A Reply To The Mahatma

Excerpted from Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition, published by Navayana
A Reply To The Mahatma
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Ramesh Shinde/Navayana
Essential reading Cover of the first edition of ‘Annihilation of Caste’, 1936

8.1 Why does the Mahatma cling to the theory of everyone following his or her ancestral calling? He gives his reasons nowhere. But there must be some reason, although he does not care to avow it. Years ago, writing on Caste versus Class in his Young India [1], he argued that the caste system was better than a class system on the ground that caste was the best possible adjustment for social stability. If that be the reason why the Mahatma clings to the theory of everyone following his or her ancestral calling, then he is clinging to a false view of social life.

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8.2 Everybody wants social stability, and some adjustment must be made in the relationship between individuals and classes in order that stability may be had. But two things, I am sure, nobody wants. One thing nobody wants is a static relationship, something that is unalterable, something that is fixed for all times. Stability is wanted, but not at the cost of change when change is imperative. The second thing nobody wants is mere adjustment. Adjustment is wanted, but not at the sacrifice of social justice.

8.3 Can it be said that the adjustment of social relationships on the basis of caste—i.e., on the basis of each to his hereditary calling—avoids these two evils? I am convinced that it does not. Far from being the best possible adjustment, I have no doubt that it is of the worst possible kind, inasmuch as it offends against both the canons of social adjustment—namely, fluidity and equity.

9.1 Some might think that the Mahatma has made much progress, inasmuch as he now only believes in varna and does not believe in caste. It is true that there was a time when the Mahatma was a full-blooded and a blue-blooded sanatani Hindu. [2] He believed in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the puranas, and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures; and therefore, in avatars and rebirth. He believed in caste and defended it with the vigour of the orthodox. [3] He condemned the cry for inter-dining, inter-drinking, and intermarrying, and argued that restraints about inter-dining to a great extent “helped the cultivation of will-power and the conservation of a certain social virtue.”

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9.2 It is good that he has repudiated this sanctimonious nonsense and admitted that caste “is harmful both to spiritual and national growth”, and maybe his son’s marriage outside his caste has had something to do with this change of view. But has the Mahatma really progressed? What is the nature of the varna for which the Mahatma stands? Is it the Vedic conception as commonly understood and preached by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his followers, the Arya Samajists? The essence of the Vedic conception of varna is the pursuit of a calling which is appropriate to one’s natural aptitude. The essence of the Mahatma’s conception of varna is the pursuit of one’s ancestral calling, irrespective of natural aptitude.

9.3 What is the difference between caste and varna, as understood by the Mahatma? I find none. As defined by the Mahatma, varna becomes merely a different name for caste, for the simple reason that it is the same in essence—namely, pursuit of one’s ancestral calling. Far from making progress, the Mahatma has suffered retrogression. By putting this interpretation upon the Vedic conception of varna, he has really made ridiculous what was sublime. While I reject the Vedic varnavyavastha for reasons given in the speech, I must admit that the Vedic theory of varna as interpreted by Swami Dayanand and some others is a sensible and an inoffensive thing. It did not admit birth as a determining factor in fixing the place of an individual in society. It only recognised worth.

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9.4 The Mahatma’s view of varna not only makes nonsense of the Vedic varna, but it makes it an abominable thing. Varna and caste are two very different concepts. Varna is based on the principle of each according to his worth, while caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth. The two are as distinct as chalk is from cheese. In fact, there is an antithesis between the two. If the Mahatma believes, as he does, in everyone following his or her ancestral calling, then most certainly he is advocating the caste system, and in calling it the varna system, he is not only guilty of terminological inexactitude, but he is causing confusion worse confounded.

9.5 I am sure that all his confusion is due to the fact that the Mahatma has no definite and clear conception as to what is varna and what is caste, and as to the necessity of either for the conservation of Hinduism. He has said—and one hopes that he will not find some mystic reason to change his view—that caste is not the essence of Hinduism. Does he regard varna as the essence of Hinduism? One cannot as yet give any categorical answer.

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9.8 The real reason why the Mahatma is suffering from this confusion is probably to be traced to two sources. The first is the temperament of the Mahatma. He has in almost everything the simplicity of the child, with the child’s capacity for self-dec­eption. Like a child, he can believe in anything he wants to believe in. We must therefore wait till such time as it pleases the Mahatma to abandon his faith in varna, as it has pleased him to abandon his faith in caste.

9.9 The second source of confusion is the double role which the Mahatma wants to play—of a Mahatma and a politician. As a Mahatma, he may be trying to spiritualise politics. Whether he has succeeded in it or not, politics has certainly commercialised him. A politician must know that society cannot bear the whole truth, and that he must not speak the whole truth; if he is speaking the whole truth it is bad for his politics. The reason why the Mahatma is always supporting caste and varna is because he is afraid that if he opposed them he would lose his place in politics. Whatever may be the source of this confusion, the Mahatma must be told that he is deceiving himself, and also deceiving the people, by preaching caste under the name of varna.

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10.1 The Mahatma says that the standards I have applied to test Hindus and Hinduism are too severe, and that judged by those standards every known living faith will probably fail. The complaint that my standards are high may be true. But the question is not whether they are high or whether they are low. The question is whether they are the right standards to apply. A people and their religion must be judged by social standards based on social ethics. No other standard would have any meaning, if religion is held to be a necessary good for the well-being of the people.

10.2 Now, I maintain that the standards I have applied to test Hindus and Hinduism are the most appropriate standards, and that I know of none that are better. The conclusion that every known religion would fail if tested by my standards may be true. But this fact should not give the Mahatma as the champion of Hindus and Hinduism a ground for comfort, any more than the existence of one madman should give comfort to another madman, or the existence of one criminal should give comfort to another criminal.

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10.3 I would like to assure the Mahatma that it is not the mere failure of the Hindus and Hinduism which has produced in me the feelings of disgust and contempt with which I am charged. I realise that the world is a very imperfect world, and anyone who wants to live in it must bear with its imperfections.

10.4 But while I am prepared to bear with the imperfections and shortcomings of the society in which I may be destined to labour, I feel I should not consent to live in a society which cherishes wrong ideals, or a society which, having right ideals, will not consent to bring its social life into conformity with those ideals. If I am disgusted with Hindus and Hinduism, it is because I am convinced that they cherish wrong ideals and live a wrong social life. My quarrel with Hindus and Hinduism is not over the imperfections of their social conduct. It is much more fundamental. It is over their ideals.


Notes:

1. Young India, a weekly in English,was founded and published from Bombay since 1915 by Indulal Yagnik, along with Jamnadas Dwarkadas and Shankerlal Banker. Yagnik also brought out Navajivan, a monthly in Gujarati. In 1919, Yagnik requested Gandhi, who had returned from South Africa, to take over as editor of Young India and Navajivan. Under Gandhi’s editorship, YI appeared since 7 May 1919 as a biweekly and from 7 September 1919 as a weekly from Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad (Rajmohan Gandhi, 2007, 211). Gandhi published YI till he founded the Harijan in 1932. Ambedkar here is referring to Gandhi’s piece dated 29 December 1920, where he argues why caste is better than class: “The beauty of the caste system is that it does not base itself upon distinctions of wealth-possessions. Money, as history has proved, is the greatest disruptive force in the world. Even the sacredness of family ties is not safe against the pollution of wealth, says Shankaracharya. Caste is but an extension of the principle of the family. Both are governed by blood and heredity… Caste does not connote superiority or inferiority. It simply recognises different outlooks and corresponding modes of life. But it is no use denying the fact that a sort of hierarchy has been evolved in the caste system, but it cannot be called the creation of the Brahmins.” (CWMG 22, 154–5).

2. Gandhi on his being sanatani: “The friend next asked me for a definition of a sanatani Hindu and said: ‘Could a sanatani Hindu Brahmin interdine with a Hindu non-Brahmin although the latter may be a non-vegetarian?‘ My definition of a sanatani Brahmin is: He who believes in the fundamental principles of Hinduism is a sanatani Hindu. And the fundamental principles of Hinduism are absolute belief in truth (satya) and ahimsa (non-violence).” Reported in The Hindu, 23 March 1925, from a speech in Madras at the height of the Non-Brahmin Movement in Madras Presidency. In another speech in Calcutta, around the same time, Gandhi says: “Let the sanatani Hindus understand from me who claims to be a sanatani Hindu. I do not ask you to interdine with anybody; I do not ask you to exchange your daughters with the Untouchables or with anybody, but I do ask you to remove this curse [of untouchability] so that you may not put him beyond the pale of service.” From Amrit Bazar Patrika, 2 May 1925. Anil Nauriya, however, makes the case (2006, 1835) that Gandhi’s views on varna changed in the mid-1940s and that he came to denounce varnashrama: “Gandhi incrementally unfurled a critique of the fourfold varna order, taking the concept of such an order in the end, by the mid-1940s, to vanishing point.” On such exercises in ‘cherry picking’, see Roy’s introduction to this volume.

3. David Hardiman writes (2004, 126) that during the South African years, Gandhi “had appeared to have little time for the caste system. He had been expelled from his own Baniya sub-caste for travelling overseas—considered a ‘polluting’ act at that time—and had never sought to gain readmission to the caste. In 1909, he condemned the caste system and caste tyranny. On his return to India he adopted a much softer line on the question. He denied that the caste system had harmed India, arguing that it was no more than a form of labour division, similar to occupational divisions all over the world. It was in fact superior to class divisions, ‘which were based on wealth primarily’. He also believed that reform could be brought about through caste organisations.”

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