As a tsunami of social justice sweeps across the world today, the roots of traditions are uprooted in an unrelenting furor. In India, the axe of modernity grinds against the caste system as caste, the primary identity of many Indians, now faces pressure from more cosmopolitan identities such as political ideology and class. While many see this as a positive development, some seek not only to entrench these age-old divisions but also enflame the trenches with the kerosene of hate. Building upon and going beyond colonial caste activists such as Ambedkar and the Phules, modern sociologists devise a theory designed to shatter Indian society and grant deliverance to the lower castes of India. While much of this theory is plagiarized from the infamous Critical Race Theory of America, caste is not race and race is not caste. You cannot tell someone’s caste by the color of their complexion or the features of their face. With the rise of Hindutva attracting a rainbow coalition of castes granting a decisive mandate to the BJP in India, the opposition seeks to break this coalition by inciting caste tensions, and it is in Critical Caste Theory that they find a prophetic message to part the saffron sea.
Critical Caste Theory does not seek the annihilation of caste no matter how much it harps on this talking point. Rather, it seeks the annihilation of Brahminism, a polemic and deceptive term for Hinduism originally used by Jesuit missionaries and colonial scholars. It is in the rigid contours of caste that CCT activists see the opportunity to exploit and shatter the cultural and religious body of India and Hinduism. Upper castes must be made aware of their ancestral penalties of the past, privilege of the present, and penance of the future. The lower castes must be made aware of the oppression of the past, discrimination of the present, and revolution of the future. The cloak of caste must smother all discourse surrounding politics, economics, and culture. And most of all – caste must be framed as a simple, homogenous concept that conquers time and space; heterogeneity is heresy.
A Pyramid Scheme
Propaganda is best when it is simple. The rhythmic chanting of a slogan. The Big Lie. Your friend’s Instagram reel. Your uncle’s WhatsApp forward. We all have been the recipients of propaganda. To persuade someone and make them feel informed, explaining something in a reductive way is essential.
Enter the caste pyramid.
If you’ve heard of caste, you’ve probably seen a rendition of the above before. This is the bread and butter of CCT. Knifing Indian society into neat sections devoid of context, absent of historical variation, and homogenizing the subcontinent into a single dish of oppression. But this meal has many courses. Let’s start with an appetizer to ready your palette.
To establish a baseline taste for the subject matter, CCT activists posit the genesis of caste with the Aryan Invasion Theory. The framing is that white “Aryan” invaders came into India from the steppe and subjugated its natives through the caste system. This subjugation became a religion that they deemed “Brahminism” and evolved into Hinduism. This near-prehistoric bone to pick forms the basis for millennia of oppression. But this story is deceptive at best and malicious at worst.
Emerging evidence points to the fact that caste predates steppe migration into India. Furthermore, large parts of the Vedic faith, one of the earliest forms of Hinduism, show local Indus Valley and tribal influence with the Vedic folks exclusively worshipping Indian geography, flora, and fauna. These apparently “white” invaders dedicated hymns praising “black” gods and would conduct rituals in order to attain dark-skinned children reminiscent of these gods. This also goes against the grain of the racialization of Indian castes as ancient Indians were much more accepting if not exalting of dark skin.
This early form of caste that India had was much more akin to a horizontal multi-tribe society. This is where jāti enters the fray as the spoiler to the vertical varna way. Moving within and between different varnas were these groups of people, jātis, who shared similar traditions, customs, & social markers. Conflict, competition, but more so cooperation between jātis would be a prime driver of many parts of Indian society rather than a static and oppressive pyramid. Jātis would become interdependent on each other as they engaged in rituals and customs that require assistance from other jāti groups, many of which still continue today such those captured in the Jati and Kula Puranas of Telangana. A ritualistic network began to form across villages and kingdoms. Of course, this doesn’t mean everything was peaches and cream, jostling over jāti dominance was indeed the origin of many forms of caste discrimination and societal control.
But it is a certain group of jātis who rest in the Brahmin varna that attract the most ire of activists. CCT’s central thesis is that a small group of “Aryan” elites, the Brahmins, a group that today rounds to 3-4% of all Indians, have used sociological sorcery across eons to enslave all other jātis and varnas into servitude and stupor. Let’s zoom out and look at how preposterous this is as well as the consequences of this claim. 97% of Indians now have their agencies removed and are postulated as near Neanderthalic in intelligence being hoodwinked by a group of wily unarmed vegetarian priests who have frozen Indian society over generations, evading and eliminating all challenges to power and upholding a mythical religion called “Brahminism” where all other Indians worship them just because. Not only does this assign Brahmins as a near superhuman species, but it is an intensely casteist notion that is massively insulting to the capability, intelligence, and history of all other Indians.
A Faulty Prescription
Integral to CCT is using the ink of ancient scriptures to paint a hellscape of ancient India. The strategy is to selectively magnify and distort “prescriptions” from texts rather than engage with the entirety of theology, scripture, or actual accounts of the historical realities of India.
We start with the 4 varnas of classical Hindu thought – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras – all emerged from a primordial Purusha – or Supreme God. The Brahmin from the head, the Kshatriya from the arms, the Vaishya from the thighs, and the Shudra from the feet. In this hymn, the Purusha Shukta, CCT activists claim is the source of the oppression of ages. Yet like so many other instances, they leave out the rest of the verse as the Vedas continue to describe other aspects of the world that come from this divinity including the moon from the Purusha’s mind, the sun from His eyes, the earth from His feet, and so on. The Vedas denote the entirety of existence as a divine emanation from a primordial God.
Caste is also linked to the concepts of karma and reincarnation. As one sows good and bad deeds, they reap the fruits in their later or next life. The caste one is born into is thereby a result of past deeds. This has indeed been a justification for discrimination on one hand, but the oft forgotten piece of this process is the nature of the Ātman or soul. The Ātman is seen as a source of radical equality in certain scriptures and by various Gurus in Hindu history as it contains an ultimate divine essence that all life shares. Indeed, various Hindu movements against caste discrimination revolve around this pivotal Hindu concept as a bulwark against discrimination.
This line of attack continues across various Hindu texts as the entirety of Hinduism is reduced to small PDF screenshot snippets of controversial verses. While many instances are of dubious translations or devoid of context, there are indeed bonafide controversial sections in certain texts; but to define all of Hinduism by these drops of controversy is denying the diverse ecosystem of thought in the ocean of Dharma. Just as we have a vibrant debate on various socio-political issues today, so did the ancients of India across eras and areas. Most movements against caste discrimination indeed emerged from Hinduism itself rather than breakaway religions or foreign ones as we shall later see.
So far-reaching is the demonization of Hinduism that CCT activists will glorify literal demons in Hinduism. Imagine you or I being livid over the portrayal of say Slytherins or Lannisters or whichever generally evil group that are apparently actually the real heroes of the story. CCT activists on one hand deny the historicity of Hindu texts and theology, while on the other hand claim that the evil ones in many of these texts are actually the ancestors of lower castes. These include demons (Asuras) who engage in heinous acts such as rape, wanton murdering sprees, and various other universally reviled acts. Even more ludicrous is that almost all of these demons come from Brahmin lineages in the texts themselves. The cherry on top is that revered ancient Hindu figures that have origins from lower castes such as Rishi Matanga, Maharishi Ved Vyas, Shabri, Guha, Vidur, Matsyendranath, etc… are cast aside in the narrative simply for their inconvenient caste.
Once the barrage against Hinduism has finished, the next pillar of prosecution is the false notion that Buddhism represented a lower caste revolution against Brahminical orthodoxy. This idea was championed by BR Ambedkar himself postulating a Pali Canon Revolution against the Vatican of Varanasi thousands of years before Martin Luther’s eerily similar Protestant Reformation. But all this shows is that either Ambedkar was woefully ignorant of actual Buddhism or he simply lied as a ruse for political power (a failed ruse considering his dismal innings during elections).
Buddhism just like Hinduism has a mixed record with regard to caste. Buddhist scriptures denote how Bodhisattvas could only be born in Brahmin and Kshatriya lineages. Other scriptures argue strongly against inter-caste marriage. Early Buddhism was a monastic faith of the urban upper castes where monks or sramanas would emulate the ascetic ways of Brahmins that Lord Buddha profusely praises in the Dhammapada. This is not anything near a social justice revolution against a reviled elite. Accounts from Chinese travelers confirm the resilience of caste as well as syncretism with Hinduism in Indian Buddhist societies as Vedic rite and ritual were well integrated, Brahmins were honored, untouchability was observed, and the classic 4 fold varna system prevailed across numerous chronicles by these adventurous pilgrims.
History is Heterodoxy
So now that we’ve got our prescription in order, what is the description of our issue? Well, as in most cases of any sociological topic, it depends on the time and the terra. Heterodoxy is so rife in India’s caste system that it can be difficult to discern what “orthodoxy” actually was.
Early Greeks and Chinese, some of the first foreigners to record their journeys across India, do not particularly pay special mind to caste. Some chroniclers mention castes, whether in a set of 7 or 4 or an innumerable count, but they see it as just another way to organize society mirroring their own. What they do notice that is different immediately is the way of the Brahmins, and this is exactly where CCT hits a massive hinge.
In countless Indian tales, the Brahmin lived a life of mandatory poverty. Their method of procuring sustenance was by begging (bhiksha) or simple professions such as teaching and priestly duties. Buddhist monks (bhikshus) would later adopt this Brahmin asceticism and austerity. Only later in history as new texts were created did Brahmins begin accumulating wealth, though many continued their practice of material aloofness and bhiksha. Some ancient Hindu scriptures confirm this “check” on the varna system as castes that had more ritual responsibility also had to adhere to more rigorous disciplines and rules in life. The Greeks especially were in awe of the Spartan discipline of the Brahmins they encountered.
Yet it is not just the bhiksha of the Brahmin that poses problems for the narrative of CCT, ironically the most misbehaving caste is that of the Shudra. The Shudra, who languishes at the bottom of the iconic caste pyramid did not conform to his duty of being oppressed. While caste fractured the potential of a widespread peasant rebellion you’d see in other societies, it harnessed a strong sense of asabiyya amongst different peasant or Shudra groups. Sickles slicing hay became swords slashing heads as Shudras would militarize and crown themselves rulers. Various chroniclers mention this phenomenon and some Shudra royals would proudly embrace their supposed “low-born” roots as they harkened back to the lotus feet of God crushing their enemies. So widespread was this phenomenon of Shudra militarization and mobility that it is not inaccurate to say that very large minority and even perhaps a majority of recorded Indian kings have origins in the “lowest” varna.
Over time, from the Shudra were born groups that would become exiled from the varna system altogether. There was no such thing as a “Dalit” in earlier Hindu scriptures; rather, untouchability emerged later as being practiced on and indeed by certain Shudra castes onto other Shudra castes. This horrid custom would become a long-lasting stain on the Indian psyche and society, but it was not a primal practice of Hinduism as CCT activists claim.
CCT presents the Indian caste system as akin to chattel slavery, particularly the Trans-Atlantic variant. Yet across history, violent slave rebellions have been ubiquitous across different societies, including multi-ethnic rebellions, but caste rebellions are nearly nil. This is a major disconnect in framing the caste system as an analog to American slavery. Caste was simply a pre-modern method of organizing society. Being born into a lower caste or class in any place in the pre-modern world could be a miserable existence, not just in India. What really distinguished caste was its metaphysical roots as well as an extreme level of endogamy that developed over time. And it is in these extremities that we start seeing externalities that profoundly shaped Indian society to this day.
With time, varnashram itself began evolving and calcifying and then evolving again. The original commitment to bhiksha, in many ways the vital axis of varnashram had waned as new scriptures explained away the lapsing of hereditary duties. Endogamy became much more rigid and prized around 500 CE as we see a mass adoption setting in. This means for much if not most of Hindu history, a highly rigid caste endogamy was not necessarily a cornerstone of Hinduism. India’s caste system is more endogamous in 2023 CE than in 23 CE or 2023 BCE.
With the arrival of extreme levels of endogamy, much of the churn in Indian society was reduced. The previously adventurous Indians seeding their ideologies across Asia and commandeering the wheel of Dharma across land and sea were now becoming increasingly parochial. Zeniths of purity replaced the zeal of pursuit. Groups of jātis could ascend and descend the varna system, but the movement of individuals was severely curbed. And of course, while other societies were not exactly paragons of individual liberty and social mobility, they did not have the extremity of a near-ironclad endogamy. Al-Biruni notes how knowledge would be effectively siloed in individual caste groups so that the cross-pollination of wisdom that led to technological advancement would slow in India. While scholars such as Dharampal note the wide array of educational opportunities to available to all castes in the years prior to British colonization, it seems for large parts of post-endogamy India, individual outliers were essentially outcast by this system.
Particularly terrible was the condition of the newly concocted “avarna” or untouchable castes. The injustices they faced would be a feature in various poems during the rise of the Bhakti movement. While the Bhakti movement was definitely not a social revolution against caste, it did feature a reignited pathway for spiritual liberation for many depressed classes and castes. As I said before, the strongest emanations against caste discrimination have come from Hinduism itself. From its birth in Tamil Nadu, the Bhakti movement featured lower caste saints such as Thiruppaan and Nandanar overcoming discrimination through faith in their God. The crown jewel of Tamil Nadu’s Bhakti renaissance would be the masterful Ramanuja, who went against the norms of his day to embrace many lower caste devotees he encountered including Kanchi Purna who he would revere as his Guru, a scandalous notion for such a learned Brahmin as Ramanuja. This thread of upliftment would be sewn across India as various Gurus and movements would be stitched across the subcontinental tapestry over time mending the injustices of caste discrimination. Just as Ramanuja had done, many of these Dalit saints would be joined by and empowered by their high caste brethren such as Ramananda of Kashi becoming the Guru of Ravidas or Dyaneshwar of Pandharpur redefining the worship of Lord Vitthala thereby creating an illustrious line of supposed “lower caste” saints in Namdev, Chokhamela, Janabai, and Tukaram. But unfortunately, some places had to wait longer than others to address the scourge of caste discrimination.
Vivekananda described his contemporary Kerala as a lunatic asylum due to the discrimination that lower castes faced. If CCT had a poster child, it would unfortunately be the highly stratified and ritualistically rigid Malabar of the 19th century. Dalits were said to have had to maintain 64 steps from upper caste Nairs and 128 steps from Brahmins during this time. They were not permitted to buy or ride in bullock carts and were barred from using roads for upper castes. Education and even inter-dining with other castes were denied. In certain regions, Dalit women were not allowed to wear an upper garment as it would be reserved for upper castes. This dehumanization would soon be fought by Dalits as well as leaders from other castes. Dalit leaders such as Ayyankali and Dakshayani Velayudhan would emblazon a path forward combatting these injustices joining forces with Hindu reform movements such as those led by Sri Narayan Guru to remedy these terrible conditions. These reforms would take root as Kerala would become a land associated with social justice as Travancore kings instituted various policies to amend these past wrongs.
While spiritual reform to aid lower castes was a part of Hinduism, what was missing was a social revolution to materially empower the lowest of Hindus. This is where more modern caste dynamics emerge.
For some, the Hindu spirit was inextricably connected to caste discrimination and had to be exorcised. In Maharashtra emerged the most kinetic of all Dalit reformers as BR Ambedkar as well as Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule would sear their relationship with Hinduism in their quest for Dalit upliftment. This fractious approach to combatting caste discrimination would involve attacking Hinduism itself and a reductive but very mimetic rhetoric homogenizing and demonizing Hinduism into essentially a Brahmin conspiracy. Critical Caste Theory derives its animus toward Hinduism and conspiratorial thinking from these early activists. Ambedkar and the Phules would heavily and rightfully advocate for education as the deliverance from destitution that Dalits faced. Ambedkar later helped frame parts of the Indian Constitution and codify laws to protect Dalits in a fledgling nation as well as implement the reservation system which at the time was seen as a temporary measure. The temporary soon became a mainstay.
Dalits today still face discrimination and difficulties posed by the wider Indian society. From not being able to carry out funeral processions to being attacked for sporting a mustache or riding a horse to being barred from water sources or even temples in some isolated cases, still we have the doldrums of discrimination present in India. But due to Ambedkar’s provisions in the Constitution as well as modernity flattening caste dynamics, Dalits can push back.
Ambedkar’s legacy has blossomed in the Government of India as more and more provisions have been added and policies ensured to assist Dalits. In line with the British Raj’s bureaucratization of caste, the Indian Republic has continued to design caste-based policies, which in turn has also dug the heels of caste consciousness into the ground. While lifting up a section of society that is being discriminated against is very laudable, the methods that have caught wind over the years have started to cross the realm of equality of opportunity into the equity of outcome.
Reservations have increasingly begun to eat away at university and government entries. With caste-based reservation touching 50% across India, many states have further bitten into the pie with states like Chattisgarh amounting to 76% reservation for backward castes and Tamil Nadu at 69%.This squeezing of other castes has not only caused increasing resentment but also hurts merit opportunities and market efficiencies in India as more and more young people are pushed out of chances they otherwise would’ve tested into in a straight shot. Even castes who are dominant today and in the past now clamor to get into newly made OBC (Other Backwards Caste) quotas with some movements becoming violent uprisings. Certain welfare policies have also integrated this caste-based approach with the government reserving certain doles and opportunities only for lower castes rather than a more identity-blind approach such as wealth or income levels. And perhaps the most regressive part of these caste based policies is that they entrench caste divisions and animosity.
But perhaps the most raucous example of the overzealousness of social justice is the SC/ST Act, where a person from an SC or ST caste can accuse another citizen of a caste atrocity, and that person will be put into jail without trial and without bail. This profoundly illiberal act is the closest thing India has to a blasphemy law. The ease of use has created a backlog of false cases and perhaps even caused more alienation of Dalits in contemporary society as any conflict can trigger this act which could easily destroy an innocent person’s life. And in an age where Dalit groups can hit back just as hard in community quarrels, this act becomes even more potent. Just recently the Supreme Court attempted to lessen the strictness of automatic non-bailable jail. Thereupon riots swept India as the government caved in and amended the law to keep this draconian element.
The bureaucratization of caste has morphed into it an extremely corrosive force on Indian politics. Caste has become the basic building block of Indian democracy. Elections become fractal and fractious caste contests as instead of meritocracy, demographics becomes destiny. Dynastic fiefdoms masquerade as political parties using the cloak of caste. Frivolous quibbles about the assigned caste of a historical figure or seeing an economic reform as a zero-sum attack on one’s caste is an unfortunate mainstay of Indian politics. Yet rather than having qualms with this, Critical Caste Theory sings to the tune of this dance of division. To break Hindutva or Hindu unity, caste divisions must be emphasized. But the BJP has anticipated this move.
The dichotomy of the Dalit condition mirrors India itself. A land of contradictions and extremes, nuance rests in the chaos of an ever-changing India that can give birth to any anecdote and data point you can imagine. While Dalits today gain more rights than ever, they increasingly vote for the BJP, a sworn enemy of CCT activists and formerly known as a party of the upper castes. The reason for this is that Hindutva, the ideology of the BJP, is not only redefining Hinduism itself but also consists of a strong element of material deliverance. Spiritual reform and a material revolution scent the air of India. While many Hindu organizations are reviving the notion of Hindu emancipation across eras by including Dalits more in their affairs and leadership, the BJP has build a powerful and efficient welfare apparatus to assist Dalits like never before. Hindutva is now positing itself as an emancipatory force for Dalits as spirituality now comes with sustenance.
Urbanization, education, migration, and many other forces of modernity subsume bits of caste consciousness over time. While caste has provided social, financial, and physical security in the past, a strengthening Indian state slowly fills these needs. The fulfillment of caste now must be replaced by something else. Whether the new primary identity is religious, ethnic, political, or another form, the Indian will start to look at a new person when they look in the mirror. CCT activists lament this evolution into something beyond the prism of parochialism that caste has become. As caste consciousness evolves into a more cosmopolitan form, India will become empowered. But Critical Caste Theory does not even see India; rather it fundamentally views the subcontinent as South Asia, an accidental collection of disparate divided people. India by contrast is rooted in an eternal Dharma, uniting the land with pilgrimages and poetry that has stood the test of time. Ultimately, this battle over what caste was, is, and will be will fundamentally decide the fate of India and Indians.