It may sound unbelievable and absurd, but the case is that Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most famous people in the history of our planet, was a supporter of the caste system and promoted collectivist views on human development and organising. My text is here mostly based on the book “Gandhi’s Varnavyavastha” written and edited by Professor M Kiran.
The Caste System
In India, the caste system is still an existing social institution and the topic of everyday discussions. A popular expression is that “In India, you do not cast a vote — you vote a caste”.
The caste system is defined among other ways as one of the world’s oldest social systems, as hierarchical groupings, class structure determined by birth, and as a division of society based on differences of wealth and inherited ranks.
This system and idea has a long history and has been in different forms been old as Sanatana Dharma (popularly known as Hinduism) religious philosophy. Historically it was also called as “the varna system” nad based on organising social life into four varnas:
- Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers
- Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators
- Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans and merchants
- Shudras: labourers and service providers.
At the bottom layer of the caste system are the so-called “Harijans” or “the untouchables”. (Today this category in India is known as Dalits and Scheduled Casts concerning Indian federal system)
For more information about the caste system and its history in India, visit the following link.
Gandhi as a historical person
Mohandas Karamchan Gandhi famously known as Mahatma (meaning Great Soul) Gandhi is regarded as on the most famous persons in history, especially regarding the history of the 20th century. Gandhi was born in 1869 in a trader caste family and died in 1948 after being assassinated by an extremist Hindu in the aftermath of the Indian independence from Great Britain’s colonial rule. In India, Gandhi is among else known as “Father of the Nation”.
When it comes to religion, Gandhi’s family practised a kind of Vaishnavism inflected through the morally rigorous tenets of Jainism where aspects as asceticism and nonviolence are considered as important. Gandhi’s spiritual beliefs were constantly evolving during his life-time. His affections included Leo Tolstoy’s analysis of Christian theology and the Quʾrān. Gandhi spent much of his life devoted to different studies, both academic and religious ones.
Gandhi is famous for his non-violence methods and approaches during the anti-colonial struggle in the 1930s and 1940s when he is a leading member of the Indian National Congress political party advocating for India (including territories of today's Pakistan and Bangladesh) becoming decolonized and sovereign from the British colonial governance. Gandhi is also famous for promoting human rights and tolerance between ethnic and religious communities, especially between Muslims and Hindus. He was also nominated for Nobel Peace Price several times while his ideas and actions have inspired other famous individuals like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Gandhi and the caste system
There are many writings about Gandhi's views and opinions on everything from the economy to agriculture. Gandhi is also today seen as a “complex” or better said complicated person who for example also had racist towards black Africans views during his time in Soth Africa in early 1900s and for expressing admiration for the famous fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
When it comes to the caste system, it is often written that Gandhi was opposing the system and wishing to abolish it. It is also common with writings that Gandhi was trying to help “the untouchables”. However, the history of Gandhi’s relation to the caste system is complex and nuanced. Perceptions and views that Gandhi was anti-caste are not historically correct nor accurate.
The main reason is that Gandhi, in his writings as during the 1920s and 1930s, wrote several texts where he argued in favour of the caste system. Another reason is Gandhi’s political conflict with one of the main historical individuals behind the anti-colonial and pro-sovereignty activism India, Dr Bhimjirao Ambedkar who himself was born in a Dalit and “untouchable family”. To make a long story short, Ambedkar, who was inspired by ideas of socialism and religion as Buddhism wanted to abolish the caste system via democratic reforms that also would improve the status of the untouchables. In contrast, Gandhi wanted to reform the caste-system and “include” the untouchables into it.
Both Ambedkar and Gandhi saw themselves as persons representing the untouchables and wishing to help them but through different ideas and ambitions. As Dr Ankur Barua has argued, Gandhi as a ‘rural romantic’ and a ‘crypto-anarchist’ wanted to reform Hinduism by abolishing ‘untouchability’ by setting up self-governing villages. This was in contrast to Ambedkar’s vision based on urban spaces structured by technology and democracy.
In his book “Gandhi’s Varnavyavastha” Kiran writes that 70 years after India gained independence from the British colonial rule, the basic socio-economic relations and political outlook are still dominated by caste and religion. Despite that Gandhi has been extensively studied and analysed as among Indian academics since the 1950s, the case is that one of the most neglected aspects of “Gandhian thought” is his pre-occupation on caste. Kiran argues that many of Gandhi’s views on caste have been neglected, camouflaged or brushed aside.
According to Kiran, the colonial rule had an impact on the caste system that before colonisation was the main determining force in a socio-political relationship in the Indian sub-continent. The caste system has mostly been based on religions orientations for the Brahmans (upper caste), their supremacy and influence on as on economic divisions of labour. This structure and social order became to be challenged by the British colonial rule since the colonial system as via institutions as armed forces, railways and courts also became later foundations of sovereign India as a nation-state.
Kiran writes that one result of the colonial intervention was to disproportionally empower the locally dominant castes unified under the pan-Indian colonial administrative structures. Pre-colonial administration in different parts of Indian sub-continent was often individuals drawn in service not because of skills and merits but because of local affiliations and connections. When becoming assimilated into the British colonial administration later on in history this “administrative class” gradually transformed into anti-colonial movement.
When it comes to modernity, Kiran argues that transformation from agricuötural societies to industrial ones in Europe during the 19th century was based on ideas as nationalism, secularism and democracy. In India, modernity as regarding the ideas of the nation as an egalitarian (equal civil freedoms and rights) imagined and political community directly challenged the basic principles of Hindu social structure. Thereby, there was a vision that nationalism would lead to even to the annihilation of the caste system. Still, the opposite took place where the caste system became the part of the Indian anti-colonial nationalism.
It is this historical background that one needs to understand when analysing Gandhi as a religious and political leader during the first half of the 20th century. The introductory part of Kiran’s book is tentative by describing problems among different academics as historians and philosophers who have written about Gandhi by describing him with words as a contributor to humanity, pacifist, post-modernist thinker, civilisational figure etc. This also includes writing that Gandhi’s agenda for “regeneration” of India was based on “atmasbuddhi” —” purification of the national soul” — meaning that contemporary modern political institutions had to reconnect with Indian spirituality.
As Kiran asks, the question is how Gandhi synthesise and resolved social emancipation with political freedom because transforming the irrational caste-hierarchical society buttressed and strengthened under colonial into a rational egalitarian community in the interest of the majority was not a question of moral purification but about bringing concrete changes in the caste-ridden social structures. Kiran writes that “the tragedy of the Indian national movement and its leadership was not only to glorify ancient India as Hindu India but also to review religion and in the process crudely justify the caste system valorised under colonialism.” A system that as “justified, glorified ad eulogised” by Gandhi.
Therefore, as Kiran writes, the dominant academic claims of interpreting Gandhi are often inaccurate because it is a myth that Gandhi stood against caste system and struggled for the eradication of untouchability, also because the claim these claims are in contrary to Gandhi’s own writings and speeches. Gandhi’s vision was to fuse the caste system into modernity, for example, by arguing that the caste system was both natural and rational. This means, for example, that individuals, groups, and communities in the hierarchical social order had access to modern education and professions. Still, each group had to adhere and abide by the pre-determined traditional social status for their livelihood, according to Gandhi.
In this section of the article, I am writing the following parts from Kiran’s book about Gandhi’s writings mostly during the 1920s and 1930s as Gandhi’s writings in the Young India journal (Bombay based, Maharsthan language).
- For Gandhi, the caste system was “a social blueprint for the nation”, and one idea was to “abolish untouchability” by integrating the untouchables into the cast system.
- According to Gandhi, the caste system is “natural”, and it exists everywhere in the world but in different forms.
- The caste system was not based on inequality and irrationality. According to Gandhi, the caste system provides equality and rationality providing “ideal nationhood”, inherited personal qualities and needs for moral purification.
- Gandhi’s view was that democracy, as based on political representation, citizenship and human rights, would lead to the abolishment of the caste system. Therefore, his idea was that democracy should be adjusted to the caste system.
- Regarding the “Law of Varna”, Gandhi saw it as an essential part of Hindu religion based on pre-determination of profession and respect for ancestors. For Gandhi, the caste system was not a human invention but a “natural law” and that those who did not respect nor followed the caste system, as by choosing professions that were “outside” of their casts, were doing damage and violence to themselves.
- According to Gandhi, individual self-realization was only possible by following the Law of Varna and that the individual could only be free by being a member of one of the casts — “the division into varnas can do no harm to individuality”.
- For Gandhi, Varna(the caste system) was a system to achieve “individual spirituality” and to avoid conflicts of communism and capitalism.
- Gandhi was in favour of “living wage” to secure the caste system and social cohesion and to prevent economic competition. He justified such views by arguing that otherwise, everyone would aspire to become a doctor or lawyer by seeking high-paid jobs.
- In his earlier writings, Gandhi defended untouchability as “a necessary institution” and did not want to abolish that category because it was seen as essential for upholding the caste system.