Micropedia Dalitica from A through to F

What is the Indian caste system?


What is special about this website?

There must be now hundreds of websites devoted to Dalits; so what makes this website any different to to others?

Declan Quigley in - An Interpretation of Caste - Oxford India Paperbacks -1999 states:

'The argument will be that it is impossible to explain caste. (page 1). To this effect Quigley quotes Stevenson "There are exceptions to every rule of Hinduism and to every interpretation of caste."(1970:25) This observation is nothing new. It was first noted by the late DD Kosambi in the 1950’s.

'For example, caste organisation literally evaporates when one reaches a certain altitude in the Himalayas. The reason is not to do with altitude per se, or course; people do not think differently merely because they live at 5,000 or 6,000 feet above sea level. The reason is to do with the kind of social organisation that can be sustained by an economy, which because of infertile terrain, produces little or no agricultural surplus. Here then is one clue: caste organisation depend on agricultural surplus. This is obvious enough: if some groups or individuals are not themselves food producers, then their food must be produced by others.' (page 19)

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Banda The Brave



The Sikh revolt  (the Khalsa founded in 1699) fed directly upon peasant unrest of the earlier Jats of Agra and of the Satnami Chamar rebellions of Narnaul. Banda Singh Bahadur was baptised a Sikh and appointed the commander-in-chief of the Sikh army by the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs Gobind Singh himself.

Contrary to what is usually taught in the Panjabi history books Banda was not born a prince. According to William Pinch in a draft :

the Vaishnava commander Madhodas (who became famous as "Banda Bahadur," the leader of the Sikh resistance against the Mughals after the death of Gobind Singh) was the son of a poor Kashmiri Rajput ploughman1.

Banda had his own following even before he met Guru Gobind Singh. In earlier times Jats predominated in Guru Gobind Singh's army but Banda's army's had many 'lower castes' such as cobblers, tanners, sweepers, blacksmiths etc.

Jagjit Singh in the Sikh Revolution (page 124) quotes a contemporary historian to the effect

The dregs of the society of the hellish Hindus swelled the ranks of Banda, and everyone in the army would 'would address the other as adopted son of the oppressed Guru2.

Irfan Habib quotes Warid (page 248) to the effect

Banda, the chief of the Sikhs had established a rule that whoever...became Sikhs, should all eat together; and differences between the menial and the respectable having disappeared, they untied together as one. The lowest sweeper and the raja  of high status sharing water and food, did not harbour any hostility to each other.

. ..More wonderful still, the courage and daring of the inhabitants of those regions was so much lost owing to God's decree : the lowliest sweeper or tanner - filthier than whom there is no race in Hindustan - betaking himself to attend upon that accursed one [Banda], was appointed [by him] to the government of his own city, and when returning after obtaining his deed of appointment, he reached the locality, or city or village, that moment all the respectable and leading men went to receive him, and after his alighting, stood with folded hands before him3.

The caste system had disappeared from Banda Singh Bahadur's domain.

Caste system reappeared in the Punjab after the betrayal of Banda by other Sikhs who wanted to retain the existing caste/feudal status quo to continue for their own selfish ends. Ranjit Singh's land revenue system was a continuation of the earlier Mogul system. Nevertheless Banda's  was the only recorded time in the history of India when there are clear indicators of the destruction of the hated caste society.

Despite the fact that Jat Sikhs became and reamain the major dominant caste in the Panjab countryside and thus form an oppressor community; the love of Dalits for historical Sikhism remains unbound. This is explored by Raj Kumar Hans in his paper Dalits and the Emancipatory Sikh Religion.

Main Sources:

1. http://www.virginia.edu/soasia/symsem/kisan/papers/sadhus.html - Although this paper is stated to be an extremely rough draft, it is unlikely that the author who is a specialist in his chosen subject, would provide an incorrect reference. The reference provided by Professor William R. Finch is: On Banda's early career W. Irvine (Later Mughals, i, 93) cites Major James Browne. India Tracts (London, 1788; 4 vols., a translation of a Persian ms. written by two Hindus at Browne's request), 9; E. Thornton, Gazetteer of the Territories under the East India Company, 788; and Gyan Singh (Gyani) and Babu Rai Indar Singh, Shamsher-i-Khalsa (Urdu, Sialkot. 1891 Lithograph, 4 vols.), 183.

2. The Sikh Revolution by Jagjit Singh, Kendri Singh Sabha 1984.

3. Essays in indian History by Irfan Habib, Tulika Publishers, 1998.

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      Siddha Gorakh Nath

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Tribals, Ordinary Folk and Women and not any god as the originators of Ayurveda

The Vedas refer to mainly elite priestly ritualistic charms, amulets and incantations and for mainly demon caused diseases.It has been suggested that Buddhist monastic medicine is the missing link between the charms and mantras of the Vedas and the later classical Ayurvedic texts.

Rather it would be more correct to say that the link between the herbal medicine practiced by ordinary people and that of the Buddhist medicine has not yet been explored. After all, neem, tulsi, aloe vera, pipal and many other plants and trees have always been well known to the common folk. The earliest roots and herbs were found by women, another missing area of research. This was the position in the tribal society all over the world as it was gardening which led to non plough and later plough based patriarchal agriculture. Since the interaction between the caste based settled society and the adivasi society has been an interactive process, the settled society must have learnt from the adivasi society; for the latter also has its own fairly sophisticated system of medicines developed by shamans and healers in common with the rest of the ‘primitive’ world. The study of Indian medicine had in the past only focused on the textual evidence alone, thus excluding the contribution of common people, especially women women and that of the Adivasi society.

Early Indian Physician - Ritually Impure and Polluted

In the late Samhitas and early Brahmanas (ca 900-500BCE) the physician is denigrated because he has a plebeian, sarmanic roving background and as such he mixes with all manner of people. However the royal physician could be ritually purified. Basically Indian medical epistemology is opposed to brahamincal ideology of touch-me-not, pollution taboos and idealistic world outlook i.e. the gods teaching the mankind about the knowledge of medicinal plants rather the mankind discovering it for itself the world around them by trial and error and practice over many millennia as has been the case for the Ayurveda.
Buddhist Mpnastic Medicine - the missing link in Ayurveda

Hetrodox i.e Buddhist, Jains, non-Vedic physicians were on the other hand encouraged to observe the putrifying dead bodies in order to learn about the human body organs and the functioning of the human body. Such body functions such as menstruation blood, puss etc.and the use of various meats are described without any embarrassment or hesitation and as such the origin of such ideas could not have had a place in the domain of brahaminical ideological system.

“Although considered to be extremely polluting and defiling, medicine was now (4th to 5th century) was now included among the Hindu sciences and came under brahmanic influences, perhaps of out of necessity as the need for healing and care of the sick and injured cut across the existing social and religious barriers or, more likely, as a result of the general process of brahamanical assimilation.” [Wujastyk page 26]

It were the Buddhists who exported the knowledge of Indian medicine to Tibet, Khotan and China. Those who may be subjected to arduous conditions, and those who could afford to pay for any subsequent illness or ailment would have been the one who had the incentive to take medicine knowledge further. These people were the Buddhist long distance international traders. There was thus a practical need to develop and codify the existing system of medicine and pool of knowledge existing amongst the common people. This formed the framework for the latter classical texts.
Buddhsit Natha Siddhas - Masters of Hatha Yoga
One of the cornerstone of the Ayurveda is yoga and the practice of hatha yoga not only goes back to the Indus Valley but some of the most well known yogis were subaltern, a well known example is that of Guru Gorakh Nath and his disciples. To this we may add the galaxy of Tamil Siddhas (Cittars) with their worship of the female principal and that of the indigenous gods i.e. Shiva and Murugan, their extraordinary knowledge of yoga, meditation, herbal medicine and their quest for eternal life and liberation. Gorakh Nath and Tamil Siddhas were also staunch anti-caste and therefore there are not many people wishing to take up their study although Ayurveda is extremely well known in the West. According to Meera Nanda


There are, of course, asana-centred hatha yoga texts in the Indic tradition. But they definitely do not date back 5,000 years: none of them makes an appearance till the 10th to 12th centuries. Hatha yoga was a creation of the kanphata (split-eared) Nath Siddha, who were no Sanskrit-speaking sages meditating in the Himalayas. They were (and still are) precisely those matted-hair, ash-smeared sadhus that the HAF wants to banish from the Western imagination. Indeed, if any Hindu tradition can at all claim a patent on postural yoga, it is these caste-defying, ganja-smoking, sexually permissive, Shiva- and Shakti-worshipping sorcerers, alchemists and tantriks, who were cowherds, potters and suchlike. They undertook great physical austerities not because they sought to achieve pure consciousness, unencumbered by the body and other gross matter, but because they wanted magical powers (siddhis) to become immortal and to control the rest of the natural world.

Buddhist Material Cause and Effect or Karma and not Tridosha humours

Buddhist medicine is based on karma in the sense of cause and effect and middle path between indulgences and the self denial. This is one of the reoccurring theme in the Ayurveda. Buddhist monastaries worldwide have still links with healing arts. This is not the case with 'Hindu' Ayurveda.

In many countries the ancient herbal medicine practitioners were often ordinary women. Herb Goddess, later to be identified with Sukhambri, first shows up in an Indus seal where she is shown with a plant issuing from her yoni. As most families tended to have their favourite formula for a particular ailment indicating that the Ayurveda originated with people and not with any god. Vedas are the works of ruling classes and as such we do not expect to find credit being given to the ordinary people and women at that..

Vedic chants, amulets and mantras dominated the medical knowledge between the Vedic period (800 to 100BCE). The later Indian texts such as the treaties and texts of Ayurveda show a distinct distinction or a paradigm shift. The later texts show a clear theoretical underpinning vis a vis the tri dosha theory. It is noticeable that in classical Ayurveda texts; excluding paediatrics, women’s medicine, injury and poison, the emphasis is on tri dosha ie theory of 3 humours vata, pitta and kapha being wind, phlegm and bile.

"Explanation of diseases arising from the season (rtu), from unusual or irregular activities, objects or foods [from visama) and from past actions (karman) occur in the early treatises of Caraka and Susruta."[Wujastyk page 30]

All three causes have material reasons related to actual conditions in India and not some mystical humours the concept of which has now been scientifically discredited, as it is not possible to demonstrate the tri-dosha or its effects, in a double blind trial. And yet for preventive medical system, Ayurveda and its southern sister system the Sidhha (Cittarr) Ayurveda  system is par excellent. In Siddha philosophy, food itself is medicine. Siddha medicine was unfettered by the brahminical ethos and therefore it developed the metallic compounds for use in herbal medicine but most of the Siddha literature was written down in codes as the opposition was likely to burn their works.
Ayurveda Progress negated by Brahaminical Feudal Revival

Thus it is not surprising that Ayurveda stopped developing when it was given a divine origins and a Hindu veneer. Although presently India has many Ayurveda colleges and schools and many Ayurveda herbs have been found useful for a variety of diseases and ailments, especially those related to the lifestyle problems, Ayurveda has stopped developing as the theoretical foundations of this system had atrophied nearly two millennia ago. What is needed is a scientific enquiry into this holistic approach to medicine. Western multinational have taken this approach and have tried to patent a number of Ayurvedic remedies for their own profit but the Indian Government could make Ayurveda and yoga 'public property' thus saving it from the clutches of profiteers.

Main Sources

Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India by Kenneth G. Zysk - Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1998.

The Roots of Ayurveda by Dominik Wujastyk, Penguin Calssics India 1998.

The Poets of Power by Kamil V. Zvelebil, Integral Publishing, California 1993.

The Siddha Quest for Immortality by Kamil V. Zvelebil, Mandrake, Oxford UK 2003.

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Dalitica provides you an insight into the mind of the thinking Dalit and delves into the issues not normally raised by most other Dalit sites.

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