Castes in India

Author: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar : Castes in India

This Book Review is written by Vishal Kumar Jha, a student of BA.LLB from Manipal University


It’s originally a research paper on ethnology, presented by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar at an anthropological seminar in New York in 1916. The next year, the paper was published in the 41st volume of Indian Antiquary. Later he had given a Ph.D. on the same topic by Columbia University. It’s now translated into many languages. In this work, Dr. Ambedkar has tried to present the menace of caste in Hindu society and very critically examined the working, origin, and spread of caste. The whole work revolves around the idea of endogamy which he sees as a supporting wall behind caste. Briefly talking about all these, we’ll evaluate his work and try to do a rational review of this book.


Started by saying “I need hardly remind you of the complexity”, Ambedkar shows the obvious nature of caste. Very humbly he said that bigger minds than him have worked on caste but yet, it’s unexplained. However, Ambedkar was optimistic about cracking the mystery of caste.  He politely accepted the fact of his incompetency to entirely deal with caste thus, he has discussed only its genesis, mechanism, and spread. He highlights that many ethnologists have acknowledged the fact of Indian diversity. People initially were from different cultures, later unite together and which according to Ambedkar is a reason for the homogeneity in India. Started by applauding cultural unity, he also depicts homogeneity as a hindrance in explaining caste. He then introduced some students of caste i.e. Mr. Senart, Mr. Nesfield, Sir. H, Risley, and Dr. Ketkar and have discussed their definitions. He said that the former three were incorrect in approach and according to him “Their mistake lies in trying to define caste as an isolated unit by itself”. He criticized them. Senart, Ambedkar said had wrongly depicted the “idea of pollution” as a character of caste because it’s a character, only when the caste has religious flavor, which isn’t universal. Nesfield hadn’t explained the natural result of caste i.e. exclusiveness. He strongly criticized Risley without using many words. Ketkar according to him was good in approach as he depicted only those features which are essentials i.e. hereditary membership and endogamy. But even he was confusing as the two characters which he explained are the “reverse sides of the same medal”.

He then sees endogamy as the only character of caste. According to Ambedkar, “castes in India means an Artificial chopping off the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into one another through the custom of endogamy”. According to him, success in showing how endogamy works will prove the genesis and mechanism. In this context, he said that initially, endogamy was foreign to India. He corroborates this fact by showing the practice of prohibition of Sagotra marriage. According to him “with exogamy, there could be no caste, for exogamy means fusion”. After this, he concluded that “the superposition of endogamy means the creation of caste”. But he said that this wouldn’t be an easy task, especially when initially there existed an exogamous society. To show the general working of endogamy, Ambedkar took an imaginary group that wants to make itself into a caste and then tried to see the means adopted by them to maintain endogamy. To maintain caste, it’s a must to circumscribe a circle. But this creates an internal problem of maintaining equality between the sexes, as generally, every society has “only enough of sex between those of same age”. Ambedkar then said that repairing this disparity is the ultimate goal and for this conjugal right must be provided. “The much-needed parity is realized only when a couple dies simultaneously, which is a rare contingency”. Now, Ambedkar introduces the concept of ‘Surplus Woman’ and ‘Surplus Man’. He sees both of them as a hindrance against the caste formation and hence both need to dispose off. Firstly, he talked about a Surplus woman. There are two means. First, she could be burnt with her husband, but this is impractical. The practical one is to enforce widowhood upon her. This solution is humane too. After this, he discussed the case of Surplus man which is difficult to deal with. He proved this by showing the patriarchal structure of society. Ambedkar pointed out that, such being the situation, Man can’t be burned. So, the other solution is to enforce widower for the lifetime, by observing celibacy. But considering human nature, this is difficult to realize and even if happens, it’s against the interest of the caste as caste needs the men to be ‘Grihastha’. Now the only solution is to provide him a wife who is not yet marriageable. Though imposing celibacy and lifetime widower is problematic, they still had operated as means. All these means when used generate a result and this result according to Ambedkar is endogamy.

After talking about generalities, he talks about the mechanism of caste in Hindu society, which he thinks is difficult to analyze due to the lack of written records. He tried to find the synonymous means, which Hindus would have adopted. In this context, he found three customs i.e. Sati, Enforced widowhood, Girl marriage, and in some cases Sannyasa for a widower. According to Ambedkar, no scientific reason is there to support such customs, though there are few philosophies in its honor. For Sati, he explained the philosophy of A.K. Coomaraswamy who defends it as a wife’s “devotion beyond the grave”. No one would have defended enforced widowhood but many adhered to it, said Ambedkar. Then he talked about Ketkar’s explanation of Girl marriage: “A faithful man or woman ought not to feel affection for a woman or man other than the one with whom he or she is united”. This according to him should be followed even before marriage. This perception results in girl-child marriage. Ambedkar thinks that these were honored because they were practiced. He said that it’s the initiative of custom which is important and the philosophy will justify it. These philosophies are “to gild the pill”. Though represented as ideals, their real nature is but a means to maintain endogamy.

He then talks about the origin of caste, which usually was ignored. According to Ambedkar, the origin of caste means the origin of the mechanism of endogamy. He said that society is universally composed of class and not of an individual. If he finds the class which first becomes caste, the origin will be discovered. Ambedkar sees castes as an enclosed class. He then depicts the Brahman as the only caste, which strictly follows these means and its prevalence is derivative in other societies. Hence, he proved the originators of these “unnatural institutions”.

Now he jumps on to the next question to find the spread of caste. Talking about the lawgiver in India i.e. Manu, Ambedkar says, had adhered to it and philosophized it. But Ambedkar acquitted Manu by observing that he didn’t give and he couldn’t give such a complex institution. According to Ambedkar, “Caste existed long before Manu”. Surprisingly, he acquitted Brahman also. It was beyond their mettle to impose caste beyond their confines. They couldn’t do more than giving glib philosophy. They would have justified it by arguing that it’s written in Shastras and Shastras cannot be wrong. He highlighted the fact that these customs aren’t scientific. He again criticizes the western philosophers who have shown the wrong character of caste i.e. occupation, cross-breeding, etc.  Ambedkar criticized their theory by saying “the brand name without the grand thing in it”. He also called their theory the petitio principii. He further says that they all were wrong in judging caste as inevitable. Ambedkar then recalls the initial classes of Hindu society i.e. Brahmans or Priests, Kshatriyas or warriors, Vaisyas or Merchants, and Shudras or Artisans. There was no hereditary membership but at some point, of time, the Brahmans enclosed themselves and become a caste, which due to psychological or mechanistic factors resulted in another caste. The psychological process is driven by Non-brahmans who imitated Brahmans. Ambedkar then talked about Gabriel Trade who gave the Law of Imitation, according to which imitation flows from higher to lower. In other words, he said that the lower class always imitates the upper class. The condition for the law of imitation is: the source of imitation must enjoy prestige and there must be regular relationships between source and imitators. The Brahmans fulfill both of these conditions. Also, the status of caste varies according to extent of the performance of these customs. The caste near Brahman practices all these customs while the farthest one just believes the caste. Then Ambedkar talks about the mechanistic process which is inevitable. It means that when Brahman enclosed themselves, they closed others out. Here he gave an example that “if A wants to endogamous, group B has to be so by sheer force of circumstances”. The one who invents new ideas excommunicated by orthodox people of caste and this also led the excommunicated group to become caste. He then summarized his thesis. He said that the students of caste done mistakes in their approach and they had taken caste very lightly. In ending notes, he very humbly accepted the fact that his explanation of caste is not the final one as his work is just a contribution to the discussion of caste. He has just tried to indicate the right path for other students and positively asserted that if someone without any biased and rational approach counters his work, he is ready to give up.

Evaluation and Review

The fact that Dr. Ambedkar was one of the greatest torchbearers of the abolition of caste is unanimous. He has proved the fact in this book. This short work has given almost all the answers about the mechanism, genesis, and development of caste. The work is so relevant that even after a century, this work is considered by many nations to deal with caste. Though he has strongly criticized other’s work on caste, it cannot be said that he is overconfident in his approach. He has talked about many caste scholars, but it’s unexpected that while dealing with caste, he will not talk about Jotirao Phule. Initially, he has accepted the fact of his incompetency about dealing with the caste in its entirety, and in ending notes he is ready to give up if any rational and unbiased approach shows something against his work. Ambedkar has suggested that a scientific approach must be there to study caste. He has not used grandeur words for himself. He has concisely shown the origin of these cruel and unnatural institutions. The study also highlights the patriarchal society of the past. Surprisingly, Ambedkar was very light in his approach towards Manu and Brahmans, but he humorously criticized them by highlighting their inability to impose caste. The work shows that the initial Hindu society was not cruel. His approach to the group’s imagination is very appreciable as all the general customs he has shown in his hypothesis are still practiced in Hindu society. Surplus man and woman instead of widow and widower show that he has used mathematical evaluation. Though Ambedkar thinks that the study of the origin of caste is important, the topic occupies very short content of this book. The mentioning of Trade’s Law of Imitation is appreciable. Although there are some grammatical errors, the content is very easy to comprehend as the language is simple and looks like an essay. The author has almost succeeded in giving a short but concise work about the caste. The work is undoubtedly appealing and awesome and, in my opinion, appeals to all those who are very pessimistic about the future of India, especially those who want to find a solution to caste. As an audience, I am convinced by Ambedkar’s viewpoints and will ask everyone to read this book.

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Title: – Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development

Author: – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Place of Publication: – Chennai

Publisher: – XpressPublishing

Total Page: – 30

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