Book Review: Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development By Dr. BR Ambedkar

Nitheesh Narayanan

years have passed since the audience of Columbia
University listened to the
presentation of the paper “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and
Development” by Dr. BR Ambedkar in an Anthropology seminar on 9th
May 1916. This, probably, will be the first academic work of Ambedkar on Caste.
The paper carries on relevance even after one century of advanced developments,
research bombarding and the experiences of changing social characteristics. It
is this relevance that keeps the work significant, while studying the Caste
system in India.
It is also a powerful account of Ambedkar’s understanding of different social
problems. Reading this text is also an active engagement at the time of heated
debate around ‘appropriating Ambedkar.’  

before concluding the long presentation, Ambedkar drew the attention to the
approach which needs to be adopted, to study Caste. It is also equally
important for all studies on any subject. Ambedkar reminds that “we must guard against approaching the
subject with a bias. Sentiment must be outlawed from the domain of science, and
things should be judged from an objective standpoint.”
And this paper is an
exhibition of the approach Ambedkar was talking about.

long as caste is not understood correctly, annihilating it will be an
impossible task.   Ambedkar deals with
the question of caste as a subject with complexities. These elements which make
it complicated to comprehend may also be propagated and constructed in various
ways. That is why establishing the real character and also exposing these
constructions becomes a major task. This is the spirit of his undelivered
speech “Annihilation of Caste” and many other works. He quotes Ketkar, “as long as caste in India does
exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with
outsiders, and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste will
become a world problem

gives a short ethnologic explanation of Indian population which is vital to
trace the Ambedkar’s understanding of the nation, India. He upholds that it is a
mixture of Aryans, Dravidians, Mongolians and Scythians who came to India with
different cultures, centuries ago when they were in the tribal state. This can
also be read as a counter to the argument that Ambedkar was in the position
that Aryan invasion was a false notion. This has no valid ground. What Ambedkar
meant was that the invasion was not an aggressive one through the military but
a non-violent infiltration. Reading ‘Castes in India’ will be a fruitful exercise
to understand the ways through which this infiltration has happened.

common culture is evolved in India
through constant contact and mutual intercourse. There was no thorough
Amalgamation (merger) of the diverse population. But measuring homogeneity only
through the lens of the mere amount of merger of different cultures will be a
futile exercise. Ethnically all people are heterogeneous. It is the unity of
culture that is the basis of homogeneity. It needs to be underlined that he
doesn’t glorify the way this integration takes place or uphold it as something
to be preserved, but stressed. He articulates that it is this homogeneity which
makes caste difficult to explain.

dealing with the then existing scholarships on caste, Ambedkar successfully
described how the different definitions are inadequate to identify with caste
in an accurate way.

a French authority, defines caste as ‘a close corporation, in theory at any
rate rigorously hereditary: equipped with certain traditional and independent
organization, including a chief and a council, meeting on occasion in
assemblies of more or less plenary authority and joining together at certain
festivals: bound together by common occupations, which relate more particularly
to marriage and to food and to questions of ceremonial pollution, and ruling
its members by the exercise of jurisdiction, the extent of which varies, but
which succeeds in making the authority of the community more felt by the
sanction of certain penalties, and above all, by final irrevocable exclusion
from the group’

comments that Senart draws attention to the ‘idea of pollution’ as a
characteristic of caste. But by no means, it’s a peculiarity of caste. It
originates in priestly ceremonialism. The ‘idea of pollution’ has been attached
to the institution of caste, only because the caste that enjoys the highest
rank is the priestly caste, while we know that priest and purity are old associates.
Therefore the idea of pollution is a characteristic of caste only so far as
caste has a religious flavor.

defines caste as a ‘class of the community which disowns any connection with
any other class and can neither intermarry nor eat nor drink with any but
persons of their community. Ambedkar says he has mistaken the effect for the
cause. Caste, being the self-enclosed unit naturally limits social intercourse,
including messing, etc. to members within it. The absence of messing with
outsiders is a natural result of caste, i.e. exclusiveness.

H. Risley opines ‘A caste may be defined as a collection of families or groups
of families bearing a common name which usually denotes or is associated with
specific occupation, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or
divine, professing to follow the same professional calling and are regarded by
those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous
community. Ambedkar opined that Risley makes no new point deserving of special

Ketkar defines caste as ‘a social group having two characteristics 1)
Membership- by birth 2) prohibition of intermarriage. Ambedkar argues that they
are not two different things. If you prohibit intermarriage, the result is that
you limit membership to those born within the group. Ambedkar finds his
definition merits consideration, for he has defined caste in its relation to a
system of castes, and has concentrated his attention only on those
characteristics which are necessary for the existence of a caste within a
system, rightly excluding all others as being secondary or derivative in

criticizes all three definitions pointing that definitions are taking caste as
a separate unit by itself, and not as a group within, and with definite
relations to, the system of castes as a whole.

dealing with the different scholars on caste, why did Ambedkar not comment on
Jotirao Phule, may arise as a question. It acquires validity on various
grounds. Both of them are from Maharashtra.
Ambedkar is linked with Phule in the same row of fighting for the oppressed and
writing on caste. Phule died on 1890 and Ambedkar was born in the next year,
1891. It is unbelievable that Phule was unknown to Ambedkar at that time
considering their engagements in the problem as activists. I can draw two
reasons out of assumption for this lapse. One is a general doubt that the
writings of Phule might not have circulated widely so that Ambedkar had no access
to it that time. Phule was not familiar in the academic sphere of caste since
his writings were in Marathi; so that Ambedkar did not want to take the name of
an unknown person can also be a reason. Later, Ambedkar dedicated his work “Who
were the shudras?” to Jotirao Phule. There can be many points traced in both
their writings which can easily be linked, especially while dealing the
mechanism of caste. 

articulates that Caste in India
means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite
units, each one prevented from fusing into another through endogamy. Endogamy
is the only characteristic that is peculiar to caste. How it is maintained is
the answer for its genesis and mechanism. It is different from the case of Negroes,
whites and various tribal groups in the United
States because people of India form a homogenous whole or
cultural unity. And in the later part, towards the end, he criticizes the
European scholars who committed a mistake in dealing with the issue of caste
with colour prejudices or linking it with race.

finds exogamy has survived in India
longer than any other civilization. The various Gotras in India are and
have been exogamous. So, the superposition of endogamy on exogamy becomes a
matter of research. And it is the creation of caste. There could be no caste in
exogamy being the rule. Exogamy means fusion. The caste system finds its
existence in the absence of fusion.

the conditions of a group turning into a caste there is a need to have a balance
in the number of the two sexes and also matrimonial rights are to be provided.
The problem of caste, then, ultimately resolves itself into one of repairing
the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes within it. What
happens in the case of a surplus women or surplus man (Widow and Widower)? If
he or she marries from outside the caste, it will break the endogamy which is
the base of maintaining castes.

importantly while dealing with this issue, Ambedkar articulates the deep-rooted
patriarchy associated with the system. ‘Annihilation of Caste’ can be treated
as an elaborated version of these findings. He approaches the Caste question as
a problem of women also as much as that of the lower castes. The caste system
is not something which only oppresses the aspirations and rights of a
particular section in the hierarchical caste structure, but divisions within
the castes also get imprisoned by it. 

are two ways to handle the problem of surplus women to preserve the endogamy of
the caste. First, burn her on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband and get
rid of her. It will not cause breaking the endogamy or lead to sex disparity.
The second remedy is to enforce widowhood on her for the rest of her life.

gets the benefit of the masculinity and is also provided with real options. The
caste interest to keep him as a ‘grihasta’ makes imposing celibacy an
impossible choice. Such a situation ends in finding the solution in girl child
marriage. So there are four ways to maintain the numerical equality between the
sexes in the same caste 1) Burning the surplus women, widow 2) compulsory
widowhood- Ambedkar call it as a milder form of burning 3) imposing celibacy on
the widower 4) wedding him to a girl not yet marriageable. This is, in general,
the mechanism of the caste. In short, caste is oppressive to all women, irrespective
of which caste they belonging to.

Enforced widowhood, Child marriage becomes the customs of Hindu society. They
were honored because they were practiced and the castes go on along with these
practices to solve the problems.  Phule said
that Varna and
Caste systems were the products of the Brahmins drilling into the minds of the
Shudradishudras through the Shastras and ritual practices and that these
institutions were divinely constituted.

makes crucial observations on caste and class. He stresses that society is
always composed of classes.

It may be exaggeration to assert the theory
of class-conflict, but the existence of definite classes in a society is a
fact. Their basis may differ. They may be economic or intellectual or social,
but an individual in a society is a member of a class. This is a universal fact
and early Hindu society could not have been an exception to this rule, and, as
a matter of fact, we know it was not. If we bear this generalization in mind ,
our study of the genesis of caste would be very much facilitated, for we have
only to determine what was the class that first made itself into a caste, for
class and caste, so to say, are next door neighbors, and it is only a span that
separates the two. A caste is an enclosed class.”

is the class that raised this ‘enclosure’ around itself? This provides an
important observation on the study of the subject. These customs in all their
strictness are obtainable only in one caste, namely the Brahmins, who occupy
the highest place in the social hierarchy of the Hindu society. Their
prevalence in non-Brahmin caste is derivative; their observance is neither
strict nor complete. It is absolutely clear which Class is the father of the
institution of caste. He argues, the strict observance of these customs and
social superiority arrogated by the priestly class in all ancient civilizations
are sufficient to prove that they were the originators of these ‘unnatural
institution’ founded and maintained through these unnatural means. Marx has
also cited the blocking of the labour mobility in Indian society. Even though
the mobility is blocked also in a class society, this ‘enclosing’ has become a
law in caste society. 

did the institution of caste spread among the rest of the non-Brahmin
population of the country? The genesis and development or origin and spread are
not separated. He does not believe Brahmins or Manu created the theory of
caste. Manu did not give the law of caste and that he could not do so. Caste
existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and philosophized it. His
work ended up with the codification of existing caste rules and the preaching
of caste dharma. The spread and growth of the caste system are too gigantic a
task to be achieved by the power of cunning of an individual or of a class. So,
even the theory that the Brahmins created caste is not correct. They might have
helped the process by their glib philosophy, but imposing the caste system on
the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle.

Class groups emerge as Caste groups when the mobility provided by the earlier
is blocked. While becoming the open door characteristic of sub-division of a
class into the self-enclosed units called castes some closed the door, and
others found it closed against them. Sub-divisions or classes became
self-enclosed or endogamous because the Brahmins were so. It was
whole-heartedly imitated by the non-Brahmin subdivisions or classes. It is the
scientific studies of anthropologists including Gabriel Tarde, who lays down
different laws of imitation; Ambedkar depends on to get validation of his
arguments. The laws of imitation, flowing from higher to lower and distance
create a difference, is an excellent account of understanding the development
of caste. 

in the singular number is an unreality. Castes exist only in the plural number
and in connection. Caste becomes different from the race on this ground. Even
though not elaborating, Ambedkar seems confident to state Caste is almost
impossible to be sustained, for the difficulties that it involves are
tremendous. Marx has said the same about capitalism looking at the internal
conflicts it produces. Ambedkar deals with those problems in detail in
‘Annihilation of Caste’ along with stressing how large, but important the task
of eliminating the evil, caste system is. This text will also be remembered and
referred for many more centuries to come, for generating this hope. But this
mission must not be underestimated since the caste is strictly accompanying the
society in all its changes over time. Understanding caste in the era of globalization
becomes necessary on this ground. No doubt, Ambedkar
provides an active material for such engagement. 

The Author is doing his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi