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Religious Resistance and the Problem of Caste: Is Caste Secular?

Religious Resistance and the Problem of Caste: Is Caste Secular?

Pritam Photo


Pritam Singh Tinna

Pritam Photo(A part of this paper was presented at annual Sociology conference held at Jamia Milia Islamia University and the rest was edited and written again for this publication)

Oscar A Romero, a liberation theologian and the archbishop of El Salvador was killed in the year 1980 for intermixing “politics with religion”. In one of his sermons he says: “the God of all peoples, the God of El Salvador as well, must be such a God, one that illumines political life also. He is the one who gives us our farmlands, and he is the one who wants land reform. He is the one who wants a more just distribution of the wealth that El Salvador produces. It is not right that some fill up their coffers and the people are left without the gifts of God that he has given for the people.” He continues by saying: “All of our peoples should read the Bible and learn from it the relationship of faith and politics. The Bible is the text from which to learn how to live that wonderful relationship between faith and political life.”

Marking the killing of Archbishop Oscar A Romero, Noam Chomsky, in his book Manufacturing Consent writes: “The assassins of Archbishop Romero were never “officially” discovered for prosecution, and he joined the ranks of the tens of thousands of other Salvadorans murdered without justice being done.” Chomsky in the same book writes: “Romero, in short, was not merely an “unworthy” victim; he was an important activist in opposition to the local alliance of army and oligarchy and to U.S. policy in El Salvador.”

The sociologists in the house might be wondering why I, at this point in time and in this country be concerned about the killing of a religious activist in a far off land which has no relation whatsoever with what we are discussing today; I must tell these sociologists that the problem in this killing is deeply sociological and it cannot be left to be dealt with only by theologians or political activists like Noam Chomsky; the problem is of sociology of religion; a problem that would start appearing if we would compare the above lines from the sermons of Oscar A Romero with that of lines written by W.H McLeod, a pioneer who studied the Sikhs.

W.H McLeod, a protestant by upbringing, in his book Sikhs and Sikhism writes: “The basis of the theology [that of Guru Nanak] is a belief in a personal God, the omnipotent Creator of the universe, a being beyond time and human comprehension yet seeking by His grace the salvation of man and for this purpose revealing Himself in His Own creation.” In his other book “Evolution of the Sikh Community” while referring to Kabir, McLeod says, “In Kabir we find a doctrine of unmediated interior devotion directed to a formless, immanent, non incarnated God. All external practices are spurned and the sundering of the bond of transmigration is found in the mystical union with God.”

It is to be seen that the religion which is political and pretty much public for Oscar A. Romero is only a matter of the interior self for W.H McLeod; for Oscar A. Romero Christ and Bible cannot be extricated from the social situations surrounding them and for W.H McLeod, the God of Guru Nanak is only “personal”. Similarly, the Kabir of W.H McLeod does not seem to fight against the brahminical order of his times, he is too timid to do the same and is only concerned about, what McLeod says “unmediated inner devotion”.

After seeing the difference it would of course be very naive to claim that all religions are same in that they have no social function to perform; and it would of course also be foolish to assume that Oscar A. Romero is not religious enough. What we see in front of us are two definitions of religion, and two methodologies to study it. Oscar A. Romero was definitely not a sociologist who could define religion, but we, as sociologists, also cannot afford to miss his idea of religion for our purpose of sociological enquiry of religion. The two methodologies that we have in front of us have different consequences. On the one hand we have the methodology of W.H McLeod, which one can call “sui generis” conception of religion, and the other hand we have the religion of Oscar A Romero, which would not leave religion to merely the psychological sphere.

W.H McLeod, it must be seen is not the only intellectual who has dealt with religion as something “sui generis” or as a matter of interiority, the Marxist historians and sociologists have also dealt with religion through their economic determinism and have thought of it in only psychological and asocial terms. Religiosity, for such historians and sociologists only appears, as an imposition by the capitalists on the innocent minds of the proletariat. For instance, It is only through her Marxist understanding of religion that Romila Thapar writes: “There is an increase in religiosity brought about in two seemingly contradictory ways, but both tied to the economy of the market. The expanding middle class has to demonstrate its new wealth through elaborate ritual; but at the same time, the increasing competition required to maintain a foothold in the middle class, breeds a sense of insecurity.”

About the “Sui Generis” conception of religion and of privatisation of religion Russell T McCutcheon, a student of religious studies writes that “it is a typically Protestant shift that demoted uniform exterior practice (e.g., ritual, institution, social rank, etc.) to the status of mere “indifferent things” by means of rhetoric of interiorized faith and privacy.” Russell T McCutcheon, in his other essay says: “between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries a change occurred, such that a concept/word that was once reserved for naming behaviours and membership within institutions (e.g., a member of a monastic order was once known as “a religious”) comes to be universalized, interiorized, and thus privatized.” He says that “privatisation” of religion is a technique “for taking practical and potentially explosive political differences and making them into mere opinions, choices, flavours, tastes, viewpoints, worldviews, feelings, and beliefs.”

In a similar tone Dr. B. R, Ambedkar in his article called Away From the Hindus writes: “Nothing can be a greater error than to explain religion as having arisen in magic or being concerned only in magic for magic sake. It is true that Savage society practises magic, believes in tabu and worships the totem. But it is wrong to suppose that these constitute the religion or form the source of religion. To take such a view is to elevate what is incidental to the position of the principal.” Babasaheb continues and says “The point to which it is necessary to draw particular attention and to which the foregoing discussion lends full support is that it is an error to look upon religion as a matter which is individual, private and personal. Indeed as will be seen from what follows, religion becomes a source of positive mischief if not danger when it remains individual, private and personal. Equally mistaken is the view that religion is the flowering of special religious instinct inherent in the nature of the individual. The correct view is that religion like language is social for the reason that either is essential for social life and the individual has to have it because without it he cannot participate in the life of the society.”

What is to be seen is that, in the scholarly accounts, the definition of religion and of various aspects of it, have been limited to the personal and individual sphere; its most certain consequence being the extrication of the idea of religion from the question of power. For, when a religion is only personal and has no sociological role to play, the question of religion being the source or a way to the abolition of power in social and political domain, does not really arise. To say more in crude words, all religions, according to this understanding, would only appear casteless, or caste would only appear as a secular structure which has no relation whatsoever with religion.

This understanding would remind us of the very words written by Dr. B.R Ambedkar in his essay “The Rock on Which the house of the Hindus is Built”. Babasaheb writes: “I venture to say that anyone who maintains that there is nothing strange in caste simply does not know what Caste is. I repeat that Caste is Sacred, which is its distinguishing feature. Caste is Sacred, which is what makes it abiding.” In the same essay he says “it will be seen that Caste is born in religion which has consecrated it and made it Sacred so that it can be rightly and truly said that Religion is the Rock on which the Hindus have built their social structure.”

It becomes certainly true that Caste is not a secular institution that emerges from either economic or political circumstances; its cause is religious; it is religion which gives it sanctity. But the other question one is bound to ask is: can religion be an alternative to fight this religious tyranny? If one would only believe in the contemporary definitions of religion produced by Protestants after the reformation then the answer certainly would be in the negative. But if one would liberate oneself from these Protestant biases which already have created a shadow on religious studies worldwide then the answer certainly would be in the affirmative.

I would here like to quote the same paragraph that Babasaheb quoted in his essay Away From the Hindus from a book written by Charles A Ellwood (one of the students of John Dewey). He writes:

“The function of religion is the same as the function of Law and Government. It is a means by which society exercises its control over the conduct of the individual in order to maintain the social order. It may not be used consciously as a method of social control over the individual. Nonetheless the fact is that religion acts as a means of social control. As compared to religion, Government and Law are relatively inadequate means of social control. The control through law and order does not go deep enough to secure the stability of the social order. The religious sanction, on account of its being supernatural has been on the other hand the most effective means of social control, far more effective than law and Government have been or can be. Without the support of religion, law and Government are bound to remain a very inadequate means of social control. Religion is the most powerful force of social gravitation without which it would be impossible to hold the social order in its orbit.”

These views of Charles A Ellwood are completely consistent with the views expressed by Babasaheb in his essay Buddha or Karl Marx when he says:

“At any rate no satisfactory answer to the question what would take the place of the State when it withers away, though this question is more important than the question when the State will wither away. Will it be succeeded by Anarchy? If so the building up of the Communist State is a useless effort. If it cannot be sustained except by force and if it results in anarchy when the force holding it together is withdrawn what good is the Communist State. The only thing which could sustain it after force is withdrawn is Religion. But to the Communists Religion is anathema. Their hatred to Religion is so deep seated that they will not even discriminate between religions which are helpful to Communism and religions which are not.”

Thus if religion would be seen as an anathema or an appendix that can have no role to play in the social political life of the individuals then certainly “the most effective means of social control” would be lost; and the upper caste intellectuals would certainly be most happy to believe in a delusion called “personal religion”.

I would end the discussion by asking; is it not unjust for Romila Thapar to ask the question as she does, when she says: “how do we prevent a politics that allows claims made on behalf of religious communities to direct our future and to thereby fracture it?” Is it that the definition of religion as developed by the academia is far from being “objective” and “innocent” as it seems? Is this definition of religion merely developed by the upper caste academia intentionally or unintentionally for the maintenance of caste hierarchies? These questions I leave for the sociologists in the house to ponder over. However, I certainly think that Babasaheb Ambedkar and Oscar A Romero would have answered all these questions in the affirmative.

Note from the Author

I do not, in this article, wish to say that the fight against Brahminism ends with conversion I would say that it rather starts with it. I would like to write here something that I had written a few months back in my notebook on religion:

When was the time when Christianity was co-opted by the state and it stopped being a religion of the oppressed? Many theologians would say that it was in the second century. I would not, however, answer this question this way; I would say that there has been no time in history when the oppressed has not tried to reclaim its religion or when the oppressor has not tried to impose its own. The struggle I would say is constant and perpetual. It is this fight that the oppressed has to constantly fight; the slavery of their religion is indeed no less than their own slavery.



Pritam Singh Tinna is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in sociology from Ambedkar University, Delhi. His dissertation focusses on secularism and sociology of religion in the context of the Sikhs.