Gandhi on religion, cow and caste — II

On the one hand, Gandhi says he does not believe in caste but, on the other hand, he says that he believes in hereditary occupations

Gandhi on religion, cow and caste — II


In 1921, Gandhi said in his journal Young India: “I am a sanatani Hindu. I believe in varnashram dharma. I believe in protection of the cow.” He also said, “I believe that caste has saved Hinduism from disintegration. One of my correspondents suggests that we should abolish the caste system but adopt the class system of Europe, meaning that the idea of hereditary castes should be rejected. I am inclined to think that the law of heredity is an eternal law and any attempt to alter it must lead to utter confusion. Hindus believe in transmigration of the soul and Nature will adjust the balance by degrading a Brahmin if he misbehaves to a lower caste, and upgrading one who lives the life of a Brahmin to a Brahmin in his next life.”
He also wrote: “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. Caste is but an extension of the principle of the family. Both are governed by blood and heredity. Western scientists are busy trying to prove that heredity is an illusion and that milieu is everything. The experience of many lands goes against the conclusions of these scientists but even accepting their doctrine of milieu, it is easy to prove that milieu can be conserved and developed more through caste than through class. As we all know, change comes very slowly in social life and, thus, as a matter of fact, caste has allowed new groupings to suit the changes in lives. But these changes are quiet and easy, as a change in the shape of the clouds. It is difficult to imagine a better, harmonious human adjustment. Caste does not connote superiority or inferiority. It simply recognises different outlooks and corresponding modes of life. 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. When all castes accept a common goal of life, a hierarchy is inevitable because all castes cannot realise the ideal in equal degree.”
Again, in 1921, Gandhi said: “I believe that if Hindu society has been able to stand, it is because it is founded on the caste system. A community, which can create the caste system must be said to possess unique power of organisation. To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation, which is the soul of the caste system. The hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder. It will be chaos if every day a Brahmin is to be changed into a Shudra and a Shudra is to be changed into a Brahmin. The caste system is a natural order of society. I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.”
In 1926, Gandhi writes: “In accepting the fourfold division I am simply accepting the laws of nature, taking for granted what is inherent in human nature and the law of heredity. It is not possible in one birth entirely to undo the results of our past doings.” Gandhi’s hypocrisy can again be seen by the following statement in 1927: “In my conception of the law of varna, no one is superior to any other. A scavenger (a rubbish collector or a latrine or street sweeper) has the same status as a Brahmin.” Is this not ridiculous and farcical? Do Brahmins regard Shudras as their equals? It is like the devious doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ propounded by the US Supreme Court in 1896. Gandhi does not want the abolition of the caste system. He says all castes have the same status, which is nonsense.
In 1925, Gandhi says: “There is no harm if a person belonging to one varna acquires the knowledge or science and art specialised in by persons belonging to other varnas. But as far as the way of earning his living is concerned, he must follow the occupation of the varna to which he belongs, which means he must follow the hereditary profession of his forefathers. The objective of the varna system is to prevent competition and class struggle, and class war. I believe in the varna system because it fixes the duties and occupations of persons. Varna means the determination of a man’s occupation before he is born. In the varna system no man has any liberty to choose his occupation.” This statement is again obfuscation. Why will anyone acquire a skill unless he can use it to earn his bread?
In 1931, Gandhi said: “I do not believe in caste in the modern sense. It is an excrescence and a handicap on progress. Nor do I believe in inequalities between human beings. We are all absolutely equal. But equality is of souls and not bodies. We have to realise equality in the midst of this apparent inequality. Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus, caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil. I do however believe in varna, which is based on hereditary occupations. Varnas are four to mark four universal occupations: imparting knowledge, defending the defenceless, carrying on agriculture and commerce, and performing service through physical labour. These occupations are common to all mankind but Hinduism, having recognised them as the law of our being, has made use of it in regulating social relations and conduct. Gravitation affects us all whether one knows it exists or not.”
The above statement really takes the cake. On the one hand, Gandhi says he does not believe in caste but, on the other hand, he says that he believes in hereditary occupations and says it is like the law of gravity. But hereditary occupations are the basis of caste. Does this contradictory statement require any comment, except to say that this man can wriggle around and say that two plus two equals four and two plus two equals five in the same breath?
In 1932, Gandhi said: “My own opinion is that the varna system has just now broken down. There is no true Brahmin or true Kshatriya or Vaishya. We are all Shudras, i.e. one varna. If this position is accepted, then the thing becomes easy. If this does not satisfy our vanity, then we are all Brahmins. Removal of untouchability does mean root-and-branch destruction of the idea of superiority and inferiority.” Does this statement make any sense? At least I cannot make any head or tail out of it.
In 1933, Dr Ambedkar said: “There will be outcasts as long as there are castes, and nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.” This was the logical argument of Dr Ambedkar. But see how Gandhi replies: “Dr Ambedkar is bitter. He has every reason to feel so. Yet I do not believe the caste system, even as distinguished from varnashrama (the scheme of duties traditionally linked to the caste system), to be an odious and vicious dogma. It has its limitations and defects, but there is nothing sinful about it, as there is about untouchability. And if untouchability is a by-product of the system, it is only in the same sense that an ugly growth is of a body, or weeds of a crop.”
Thus, Gandhi is not against the caste system but only against untouchability.

(To be continued)

The writer is an ex-judge of the Supreme Court of India