Getting Rid of India’s Aristocrats
Class or caste systems eventually devolve into systems that perpetuate an irrelevant past,
one in which the few control the many and inhibit the economic growth necessary
to lift the many out of ignorance and poverty. – Abha Misra
Today’s India is classified as a democracy, but its class or caste system remains the primary determinant of each person’s social, economic, and political status. Although the government does not officially recognize the system, it remains an integral part of Indian culture, primarily because it is an integral part of the culture’s principal religion, namely Hinduism.
The population is divided into several castes, including an upper caste—the Brahmins. In fact, it is said the Brahmin caste issued from the mouth of Brahma—God—at the moment of creation. Originally, the caste was made up of priests and scholars. But now, the membership of the caste includes anyone born of Brahmin parents or made so by a ritual performed by Brahmin priests.
Three lower castes divide up the bulk of the population, loosely consisting of the military and rulers—the Kshatriyas; the skilled traders, merchants, and minor officials—the Vaisyas; and unskilled workers and peasants—the Sudras. There is also a group of people who are classless—lower than the lowest caste, outlaws, or pariah. Historically, they were referred to as untouchables, but in recent years, some Indians in the upper castes referred to them as Harijans, a caste designation created by Mahatma Gandhi.
Similar to the class systems of Medieval Europe, the Indian caste system was created as a means of social, economic, and political organization—an attempt to create order out of chaos. Everyone is born into his or her respective castes for life. And marriage between couples in different castes is rare and if undertaken often incurs disgust, anger, dishonor, and violence.
Hindus are taught from birth with institutional reinforcements to accept the caste system as the will of God. They are taught that the only way people in the lower castes of India's caste system can move up is to create good karma by remaining in current caste designation, perform well in that caste’s function, and wait for their reward for such behavior in the next life by way of reincarnation.
Much like the aristocrats in the class systems of Medieval Europe, people in the Brahmin caste in India are privy to all levels of education (elementary though graduate), so most of them are well educated. Many of them can afford college educations abroad in the most prestigious universities in the world. In contrast, people in the lower castes receive little or no education, even though recently, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) over the objections of the Brahmin-dominated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to establish a quota system for all castes in elementary education.
For the most part, leaders and supporters of the BJP are staunch supporters of Hindu nationalism, that is, conserving the tenets of Hinduism in India, including the caste system, which, of course, means the perpetuation of Brahmin superiority and privilege. Leaders and supporters of the Party argue—more subtly today than in times past—that the lower classes do not need the education of the Brahmin upper caste because it is not needed to carry out their functions in the caste system, especially those in the lowest cast, the Sudras, and the untouchable Harijans.
The history of class or caste systems shows that they are notoriously exploitative and dehumanizing, and more importantly, they inhibit the growth necessary to lift the masses—the lowest classes—out of poverty and ignorance. The Indian caste system with its Brahmin aristocrats is no exception. Why would anyone work hard, save, and invest to improve their position or place in a culture if their position or place is fixed for life, the promise of a better life for “proper” behavior in the next life notwithstanding?
The history of humankind shows that people have gotten rid of their class or caste systems with their privileged upper classes or castes in a variety of ways. After years of suffering at the hands of the aristocrats in France, the people revolted and beheaded by way of the guillotine the ones that did not escape to other countries. The Russian Revolution brought on the killing of the aristocrats that had not fled the country and ended in the shooting of the Czar and his family. During the American Revolution, the British aristocrats who remained in the country, as well as other supporters of the British Monarchy (the Tories), were expelled or killed. More recently, the Liberian Revolution ended with many, if not most, of the aristocratic Americo-Liberians taken to the beach, tied to stakes, and disemboweled.
Great Britain, the Netherlands, and other Western European countries chose less violent means of ridding themselves of their aristocrats. Rather than kill all of them, which is the most expeditious way of getting rid of any group of people, they chose to keep their aristocrats with titles of nobility intact but render them politically impotent. British aristocrats, for example, have survived but have little or no real political power. For the most part, they have been rendered political eunuchs with much pomp and ceremony so that the British can hold on to their much fanciful and embellished view of their history.
Clearly, the histories of other cultures/countries provide the lower castes of India with alternative means of ridding themselves of their caste system, including the Brahmin aristocrats. The question at hand is how soon, if ever, and which alternative will they choose? Although a revolution that would outlaw the caste system and kill off the Brahmin aristocrats has its appeal, a more peaceful, less violent, and more gradual means might be undertaken.
Conceivably, the lower castes of India could hold on to their Hindu beliefs, including their caste system designations and their belief in good karma and reincarnation as means of upward social, economic, and political mobility in lives to come, but render their present inferior caste position inconsequential in the pursuit of their upward social, economic, and political mobility in their current life.
That is, they could use the power of the ballot box more aggressively to gain greater equality of opportunity, especially in education, the key to achieving upward social, economic, and political mobility in their current life and that of their children. In fact, this is what is happening in today's India—albeit at a snail's pace. Unfortunately, instead of implementing the policies that more quickly achieve the emancipation of the lower classes, the leaders of the two principal political parties, the NCP and the BJP, spend most of their time jockeying for the positions of power that help them realize their personal ambitions for status and wealth.
What is often required to speed up the process of emancipating the lower classes is a strong and charismatic leader who will champion their cause, for example, a Mao Zedong, a George Washington, a Patrick Henry, an Oliver Cromwell, a Vladimir Lenin, a Martin Luther King, or a Mahatma Gandhi. No such leader has been forthcoming as yet in today’s India, which means the lower classes will continue to languish in poverty and ignorance.
A word of caution is in order should the lower castes of India realize their true emancipation is nowhere on the horizon and choose a violent revolution over a more peaceful, nonviolent, and more gradual means of achieving it. The trick will be for them to make sure they do not end up trading one oppressive system under the guise of democracy for another, an outcome that people in other cultures/countries have experienced historically before they were finally able to free themselves from the tyranny of their class or caste systems and associated aristocrats.
A final note: In the pursuit of a true democracy, it will be interesting to watch the means by which India’s lower classes choose to relegate their caste system with its Brahmin aristocrats to the dustbowl of history. The ultimate goals of that democracy must include equal opportunity, especially in education, for all and not simply an upper caste of Brahmin aristocrats; government of the people, by the people, and for the people, regardless of their level of education, wealth, or ancestry; and freedom of religion for all, which means freedom from religion as well.
Copyright © 2012 Frank Zahn. Published in The Writings of a Curious Mind:
A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories,
Vancouver Books (Kindle Edition) 2017.