Sunday, October 08, 2006

Varna and Division of labour

I have been thinking of my term paper for Levy's class and the idea of Division of Labour in Ancient India seems like a good one. I have always explained the caste system in India as that of people classified based on their profession. Although thinking the same way I never attributed the word division of labour to it untile Levy's lecture a couple of weeks back. I have been reading a translation of the Manu Sastra, and to the extent that I have read it, it seems as if caste was decided not completely by birth. The individual could move up and down the caste system through his profession. Although there are strict laws against immoral behaviour, there is not anything in what I have read till now to suggest that caste was binding upon an individual based on birth. Here is my two penny's worth theory. The caste system existed in India fom Ancient times and although there were some arrogant and ignorant people in the upper caste who interpreted the scriptures to fit their needs there were enough learned among them to offset the corruption. At some point this balance was tipped in favour of the corrupt, but the society still thrived. However, when the British and other foreigners came into the country, for obvious reasons they could not understand the way the caste system worked and made their own interpretations about it and made it widely known through their writings and preachings. The word shudra was given the meaning untouchable and the rest is well known history.

The Varna system was sorely a division of labour story in my opinion. Even the skin colour associated with the varnas is descriptive of the individual's profession. People have taken it too literally in terms of an individual's actual complexion. The Brahmins were devoted to learning the scriptures and teaching them, since they spent most of their time indoors they were pale in complexion (not exposed to enough sunlight). The Kshatriyas were devoted to governance and warfare and so their skin was brown. The Vaishyas were merchants and travelled a lot and were prone to disease and so their skin colour was yellow. The Sudras were labourers who spent most of their time toiling away in the fields or outside in the sun and were black because of that.

I think the aspiration to become as learned as the Barhmins is the reason for the fascination with being fair complexioned. In the very long gone past being 'fair' would have been a metaphor for being learned; therefore, when the British and other foreigners came into the country people were fascinated by them because they may have associated their complexion with great learning. During the British administration, when they set up the huge bureaucracy the people with most education would have been the Brahmins so they were obviously picked for the more important posts. This may have seemed to some people of the other castes as discrimination against them due to their caste. Since independence atleast people from all castes go to school and are educated. Therefore any advantage that Brahmins had has disappeared. Therefore, the claim that the forward caste has undue advantage in educational institutions is baseless. It could be true that students from rural areas and economically backward families are discriminated against. Although I am opposed to any kind of reservation or quota system, if there was atleast such logic in the arguments for it I could grit and bear; however, the logic seems to be caste which makes no sense. Even under such circumstances the kids who really do well are the ones that work hard regardless of their caste. These kids (if they are for the forward caste) know they have no chance of getting a government job, and the private sector provides them ample opportunities. Decades of reverse discrimination has left government offices populated with incompetent people, and now when they see that those in the private sector are indeed earning better salaries they now want to turn against the private sector and say that they are discriminating against the backward caste and that there needs to be a certain quota in the private sector as well for the under provided.

Well!! I have gone off on enough tangents and have enough paper ideas to last me a lifetime and gain me a permanent ban from India. More on this as I develop my paper.


ggk said...

There is some truth but a lot of it
seems speculation and not a paper yet.

A good example of division of labor can be the ancient metalworking arts in india....
Ever wonder why ashokha stambh still is rustless today

I will give you examples.
(1). Check out ChachNama.
Chach was a Brahmin(so a hindu)
a patron of buddhism(so a buddhist)
a King(so a kshatriya...well not exactly)
But you get the point.
Chandragupta maurya has been a king without being of lineage....
Many other examples exist where people engage in work outside their castes, so it hasnt been as rigid as many have said.

(2) Dwaijya still has some meaning.
Upnayana in all its variations is performed mostly on brahmins now but used to be performed all over india on Brahmins,Vaishya, Kshatriyas only.
This has been fairly rigid as many tribes which have assimilated into hindu fold dont have Dwaijya status.
and I am not talking about the 'persecuted lot'.

Triya said...

thanks ggk. it is yet to take shape as a yet all of these are my unsubstantiated conjecture and wild ideas. i do believe that much of the rigidity is fairly modern.

mynameisnobody said...

It is a good scientific system of division of labour. But with a hitch . It does not change with the needs of society. Every fifth Hindu is an untouchable. There must be some reasons for this preponderance. Is Hidnu society so unclean so that it requires 20% of its people to do this job ? Any economics behind this ?