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LATEST DIALOGUES Political Roots and Genetic Evidence for the Indian Caste System

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In this extract from his book svābhāvikasūtra: The Roots of the Bhagavadgītā, Gerard Kuiken argues that the passages from the Bhagavadgītā which Hindus use to justify the caste system are an historical revision of the original text which was the source of the Gītā. He also gives evidence that the system of arranged marriage arose at about the same time, indicating the spread of the brahmanical vision of society throughout India in the first few centuries of the current era. The genetic evidence points to similar historic origins of the prohibition on caste intermarriage.

Here is another example of attachment to scripture as a cause of division and conflict within society, and a reflection on humanity’s need for rule books and those that brandish them. It is good to be reminded of the human origins of what are assumed by many to be divine prescriptions, nearly always authoritarian in purpose. It is also an example of the relegation of a vision of the oneness of humanity to centuries of intolerance and repression.

By modifying the corresponding statement of the source text of the Bhagavadgītā, the four-class system was created by Krishna, a system that seems to be a deterrent to the unity of the society of India. Where in the source text one is reminded that one is to be oneself and let others be themselves, the Bhagavadgītā verses refer to the duties of class as one’s inherent-self-nature, institutionalized inequality, which is contrary to striving for Oneness. The source text states that equivalence of all is striving for Oneness, while the Bhagavadgītā sees only the sameness of a clod, a stone and gold.

The four-class system has the upper classes, the twice-born Brahmins, warriors, merchants; and a middle class, the servants. Implicitly there is a fifth element, being those people who are deemed to be entirely outside its scope, such as tribal people and the untouchables. The caste populations are based upon the traditional ranking by class, occupation and socioeconomic status. The traditionalist sees the ancient class system as a bulwark of Indian social structure, while the Supreme Court of India stated explicitly that “The caste system is a curse on the nation and the sooner it is destroyed the better.” This is a major challenge, particularly, to quote Thapar (2002), “The idea of purity and pollution, derived from religious sanction and knitted into the jāti structure, made it difficult to change the system,” and the 2011 census of India showed that 79.8 percent of the population named Hinduism as their religion or way of life, for whom the Bhagavadgītā is a basic scripture. To quote Minor (1986): “Central to the Gītā is its concern that the caste structure be maintained. By declaring that the fourfold caste system was created by Krishna, it also held that it was better not to teach the truth to people if it caused them to depart from their duties (varna-dharma), which were determined by their place in the social structure, i.e., their caste”; and “On the question of the imperativeness of caste duties Rāmānuja says that the Gītā holds that the duties allotted to each caste must be performed, since the scriptures are the commands of God and no one can transgress His orders as obligatory are compulsory for all.” Clearly, Arjuna worries about the intermixture of class (varna) since it leads to becoming an outcaste (jāti), and in the Bhagavadgītā Krishna says he would smite down these people. The naming in the class-caste (varna-jāti) system defines social exclusion instantly. During seminars held in 1992 and 1993, Vimala Thakar remarked: “You would be surprised that, till twenty-five or thirty years ago, women were not supposed to study or recite the Gītā. It was only for the renunciates. The householders too were not encouraged to study the Gītā, because it was feared that their interest in family life would disappear.” In addition, in the Bhagavadgītā, Krishna gives the advice not to reveal these most secret teachings to those who do not want to listen, do not have the right qualities, are not under the guidance of a wise teacher, or are against him. This is not restricted to the Bhagavadgītā. To quote Bronkhorst (2010): “An important instrument in the hands of the Brahmins is their knowledge of the Veda, a collection of texts which the vast majority of the population is not even allowed to hear recited, much less study.”

In 300 BCE the four-class system was unknown to Megasthenes, the Seleucid ambassador in Pātaliputra, adjacent to modern-day Patna, the capital of the Maurya empire. He reported in his Indikā the following seven classes:

1. philosophers
2. farmers
3. shepherds and hunters
4. artisans and tradesmen
5. warriors
6. inspectors
7. advisors and counselors

Which resemble Herodotos’s division of labor in Egypt in seven classes. The fourfold division of society was never mentioned in the Rock Edicts of the emperor Asoka, who ruled from 268 to 232 BCE. These edicts, hewn into rock at places all over the empire, never mention warriors, merchants and servants, nor the word varna in the sense of caste-class. Asoka leaned to Buddhism and all other Maurya rulers had strong links with Jainism, but never with Brahmanism, which includes the use of Sanskrit and their invention of the four classes. The four classes were introduced into the Bhagavadgītā some time in the second century BCE. After the collapse of the Maurya dynasty in 185 BCE, the Brahmanical ideology seems to have responded to a need felt by the local rulers to be advised in both ritual and political matters. The Buddhists of northwestern India could not provide these practical advices to the rulers, but needed their protection and support. To address their needs the Buddhists started in 200 CE using Sanskrit, the language of the Brahmins, but also they started to accept Brahmanism with its vision of a society of four classes. These four classes are nowadays reflected in the DNA of the Indian people. Michael Bamshed et al. (2001), using five different types of generic data, showed that the upper castes have the highest affinity to Europeans and are significantly more similar to East Europeans than the lower castes (SC), which are most similar to Asians. The middle castes (servants) are equidistant from the two groups. They conclude that Indian castes are most likely to be of proto-Asian origin with a West Eurasian admixture, resulting in rank-related and gender-specific differences in the genetic affinities of castes to Asians and Europeans.

In Vedic times, admixture was the norm where one “chooses for oneself.” Jamison (2001) concluded “that there is already in the language underlying the Rig Veda a fixed expression “she chooses for herself,’’ referring to the maiden’s action in an already ritualized institution,” svayamvara. A non-mythical passage referring to a svayamvara is Rigveda X.27.12, describing the fortunes of a favored maiden contrasting the misfortune of the undesirable maiden in the preceding verse. “Thus,” wrote Jamison (2001), “the cumulative evidence from X.27.12 depicts a formal, ritualized scene: a well-decorated bride-to-be, wooed by many, of whom one is favored, chooses for herself a husband in front of a company of people and gains a wedding at the ceremonial fire. The formal self choice which lies behind this verse is signaled by verbal clues.” The verbal play is indirect evidence for the reality of the institution of svayamvara. Genomic studies of the Indian population revealed also that admixture was the norm BCE. Moorjani et al. (2013) showed that admixture was common until sudden shifts to endogamy occurred in a period from 64 to 144 generations ago. The recent findings of Basu et al. (2016), showed that the current mainland Indian population descended not from two, but from four dominant ancestries: North Indian, South Indian, Austro-Asian, and Tibeto-Burman. The Andaman and Nicobar islanders form a fifth group who are descendants of Pacific Ocean migrants. Basu et al. showed that the extant mainland populations admixed widely irrespective of ancestry, which was rapidly replaced by endogamy, particularly among the Brahmins and warriors, about 70 generations ago.

Assuming an overall generation length of 24.5 ± 0.5 years, the Indian society started to embrace endogamy between 1,600 to 3,500 years ago. Moorjani et al. (2013) found that on average Indo-Europeans started to practice endogamy 72 generations or 1,764 years ago. This is close to the 70 generations or 1,715 years ago found in the study of Basu et al. (2016). Admixture between the four populations on the mainland was replaced quite rapidly by endogamy before 300 CE as the genome studies reveal. Manu’s Code of Law, the Dharmaśāstra, which must have existed by the 2nd century CE, has also stimulated endogamy four centuries after the insertion of the brahmanical vision of society into the Bhagavadgītā. The power of the Brahmins seems to have become so influential that even the Buddhists started to accept Sanskrit, the language of the Brahmins. To cite Bronkhorst (2014): “Sometime during the second century CE or earlier, the Buddhists of northwestern India adopted Sanskrit … The pressure on them to use Sanskrit must have come through the intermediary of royal courts that had accepted the Brahmanical vision of society, and Sanskrit along with it … It seems, however, clear that the pressure to use Sanskrit went hand in hand with the pressure to accept the brahmanical vision of society, at least in its fundamentals.” Modern scholars tend to agree that Sanskrit was adopted under the Kusānas (c. 105–250 CE) by Buddhists. The Sanskritization of the Buddhists shows the influence of the Brahmins and their invention of the four class system. Endogamic behavior was the norm at the end of the 3rd century, as the genome study of Basu et al. (2016) has shown. Admixture became rare and endogamy was fully effective from the beginning of the Gupta reign (c. 320–540 CE). The Jainas did not want to depend on favors from the royal court. They were mostly wanderers. The mass exodus of the Jainas from Mathura brought them to the south and the west, a region outside the realm of the Gupta empire. Gautamīputra (c. 103–127 CE), who ended the “mixture of classes” in the Deccan region, had no power in southern and western India. In these regions brahmanization was also low, as is evident from the genome study of the upper caste populations in Maratha, who continued to admix until 1,200 years ago (49 generations), i.e., at the end of the Badami Chalukya (543–753 CE) and the start of the Rashtrakuta (743–982 CE) empires. The devotion of Krishna took some time to reach this region, as the first large sculpture of Krishna, with four arms with a conch shell and a wheel, is found in the bas-reliefs of Badami (500–800 CE). The genetic studies show that caste differences, ancestries, and rapid replacement of the practice of admixture by endogamy are found in the genome data of the Indian people. The recent study of Basu et al. (2016) attracted much interest in the newspapers of India. To quote Abraham (2016) in the Times of India: “So far, India has managed to evade the caste-race equation by arguing that caste distinctions are based on social, occupational and economic considerations and not on genetic racial differences.” With this last study, caste has become race-based, which has the advantage that the UNHCHR can now be asked for advice and support in dealing with the problem that the number of different castes is increasing over the years instead of decreasing.

Dr. Gerard D. C. Kuiken received his PhD. from the Delft University of Technology, where he lectured in the fields of fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. He is the author of Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes: Applications to Diffusion and Rheology (John Wiley, 1994); The Original Gita: Striving for Oneness, with Comments and Related Verses of the Bhagavad Gita (Motilal Banarsidass, 2012); Eastern Thought and the Gita: The Original Gita and the Bhagavad Gita Compared (Otam Books, 2012); The Shiva Sutra of Vasugupta (Otam Books, 2017); and Svabhavikasutra: The Roots of the Bhagavadgita (Otam Books, 2018). During the years 1970–1973, he gave seminars at Delft University on Eastern Thought; the Department of Mechanical Engineering published his report “Re-appraisal of Nature.” He resides in The Hague in The Netherlands and Santa Barbara, California, USA.

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