Why Western scholars are obsessed with the Indian caste system?

An image of African slaves being sold.

Note: I started writing this as a small note that I wanted to send to the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind , Yuval Noah Harari

Millions of native Africans perished during the dark centuries of slavery. The African slaves were treated like animals. Orthodox Christians believed that all the black Africans were the descendants of Ham, the cursed son of Noah, and that is why, it was fine to enslave them and subject them to all sorts of cruelties.

The Native Americans (in India they are often known as the red Indians) were mercilessly slaughtered when the “New World” was being born. Entire villages were wiped off by infecting them with smallpox. Indescribable miseries were inflicted on the natives and by now, they are near their extinction.

The same ruthless treatment was meted out to the Australian aboriginals and even the natives of South America. In fact, children that were born of white and aboriginal parents were systematically hunted down in Australia even in the 1950s, if I am not wrong.

There were Spanish Inquisitions. People were declared witches and burned on stakes. Scientists were sentenced to death for simply revealing natural phenomenon. The Black plague was unleashed upon Europe because the then Pope declared cats satanic and hence should be exterminated and as a result, many parts of the continent were run over by rats.

You cannot find a single incident in India where some saint or some king took such a random decision or when someone who thought differently, was executed or poisoned. So many religions came out of Hinduism. How many religions have come out of Christianity, Islam and Judaism?

The trend continued when many European countries colonised countries in Africa and Asia.

I think the obsession of many Western scholars and the Indian scholars influenced by those Western scholars with the Indian caste system, especially how the upper castes treated the lower castes and how the Brahmins discriminated against the Shudras, is an attempt to mitigate the atrocities committed by them upon African slaves and other indigenous societies of the world.

I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and in this the author has repeatedly drawn parallels between how the whites of America treated the black slaves and how the Brahmins treated the Shudras.

Although the author seems quite knowledgeable, as far as Western history is concerned, despite being refuted scientifically, he still sticks to the now-debunked Aryan Invasion theory. He builds a complete narrative of how the Indo-Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent 3000 years ago, enslaved the natives and then branded them as low castes.

I’m not saying most of the parallels are maybe motivated, but consider this: both the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have been written by people of low castes. Valmiki who wrote the Ramayana was a Bheel, a very low caste. Ved Vyas was a child of a fisher woman (low caste) and Rishi Parashar, and they didn’t even marry, so double stigma.

If there was so much disdain for the so-called Shudras, both the epics wouldn’t have attained such statures. In Bhagvad Geeta (a part of Mahabharata) Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that millions of years ago he had narrated the wisdom of Geeta to Manu, a much hated figure among certain circles.

How come these epics got accepted by the Brahmins? Over thousands of years they could have easily attributed the origins of these epics to some upper caste Brahmin scholars, but they never did.

The fact that proves that one came to be known as an asur by conduct and not by birth is that Ravan was a great scholar, was the knower of all the vedas and was a high-caste Brahmin who was blessed by Shiva with immortality. Valmiki could have easily created a villainous character from a lower caste if he wanted to. Why have not the Brahmins ever protested that why Ravan is a Brahmin and not a Shudra?

It is also claimed that the Shudras were not allowed to study. Still, both the epics are written in Sanskrit, the language of the so-called upper castes. These two Shudras not only mastered Sanskrit but also wrote ageless epics in them.

I am not saying that here in India we had an ideal society; obviously our societies were divided. But then, there was also a great sense of acceptance which is often missing in the current narrative. It might be true that a person was born into a caste but there are many instances of people changing their castes when they changed their professions as well as their intellectual status. Matanga was a barber but became a Brahmin after attaining knowledge of the shastras. Ashtawakra, a severely disabled person, became a renowned and highly respected scholar. If the lines were drawn so strictly, how could such things happen?

How could the Ramayana and the Mahabharata become such great epics despite being written by authors coming from the lower castes? How can we have so many saints like Kabir, Tuka Ram and Chaitanya who became famous saints without being hounded by the so-called upper castes? If the upper castes were so powerful and so domineering, they would not have allowed these saints to come to prominence. How much time does it take to kill someone or to abduct someone and make him or her disappear forever?

These saints did not just become prominent during their lifetimes, they also became an integral part of our culture for centuries to come.

Even when it comes to women, the Indians, especially Hindus, are constantly accused of being patriarchal but we have so many goddesses. I am not justifying the current status of women in our society but I believe that at one time, both the sexes were treated differently. When Mandala Misra challenged Adi Shankara for a philosophical debate, Shankara requested that Mandala Misra’s wife, Ubhaya Bharti, who was known to be a great scholar herself, be the arbiter. Mandala Misra lost the debate but his wife insisted that since she was the Ardhangni (the other half) of the defeated scholar, he could not be considered fully defeated unless Adi Shankara defeated her too. If we are to believe that we were a heavily patriarchal society, Adi Shankara would have refused to have a debate with a woman, but he gladly accepted. He was defeated by her.

How many such incidents do you find in the Western philosophy? Are there great Western philosophers that are women?

Again, there cannot be smoke without fire. The class and caste divides were there. In the Ramayana, when Shabri tastes the berries herself first to make sure that they were sweet before offering them to Lord Ram, Laxman says that his brother should not eat the berries already bitten by a lower caste woman. Lord Ram says the berries were purer than the food of the gods. It proves that the concepts of lower castes are there since the time immemorial. But the incidents like those of Shabri being revered by Lord Ram himself are aplenty in the Ramayana and they could have been easily expunged if people wanted to. These stories are told with great reverence by Brahmins themselves.

I think many scholars and commentators prefer to blow the caste divides among the Hindus out of proportions to give an impression that every society has its dark sides that put the humanity to shame.

Our history definitely needs to be rewritten.