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Kashmiri Hindus and the Caste System

by Subhash Kak

It is generally accepted that all the Kashmiri Hindus belong to the same
community or jati. Is that because they belong to a single caste or varna resulting from the conversion of the other castes to Islam? Or does this represent a variant of Hindu religion where the caste system does not exist?

Let me first deal with the designation Pandit that is applied to Kashmiri Hindus. According to Henny Sender in her book The Kashmiri Pandits (1988), this designation was requested by Jai Ram Bhan, a Kashmiri courtier in the Mughal court, in Delhi, of the Emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-1749), and it was granted. Apparently, before this period both Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims were addressed as khuajah in the Mughal court.

Kashmiri Hindus call themselves Batta, from the Sanskrit bhartri meaning master. Such an appellation may be a reflection of the community's self-image that emphasizes success and excellence and it need not have any sociological implications. Two subgroups, that were sometimes considered to be separate, are Buher, and Purib: Buher (from the Kashmiri word for grocer) and Purib (for easterner). It appears most likely that these subgroupings, that have all but disappeared now, reflected the profession of business in the case of Buher and ancestry that could be traced to an immigrant from east India.

Kashmiri Hindus have other names that indicate ancestry outside India; for example, the name Turki. Evidently, the category of Kashmiri Hindu has been fluid and it has admitted those that wished to belong to it.

The dominant philosophical and religious system current in Kashmir is that of Shaivism. According to the texts of the Shaivites all those who accept the Kula (Shaivite) dharma become Kauls, irrespective of their background. The Shaivite initiation has always been open to everyone - and that includes women. There are accounts of how Abhinavagupta, the great Shaivite philosopher who lived about a thousand years ago, had several women disciples. Later, Kashmir had great women sages such as Lalleshvari and Rupa Bhavani.

The fact that Kashmiri Hinduism is universal does not mean that social inequity did not exist in Kashmir. Such inequity reflected the social and political ideas of its times and it did not spring from any fundamental religious considerations.

So is Kashmiri Hinduism different from Hinduism elsewhere? The surprising answer is no! There is evidence that there was no caste system in the Vedic times. The BrahmaPurana says that during the golden age (Satya Yuga) everyone was a Brahmana. The famous Purushasukta hymn of the Rigveda (10.90) speaks of the Brahmana, Rajanya (Kshatriya), Vaishya, and Shudra as having sprung from the head, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of Purusha, the primal man. This mention of varnas has been taken to indicate that a caste system existed in the Vedic times. But it is repeatedly mentioned elsewhere that each human is in the image of the Purusha which would indicate that each human internalizes aspects of all the varnas. So the label of a specific varna applied to a person may have implied a certain personality type. Later texts speak of how everyone is a shudra when born, implying that the yajnopavit (mekhala) ceremony was open to everyone. A girdle was also tied in a ceremony to girls.

Many texts proclaim that one's nature alone, and not birth, determines to which varna one belongs. In the famous dialogue between Yudhishthira and Yaksha in the Mahabharata Yudhishthira is asked whether a person is a brahmin based on "birth, learning, or conduct'' and his answer is only "conduct'' makes a person a brahmin and not birth. In the ancient Aryan society the varnas were functional groupings and not closed endogamous birth-descent groups. Basham in his book The Wonder That Was India suggests that the jati system in its modern form developed very late perhaps not before 1000 A.D. The Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang in the seventh century was not aware of it. As a response to historical events one might then credit the emergence of the modern jati system to the next fundamental change in the Indian polity that occurred with the invasions of the Turks.

There is no synonym for caste in any Indian language. The Indian words that caste supposedly translates are jati, which means a large kin-community or descent-group, and varna, which implies a classification based on function. The dynamics between the jatis has been influenced a great deal by historical and political factors. During the periods of economic growth, the jatis have been relatively open-ended; during periods of hardships the jatis have tended to draw in for the sake of survival. The word 'caste' comes from the Portugese casta, a word that was meant to describe the jati system, but slowly it has come to have a much broader connotation.

Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to India about 2,300 years ago, noted the existence of seven classes, namely that of philosophers, peasants, herdsmen, craftsmen and traders, soldiers, government officials and councillors. These classes were apparently jatis.

In its long history India has had diverse social and religious currents. It is only in the exception that the reality has conformed to the theory of the conservative Dharma Shastras. The Vaishnavas emphatically define varna based on one's actions. This is repeated by the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana.

Although jatis may pay lip service to the Brahmin as an intermediary to the gods when it comes to ritual, each caste considers itself to be the highest. If the Brahmins were to be accepted as the highest caste then other castes would have no hesitation in giving their daughters to the Brahmins. But in reality they do not. The Rajputs consider the Brahmins to be other-wordly or plain beggars; the traders consider the Brahmins to be impractical; and so on. In classical Sanskrit plays the fool is always a Brahmin. In other words, each different community has internalized a different outlook on life but these outlooks cannot be placed in any hierarchical ordering. The internalized images of the other must, by its very nature, be a gross simplification and it will never conform exactly to reality.

The French sociologist Louis Dumont claims that the castes are separate but interdependent hereditary groups of occupational specialists. He postulates that the principle of purity-impurity keeps the segments separate from one another. In this system each jati closes its boundaries to lower jatis, refusing them the privileges of intermarriage and other contacts defined to be polluting. Facts belie the Dumont theory: Indian Muslims and Christians also have castes. The eighteenth century German society was divided into princes, nobles, burghers, peasants and serfs between whom no marriage other than morganatic was possible. Korea and Japan also had the practice of untouchability. The Buddhist dogma about non-killing appears to have led to the ostracization of those people whose trades involved hunting, slaughtering animals and so on.

One might wonder why the caste system developed in certin parts of India. It has beeneargued that European and Western traditions, owing to their exclusivist nature, set out to obtain uniform belief and practices. The inclusivist nature of the Indian religions, on the other hand, places each group in a larger system.

The famed Indian scholar M.N. Srinivas pointed out that the process of Sanskritization is responsible for movement within the jati system. Sanskritization implies emulating a dominant caste of any high varna. One should add that there also exists the dynamic of fragmentation.

The social structure of India reflects no single ideology which is why no single theory has proved to be rich enough to describe the system. The system represents several symbiotic ideologies. These ideologies are balanced by political and economic forces. The ideologies of the brahmin, the aristocrat, the trader, and the commoner were all proclaimed to be equivalent in their effectiveness in obtaining knowledge: this was reflected in the paths of jnana yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga, and bhakti yoga. Even festivals like Sarasvati puja, Dassera, Divali, and Holi celebrate the different attitudes.

The Vedas do not sanction the notion of caste as it has been understood in recent times. New technology, science, and political organization is changing the social institutions of India. In many ways the modern Indian castes are no more than the ethnic communities in the West.

To return to the question I posed in the beginning of this note, do Kashmiri Hindus have a caste system. The answer is an emphatic no. Kashmiris are brahmin in the sense of BrahmaPurana, according to which every human, being desirous of knowledge, is a brahmin.

References:

S. Kak, "Understanding caste in India,'' MANKIND QUARTERLY, vol 34, pp. 117-123, 1993.
S. Kak, INDIA AT CENTURY'S END. VOI, New Delhi, 1994.
T.N. Madan, FAMILY AND KINSHIP. OUP, New Delhi, 1965, 1989.
H. Sender, THE KASHMIRI PANDITS. OUP, New Delhi, 1988.

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