Sanskrit Kashmir, Kashmiri Pandits and the Caste Reality

By Shailendra Aima

January 2012

Sometime back, a discussion ensued at a web portal about Kashmiri Pandits, the Sanskrit roots of Kashmiri Culture and Pluralism. It was amazing that some Kashmiri compatriots, now resident outside in the US and the Middle East became highly volatile and denounced the Sanskrit heritage and tried to demonize the Pandits, for being the “Brahmins – the powerful elite of the Hindu social hierarchy”, who were charged of perpetrating the “ugly reality of social stratification developed along the lines of Caste and Jati” for thousands of years.

On October 17, 2011, I posted on the same web portal a comprehensive document, “The Sanskrit Himalayas” written by Dr. Shashihekhar Toshkhani who developed it after I posted him about these accusing and demonizing charges by a section of Kashmiri diaspora. I am so grateful to Dr. Toshkhani for bringing to light some hitherto unknown facts that had been consigned to antiquity.

The discerning readers and students of history would appreciate that the millennium and a half, which begins with the Muaryas and ends with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, was a glorious period of Sanskritic proliferation in arts, literature, spirituality, poetics, aesthetics, linguistics, drama, philosophy, Yoga, Sankhya, Mimamsa and criticism.  It was a unique period in Indian history that saw to the development of both classical and folk traditions; the Sanskrit language and the regional dialects; and the growth of the central as well as regional powers. This period was a period of immense development of the Indian mind, its knowledge systems, its technology, its Universities and educational institutions, as well as of expanding trade and prosperity.

Vaishanavism, Shaivism, Budhism, Tantra and Monism brought about an avalanche of Bhakti – an unprecedented spiritual activity that paved way for its manifestations in devotional poetry, a hunger for personalizing man-God relationship and growth and development of regional languages across the sub-continent.

Kashmir was in the forefront of these developments and made its unique contribution to Indian culture and way of life.  It shall be very relevant to state that these aspects of uniqueness of Kashmir’s contribution to the Indian civilization still mould the minds of Kashmiris and are manifestly visible in our prayers, hymns, thoughts and actions even today and make us proud of our Sanskrit heritage and roots. This unique period in India’s cultural and civilizational context can’t be treated just a continuum of the “Vedic period”.  We believe that this unique period in India’s cultural and civilizational context should in fact be treated as a leap above the “Vedic period” and hence is referred to by Panun Kashmir as the period of “Sanskrit Civilization”.  I don’t find any coherent, logical and cogent reason for these critics to find the term “Sanskrit Civilization” so offensive, abominable or abysmal, as they would like it to be.

In fact this discussion started when I posted a note while refuting the charges of communalism and separatism leveled against Panun Kashmir.  My note, “Panun Kashmir and Pluralism”, was a political articulation of Panun Kashmir’s stand on the issue of Pluralism and Kashmiri Pandits, which these critics detested. It became quite obvious that one of the critics lost her cool when I made some references about conversions in Kashmir by a Shiite Sufi, Mir Shamasuddin Araki or Iraqi (as different historians have referred to him) who had managed to convert a significant number of Kashmir’s Hindu population to the Shi’a sect during the reign of Fateh Shah(1496–1505). These conversions were made using force as described in the Persian book ‘Bharistan -e-shahi’ written during those times, as also in ‘Tohfaful Ahabab’.  In fact as mentioned in these chronicles, in one single instance, 960 Kashmiri Hindus who resisted conversion were slaughtered under his guidance. This mention to Mir Shamasuddin Araki infuriated her; and as I now understand, she holds Mir Shamasuddin Araqi in high esteem. This is a tragedy in Kashmir, where somebody’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

After my protracted interactions and attempts to understand the real content and motives behind this denunciation, I came to this conclusion that these critics were trying to project Panun Kashmir as a parallel to the Azaadi mongers.  They wanted to project that the Kashmiri Pandits had no right to claim themselves to belong to any different class, ideology or thought process; and that the Kashmiri Pandits had rather been more oppressive during thousands of years (for, as alleged, they had been responsible for imposing the ugly reality of caste and Jati), than those who are the perpetrators of iconoclasm, proselytization and ethnic cleansing in Kashmir.  In their bitterness, they went on to denounce Kashmiri Pandits for being Brahmins – the so-called elite and the powerful of the Hindu social hierarchy.  Perhaps, the intent has been to tell the Pandits that they have received back what they had wreaked upon others in the past. It is therefore quite evident that these critics are part of a campaign to vilify and malign the Kashmiri Hindus.  These critics seem to have joined those who have been spreading lies and concocting distortions about Kashmiri Pandits in order to down play their pain and ignominy, the geo-political import of their mass exodus and ethnic cleansing from their habitat.

So, while keeping all these aspects in mind, I wrote back to the main ideologue of this denunciation, who happens to be a teacher of historic linguistics in a University in the US.  The issues mentioned by her and on which she focuses her denunciation of Panun Kashmir and Pluralism are therefore derived from her amazing ability to interpret or misinterpret linguistics and historicism. I have dwelled upon all these issues, but for present let’s look at her understanding of the terms “communal and communalism”.

What is COMMUNAL?  As per these critics, any objective centered on the welfare of a particular community is communal.  This is not a negative connotation, at all.  In fact, such an interpretation is rooted in the concept of communes – collective living and/or closeness shared together by individuals.  Communal in the context of community life or closeness of individuals in a group or shared living/ experiences is not a contemptuous term.  Communal is negative when it is interpreted in the context of communalism – a matter of disagreements leading to conflicts within a larger society where these disagreements arise because the units of the larger community tend to individuation of their interests/objectives/aspirations as opposed to the interests/objectives/aspirations of the other communities and converting these differences into conflicts.  If this interpretation of communal as presented by the critics is adhered to, then all such organizations and movements, who speak up for, stand up to and work for the amelioration of the victim communities around the globe should be called communal.  Then all those speaking for women’s rights are communal, those fighting for the rights of Palestinians are communal; the Sacchar Commission’s findings and mandate are communal; and so are probably anyone and everyone who articulate grievances / welfare objectives of this or that community which is a victim or is perceived to be so.

Submitting grievance ‘in itself’ is not communal.  How can speaking of the welfare of one’s community be communal, especially when the perception is that the Kashmiri Pandit community has been subjected to discrimination, murders, plunder by the ‘other’ community by creating fear and through killings and through political or ideological intimidation, and has been forced to abandon its habitat and to live in exile as refugees/ internally displaced persons; to put it rather in a perspective “cleansed ethnically?”  It’s possible that through it some kind of communal narrative can be built; but there is a world of difference between ‘can’ and ‘is.’ For in that case you are closing the doors on expression for justice on all discriminated communities of not just India but of the world.

The critic further avers that the statement “We also maintain that it is because of us – the Kashmiri Hindus, that Himalayas have been Sanskritized” is a highly loaded one, loaded with the sense of pride and superiority of a certain minority group”. I don’t understand whether the critics have a problem with the notion of SANSKRIT CIVILIZATION or with a sense of “pride and superiority” of a certain MINORITY GROUP (the KASHMIRI PANDITS)? It seems they have a problem with both.  Though it may not appear very pertinent why do they at all talk about “a sense of pride and superiority of a certain minority group”?  A little into it and one would understand the entire import of it. As one would notice in the original note, I write:   “… we maintain that we are Hindus. We also maintain that it is because of us – the Kashmiri Hindus, that Himalayas have been Sanskritized.  It is the Hindus of Kashmir who played a decisive role in carrying the Sanskrit civilization to Trans-Himalayan regions, in China and Central Asia”.

The critic adds here the phrase “a certain minority group”.  What was the impending need to invent such a phrase?  To me it appears that it was a reminder to the Pandits of Kashmir that “remember you are a minority group”?  Now, is the notion of minority a handicap – some sort of emaciation, a weakness?  Being a minority does not make the rights of the Kashmiri Pandits, both legal and moral, either redundant or infructuous in Kashmir; nor does that render them irrelevant in Kashmir’s context – social and political.  In fact, the rights of Kashmiri Pandits are special and privileged since these are not merely a set of normal rights but special Rights, under the aegis of the UN and other International Human Rights/Refugee and IDP Provisions.

It is a well established that Kashmiri Hindu sages and scholars played a significant role in Sanskritization of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayan regions in central Asia and South East Asia.  That the millennium and a half, from the reign of Mauryas up to the establishment of the Muslim Rule in the Indian sub-continent, was a period of Sanskrit proliferation and a proliferation of philosophy, poetics, literature, drama, aesthetics, linguistics and great arts, to which the Hindus of Kashmir contributed immensely.  To quote from Dr. Shashishekhar Toshkhani: “With the Silk Route straddling the Himalayas virtually becoming the Sutra Route, the Central Asian regions soaked in the wisdom of Sanskrit Sutras that transmitted the sophisticated values and subtle abstractions of the Mahayana philosophy.  The intercultural exchanges began right from the time of King Ashoka and bestowed upon these regions a luminous worldview with two places in particular emerging as great centers of Sanskrit learning – Khotan and Kucha.  Khotan, the Land of Jade, had an intimate relationship with China. With Khotanese scholars acquiring a profound knowledge of Buddhist texts and Sanskrit language, it played a crucial role in the onward transmission and translation of important Buddhist Sanskrit sutras like the Suvarnaprabhasotama, Prajnaparmita, Saddh-arma-Pundarika and Avatamshaka.  It fell finally to the Islamic onslaught of the Karkhanid rulers of Kashgar in 1006 after 40 years of bloody war.  Kashmir itself was known as Kashi of Central Asia for being a great centre of Sanskrit learning before it was over-run by Islam.  Works of Sanskrit literatures have been abundantly discovered from Turfan, Dun Huang and Khotan, including fragments of Sanskrit agamas and plays and kavyas of Ashvaghosha”.

If the Hindus of Kashmir believe that Sanskrit civilization forms a significant part of their heritage, how is that wrong? A pride in one’s past and heritage is not a disadvantage, but it definitely brings out ones relevance, especially when one is down and out after being victimized and pushed into exile.  It motivates one to reclaim her lost habitat with a purpose to re-establish the long cherished values of humanism, catholicity and pluralism; and to reinvent the aesthetics and arts that have not just been abandoned but comprehensively demolished in today’s Kashmir.

We expected these critics to empathize with the Hindu predicament and encourage us to articulate our rights and return plans; encourage us in re-affirming our faith in the values of co-existence and pluralism. But the utterances of these critics clearly reflect that they have problem with Kashmiri Heritage and the faith of Kashmiri Hindus in pluralism? Are they inimical to the possibility of a new renaissance to enlighten the Kashmir of today?  Would they not like the seminal ideas and works of Panini, Patanjali, Bhasa, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Kumarjiva, Asvaghosha, Abhinavgupta, Khshemendra, Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, Dharmakirti, Padmasambhava, Shantideva, Vimalaksha, Sanghabhuti, Punyatrata, Dharmayashas, Shakyash-ribhadra, Ratnavajra, Kamal-ashila, Kalhan, Bilhana, Bana, Ananga, and hundreds of others from Yogini Lalleshawari to Ahad Zargar, Shamas Faqir and Waz Mehmud, to be further explored, interpreted, discovered, reinvented and reconstructed in modern day Kashmir, and also to the benefit of the entire humanity?

Well, may be the very idea of a renaissance might have a problem with an Islamist perspective of Kashmir, because that perspective is not inclusive. Well known author Arun Shourie has aptly summed up this attitude in his book ‘Eminent Historians’ in the following words: “In a word, both corruption and evil are germane to Hinduism. Hinduism is Brahminism. Brahminism is that ‘ism’ which serves the interests of the Brahmins: these interests can only be served by the exploitation and oppression of people of lower castes. Hence Hinduism is essentially an arrangement for the exploitation and oppression of the mass of people.” And as for Islam, “Islam equals peace, brotherhood, the ascent towards monotheism.” And therefore, “the aggression, the butchery, the devastation committed by Islamic rulers is to be sanitized.”

These critics further go on to claim that “Sanskrit” (‘civilized’) civilization in fact is a hypothetical construct based on the ugly reality of social stratification developed along the lines of Caste and Jati.”  While the critics stand adequately educated on the issue of Sanskrit Himalayas and the role played by Hindus of Kashmir towards its Sanskritization by the scholarly write-up of Dr. Toshakhani (posted by me on October 17, 2011) on the subject, it has become important that attempts at juxtaposing Sanskrit with “the ugly reality of social stratification developed along the lines of Caste and Jati” are thoroughly examined and also put in a perspective.

What in fact do the critics imply?   They presume that by juxtaposing Panun Kashmir’s notion/belief of a Sanskrit Civilization with the “ugly reality of Caste and Jati”, they would succeed to bring down the so-called “pride and superiority” of the Kashmiri Pandits.  I fail to understand their purpose; is it to denounce Panun Kashmir’s claim to pluralism and prove it flawed, or to denounce Kashmiri Pandits and their claim to Sanskrit Civilization and pluralism; and make them into the monsters, the harbingers of a caste system that emaciated humanistic endeavors among the Hindus and paved way for a socio-political dynamics that led to “proselytization drive that was conducted by the various invading Muslims much later in the time-depth (and) was facilitated if not motivated by such ugly and unfortunate social stratification.”  The critics seem irked not so much by Panun Kashmir, but by the claim of Kashmiri Hindus to pluralism, which they vehemently try to establish as nothing more than a deliberate, systematic manifestation of the caste-system that perpetrated inhumanity and oppression for centuries, much before even the advent of Islam in India and the “so-called conversions” associated with it.

The critics have also tried to establish a case against the priestly class among Hindus, namely the Brahmins.  They aver that there is no “Sanskrit” civilization as such, but a superimposed concept emerging from among the select social (and in a way political) class —  the privileged priestly class (the Brahmins).  In fact, there is no “Sanskrit” language ……. but a superimposed variety ….. deliberately constructed …… as if it were a “sacred” language (refer to the commendable attempts by Hindu priests and grammarians to keep “Sanskrit” as unchanged through centuries, — because it was the “God’s language”.  And then they make a comparison of such attempts by the Sanskrit grammarians with the attempts by the Arabic liturgy.  The critics perhaps again presume that a case against the Hindu priestly class (the Brahmins) shall automatically turn into a case against the Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits) who too are Brahmins.

It is pertinent here to talk about the social structure of Kashmir before the advent of Islam and to put into perspective the caste-reality of Kashmir.  On the basis of still extant source materials; pioneering work of great value has been done in the recent decades by erudite scholars like Dr. Ved Kumari Ghai, Dr. S.C. Ray, Dr. Shashishekhar Toshkhani and Ajay Mitra Shastri to prepare a coherent and connected account of ancient Kashmir’s social and cultural life. Yet the field of investigation is so vast, and the available evidence so limited, that there still remain large areas which are unexplored and unlimited.

Varna Vyavasthaa has been an integral part of Hindu social life since ancient times. In the Rig Veda, which is the oldest surviving record of human writing, there are verses in a hymn called the Purusha Suktam.  Purusha Suktam is hymn 10.90 of the Rigveda, dedicated to the Purusha, the “Cosmic Being”. One version of the Suktam has 16 verses, 15 in the anuubh meter, and the final one in the triubh  meter. Purusha is described as a primeval gigantic person, from whose body the world and the varnas  (socioeconomic classes) are built. He is described as having a thousand heads and a thousand feet. He emanated Viraj, the female creative principle, from which he is reborn in turn before the world was made out of his parts.

The Suktam verses when translated mean that “In the sacrifice of Purusha, the Vedic chants were first created. The horses and cows were born; the Brahmins emerged from Purusha’s mouth, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet. The Moon was born from his mind, the Sun from his eyes, the heavens from his skull. Indra and Agni emerged from his mouth”.  This order of the varnas undoubtedly forms a hierarchy asserting the primacy of the first two, but at the same time it is made clear that the society consisting of the four orders is held together by the principle of dharma or human values.  As Dr. G.C.Pandey puts it, “Society was thus conceived as a hierarchy in the true sense of the word, i. e. in the sense of a society governed in accordance with sacred principles, not in the sense of a society governed by priests.”  Obviously, the hierarchy was socio-cultural and ethical and not at all ethnic.

What do actual facts say about the caste system and Jati whose “ugly face” so haunts the critics?  Well, according to Dr. G. C. Pandey, an international authority on ancient Indian history and culture, “Race consciousness in the modern sense attaching itself to colour or physical type was never a part of the Indian consciousness”.  Nowhere in the ancient Indian (Sanskrit) literature, he points out, has the term arya been used in the racial sense.  The assumption of some Western scholars that a branch of the Indo- Aryans called themselves “Arya” as a racial designation is only an unsubstantiated hypothesis with no basis in facts related to Vedic language and society.   Sayana and other well-known Vedic commentators interpret the term arya as “pious” or “noble”. It also has the meaning of “liberal” or “worthy” in some hymns of Rigveda (RV 4. 26. 2 and 2. 11.18); the term has actually been used more in Buddhist texts as an honorific than in Vedic literature.  In later literature also the generalized meaning of the word ‘arya’ tends to be ‘noble’ or ‘pious’ or else ‘a freeman’.

Another work that is considered an important source for ancient sociological, political and historical studies in India is the Manu Smriti.  Manu Smriti is one of the most heavily criticized of the scriptures of Hinduism, having been attacked by colonial scholars, modern liberals, Hindu reformists, feminists,  Marxists and certain groups of traditional Hindus. Much of its criticism stems from its unknown authority, as some believe the text to be authoritative, but others do not. There is also debate over whether the text has suffered from later interpolations of verses.

The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by the Europeans. It was first translated into English by Sir William Jones. His version was published in 1794.  British administrative requirements encouraged their interest in the Dharmashastras, which they believed to be legal codes. In fact, these were not codes of law but norms related to social obligations and ritual requirements. But the fact remains that the text was never universally followed or acclaimed by the vast majority of Indians in their history; it came to the world’s attention through the translation by Sir William Jones, who mistakenly has exaggerated both its antiquity and its importance. It would be pertinent to point out that the Manu Smriti is not the only civil code followed by the Hindus.  There are civil codes of Parashar, Yajnyavalka and Brihasapti also, followed by large sections of the Hindu population. The tendency to jump at the Brahmin’s throat, though some of the greatest social reformers of India belonged to this community, springs not from any spirit of academic research but from irrational hostility.

According to scholars like Zimmer and Muir, the early Vedic age was “wholly caste free”.  Even in the later Vedic age when priesthood developed within the caste system, the relationship between different caste categories was not simply linear with the Brahman at the top and the Shudra at the bottom.  Sociologists of caste like M. N. Srinivas have pointed to many complexities that arise particularly “in the analysis of the middle rungs of the hierarchy”.  What the emergence of the varna system accomplished was to do away with the “particularism” of primitive ethnic tribes and clans and conceive the society “as a universal order”. In the conceptual ordering of social categories under this system, each varna (caste) was ideally associated with one kind of occupation – the Brahmans pursued knowledge and performed priestly functions, the rajanyas or Kshatriyas were holders of temporal power and warriors, the Vaishyas were engaged in production wealth through trade and agriculture and the Shudras engaged in labour and menial work.  But the meaning of the categories changed in accordance with reference to the conceptual order of Hinduism and to its empirical order as numerous occupations emerged in later time irrespective of social groupings. Thus the Brahmans did not confine themselves to priestly functions but were also seers and poets, teachers, councillors and even agriculturists. In the Mahabharata we also find them giving lessons in the use of weapons to Kshatriya princes. The Kshatriyas in turn were not only administrators and warriors; they pursued knowledge and learnt other skills as well, sometimes instructing even Brahmans in spiritual matters.  But soldiery was not limited to Kshatriyas alone; other castes also were recruited to his army by the ruler. The two lower castes constituted the mass of non-Brahman householders called vishah.  Being farmers, traders and artisans, they were regarded as the “economic support of the society”.  In fact, the line of distinction between the Vaishyas and Shudras was very thin and the two terms were virtually interchangeable. The Shudras subsumed several occupational groups of artisans within the fold of their caste.

Basham in his book The Wonder That Was India suggests that the jati system in its modern form developed very late perhaps not before 1000 A.D.  Vishnugupta Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra, never mentioned any social laws prevailing in the society during the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta’s reign. The Chinese scholar Hsuan Tsang in the seventh century was not aware of it.

Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to India in the 4th century BC, noted the existence of seven classes, namely that of philosophers, peasants, herdsmen, craftsmen and traders, soldiers, government officials and councilors. These classes were apparently Varnas, and not separate Jatis. Megasthenes, who visited the Maurya court at Pataliputra (Patna), also noted: “All Hindus are free, and none of them is a slave. Further, they respect both virtue and truth.”

Huen Tsang, the most famous of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who visited India in 7th century writes: “Though the Hindus are of a light temperament, they are distinguished by the straightforwardness and honesty of their character. With regard to riches, they never take anything unjustly; with regard to justice, they make even excessive concessions. Truthfulness is the distinguishing feature of their administration.”

Al-Idrisi a Spanish born Muslim geographer in the 11th century visited India and reported in his journal that “Hindus are naturally inclined to justice and never depart from it in their actions.”  In the 13th century, Marco Polo described Brahmins he encountered “as the most truthful, for they would not tell a lie for anything on earth.”  A few decades later Friar Jordanus emphasized that the people of Lesser India (South and Western) “are true in speech and eminent in justice.”

Abu Rihan Muhammad bin Alberuni, who accompanied Mahmud Ghazani to India in the 12th century, spent several years here and studied Sanskrit besides astronomy and mathematics. He wrote extensively on India and its many aspects. He describes the traditional division of Hindu society along the four Varnas and the Antyaja – who are not reckoned in any caste; but makes no mention of any oppression of low caste by the upper castes. “Much, however the four castes differ from each other; they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings. The Antyajas are divided into eight classes — formed into guilds – according to their professions who freely intermarry with each other except with the fuller, shoemaker and the weaver. They live near the villages and towns of the four castes but outside of them”.

On the eating customs of the four castes, Alberuni observed that “when eating together, they form a group of their own caste, one group not comprising a member of another caste. Each person must have his own food for himself and it is not allowed to eat the remains of the meal. They don’t share food from the same plate as that which remains in the plate becomes after the first eater has taken part, the remains of the meal”.

An initial broad classification of Jati made in earliest references is 4-fold: Udbhija (coming out of ground like plants), Andaja (coming out of eggs like birds and reptiles), Pindaja (mammals) and Ushmaj (reproducing due to temperature and ambient conditions like virus, bacteria etc). Similarly, various animals like elephant, lion, rabbits etc form different ‘Jaati’. In same manner, entire humanity forms one ‘Jaati’. A particular Jaati will have similar physical characteristics, cannot change from one Jaati to another and cannot cross-breed. Thus according to Vedic connotations (Purush Suktam) “Jaati” is creation of Ishwar or God.

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are no way different Jaatis because there is no difference in source of birth or even physical characteristics to differentiate between them.  Later, word ‘Jaati’ started being used to imply any kind of classification. Thus in common usage, we call even different communities as different ‘Jaati’. However that is merely convenience of usage. In reality, all humans form one single Jaati.

The fission of castes into a multiplicity of hereditary jatis occurred, according to the noted socio-anthropologist Veena Das, due to “a variety of reasons such as occupational diversification”. A jati, she explains, “is identified by a combination of three principles of organisation viz. descent, locality and cult”. The basic question is that of identification of the jatis and the relations of jatis, Brahmans and others, at the empirical level within the caste system. And it is here that there an undue emphasis is laid on the principle of hierarchy ignoring the meanings associated with the different conceptual categories. It has to be noted that while the jatis proliferated with their own customs and usages, a semblance of the original ideal was still preserved with respect to the varnas that subsumed them. It has also to be noted that a sharp difference of views on the social functions and statuses of caste categories between “Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical thinkers continued into classical time”.

Though the Shudras were conceived as the servitors, this description did not exactly correspond to reality, for Shudras were clearly neither “non-Aryans, nor outcastes nor slaves, nor lawless labourers produced through expropriation of property”.  “Servitude did not reflect their permanent situation either occupationally or legally”, says G. C. Pande.  There are numerous examples from history showing Shudras gaining upward social mobility and acquiring higher social status or even political power.  What greater proof of this can be than the fact that Chandragupta Maurya, who was the son of a Shudra mother, became emperor of India and the mighty founder of the Mauryan Empire due to untiring efforts of Chanakya, a Brahman?  Both the authors of the two great Indian Epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Valmiki and Vyasa, were not Brahmans. Valmiki was a hunter and Vyasa the son of a fisherwoman; yet is there anyone more respected by the Brahmans than they are?    In the Mahabharata, Vidura is counted a Shudra, but at the same time he is treated with great respect by all for his wisdom.  There are also references in Vedic literature to Shudras being chosen as members of the king’s council. In the Rajatarangini, we see Suyya, an abandoned child brought up by a Shudra woman, rising to become King Avantivarman’s minister.  The fact is that there is a wide divergence between social theory and social reality so far as the caste system is concerned.  For a detailed and true picture of the society in ancient India, it would be useful to refer to Kautilya’s Arthashastra. The evidence of Megasthenes, who declared, that “all Indians are free and not one of them is a slave”, is also important in this context.   Megasthenes describes seven social classes as distinct from the conventional four castes that constituted the Indian society in his times.

An important point to note with regard to the rise of the jatis is that they were autonomous units based on “functional specialization”.  The reason why there were numerous jatis when there were only four theoretical castes is attributed by early social thinkers to a mixture of the varnas or castes resulting from intermarriage.  The phenomenon of inter-caste marriage was so prevalent that it led to the development of the concept of varnasankara in the Dharmashastras and the Smritis. Admitting to the fact of intermixture of jatis through marriage, Manu gives a detailed description of the progeny of anuloma (mother being from lower varna) , pratiloma (father being from lower varna) and doubly mixed castes, and speaks of the anomalous situation arising due to their not fitting into the conventional caste scheme.

Although in the traditional parlance the jatis may pay lip service to the Brahmin as an intermediary to the gods when it comes to ritual, each caste considers itself to be the highest. If the Brahmins were to be accepted as the highest caste then other castes would have no hesitation in giving their daughters to the Brahmins. But in reality they do not. The Rajputs consider the Brahmins to be other-worldly or plain beggars; the traders consider the Brahmins to be impractical; and so on. In classical Sanskrit plays the fool is always a Brahmin. In other words, each different community has internalized a different outlook on life but these outlooks cannot be placed in any hierarchical ordering. The internalized images of the other must, by its very nature, be a gross simplification and it will never conform exactly to reality. Why is it that the Sanskritic as well as the folk narrative in India has mostly shown Brahmins as daridras living in penury and depending on alms?  From Sudama to Narsi Mehta to Purander Das to Chaitanya to Swami Ramkrishna, the Indian lore is full of references to thousands of these poor ubiquitous Brahmins’ narratives, of those who lived in penury, never wielded the sword or the wealth and still commanded respect and love and transformed the face of the Indian society.

The Brahmans themselves were fragmented into numerous sub-divisions, and among them too the priests “tended to approximate to a professional guild”.  It is clear from the Buddhist literature that they were engaged in a number of professions which they were not theoretically supposed to adopt.  Thus, as pointed out by Pande, the Dasabrahmana Jataka mentions ten kinds of Brahmans engaged in diverse professions. The Shantiparvan of the Mahabharata also speaks of several varieties of Brahmans.  Undoubtedly, the Brahmans took up diverse professions like medicine, trade, agriculture, astrology and also worked as the king’s councillors, ministers, officials and even soldiers, besides specializing in various branches of knowledge, teaching and performing religious rites.

This occupational diversity among different social groups can be attributed to the changes brought about by the growth of town-life, trade, industry, political activity several other factors. The formation of the mahajanapadas or geographically large republics and the emergence of the community of influential shramanas or Buddhist ascetics were also important aspects of the post-Vedic and early medieval social scene. The shramanas challenged the supremacy of the Brahmans and their hereditary position and disregarded all caste distinctions, their patrons drawn from all sections of the society – the Kshatriya clansmen, agriculturists, Brahmans, outcastes, servants, courtesans, criminals, rich traders, affluent craftsmen etc.  The point to be understood here is that the Brahmans did not wield any excessive influence over the social dynamics of pre-modern India to be declared the villains of the piece who suppressed the lower castes and non-Aryans.

“How is it that the two Heroes of Sanskrit literature, Ram and Krishna are shyam-varna(dark skinned) and a great Hindu God, Shiva too is dark skinned?  If the theory of the critics about Sanskrit people is to be believed, then were Shiva, Ram, and Krishna lower caste or the non-caste (the out-caste)?  Were Valmiki and Vyasa the liturgy or the Brahmins, who forced a Godhood upon the shudras (being dark skinned) just for exploiting them?  Vyasa is also called Krishna Dvaipayana, was grandfather to the Kauravas and Pandavas. Their fathers, Dhritarashtra and Pandu, adopted as the sons of Vichitravirya by the royal family, were fathered by him. He had a third son, Vidura, by a serving maid. Valmiki, it is believed was an unnamed highway robber who used to rob people before killing them. Some text versions of the Uttara Khanda name him Valya Koli. The legend states that when confronted with Narada, the robber had a realization and he went into meditation for many years, so much so that ant-hills grew around his body. Finally, a divine voice declared his penance successful, bestowing him with the name “Valmiki”: “one born out of ant-hills” (Valmikam in Sanskrit means Ant-hill)”.

Caste is a European innovation having no semblance in Vedic culture. Jaati means a classification based on source of origin. Nyaya Sutra states “Samaanaprasavaatmika Jaatih” or those having similar birth source form a Jaati.   The two words commonly considered to mean ‘caste’ is Jaati and Varna. However the truth is that, all the three mean completely different things.  In fact, as a response to historical events one might credit the emergence of the modern jati system to the next fundamental changes in the Indian polity that occurred with the invasions from the West Asia and the European adventurism.

These critics when confronted by Dr. Ramesh Tamiri, responded to his queries and comments with vehemence and derision, as if these were coming from a person inferior to them. In fact, one critic remarked: “I have better things to do than explain to ill-informed people how they are wrong.”    The way this critic, with her over-inflated ego, has reacted to Dr. Ramesh Taimiri’s views on the history of the caste system, pouring scorn and ridicule on his arguments and calling him “ill-informed”, makes it evident that anything related to India’s ancient past and its cultural and intellectual traditions is an anathema to her. The boot so far as being “ill-informed” is concerned, however, seems to be on the other foot. It is the critic, who despite assuming the expertise of a social anthropologist is appallingly ignorant of the conceptual and empirical aspects of Indian (Hindu) social reality.  Nor does she seem to have studied its cultural and epistemological meanings. As her statements show, she is just repeating the theoretical assumptions of the Western colonial historians and their followers of the Marxist variety who stereotype the Hindu social categories without any real knowledge of their historicity. Hence, it has become all the more mandatory on my part to write comprehensively on the caste-reality viz. a viz. the Brahmins (the privileged priestly class) in general and the Pandits of Kashmir, in particular.

Therefore, now let us revert to the Nilamata Purana and its reference to immigrant Brahmins who followed Chandradeva and settled in Kashmir. It is highly possible that a bulk of them were from the Saraswati Valley who must have decided to migrate to Kashmir after the legendary river changed its course and finally dried up. There is a strong tradition among Kashmiri Pandits that they are Saraswat Brahmins, and the presence of a large number of words of Vedic origin in the Kashmiri language seems to confirm it. From accounts given in the Nilamatapurana, Rajatarangini and other early sources, they “appear to have emerged as the dominant and highly respected social group in Kashmir, not just because they were associated with religious rites and ceremonies, but because of their intellectual proclivities, their natural gravitation towards cultivation of cerebral graces. They were intellectual people who prized learning above everything else. And indeed it is because of their contributions that Kashmir came to be known all over the world as a great seat of Sanskrit learning”. In the ancient texts referred to above, we see them as people “engaged in self-study, contemplation, performance of sacrifice, penance and the study of the Vedas and Vedangas.” Respect was shown to them because they were supposed to be “itihasvidah and kalavidah that is knower of history and the connoisseurs of art”.  And who can provide a better proof of this than Kalhana, the great author of Rajatarangini, and the whole host of chroniclers of Kashmir who followed him — Jonaraja and Shrivara, Pragyabhatta and Shuka?

Brahmins were also required to have a thorough grounding in the six schools of philosophy, astrology and astronomy, grammar, logic, prosody and medicine, besides religious texts. They had to live an austere life and adhere to a high moral code. Nowhere has it been suggested that they should be worshipped “as gods on the earth” even if they are illiterate and ignorant. And yet Brahmins have been equated with priests (clergy) and as representatives of an exploitative and oppressive social order, by the Critics who think that they can bring down the Kashmiri Pandits by indulging in Brahmin bashing. They accuse the Brahmins of exploitation, usurping power, of appropriating and of ossifying the Sanskrit language and converting it into God’s language.

There is no doubt that Brahmins did hold a high position in the society, but mainly as an intellectual and scholarly class, and not all of them adopted priesthood as their profession. And those who did were not much respected as they were recipients of donations and sacrificial fees and not donors. The donor was the patron, the ‘ yajamana’ who hired a priest to have a religious sacrifice or ritual performed. And anybody could be the patron under the yajmani system – including a Brahmin.

In fact, the Brahmins took up several occupations, besides serving as priests. They were katha-vachakas or narrators of Puranic stories, astrologers, vaidyas or physicians, teachers, and even agriculturists. Some of them joined the administrative service also and became councillors and ministers. Some, like Kaihana’s own father Champaka, adopted the military career.

Dr. S.C.Ray in his outstanding research in “Early History and Culture of Kashmir” comes to believe that there were no intermediate castes in Kashmir, not even Shudras.  “Though the conception of the population as consisting of the four traditional castes was not altogether unknown”, he writes, “there was no such caste as Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra in early Kashmir”. While he describes Brahmanas as “definitely the more privileged and honoured caste”, he mentions Nishadas, Kiratas, Dombas, Shvapakas and Chandalas as the lower castes.  The Nishadas the Kiratas, the Dombas etc. were no doubt there, but the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas were not altogether absent, though they have not been mentioned in that detail. The Nilamata describes the functions of all the four traditional castes and says that representatives of all the four participated in the king’s coronation. In fact, Kalhana uses the term Kayastha for all those who were appointed in State’s service and would include Brahmins as well as the others, though there are hardly any references to Khshtriyas or Vaisyas, as the case may be in other parts of the country.

The Rajatarangini does make references to Kshatriyas as well as Vaishyas in the context of Kashmir’s ancient history.  Any how, there is no reference in it of tensions between the castes, or anything like the priest – king collusion, to maintain hegemony over others. The Brahmins, however, are often shown as resorting to prayopavesha or hunger-strike to get their demands accepted by the king. The confrontation between King Jayapida and the Brahmanas of Tulamula is a well known example.

There may not be many direct references to Vaishyas as such in Rajatarangani and other early works, but Kalhana does mention the emergence of a rich and prosperous merchant class. With the opening of overland trade routes during Kanishka’s rule, and perhaps, earlier, trade and commerce with foreign countries appears to have received a boost. Commercial activity must have been particularly brisk during the rule of the Karkotas.  Extensive conquests by kings like Lalitaditya had opened vast markets for Kashmiri goods in neighbouring territories. The Valley was full of wealthy merchants, says Kalahana, with some of them living in palatial buildings excelling the king’s palace.

Damodargupta’s reference to shreshthin and vanikas also indicates the existence of a rich and prosperous trading community during his time, belonging probably to the Vaishya caste. Many among the upward mobile artisan classes in the Valley too must have belonged to this community.  As for the Shudras, Nilamata counts the karmajivin (workers) and shilpis (artisans) as Shudras – that is, the weavers, carpenters, goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, leather-tanners and potters. They were treated with respect in the society and were among those who exchanged gifts with the “higher varnas” during the Mahimana celebrations, says Dr. Ved Kumari.

The servants serving in the houses of the higher castes too belonged to the shudra varna, since no jati is mentioned. They were treated with sympathy and were included in the list of the persons “in whose company the householder feasted and enjoyed”. The very fact, writes Dr. Ved Kumari, that the Nilmata describes the Shudras as taking part in the coronation ceremony of the kings, shows that they were not debased.

There were people belonging to mixed castes also like Suta, Magadha and Vandi who lived by singing the paeans of heroes and other famous persons.  Dr. S.C.Ray counts the Nishadas, Kiratas, Dombas etc. among the low caste people but stops short of calling them Shudras. The Nishadas, who lived by hunting and fishing, are also described as boatsmen in the Rajatarangini. The Kiratas, who were hunters and animal trappers, were a forest dwelling tribe belonging to the Tibeto-Burman racial stock. The Dombas have been described in the Rajatarangini in association with the Chandalas as huntsmen belonging to the menial class. Kalhana calls them “Shvapakas” or “dog-eating people”.

But they have also been shown as good musicians who made quite a profession of their singing and dancing.  Kalhana mentions the story of a Domba singer Ranga whose daughters gave a performance in the glittering royal assembly hall of Chakravarman and were included in the king’s seraglio, one of them becoming the chief queen much to the chagrin of others. Consequently, Dombas became the favourites of the king and wielded much influence at his court as councilors. Chandalas were bravos and fierce fighters. They worked as executioners and were also employed as the king’s watchmen.

If at all, there could be a division of early Kashmiri society into four castes and their sub-castes, it was only notional.  In actual fact, the caste-system was never rigid in Kashmir, or of a tyrannical character. Intermarriages between various castes were not uncommon, as we learn from works like the Katha-Saritsagara.  It is, therefore absolutely irrelevant to talk of social-organization in terms of “ugly reality of Caste and Jati” in context of Kashmiri Hindus and their legitimate claims to pluralism. The society in Kashmir was actually divided along occupational or socio-economic lines. Dr.  S.C. Ray writes: “Three distinct classes of people evolved, along with their several sub-divisions,   on   the   basis   of three   principle   methods   of production (agriculture, industry and trade)”. While agriculturists constituted the bulk of these occupational classes, artisans and merchants too had important roles to play in the society.

Around the 8th century, in Kashmir, a new class of feudal landlords known as the Damaras, appeared on the scene and started gaining control of agriculturist economy. We do not hear of them in the Nilamata Purana, nor do we hear in the first three books of the Rajatarangini, till we find Lalitaditya – who was Kashmir’s most powerful king – warning his successors not to leave cultivators of the land with more than what they require “for their bare sustenance and the tillage of the land”. Otherwise, he says ‘they would become in a single year very formidable Damaras and strong enough to neglect the commands of the kings”. And then we learn that they -were agriculturists who, owned large chunks of land. Lalitaditya’s warning appears to have had no effect, for we see the Damaras becoming wealthier and gaining more and more strength.  By the time the Lohara dynasty ascended the throne, they had become so rich and powerful that they began to interfere in the affairs of the State. Living in fortified residences, they raised large private armies and established their strongholds all over Kashmir.  Such was their power and influence that they were able to extend their stranglehold over the administration, becoming virtual king-makers, enthroning or dethroning anyone according to their wish. In the wars of succession that became endemic after the 10th century, we find them supporting one claimant to the throne or the other, their support often proving to be the deciding factor.

This is what happened in the internecine conflicts between Ananta and Kalasha and Kalasha and Harsha, each of them vying for their help. Powerful rulers like Didda, Ananta, Kalasha and Jayasimha used every stratagem to curb them, including the use of military force, but the Damaras continued to retain their nuisance value. Dr. S.C.Ray attributes the rise and growth of the Damaras not only to the “weakness of the royal authority” and “the constant wars of succession”, but also to “the economic structure of the society”, which because of increasing dependence on agricultural lands for revenue proved helpful to the rise of the landed aristocracy. As their wealth and influence increased, the Damaras came to be looked upon with respect in the society, with royal families establishing even matrimonial relations with them.

While agricultural and trading communities were very important elements in the society from the socio-economic point of view, the artisan classes also witnessed a significant growth in early Kashmir. These included the weavers and the jewellers, metal casters and image-makers, potters and carpenters, blacksmiths and leather tanners etc. Although their sphere of activity was quite wide, there were no corporate or traders guilds in Kashmir as in other parts of India.

There were also occupational communities who served the society in various other ways. Among these could be counted the wrestlers, the actors, the dancers, the physicians, the shepherds, the gardeners and also the courtesans who plied the world’s oldest trade.  These people were not directly connected with the production of wealth, but nonetheless had their own place in the society.

Yet another class, which distinguished itself from all the classes mentioned above, was that of the administrators. It consisted of the nobility and the bureaucracy.  As Dr. S.C. Ray has pointed out, the highest civil and military officials were drawn from the nobility, and these included the sarvadikara (also called dhi-sachiva) or prime minister, stiehiva or minister, the mandalesha or governor and the kantpanesha or commander-in-chief. Being important officers of the State, the nobility drew lame salaries from the royal treasury.

The bureaucracy assisted them in running the general administration of the State It consisted of all kinds of officials, both high and low, all of them being known by the general connotation “Kayastha”, which did not denote any particular caste. As I have mentioned earlier, the members of any caste or class could be recruited as Kayasthas, including the Brahmanas.  Both Kalhana and Kshemendra have hated them for their greed and for their cruel methods of exacting revenue and taxes from the people. Kshemendra gives a long list of their designations in his works Narmamala and Samaya Matrika. Describing them as an exploitative and oppressive class, he exposes their fraudulent ways and bungling, and accuses them of forgery, misappropriation and embezzlement.  Kalhana too speaks about them in the same vein. The common man appears to have been squeezed between the tyrannical Damaras and the oppressive and greedy Kayasthas, though not all Kayasthas could have been like that.

Where does it leave the critics’ attack on the priestly class or the Brahmins?  They must explain where from they got such information and with what authority did they speak in such astringently damning words about the Brahmins and then use the phrase “ugly reality of social stratification developed along the lines of Caste and Jati” and for which they hold the Brahmins (the Hindu priestly class) responsible, as if the Brahmins in India had enjoyed the same position and privileges as were enjoyed by the Christian clergy during the medieval times or is still being enjoyed by the Fatwa announcing Muslim clergy in today’s Muslim world.   To me it appears that she has drawn heavily on the narrative of the imperialist/colonist European scholars of the nineteenth century, whose only aim has been to distort Indian history to suit their ideological and politico-strategic aims.

To be Continued