(Excerpted with permission from 'The Future in the Past : Essays and Reflections' by Romila Thapar, published by Aleph Book Company, 2023.)
Studies of caste formation have come a long way from the simplistic notions of caste being separate racial entities. The origin of caste in the theory of the four varnas, as expounded in the Vedic corpus, appear to have been symbolic explanations of status differentiation to begin with.
It is unlikely that a social system as complex as a caste society began with a simple fourfold division of society into Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras with the Untouchables added on as a fifth category. Possibly the varna system, reflecting social stratification, was nevertheless an idealisation of a stratification. Caste looked at as jatis suggests other avenues and emphases in caste society.
Jatis evolve from the intermeshing of a variety of factors such as rules of endogamy and exogamy, location, environment, technology, occupation, access to resources, differences in the patterns of social observances, and the ideology of ritual purity.
Searching for the Origins of Caste
A caste society consists of hereditary groups so recruitment is by birth; these groups are arranged hierarchically which is actually or notionally associated with occupation among other factors; the hierarchy is important particularly to permissible marriage circles and to rules regarding the inheritance of property, particularly in relation to women; and they are often viewed as performing services for each other.
The social historian, therefore, has to trace these factors over time and in relation to historical changes. History provides evidence of the importance of kinship patterns and occupation to caste identities, as well as evidence of the transition from what has been called ‘jana to jati’ (generally translated as tribe to caste, but perhaps better translated as clan to caste).
Another important aspect is the adaptation to a culture, which has sometimes been called a Sanskritic culture, but would include more than just the language. It would consist of the norms and rituals associated with life cycle rites such as birth, marriage, and death.
These were generally not uniform across caste in earlier times, although we today tend to think that the upper caste norms applied universally. What is regarded as Sanskritic changes over time, for although on some occasions the Sanskritic assimilates the local non-Sanskritic culture, sometimes the process is reversed and there is more of the non-Sanskritic in the 'Sanskritic’ although the veneer of the Sanskritic may be retained. This is particularly apparent in rituals.
Some rituals have become relatively uniform and practised across castes, but many are specific to particular castes. Similarly, practices also change over time and the definition of what constitutes correct behaviour for a particular caste may be reversed from earlier periods.
Thus the Vedic corpus makes clear that the good Brahmana could consume the flesh of a sacrificed animal even if bovine, and, as part of certain sacrificial rituals, he was required to drink the juice of the soma plant, which if not an intoxicant appears to have been a hallucinogen. Yet, in a later period, from the point of view of the Brahmana, it was regarded as heretical to eat meat and consume intoxicants even on ritual occasions.
Cultural habits constantly change and explaining the change is as important as recording the change if one wishes to understand the change. This is again an area where social history and anthropology can provide helpful explanations. Historically, the interesting question is when and why did the prohibition on eating beef become the requirement of an upper-caste Hindu.
No Historical Evidence for an Aryan Race
The assertion of the purity of race among upper castes, tracing ancestry back to early times, often came apart given the fact that physically some castes have greater regional affinities than pan-Indian. Nor is this surprising for there was some conversion into castes at local levels with aspirations to higher status and the fitting of these castes into a hierarchy.
Regional variations, even in the broader structure of caste, do make it difficult if not impossible to maintain that there was a dissemination of the pure race that retained its purity and its status through time. Today, the concept of race as defined in the 19th century has been discarded among scientists and scholars. Identities are based on other factors and claims to race are no longer tenable, although the word continues to be used in popular parlance.
The theory of an Aryan race, therefore, is not supported by historical evidence. What the historian is concerned with is not the spread of a race but the spread of a language and some of the related culture.
We know from many examples all over the world and from many periods of history that it was perfectly feasible for people of different racial origins, brought together through migration, trade, conquest, or persecution, to find themselves ultimately using the same language. Thus, the historian of early India has to explain how the two Indo-Aryan-based languages, Prakrit and Sanskrit, became current in northern India from the first millennium BC. Those who spoke these languages were the Indo-Aryan speakers and could well have been from a multiplicity of racial stocks. The important question is why the language was adopted by elite groups in northern India.
(The above is an edited excerpt. Paragraph breaks have been added for readers’ convenience.)
(Romila Thapar is Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)