outline of the fieldwork


When Christian missionaries and travellers landed in the coastal cites of India and visited other cities and states inland each was able to see “the caste system” in India immediately. If it is that easily visible to them, it must also be visible to us, that is, to those who are alleged to live within the “caste system.” While it may not be so easily visible to us as it was to people looking at it from the outside, it does mean, however, that the “caste system” retains its visibility to us as well.

The proposed empirical research attempts an indirect answer to the following question: On the basis of which empirical, visible properties can one “see” (or conclude the existence of?) “the caste system”?

This question is extremely pertinent in India today. Almost all the discussions about the “caste system” refer to or narrate (a) horror stories about water wells; (b) physical beatings; (c) denial of entry into the temples; and (d) “untouchability.” (It is not clear what the latter is about though.) Interestingly enough, most early missionaries and travellers appear to have missed seeing these things. Nevertheless, they saw the “caste system.” This leads one to suspect that the travellers and missionaries saw “something else.” So, what did they see? Research on the European travel and missionary reports at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap focuses on enumerating what they saw.

There is a second reason why this question is important. In discussions it is never clear whether (a) the above four aspects are the empirical properties of “the caste system”; or whether (b) they are the causal consequences of “the caste system.” If they are empirical properties, we need to ascertain whether they are the constitutive properties of the system or not. If they are constitutive properties, then the condemnation of “the caste system” based on these properties could be justified. If they are, by contrast, secondary (or not necessary) properties, then the discussion will have to take an entirely different route.

However, if they are the consequences of “the caste system,” then “the caste system” is something other than and different from these consequences, which are the themes of moral indignation. If they are the consequences, we need to know whether they are necessary consequences of “the caste system.” If it turns out that these are not the necessary consequences of “the caste system” or that other things generate these consequences severally, again, the discussion has to take a different route.

These analyses involve the present theoretical research into “the caste system,” and into its theories, pursued at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap. The practical fieldwork provides data that will be invaluable in getting a handle on these questions. That is to say, some clarity will be achieved thanks to the field research.


What exactly is the focus of the field work? (a) It tries to examine the truth of one of the most fundamental assumptions about “the caste system.” (b) It tries to describe/narrate the empirical stories about “the caste system.” (c) It tries to see whether the conceptualisations that result from the empirical findings can be historically related to the so-called indigenous criticism of “the caste system.” That is, whether the Vaçana’s (the Lingayats) criticise the empirical picture of “the caste system” or whether they criticise the commonsense picture of “the caste system,” viz. as a social structure that characterises the India (Karnatic) culture. Let me spell out each of the above mentioned foci severally.

It is sociologically unlikely that “the caste system” emerged as a full-blown social system, simultaneously and all over India, some 4000 years ago. It is equally unlikely that this system emerged simultaneously in several places and converged. To argue any of these is to transform “the caste system” into a miraculous social organisation. No known (or conceivable) social mechanism can help explain any of the above theses. The only reasonable hypothesis is to assume that it emerged in some place at some time.

How did it propagate itself? Because we are talking about “the caste system” (in the singular), somebody or something must have enabled its propagation. The possibility that there is no one, single caste system, but many caste systems need not be entertained by us. Let those called upon to do so prove this first.

If we now consider India of some 4000 years ago (the famous Purusha Sukta, the favourite piece of all Orientalists, Indologists, leftists, etc., is dated thereabouts), with vast distances separating the cities from each other, with huge differences in languages, it is a prerequisite (almost) that some central political, or administrative system imposed this system on society. We know this was not the case. Without such an imposition, however, there is no way, on heaven or on earth, that a system with the same four varna’s, with the same four names (with an identical “caste” of untouchables or whatever else), with an identically structured set of practices (e.g. the four properties mentioned earlier) could come into being from the Himalayas in the North to Kanyakumari in the South. The vastness of the region, its multiplicity of languages and dialects, its diversity in practices make it impossible to conceive anything else based on what we know about human beings, societies, social organisations, etc. And yet, it is an established fact that neither the origin nor the propagation of “the caste system” (let alone its reproduction) was due to the existence and efforts of a centralised system.

Instead of asking the question about the origin and propagation of “the caste system,” the mainstream opinion on “the caste system” simply assumes that “the caste system” “somehow” came into being (deus ex machina, as it were), somehow propagated itself, and that it holds the Indian culture as a hostage. It is this fundamental assumption that will be challenged in this research by drawing out the kind of complexities involved in a region of about 250 kilometres of today. If today’s 250 kilometres make it impossible to talk about “the” caste system, what does it tell us about the 4000 kilometres of yesterday?


The wider the net, the more the number of villages we investigate, the more complex the picture is going to be: there will be a variety of names, a variety of stories, and a variety in the internal classifications of these castes as well as an absence of classifications (in terms of hierarchy) among the Brahmins.

These varieties will be the greatest among the so-called scheduled castes and those movements which have recruited primarily from the so-called scheduled castes.

One of the ways of reducing the diversity into a recognisable picture of “the caste system” is to make a series of assumptions. (That is to say, the empirical picture will not carry clear or uniform criteria for classification.)

From this it follows that “the caste system” is not a social structure but some ad hoc scheme of classification. If both “castes” and “sub-castes” turn out to be ad hoc categories of classification, what does it mean to ask the question, “How did the caste system come into being in India?” (Equally, the continued existence of “the caste system” will have to do purely with political exigencies, i.e., that maintaining “the caste system” is in the interests of some groups, who are alleged to be against “the caste system” and benefit from being the alleged victims of structuralised atrocities.)

The Fieldwork

The ongoing field work focuses upon sets of villages in rural Karnataka. The fieldwork is conducted by local students from Kuvempu University. In addition, Kuvempu University organises a Certificate Course for elected members of the Gram Panchayats (the Rural Self Government Units) in Karnataka. In the nearby future, members of the Gram Panchayats will be actively involved in bringing the fieldwork to their respective villages.  

An empirical list of the so-called Jati’s is being drawn up, each with its local name. This list enables us to pose the following question: On what grounds is one to consider some caste with a local name “X” the same as another caste “Y” some 250 kilometres away? (The “havyika” of Shimoga and the “Babburkamme” from Bangalore, for instance.)

It appears that this problem is most acute with the so-called “Harijans.” In fact, even with our knowledge of Karnataka, we have not been able to classify the multiple castes into one coherent system. Unless, that is, we already would have assumed that a “badiga” and a “banajiga” are sub-castes of the Lingayat caste if they are Lingayats, and that they are independent castes if they are not Lingayats. The purpose of this exercise was, and continues to be, to raise questions about such a classification.