Jati and Varna – What is the problem?

We seem to love running around in half circles on the question of “caste”. The HAF disaster is only the latest in a series of flip flops. Firstly, that’s the wrong term to use. Secondly and however, this term has been used by a number of Hindu scholars who should have known better. I have to wonder why so many intelligent folk thought it was alright to use “caste” interchangeably with Jati and even Varna; with the latter two not being the same as each other and wholly different from the former?

Caste is something rigid. Jati and Varna are not; in the sense individuals donning these robes need not don the same all their lives. Commentators have taken to saying “in the beginning there were just four castes and then they became so numerous”. This is fiction. When one realizes the substance of the four Varnas, they are striking in their relevance to any social milieu; even in modern times. Jatis on the other hand are endogamous groups built around similar occupations. One can rightly say “you can group some Jatis around a Varna because they correspond with that Varna or with those Varnas”. So when such groups stay together longer doing similar things, they develop unique habits, traditions and customs around the lives they lead which in turn lead them to feel comfortable inter -marrying within their Jatis. These are the inherited and practiced unique habits, traditions and customs that stay on even when members of a Jati switch occupations. Therefore, in this sense alone are they still members of their Jatis although their Varna might have changed. Sometimes, simply the conscious experience of belonging to a Jati in an individual is enough to be considered its part.

Some people think inter-marrying and inter-dining can break Jati. The supposition is that when different Jatis come into such close contact with each other, they can no longer defend their uniqueness. I think the argument is false. Marrying and dining within a Jati may be a consequence of the nature of Jatis but they are hardly the substance and life of it. There are mixed couples that simply choose to follow one tradition, or both with their respective extended families. Inter-dining happens all the time in towns and cities, but has never known to break Jati. Where else in the world will you find a wife who will cook meat for her husband but will not consume the same herself because it goes against her custom? So where is the problem?

I think the problem is in our modernist liberal conception of Jati and Varna as inherently rigidly evil because they seemingly deny “individual rights”. They are neither rigid nor evil. We often hear people say Jati causes negative discrimination. I don’t think it is Jati that causes negative discrimination. It is lack of education and being blind to or being denied opportunities that cause them. It is also a sense of “probable loss” that causes discrimination especially when the ecosystem has gotten used to getting economic benefits out a particular Jati in its current occupation. For instance, this is very true of scavengers.

Some people claim that the Dalit movement is anti-Jati. There can never be an assertion more false. The very basis of the Dalit movement is Jati mobilization. The so known “Untouchable” Jatis are mobilized for common purposes and goals, be they political power or economic uplift. Of course ideologies vary but Jati is the common factor. How can a movement built around Jati be anti-Jati?

In closing, I think there are some things we must think about –

• How do we get commoners and public intellectuals talking about Jati and Varna as they are and not how they have been beaten out of shape by interested parties?

• A positive aura around Jati and Varna discourse can only be created when we engage these very real concepts in our regular discussions. On the other hand, the more we ignore or hide it, the more we give way to ignorant, negative and anti-Hindu forces.

• How can we then use the undeniably real power that Jati engenders in Hindus constructively?

• How do we disconnect the intra-Hindu discourse of fighting against negative discrimination from taking on unrealistic and truly fictional anti-Jati overtones?

Most importantly, how do we politically empower Jatis and Janajatis (Tribes) and help them represent themselves in our Hindu National polity?

In Hindusthan, we need to contend with a dualism in any picture on social issues – one created by influential liberal modernists who are out of touch with the Traditional mass. The other being painted everyday by this very mass who have ceased to listen to these liberal modernists.

– Namaste

7 Responses

  1. What is the reason for saying that Jati and Varna are not rigid? Thanks.

  2. They are not rigid conceptually; therefore are flexible in practice.

    We witness it everyday.

  3. Actually, the more I see, the more I agree with you.
    A thought: Could Varna be more defined and national, whereas jati more fluid and local (different customs, food habits,certain common prayers etc etc)?

  4. seadog4227 – As it stands, Varna is “national and defined”. This is true for Jatis although not Janajatis who remain outside of Varna Vyavastha by choice.

    The lack of acknowledgment of this fact arises from primarily three reasons –

    1. Total absense of positive discourse in our public life.

    2. The preponderance of Jati identification by Hindus and the absense of any Varna identification except – see below..

    3. The habit of “Brahmins” in identifying themseves as such whether it is appropriate of not. There is no Jati such as “Brahmin” but only the Varna, Brahmana.

    The groups that took on Brahmanical professions had Jati identities; they still do. However, many of their professions by and large have become non-Brahmanical. Therefore it is more appropriate for them to accept Varnas that reflect their professions.

    For instance, I am an Arvel Niyogi by Jati. Historically, we branched off into Kshatriya professions and now, I am in a service industry closer to Vyshya/Shudra Varnas. It would indeed be a travesty to call myself a Brahmana.

  5. 1) Yes, a healthy discourse would be most beneficial.
    2)Yes, there does appear to be much more “jati” identification than varna identification. Even,for example,it is common that a shopkeeper will say “vaishya jati” but not “vaishya varna”.There is a general misuse and mixed use of “jati” and “varna”.
    3) Your personal issue: despite your job due to the circumstances of this age, your other practices are not known. Your writing indicates high thinking and clarity. For example, in the Tamil Brahmin community, it was a completely accepted fact that the job was a means to continue other Brahmin practices. The job was done to the best of one’s ability, and then other practices, such as constant learning and practicing, was continued.
    Lastly, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s illustration: He fell seriously ill and could not be treated. No Brahmins of calibre were found in that era itself. Mahaprabhu said ” A cow does not cease to be a cow because it stops giving milk”.
    As you think, so you are!

  6. seadog4227 –

    “For example, in the Tamil Brahmin community, it was a completely accepted fact that the job was a means to continue other Brahmin practices. The job was done to the best of one’s ability, and then other practices, such as constant learning and practicing, was continued.”

    – Consider the fact that these are Brahmanical Jati based practices. Consider also that the numerous of “Brahmins”, who do not practice Brahmanical professions nor live its lifestyle call themselves “Brahmins” by misplaced right, thereby implying of the Brahmana Varna.

    Then consider other Jati members who may profess Brahmanical professions and practices, do not or cannot own the Brahmana Varna – and you will realize some things need to inherently change.

    Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s illustration as you have said it seems misplaced in that the Cow is a seperate species and may not be compared with a Bison. “A” Cow may not give milk but there are other Cows that still can.

    Though our castes and our institutions are apparently linked with our religion, they are not so. These institutions have been necessary to protect us as a nation, and when this necessity for self-preservation will no more exist, they will die a natural death. In religion there is no caste. A man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta.
    Caste is a social custom, and all our great preachers have tried to break it down. From Buddhism downwards, every sect has preached against caste, and every time it has only riveted the chains. Beginning from Buddha to Rammohan Ray, everyone made the mistake of holding caste to be a religious institution and tried to pull down religion and caste altogether, and failed.
    In spite of all the ravings of the priests, caste is simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to people their lost social individuality. Caste is simply the outgrowth of the political institutions of India; it is a hereditary trade guild. Trade competition with Europe has broken caste more than any teaching.
    The older I grow, the better I seem to think of caste and such other time-honored institutions of India. There was a time when I used to think that many of them were useless and worthless, but the older I grow, the more I seem to feel a difference in cursing any one of them, for each one of them is the embodiment of the experience of centuries.
    A child of but yesterday, destined to die the day after tomorrow, comes to me and asks me to change all my plans and if I hear the advice of that baby and change all my surroundings according to his ideas I myself should be a fool, and no one else. Much of the advice that is coming to us from different countries is similar to this. Tell these wiseacres, “I will hear you when you have made a stable society yourselves. You cannot hold on to one idea for two days, you quarrel and fail; you are born like moths in the spring and die like them in five minutes. You come up like bubbles and burst like bubbles too. First form a stable society like ours. First make laws and institutions that remains undiminished in their power through scores of centuries. Then will be the time to talk on the subject with you, but till then, my friend, you are only a giddy child.” Caste is a very good thing.
    Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan.

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