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Decoding the Spirit of Castes: A review of Pokala Lakshmi Narasu’s ‘A Study of Caste’

Decoding the Spirit of Castes: A review of Pokala Lakshmi Narasu’s ‘A Study of Caste’

lakshmi narasu study of caste1


Nidhin Shobhana

This book review can be divided into three sections. The first part would briefly try to situate the book and the author in the social and political contexts of Colonial South India (esp. Madras Presidency) in early twentieth century. The second part would discuss the major arguments in the book1. The final section would underline the continuing scope and relevance of Lakshmi Narasu’s work in the study of caste and religion.

lakshmi narasu study of caste1

Setting up the Stage: Contextualizing P. Lakshmi Narasu

Pokala Lakshmi Narasu was a pioneer in the Modern Buddhist Movement of Colonial South India. G. Aloysius in the introduction of this book places P. Lakshmi Narasu within the rationalist-Buddhist traditions of Tamil Nadu, along with Iyothee Thasar and M. Sringaravelu. G. Aloysius in another essay2 contextualizes the historical re-working of Buddhism by subaltern intellectuals in Colonial India. He argues that the ‘discovery’ of Buddhism by British archaeologists and Orientalists in nineteenth century, encouraged subaltern groups to invest in the question of emancipation through modern and rational interpretations of Buddhism. He further points out that Buddhism had a resonance with the ‘popular religio-cultural perceptions and practices’ of subaltern groups. P. Lakshmi Narasu’s life and work should be contextualised within these critical and creative engagements with the question of religion during the colonial period. However, one needs to be mindful that these engagements were not ‘homogeneous’ or ‘monolithic’. For example, Aloysius notes that Lakshmi Narasu attempted to put forth, what he calls – a ‘humanist-rational perspective’ on Buddhism. On the other hand, Iyothee Thasar contextualised Buddhism in the Tamil-Dravidian traditions in clear opposition to Vedic traditions. While M. Sringaravelu influenced by the communist movements in the West was inclined to receive Buddha as an atheist. Similarly, one finds different approaches to Buddha in the works of Sahodaran Ayyapan, Periyar and Ambedkar.

Nevertheless, one can also identify certain common strands in subaltern intellectuals’ re-working of religion. Aloysius points out that the social, political and moral trajectory of subaltern groups stood against the ‘dominant, national reconstruction of a non-differentiated and conflict free history of the sub-continent’. Similarly, subaltern groups departed from manifestations of ‘classical religionism’ which was characterised by an obsession with texts, sacred languages, meaningless rituals, near-omnipotent priestocracy and irresolvable questions of God, soul and life-hereafter (Aloysius, 2005). Additionally, there is a constant attempt to logically invoke the gains of modern science and values in the re-interpretation of Buddhism. Now, such a logical invocation is different from the Arya Samaj variety, which quite illogically argued that basic principles (and thus inventions) of science can be traced back to Vedas. Anti-caste intellectuals like P. Lakshmi Narasu study history as a field of conflict. For example he understands and explains the rise of Buddhism as against Brahmanism. Such an understanding is found in the writings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as well.

‘The Study of Caste’ by P. Lakshmi Narasu is a priceless product of the Modern Buddhist Movement in India. It is an apt illustration of how the sub-continent was contextualized sociologically and historically by subaltern intellectuals. Such an academic exercise was not a result of arm-chair deliberations. In other words, P. Lakshmi Narasu did not lead a quiet, isolated life in legitimate university spaces. On the other hand, as Aloysius notes in the introduction, Narasu found himself in the thick of the anti-caste public sphere of Madras. He was directly involved in the spread of Buddhism through the South Indian Buddhist Association and its Perambur branch. He was an important ‘civic personality’ and was closely associated with many organizations.

P. Lakshmi Narasu published this book at the age of sixty one, twelve years prior to his death (in 1934). At the time of its publication, Narasu was a Professor in Pachaiyappa’s College. He retired from formal teaching in the year 1925. In short, ‘The Study of Caste’ was written and published during the peak of Narasu’s political and academic career. His convictions in the book were shaped by years of experience as a Buddhist reformer and physical scientist who regularly contributed to scientific journals such as The Indian Review. Narasu had already written two significant books in English prior to ‘The Study of Caste’ – Essence of Buddhism (1907) and What is Buddhism (1916). He also wrote in Tamil, often in collaboration with V.P.S Monier and Perambai Manickkam (See Aloysius’ introduction, p.13)

The next section would review the specific content of the book in the light of the above discussion.

 Defining System of Castes

“The attainment of liberty and justice has always been a negative process. Without rebelling against social institutions and destroying custom there can never be the free exercise of liberty and justice” (p.17)

In the foreword of the book, P. Lakshmi Narasu underlines the need for a ‘psychological revolution’ for the progress of India. He characterises such a revolution as a ‘negative process’ which essentially involves rebelling against ‘social institutions’ and ‘customs’. In other words, for him an exercise of liberty and justice is impossible within the mandate of established caste codes of conduct. This book is a political-academic treatise which tries to decode caste, lay bear its essential characteristics, understands its historical transitions, modus operandi and organization.

The book has not been chapterized. However, one can broadly gauge its schema as follows – (a) Definition and genesis of the system of castes (b) A reconstruction of its historical emergence based on Buddhist and Sanskrit texts (c) Rise and Fall of Buddhism (d) The historical career of Brahmanism – Pre-Buddhist, Buddhist and Post-Buddhist era (e) The Rise of Islam and Christianity in conjuncture with Colonialism (f) Critical analysis of the philosophical tenets of Hinduism: soul, karma and transmigration. It goes without saying that the book captures many other details which substantiate this broad schema. Pokala Lakshmi Narasu tries to encapsulate a history of religion in the Indian sub-continent, quoting examples from across the geography. The book, most impressively, tries to define the basic deviance of Hinduism (Brahmanism) from other organized religions. He tries to systematically capture the essence and spirit of castes. The book is also an interesting read in the transition of the Brahmanic hegemony under different rulers, always preserving its core values.

To begin with, he proposes a definition of caste, outlining its essential characteristics.

Based on the scholarly work available at the time of writing this thesis. Narasu identifies the following distinctions as essential in arriving at an operational definition of castes, they include (a) (Graded) hereditary specialization (b) Hierarchal organization (c) mutual repulsion. Very clearly, the proposed distinctions define a system of castes and not simply a caste.

However, he does not claim any finality in the proposed definition. In fact, being true to his critical faculty, Narasu tests his own definition by analysing each of the above mentioned distinctions. For example, he questions the proposition that castes are hereditary specializations by pointing out at the presence of castes which practice common occupations and castes which are named after places and spiritual sects. Similarly, he points out that fishing communities in South India are ‘divided into different castes on the basis of the appliances they employ’. He observes that there is great ‘occupational flexibility’ among Brahmins. He writes –

‘For example, all kinds of professions have been open to the Brahmins at all times. Far from confining themselves to the study of the sacred books they have acted as kings, soldiers, merchants, cooks, agriculturalists and labourers.’ (p.25)

He concludes that ‘higher the caste the more numerous the occupations open to it’ (p.25). However, he adds that such deviance from hereditary specialization has been a ‘collective process’ and not based on individuals. This observation is based on P. Lakshmi Narasu’s study of historical transitions in hereditary specializations. The point raised by Narasu finds evidence in the work of E.A.H. Blunt’s ‘The Caste System of Northern India’ first published in 19313. In this book Blunt has an exclusive chapter on ‘new castes’ which captures collective processes of ‘breaking away’ from parent castes and entering new occupations often in the backdrop of new-found legends and myths.

P. Lakshmi Narasu explains hierarchal organization in terms of ‘inequality of rights and privileges’ attached to various castes. He points out that the hierarchal organization of castes operates between two extremes – ‘the uncontested superiority of the brahmin’ and ‘the absolute inferiority of the Pariah’. The innumerable castes in between are ranked in practice (not text) based on esteem in which the Brahmin holds it. This relationship is based on an economy of ‘gifts, food, drinks’ and other resources bestowed upon the Brahmins. In short, Narasu argues that ‘it is the conformity with the Brahmanic ideas that confers rank’ (p.26)

The distinction of ‘mutual repulsion’ can be deciphered clearly in matters of commensality and marriage, according to the author. Narasu argues that in feudalism, conditions of land determined the status of human beings. He adds that ‘conquest and contract may render one possessor of land’. However, he significantly adds that there is ‘very little evidence to believe that the fiefs were mutually repelling to each other’.

In other words, relationship to land alone cannot explain the distinction of ‘mutual repulsion’. Here, P. Lakshmi Narasu brings the reader to the spirit of castes which evidently operate in the realm of ‘magic and meta-physics’. According to Narasu, any attempt to build solely rational arguments (of land) to explain an irrationality like ‘caste’ may lead to discrepancies. He argues that the system of castes operational in India is unique. This uniqueness is a result of the combined effect/impact of all the three features together. They cannot be separated from each other in exclusive boxes, because individually they may exist in other societies as well.

Origins of the System of Castes

In the next leg of his deliberations, he deals with the question of ‘origins of system of castes’.

He argues that the ‘origin of castes’ cannot be attributed solely to ‘the cunning policy of ambitious priests’. He convincingly argues that ‘the complex and long-standing character of the system makes it impossible to think that it was an invention of a particular group alone’. However, he adds that ‘castes has served as a bulwark to preserve much of the Brahmins heritage (material, spiritual, cultural) from decay or dissolution’ (p. 28).

He moves on to ask whether the system of castes was ‘a response to the pressures of industry – which gives rise to a multiplicities of professions? Can it be then likened to the trade-guilds of European society? Are castes petrified (unable to move forward) guilds? (p.28)

Since every caste doesn’t have an occupational specialization and several castes are named after their localities, Lakshmi argues that castes do not have any direct causal relationship with industrial life. He observes that European guilds had a fraternity with its common chest – mutual help, chapel, feasts, cult and jurisdiction. However, they were not castes as they did not show the characteristics of castes. For example, they could take men from outside, eat with other guilds (not guided by a spirit of mutual repulsion) and could also marry outside their guild. Most significantly, Narasu asks –

 ‘[…] guilds improved the industries they represented – Can this hold true for Hindus? Has caste been favourable for the development of arts and industries of the Hindus?’ (p.29)

He further adds that ‘to assert’ that caste ‘club, trade union, benefit society or philanthropic society’ is more a fancy than fact. The systems of castes do not ensure any industrial development in the lives of Hindus. He argues that if system of castes was a hierarchy of professionals, resembling an industry or a corporation, how does one account the position of Brahmin at its edifice? He points out that magic spell through repetition of words (incantation) practised by Brahmins does not correspond to any advanced phase of industrial progress. Lakshmi Narasu, quite convincingly displaces any argument which vouches for the industrial efficiency of castes. If economics led to hereditary specializations then ‘material progress’ should have been the scale which determines Brahmin supremacy. However, we don’t see any advanced material life being actualized in Brahmin lives. Thus, he argues that system of castes should be traced to the ‘idea of taboo’ which disallows/allows/prescribes the Hindu to do certain professions. These ‘ideas of taboo’ characterize the ‘religious sway’ over the industrial life of Hindus.

Next, he argues that the system of castes is not a linear descendent of the Aryan family. Narasu argues that scruples (moral doubts regarding course of actions) around eating or marrying were part of many primitive communities (not exclusive to Aryans), he gives the examples of Jews, patricians etc.

Lakshmi Narasu points out that the ‘Iranian avesta’ and the language of the Vedas are similar. Like the Varna system, Indo-Iranian society was also divided into four classes – athravas (priests), warriors, husbandman and the artisans. Similarly, the ‘sacred thread’ had great symbolic meaning in the rituals of the Indo-Iranian society. The use of sacred thread was often done to initiate individuals into higher classes.

He argues that a few adventurous athravas might have come in contact with people here in the Indian sub-continent. They might have travelled with very few women and thus have married women from local communities. In due course of time, they developed into an esoteric community (highly specialized in soma-homa rituals). This esoteric community, with the help of its specializations might have initiated the process of engineering divisions in the society. However, a society cannot be divided into classes without some sort of hierarchy. In the case of Hinduism, Narasu argues that the superiority of the Brahmin is the most certain characteristic. This supremacy is qualitatively different from other theocracies. For example, Narasu observes that in catholic theocracy, the King had a divine right to rule, in the Roman hierarchy the King was an ’embodiment of divine rule’. But in Brahmanic theocracy the priest remains at its pinnacle. Narasu asks – How did the Brahmins achieve this position?

In his answer he enlists the characteristics of Brahmin theocracy. He argues that Brahmin theocracy is not an organized, centralized effort. In other words, it does not have a single superior, they do not have a council to resolve disputes and they do not live in convents. Narasu argues that the most certain article of faith of Brahminism is ‘the sacrosanct nature of the born priest’. Further, he points out that Brahminism is not a religion of dogma – but of rites. Its polytheism can accommodate the most divergent, conflicting gods and goddesses as avataras, relations or servants of traditional deities. This ‘multiplicity’ is an article of celebration for many. However, it is not capable of reducing the primacy of the Brahmin. Narasu argues quite sharply that ‘[…] for Hindu every natural habit and duty has a religious significance. A man is not a Hindu because he inhabits India, because he is a Brahminist.’ (p.35)

The undying significance of the Brahmin

In the next leg of his arguments, he takes the reader through specific debates between the Brahmans and Kshatriyas which reflect in both Sanskrit and Buddhist literature. He discusses these debates in the context of the rise and spread of Buddhism. He argues, that even Ashoka did not take up the policy of destroying Brahminism, he at best, ignored it and displaced its inevitability in polity. However, with the fall of Buddhism and subsequent execution of Buddhists, Brahmins came back to power and continued to remain in significance even during the Muslim rule. If we keep aside the exception of Aurangzeb who taxed Brahmins too, we find Brahmins occupying important berths in courts and ministries. Narasu argues that their significance is only cemented under the British rule. The advent of Christianity, which Narasu refers to as an ‘anti-intellectual’ religion only provided an opportunity for Brahmins to upgrade their lot and furnish the outdoors of Hinduism. However, one needs to point out that Pokala Lakshmi Narasu does not spend a lot of time in deconstructing the ‘modern invention’ of Hinduism during the 19th century. In fact, at the time of writing this book, the Indian sub-continent was going through the modalities of this invention through codification of personal law, documentation of hitherto scattered brahmin-supremacist Sanskrit texts and census (Aloysius, 2005)4. However, these tensions and changes are not reflected by Pokala Lakshmi Narasu in defining ‘Hinduism’.

Challenging the Notion of Karma

Laxmi Narasu consistently pitches his argument at multiple planks. Talking about relations of capital and labour in a society based on castes, he argues that the system ensures the serfdom of Shudra by destroying natural capacities of their children through hegemonic ideas of transmigration. In other words, he tries to dissect the ‘spirit of caste’ and its material consequences in the idea of transmigration which essentially lies in the realm of meta-physics. However, his dissections are based on the social rationality of modernity. He argues that the ‘spirit’ cannot be rationalized; it should be accepted as something which grew out of irrationalities of magic and metaphysics. The currency of concepts such as transmigration emanate from such irrationalities.

The doctrine of Karma is described as a natura naturans (nature doing what nature does) in a caste society. It is a retributive (reward-based) theory which does not limit itself by nature or reason. Laxmi Narasu argues that Karma conceptualises punishment in ways which contradict modern notions of penology where punishment is not revenge but an attempt to better the wrong-doer. On the other hand, Karma conceptualizes punishment as an act to avenge wrong-doings in the past irrevocable (imagined) life. Thus, he describes it as the crudest conception of barbarism. Pokala argues, going by the logic of Karma, the distinction between the Brahmin and the Pariah is as natural and ethical as the distinction between man and beast, where individual merit or human personality are unintelligible. He writes –

Being a theory of fatalism, Karma explains every pain and suffering as an expiation as an ‘amend’. However, the sufferer has no idea about the context or reasons for his sufferings. Thus, you are hardened to natural and social injustices. It accuses none, protests against none and revolts against nothing. (p.148)

Narasu uses his training as a physical scientist to expose the dubious nature of concepts such as ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’. He uses science as a weapon to undermine the psychological explanations attributed to the systems of caste. He quotes anthropologists who were his contemporaries. For example, the work of Edward Clodd to refute the truth claims of soul. He argues that the belief in spirit has rendered certain services to humankind – it has been an incentive to overcome the fear of death, solace in bereavement, as a stimulant to virtuous life and noble effort. However, he argues, everything that is beneficial or pleasant cannot qualify to be true.

Caste is against Co-operation

Lakshmi Narasu raises several relevant questions throughout the book. One of the most significant and politically relevant question being -‘Has caste impelled individuals to associate their labour for the common welfare of all?’ ‘Has caste tended towards the co-operation of all classes for the general progress of all?’ This is a recurring question in anti-caste scholarship. We find several subaltern leaders and intellectuals, revisiting this question in action and academics. For example, Sunny M. Kappikad, a leading anti-caste intellectual in Kerala, underlines the ethical importance of co-operation and fraternity in the following words5

[…] The value of fraternity was contributed to the Indian society by various lower caste assertions. Sree Narayana Guru taught the people of Kerala to lead a life like siblings when he wrote: “jaati bhedam mathadweshametumillathe sarvarum sodaratwene vaazhunna mathrika sthanamanith” (This is the ideal place where all live like siblings without any division of caste and religious hatred). He said ‘sodaratwene’ (with fraternity) and not ‘samatwene’ (with equality). We should not miss this emphasis. In a society with rigid caste divisions, Guru taught people to live like siblings. It is this tradition which we will have to reassert as the foundation of our political vision. The name of the favourite disciple of Guru was Sahodaran Aayyappan (Brother Aayyappan), and not Samatwa Aayyappan […]

Thus, Pokala Lakshmi Narasu identified castes as a system which kills and diminishes any sense of co-operation and fraternity. The ‘mutual repulsion’ caused by caste would not allow us to come together and stage any fight. Cooperation as a system ensures cohesion with liberty. However, system of castes denies such co-operation. It is an organization which fundamentally believes in the subordination of ‘many’. He compares this spirit of caste with the spirit of capitalism which has social, spatial and production consequences on the majority.

The political and academic value of Pokala Lakshmi Narasu’s intervention lies in its strong organic connections with the diversities of anti-caste movements. Several observations and empirical references may require timely updating. However, the range of his scholarship, its practical application in his associated life and activism makes this book highly relevant. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar builds on several aspects already stated by Pokala Lakshmi Narasu. A careful reading of this book would help one understand the fundamental nature of Brahminism and its continuing hegemony.



1 Narasu Lakshmi. P. (2001), A study of caste, Samyak Prakashan: Delhi. The book was published for the first time in 1922. It has witnessed 11 editions. The present book was published by Samyak Prakashan, an Ambedkarite publication house in Delhi.

 2. Aloysius G. (2005). Periyar and Buddhism, Critical Quest: Delhi.

3. Blunt E.A.H. (1931). The Caste System of Northern India.

 4. Aloysius G. (2005). Brahmanical Inscribed in Body Politic, Critical Quest: Delhi.

 5. Kappicadu Sunny (2016). Indian society is the very centre of fascism: Sunny M. Kappicadu, Round Table India, 18 August 2016. Retrieved from



Nidhin Shobhana is an artist and writer.

Image courtesy: The Internet