Caste Versus Hierarchy

Oriental Imagination

The Orientalists’ ‘Imagination’ of India made Indian intellectuals think in line with the image that they created about India. This is the summary of well-known critics of Orientalism (assuming I have understood those like Ronald Inden, Edward Said and Balagangadhara). I haven’t read Edward Said’s book Orientalism, but when I got Inden’s book (Imagining India, Ronald B. Inden, London, Hurst & Company, (1990), 2000), I kept it away after reading few chapters since I could not follow his thoughts. Later, somehow I completed it.

But when I got hold of S.N. Balagangadhara’s The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the
Dynamic of Religion
(New Delhi, Manohar, 2005), he helped me understand the subject to some extent and I immensely enjoyed that book. When I got his recent book, Reconceptualizing India Studies (New Delhi, Oxford, 2012), I again faced some problem in understanding the rightful criticism of Orientalism. When I saw Inden’s book Text & Practice: Essays on South Asian History in our library, I began to read it to understand this subject in-depth. When I was reading the very first chapter of Orientalist Construction of India, several points become very clear to me. 

But this also created another problem for a student of religious history like me. Inden says, “In many respects the intellectual activities of the Orientalist have even produced in India the very Orient which it constructed in its discourse” (21).

So now when I read any book on India by any Indian or western scholar, the only thought that comes to my mind is, “Are these their original thoughts or just the product of Orientalist intellectual activities?” No Indian or western scholarly writing on any subject on India in the modern time can escape from the direct or indirect influence of the Orientalist’s influence. And if I understood correctly, that is the challenge that Balagangadhara throws before every Indian today.

But when I hear any discourse on any religious subject by regional scholars who are strict followers of their tradition and who have done most of their studies in the strict traditional way, studying only the original sources like Tamil and Sanskrit, I wonder how far their method of ‘explanations’ or ‘interpretations’ remains within the limits of the original text not going beyond the ‘commentative’.

For example, nowadays I listen to three modern Vaishnava acharyas on the Podigai TV channel from 6.30 to 7.15 on their exposition on topics like the Gita (Sri Velukkudi Krishnan), the history of Ramanuja (Sri Ananda Padbanabacharya) and Divyaprabhandam (Dr. Venkata Krishnan). They often quote the original (Sanskrit and Tamil) and then give their explanation and interpretation, often quoting their own traditional commentaries by various acharyas of their sampradaya. I know for sure that they received their training of interpretation and explanation from their orthodox tradition and from a traditional method of learning from their gurus (most probably in gurukulam style). I am not sure how much time they have spent reading books by Indian and Western scholars as I never hear them referring even one author or one such book.

My next problem is one I have observed in our tradition from my boyhood. Many of our views and values which are more influenced by our particular family and community traditions are not at all shaped by the Orientalist construct of India. One example can illustrate my point. We have often heard and even I have written that ‘While bhakti unites, doctrine divides’. And bhakti has become the melting pot for the integration of Indian spirituality where caste and communal discrimination disappears.

In real life though, bhakti helps in many ways to unite the bhaktas of a particular sampradaya overcoming several hurdles that try to divide, yet the hierarchy, particularly based on caste, not only dominates but is also a deciding factor to draw the line between those who could or should lead and who should follow.

For example, in several Mutts and Peets (sectarian monasteries) though they have followers from all kinds of castes, only a person from a particular caste (that too belonging to a particular clan within that caste) can become the Acharya for that Mutt or Peeta. By mentioning this I am not questioning, challenging, or opposing that particular tradition. Who am I to do it? If the followers of that Mutt or Peeta are happy and accept it, then I have no right to question it. This is also the reality in most of the other religions too (like Christianity).

This hierarchy has been documented carefully with proper research from textual traditions by several scholars. As a lay Hindu I have observed this reality still very much alive in most of the sampradayas. But after reading critiques on Orientalism (by Inden, Said and Balagangadhara), I wonder whether these scholars should be trusted or ignored as a mere creation of Oriental influence.

Based on my experience from real life, this textual information collected and produced by scholars, particularly pointing out the supremacy of hierarchy over bhakti is endorsed further. What becomes more crucial to me now is that most of the scholars not only quote from the sources but also give their own comments with added explanations and interpretations. However, Inden’s critique of these activities also looks valid as he says:

…Many Indological texts do not go beyond the commentative. Many others, however, go on to include ‘explanations’ or ‘interpretations’….Just as passages of comment frame those of description in an indological account, so those of secondary revision frame, in turn, the commentative aspects of these texts. The condensation and displacement which the Indologist attributes to the Indian mind in the characterizing passages of his text make the thoughts and practices of the ancient Indian seem alien and stress his difference from the man of the West. Secondary revision in an account of South Asia goes just the other way. It makes the strange and incoherent seem rational or normal. It is, however, not attributed to the Indian mind. The Indologist himself takes credit for providing the orderly façade for Indian practices. Here the scientific theorist—the physical anthropologist, the racial historian, historical materialist, comparative mythologist, social psychologist, historian of religion, structural-functional anthropologist, Parsonian sociologist, or development economist—truly comes into his own. One might also add the theories of the psychoanalyst to this list, for does he not also do the same thing? The difference, of course, is that he claims his ordering of the patient’s material to be rational and not merely a rationalization.

Nearly all of these secondary revisions tend to be monistic, to concentrate on one sort of ‘cause’ or ‘factor’ to the exclusion of others. Which is to say that they are also almost invariably reductionist. Philosophical thought is reduced to the mythical, religion to psychology, the social or political to the economic, and the cultural to the biological…. (27).

Now I feel caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the scholarly books with their commentative interpretations with explanations be accepted or rejected as mere Orient construction by the intellectual activities of the Orientalists or not? When I listen the religious discourses expounded by the traditional acharyas (like Velukkudi Krishnan etc.), they give their commentative interpretations with explanations based on the original text and the commentary by their traditional acharyas that received equal and sometime more reverence and respect than the original scriptures themselves. This is also a part of our religious tradition as noted by Romila Thapar, “Adding opening and closing sections to a text or inserting narratives or what may in origin have been commentarial remarks gradually being integrated into the text, were known procedures.’ (Foreword, in D. Dennis Hudson’s Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond, New Delhi, Oxford, 2010, p. ix.) Can I now reject them as mere ‘reductionist’?

To further illustrate my dilemma of Orientalist constructs of Orientalism and the reality of the Indian tradition in the context of bhakti versus hierarchy, I would like to present four case studies. For me, however bhakti or any other concept works in Hindu worldview, finally it is the hierarchy based on birth (or caste) that decides the final point on tradition. As I already shared, in every Mutt or Peeta only from a particular caste and clan can become the next successor. Even bhakti tradition, which claims to provide the same level playing field for all, finally failed to remove the grip of caste hierarchy when it comes to remove caste discrimination. Apart from bhakti, even accepting a student to learn the Vedas, the same principle is applied as the following four stories show. As I don’t want to add my own commentative interpretations with explanations I quote verbatim from the books:


…the Lord ‘Ranganatha’ then instructed a Brahmin, Loka Saranga Muni, to put the Panar on his shoulders and bring him into the inner sanctum of Srirangam. So, riding on the shoulders of a Brahmin, Tiruppan was brought into the temple. In this way the devotee was rewarded with the sight of the Lord but did not set foot on temple ground. It is not stated, but it is clear that this unusual act of a Brahmin also performed the function of preventing the pollution of the temple floor…. —Eleanor Zelliot & Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, Eds. Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon. New Delhi, Manohar Publishers, 2005. Introduction, p. 17.

Thus, even the physical body of the saint becomes precious to the Lord; the biograhper’s analogy is that just as a perfume bottle is not broken in order to enjoy the perfume, the Lord does not wish to destroy the Alvar’s body to enjoy his soul….—ibid.  The Life and
Lyrics of Tiruppan Alvar
. Vasudha Narayanan, p. 64

…In other words, there is a desire in these life stories to explain away, and not come to terms with his Untouchable status. Given the fact that by the time the biographies were written, Tiruppan was already seen to be an elevated Alvar and was in some cases even venerated in temples, there seems to be a need to demonstrate that this was a unique “Untouchable’, that he is not really a model for other Panars to emulate…..—ibid. p. 65

Although the Srivaishnava community hailed Tiruppan Alvar as the paradigmatic devotee, it did not allow other Untouchables to enter the temples. Tiruppan Alvar, like Antal the woman devotee, was (p.73) considered to be an exception to the normal social order….—ibid. pp. 73-74.

There are many isolated incidents to show that at least in spirit, if not in actual practice, the Srivaishnava community tried to uphold the notion of the equality of devotees over caste hierarchy. But when it came to communal issues like temple worship, where more than one religious tradition was involved, and where a strong brahminical resistance was encountered, traditional views of caste purity and impurity won over….—ibid. p. 74

…Certainly, theological treatises speak of the greatness of bhakti and the supremacy of all devotees. Some teachers like Pillai Lokacharya say in the Sri Vachana Bhusanam that Tiruppan Alvar is higher than all other devotees. A curious reason is given for this; the author says that every Srivaishnava should know that he is the sesa, the servant, the (p.74) slave, one owned by the Lord, and a high-caste devotee has to assume this lowly role, which may not be natural to him. But Tiruppa’s lowliness was ‘natural’; he did not have to assume it and he knew more easily than the others what it was like to be a humble slave. A similar argument is made by a different theologian about the superiority of Antal’s love for the Lord; she spoke naturally from a woman’s place, but the men had to assume this attitude. These are, at best, back handed compliments and reinforce the assumptions of the audience regarding the lowliness of the lower castes and women.—ibid. pp. 74-75


[Nandanar, who was a Harijan (Dalit) was finally allowed to enter the temple by the Brahmins as instructed by Natarana in their dream. But for this he has to go through fire (ordeal?). So the fire was made and when Nandanar went through it, he came out as a purified ‘Brahmins’. –db]

…Despite the protest against caste hierarchy, the Saiva bhakti did not do away with the caste system per se and the hagiographical stories make it clear that what was emphasized was equality as a fraternity of devotees, given their caste status, which became converted into ritual ranking in temple worship. This is most poignantly underlined in the story of Nandan, the paraiya, who was denied entry into the temple till he was purified by fire and changed into a member of a purer caste (in this case a brahmana!) — Introduction: The Making of a Religious Tradition: Perspectives from Pre-Colonial South India. 1-50, in — Champakalakshmi, Religion, Tradition, and Ideology: Pre-colonial South India, Oxford, New Delhi (2011), 2012, p. 22.

…The propagators {of bhakti} came mainly from the upper strata or castes, but the movement acquired a popular character with the inclusion, in the hagiological works of the eleventh-twelfth centuries AD, of the members of the unprivileged socio-economic groups, like the potter, weaver, bard, washerman, hunter and the untouchable (paraiya). Interestingly, the brahmana remained the only medium through which initiation into religion and salvation could take place, as is revealed by the story of Nandan the paraiya whose purification by the brahmanas was necessary for salvation. — Champakalakshmi, Religion, Tradition, and Ideology: Pre-colonial South India, Oxford, New Delhi (2011), 2012 ‘Ideology and the State in South India,’ in ibid. p. 621


Satyakama Jabala

…Satyakama grew up with his mother Jabala [Chandogya Upanisad], and he wanted to have an education.  He approached the well-known teacher of his time, Sage Gautama, for initiation and to join the groups of pupils. For the initiation ritual, Gautama wanted to know the name of Satyakama’s father or his gotra, that is, his family name. Unfortunately, Satyakama did not know who his father was. He said that he would come back after asking his mother. But Jabala had been a maid who had had to sell her body in order to survive. Thus, she did not know the name of Satyakama’s father. Jabala told this to Satyakama, who went back to teacher Gautama and told the truth about his birth in the presence of all the other young pupils. There was a ripple of suppressed laughter out of contempt from the assembled pupils. But Gautama had to make a decision—a moral decision. He got up, embraced the boy and announced: ‘Now I have no doubt that you belong to the highest caste, that you are a brahmin, for such courage, firmness and truth-fulness can only be the constitutive qualities of a brahmin. I would accept your mother’s name as your family name. You will hence forth be called Satyakama Jabala. Come, I will initiate you.’ {Chandogya Upanisad 4.4, in The Principal Upanisads with Samkara Bhasya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1964)} Jabala Satyakama became a famous Upanisadic sage…. — Jonardon Ganeri, ed.  The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Epics, New Delhi, Oxford, 2002, p. 53

…By accepting S.J., {Satyakama Jabala} the teacher added fuel to two beliefs that imply each other: the belief that he accepted a brahman pupil and the belief of all brahmans that all brahmans always speak the truth—that is why they are wise men, not on account of birth. — Frits Staal, Discovering the Vedas, Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2008. p. 167



[This one is from Mahabharata. Most of you might know the famous story of a Brahmin Kunshika, who was rebuked by a woman for his anger and advised to go and learn virtue from a fowler. And when Kunshika listen carefully all he was overwhelmed by the knowledge of a shudra hunter and eagerly asks who actually he is or was. And in response the fowler makes this confession to Kunshika–db]

[Kunshika to Fowler]:–18. …No vicious-minded man can ever expound the mysteries of virtue and vice. 19. As it is very difficult for a Sudra to learn the mysteries of eternal religion.  I do not consider you to be a Sudra. There must be some reason for all this. 20. You must have been born as a Sudra as a result of your past Karma (in a previous birth). O high-souled one, I eagerly desire to learn truth of this matter.  Tell this to me with attention and according to your inclination.

[Fowler to Kunshika]… 22. …I was a Brahmana previously (in my another birth); I was well-read in the Vedas and learned in the Vedangs. 23. Through my own fault I have been degraded to my present state…. — M.N. [Manmatha Nath] Dutt, Mahabharata, Delhi, Parimala Publications, 1988. 7 volumes, .vol. 2, Vanaparva, Ch. CCXIV. p. 323


This being the (caste) reality of India, Inden says:

Caste, … is assumed to be the ‘essence’ of Indian civilization. People in India are not even partially autonomous agents. They do not shape and reshape their world.  Rather they are the patients of that which makes them Indians—the social, material reality of caste. The people of India are not the makers of their own history.  A hidden, substantialized Agent, Caste, is the maker of it.  (p.41).

I am not a scholar on the controversial topic of ‘caste’. But my approach to understand Hinduism is to begin who a Hindu is.  And my simple, elementary lay person’s perspective is: A Hindu is a member of a particular community (caste) irrespective of his/her faith in a particular deity’.  Hindu identity is more of caste than faith is further endorsed by the recent interview by an atheist activist lawyer Arulmozhi of Tamilnadu.

Let me quote here first in from the original:

நமது நாட்டில் இருக்கிற நாத்திகர்கள் அனைவரும் இந்து சட்டத்திற்கு
கட்டுப்பட்டவர்கள். அதனால், சட்டப்படி நாங்கள் இந்துக்கள்தான்.  எனவே,
இதை இந்து மதத்திலேயே உள்ள பெண்ணுரிமைப் புரட்சி என அவர்கள் எடுத்துக்
கொள்ளலாம்’. (அருள்மொழி) — பதற்றத்தை கிளப்பும் ’தாலி அகற்றும் விழா’,
குமுதம் ரிப்போர்டர், 03-04-2015, pp. 10-12, p.12

‘All atheists in our country are bound by the Hindu (personal) law. Therefore according to law we are Hindus. Therefore they could take this as a revolution for woman’s right within Hinduism’. (Arulmozhi) — Tension created by the arrangement to remove ‘thali’, Kumudam Reporter, 03-04-2015, pp. 10-12, p. 12.

Arulmozhi says this when the Right wing Hindu activities like Vishva Hindu Parishat leaders (Arjun Sambat), challenged them whether they could do such revolution to remove the veil by Muslim women.

Even in my personal life as a Sannyasi I encountered this ‘INDIAN REALITY’ which Inden refutes. When I was at Gangotri staying in an ashram one woman Sannyasini asked to which caste my body belonged? When I questioned her about asking the caste of a sannyasi she
responded, “That is true Swamiji. But in your previous stage before you become a sannyasi, you were born in a particular caste and your body belongs to it. That is why I asked that question.” The context for her to ask such a question is worth nothing. She said that one Swamiji in Rajastan has constructed a big temple with a big Shiva linga. He is disparately searching for another sannyasi who should have born in a Brahmin family. She requested me to visit
him, if I ever go to Rajastan.

This being the Indian or Hindu reality, we don’t need any intellectual activities of any Orientalists to create any ‘imagination about India’. Particularly lay people and ordinary student of Hinduism like me, know this Indian/Hindu reality based on our life experience as well as textual evidence before we come across such writings by the Orientalists and their critics.

As a lay student of Hinduism, any such objective analysis on India is both overwhelming and helping me. However, when I read the other side of the coin viz., critiquing the critic, I am bit perplexed whose view to follow.  For example, I already quoted Inden said that, ‘…Many Indological texts do not go beyond the commentative. Many others, however, go on to include ‘explanations’ or ‘interpretations’.  But as I observed by listening various religious discourses from my boyhood as well as reading many books on Hinduism I know that it is not only the ‘indoloigcal’ text but our own texts—including the original scriptures, commentaries and digests do the same. I cannot understand what is wrong with it and how one is going to understand the original text without such comments, explanation and interpretation. So however Inden may (rightly) criticize the ‘commentative’, ’explanations or ‘interpretations’, I think no one can avoid this on any subject. And I find a meaningful correction by Richard Kings’ critic on Inden on this point as he says:

…Explanations are necessary because Indian culture is different from Western culture in many respects; rejecting Orientalist projections of an ‘Other’ will not smooth over these differences. Providing an insightful account of Indian thought for the Western reader, while it may involve some distortion of the material under consideration, is necessary for this reason and not because Europeans are superior or more rational than Indians….—— Richard King, Orientalism and Religion, Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ New Delhi, Oxford, 1999.  pp. 90-91.

Leave the Western reader, even the Indian reader cannot understand any of our text without the art of commentative interpretation with explanation.

Hierarchization is an Indian reality, which one can observe in real life as well in the religious (or any) tradition in India.  This is more a visible fact when it comes to bhakti versus caste.  Of course though bhakti failed to eradicate all kinds of differences, particularly sociological ones, it provided a beginning for those individual bhaktas to workout collectively to provide a level playing field to all other bhaktas, if not in every sampradaya, but at least in one’s own if they are seriously committed to their bhakti as well as to the philosophy/theology of their own sampradaya. Accepting outsiders ‘objective’ observance, however prejudiced they are due to their subjective understanding of about us (Indology or Orientalism) and insiders ‘subjective’ criticism, now it is left to us to be overwhelmed by any Indological studies.