In the future, will caste in India survive, or will it become annihilated as visualised by B R Ambedkar and others? In fact, the answer to this potent question depends far more on whether Hinduism itself will survive or slowly die out. As a religion, Hinduism established no moral philosophical foundation for human egalitarianism. It is for this reason, and the subsequent ramifications of caste and ‘untouchability’, that Hinduism in the modern era has been losing ground to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism – eventually resulting in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan being carved out of the Subcontinent. Indeed, the modern expansion of Islam (as well as Christianity in South and Northeast India, and the Navayana Buddhism that Ambedkar established) is essentially rooted in its expansion into the Hindu, caste-based Southasian region. Around the early 19th century, the homogenisation of Hinduism began to take place, as the name ‘Hindu’ was given to an already caste-based but still largely unorganised Indian society. Thereafter, the sense of spiritual rights (that is, to have equal rights even in religion) among oppressed castes began to increase, leading to the widespread embrace of non-Hindu religions, which have no caste-based cultural roots.
This relationship, between caste (and untouchability) and the expansion of Islam and Christianity, has not been well understood. Yet one conclusion that we can draw from this is that the death of day-to-day spiritually and ‘socially alive’ caste seems to be possible only when what can be thought of as the democratic spiritual systems – such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism – continue to expand. Of course, in the Indian context, caste culture can still be found in these expanding religions as well, as centuries-old caste-cultural differences are not simply abolished in any ‘Indianised’ religion. But unlike in Hinduism, caste does not have a spiritual sanction in Indianised Islamic, Christian and Buddhist communities. These too may have been influenced to a certain extent by casteist thinking, yet let us be clear: These remain the main instruments that can, eventually kill caste.
The pace of this change, however, will undoubtedly be very slow, because caste and untouchability do not allow for any sense of self-respect among those who for centuries have suffered oppression. It may not be easy for those who suffered from ‘spiritual fascism’ to understand the importance of spiritual democracy and spiritual organisational homogeneity, as they were long forced to remain ignorant about many issues.
Of course, some scholars suggest that, in fact, Hinduism is radically reforming itself, by becoming increasingly politicised. Hence, they say, it will be able to overcome caste and compete with other religions, even in other parts of the world. But this argument is not supported by historical evidence, given that no Hindu sect (including that of the Arya Samaj, the reform movement) has yet converted to a full, systematic institution of spiritual democracy. Spiritual democracy allows everybody to be equal, in all respects; but Hinduism does not allow any such scope for equality, due to the in-built system of caste. Thus, the seeming impossibility of any radical reformation on the part of Hinduism would, again, suggest that the death of caste will be very slow.
The longevity of caste is inevitably linked to the longevity of Hinduism, which is closely linked to expansionist competition coming from Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. It is important to see how each of these systems regularly adopt transformability, reformability and constant democratisation of their own religious civil societies from within. Spiritually democratic religions assume that god created all human beings equal, whereas Hinduism believes that god created all human beings unequal. At this point, then, it seems safe to say that Hinduism will die out much earlier than Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, and hence caste will die out well before the other major religious systems.
~ Kancha Ilaiah is a professor of political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad. His latest book is Post-Hindu India: A discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, socio-spiritual and scientific revolution.