Unveiling the History of Caste in Pre-Colonial India: Insights from 18th Century Marwar

How did merchants shape Hindu self-identity in 18th-century Marwar by imposing caste ideals as universal markers? Explore the intriguing research of Dr. Divya to uncover the transformative role of merchants in reshaping Hindu identity during this period.


Omer Haq

6/27/20235 منٹ پڑھیں

Caste has become extremely crucial to the social fabric of India, as caste violence and oppressive practices like untouchability continue to persist in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. Recent reports highlight incidents of brutality and discrimination based on caste, emphasizing the need to address these issues. However, the rhetoric surrounding the origins of untouchability often worsens the situation, with members of right-wing Hindu militant groups denying its existence in ancient India, attempting to absolve themselves of blame and disregarding the ongoing systemic oppression of caste.

Caste issues are not limited to Hinduism or India alone; they transcend boundaries of territorial nationalism and organized religions. Caste discrimination and untouchability are prevalent among Muslims and Christians as well, particularly affecting Dalit converts to these faiths. Despite converting in hopes of escaping their caste status and baggage, they still find themselves unwanted and discriminated against by their fellow believers.

Recently, the California State University system added caste-based discrimination to its anti-discrimination policy, recognizing caste as a protected characteristic. However, this addition is being fiercely contested, leading to Hindu professors suing the institution for banning caste-based discrimination.

In another instance, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, an advocate for Dalits, was scheduled to give a talk on Dalit History Month to Google News employees. However, some Google employees spread disinformation, labeling her as "Hindu-phobic" and "anti-Hindu." Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who hails from an upper-caste family in India, requesting that her presentation proceed. Unfortunately, the talk was canceled, leading some employees to believe that Google was deliberately ignoring caste bias.

These incidents shed light on the challenges of addressing caste issues not only in India but also across the globe. Suraj Yengde, in his 2019 book "Caste Matters," emphasizes that caste is often misunderstood and seen through various prisms. It is wrongly synonymous with reservation, Dalit, Adivasi, manual scavenging, poverty, Dalit capitalism, daily wage labor, criminality, Banias, Brahmins, and more. These are just some of the many variations that bear witness to the pervasive nature of caste. What remains undiscussed is the invisible, multiple forms through which caste maintains its sanctity and imposes its agenda on every aspect of human life. Yengde argues that caste plays a significant role in every facet of public and private life, asserting its power over an unimaginably vast domain.

He further writes that caste, as a social construct, is deceptive in nature. It deviates from its primary motive, which is to govern the oldest system of human oppression, subjugation, and degradation originating from the Hindu social order. Caste has infiltrated all faiths in the Indian subcontinent, and its existence predates colonialism. It operates by controlling human capacity, creativity, and labor, secured through a strict legal caste hierarchy. In India, the dominant class or the dominated group fully sanctions it, maintaining its strict division into five categorical instances. This organized horizontal structure exemplifies a legitimized form of apartheid.

Dr. Divya, Currently a Assistant Professor of History; Philip and Beulah Rollins Bicentennial Preceptor at Princton University ; during her time at JNU, encountered anti-caste movements and engaging intellectual discourses that addressed not only obvious forms of discrimination but also the underlying dynamics of caste, which had been largely ignored in so-called progressive institutions. This led her to explore the histories of caste, especially its existence prior to colonialism.

In her study conducted by Dr. Divya, the history of caste in pre-colonial India, specifically in the 18th century Marwar region of Western Rajasthan, was explored. The research delved into the social interactions and dynamics of this era, engaging with the voluminous archival records, shedding light on the articulation of Hindu identity on caste terms and the role of merchant in shaping and defining it.

The Concept of Hindu Identity in 18th Century Marwar

Contrary to the present understanding of Hinduism as a religious affiliation, the study uncovered that in the 18th century Marwar context, Hindu was being imagined in relation to the caste terms and untouchables. The term "Achhep" (meaning untouchable) was used to define what a Hindu was not. Various records highlighted the existence of orders and practices that emphasized the separation between Hindus and untouchables, both explicitly and implicitly. These divisions extended to areas such as temple access, water rituals, neighborhood segregation, dietary practices, and ethical norms.

Caste as a Tool for Shaping Hindu Identity:

Dr. Divya's research demonstrated that caste played a significant role in constructing a new elite Hindu identity in Marvawar during the 18th century. The elevation of the term " Achhep " (untouchable) and its function in establishing separations within the emerging Hindu domain stood out among the findings. The significance of caste in defining Hinduness was further reinforced by the inclusion of Muslims in caste terms, categorizing them as a subset of the untouchables. These insights align with the arguments put forth by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, emphasizing the inseparability of caste from Hindu identity.

The Distinction of Hindu and Non-Hindu

The records examined revealed that the actors responsible for demanding and enforcing separations along caste lines were self-identified as Hindus. The demographic of those seeking separation and those enforcing it aligned with the umbrella category of Hindu. Notably, religious preferences or interreligious conflicts were not the driving factors behind these separations. Instead, the caste status of individuals was the underlying justification and logic employed by the state and those advocating for the divisions.

Manifestations of Untouchability:

Dr. Divya's research brought to light numerous instances of untouchability practices in various social circumstances during the 18th century Marwar. These manifestations ranged from practical and everyday situations to more severe acts. For instance, using the vessel of a person from a lowly caste to serve others invoked caste-based concerns, while public acts of certain castes, such as leather workers, inconvenienced higher-caste women due to the fear of pollution. The research also revealed shocking incidents, including violence against pregnant women and the use of untouchables to administer punishments

Dr. Divya's study on the history of caste in 18th century Marwar provides a textured understanding of the social dynamics and interactions prevalent before colonialism. It highlights the central role caste played in shaping Hindu identity during that time, debunking the notion that Hinduism was solely a religious identity. The research underscores the inseparability of caste from Hindu identity and the use of untouchability as a means to establish divisions and hierarchies within society. By exploring the historical roots of caste, we gain valuable insights into the complexities of Indian society and the ongoing struggle to address caste-based discrimination.

This blog post offers just a glimpse into the thought-provoking dialogue we had with Dr. Divya about her book Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia . To explore this topic further and gain deeper insights into the history of caste before colonialism, we invite you to listen to the full podcast episode featuring Dr. Divya. In the podcast, she expands on her research findings and shares additional valuable perspectives on the intricate relationship between merchants and defining Hindu identity on caste terms. You can find the podcast episode on all podcasting platforms or our website www.ergostudios.net

We would love to hear your feedback on this blog post and the podcast episode. Feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section or reach out to us directly.