble and the glass itself would fall to the ground and break. The key question for the future of India is the foundational strength of its system and not of its high or low rate of economic growth.
Most of us do not seem to realise that the negative forces are acting as termites and daily eating away its unifying threads, thereby exposing the country to graver and graver risks of instability. I have little doubt that if the present trends of sacrificing fundamental interests of the nation to the narrow and short-term interests of selfish and myopic politicians continue, things would fall apart, sooner rather than later. “History”, it has been rightly said, “is no blind goddess and does not excuse in blindness in others”. Let us not remain under any delusion that it would make any exception in our case.
The latest manifestation of the destructive course to which the nation is being blindly set is the proposed enumeration of castes in the census. It is bound to cause extensive eruption of the old infection. This, coupled with the issue of reservations, would render our social and political structures unstable. A number of new claims on castes and sub-castes would be made and there would be a mad rush for going down the ladder. Even the “high” and “middle-level” castes would endeavour, by way of fair or foul means, to get into the list of “backward classes”. Violent and aggressive agitations would crop up in a sizeable part of the country. Caste jealousies and social tensions would even infiltrate the machinery of governance itself and undermine its cohesion and efficacy. The development work would suffer and the goal of removing poverty, ignorance and disease would recede further.
It would be a grave tragedy, indeed, if some vested interests in our politics are allowed to push the country into deeper layers of backwardness and also expose it to several other risks, having bearing on its very nationhood. Such a tragedy would be compounded by the fact that the caste system, as it has operated on the ground for centuries, is against the basic structure of Hinduism.
This “basic structure” lies embedded in the Upanishadic thought. Its central message is that all life in this universe is divine and individuals are “divine specks” of the same Supreme Divinity, which permeates the inextricably enmeshed cosmic web of human existence. In this metaphysical principle, the notion of equality is in-built.
If the same divinity is embodied in different individuals, they cannot but be equal. The Bhavishya Purana says: “Since members of all the four castes are children of God, they all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father and children of the same father cannot have different castes”.
Because of widespread ignorance about Hinduism and the extensive interpolations and manipulations which it has undergone over the ages, few in India today understand its fundamental principles and propositions. The very soul of Hinduism debunks the caste system.
The only source to which the origin of this system could be attributed is the second portion of Purusha-sakta hymn of the Rig Veda, wherein it is stated that the purusha was cut into four parts, the first pertaining to his mouth, the second to his arms, the third to his thighs and the fourth to his feet. An interpretation of this statement was drawn to lay down that the brahmin came from the highest portion of the Supreme Self and shudra from the lowest. In between came the kshatriyas, the warrior class, and the vaishyas, the traders, agriculturists etc. This interpretation is, clearly, arbitrary and untenable.
Nor is there any scriptural authority on the basis of which the caste system could be made either hereditary or water-tight. In his remarkable write-up, titled Un-Hindu Spirit of Caste-Rigidity, Sri Aurobindo has pertinently observed: “The baser ideas underlying the degenerate perversions of the caste system, the mental attitude which bases them on a 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”.
It was the utter selfishness of the vested interests that hid the true spirit of Hinduism and created a discriminatory and inflexible social system. The society was so structured that the caste of brahmins acted like “a sun around which all other castes revolved like satellites”. The treatment accorded to the shudra was extremely harsh. But it was the untouchables amongst them who received the unkindest cut of all. The basic tenet of Hindu thought, which looked at the whole human race as one family was sidetracked and what has been called as “one of the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions” was brought into being. Apart from causing horrible inequities, it divided the people in various water-tight compartments. Al Beruni, the famous traveller, who visited India in early 11th century, noted with surprise that the people were being fed with poison “in land where nectar-stream of an ancient and life-giving religion flowed perennially”.
The British colonial interests found it expedient to further deepen the division amongst the people. In 1901, Census Commissioner, Herbert Risley, introduced the element of “social-precedence” in the caste classification. It resulted in an extraordinary revival of the “caste spirit” and numerous “caste sabhas” sprung up.
The British regime even attempted to cause a permanent schism among the Hindus by taking a tentative decision to provide separate electorates for the depressed classes. This decision was abandoned only when Mahatma Gandhi undertook a fast unto death and arrived at an understanding with Dr Ambedkar by way of what is known as the Poona Pact.
This is first of a two-part series.
* Jagmohan is a former governor of J&K and a former Union minister
Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi