Gandhiji believed in removal of untouchability within the caste system, but was a believer in the caste system itself

gandhi_harijans
Gandhiji interacting with Dalits in his ashram

By Nandini Oza*

Delivering her Mahatma Ayyankali memorial lecture at the Kerala University on July 17, among other things, Arundhati Roy spoke about Gandhiji and his views on  Varnashram  (caste system), and based on this, she asked a few uncomfortable questions (click HERE to read). Many people have also asked me what my stand on the subject is. Though I cannot claim to be a scholar on Gandhian thoughts and work, I can say that I have read Gandhiji’s own writings as well as the writings of his close aides and secretaries like Mahadevbhai Desai, Indulal Yagnik (all in Gujarati). I have come across a few references in Mahadevbhai Desai’s diary which make the views of Gandhiji regarding Varnashram Dharma/the caste system clear. From some of these writings, I can say that there is no ambiguity in Gandhiji’s belief in the Varnashram Dharma (caste system). Gandhiji believed in removal of untouchability within the caste system, but was a believer in the caste system itself.

Here, to throw some  light on Gandhiji’s views on the caste system, I translate some excerpts from the diaries of Mahadevbhai Desai, originally in Gujarati:

1. Mahadevbhai Desai’s Diary, Volume 5, year 1921, Page 345-346-347: 

In Pune and Wai: Gandhiji while addressing a mammoth Sabha in Bhavanipeth:  “…I request the non Brahmins that they should not spread any lies in my name. I do not know theSatyashodhak Mandal, but they are projecting that I denyVarnashram (Caste system). I say that is a lie. All kinds of falsehood go on in my name. I am a staunch Hindu- Vaishnav…I understand the faults in my Shastras, but I am a staunch believer of Varnashram…”

In Wai while talking on the same subject he said: “…Non Brahmins are saying that they will remove Brahmins. They are also harassing them and bothering them in many different ways. But our Hindu culture does not permit anyone to behave like this with anyone. I cannot understand how anyone who has been brought up in this culture can say that I am not a Hindu. I am also not able to understand that any non Brahmin can have any bad feelings for a Brahmin…”

While addressing non-Brahmins in Satara, he had placed the same arguments before them like this: “…Even if you consider them (Brahmins) not worthy of reverence you will have to worship the Brahmins for their knowledge, penance, yagna and purity, those Brahmins who have created Upnishads and other books, I would be afraid of criticizing them…however those Brahmins who have allowed untouchability have erred a little-this is what I have said and will say. But by burning the homes of Brahmins, by calling them bad words you are not going to be able to save your own religion…it will be impossible to uplift yourself by holding a prejudice against that caste in which people like Ranade, Ramdas, Tulsidas, Tilak, etc were born… you talk of non cooperation with the Brahmins but to be able to talk of something as pristine as non cooperation, one needs to be pure…”

But more than this, Gandhiji had given more details while replying to a question raised by Maratha family man in Nipani, and in that he had praised the Brahmins a lot… A family man named Maruti Rao made an accusation that, “Brahmins by lying about shastras want to keep a hold on nonbrahmins, by degrading us even more than cattle we have been kept out.”

Gandhiji replied: “…I want to tell the Hindus that for all the sacrifice dharma, yagna dharma, we are grateful to only the Brahmins… no one else in this world has done the kind of sacrifice that Brahmins have done…therefore I wish to tell Maruti Rao and all the non Brahmins that the faults that you have sighted are all right, but for that I am reminded of a saying. If there is any dirt in milk you can see the same immediately, but dirt cannot be seen in that which is already dirty. Non Brahmins have kept such high values in respect to Brahmins that their faults can be seen immediately…the kind of penance that Brahmins have done – I have seen no community has done in any other country…do not commit suicide by noncooperation with the Brahmins…”

2. Mahadevbhai Desai’s Diary, Volume 6, year 1924, Page 459 to 461:

Excerpts from Gandhiji’s speech at The Asprushyata Nivaran Parishad ( Untouchability removal convention): “…I believe in Varnashram (caste system), and I believe in birth and deeds in relation to that…I have never said that roti(chapatti/food) and beti  (daughter) Vyavhar ( marriage relations) should be maintained with antyajano ( people of lower caste) however I do keep roti  vyavhar, I have no scope of Beti vyavhar …the fault that should be removed is that of untouchability. But that does not include Roti Vyavhar…let that much control that exists in rotibeti vyavhaar continue. That there will invariably be a downfall by eating with someone is not always true…I do not desire that my son eats anything and anywhere because food has an impact on the soul…may God give us such knowledge that untochability is removed within a second…”

3. Mahadevbhai Desai’s Diary Volume 7, year 1925, Page 287, 299, 304: 

Excerpts from Gandhiji’s reply to the Sanskrit manpatra (degree of honor) given at Alvai’s  Advaitashram: “…Your Mudralekh (lead article) is ‘one caste, one religion and one God’…I feel that without varnashram dharma human race will not be able to function…”

Later in the diary after the visit to Rajgopalachari’s ashram, while addressing the village people, he explained the objectives of the Ashram: “…Shri Rajgopalachari, his friends and I believe that untouchability is a sin and so untouchability has been banned in the Ashram. But do not imitate his deeds improperly. Through his deeds he wishes to tell you only that much that you should not consider anyone untouchable. Not that you should keep roti beti vyavhara with the untouchables. Yes, they do follow roti vyavhar in the Asharam but that is because it is not possible to follow the rule of not eating rotitogether…you are gruhasthi (people with families), you have the right to follow the rules of eating and marriage that arise due to Varna bhed (difference in caste). The only thing you need to do is to not consider untouchables as untouchable and they should not be looked down upon – that is all you need to do…”

4. Mahadevbhai Desai Diary Volume 8, year 1925, page 12, 18,19, 104:

“…I do not say to keep rotibeti vyavhar with the untouchables. Those who do it, I tolerate them. But without that there is no possibility of Swaraj (self rule) in Hindustan is not what I believe…”

“…Then there is one class of people. I had their experience in South Africa. They had threatened –‘if our sorrows are not done away with, then we will become Christians or Musalman,’ I had to tell them bitter words that here itself your religion is being tested…”

“…third way is atmashuddhi (self cleansing) you need to get free from all the accusations that are levelled against you. Do you eat meat? … Do you eat meat of the already dead? ”

The metars (community involved in cleaning) of municipality honored Gandhiji. In the letter of honor they highlighted that they were 250 in number. All are dom people. Washer people, barbers do not do our work. And yet we clean their toilets. In reply Gandhiji said:  “…you have received bad houses, these get waterlogged…I would like to tell you that crores of others are worse off than you…you get eight and a half rupees, others do not get even that much…thinking of them we must keep quiet…we must be satisfied that God has given us this much…you can give memorandum to the municipality…but you must also keep in mind that you have come here on your own. Has the municipality invited you here? Because they care for you that they have started night school for you. But you must understand your duty. You yourself should improve. What will come of your narration of your sorrows to me? You must tell your tale to Ramji.”

5. Mahadevbhai Deasai’s Diary, Volume-2, year 1932-33, page 106, 349: 

Removal of untouchability does not mean rotibeti vyvhaar ismade clear as follows: “…Removal of untouchability does not include inter dining unless untouchables are excluded on the ground of their being born so, when others are not.”

In answer to a question “…Where the issue is of principles, I do not calculate in terms of profit and loss. There is no relation of rotibeti vyavhar to untouchability…Caste is a scientific principle…Hindu religion has taken full advantage of heredity and has said that the business of forefathers should be followed…today there is no caste system…we are inter dinning and having inter marriage as we have forgotten the main principles…we are all shudras (lower caste) today…in reconstruction of the society we will remove the difference of high and low…if I had the strength and time I would travel from one corner to another in the country and declare that there is no caste system, we are all shudras (lowest caste)…”

6. Mahadevbhai Desai’s Diary Volume 21, year 1936-37, page 99, 101, 108, 109:

“…Untouchability is a blot on the Hindu Dharma. If this is not removed in time, it will destroy the Hindu religion…It is necessary to have such behavior with Harijans that they should feel that better days are here. Do you know how to start this? Start taking Harijans to the temples…boycott those temples that are not open to Harijans…rotibeti vyavhar is a different matter…Harijan Sevak Sangh has no need to directly attack varnashram (caste system)…I firmly believe that even if there is rotibeti vyavharyou can keep varnashram dharma intact…”

To conclude, the following sentences by Gandhiji from the book, “India of my Dreams”, which is a compilation of Gandhiji’s writings in Young India, Harijan, speeches and other writings; sums up his belief regarding caste system in Hindu religion:

“…Varnashram Dharma decided the duty of people in this world…as it would be wrong to destroy whole body if there is a boil…similarly it would be wrong to remove caste system due to untouchability…if we do not want to destroy the entire caste system,  we should remove the boil of untouchability…once untouchability is removed, the caste system itself will become pure and as per my dream it will translate into realvarna dharma-four varnas, These four divisions in the society will be complementary to one another, these will not be above or below each other…

“There is no ban on inter dinning and inter marriage invarnashram, however there cannot be any force in the matter, where a man or a woman should eat or marry should be left to their choice.”

*Activist and writer. Courtesy: http://nandinikoza.blogspot.in

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