Dear Karolina

Dear Karolina,

I watched with eagerness your video on the Caste system in India.

You will have earned many praises for your film by Indians. Of that I have no doubt. One of those featured in the film, Pandit Satish K Sharma, has lent his authority to the film, praising it for being: “A penetrating and sensitive exploration of the history and politics of the Caste concept.”

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Karolina Goswami

It is especially reassuring to many of us that when a European praises Indian traditions we find it all the more appealing than when our fellow Indians commend the same traditions. This is so much so that we begin to lose our critical faculties, which as your film obliquely points to also, could be the result of the depredations that have happened in the recent past and our consequent inability to access our traditions. It is also feels as though there is an advantage for us to have a European saying the things you do because, coming from an Indian, they would be attacked as some sort of Hindu right wing extremism, nationalism, or fundamentalism. So we tend to take comfort from multiple vantage points.

I do wonder how many of those who watched your film gave you feedback or criticism that could help improve your own knowledge. As mentioned we are prone to losing our critical faculties not only because our traditions have suffered from attacks in the past and present, but also when Europeans say things about our traditions that appear reassuring. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not against Europeans talking about Indian traditions at all. All are entitled to think about them and decide how they are useful for themselves or for humanity. Let me however offer my own thoughts about the film in the spirit of critical discussion. I hope that you will not mind me providing some of these unsolicited comments.

It would be apposite to note that you manage to pick out, in some interesting ways, the anomalies that present themselves when people talk about the caste system in India. It is certainly true that many people are unconcerned when they eat at restaurants or at the street food stalls or, when visiting temples, rubbing shoulders with people whose caste they do not know. Of course, this is not a conclusive refutation of the caste theorists of the past or today because there may still exist people in society who do not want such mixing and some caste theorists might then be able to say that it is a feature or consequence of the caste system. As you rightly point out, counter examples can easily lead to ostensible ‘proof’ of the widespread existence of caste discrimination especially for those hell bent on wanting to pursue their own agendas such as religious expansion or simply wanting to obtain some job privileges, etc.

One real problem your film faces is why, when faced with facts that would appear to function as anomalies for the dominant theories of the caste system, the certainty in the existence of an Indian caste system does not get questioned. After all facts similar to the ones you point out are known widely and do get pointed out, but they don’t reduce the tendency to question the existence of the caste system. It is enough then for facts that would counter the idea of the Indian caste system to dislodge it and if not why not? What would be required for that to happen? What kind of entity is the caste system that producing facts that would ordinarily contradict the claims of its theorists does not lead to its questioning or to its dislodging?

One of the points you make is about language and loss in translation. In a way, that point appears unarguable – there must obviously be some loss when ideas are translated from one language to another. However, what you say must also apply to ideas contained in Sanskrit that were transmitted to native languages of India too, mustn’t it? If this is not the case, then we would need to find a way to answer the question why it is that it has not been a problem to translate Sanskrit ideas into India’s native languages but it has been so in European languages. You use the example of English, the language of the chief (not the only) European colonisers of India. In fact, one could extend the point by asking the same of the languages of Asia more widely since ideas contained in Sanskrit were also transmitted seemingly without problems throughout Asia. So what was it about English (or European languages) that prevented ideas from Sanskrit being understood in the former?

You would also face the problem of convincing your viewers why, today, such ideas about the value of Hinduism as those you have received and found convincing can be received in English and retransmitted, say via your videos, but that that was not possible for the British colonisers. In several ways therefore your ideas about language and translation appear contradictory or inconsistent and require some more explaining. You might also want to consider whether these are problems of language at all or whether there are deeper problems of how ideas get structured in different cultures and, in particular, how Europeans and Indians respectively have done that over time.

You draw attention in the film to the fact that not only was there mistranslation into English from Sanskrit but that the British as colonisers had a certain deliberateness, strategy, tactfulness or cleverness, especially when creating ideas of caste and the caste system. Such assessments are always fraught with problems because they appeal to certain mental states attributed to (in this case) the colonisers, the British. You could not possibly mean that all the British throughout their two hundred or so year rule of India had mental states that led them to create the caste system. Even if we cut the number down to only those who thought, wrote and administered ideas of the caste system, you could not possibly mean that they all shared such mental states. We are after all talking of a two centuries stretch of time, potentially involving hundreds if not thousands of British people in one way or another. In addition, we would find some British people were positively Indophilic and had more praise for Indian culture and traditions than others among the British. So your hypothesis about the intentional states of the British would not really hold up to scrutiny and this should compel you to go searching for another explanation how ideas such as those of caste and the caste system came to be developed.

You also have to face the challenge of explaining why many Europeans also shared the ideas such as that of the caste system with the British. Even if we account for the fact that there were French and Portuguese who held on to smaller bits of India and who might have shared certain intentions and power-related motives to spread ideas of the caste system, many other Europeans held to such ideas as that Indians had a false religion and they had a caste system. Why was that? To look for answers you would have to go deeper in the nature of European culture in the times preceding greater contact with India and how ideas that developed since then were circulated and largely accepted throughout Europe. Surely that was not only for reasons of colonialism or a divide-and-rule policy, was it? What other dynamics were at play, then? Was it something peculiar to European culture that provided the conditions for that to happen?

You also say that it was the British who created the caste system. But you do not explain exactly what you mean when you say that. It appears you accept that the British at least thought of the idea of the caste system by mistranslating Indian scriptures, but you do not say which scriptures and how. You also point to certain concepts like jati, varna, kula, and gotra, and seem to say that the British could not understand these. So when you say the British created a caste system do you mean to say that they invented some idea about it that only they held on to (or maximally shared with Europeans)? Or do you mean that there was a caste system in India already to which the British only gave a certain shape or form? Or do you want to say that there was not a caste system in India at al before British arrival, but the British so influenced Indian minds that there came into existence a caste system? These are extremely important points on which to obtain clarity but your film merely skirts over the issues and leaves the viewer somewhat confused about what you want to say when you assert that the British created the caste system.

In some sense you appear to want to say that even before the British there definitely was some kind of caste system present that led to systematic discrimination. But then you appear somewhat apologetic about it by claiming that these were basically a result of the misunderstanding of the ancient teachings and against the philosophy of India. You say early on in the film that ideas of equality and non-discrimination occur in the Indian scriptures also. This gets firmer later on when you say that the Buddha, Mahavira and Nanak spoke against jati discrimination. Well, if these teachers had to speak against jati discrimination, shouldn’t we conclude that it was such a persistent feature of Indian society that the message had to be kept on being repeated? So was there indeed the Indian caste system in the background that they felt compelled to tackle? Did they really establish anti-caste movements as it is widely proclaimed today? Or is it the case that they did not really speak about jati discrimination at all? In your film, you don’t say what these teachers actually said but merely assert that they spoke about jati discrimination. Should we consider this a case of true translation?

Besides those mentioned above, there are many smaller points that cumulatively cause problems for you. Perhaps we will have the chance to discuss these if and when we meet. However, one more thing should be mentioned. You talk about Hinduism all the way through the documentary. Sometimes you mention sanatana dharma, which I presume you use as a substitute for the term Hinduism. It is not good enough to refer to sanatana dharma because, if used as a replacement for the term Hinduism, it only begs the question how do we know that an Indian term like that refers to what Europeans saw as Hinduism? Since we already know that Hinduism is a term from European texts, and therefore stood for a concept that must have made sense to Europeans, what phenomenon from the Indian traditions does it refer to? How and where did you come across the idea of a religion of Hinduism in the Indian scriptures? Is this a true translation? Did you really find a religion called Hinduism in India?

You certainly appear to be genuinely inspired by Indian traditions. However, when talking about them, you retain such a lack of clarity on fundamental points that you end up adding to the confusion about which you yourself speak. Hopefully, you will not keep on doing that and will go deeper into the traditions that have ignited something in you. This could well come at the cost of the popularity that your videos are obviously giving you, but you will have to decide what path is ultimately yours.

Yours in friendship,


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