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December 10, 2002

The blindness of the idolaters....

Note: Thanks to Randall Parker for getting me to fix a lot of typos...I've been blogging on the fly on my breaks from my work....

This story about the travails of India's Brahmins was forwarded to me by a friend. It is interesting, so I forwarded it off to Suman to comment on it, but alas my pagan bhai did not find it illuminating enough to scratch his blogging itch-so I will step forward. I do it a bit self-consciously, because if I had to pick a religion for my children, and it was a binary choice between Hinduism and Islam, I would pick Hinduism (Arya or Brahmo Samaj so that my iconoclastic tendencies are placated). But as someone from a long-standing Muslim family I hesitate to speak much of idolatrous practices as I do have an ancestral aversion to them [1].

Though I find Hindu metaphysics uninteresting and idolatry a bit unnerving, I am true to my Muslims roots in having an almost irrational distaste for caste. Muslims have a class structure, but there is a fluidity and theoretical opportunity that is far different than Hindu caste, which religiously sanctions inequality, as opposed to accepting it as one of the sins of mankind. I have an a priori bias on this issue. Keep that in mind, for perhaps there are great benefits to having a caste system (Gandhi thought it eliminated the more crass competitive aspects of Western culture, and it is not a great surprise that the British aristocracy had a soft spot in their heart for a nobility based on blood).

Brahmins form ~ 5% or so of India's population. They are overrepresented among the intellectual classes. Chandrasekhar and Tagore for instance, the two early Indian Nobel prize winners (Physics and Literature) were Brahmins (this might also be indicative of the strengths of Tamil and Bengali Brahmins respectively). As the article makes clear, Brahmin privilege is a fact of life. But quotas and discrimination are also facts of life. As I've mentioned before, South Asians do not have an aversion to talk about human biodiversity, likely because of a history of endogamy. The article moots ideas that imply Brahmin genetic superiority. In addition, it broaches the questions of history, did Brahmins reach their positions of power by manipulating British prejudices?

I don't believe that caste was invented by Europeans. But, Europeans tended to systematize it, and so crystallized structures that before might have been a bit more fluid. There are instances of castes changing status throughout Indian history, and before the Gupta era (400 CE) caste was likely far more fluid, especially with the rise of non-Indian and Sudra warlords that would attain the status of Kshatriyas [2]. The evidence seems clear that upper caste Indians are relatively recent residents of India compared to lower caste Indians. This dovetails well with the historical record of conquest by invaders from the northwest over older residents of the subcontinent [3]. Revisionists tend to dismiss the fact that the "Dasas" were dark and snub-nosed, but I think one has to be blind to not to notice that lower-caste and Dravidian (linguistically non-Aryan) south Indians are darker and more snub-nosed than upper caste or north Indians.

So caste is real. Brahmins probably are somewhat smarter than other Indians. And so forth. What does that mean? The article above goes into detail about the political calculus that dominates the Indian consensus: in the north (the Hindi-heartland) Brahmins are numerous enough and ally with other clean twice-born castes (Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Kayasthas) to maintain political power and representation in the civil service [4]. In the south, where Brahmins are only 3% of the population, and the Dravidian masses harbor ill will against them as alien interlopers from the north they have lost the trappings of power. This sentiment was initiated and abetted by the British, who reassured their fellow Aryan Brahmin brothers of how superior they were, while attempting to convert the lower castes to Christianity. In the south the civil service is dominated by non-Brahmins, presumably intellectually challenged incompetents.

It seems that from that one would gather that the social situation in the north would be far better than that in the south, as we presume that the upper castes have more genetic capital and would be better at governance. And yet anyone who knows the situation on the ground will know this is not the case. Not only do the two southern states of Karnataka and Andhara Pradesh serve as the leading lights for India's high-tech revolution, but Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two states less prosperous than their northern neighbors, have vital statistics far better than the states of the Hindi heartland. What is going on here?

Clearly the fragmented coalition politics of the north has lead to an ossification of a backward social system, while the disenfranchisement in the south of Brahmins and other elites has led to change and a more equitable distribution of resources. No doubt it is unjust that Brahmins are kept out of the civil service, but as a libertarian, I must ask the question, what good is a civil service anyway? Perhaps incompetent Dalit clerks are less efficient in extracting bribes than smooth-talking Brahmins. The article notes that south Indian Brahmins have channeled their energies to the private sector, leading to the rise of the high-tech sector in Bangalore and Hyderabad. In the north, Brahmins, if they have the same genetic capital, are more likely to be found in government service than the private sector, and you have a more Third World pattern of career aspiration (government work rather than private sector work is more lucrative with officials acting more like the ancient Roman publicani than public servants). I know that some patent clerks do great scientific work on the side, but no doubt many wasted their lives when they could have been doing something innovative.

Now I must also ask, why is it that Brahmins, and in particular southern Brahmins, are so intelligent, at least from the fruit of their endeavors? I think the answer is hypergamy. It is not unheard of among some Brahmin groups for younger sons to marry women of a caste just below them (the Namboothiri Brahmins of Kerala do this with Nayars). It seems reasonable that Brahmins, their ritual purity guaranteeing prestige, would only risk sullying their blood with promising individuals, or at least women from important families. Remember, even high caste individuals are mostly "Asian" rather than "European" in mt-DNA, so it seems likely that the newcomers picked the more exceptional individuals for mates. Over many generations, even a small amount of inter-caste marriage would likely lead to the percolation upward of exceptional genetic talents. I think that South Indian Brahmins, because of their small numbers, and the scarcity of "Aryan blood" in the south, could be even pickier than Brahmins in the north, where the gap between Kshatriyas and Brahmins was small enough that the latter likely had less leverage in mate selection from the masses (exceptional lower caste brides in this scenario would not have been concentrated among the 3% Brahmin upper caste but among the 40% Brahmin-Kshatriya-Vaisya upper caste triumvirate).

But with the freezing of caste lines during modern times, this process of hypergamy likely stopped (only 5% of Indian castes practice it). Affluence and literacy often lead to an increase in "traditional" behavior because it is more feasible, so just as Muslims show more fidelity toward the strictures of the Koran once they can read it and comprehend it (or more likely the local cleric can), Hindus with greater caste consciousness because of a historical and social understanding of who they are are perhaps less likely to accept someone of eminent abilities "marrying up" into their level. In addition, the ancient trick of moving geographically and rising up the social ladder is likely more difficult today in the age of instantaneous communication than it was in the past when data was more at a premium and historical creativity the norm.

The ancient Chinese had a saying: Three generations up, three generations down. Augustus Caesar already saw in his long life the withering of ancient patrician lines and he attempted to arrest the decline of the aristocracy and halt the rise of the equestrian order. Churn is the order of the day throughout the history of our species, all of us have the blood of kings and beggars within us. Hernstein and Murray argued in THE BELL CURVE that in the United States this churn is not as prevalent as it once was, doctors are more likely to marry other doctors than acquire a trophy wife (back in the days when there were few female doctors and women were judged more on their physique than their intellect-and I mean it half-seriously at least). In nations like China and Korea where the population's physical appearance is homogeneous there is less of a shock for a peasant to rise to prominence, because the face of a peasant is not that different from the face of a plutocrat. Though East Asian societies are straight-jacketed by nepotism and cronyism, they have no metaphysical or theological opposition to the meritocracy per se.

Not so with India. In the future The Hindu Rate of Growth might very well be dependent on whether India decides to abandon its adherence to caste, and follow its westernized elites and begin to value accomplishments (wealth) more (the great middle-class of Indian castes, from village Brahmins to small landholder are probably the ones who favor retention of caste, while the rarified elite can dispense with it and the outcastes would like to move past it). It is obvious that those in positions of power and intellectuals will have more social and genetic capital that the unwashed masses (on average). On the other hand, while in China a brilliant son of a janitor might rise to lead the nation, would Indians allow a black-skinned Dalit to take the helm of the nation? (In more than a symbolic role) And perhaps in the long run more importantly, would they allow a brilliant Dalit to marry their daughter?

OK, that's enough brown for me for a while....

[1] My paternal grandmother was from a Bengali Brahmin family that converted to Islam around 1920 after their tenants began to become restive about having to deal with a Hindu landlord. My paternal grandfather was from an ashraf family, the class of Muslims that claims descent from non-Indians, generally Persian, Turkish or Afghan. Many ashraf in Bengal make up their ancestry, but my grandfather's physiognomy was non-Bengali enough that there was probably something to it. My mother's family claims an Islamic pedigree of about five centuries through both her parents.

[2] Kshatriyas are the ruling and military class in the caste system, though their true occupation is often far less glamorous today or even in the recent past. Many ancient rulers of India, like the Maurya dynasty, were elevated Sudras. In addition, before the conquests of the Muslims, invaders from the northwest (White Huns, Kushanas, Greeks, etc.) had regularly supplemented India's ruling Kshatriya class. The Rajputs for instance have some of the same central Asian antecedents that I likely do, though my non-Indian ancestors came later after their foreskins had been snipped and they walked in the path of the One God.

[3] India is not particularly special in this regard, as China and Europe regularly succumbed to barbarian conquest. All three major civilizations tended to absorb the newcomers, or eject them, the only exception being the Muslims in India. The reason that nomadic horseman so easily conquered outnumbered dense sedentary civilizations is that the former were natural warriors who could easily escape defeat, while the latter needed to be well organized and trained for warfare, and outlay of resources were not always manageable. In addition, India has the added burden of not being a good breeding ground for horses.

[4] Minutiae for those out of the loop, the main general caste categories are Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (commoners) and Sudras (servile population). Dalits or outcastes exist outside caste. The Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are "clean" castes who wear the sacred thread that marks them as twice-born and of higher status. Some scholars speculate that the three top castes have their origins in early Indo-European social structures, while the Sudras have their origins among the conquered "Dasas." Of course there is far too much mixture to assert with clear and clean accuracy these sort of assertions deterministically, but they surely have some probabilistic validity, though nou doubt some indigenous shamans become Brahmans and many an indigenous warlord become Aryanized. Note that this generally applies only to the north, especially the Hindi states where about half of Indians live. In the deep south, where Indo-Aryan languages never "took," the only upper caste are the Brahmins, who trace their ancestry to the north. So the dynamics in the south are rather different, for powerful Sudra clans remained in temporal positions of importance rather than being reduced to servile status by Aryan and Aryanized warlords.

Posted by razib at 12:24 PM