Caste and Religion
With the onset of British rule in India, which was formalised in 1857, the country witnessed the emergence of new religious movements among both Hindus and Muslims. These movements were related to the race for numbers among Hindu and Muslim elites, with political power for each community in the new dispensation linked to its numerical strength. Hindu and Muslim religious revivalist organisations and movements began to vie with each other to bring the oppressed castes into their respective folds. In part, this was clearly motivated by the desire to bolster the political fortunes of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu and Muslim elites, who claimed to speak for all of their co-religionists.
Numerous such movements emerged within the larger Hindu fold at this time. Many of them aimed at Hinduising the Shudras and preventing their conversion to Islam and Christianity. Some of them also sought to woo back into the Hindu fold Hindu converts or their descendants who were now Christians and Muslims. One such movement was the Brahmo Samaj, which was founded in 1830 by Ram Mohan Roy, a Bengali Brahmin. Although Ram Mohan Roy critiqued many superstitious and idolatrous aspects of popular Hinduism, he did not mount a radical critique of the caste system, Brahminism, and Brahminical supremacy. It is said that, following orthodox Brahminical practice, he employed a Brahmin cook, and refused all his life to remove his janeo, the ‘sacred’ thread that is the distinguishing mark of orthodox Brahmins.
Among the major aims of the Brahmo Samaj were defending Hinduism from the criticism of Christian and Muslim missionaries, halting the rapid conversion of Hindus to Christianity and Islam, Hinduising the Shudras, and, at the same time, preserving the hegemony of the Brahmins. These were aims that it shared with another revivalist neo-Hindu movement that emerged at around this time, the Arya Samaj. This movement was founded in 1875 by a Gujarati Brahmin called Mool Shankar, more popularly known as Dayanand Saraswati. Alarmed by the mass conversion of Shudras, particularly Dalits, to Christianity and Islam, Dayanand sought to prevent them from doing so by offering them the illusion of upward social mobility within the Hindu fold. Thus, for instance, he argued that Shudras, too, had the right to recite the Vedas and don the janeo, and claimed that caste was to be based on worth rather than birth.
At the same time as he sought to appeal to the Shudras, Dayanand firmly upheld the caste system and ‘upper’ caste hegemony. Accordingly, he continued to accept the authority of the Manusmriti, which he profusely quoted in his magnum opus Satyarth Prakash or ‘The Light of Truth’. He approvingly refered to a verse in the Manusmiriti that declares a principal task of the king to be to ensure that all the four varnas strictly abide by their varna-determined duties, that is to say caste-based roles.[i] In a debate in Benaras with Tara Charan, a Sanatani or orthodox Hindu pundit, he rebuffed the latter for seeking to adduce evidence from the Puranas on the grounds that he accepted the authority only of the Manusmriti and certain other texts that he claimed were based on the Vedas.[ii] The question thus arises that if Dayanand considered the Manusmiriti to be authoritative, how could he possibly be thought to have radically critiqued caste, as is commonly claimed? After all, with the exception of a few verses, the only subjects that the Manusmriti talks about are caste, social hierarchy, untouchability, discrimination, Brahminical supremacy and the degradation and exploitation of the Shudras. Given all this, how was it at all possible for the Shudras to find genuine liberation in and through the Arya Samaj?
The fact of the matter is that, despite its claims to social reform and equality, the Arya Samaj stood solidly for caste inequality, discrimination and the varnashrama dharma. In fact, Dayanand Saraswati himself showed no qualms in exhibiting his distaste for Chandals, Shudras and other such so-called ‘low’ castes. For instance, he opined that sinners of a certain sort turned into elephants, horses, lions, wolves, boars and Shudras and Mlecchas[iii], another class into trees, and yet another class into Chandals.[iv] It is true that he declared it permissible for the dwijas, the so-called ‘twice-born’ or ‘upper’ caste Hindus, to eat food cooked by Shudras, but this should not be thought of as a call for radical social equality, for the argument he gave for this was that the dwijas—Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas—had other tasks to do. Further, it is instructive to note that this was not a blanket permission for eating food cooked by Shudras, for Dayanand added that the dwijas should desist from eating food cooked in a Shudra’s house except under dire necessity, and that too if the Shudra had taken a bath and his clothes were clean. He also insisted that if a Shudra were to cook food in an Arya’s home, he should cover his mouth to ensure that his saliva did not touch the food or else it would be contaminated. Moreover, he added, the Shudra must serve food to the Arya and then eat himself.[v]
In response to a query as to whether there was any harm in eating food cooked by any person being irrespective of caste on the grounds that the bodies of all humans, from Brahmins to Chandals, are made of the same flesh and bones and contain the same blood, Dayanand replied, ‘Yes, there is harm. A Brahmin and Brahmini are fed on the very best of foods. Hence, their bodies are formed out of the reproductive elements that are free from impurities and other harmful elements.’ But this, he claimed, was not true of the bodies of Chandals and Chandalnis, or Chandal women, which were, so he put it, ‘simply laden with dirt and other foul matter.’ That is why, he insisted, Brahmins and other ‘upper’ castes must eat together and desist from eating food touched by Chandals, Bhangis, Chamars and other ‘low’ castes. [vi]
Despite projecting himself as saviour of the Shudras, Dayanand actually stood for their continued slavery under Brahminism. It was not, as is commonly thought, that he forcefully condemned Brahminism or that he radically challenged all the various oppressive rules that the Brahmins had devised to subjugate the Shudras. Thus, critiquing followers of the Brahmo Samaj and the Prarthna Samaj for not abstaining from eating with the English, Muslims and Chandals, Dayanand wrote that these groups were deluded if they thought that by flouting the rules of caste, including those related to commensality, they were reforming society. In actual fact, he argued, they were ‘ruining it’.[vii] Consistent with this belief, Dayananad is said to have refused to eat in the house of even a Brahmin if he knew that food had been cooked by a ‘low’ caste man or woman. His biographer Pandit Lekh Ram narrates one such incident. In 1879, while on a trip to Dehra Dun, a Brahmo Samajist named Babu Kali Mohan Ghosh invited Dayanand to his house for a meal. Dayanand replied that he had no qualms in eating in his house but added that he had heard that Brahmo Samajists sometimes employed ‘low’ caste cooks. This, he said, he did not approve of. The Babu admitted that Brahmo Samajists did not consider it wrong to eat food cooked by anyone, irrespective of caste, but said that he himself did not have a ‘low’ caste cook. Thereupon, Dayanand agreed to eat at his house.
The next day, Pandit Lekh Ram writes, his own brother, Har Gulal, informed him that Dayanand had accepted the Babu’s invitation. Hearing this, Pandit Lekh Ram took some food and went straight to Dayanand’s room. He gave the food to him to eat, and told him that he had committed a major blunder by accepting the Babu’s invitation because at one time a Bhangi woman used to cook food in his house. Dayanand replied that he had no knowledge of this and that the Babu had cheated him. He returned to the Babu the food he had sent for him and, instead, ate the food that Pandit Lekh Ram had brought.[viii]
From all this it is clearly evident that Dayanand’s Arya Samaj aimed not at the emancipation, but, rather, at the subordination of the Shudras so as to preserve and promote Hinduism or Brahminism in the face of the challenge of Islam and Christianity. It aimed at keeping the Shudras firmly within the Hindu fold, at the very bottom of the varna hierarchy. Like many other ‘upper’ caste Hindus of his time, Dayanand felt that if the Shudras were not prevented from converting out of the Hindu fold, the very existence of Hinduism would be under under grave threat since the hegemony of the ‘upper’ castes rested on the labour and the degradation of the Shudras. That is why the Arya Samaj appeared to make some minor concessions with regard to the rules of caste and untouchability, although these did not amount to any real threat to Brahminical hegemony. Dayanand, it can be said, established the Arya Samaj only to save Brahminism from death. He tried to interpret the Hindu scriptures in such a way as to kill the rising spirit of revolt among the Shudras, to co-opt them firmly into the Hindu fold, and make them even better slaves of the ‘upper’ castes.
Just as the Arya Samaj tried to woo the Shudras into its fold, Christian missionaries, belonging to various denominations, sought to do the same across large parts of India. The flood of Shudra converts to Christianity, and, to a lesser extent, Islam, goaded groups such as the Arya Samaj to reach out to the Shudras whom otherwise they might not have been at all concerned about. Christian missionaries brought along with them modern education and medicine, and certainly served the poorest of the poor. Yet, as with the Hindus and Muslims, caste could not be eradicated among the Indian Christians, who continue to be divided on caste lines.
Although the Arya Samajists and the Christian missionaries saw themselves as inveterate foes, they both made concerted attempts to woo Muslims of indigenous Shudra descent and convert them to their respective folds. The Arya Samaj invented the shuddhi ritual to bring into the Hindu fold non-Hindus, including Muslims and Christians who had once been Hindus or who were descendants of Hindu converts. In the early 1920s, they scored considerable success in their missionary endeavours among some isolatednau-musalman groups of ‘low’ caste status who had been only very lightly Islamised over the centuries and who still retained many of their pre-Islamic customs and beliefs. To facilitate this missionary campaign, Arya Samajist scholars penned tracts deeply critical of Islam, and engaged in fierce debates with Muslims on religious matters. Christian missionaries did the same. As a response, various Muslim organisations soon emerged to engage in missionary or tabligh work. Faced with the challenge of the Christian and Arya Samajist missionaries, these Muslim leaders realised that the existence of caste and caste-based discrimination within the Muslim fold left many ‘low’ caste Muslim groups vulnerable to apostasy. This was a clarion call to Muslim leaders to wake up from their deep slumber, to combat the evils of caste in their society, to recognise the acute problems of the ‘low’ caste Muslims, and to try to exemplify, in their own lives and in society at large, the Islamic teachings of social equality and brotherhood.
[i] Dayanand Saraswati, Satyarth Prakash (Urdu translation by Pandit Chamopati and edited by Swami Ved Anand Tirath, Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, New Delhi, n.d., pp.88-91.
[ii] Lala Lajpat Rai, Arya Samaj ki Tarikh (vol.3), (Urdu translation by Kishwar Sultan), National Council for the Promotion of the Urdu Language, New Delhi, 1997, p.53.
[iii] Saraswati, op.cit., p.252.
[iv] Saraswati, op.cit., p.25.
[v] Saraswati, op.cit., p.263.
[vi] Saraswati, op.cit., p.267.
[vii] Saraswati, op.cit., p.360.
[viii] Pandit Lekh Ram, Quoted in Ghazi Mahmud Dharam Pal, Arya Samaj aur Swami Dayanand, Islamia Press, Lahore, p.430.