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Caste Control: Towards a Frank Reckoning of Who Represents Hinduism in History

Audrey Truschke

The premodern Sanskrit textual universe and the history of Hinduism—two partially overlapping things—cannot be understood without knowledge of caste, a hereditary system of social hierarchy and oppression. I appreciate this now, but I did not always. I studied premodern Sanskrit texts for more than a decade before I seriously thought about caste. Moreover, I am not alone in this blind spot. Judging from their scholarship, many academics who study premodern South Asia rarely, if ever, critically consider caste, which is to the detriment of our collective quest to better understand Indian history, including Hindu traditions.

In what follows, I briefly reflect on the context of my own error and what this oversight—repeated by many—causes us to miss about the South Asian past and our present.

Not Seeing Caste

From the moment I decided to study Sanskrit at the age of eighteen at the University of Chicago, I was aware of the exclusionary nature of the enterprise. There are few American universities where I could have studied this ancient language. It was also difficult to learn, resulting in a sizable chunk of the class dropping Introductory Sanskrit in the first few weeks. I soon learned that Sanskrit and exclusion had long gone together. In premodernity, knowledge of Sanskrit was—in Brahminical theory always and, more often than we might like to admit, in practice—restricted to upper-caste men. As I learned Sanskrit declension and conjugation tables, I sometimes joked that, in the bad old days, I would be barred twice over from learning Sanskrit, as a caste-less videshi (outsider) and as a stri (woman). I read Hindu religious texts that declare that women, shudras, dogs, and crows—as a group—are untruthful, and I shrugged (Satapatha Brahmana

If we were being charitable, we might say that those of us dedicated to excavating the past read a lot of terrible things, and so perhaps a thick skin is helpful to survive. But I don’t know if we should be that charitable to my younger self. After all, the exclusion of the Sanskrit textual universe is not confined to the dustbin of history. In 2018, a Dalit female Sanskrit scholar was ridiculed with misogynist and casteist slurs at the World Sanskrit Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Another colleague of ours, who was also a speaker at this event, wrote shortly after the attack, “The large audience, consisting mostly of Indian scholars, including women, attacked us vociferously. The Western academics present maintained an uncomfortable silence, as though passively witnessing an internal dispute among Indians.”

It can be distressing, even traumatic, to read Manu today because his ideas are fundamentally at odds with modern notions of human rights.

Talking about caste discomforts some today, both within India and among the disproportionately upper-caste Indian American diaspora. But perhaps we should center others’ feelings, specifically those whom the caste system excludes and hurts. Looking back at my earlier indifference to caste—which was enabled by my own privilege—I regret not having greater empathy. I have also come to realize that if we turn away from caste, we cannot confront either its deep premodern history or its constricting effects on our narration of the South Asian past. We must do both if we are to pursue an ethical scholarly life in the present as well as better understand premodern South Asia.

Premodern Champions of Caste Inequality

Many people today worry about the question: Is caste Hindu? But the anxiety surrounding this association is a modern phenomenon. If we could put the query to Manu—the purported author of a foundational work of Sanskrit ethics (dharmashastra) around the second or third century CE—he would answer with a resounding and proud: “Yes, caste is our dharma!” Manu’s core thesis—elaborating over hundreds of pages of Sanskrit—is that all men are created unequal, with each having a separate duty as per his hereditary social class. Shudras serve, Vaishyas farm, and Kshatriyas govern and fight. Manu reserves most of his attention and admiration for Brahmins, the crème de la crème of humanity in his worldview. He discourses on “the excellence of the Brahmin” (chap. 1) and issues repeated variations on the maxim: “Brahmins should be honored in every way; for they are the highest deity” (9.319, trans. Olivelle).

It can be distressing, even traumatic, to read Manu today because his ideas are fundamentally at odds with modern notions of human rights. In fact, Manu would be appalled that I—a woman—am reading and commenting on him at all. As Manu put it, “Day and night men should keep their women from acting independently; for, attached as they are to sensual pleasures, men should keep them under their control. Her father guards her in her childhood, her husband guards her in her youth, and her sons guard her in her old age; a woman is not qualified to act independently” (5.147–49, trans. Olivelle). Such misogyny—which has a history interlinked with caste—is critical to understanding Manu, a premodern champion of male and caste privileges.

In later Sanskrit Brahminical literature, many upper-caste men followed Manu in proudly claiming caste and male privileges as their birthright. The Sanskrit phrase varnashramadharma—duty specific to hereditary caste and life stage—comes up repeatedly in premodern Sanskrit texts across genres and captures some of this emphasis. Reality did not always match ideals, and so Brahmin authors—including Manu—showed great interest in the calamity that they sometimes called varnasamkara, namely mixing across caste lines. More infrequent, but scathing, are discussion of Brahmins who rejected their hereditary caste identity. For instance, the fifteenth-century Kashmiri author, Shrivara, wrote about a Brahmin who converted to Islam. Shrivara maligned his fellow Brahmin in the worst way he could imagine, saying that this convert “strove to abolish caste” (jatividhvamse . . .kritodyamah).

In our narrations of premodernity, we should not hide the prevalence of caste (both varna and jati), including the blunt reality that many premodern Brahmin men were obsessed with protecting their caste privileges. Such whitewashing does injustice to the historical importance of Brahminical supremacy and the many people that this hierarchy was intended to oppress. Studying the past often brings up ideas and practices distasteful to us today, and, in this sense, caste is not unique. But caste oppression is still prevalent in 2022, including in the United States. The ire that frank discussions of caste can arouse is perhaps prompted by fear that seeing caste prejudice in the past may highlight its persistence in our present.

Beyond Brahmins

Brahmins have only constituted a slim percentage of the South Asian population at any point in time. That the elite are fewer in number than the masses is typically built into a pyramid scheme (and the caste system is frequently, and fairly, represented as a pyramid). Historians do not only tell the stories of elites, but we are limited by the available evidence. Especially for a textually focused scholar, such as myself, what are my resources for accessing lower caste viewpoints in premodern South Asian history?

Part of the answer lies in looking beyond Hinduism. When I began searching for any premodern Sanskrit text written by a Dalit or a Shudra, a colleague suggested the Therigatha, a collection of Pali poetry (Pali is closely related to Sanskrit) authored by Buddhist nuns in the fourth to third centuries BCE. Indeed, some theris (Buddhist nuns) did not walk the straight and narrow, such as Addhakasi, who worked, or was forced to work, as a sex worker before she followed the Buddhist dhamma:

There is a reason why I was called “Half-Kasi.”

As much as the country of Kasi was worth,
my price was just the same;
while that was once my value,
after too many customers
my worth was cut by half.

By then I had enough
of what my body brought
and wearied I turned away.
May I not be reborn again and again
in endless and inevitable births.
I have seen with my own eyes
the three things that most don’t know,
what the Buddha taught is done.

translated by Hallissey 2015

But even Addhakasi is said, by later tradition, to have been the daughter of a rich merchant.

We would surely have more luck locating vernacular texts—in Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, and so forth—by caste-oppressed authors, including by those most would categorize as Hindu. Indeed, one path forward may well be deemphasizing Sanskrit texts, long held to be central—even definitional—to Hinduism by many scholars and practitioners (especially high-caste practitioners). Some scholars in the fields of anthropology and history have done this in the past, although recently we have seen a resurgence of the idea that studying premodern Hinduism requires knowledge of Sanskrit. Simultaneously, a more expansive approach might help us to see more variety within the premodern Sanskrit textual universe, beyond the casteist writings of some Brahmin men. To do this, it would be helpful to confront the field’s extraordinary sexism and attempts by caste-privileged Hindu Right groups to control academic appointments.

Can we craft a history of South Asia that recovers caste-oppressed peoples and voices?

Another path forward is to consider, then reconsider, how scholars often narrowly define premodern Hindu traditions to enforce Brahminical exclusions.

Narrating Another Hinduism

Premodern “Hindus” did not, usually, call themselves “hindu.” As scholars know, “hindu” is a Perso-Arabic term that, in premodernity, referred to residents of India as often as it referred to practitioners of a religious tradition. Hindus only began to refer to themselves as such, regularly and widely, in the nineteenth century. Even sporadic self-referential uses of “hindu” only date back to the fourteenth century CE, at the earliest. The absence of a term is not the absence of a thing, but the disconnect in vocabulary means that when scholars—or anyone else—talk about Hinduism before about 1800, we must define at the outset who we include within this tradition. Many academics use caste norms to make that determination.

For instance, a colleague noted in her 2017 book that early Shaivas rejected the Vedas and varnashramadharma while engaging in non-Brahminical practices. As a result, she argued that Shaivism “during this formative period, was functionally independent from any parent religion we may wish to describe as ‘Hinduism’.” I concur as a matter of scholarly practice. But, if we take a step back, it seems to me that we are collectively promoting a “Hinduism” as defined by caste-privileged viewpoints and then excluding those who dissent. Perhaps we should rethink that circular logic.

Again, while looking to the past, we confront problems in the present. Some among an earlier generation of scholars, most famously Wendy Doniger, were lambasted by the Hindu Right for their interest in the vama (left-hand) parts of premodern Hindu traditions that, among other things, disregard caste boundaries. I know, firsthand, the hate, threats, and pain that come with running afoul of Hindu nationalists who make up with manyu (anger) what they lack in manas (intellect). But, academically, why not consider a more diverse array of texts and practices within premodern Hindu traditions, instead of assuming the definitional primacy of Brahminical purity and hegemony?

Scholars of premodern Hinduism agree on little, but I have yet to find one who contests that Hinduism is heterogeneous. And so, when trying to excavate premodern Hindu traditions, I think we can—and should—forefront the relentless embrace of inequality by some, like Manu and Shrivara, while simultaneously not enforcing their harsh exclusions as our own.

Can we envision a history of Brahminical ideas that centers—as premodern Brahmin men often centered—caste prejudices? Can we craft a history of South Asia that recovers caste-oppressed peoples and voices? Can we narrate a history of premodern “Hindu” traditions that does not definitionally presume adherence to caste norms? Yes to all. But such shifts would result in markedly different narratives of premodern South Asia and Hindu traditions than those to which we are accustomed. That’s a good thing. And if it makes some of us uncomfortable with modern assumptions and prejudices, that’s a good thing too.♦


I thank Gajendran Ayyathurai, Rohit Chopra, and Anand Venkatkrishnan for comments on early drafts of this essay.

Audrey Truschke is Associate Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark-New Jersey. Her research interests cover from premodernity into modern times, often emphasizing Hindu-Muslim interactions, cultural history, and the politics of the past.

Recommended Citation

Truschke, Audrey. “”Caste Control: Towards a Frank Reckoning of Who Represents Hinduism in History” by Audrey Truschke.” Canopy Forum, March 9, 2022.