Caste Rules In Text And Context

Not just a believer, but one from the top three varnas—the ‘janeu-dhaari’ remark evokes in an inverted way how Hindu religious places treat others
Caste Rules In Text And Context
Brahmin Role
Gagabhat performs Shivaji’s coronation
Photograph by Alamy
Caste Rules In Text And Context

Recently, in the heat of the Gujarat election campaign, the BJP challenged the future Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, to reveal his religion. Was he a practising Hindu, he was asked, after he visited a temple in Gujarat. One of the Congress party’s off­icial spokesmen stated in response that Rahul is a janeu-dhaari Hindu. The janeu is the  ceremonial cross-thread on the upper body of male descendants of three varnas—namely Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya.

According to Manu Smriti, the upanayana—where the male child is made to wear the ceremonial cross-thread for the rest of his life—happens in the eighth year after conception for a Brahmin, in the eleventh year for a Kshatriya, and in the twelfth year for a Vaishya. The Shudras, who are the fourth varna, and women are not allowed the upanayana. Therefore, Narendra Modi, who comes from a backward caste background (Modh Ghanchi), would not have had the upanayana. Nor would Sushma Swaraj or Nirmala Sitharaman, both debarred by their gender despite coming from a Brahmin background. This creates a status distinct and visible for the first three varnas, considered exalted within chaturvarna.

Dr Ambedkar, the modern legal mind and Constitution-maker, was also one of the greatest critics of Hindu religion in recent times. His writings throw an analytical light on all the inner processes of Hinduism. Why the first three varnas are janeu-dhaari and the Shudras are not was explained by him in his 1946 book, Who Were the Shudras?  There are two more groups outside the pale of  Hinduism, both avarnas or without a varna status. One, the Untouchables or Dalits, who were sometimes called the Panchamas (or the fifth varna) during the national movement.  And two, the tribals, who have their own religious beliefs. Neither Untouchable nor Adivasi has the right to a janeu.

Within the Hindu fold, the Indian caste system ordains a person to a varna, and to a caste within the varna. One primary feature of Hindu religion is that this social position is fixed—caste is immutable from birth till death. Even modern jurisprudence has often tended to int­erpret disputes within this frame, say, in cases of demand for caste mobility through marriage: that once born in a caste (or varna), a person always belongs to that caste.

But how does one get a janeu? There is an elaborate process and only a Brahmin can initiate and perform the ceremony, entwining a janeu, which is a simple twined thread, according to some set rules and a set of prescribed variations—for it is worn several ways, just like Indian women have variations on how to wear a saree.

Why the first three varnas are janeu-dhaari and the Shudras are not was ­explained by Ambedkar in his 1946 book Who Were the Shudras?

If Rahul is a janeu-dhaari Hindu, he should be a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya, and he should have gone through the process of initiation by a Brahmin. He cannot be like Modi—the prime minister cannot wear a janeu because he doesn’t belong to the Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya varnas.

The Congress spokesperson fell short of making it clear which varna Rahul belongs to—that would have completed the circle. Yes, it was probably a reaction to the doubts cast by the BJP on Rahul’s caste, but this is where the discussion enters the murky waters of canonical Hinduism. Using religion in politics probably helps only at a superficial level. If one deepens the analogy, the implications are completely out of sync with our modern Constitution.

The Hindu religious texts ordain all four varnas to stick to their occupations of birth. The modern-day Shudras are classified as OBC and as backward castes in state lists. If Hinduism is brought out and imp­lemented in full textual purity, we should have a Kshatriya prime minister, a Kshatriya defence minister and Kshatriya CMs in all states! If one is a practising Hindu (that is, bas­ically one should believe and follow all religious texts, including the Bhagavad Gita), one has to abide by the ordained fixity of occupation. The Gita is clear in its counsel that no varna should breach its duties ordained by birth. The deeper you dig, the murkier it gets. That’s why it is the bedrock of Ambedkar’s  analysis that the Hindu religious texts are anti­theses of democracy.

Let’s look at jurisprudence. The elite castes for whom the Mandal judgement in effect set aside 50 per cent of jobs—that is, the non-reserved jobs—are the three janeu-dhaari varnas who do not constitute even nine per cent of India’s population. (One can have a recheck on the exact statistics once the government releases the ­socio-economic caste census or SECC data.)

The Rajputs of north-western India, who were anxious to save the honour of Padmavati, also do not wear the janeu: they are rulers who acquired neo-Kshatriyahood. If the Padmavati-saviours ­desired to become janeu-dhaaris, the Brahmins of today’s India would be in the same dilemma as the Brahmins were during the coronation of Shivaji in 1674 because he too was born a Maratha. Ambedkar writes, “He was however fortunate in securing the services of one Gagabhat, a renowned Brahmin, resident of Benares, learned both in the Vedas and Sastras. Gagabhat solved all difficulties and performed Shivaji’s coronation on June 6, 1674, at Raigad first after performing the Vratya Stoma and then the Upanayana.” (Who Were the Shudras?, 1946)

As the Hindu texts clearly proscribe Marathas from kinghood, Shivaji had to resort to help from Brahmins. According to Ambedkar, Brahmins still refused to perform the upanayana on Shivaji’s descendants, except his sons. Ambedkar concludes: (i)  Brahmins have the exclusive right to perform the upanayana.  (ii) Brahmins have the right to say whose upanayana he will perform and whose he will not perform. In other words, the Brahmin is the sole judge of deciding whether a given community is entitled to upanayana. (iii) The support of Brahmins for the performance of upanayana need not be based on honest grounds. It could be purchased by money. Shivaji got the support of Gagabhat on payment of money. (iv) The denial of upanayana need not be on legal or religious grounds. It is possible for it to be based on purely political grounds. (v) The right of appeal against the denial of an upanayana rests only with a Vidvat Parishad, which is an assembly in which Brahmins alone are eligible to be members.

Let’s now take up temple entry for Hindus and non-Hindus, since this also came up during Rahul’s visit to Somnath. As per Hindu texts, no Untouchable or non-Hindu has the right to temple entry. Despite a long history of temple entry movements, led even by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, and the making of such denial a legal offence, Hindu temples carry on the tradition with impunity. That was why probably the Congress spokesperson’s retort stressed on Rahul’s janeu-dhaari status along with his Hindu religion (that is, not only a believer, but one from the three varnas traditionally allowed entry).

But then, the moment someone is designated a practising Hindu, we encounter a problem—with Rahul or even with Modi. As per the religious texts, writes Ambedkar, “the Hindus believe this institution of ashrama dharma is as old as that of the varna dharma. They call the two by a joint name, varnashrama dharma, as though they were one and integral, and the two together form the steel frame of the Hindu society....” The ashrama dharma divides the life of an individual into four stages: (1) brahmacharya, (2) grhasthashram, (3) vanaprastha and (4) sannyasa. What does the Manusmriti say about the four ashramas? “For these rules, it is clear that according to Manu there are three features of the ashrama dharma,” writes Ambedkar. “First is that it is not open to Shudras and women. The second is brahmacharya is compulsory, so is grhasthashram—vanaprastha and sannyasa are not compulsory. The third is that one must pass from one stage to another in the order in which they stand: namely first brahmacharya, then grhasthashram, then vanaprastha and lastly sannyasa.”(Riddles in Hinduism)

How would these apply to Rahul Gandhi? Or to Modi? Or for that matter, to any of our believing Hindu politicians? Do our practising Hindus follow the varnashrama dharma? Are they meant to? It’s time our political processes stopped bringing religion into politics. The critical vigil of Ambedkar is all that modern politics requires to be submitted to.

(The writer is a senior journalist and Ambedkarite based in Hyderabad)

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