A phrase parroted by the millions of self-designated woke is one I, very much so, am bemused by. A parroting that I myself am a veteran of. Often echoed by those who see no purpose for introspection into the terms they are stating, as they are convinced this is but a stamp of the ancient that deserves no place in today’s world of material modernity. I would have argued the same, once.
I now beg to differ. As I delve into the topics of identity and read the narratives of post-modern literature, which beseech us to scream the pangs of decolonisation, I cannot but help to wonder what my grandmothers think.
How do they define their individuality? What do they call their ethnicity? Do they ever ponder the depths of identity politics and wonder where their place lies in all of this?
Their answer is simply put: they do as they were told. Their family and cultural traditions subsisted on what others of their, dare I say it, caste do.
A blasphemous truth. A truth that the elite have spent gnawing away at, as they write their papers on returning to native ways while ignoring the realities of our elders.
With the advent of the Europeans, an inorganic classification on the basis of region and language began in the Indian Subcontinent as well as the introduction of machinery in its agricultural societies.
Amidst the wide diversity present in India, there is a rather underrated diversity of community. Communities not be formed on the basis of a shared tongue, rather a shared occupation. Communities existing not only in a single village but spread across various villages over various regions, speaking as much of a variety of dialects — yet still calling themselves one.
The integrality of the Jati Vyavastha (erroneously referred to as the ‘Caste System’) to Indian civilisation is oftentimes too overlooked.
Dealing with it solely as an unforgivable inheritance from the ancients, the Indian youth and diaspora so actively shy away from discussing its intricacies and implications that they refuse to accept the Jati Vyavastha as the once all-encompassing socio-economic framework of society.
What does it mean to “believe” in caste?
The original phrase carries as much weight as claiming to disbelieve in capitalism. The question of belief does not arise at all. As the duality of rich and poor exists, so does caste. And it will stay.
Such a statement can arise only from a pedestal of privilege. It is deluded, at best; for the one who has never been trampled by the oppression the system has brought and has never had to hide his community name out of embarrassment, of course, he on his high horse will not “believe” in it.
Just because his social entitlement lets him not associate with his caste, who is he to stop others. Others who have been deemed ‘lower’ by the system and will, without hesitating, associate themselves with their caste. For caste is community.
It has taken many years for me to finally understand what my Gurudev, Swami Chinmayananda, once said: “caste is not the problem, it is casteism.”
The ‘upper’ castes have progressed so far that they no longer need the association with their community and demand us all to work together to dismantle every aspect of the Jati Vyavastha, that the generation-long traditions and customs of the castes are to be thrown away to satisfy their academic discourses. But if we are to work for decolonisation, surely these traditions and customs are the purest relics of our native social diversity.
There must be a way of preserving our rites that have been handed down from the times of yore, and being able to identify with those communities of our past without there being a hierarchy of bigotry between us.
Caste has served as community for our ancestors. This is the nuance that is missed. The reason why our grandparents nag us of this term when finding a partner for marriage.
In a new world reaping the fruits of the industrial revolution, this stratification of society on the basis of wealth has given a new, more apparent divide to Indian society. With people now finding identity in the dialect artificially standardised as the language of their region, and with diaspora youth, for whom their racial minority status adds an extra dimension of confusion, the identity that caste brings seems entirely arbitrary. Rightfully so. When race and language can bind communities, what role should occupation play? Why heed to our grandmother then?
My thoughts are everywhere on this topic and if there is one thing I have concluded, it is this: the caste diversity of India is something we can not even begin to fathom.
The interconnections of these communities and the similarity of traditions/rites being upheld by them, regardless of the thousands of miles that spanned between them, is remarkable to say the least. We must become comfortable calling caste a community. It is our duty to find out the practices and customs we once all upheld and I urge you all reading to take a moment and ask your grandparents what they did differently.
If we want to continue these traditions and associate with that same community then who is to stop us? But if we don’t have anything we deem worthy of preserving in today’s age and we wish to form community with our equals in this new socio-economic order, then that too is fine.
What we require though, is nuance. A thought.
पुरणमित्येव न साधु सर्वं न चापि काव्यं नवमित्यवद्यं |सनः परीक्श्तरत भजन्ते मूढः परप्रत्ययेन बुद्दिः ||
All poems are not good only because they are old. All poems are not bad because they are new. Good and wise people examine both and decide whether a poem is good or bad. Only a fool will be blindly led by what others say.
- Malavika Agnimitram, of the Great Poet Kalidasa