Kashmiri Hindus and the Caste System
by Subhash Kak
is generally accepted that all the Kashmiri Hindus belong to the same
or jati. Is that because they belong to a single caste or varna resulting
from the conversion of the other castes to Islam? Or does this represent
a variant of Hindu religion where the caste system does not exist?
Let me first
deal with the designation Pandit that is applied to Kashmiri Hindus. According
to Henny Sender in her book The Kashmiri Pandits (1988), this designation
was requested by Jai Ram Bhan, a Kashmiri courtier in the Mughal court,
in Delhi, of the Emperor Muhammad Shah (1719-1749), and it was granted.
Apparently, before this period both Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims were addressed
as khuajah in the Mughal court.
call themselves Batta, from the Sanskrit bhartri meaning
master. Such an appellation may be a reflection of the community's self-image
that emphasizes success and excellence and it need not have any sociological
implications. Two subgroups, that were sometimes considered to be separate,
are Buher, and Purib: Buher (from the Kashmiri word for grocer) and Purib
(for easterner). It appears most likely that these subgroupings, that have
all but disappeared now, reflected the profession of business in the case
of Buher and ancestry that could be traced to an immigrant from east India.
have other names that indicate ancestry outside India; for example, the
name Turki. Evidently, the category of Kashmiri Hindu has been fluid and
it has admitted those that wished to belong to it.
philosophical and religious system current in Kashmir is that of Shaivism.
According to the texts of the Shaivites all those who accept the Kula (Shaivite)
dharma become Kauls, irrespective of their background. The Shaivite initiation
has always been open to everyone - and that includes women. There are accounts
of how Abhinavagupta, the great Shaivite philosopher who lived about a
thousand years ago, had several women disciples. Later, Kashmir had great
women sages such as Lalleshvari and Rupa Bhavani.
The fact that
Kashmiri Hinduism is universal does not mean that social inequity did not
exist in Kashmir. Such inequity reflected the social and political ideas
of its times and it did not spring from any fundamental religious considerations.
So is Kashmiri
Hinduism different from Hinduism elsewhere? The surprising answer is no!
There is evidence that there was no caste system in the Vedic times. The
BrahmaPurana says that during the golden age (Satya Yuga) everyone was
a Brahmana. The famous Purushasukta hymn of the Rigveda (10.90) speaks
of the Brahmana, Rajanya (Kshatriya), Vaishya, and Shudra as having sprung
from the head, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of Purusha, the primal
man. This mention of varnas has been taken to indicate that a caste system
existed in the Vedic times. But it is repeatedly mentioned elsewhere that
each human is in the image of the Purusha which would indicate that each
human internalizes aspects of all the varnas. So the label of a specific
varna applied to a person may have implied a certain personality type.
Later texts speak of how everyone is a shudra when born, implying that
the yajnopavit (mekhala) ceremony was open to everyone. A girdle was also
tied in a ceremony to girls.
proclaim that one's nature alone, and not birth, determines to which varna
belongs. In the famous dialogue between Yudhishthira and Yaksha in the
Mahabharata Yudhishthira is asked whether a person is a brahmin based on
"birth, learning, or conduct'' and his answer is only "conduct'' makes
a person a brahmin and not birth. In the ancient Aryan society the varnas
were functional groupings and not closed endogamous birth-descent groups.
Basham in his book The Wonder That Was India suggests that the jati
system in its modern form developed very late perhaps not before 1000 A.D.
The Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang in the seventh century was not aware of
it. As a response to historical events one might then credit the emergence
of the modern jati system to the next fundamental change in the Indian
polity that occurred with the invasions of the Turks.
There is no
synonym for caste in any Indian language. The Indian words that caste supposedly
translates are jati, which means a large kin-community or descent-group,
and varna, which implies a classification based on function. The dynamics
between the jatis has been influenced a great deal by historical and political
factors. During the periods of economic growth, the jatis have been relatively
open-ended; during periods of hardships the jatis have tended to draw in
for the sake of survival. The word 'caste' comes from the Portugese casta,
a word that was meant to describe the jati system, but slowly it has come
to have a much broader connotation.
the Greek ambassador to India about 2,300 years ago, noted the existence
of seven classes, namely that of philosophers, peasants, herdsmen, craftsmen
and traders, soldiers, government officials and councillors. These classes
were apparently jatis.
In its long
history India has had diverse social and religious currents. It is only
in the exception that the reality has conformed to the theory of the conservative
Dharma Shastras. The Vaishnavas emphatically define varna based on one's
actions. This is repeated by the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana.
may pay lip service to the Brahmin as an intermediary to the gods when
it comes to ritual, each caste considers itself to be the highest. If the
Brahmins were to be accepted as the highest caste then other castes would
have no hesitation in giving their daughters to the Brahmins. But in reality
they do not. The Rajputs consider the Brahmins to be other-wordly or plain
beggars; the traders consider the Brahmins to be impractical; and so on.
In classical Sanskrit plays the fool is always a Brahmin. In other words,
each different community has internalized a different outlook on life but
these outlooks cannot be placed in any hierarchical ordering. The internalized
images of the other must, by its very nature, be a gross simplification
and it will never conform exactly to reality.
sociologist Louis Dumont claims that the castes are separate but interdependent
hereditary groups of occupational specialists. He postulates that the principle
of purity-impurity keeps the segments separate from one another. In this
system each jati closes its boundaries to lower jatis, refusing them the
privileges of intermarriage and other contacts defined to be polluting.
Facts belie the Dumont theory: Indian Muslims and Christians also have
castes. The eighteenth century German society was divided into princes,
nobles, burghers, peasants and serfs between whom no marriage other than
morganatic was possible. Korea and Japan also had the practice of untouchability.
The Buddhist dogma about non-killing appears to have led to the ostracization
of those people whose trades involved hunting, slaughtering animals and
One might wonder
why the caste system developed in certin parts of India. It has beeneargued
that European and Western traditions, owing to their exclusivist nature,
set out to obtain uniform belief and practices. The inclusivist nature
of the Indian religions, on the other hand, places each group in a larger
The famed Indian
scholar M.N. Srinivas pointed out that the process of Sanskritization is
responsible for movement within the jati system. Sanskritization implies
emulating a dominant caste of any high varna. One should add that there
also exists the dynamic of fragmentation.
structure of India reflects no single ideology which is why no single theory
has proved to be rich enough to describe the system. The system represents
several symbiotic ideologies. These ideologies are balanced by political
and economic forces. The ideologies of the brahmin, the aristocrat, the
trader, and the commoner were all proclaimed to be equivalent in their
effectiveness in obtaining knowledge: this was reflected in the paths of
jnana yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga, and bhakti yoga. Even festivals like
Sarasvati puja, Dassera, Divali, and Holi celebrate the different attitudes.
The Vedas do
not sanction the notion of caste as it has been understood in recent times.
New technology, science, and political organization is changing the social
institutions of India. In many ways the modern Indian castes are no more
than the ethnic communities in the West.
To return to
the question I posed in the beginning of this note, do Kashmiri Hindus
have a caste system. The answer is an emphatic no. Kashmiris are brahmin
in the sense of BrahmaPurana, according to which every human, being desirous
of knowledge, is a brahmin.
S. Kak, "Understanding
caste in India,'' MANKIND QUARTERLY, vol 34, pp. 117-123, 1993.
S. Kak, INDIA
AT CENTURY'S END. VOI, New Delhi, 1994.
FAMILY AND KINSHIP. OUP, New Delhi, 1965, 1989.
THE KASHMIRI PANDITS. OUP, New Delhi, 1988.