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Race and Racism in Asia

Race And Racism In India

Hints of the caste system can be seen in the Rig Veda written in the late second millennium B.C.E. It was clearly in place by the time of the later Vedic texts (c. 1000–500 B.C.E.). These Sanskrit texts are generally seen as products of an Aryan migration or invasion, and they teach a sacrificial religious system known as Brahmanism or Vedism, which would in later centuries develop into Hinduism. Deeply concerned with issues of purity and pollution, the Vedic texts divided people into different groupings called varnas ("colors") at the top of which was a priestly caste called to set themselves apart from the others. In the early Hindu period (c. 300 B.C.E.–500 C.E.), the Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were incorporated into the tradition. These texts laid out four hierarchical varna classes (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra), which eventually became the larger groupings, which would encompass caste (jati) clusters. Although Hinduism does include elements of non-Vedic and non-Aryan sources, Vedic literature and Aryan civilization is seen as being at the core of the tradition.

Racial identities were fundamental to the development and continuation of this system. Those claiming Aryan heritage clearly stood to benefit. Orthodox scholarship interpreted the role of the Aryan in Indian society as the importer of high civilization, bringing Sanskrit, the Vedic Hindu texts, and the caste system. They constituted the Brahmanic class. The system was racial also in the sense that castes were based upon lineage. The family to which one was born usually determined one's social status for life with discriminatory social, political, and economical impact on the lower castes. It limited the range of occupations lower caste members could fill, kept them from gaining positions of power, and forced them to practice social rituals that demeaned and oppressed them.

The influx of Western notions of race further racialized the population. European discourse, however, held peculiar salience for India and had distinctive impact there. Since the late Renaissance, philologists had noted linguistic connections between Sanskrit and European languages. By the Enlightenment, such studies had been made a science, and in the nineteenth century, many Europeans believed in an Indo-European connection through a common, Aryan, ancestral race. Ideas of "the Aryan race" with its assumptions regarding, and potential for, high civilization captured the European imagination. Spurred by Orientalist fascination with the caste system, and the desire to standardize laws while yet respecting traditional Indian laws, the British established guidelines for caste employment and governance that ironically helped to solidify caste statuses where previously relations had been more fluid. The consequences of this process, in some cases, were tantamount to ethnogenesis, as groups maneuvered to protect their interests.

Notions of the Aryan race also pervaded nineteenth-century discussions among Indian reformers, suggesting how the concept could not be avoided when seeking any fundamental re-shaping of Indian society. For example, Dayanand Saraswati (1824–1883), a radical reformer, criticized contemporary Hinduism and argued that it had distorted the virtues of Aryan civilization. While Dayanand defended the caste system as a system that worked out the complementary needs of society, he argued that these classes were to be attributed by merit and not by the hereditary status. Swami Vivekenanda (1863–1902) presented a different perspective. He argued that the revitalization of India could only occur if people returned to the Aryan virtues found in Vedic texts. Attributing Aryans with distinct physiological attributes, he strongly favored the maintenance of racial and caste divisions. The Aryan race language is central even among those championing the cause of the lower castes, such as B. R. Ambedkar (1892–1956). In sharp contrast to more orthodox reformers above, Ambedkar questioned the canonicity of the Vedic texts, and presented the Aryans as a race that brought moral decay to Indian society. He questioned the physiological characteristics that had long been attributed to the group.

In the postindependence era (1947–), the Indian Constitution has banned discrimination and ostracism of the scheduled castes, creating seats set aside only for them in parliament. But discrimination remains pervasive in Indian society. Gandhi, for example, chose to call them "harijan" (children of God), but they have seen this as paternalistic and many have preferred to go by the term Dalit (the oppressed).

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