A K. Ramanujan, better known as a poet, wrote a curious autobiographical story, “Annayya’s Anthropology”, about a young man from Mysore going off to Chicago to study anthropology. Annayya expects, like young men and women of several generations over the last couple of centuries, western education to provide him with an escape from the tyranny of social traditions. As he drowns himself in books of western anthropology in a Chicago library, he chances upon a recent book on Indian customs. This book contains a photograph of his tonsured mother as an example of how Hindu widows conduct themselves. It is then that he learns of the recent death of his father. This has been the generic plot of all attempted escapes from tradition by Indians.

Another contemporary of Ramanujan, Kannada fiction writer Shantinath Desai, began his literary career with Mukti, a novel of release from tradition, hugely successful with the young generation; but his last novel Om Namo was an empathetic study of the Karnataka Jainism. U. R. Anantha Murthy wrote his celebrated Samskara while doing research in English literature at Birmingham. Samskara engages with the power and the ironies of traditions going back to the Manusmriti.

Sri Aurobindo, sent to England at seven so that he grows up without an iota of influence of Indian customs, returns to India after acquiring a Cambridge degree without knowing a word of any Indian language. Soon after, he studied Sanskrit and in an amazingly short time took to writing profound commentaries on Hindu scriptures and myths. One’s uneasy immersion in the caste hierarchy and precarious existence within dehumanising tradition have been themes in  uncountable novels,  stories, plays, films, scholarly works, reform movements and other discursive forms of expression.

This has happened to not only to upper-caste Indians. The “generic autobiography” of escape-and-return has been the lot of victims of the oppressive caste system as well. B. R. Ambedkar, easily the most educated among pre-Independence Indians, won a scholarship from the Raja of Baroda, went to Columbia University in the United States, London School of Economics, and Gray’s Inn to acquire a Ph. D., M. Sc., D. Sc. and Bar-at-Law. On his return, he experienced how he would not be allowed to forget his caste and had to leave Baroda in less than two weeks. As a victim and a crusader, he had to engage with tradition and caste for the rest of his life. Instances can be numerous, exceptions none.

The pattern of attempted-escape-and-return-to-the-mire can be temporally scaled up to include not just one or two centuries of the colonial times but a couple of millennia. Despite ceaseless toil to create an inclusive kingdom during the 17th century, Shivaji had to seek benediction from the Kanouj Brahmins. Jnandeva of the 13th century, the holiest among the Marathi poets and saints, faced ostracism for the deeds of his father who had returned from Sanyas to set up a family. It was not just Shankara (9th century) who faced the wrath of traditionalists. Even Gautama Buddha had to counter the upsurge of varna-based social fragmentation a millennium before Shankara.

If oppressive social traditions—the source and the spread of which lie in remote antiquity—have come to control and condition our lives without exception for over two millennia, there has to be a logic to their power and authority; there has to be a rationale that can be stated with clarity so that it can be refuted, modified, altered and rectified. The why, the where from, and the how of varna and jati in Indian civilisation needs to be opened again and again, like festering and mortal wounds that need to be healed or surgically removed.

Despite the unimaginably massive quantity of learned works in all major Indian languages as well as all major international languages—English, German, French, Chinese, Arabic and others—there is no definitive, widely-accepted explanation for the why, the where from, and the how of either varna or jati as social and, worse still, as legal conventions. At the opening as well as the closing of these inquiries, it is customary to point one’s fingers at the Manusmriti or Manu Samhita.

Indeed when one peruses the 2,685 verses of the Manu Code, the single comprehensive statement of the statutes for social regulation in ancient India, one likes to think of it as the fountainhead of varna and jati ideas in India. They also read as the most definitive statement of gender segregation and the human desire to dominate ecology. But it is far from being clear if the Samhita is a single text composed either by a group of moral legislators—believed to be a tribe called Manava in the northeastern part of India as it was then—or a single author believed to be the originator of the Vedic Aryans.

It is also not clear if this Manu was the same as the ancestral patriarch of the Aryans belonging to a pre-Vedic era or the one who falls historically between Vedic times and the age of composition of the statues known as Brahmanas. The age of Manu is conceptualised differently, ranging from the most orthodox estimate of 1500 BCE to the most modest date of 200 CE.

Normally, the cross-references in other texts following the rise of a given text, or the lack of such references in the texts of any previous eras, should make the precise dating of a text possible. Similarly, linguistic evidence based on the evolution of meanings and etymological shifts should help one guess with fair accuracy the historical period of a text. This method does not work in the case of the Manusmriti.

For one thing, the variety of Sanskrit in which it has come down to us through centuries is sufficiently close to the post-Vedic Sanskrit, the kind of language in which the Mahabharata comes down to us through centuries. But, without any shade of doubt, the precepts of the Samhita find unmistakable echoes in the main body of the Vedas. Thus we have the Purusha Sukta in the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda.

On the other hand, the 97th verse of the 10th section of Manusmriti is found reproduced with very minor modifications in the 3rd Adhyaya of the Bhagavad Gita, verse 35: Shreyan svadharmo vigunah paradharmat svanishtuthat; svadharme nidhanam shreyam paradharmo bhayavaha. (One’s own duty, even when less attractive, is better than another’s even if it is more attractive. Death in one’s own duty is preferable over finding sustenance in another’s duty, for the latter is horrible.) Therefore, it is difficult to settle the precise period for the emergence of the Manu Samhita.

While a mythological Manu is believed to have preceded the Vedic Aryans, and numerous Manus preceded him from the beginning of human time, the version of genesis which the Manu Samhita presents—and on the basis of which it builds its entire social cartography—is several times contradicted by the literature in later Vedic times. The Upanishads, particularly Taittiriya drawn from the Yajur Veda, contains several versions of the genesis describing the process of evolutionary-creation, a radical variation on the divinely-granted creation, and several aspects of the creation dealing with the spirit, the mind, the consciousness, life and the human body.

This Upanishad proceeds in its delineation of creation without any trace of influence of the Manu Samhita version of the origin of life and society. But the difficulties in deciding the precise period of Manusmriti are not a plea for not holding it responsible for what it says. Yet the uncertainty in dating it raises the important question whether Manusmriti merely precipitated what existed as a social and legal practice before it and in its own time, or whether it originally proposed and propagated these practices.

As a text with a relatively more certain historical description and containing a clear statement of the basis on which ancient Indian social cartography was attempted, the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda is the outstanding example. It describes Purusha, the universe, of whom are born the rig and the saman—the Vedas—and later the horses and other animals and goats and sheep. Then the gods divided Purusha. From the mouth of Purusha came the Brahmin, from the arms came the Rajanya (Kshatriya), from the thighs came the Vaishya, and from the feet came the Shudra.

Such genesis myths mark the early literature—particularly literature that comes to be seen as scriptural—in every civilisation. In the oral literature of tribal communities in India, we come across a variety of creation myths and stories of the rise of the human species with a certain moral responsibility to keep the universe going. Every religion is based on its unique genesis story, and every culture or nation finds it nourishing to have its own version of how or where it began in some mythical time. Some claim to have emerged from the Sun, others claim their origin in the Moon, yet others in some distant ocean or a mythical mountain or forest.

What is astounding is that in ancient India, the story of genesis was used as a basis for law governing inter-community relations. The hierarchy of the vocationally high and the low implied in the Purusha Sukta was taken to mean a prescription with legal sanction. Thus, any attempt in thought, move or gesture to change the hierarchy came to be seen as a sin against Purusha. Later, at whatever date the Manusmriti came into circulation, Purusha of the Rig Veda was replaced by Brahma, a deity with which Vedic lore would not have felt at ease.

The most critical account of the process through which the formulation articulated in the Purusha Sukta came to acquire irreversible legal sanction is to be found in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s history of the Shudras. His work Who Were the Shudras? is probably one of the most open-minded inquires into the history of the idea of social cartography in India. His thesis is that the ancient India initially had only three varnas: Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya.

“The Shudras were not a varna but a community of the solar race. There was a continuous feud between the Shudra kings and the Brahmins. As a result of the enmity, the Brahmins refused to perform the Upanayana ceremony for the Shudras. Due to the denial of Upanayana, the Shudras who were equal to Kshatriyas became socially degraded.” This long historical process resulted in creation of the Shudras as a varna.

What is astounding is that in ancient India, the story of genesis was used as a basis for law governing inter-community relations. The hierarchy of the vocationally high and the low implied in the ‘Purusha Sukta’ was taken to mean a prescription with legal sanction. Thus, any attempt in thought, move or gesture to change the hierarchy came to be seen as a sin against Purusha.

Ambedkar’s book is devoted to establishing the veracity of this historical process. And he does it with the mastery of evidence and argument that the finest of a jurist alone can. No Indian who has ever felt oppressed by continuation of the caste tradition should miss studying Ambedkar’s book. Those who do not feel oppressed by the tradition will benefit even more as it holds a clear mirror before those of us who are not aware of their complicity with race, caste and gender discrimination.

Upanayana was thus made a privileged entitlement of the first three varnas and denied to the fourth. The concept of Upanayana rests on the idea of the possibility of a second birth, though a metaphoric one. Initially, the ritual did not involve wearing a Yajnopavita, the sacred thread. That practice came in later ages, when post-Vedic society started reading the metaphoric as literal. Upanayana was in its initial days a symbolic birth, the second birth, to the life of both mind and body. It was in its original form a rite of initiation. Such rites exist in various civilisations in a variety of forms. The Brahminical denial of Yajnopavita or the denial of Upanayana came to mean that the possibility of a second birth was foreclosed for the Shudras.

This meaning subsequently was provided with justifications. The main among these was that the Shudras had committed “sins”—though sin is not a core Hindu concept—or chandala karmanicha karma, or adham karma—heinous, lowly, or impious deeds. Since the idea of a second birth was associated with Upanayana, the justification for adham karma was sought in an imagined “previous birth”, a notion that did not have corroboration in the main body of the Vedas.

One of the abiding concerns of the Manu Samhita was how to avoid impious deeds, by following the dos and the don’ts of inter-varna relations. All these prescriptions were heavily biased in favour of those who could perform Upanayana, and biased against those who could not, and starkly severe to those altogether denied the possibility of Upanayana.

If the Shudras were denied the entitlement to the Upanayana ritual, by a slight extension of the same logic, they were denied entitlement to all other rituals. They were thus “ritually exiled”. If they were denied entitlement to rituals because of some “lowly act” in a previous life, by the more aggressive extension of that logic, they were destined to engage in all manner of work in their present life that could be described as “impure”, work such as scavenging, cleaning, skinning, tanning, etc. If they had no theoretical possibility of rebirth, they must be despised as less than human and therefore at par with other animals. They could be treated as such without any fear of the perpetrator’s gaining any negative spiritual merit. When this kind of metaphysics translated into social and legal practices, there was no possibility of a humane society. The argument was closed in India for ever.

The degrading and demeaning effect on fellow humans must have pained many sensitive individuals throughout the history of India over the last two millennia. In every age, we see instances of such individuals trying to fight metaphysics with metaphysics, the idea of birth and rebirth with other ideas of life beyond death and salvation, the settled concepts of varna and dharma with new ideas of needs and desires.

As the higher varnas found the given social arrangement to their advantage, they kept resisting the reformist moves. But, within every varna, time and again internal fission became manifest and the arguments in each such instance the arguments used on both sides were analogous to the ones used initially when the Shudras were ostracised.

Gautama Buddha made a powerful attempt to free the Indian mind of the metaphysic that caused this grievous social engineering. Panini was probably the last major thinker of the pre-Christian era in India who tried to reverse the logic by bringing in another way of accommodating all varnas in the domain of higher knowledge by validating the importance of their speech. But his attempt came to be interpreted as being legislating rather than liberating.

He commented in his Sutrapatha that “Alas, there is nothing like a low speech and high speech; it is all a matter of your social position.” During the first or the second century CE, Bharata Muni, who by virtue of being an actor belonged to a lower social class, tried to propose his Natyashastra as the fifth Veda. His treatise received acceptance, but not his community. The author of the powerful play Mricchakatika, probably the most political play in the history of Indian theatre of the first millennium, was called Shudraka. We know very little about his life except that he was a king himself. We do not know whether he belonged to any Shudra community or whether he had adopted a name to indicate his sympathy for the victim class.

After the eighth century, India witnessed the rise of many sects. The early ones rose round the figures of Shiva and Shakti. They originated in the southern regions first. By the 11th century, the rise of sects had become a nationwide phenomenon. By the end of the 15th century, many of their founders had been accepted in public memory as avatars or divine figures. Since the idea of avatar came to occupy centre stage in the dynamics of sect emergence, Krishna and Rama—the two heroes of the two pan-Indian epics—became cult-figures for many of the sects.

This entire movement highlighted the possibility of “release” for any individual, high or low, negating the logic on which the varna system was based.  From the eighth century to the 18th century is the time when jati became the main principle for social segregation. The jatis had no clear metaphysical basis. They were more an expression of difference in terms of language, region, occupations, cultivation practices, food habits, and skills.

But these differences once accepted as leading to a particular jati formation, jati identity was invariably expressed in terms of the specific worship practice. If the metaphysics based on the story of genesis was the basis for varna consolidation, the perception of “difference” leading to a metaphysical view was at the heart of the jati-formation process. In one, metaphysics was the cause, in the other it was the consequence, expressive of the desire of the non-Brahminical classes to be counted at par.

It is not surprising that when the Europeans arrived in India, they found the segmentation utterly confusing. During the 17th century, the Portuguese followed the practice of describing every community with the term “tribe”. This practice became somewhat less favoured when the British, French and Portuguese started noticing the sharp distinctions between the dominant communities and dominated communities; and they started using the term “caste” for the higher classes.

Their difficulties continued throughout colonial rule in India, for they could more easily understand the linguistic, racial and organised theological distribution of the society and the economic segregation of different classes. But the vast diversity of jatis, informal and non-institutional, eluded their anthropological grasp. They could not fathom how jati consolidation works; how within the overall framework of varnasjatis place themselves in a defined social hierarchy; how endogamy and exogamy work in these jatis and what makes a perfectly normal looking human act appear criminal to a given community. Besides, colonial scholars had no means of grasping the structural principles of sects which permitted multiple belief-affiliations.

The British colonial officers, well-meaning or otherwise, made repeated attempts at a social and linguistic cartography of India. Most attempts were initiated in order to meet the demands of consolidating the government’s authority, though that was not invariably the case. However, inadequate understanding of the dialectic between religion and sect, varna and jati, language and script, led to these attempts often deepening the differences without appreciating the diversity.

For instance, William Sleeman, who was appointed to detect the source of highway crime during the second quarter of the 19th century in central India, came up with a list of communities he thought were habitually criminal. His compilation of records resulted in the shocking Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871 which contained measures for the elimination of crime and the punitive measures to be adopted; but the CTA also included a list of communities. The list itself displayed ignorance of the colonial rulers in abundance.

For instance the Hizras were a “criminal community’” So were the coin-making Meenas. There were others: traditionally entertainers, dancers, performers, travelling traders and even communities working on construction sites. CTA was further modified on a number of occasions. By 1924, when it was modified one more time, it had brought nearly 190 communities under its provisions.

During those seven decades, some officers had come up with the observation that in India, every profession is followed as hereditary. Therefore, they concluded, a criminal’s sons are bound to be criminals. Hence the law was expanded to cover entire communities. All those covered by CTA came to be seen not just by the rest of the society but even by the members of the communities themselves as “born criminals”. These communities have been “de-notified” after independence. Their population is nearly 70 million at present. They are denied access to land, useful education, and proper healthcare. They are hounded out in every village or city where they try to settle down.

In many ways, the colonial CTAs are reminiscent of the Manu Samhita. In the latter, the strange story of genesis did the damage; in the case of the former, it is the idea of citizenship. The logic at work was that if one is a nomad and does not want to lead a sedentary life, he would not pay taxes and therefore he was a potential suspect as a criminal. The absurdity of the two laws is comparable.

Another mind-boggling blunder the colonial rulers committed in their social cartography was the identification of those communities that had not till then developed state apparatus for their own governance. Such communities posed a problem for colonial rulers as it was impossible to sign any treaty of accession in absence of a defined head or prince to represent the sovereignty of the area under question. These communities were first identified and then the areas in which they lived were brought under the British Sovereign Domain through an Act of the British Parliament. The territories thus unilaterally declared to be the Queen’s land were given over to the Forest Department for curbing any resistance.

There is a widespread misconception that the tribes of India are racially different from the castes. Some stem-cell research, therefore, focused on testing the blood samples of tribals. It is necessary to recognise that all tribes in the subcontinent do not belong to one racial stock, nor are they products of a single historical period. Their origins are varied, their histories markedly divergent.

The communities listed earlier were brought within a single list which became the basis for the Schedule of Tribes in India. Over 400 different communities are now in the Schedule of Tribes, ironically termed jan-jati for they had remained outside the pale of Indian jati from Vedic times till the colonial takeover.

There is a widespread misconception that the tribes of India are racially different from the castes. Some stem-cell research, therefore, focused on testing the blood samples of tribals. It is necessary to recognise that all tribes in the subcontinent do not belong to one racial stock, nor are they products of a single historical period. Their origins are varied, their histories markedly divergent. The Bhils, Gonds, Santals, Mundas and the Northeastern Khasis, Garos, Mizoes and Nagas are not alike either culturally, historically, linguistically, theologically or even economically. The diversity is amazing, but unfortunately not fully recognised as yet.

During the 1990s, the Maharashtra government came under criticism for not paying enough attention to the phenomenon of sudden deaths in the Korku community in the Melghat area. Upon careful study, it was noticed that Korkus suffer from a genetic disorder named Sickle Cell Disease in medical terminology. This is not a disease but a genetic condition caused by gene modification in some distant past due to over-zealous protection against malaria. A similar observation was made with respect to tribals in the Wayanad area in Kerala almost the same time.

These episodes, noticed only among tribals, led to a general assumption that all tribals show prevalence of Sickle Cell Anemia. Since then, blood tests in other tribal areas have shown that while some are indeed genetic carriers, other tribal groups are not. The obvious conclusion, therefore, will be that not all tribals are from the same racial stock. If such tests were carried out for communities that proclaim affiliation to the classical varnas, quite likely a similar conclusion would have to be drawn.

During the first quarter of the 19th century, R. E. Enthoven carried out an ethnographic study of tribes and communities in the Bombay Presidency. In his study, an impressively comprehensive exercise, he listed all shades of communities without sorting them out in terms of nomadic, tribal, foreign origin and varna-based. Thus in a single volume he has clubbed together Marathas, Tambats, Rajputs, Pardhis, Sansis, Sidis and Parsis.

The last two are migrant communities, one from Africa and another from Iran. One of them happens to be a nature worshipper and the other a fire worshipper. Neither belong either to the caste fold or to the tribe fold (though the list of particularly vulnerable tribes includes the Sidi). It is just that they landed on Indian shores through certain historical circumstances and, having once arrived, continued to live here, but on their own terms.

There are other non-caste and non-tribe instances of communities, too, particularly in the Northeast and the western Himalayan region. But in colonial social cartography, any community in India had to be either a caste or a tribe. Where large groups of communities with varied skills existed, without claim to a single caste, colonial ethnographers posited caste categories such as Marathas and Rajputs. In the course of time, realising that these new caste categories were favoured by the colonial government, many smaller communities, with an identity of their own, acquired these new caste identities. Parsis and Sidis, or the Sikhs in Punjab for that matter, being neither Hindus nor Muslims should have offered a study in comparison to examine how or why caste consolidation works elsewhere. Colonial ethnography did not have that interest.

Colonial linguistics gave similar treatment to Indian languages. George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India was carried out in the first quarter of the 20th century. He felt confused when it came to dealing with the languages without scripts. In most instances, they were placed in the category of dialects, in some cases wrongly so. But while carrying out ethnographic or linguistic surveys, colonial cultural and social cartographers failed to see the rising incidence of  multiple theological identities–to one’s sect as well as to one’s varna/caste deities—and multiple linguistic affinities—to one’s community language as well as to the language of the state/area.

In the process, the rise of liberating and humanising sects and the rise of Indian languages that were moving away from Sanskrit and the scriptures contained in Sanskrit came to be seen as a little less than legitimate. A new sense of identity received sanction, in which one had to have an officially listed theological affiliation and an officially listed linguistic affiliation. The rest came to be seen as informal, oral, and folk, and their potential to loosen the shackles of the varna and the caste regime remained ignored and unutilised.

The policy of positive discrimination enshrined in the Constitution has been progressive and accepted after extensive consultations and deep thinking by leaders of the nation. However, perennially fixed lists of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes without realistic modifications in them cannot expect to have a result other than what the earlier Samhita had on the society of its own time. Ultimately, people like to live with or within a caste identity only so long as it helps them in terms of their material culture status.

Fortunately in our time, there is full legal sanction for transcending caste and religion. One hopes that we may begin to move towards fulfilling the dream of an equal society. For this to happen, however, there is need to appreciate the power of the informal identity affiliations over the entirely formalised affiliations. We must think caste differently.