Amid Dalit Protests, Let’s Revisit Roots of Caste & Discrimination

As Dalit anger rises, let us revisit the roots of caste-bias, discrimination and oppression of the downtrodden.

3 min read
Amid Dalit Protests, Let’s Revisit Roots of Caste & Discrimination
Dhol Gawar Shudra Pashu Nari Sakal Tadna key Adhikari.
Tulsidas’ Ramayana

This chaupai (quatrains) is cited in Sundara Kanda, the fifth book in the Ramayana, and is probably the most misunderstood “chaupai” of Goswami Tulsidas (1532-1623). The context was clearly mentioned in the holy scripture, but in the last few years, it’s been increasingly taken in one way only:

Shudra’ means Dalit, and the quote says, as drums (dhol), illiterates (gawar), animals (pashu) need to be tamed by being beaten up, shudras also must meet the same fate. However, many scholars have said that here, the meaning of tadna is ‘upliftment’.


A History of Oppression

The word ‘Dalit’ does not represent a caste sentiment alone; it represents the psyche of the less privileged, weak, poor and downtrodden segment, that lives only to serve others. The definition of caste finds its origins in our religious texts, and is mostly explained by the upper castes, to the detriment of the so-called lower castes.

Manusmriti is the most quoted Vedic text that explains and normalises societal hierarchy, hegemony and power structures. According to Manusmriti, Shudras and Chandalas (the lowest of castes), were given capital punishment for committing certain crimes for which a Brahmin was given only nominal punishment such as paying a fine.

Furthermore, in a hymn from Rig Veda called “purusha sukta”, it is claimed that it is god who has assigned specific professions to those who were ‘born’ of his mouth, chest, thighs and feet.

According to the text, first, it was the Brahmins who were ‘birthed’ from god’s mouth, then, the Shudras, from his feet, following which god assigned specific professions to them.


‘Divine Justice’ Over the Years

Socially, we have seen the nature and attitudes of the upper castes towards the lower castes, both in urban and rural set-ups. In rural areas, there is a skewed relationship between landlords and peasants, village brokers (lalas) and landless farmers, priests and the ‘untouchables’ or ‘out-castes’. Across the spectrum of hierarchy, we have seen atrocities being committed against the downtrodden.

Religions in India have used the caste system as a crutch to establish their presence. If there were equality in society, there would be no upper-caste religious traditions. It was also believed and perpetuated that the Shastras stated that women did not hold the right to chant Vedic mantras.

One such episode allegedly took place in the 1940s at the Banaras Hindu University, where a girl student was denied admission to a course on the Vedas, on grounds of her gender. (The Quint could not independently verify this information.)

Times have changed and people are demanding equal rights and opportunities more than ever before. Recently, a Dalit priest was appointed in a formerly upper caste-Hindu temple in Kerala. Dalits may today find themselves taking center stage due to political mileage they are getting and the amended laws, but no real change can come about until we as a society, especially political figureheads and religious authorities, change our attitudes.

(The writer is a former TV journalist and member of the International Association of Religion. He can be reached at @MeBhavya. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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