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Exploring Unconventional Perspectives


Narender Kumar

UNDERSTANDING CASTE: FROM BUDDHA TO AMBEDKAR AND BEYOND
By Gail Omvedt
Orient Blackswan, Delhi, 2011, pp. 115+XII

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 12 December 2011

Gail Omvedt's book attempts to understand caste, critiquing the position that equates Indian tradition with Hinduism making Vedas the foundational texts of Indian culture that imprisons even secular minds within brahmanical perspective and proposes to go beyond the debate of posing secularism or reformist Hinduism as an alter-native to Hindutva. It traces the emergence of resistance and revolt in Buddhism, the Bhakti movement, also during the colonial and postcolonial periods, where not only the anti-caste but also anti-patriarchal strands are visible and pervasive. Looking into the alternative visions offered by dalit politics and dalit visions, the book reflects upon their successes and shortcomings by arguing that at some point of time, it would have to go beyond the term 'dalit'. Omvedt points out that the founding of the Magadha-Mauryan state was the time that the subcontinent as a territory came to be known throughout the world as Hindustan or Al-Hind in Arabic. Over time, brahmanism acquired tremendous cooperative and absorptive powers as long as the dissident elements accepted their place within the caste hierarchy. Bringing in the challenges, the Buddhist vision in ancient India was not only different but also antagonistic to the Vedic culture, where it opposed caste unequivocally (p. 12). Buddhism played a vital role in contesting the definitions of the existing social order, where caste and untouchability remained dominant practices; and the new social order offered by Buddhism gave an important role to untouchables. Buddhism even at its peak encouraged pluralism and never imposed it as a state religion playing a vital role in opposing communalism and caste-based discrimination. Some of the less known and popular social movements expressing the ancient tradition of equality emerged twelfth century onwards. The Lingayat movement founded by Basava was against brahminical domination and the caste system. Similarly the Tamil radical Sidha movement and Varkari movement in Maha-rashtra also challenged the dominance of brahmanical culture (pp.18-19). The Bhakti version of dalit vision put forth criticism to brahmanic Hinduism without explaining how and why caste and ritualism arose and what their function was in society. But its expression was in a vision of another possible world (p. 22). The late 19th century saw the legendary Jotiba Phule challenging the Indian caste system and offering alternatives for making a modern, equality- and justice-based society. He sought to unite the Shudras and Adishudras in response to Tilak's formulation of Aryan superiority. He, in the opinion of ...


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