Gandhi and the Caste System

Even if Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi showed that a political liberation struggle can be won with nonviolence. His relationship with Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Dalits sheds a completely different light on him. In contrast to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Gandhi did not refuse the caste system but just wanted to reform it. He is thus in a tradition of reformers:

Ram Mohan Roy 1772-1833 founder of the ‘ Brahmo Samaj‘, Dayananda Sarawati (1824- 1883) and his ‘ Arya Samaj ‘, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) founded of the ‘Ramakrishna Mission‘, and Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.


According to Arundhati Roy, a dismissive attitude characterized Gandhi’s relationship with the ‘untouchables‘. Indeed, Gandhi and his followers called the casteless ‘Harijan‘ (‘Children of Vishnu‘), and had the intention to legally protect them from the violence exercised by the caste Hindus (‘Savarnas‘). However, Gandhi did not want to give them the opportunity to speak for themselves politically.

The Indian sociologist Gopal Guru criticizes the term ‘Harijan‘. Since this term ghettoizes the casteless and implies an element of ‘coming to terms with one’s fate’. Today, the term ‘Dalit‘ replaces the term ‘Avarna’, which means ‘not belonging to the caste system’. ‘Dalit’ in Marathi means ‘a people broken by the stigma‘.

The affirmation of this identity is only the starting point, its negation is the culmination. It can be defined as a collective monologue of resistance. ‘Yes, we were the broken people, we were oppressed, but from now on we […] will no longer allow you – the dominant castes – to break and oppress us’.1


In 2000, the Dalit author Bama, described in her autobiographical story what this stigmatization feels like:

People turn their faces and look at us with disgust as soon as they experience our caste membership. It is impossible to describe the anguish that such looks cause us. But besides the agony, we also feel great anger. […] Why do people think we are so repulsive that they don’t even want to sit next to us in a means of transport? They look at us with the same look they would look at a person suffering from a disgusting disease. Wherever we go, we suffer beatings. And pain. Will there never be any relief? Are Dalits not human?2


The ‘task’ of the urban casteless – the ‘Bhangis‘, ‘Chuhras‘ and ‘Mehtars‘ – is the cleaning of latrines. In Maharashtra and other Indian states, it is the cleaning of the railway tracks from excrements – with bare hands.

Manual scavenging is not a career chosen voluntarily by workers, but instead a deeply unhealthy, unsavory, and undignified job forced upon these people because of their stigma attached to their [non-]caste [status]. The nature of work itself then reinforces that stigma.”3

This practice has been prohibited by law in India since 1993. However, there was no political will to change the situation of the ‘Bhangis‘.

Though it is against the law, the Indian Railways is one of the biggest employers of manual scavengers. Its 14.300 trains transport twenty-five million passengers across 65,000 kilometers every day. Their shit is funneled straight onto the railway tracks through 172.000 open discharge toilets. This shit, which must amount to several tonnes a day, is cleaned by hand, without gloves or any protective equipment, exclusively by Dalits.4

Gandhi about the Bhangis

Gandhi literally considered his ‘vulnerable children‘ to be ‘dumb as a cow‘ and ‘incapable of learning‘. Therefore, he believed that he could solve the problem of their humiliation by upgrading the ‘latrine service’, assigned to them.

The position that I really long for is that of the Bhangi. How sacred is his work of cleanliness! That work can be done only by a Brahmin or by a Bhangi. The Brahmin may do it in his wisdom, the Bhangi in ignorance. I respect, and I adore both of them. If either of the two disappears from Hinduism, Hinduism itself would disappear. And it’s because Svadharma (self-service) is dear to my heart that the Bhangi is dear to me. I may even sit at my meals with a Bhangi by my side, but I do not ask to align yourself with them by inter-caste dinners and marriages.”5

Narendra Modi about the Bhangis

In India, when it comes to justifying the existence of the Bhangis, the differences between right and left disappear.

Narendra Modi: “I do not believe they [the Bhangis] have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this kind of job generation after generation … At some point in time, somebody must have gotten the enlightenment that it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; and this job should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries.”6

India has the technical and financial potential to build an atomic bomb. Furthermore, it is proud of its ‘ Silicon Valley ‘ in Bangalore. Nevertheless, these potentials do not seem to be sufficient for a modern sanitary system.

Gandhi and his Gita

Gandhi was convinced of the eternal validity of the holy scriptures of Brahmanism. The terms ‘Satyagraha‘ and ‘Ahimsa‘ in his interpretation referred to the ‘Dharma‘ concept in the Bhagavad Gita. The fact that he spoke about nonviolence and truth in terms of ‘Dharma‘, shows how much his concept owed to Brahmanism. However, the reference to the Bhagavad-Gita would not have been necessary to emphasize the binding nature of these two principles. Since already for Patanjali, ‘Ahimsa‘ and ‘Satya‘ are vows which must be followed at all costs.

Existentially […] Gandhi had no cultural or metaphysical limitations on participation in non-violence. Epistemically, however, it is a different story. Gandhi casts his ideas strictly in terms of their connection to certain Sanscritic/Brahmanic worldviews, emphasizing their connection to certain highly specific epistemic and ontological assumptions. While Ahimsa seems existentially open to believers of all kinds, it seems epistemically tied to the Vedic tradition, a tie that Gandhi, while not affirming explicitly, seemed to loathe to sever.7


The segregation of castes had its origin, probably, in the ‘Purusha Sukta Hymne‘, the 10th book of ‘Rigveda‘ (between 1200 and 900 BC). According to the Purusha Hymn, the four ‘Varnas‘ originate from the cosmic prehistoric man. ‘Varna‘ literally means a color assigned to each of them: Brahmins: white, Kshatriyas: red, Vaishyas: yellow, Shudras: black.

The Brahmin was the mouth [of the mythical ‘primitive man’], his arms were made into Kshatriya, his thighs into Vaishya, and from his feet, the Shudras were formed.8 However, the cruel character of the caste hierarchy is most evident in ‘Manu-Smriti‘. It is bluntly bringing to expression the violence of the caste system.


The Varna system is by no means a description of social reality. What counts in daily life is rather the Jati (birth), i.e. the subcaste into which one is born. Jatis are characterized by endogamy (marriage only between members of the Jati) and commensalism (table fellowship) and are in turn divided into various exogamous groups such as clans (within which marriage is prohibited). The name of a Jati often derives from a profession […] but the name can also be derived from a rite or place.9

Fluid hierarchy

According to Romila Thapar, the number of Jatis has never been constant. Therefore, the hierarchies between the Jatis were not set in stone either. Thus, social upheavals and migrations often led to shifts in the hierarchical relations between the Jatis.

The Indian historian Romila Thapar argues that “the two [terms ‘Varna’ and ‘Jati’] were of different origin and it was only in the course of history that the Jatis were incorporated into the Varnas.”10

The Jatis, so Thapar, probably originate from the much older ‘Indus Valley Culture‘, whose scripture has not yet been deciphered. Later, when this culture disappeared, the Aryan Varnas were imposed on these differentiated social hierarchies. Above all the Varnas were based on purity, hierarchy, as well as professional specification.

Purity and impurity

In this younger, Aryan-Brahman social order the absolute purity of one group required the counterbalance of the absolute impurity of the other. “The scale of purity and pollution is an organizational principle […] in the social space of Hinduism.11

What makes orientation even more difficult is that the Jatis often have a different status in different parts of the country.

Although the extremes [of the Brahmanic purity norms] are cultural guidelines, an absolute determination of purity is not possible […]. A determination of purity can therefore only exist in changing and shifting demarcations to impurity. […] Such a model always requires at least two people. [...] From the forms of encounter and exchange, purity and impurity can be determined, and from their totality, even a socio-ritual hierarchy of family associations and sub-castes can be determined.12


Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), also known under the honorary name ‘Babasaheb‘, was, like M. K. Gandhi, a lawyer, politician, and social reformer. However, Ambedkar was a Dalit himself. He had experienced firsthand what it means to be ‘untouchable‘. Ambedkar grew up with the ‘Bhakti‘ tradition. Although it was uncommon in Dalit families, his father introduced him and his siblings to Hindu stories. The Bhakti movement offered a mystical approach to spirituality, independent of caste and gender. The most famous Bhakti poets were Kabir, Tulsidas, and Gangasati.


The ‘Mahar Regiment‘ served the Marat King Shivaji in the 17th century. After his death, the ‘Peshwas‘ led a strict Brahmanic regime and treated the ‘Mahars‘ terribly and degradingly. For this reason, many of them fled and settled elsewhere, mostly in cities. However, the urbanization of the Mahars – an ‘untouchable’ Jati – led to them organizing themselves politically faster than other untouchable sub-systems.

Ambedkar’s experiences of humiliation and injustice began in childhood. Although, he attended a school for caste Hindus. However, he had to sit on a sack away from the other children to avoid ‘polluting’ the ground. Above all, he remained thirsty all day long, as the caste Hindus did not allow him to drink from the same tap.

Studies with John Dewey

In 1907 Ambedkar matriculated as the only untouchable in the ‘Elphinstone’ High School. There he met his long-time supporter, the progressive Maharaja of Baroda. Beyond that, this Mentor later enabled him to study with John Dewey at Columbia University in New York. In his groundbreaking paper ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development‘ Ambedkar argued, that caste can neither be compared with race nor with class. Rather it is a separate and self-contained social category.

Subsequently, after a short stay in India, he studied economics and law in London. Thereafter, he returned to India where he wanted to work off his scholarship as a civil servant for the Maharaja of Baroda. However, regardless of his high degree in education abroad, he could not find a room because he was an ‘Avarna‘ and therefore ‘untouchable’. Finally, he went to Bombay, where he taught as a professor at ‘Sydenham College‘.

India Depressed Classes Conference

In order to bring the Dalits on board the independence movement, Congress decided in 1917 to abolish untouchability. In 1917, the first ‘All-India Depressed Classes Conference‘ took place in Bombay under the chairmanship of Ambedkar’s patron Maharaja Gaekwad. However, Ambedkar was rather skeptical about the efforts of progressive Brahmins and the Congress movement to abolish untouchability. He saw untouchability as only the extreme, ritualized form of casteism.

The real violence was the denial of entitlement: to land, to wealth, to knowledge, to equal opportunity. […] In rural areas, the threat of actual violence sometimes paled before the specter of the ‘social boycott’ that orthodox Hindus would proclaim against any Untouchable who dared to defy the system.”13


However, the Hind-reformer avoided touching the caste system as such and its political and social exclusion mechanisms. Therefore, they raised the issue of untouchability, albeit, isolated it from its context.

Ambedkar, on the other hand, was convinced that the problem of untouchability was insolvable, as long as the Dalits had no possibility to politically organize and speak for themselves. Therefore, it was crucial for them to obtain independent representation in parliament. Perhaps inspired by the ‘Morley-Minto Reform‘ he developed the idea of separate elections for untouchables.

Right of political representation?

The right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that makeup citizenship. But the untouchability of the untouchables puts these rights far beyond their reach. [...] These are the interests of the Untouchables. And as can be easily seen they can be represented by the Untouchables alone.”14

The Dalits’ nonviolent resistance

It is little known that untouchables, in their struggle against their lawlessness, have also carried out Satyagraha actions. However, in 1924 the ‘Vaikom Satyagraha‘ took place in Kerala. One leader of these Satyagraha was the Syrian Christian, George Joseph, a follower of Gandhi. Gandhi came to Vaikom and advised to stop the Satyagraha action. Although, this agitation was simply about the right of Shudras and Dalits to use the road passing the temple.

Obviously, Gandhi did not welcome the Satyagrahas of the Dalits and Shudras. Moreover, he downright condemned their nonviolent struggle for their dignity and rights. In 1927 the ‘Mahad Satyagraha‘ took place in the state of Maharashtra, which was led by Ambedkar. It was just about the fact that Dalits, like everyone else, wanted to use the water of the Chowddar Water Reservoir. In August 1923, the Bombay Legislative Council had decided that untouchables could use all the places built and maintained by the state.

Ambedkar’s symbolical burning of the Manu Smriti

However, in the Bombay province of Mahad, the decision couldn’t be enforced due to the resistance of the caste Hindus. Therefore, in 1924 thousands of Dalits attended the conference that took place before the march on Mahad. Ambedkar gave a speech and ritually burned a copy of the ‘Manusmriti‘.

Ambedkar: “To sum up, untouchability is not a simple matter; it is the mother of all our poverty and lowliness and it has brought us to the abject state we are in today. […] The inequality inherent in the four-caste system must be rooted out. Our work has begun to bring about a real social revolution. […] I pray to god, that the social revolution that begins today may fulfill itself by peaceful means.”15

Gandhi’s condemnation

A few months later, Gandhi gave a speech at the All-India Suppressed Class Conference in Lahore in which he called on the Dalits: “[Fight for your rights by] sweet persuasion and not by Satyagraha which becomes ‘Duragraha [devilish force] when it is intended to give a rude shock to the dee-rooted prejudices of the people.”16

Ambedkar Gandhi’s harshest critics

Ambedkar: “It is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and of the lowest of the low. […] The question of whether the Congress is fighting for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom is the Congress fighting.”17

During his first confrontation with Ambedkar at the second Round Table Conference in London‘, Gandhi had no inhibitions, telling Ambedkar:

I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of untouchables.”18

Ambedkar a traitor?

Since he had successfully negotiated concessions for the Dalits on his own initiative at the first Round Table Conference in London, Ambedkar was repeatedly called a traitor.

Since the untouchables had been devalued and excluded for centuries, they should elect their representatives in separate elections. The Hindu Orthodoxy should not have any influence on the representative politics of the Dalits. In addition, the Dalits should be able to participate in the general elections.

Prevented success

One year later, Ramsay MacDonald announced the British Government’s decision. It granted the untouchables separate elections for twenty years. Gandhi was furious at Ambedkar’s success. Therefore, he announced from prison that he would go on a hunger strike if the British Government did not withdraw the decision. This fasting which Gandhi was prepared to continue, if necessary, ‘until death‘ was outright blackmail. Moreover, it was totally against the maxims of Ahimsa.


The pressure on Ambedkar only increased when the British announced, that they would only withdraw their promise if the untouchables agreed. Since, if Gandhi really had fasted to death, they would have become the scapegoats once again. Thus, Ambedkar had no chance. After the fourth day of Gandhi’s ‘Duragraha‘, Ambekar visited him in prison. Reluctantly, he signed the ‘Poona Pact‘, which at least reserved seats for Dalits in parliament.

However, Ambedkar knew that this would not be enough to bring about real change. Higher-caste politicians would simply put up straw men who acted according to their guidelines. Consequently, nobody would continue to care about the Dalits‘ concerns.

Ambedkar: “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act … the worst form of coercion against helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed under the Prime Minster’s Award and agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus. It was a vile and wicked act. How can the Untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere?19

Ambedkar as the author of the constitution

In 1947 Ambedkar became Minister of Justice in the first government of independent India. Moreover, he was instrumental in the drafting of the Indian Constitution. In 1956, Ambedkar founded and converted to ‘Neo-Buddhism. Thereby he initiated a mass conversion of six hundred thousand Dalits to Navayana-Buddhism at the end of his life.


However, Ambedkar’s posthumously published work ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma‘ caused outrage in established Buddhist circles. The reviewer of the Buddhist journal ‘Maha Bodhi‘ criticized Ambedkar’s thesis that Buddhism was primarily social teaching.

Above all, the four noble truths [‘Duhkha, ‘Samudaya’, ‘Nirodha, and ‘Magga‘] are missing [in Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism‘].”20

Ambedkar as reformer

Nevertheless, according to Ambedkar’s understanding, human suffering is not only caused by one’s own greed and ignorance. In the case of the Dalits, it is, above all, caused by the cruelty of others. For this reason, Christopher Queen defends Ambedkar’s modification of Buddhism in his ‘Introduction to Engaged Buddhism‘. This adaption to the needs of converted Dalits must be seen against the social background:

Ambedkar recognized that the metaphysics of ‘Karma‘ and rebirth only increased the Dalits’ own sense of guilt by alluding to the misconduct of the sufferers in their previous lives. He also knew that the voluntary poverty and contemplative lifestyle of the traditional monk could not be an acceptable ideal for people trapped in structural poverty.21

Ambedkar’s four noble truths

Therefore, Ambekar’s ‘four noble truths‘ were, according to Christopher Queen:

1) the suffering of injustice and poverty;

2) the social, political, and cultural institutions of oppression – collective expressions of hatred, greed, and intolerance;

3) the European ideals of ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, and ‘fraternity’;

4) the triple way: education, mobilization, and organization of the Dalits.


The fate of the Dalits, especially in remote villages, still illustrates the violent and stigmatizing effect of the caste system. Brahmanism, the contagion of the divisive ‘hierarchy bacillus‘, has its effect even among the lowest castes, even among the casteless:

The exponential decay of the radioactive atom of caste means that Brahmanism is practiced not just by the Brahmins against the Kshatriya or the Vaisha against the Shudra, or the Shudra against the Untouchable, but also by the Untouchable against the Unapproachable, the Unapproachable against the Unseeable. It means there is a quotient of Brahmanism in everybody, regardless of which caste they belong to. It is the ultimate means of control in which the concept of pollution and purity and the perpetuation of social as well as physical violence […] is not just outsourced, but implanted in everybody’s imagination, including those of the bottom of the hierarchy.”22

Emancipation or escape?

The Brahmanism (or hierarchical) bacillus makes it impossible to draw a clear line between oppressors and oppressed. Above all, prevents solidarity among the most oppressed castes and among the casteless themselves. Hence, often Dalits, who have made their way up to the middle class, turn away from the world of the untouchables. Understandably, they refuse to deal with poverty and stigmatization and therefore are tempted to deny their origins.

Negation of freedom, equality, and fraternity

For this reason, Brahmanism is, according to Ambedkar, the negation of freedom, equality, and fraternity. In her foreword to ‘Annihilation of Caste‘, Arundhati Roy points out the connection between the caste system and capitalism. Even for those who ‘belong’ to it, the caste system is by no means a relict of the past. It still plays a huge role today in which caste one is born into.

A recent list of dollar billionaires published by Forbes magazine features fifty-five Indians. […] Even among these dollar billionaires, the distribution of wealth is a step pyramid in which the cumulative wealth of the top ten outstrips the forty-five below. Seven out of those top ten are Vaishyas, all of the CEOs of major cooperations with business interests all over the world […] there are no Dalits on this list.”23

Caste-system and capitalism

While the Vaishya caste dominates the Indian economy, the Brahmins – three percent of the Indian population – dominate the high-level bureaucracy. Supreme Court judges, ambassadors, and senior government officials are mainly Brahmins.

Dalits and Adivasi are also excluded here. They have no press and are a vanishing minority of one percent even among the highest judges. Although they make up twenty-five percent of the Indian population.

UN conference in Durban

In 2001 the ‘UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance‘ (WCAR) took place in Durban. Since they wanted to ensure that the UN would also treat caste discrimination as an extreme form of intolerance, many Dalits traveled to Durban.

However, leading sociologists in New Delhi argued that caste can not be compared with racial discrimination.

Nevertheless, Paul Diviak, the senior member of the Dalits‘ National Campaign for Human Rights, countered this argument:

With this kind of publicity, this access to international mechanisms, the Dalits and other discriminated groups in the country would gain faster access to justice and achieve total liberation more quickly. […] But this is exactly what many in our country want to prevent. They want to continue to subjugate us and keep us as cheap labor slaves. Untouchability is not only a social problem, it has massive economic consequences. One can simply deny the Dalits’ contribution to the economy and keep them as cheap labor, child laborers, debt slaves and for any subordinate manual activity, and pay them a pittance.24

Terror of suppression

From the perspective of the higher castes, the caste system justifies the ruthless exploitation of the casteless. In order to maintain these extremely hierarchical structures, and to quell Dalit uprisings and rebellions, a real terror of violence is used against them if they dare to challenge these hierarchies.

From the perspective of the untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable cabinet of horrors:

According to a statistic from the national authority for recording crimes, in 2012 alone: 2,574 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits murdered. Their property is still not respected. Whole families are destroyed by arson if one of their members rebels too conspicuously against discrimination.


In 1989 a very comprehensive ‘Act for the Prevention of Violence against the Registered Castes and Registered Tribes‘ (SC/ST Act) came into force. However, the police and courts are blocking its implementation. Many caste-related acts of violence are not registered as such. The perpetrators of serious crimes, committed against Dalits, such as rape, murder, or arson still often get off with light sentences or even impunity.

Judges and offenders
Education: a rare privilege

This is possible because police and judges are covering the perpetrators. They almost always belong to higher castes or exactly those Jati who most often commit crimes against the Dalits. Today, it is often no longer Brahmins who harass the Dalits, but members of the lowest sub-caste, the Shudra Jatis.

The land reforms carried out since independence mostly transferred ownership of land from the high castes to long-time tenants from the Shudra-Jatis. However, the majority of Dalits have not benefited from the land reform.

The Indian constitution ordered, to reserve state offices for Dalits through so-called ‘positive discrimination. Nevertheless, today still only a few people succeed in escaping the stigma of ‘untouchability’.

If the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no law, no Parliament, no Judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word.”25

How can universal human rights be enforced in such a deeply rooted tradition of structural violence? How should the casteless learn about their rights, when they are still often not attending school? Many Dalits have never heard of this law, even 25 years after the entry into force of the SC/ST Act.

Compared to the overall Indian average of 60 percent, the literacy rate of Dalit men was just under 50 percent, and of Dalit women less than 30 percent at the beginning of the third millennium. Poverty, the hostile atmosphere, lack of motivation and encouragement, and the indifference of teachers in state schools are cited by A. Padmabhan [who has worked in numerous Dalit organizations] as reasons why he considers separate schools to be indispensable for Dalits.26

Despite all these adverse circumstances, Dalits in some cases still manage to gain higher positions. Even though, due to their unstable social position, they often have to do ‘dirty’ jobs in their new environment. Society drives them into jobs that no one wants. The investigative journalist Rana Ayyub exposed this kind of high-level discrimination in her research on the events in Gujarat in 2002.


From the perspective of Dalit women, it is particularly clear how closely gender is connected with caste. Here too, the divisive effect of the ‘Brahmanism bacillus’ plays a crucial role. Above all, the deeply rooted caste thinking prevents women of different castes from showing solidarity. However, solely the already internalized abhorrence of higher caste women against a connection with a lower caste man can maintain the hierarchy of the caste system.

Internalized hierarchy

According to Uma Chakravarty, the higher castes have internalized the ideology that underpins the caste system to such an extent that they are no longer aware of it. Therefore they would not perceive the contradictions in their own lives. After all, how can people claim to have overcome caste thinking as long as they ensure the preservation of this system by choosing their spouses? If the system of many Jatis is to survive, these Jatis must be preserved as discrete units. This is only possible through endogamous marriages […]. Neither the control over the land nor the ritual quality, i.e. the purity of the caste, can be controlled without strict control of women.27

Punishment for disobedient women

Therefore, often, higher-caste women who have crossed these barriers are banned from their own families. Even ‘revenge’ killings have often occurred. Higher-caste men, on the other hand, often abuse casteless women sexually or have affairs with them and subsequently abandon them. But marriages between higher-caste men and lower-caste women are also quite common.

When Dalits dare to defend themselves against discrimination or insist on compliance with existing laws, caste Hindus often punish them by the rape of their wives.


The cult of ‘joginis‘ is another example of how closely sexuality and caste relate to each other. In the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Dalit girls have been and still are consecrated to the goddess ‘Yellamma‘. Their mothers do this decisive step either to ‘appease’ the goddess for the birth of a son or simply because of the lack of money for the dowry.

In their role as ‘temple servants’, untouchable women were recognized as an active female principle in the sacred space-time structure. Their ‘shakti‘ [female energy] was not only used in various rituals but also in sexual union with priests and upper castes. Thus the belief can be proved that ‘a man from a high Hindu caste would be charged with divine energy through the encounter with a sacred prostitute’.”28

Through the ceremony of ‘marriage’ to the deity, which lasts seven days, the girls themselves acquire divine powers. In the course of this ceremony, they go into trance and become clairvoyant. Thus, all castes worship them despite their untouchable status. Their blessing is indispensable at weddings of members of high castes. They were and are also called for harvest ceremonies.

‘Sacred’ prostitution?

Such rituals break the otherwise strict purity rules of the caste system. In house-initiations, the presence of the ‘Jogini‘ or ‘Jogati‘ should ‘absorb all evil‘. Consequently, at festivities, people worship and entertain them like goddesses. However, outside the rituals, they are treated as ordinary untouchables. They must beg for their wages at the lowest level of the social hierarchy.

A jogini is traditionally not allowed to marry and must be available to any man who wants to sleep with her. In the words of older joginis, men [in the past] would come to them when there were problems in their family or when others had worries. They wanted to use the divine power of the jogini. Today, however, most joginis work as ordinary prostitutes. Many end up in the brothels of the red-light districts in megacities like Bombay. […] Why is it […] almost exclusively girls […] who come from Dalit families? Why do members of the upper castes have such a strong interest in maintaining this system?29

In 1988 a law was passed against this custom of ‘Devadasi‘ (temple servants) or ‘Nautch-Girls‘ (dancing girls). Nevertheless, girls are still consecrated as ‘Joginis‘ (in 2000 there were about 40,000) and there are still those who believe in their special role.

Ancient customs under preservation?

However, historian Priyadarshini Vijaisri, who has researched the cult of the Devadasi in India, thinks it would be too simplistic to treat deeply rooted social and ideological customs as aberrations.

On the other hand, even a conservative cultural philosophy that places all customs under ‘preservation order’ is not enough. Even more, if these rites have long since changed their social meaning. Moreover, this custom and the exploitative forms it has taken in times of globalized capitalism is by no means as old.

Indeed, cults can and should be ‘renegotiated’ from time to time. Although, in the sacred sphere prohibitions usually do not go far enough. Above all, sometimes it is precisely prohibition that prevents the renegotiation of rites. These attempts to forbid them, fix the cults in forms that offer just disadvantages but no privileges for the performers.

Devadasi in the scriptures?

However, according to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, there can be no talk of a ‘Vedic‘ sacred custom of temple dance.

There are no known direct references to dancing in the temple in the oldest books of dance theory […] ‘Natya Sastra‘ and ‘Abhinaya Darpana’. […] A millennium later, the ‘Natya Sastra’ is being legitimized as holy knowledge of Veda in the ‘Sangita Ratnakara‘. […]

It is not surprising that ‘Sangita Ratnakara’ also gives a list of social, rather than interpersonal occasions where dance is appropriate: coronations, great feasts, voyages, valedictions to divine images after periodic festivals, marriages, meetings with the beloved, entries to the city, the birth of a son. […] No temple dancers yet. Lasya can still mean only dance, which belongs to the ceremonial life of kings and well-placed households.

The first mention of temple dancing is located in the medieval collection of stories called ‘Kathasaritsagara‘ or ‘the Sea of Stories’. […] Who knows exactly how lasya changes into the art of lust? […] Words change meaning bit by bit, here excess, there lack.”30

Really helpful for today’s Devadasis would be a change in the law, that affects practical aspects of their lives. To send her children to school, for instance, a woman must know the name of the father. This is usually not possible for Devadasis. And so their children remain trapped in the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.


Swathy Margaret, a Dalit feminist working in a research center for women’s studies in Hyderabad, highlights the need to treat Dalit feminism as a specific form of feminism.

Dalit women share common concerns with Dalit men, and they also share certain concerns with women from other castes and classes. Dalit women have benefited and learned from both movements. And yet Dalit women are a category of their own. […] Swathy Margaret notes a lack of understanding of the category ‘Dalit woman’ among leading Dalit ideologues and prominent feminists alike.

Members of both groups argue that ultimately all women are Dalits [for example, because Hinduism considers them impure during menstruation]. […] To look at things in this way is to wipe away fundamental aspects of untouchability. They ignore the fact that the social status of upper-caste women has never been comparable to that of Dalit men or women.31

Self-determination of Dalit women

According to Swathy Margareth, Dalit women must first formulate their own concerns. They are not a homogeneous group but belong to various sub-systems and different classes. But there are many things they have in common, and it would be to their great advantage if Dalit women would join together to implement joint programs.

The Dalit men are slaves and we are slaves of the slaves […]. We really have different problems than mainstream women. But the Dalit movement does not want to see the gender issue, and the women’s movement does not want to see the caste issue.32

Brahmanical feminism

For Sharmila Rege, director of the Institute of Sociology at the University of Pune, a feminism that does not question the caste system is ‘Brahmanic feminism‘. The ‘discovery’ of ‘Dalit feminism‘ therefore has far-reaching consequences for sociology and other scientific disciplines:

The entire history of the Indian women’s movement [must] be viewed anew from the perspective of Dalit women.33

‘Women are the key to caste-system’

One of the new research questions would be: What would a non-Brahman perspective on Indian society look like?

As Ambedkar noted: ‘Women are the key to the caste system’. The subjugation of women and lower castes is part of the same system.

Therefore, on 25 December, the day when Ambedkar symbolically burned a copy of ‘Manusmriti‘ (the ‘Laws of Manu‘), Dalit women commemorate the ‘Day of the Liberation of Indian Women‘ – as a clear rejection of the caste system.


The nonviolent resistance of the casteless to their stigmatization consists, among other things, in their conversion to a more egalitarian religion.

No other religion in the world openly and theoretically justifies discrimination. So if religion is based on social hierarchy and untouchability, how are the Dalits ever to gain dignity and respect? For them, there is no other way out than to renounce it. […] Conversions help [the Dalits] to free themselves from mental slavery, to gain the confidence that the power of their two hands and their mind can set them free. In this way, the conversion of religion then has an effect in the economic, social and political spheres as well.34

Conversion is not a new phenomenon in India. To escape the stigma of untouchability, untouchables have been converting to other religions for centuries. Millions have voluntarily converted to Islam during Mughal rule, which gave them equal rights. Later, millions of casteless people became Sikhs and Christians. At present, Dalits are increasingly converting back to Islam instead of Buddhism or Christianity.

Illusionary resort?

But even this way out often turns out to be illusory:

Though their scriptures do not sanction it, elite Indian Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians all practice caste discrimination. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal all have their own communities of untouchable sweepers. So does Kashmir.”35

Chandrabhan Prasad, an atheist intellectual who is a member of the Dalit Central Treasury in Delhi, stresses that conversions cannot solve the problems of the Dalits either:

Society continues to treat converts as untouchables […]. Buddhists are called Neo-Buddhists, which means Dalit Buddhists. […] To pretend to the mass of Dalits that conversions are the solution to their problems is a huge distraction. What they need is education and access to land ownership. This is what the Dalit struggle of today must be about.36

Equal treatment for converted Dalits?

In the Christian churches, converted Dalits have begun to demand equality in recent years. When Dalits convert to Christianity or Islam, they lose all the rights granted to them by the constitution. For they have these rights as registered ‘Scheduled Castes‘ (such as quotas for university places and jobs in the civil service) only as ‘Hindus‘.

Dalit Christians repeatedly have tried to enter the legal sphere of the registered castes. But the Hindu-nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP) opposed in principle any extension of quotas to Dalit converts to Christianity and even more so to Islam. Instead, the Hindu nationalist BJP government tries to prevent conversions by all means. In addition, they try to take legal action and harassment against mixed marriages between Hindus and Muslims.


Hindu nationalists refer to mixed relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women as ‘love jihad‘. According to the ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act‘ (contrary to the suggestion contained in its name, an anti-conversion law), which Narendra Modi wanted to introduce in Gujarat in 2003, any Hindu wishing to convert should first obtain permission from the district magistrate. However, the law could not be introduced because it was unconstitutional.

That caste Hindus fear the conversion of casteless is not new either. Between 1881 and 1941, the Hindu population in Punjab fell from 43.8 percent to 29.1 percent as a result of the conversion of the lower castes and casteless to Islam, Sikhism, or Christianity. Hindu reform movements such as ‘Brahmo Samaj‘ or ‘Arya Samaj‘ emerged mainly for this reason. It was these movements that first coined the term ‘Hinduism‘.


Swami Vivekananda: “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less but an enemy more.”37

At the end of the 19th century, the Hindu nationalist reform movement ‘Arya Samaj‘ initiated the ‘Shuddhikaran‘ (conversion movement). Hindus who had converted to another religion could return to Hinduism – of course only back to their old (non-)caste.

Ghar whapsi

At the moment extremely right-wing organizations like the RSS (‘Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh‘ and the ‘Shiv Sena‘) are actively ‘bringing backDalits in the slums of the big cities to the ‘Hindu-fold’ and luring Adivasis into the trap of untouchability:

In the forests of Central India, where a corporate war for minerals is raging, the ‘Vishwa Hindu Parishad’ (VHP) and the ‘Bajrang Dal‘ (both organizations that are loosely linked to the RSS) run mass conversation programs called ‘Ghar whapsi‘ – ‘the return home’ – in which Adivasi people are ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism.”38

The Adivasis (mostly still organized on a grassroots democratic basis and living in the forest) must be ‘reconverted’ because Hinduism is per se no missionary religion.

Bhagavad-Gita as caste-manifest?

All those who, despite their doubts about the ethical justifiability of the caste system, do not want to touch this tradition, prefer to refer to the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is that part of the great Indian narrative of the Mahabharata which describes the battle between the two families of Pandavas and Kauravas.

Arjuna hesitates to lead his army in a great battle against an army that includes members of his family and his master. Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, however, admonishes Arjuna to follow his ‘Dharma‘ (his ‘duty’ and ‘destiny’), which here means his membership in the warrior caste and not his compassion or reverence for his master.

Duty moral

Most interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita adopted Krishna‘s ‘deontological‘ arguments in their interpretations. Deontology‘ refers to a compulsory ethic that does not determine the moral status of actions by their consequences. However, very few commentators on the Bhagavad Gita support Arjuna‘s arguments, which reveal his sensitivity to the immediate consequences of his actions. Amartya Sen is one of the latter.

Justification of violence

But was Arjuna really in error? Why should we only want to ‘go forward’ and not also ‘go well’? [Sen refers here to a poetic interpretation of the ‘Gita’ by T. S. Eliot: and do not think of the fruits of action/fare forward. Not farewell, / but fare forward, voyagers’]. Can the conviction that one is obliged to fight for a just cause, regardless of the consequences, be stronger than the reasons for not wanting to kill people for whom one may even feel affection?39

Taking Arjunas side

Like Amartya Sen, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is one of the few who take Arjunas’ side. As he pointed out in his unfinished work ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India‘, the Bhagavad Gita is not as gospel as the Bible or the Koran. Rather, it is simply a philosophical justification of some religious dogmas.

Religious justification of war

The first instance one comes across in reading the Bhagavad Gita is the justification of war. Arjuna had declared himself against the war, against killing people for the sake of property. Krishna offers a philosophic defense of war and killing.”40

This religious justification of war amounts to saying that body and mind are not one and the same. Since the body is ephemeral, it makes no difference to a wise man whether he dies a natural or violent death. For s/he does not identify with the perishable body, but with the spirit.

If Krishna were to appear as a lawyer debating for a client who is being tried for a murder and pleaded the defense set out by him in the Bhagavad-Gita there is not the slightest doubt, that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum.”41

The second dogma defended in the Bhagavad Gita is ‘Chaturvarnya‘ (Sanskrit: the four castes; ‘Chatur‘: four; ‘Varna‘: type, order, color, class). According to the Bhagavat Gita, the four castes are created by God and are therefore sacrosanct. The Gita offers a philosophical basis for the theory that the castes are based on inherited human character traits.


Buddha preached Ahimsa and therefore he was also in favor of abolishing castes. The Hindu counter-revolution against the principle of non-violence and the abolition of castes would not have been successful without the mythical justification of the Bhagavad Gita.

We do not interpret texts according to what they actually are, but according to their outer shell […]. A slight change in the presentation of a text and the only radical demystification available to us […] is set in motion, but nobody is aware of this fact.42

Deconstruction of a myth

Ambedkar could expose the myth of the Bhagavad Gita because he himself belonged to the minority excluded by the myth. Therefore, he was able to identify the motives of the narrative behind the myth. Furthermore, he was in the position to uncover the reasons why the message had to be packaged as a myth.

It is no use telling the people that the shastras do not say what they are believed to say […]. What matters is how the shastras have been understood.”43

The popularity of the ‘Gita’ in the West

Nearly all known spiritual leaders and gurus of modern times have written an interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita:

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Swami Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Paramahansa Yogananda but also some European intellectuals and philosophers.

When in 1785 the first translation of the Bhagavad Gita appeared in Europe, it was like a bang, writes Michael von Brück in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita he edited. This bang echoed especially in England, France, and Germany.44

Friedrich W. Schelling, Johann Gottfried Herder, Arthur Schopenhauer, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Novalis, Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Stearns Eliot and the Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner either wrote their own interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita.

Among the German idealists, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was the only one who had a feeling for the social-philosophical dimension of the ‘Gita’. According to Hegel, the Bhavagad Gita “unquestionably identified godly action [Karma yoga] with the code of conduct of a certain order of classes.45

Helena Blavatsky

The founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, also implicitly referred to the Bhagavad Gita. Her body-hostile philosophy focused one-sidedly on the spiritual form of yoga (‘Raja Yoga‘). While she demonized Hatha Yoga as ‘hindering and dangerous‘.

According to Karl Baier, the Theosophists placed the caste system in a racist, anti-Semitic context:

The Jewish people are described as descended from the Indian Chandalas, who according to the ‘Code of Manu‘ are the typical untouchables, i.e. they represent the socially ostracized, lowest social class. For Blavatsky, it is a bastard people, born of racial mixtures, which is impure and despised outside the caste order of the Aryans. Through Lanz von Liebenfels and Guido von List‘s ‘Ariosophy‘, these ideas indirectly influenced the Antisemitism of the Third Reich.46

Heinrich Himmler

Franz Hartmann, a disciple of Blavatsky published an edition of the Bhagavad Gita in 1899. Another admirer of the Bhagavad Gita was Heinrich Himmler:

It is by no means a coincidence, nor a trivial matter, that the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler found in the Bhagavad Gita, of all places, that encouragement and those sentences and views which justified the mass genocide he ordered and organized, and which justified him or his conscience. Neither in the Vedanta scriptures relevant to yoga, i.e. the ‘Upanishads‘, nor in the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali, nor in the ‘Hatha-Pradipika‘ are there any passages in which violence is justified.47

Blue-print for totalitarian terror?

Heinrich Himmler regarded the epic as a blueprint for relentless, cold-bloodedly calculating terror. According to the historian Mathias Tietke, he identified himself and the SS with the Kshatriya (warrior) caste. Consequently, he saw their Dharma‘ (their highest duty) in the extermination of all non-Aryan races in the German Reich.

In a speech in front of 90 high-ranking SS officers in Poznan, Himmler made clear references to the basic statements of the Bhagavad Gita.

As far as ending and winning the war is concerned, we have to take on board an overall insight: A war must be won spiritually, willingly, emotionally, then the physical, material gain is only a consequence […]. If we are mentally, willingly, and spiritually alright, then we will win this war according to the laws of history and nature because we embody the higher human values, the higher and stronger values in nature.48

Sacral warriors

Values praised in the Bhagavad Gita are marking the entire section of Himmler’s chanting speech to the SS. Ultimately, Himmler esoterically justified the massacres committed by the Nazis with the philosophy of the sacred warrior in the Bhagavad Gita.

The sacred warrior appears as a manifestation of the divine, as a metaphysical power of destruction of the finite. He actively draws this power upon himself, transfiguring and liberating himself in it by breaking the bonds of the human.49

Author: Eva Pudill


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Questions & Answers

What does Varna (caste) mean?

The Varna system is by no means a description of social reality. What counts in daily life is rather the Jati (birth), i.e. the sub-caste into which one is born. Jatis are characterized by endogamy (marriage only between members of the Jati) and commensalism (table fellowship) and are in turn divided into various exogamous groups such as clans (within which marriage is prohibited). The name of a Jati often derives from a profession […] but the name can also be derived from a rite or place.“10 Read more

What are the four main castes?

The segregation of castes had its origin, probably, in the ‘Purusha Sukta Hymne‘, the 10th book of ‘Rigveda‘ (between 1200 and 900 BC). According to the Purusha Hymn, the four ‘Varnas‘ originate from the cosmic prehistoric man. ‘Varna‘ literally means a color assigned to each of them: Brahmins: white, Kshatriyas: red, Vaishyas: yellow, Shudras: black. Read more

Does the caste system still exist in India today?

Yes, the caste system still largely determines ‘lifelong’ what chances an individual has in society. “A recent list of dollar billionaires published by Forbes magazine features fifty-five Indians. […] Even among these dollar billionaires, the distribution of wealth is a step pyramid in which the cumulative wealth of the top ten outstrips the forty-five below. Seven out of those top ten are Vaishyas, all of the CEOs of major cooperations with business interests all over the world […] there are no Dalits on this list.”24 Read more

What are the SC/ST laws?

In 1989 a very comprehensive ‘Act to prevent acts of violence against the registered castes and registered tribes‘ (SC/ST Act for short) came into force. But the police and the courts are blocking its implementation. Read more

How can you move up in the caste system?

Not at all. Unless in the next life (through ‘good karma’/ obedient subjection in this life). Read more

What is the highest caste in the caste system?

The Brahmins are the highest caste. The Brahmanism (or hierarchical) bacillus makes it impossible to draw a clear line between the oppressor and the oppressed. It also makes it impossible for the most oppressed castes and the casteless to form solidarity with each other. Read more

Who are India’s untouchables and what is a better name for them?

Today the term Untouchables is replaced by ‘Dalit’, which in Marathi means people broken by stigmatization. Read more

Did Buddhism also have a caste system?

No. Buddha preached Ahimsa and therefore he was also for the abolition of castes. Read more

Why is Buddhism not popular in India anymore?

According to Ambedkar Buddhism lost its popularity because of the Brahmin’s Counter Reformation‘, achieved through the great influence of the Bhagavad Gita. According to Ambedkar, the Hindu counter-revolution against the principle of nonviolence and against the Buddhist abolition of castes would not have been so successful without the mythical justification through the story of the Bhagavad Gita. Read more

Which caste is the biggest in India?

Apart from the Dalit, who are outside the caste system, the ‘Shudras‘ represent the lowest stratum of Indian society and make up the majority of the population. Read more