Indian caste system is a western construct, says scholar at ICHR lecture

He said that the caste system was only a "grand assumption", as there is ambiguity about the origins of such a system in India.

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi | Updated: November 12, 2016 9:19 am

India has castes, but not a caste system. The latter is only a western construct, which helped Europeans come to terms with their experience of Indian culture and society, Dr Prakash Shah told his audience at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) on Wednesday.

His questioning of the existence of a caste system in India was part of a lecture series organised by ICHR, which is the apex body for funding historical research in the country.

Shah, a reader of culture and law at Queen Mary University of London, said the caste system and the rules of hierarchy, endogamy, ritual purity and untouchability associated with it were only a “grand assumption”, as there is ambiguity about the origins of such a system in India. His lecture was based on his upcoming book ‘Western Foundation of Caste System’, which he has co-edited with three other scholars.

“We cannot say with clarity what a caste system is and, certainly, we cannot say with any clarity what the Indian caste system is. We also don’t know whether these (ritual purity, endogamy, untouchability, etc) are constituent elements or the consequences of the caste system. For example, violence. Do I need to say that violence is an integral element of the caste system or is it an outcome of something that already exists?” he asked his audience.
Indians, he further said, accepted the colonial theory of caste system, which was questioned even by European scholars in the 19th century. “In the 19th century even European scholars were disagreeing about even the possibility that a pan-Indian caste system could ever had arisen… With such a diversity in cultures and languages, how is it possible that a single alleged priestly class could exercise its influence over the length and breadth of the subcontinent to such a degree that it could introduce a singular caste system throughout this culture? They used to ask that question with a great deal of seriousness. But today we the existence of a pan-Indian caste system for granted.”

In another argument to bolster his case for the absence of caste system in India, Shah said that Buddhism and Bhakti movements were not anti-caste movements. “There is one sutra that talks about the Buddha and this discussion he is having on what does it require to be a true Brahmin. When you examine that you realise that this (Buddhism) is not an anti-caste thing at all. Actually the discussion in the ancient days was about who is a true Brahmin. It’s not about destabilising some kind of idea of caste or the caste system that may have existed at that time at all. So we can’t reduce the Buddha as an exemplary anti-caste activist.”

Referring to a chapter on caste violence in his book, Shah questioned the idea of oppression that is associated with the caste system. He claimed that official data on caste-related violence in the country showed the proportion of SCs and STs who experience atrocities (against each other or by members of another group) is disproportionately less than the violence experienced by members of other groups.

When asked how he would explain the violence or discrimination directed at Dalits if there is no caste system in India, he said, “I am not neglecting or dismissing claims that there are injustices in Indian society… Don’t all societies have injustices? Let’s go and research them. But let’s not assume that the caste system is a necessary explanation for the kinds of ills we see.”

As for Indians who believe in the caste system, he said, “I would say that is part of the acceptance of the colonial story. (SN) Balagangadhara (of Ghent University, Belgium) describes it as a form of colonial consciousness which underwrites the claim of immorality. We generally accept that. It’s not an inferiority complex. Because the European cultural claims about the Indian society are essentially normative in nature, they are bound to put Indians in an inferior moral position. They also put the westerners in a morally superior position. That’s part and parcel of the baggage that we’ve been made to accept since colonial period. We have accepted this story because of the force of the colonial violence.”

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App

  1. K
    Apr 23, 2017 at 1:09 am
    This is ghor kal yug as said by orthodox hindus. This is biggest lie of this century you . I am literature student who has read a lot of historical scriptures and i can tell you that what you are saying is the biggest LIE ever spoken. Scriptures reaching as far as Mahabharta has mentions of caste system. Please dont lie to blame others.
    1. B
      Bolton Miller
      Mar 21, 2017 at 5:50 am
      Cybil Penning is correct. i think its strategy for world's weaker nations. They mixed up spirituality with religion in d same as path with destination. i read some article of indian caste system
      1. C
        Cybil Penning
        Mar 11, 2017 at 3:01 pm
        Nice exposition. Kindly write it in detail in an article for wider information.
        1. C
          Cybil Penning
          Mar 11, 2017 at 2:58 pm
          This caste system in India is a well designed strategic construct by White European colonists to deceive, divide and rule India and rest of world's weaker nations. White rulers should retrospect on their character without morality of human ethics. Hinduism always believed in equality of ppl and universal brotherhood unlike Abahamic religions of limited understanding of spirituality. They mixed up spirituality with religion in d same as path with destination. Religion is a path for achieving destination of spirituality in "ENLIGHTENMENT".
          1. P
            Prem Duggal
            Nov 12, 2016 at 12:43 pm
            The w theory is to make caste system look less evil.
            1. A
              Nov 13, 2016 at 12:41 pm
              sure. sure sure sure. sure sure.
              1. A
                Nov 14, 2016 at 10:25 am
                Dr Prakash Shah was invited by the ICHR with clear objective to provide an interpretation of caste that suits the current regime guiding and regulating the Council. This trend is being promoted by the political establishment to impress the ex-untouchables to believe that they are Hindus and their harmful social status is the result of the colonial rulers' design. lt;br/gt;Dr Shah and his ilks do not relish question about why did seers and sages like Manu, Yajyavalka, Parasar, Narad, Vishu laid so much stress on gradation of men in heirarchical order? Did they precede the East India Company or succeed? The distinguished scolar may please explain how does he view Manu's fatwa:lt;br/gt;“Know that a Brahmana of ten years and Kshatriya of a hundred years stand to each other in the relation of father and son; but between those two the Brahmana is the father.”1lt;br/gt;—Manu, Ch. II. 135lt;br/gt;Did British tell Manu to prescribe illegitimate liason between Brahman women and Sudra men to produce Chandal, a mixed caste?” How come Manu, with tail between the legs, obe the colonists without demur? lt;br/gt;In 1997, when India celebrated 50 years of independence a Paris University Professor visited me at Patna. He was working on lien with Le Monde, a leading French daily. He was in India to study progress the country made in five decades of;br/gt;lt;br/gt;While discussion on caste came up he prefaced by saying, “I know caste is on its last leg.” lt;br/gt;“Who told you?” I demanded to;br/gt;He brought out some impressive looking books in French written by scholars who claimed that caste from India was almost out to support his;br/gt;I asked him, “Do any of the scholars refer to Dr Ambedkar?” He replied in the negative. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Dr Shah may tell us when a girl in a moving night bus in Delhi highroad in 2012 was raped by few young men, the public knocked in a day or two the doors of Rashtrapai Bhawan, PM's 7 RCR, Delhi Chief Minister and Delhi Police Commissioner who were readily avaiable to redress the aggrieved rape victim. The women, dubbing artist in Kerala was raped by her husband's friends in 2014 on sly that he was hospitalized having been met with;br/gt;The investigating Police Inspector, after two years of the crime, was asking her who of the rapists was most enjoyable? Nobody was shocked and no head;br/gt;Is it the result of system of caste or just of caste induced by British?
                1. D
                  Devendra Wasnik
                  Nov 18, 2016 at 3:28 pm
                  please see this video then then try to deny that there,s no caste system,,,,,,
                  1. Load More Comments