“Castes In India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, a research paper in which Ambedkar seeks to establish caste as a product of sustained endogamy, was written in 1916 at Columbia University for the anthropology seminar of Dr AA Goldenweiser and eventually published in the Indian Antiquary in 1917. In 1913, assisted by a scholarship from Maharaja Sayaji Rao of Baroda, Ambedkar had enrolled as a student in the faculty of political science at Columbia University, United States. In this essay, Ambedkar critiques the essentialisation of caste and seeks to establish its knowability – as a theoretical and practical problem. Specifically, he seeks to understand intermarriage restrictions, social relations, and the re-rooting of caste structure in new spaces. In contrast to the anthropological equation of caste to race in his time, Ambedkar counted cultural homogeneity, notwithstanding racial difference, among India’s distinctions as a nation. So the problem, as it were, was to explain exactly how this homogenous culture splintered into neat, impervious parcels, or how caste evolved.
To start, he brackets the origin of intellectual positions on caste formation. By his lights, with regard to existing colonial discourse on race and cultural evolution, biography and origin more than justifiably slant anthropologists’ ideas, such that colour either gains undue influence, or occupation, migration, and “new beliefs” are located at the very core of caste formation.
For instance, when gripped by the notion of jatis as isolated units, caste studies was blind to the crucial point that caste was a system constituted by interdependent components and their composition forming an integrated whole.
This led to the misdiagnosis of symptoms such as the absence of mixing with other castes as causes. Here, his drawing attention to sociologist and historian SV Ketkar’s formulation is much more than Ambedkar endorsing a “native” position. Rather, he illuminates the “openness” that allows Ketkar to examine caste in relation to the entire system of caste. Furthermore, he reasons that caste’s two characteristics – intermarriage prohibitions and membership by autogeny as Ketkar outlined – flanked the same coin. In other words, endogamy (absence of intermarriage) was the essence of the caste system. Ambedkar goes on to make extra-domestic comparisons with the United States where racial endogamy did not lead to caste formation, unlike India where racially mixed, culturally homogenous peoples were artificially divided into fixed units of castes. In so doing, he attempts to establish endogamy as a characteristic so peculiar to caste that it spawned and sustained a range of mechanisms in the development of a structure we know as the caste system.
While primarily concerned with how caste developed, Ambedkar’s discussion of endogamy also defines an important shift in social relations. Endogamy effectively superimposed the existing practice of exogamy that he maintains was the elemental law of primitive societies, including those in the subcontinent. How did this superimposition actually occur, and how was the marriage circle formed? Practically speaking, it was an issue of parity between marriageable units, men and women, or how to maintain it.
By thus framing caste within gender differences that determined the value of surplus man and surplus woman, Ambedkar was laying the base for what was, properly speaking, a feminist take on caste.
We learn that the surplus woman is “disposed of” in one of two ways. When sati – burning a woman on her husband’s pyre – was not possible, enforced and degraded widowhood was pressed into service. Of course, “male superiority among groups” did not allow a surplus man, or a widower, to be subject to the same treatment. Because losing a man was losing labour and depleting group numbers, the problem was resolved by marrying him to someone from a not-yet marriageable group, a moral fence scaled by institutionalising girl child marriage. It is precisely for this reason that Ambedkar’s view of caste was entrenched in endogamy, which by its prohibition on intermarriage provided the basic framework for the development of the caste structure.
Regarding endogamy’s outcome, Ambedkar maintains that scholars have spent more time charting how sati, child marriage, and enforced widowhood accrued social value than investigating their origins. Here, he is no doubt highlighting a double manoeuver by which Brahmanical ideology both preserved and eulogised the very practices that degraded women. In Ambedkar’s formulation, three operations central to the origin and development of caste come to light: intra-group organisation of reproduction, violent control of surplus woman’s sexuality, and legitimating control practices through ideology.
Promising to explain the exact process at a later date, Ambedkar maintains that caste is enclosed class, and that Brahmans were the first class to raise the walls of endogamy, a custom that non-Brahmans certainly emulated, though not strictly. He rules out imposition by law-givers (caste existed prior to Manu), divine dispensation, and/or social growth as reasons for the spread of endogamy. His argument that “some closed doors – others found them closed” draws on French sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s law of imitation in an effort to show that the practice of imitation of endogamy flowed from higher to lower levels, and that the extent of imitation varied inversely in proportion to caste proximity. Whereas castes closest to Brahmans imitated all three customs, those further away pursued only those beliefs present in caste principles. Moreover, we learn that enclosure and endogamy were always under threat of violation or innovation, and prescribed options of penalties, particularly excommunication, lead to the formation of new castes.
In focusing on endogamy, Ambedkar is essentially drawing attention to the inferior status of women within caste groups, that he claims produced two significant results.
Firstly, the surplus man and the surplus woman received differential treatment, or as Ambedkar puts it, “man – as a maker of injunctions is most often above them all”. Secondly, because gendered violence became common and naturalised, castes were regarded as born not made, thus making them automatically exclusionary. By this, sati, and enforced and degraded widowhood became the chief means to disposing of surplus – practices that castes closest to Brahmans replicated variously, resulting in male superiority in all castes across the hierarchy. It is for this reason that Ambedkar saw caste’s exclusionary violence and subjugation of women inherent in the very processes that lead to caste formation.
“The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman”, published in the journal Maha Bodhi in 1951, was Ambedkar’s response to an article published in the magazine Eve’s Weekly that blamed the Buddha for the fall of women from the “golden position”. Perhaps alluding to the nationalist myth of the Vedic woman, Ambedkar claims to see a pattern in such indictment and urges an examination of the roots of the repeated charge against the Buddha.
The text lists three oft-repeated accusations against the Buddha with regard to women. Firstly, the Buddha forbade all interaction with women. This refers to a dialogue between Buddha and Ananda in Chapter V of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Secondly and thirdly, Buddha opposed women’s demands to take parivraja (ordination) and when he did permit the same he also subordinated the Bhikkhuni Sangha (community of women disciples) to the Bhikkhu Sangha (community of male disciples). The text attempts a rational rebuttal of these allegations against the Buddha by analysing how codification distorts oral traditions. Ambedkar presents textual evidence that contradicts the charges, and makes historical comparisons between the Buddha’s position on women and women’s positions before and after the rise of Buddhism.
The last section of the essay, which borrows heavily from his earlier, then unpublished text, “Women and Counter-Revolution/ Riddle of Women”, compares the rights of women in the pre-Manu and Manu eras, and emphasises the latter as the period that initiates the subordination of women.
Specifically, he calls attention to Manu’s description of women as immoral, disloyal, and impure that is then used to justify his injunction against their freedom under all circumstances.
Ambedkar contends that Manu’s rulings were a reaction to the freedom women enjoyed in the Buddhist period. Manu’s design of ideal womanhood, which was based on exalting the husband, or the pativrata ideology, reinforced the gendered contours of the Brahmanic counter-revolution. Prior to Manu, this ideal had been only a theory of the Brahmans. Manu, claims Ambedkar, made the ideal and the related practices – such as denying funerals to women joining heretic sects and those born of mixed unions – state law. In conclusion, Ambedkar views Manu’s turning of what were specifically Brahmanic ideals for women into state law in terms of a defence mechanism. Manu’s laws should be read as a preemptive response to the potential threat to Brahmanical religion – if women and Shudras turned to Buddhism for succour.
In the late 1980s, against the backdrop of rising Hindutva politics, Uma Chakravarti’s pertinent essay “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?” brought under scrutiny the hyper-visibility of the Aryan woman and disappearance of the woman in servitude (Dasi) in nineteenth-century Hindu liberal and conservative discourses. More recently, feminist historians such as Kumkum Roy have drawn attention to the resurgence of the Vedic woman in writings concerning gender relations in early India. These writings by feminist historians call for further feminist engagement on the many constructions and reconstructions of the myth of the Vedic period as a golden age for women.
Ambedkar’s history of revolution and counter-revolution in “The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman”, which sets the nationalist construction of the “Golden Vedic Age” theory on its head, justifiably should be regarded as one of the proto-feminist approaches to writings on ancient India.
At the end of this essay, Ambedkar states that those seeking the truth will not place the blame for the downfall of women on the Buddha but on Manu.
Indeed, in the past decade, in the aftermath of the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and the assertion of Dalit feminism, feminist scholarship has sought to unravel the “truth” of Brahmanical patriarchy and therefore taken Manu to task by exploring the possibilities Buddhism offered to women. A feminist reclamation of “The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman” would lead to a fruitful discussion between Ambedkar’s Buddha and contemporary feminist positions on the question of whether Buddhism provides a viable alternative to Brahmanical patriarchy.
Excerpted with permission from Against the Madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, selected and introduced by Sharmila Rege, Navayana. The original text in the book contains additional footnotes and sources.
Sharmila Rege (1954-2013) was a sociologist who headed the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune. She is the author of Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonies.