Skip to content

Sahibs, Pandits and the Scholarship on Caste: Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

March 14, 2013


Scholarship on caste has always been much more than merely about caste. At stake has been the very idea of India, and the production of knowledge about it. Expectedly, whenever academic knowledge on caste spills over in the public domain (and it does so often, as in the recent Ashis Nandy case), politically charged contestations about the idea of India inevitably follow. In the academy, the privileging of Brahmanical worldview in sociological discourses on India continues to be a source of deep-seated resentment. ‘Indian Critiques of Louis Dumont’s Contributions’ (Khare 2006) notwithstanding, the figure of ‘the learned Brahman’ (Alamgir 2006) looms large in the voluminous corpus of anthropological knowledge about India. So much so that Richard Burghart(1990) views modern anthropological knowledge primarily as a function of multiple dialogues between modern day anthropologists and the Brahmanical tradition of knowledge.

With these prefatory remarks, we wish to bring to the attention of the students of intellectual and cultural history a slim volume on caste published ninety three years ago from a small town in eastern India. Written in Bangla (and part Sanskrit) by Surjya Kumar Tarkasaraswati, the book Jati Purabritta (History of the Human Race and Castes according to the Hindu Shastras as translated by its author) runs into one hundred and sixty odd pages, and was published by S. Bhattacharjee & Co. from Silchar, Assam in 1920 (second enlarged edition, 1931). As a Sanskrit scholar heading a chatushpati (Sanskrit school) in Silchar, Tarkasaraswati’s bulk of writings (such as Sambandha Chintamani, Bideshe Pratyagata Hindu, Prayashchitta Bichar, and so forth: the years of publication are unavailable) and Jati Purabritta (hereafter JP) in particular, is based upon, as he writes, ‘the literature of the early Hindus, including the Vedas, the great epics and the works on law and customs’ (1931: ii).

Intended as an “authentic” history of the caste system, JP’s central register predictably builds on the occupational division of labour thesis, given, as its author writes, the complexity of the social whole that emerged as a result of the Indo-Aryan and Non-Aryan encounter. In course of the five chapters (plus another short one), Tarkasaraswati argues that it is imperative to go back to the shastras in order to arrest the ‘decline of the Barnasrama Dharma, the great corner-stone of the time honoured social fabric of India’ (Ibid.:iii). In short, he undertakes the task of writing the book in order to reach out to the ‘rising  generation’ and of course, raise public awareness about the shastra-derived-legitimate caste system (Tarkasaraswati uses caste system and Barnasrama interchangeably, and following him so have we in this discussion).

Belong as it does to the larger Sanskritist (and Indological) tradition of scholarship on caste which most sociologists are fairly familiar with, JP perhaps cannot be claimed as a unique contribution to the subject. However, the book does contain a few interesting points. JP discusses, first, the caste system in eastern India highlighting thereby its regional (local) dimension, second, the caste system’s congruence (or ‘harmony’ as he writes) with the ‘British regime’, third, the diversity of races and castes in a ‘liberal spirit, and fourth, ‘the so-called backward and lower classes as favourably as could be consistent with what has been said about them in the Shastras’ (Ibid.).

What is noteworthy is that Tarkasaraswati (and JP) unlike the most usual Sanskrit scholars, attempts to construct the discourse in a modern, ‘liberal’ idiom: as evidence of that he includes, for instance, discussions on Muslim and European jatis, and tries, most importantly, to deal ‘favourably’ with the lower castes/classes as well. Not only that, JP is commended for being a product of serious academic training and “scientific” research: extracts from opinions of eminent personalities like Haraprasad Shastri, Mahamahopadhyay Ramnath Vidyaratna, Sir N. D Beatson Bell, Pramathanath Tarkabhushana, and so forth, listed at the beginning of the book illustrate that. Forced to confront and listen to the colonial policy supported rising voice of the subaltern castes/classes, Tarkasaraswati, an ardent admirer of the British as he was, obviously could not but turn into a modern, caste apologist who pushed the “secular” occupational division of labour principle of the caste system to the extreme to argue for its survival. He mutated (in the book, and not necessarily in life as our personal communication with one of his surviving acquaintances suggest) from an ordinary Brahman “casteist” into a “secular/scientific-in-spirit” scholar who could expound on the “good-for-all” caste system, and of course, as Beatson Bell says, ‘write a learned essay on a very controversial subject’ (Ibid.: 2).

Our purpose is not to place Surjya Kumar Tarkasaraswati in the same category of pandits like Radhakanta Tarkavagisa or Jagannatha Tarkapanchanana, the eighteenth-century pandits in the British employ, and made famous by their association with Sir William Jones (Rocher 1993). It is also not about the transformation of pandits ‘from sought-out keepers of the indigenous tradition into hired government employees and paid informants for foreign scholars’ (Ibid.:242). Indeed, we look at Tarkasaraswati’s career as a promising case study offering insights into the changing relationship between the colonial forms of knowledge and the indigenous traditions of scholarship. His biography as a Sanskrit scholar, and a quasi-government employee in the first quarter of the twentieth century, almost after half a century of the cessation of the employment of pandit assistants to the court in 1864, intersects with what Bernard Cohn (1997) terms the changing forms of ‘investigative modalities’. Further, ‘these modalities and their outcomes can be seen as establishing a discursive formation, defining an epistemological space, creating a discourse and had the effect of converting Indian forms of knowledge into European objects’(Cohn 1997:21).

This probably explains why Tarkasaraswati’s Bangla-Sanskrit treatise on caste may not ever qualify as a sociological work unlike the one by G. S. Ghurye (1932) published twelve years later. After all, the distance between a chatushpati (Sanskrit school) in Silchar, Assam and an anthropology department at Cambridge is not merely physical and epistemological. Rather, it is revealing of the politics of the modern knowledge system whereby certain traditions of knowledge remain condemned to be treated as “sources” to be perpetually fed into the grandiloquent theoretical enterprises of modern-day academic disciplines. Viewed thus, our interest in Tarkasaraswati or in JP is not particularly guided by offering another case in a disaggregated fashion for the on-going scholarly debates around Brahmanical mediation (and complicity) in the production of colonial forms of knowledge. More importantly, for us, Tarkasaraswati’s biography and work contain not only a story of the increasing “irrelevance” of the Sanskritic traditions of knowledge but also the simultaneous construction of “indigenous” scholarship and its selective appropriation (and denigration) by the modern disciplines of anthropology and sociology.

Manish Thakur teaches sociology at IIM, Calcutta and is currently Fellow, IIAS, Shimla

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi


Alamgir, A. K. 2006. ‘The Learned Brahmin, Who Assists Me: Changing Colonial Relationships in the 18th and 19th Century India’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 19 (4): 419-46.

Burghart, R. 1990. ‘Ethnographers and Their Local Counterparts in India’, In Richard Fadon (ed.) Localizing Strategies: Regional Traditions of Ethnographic Writing. Washington DC: Smithsonian Press.

Cohn, B. S. 1997. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ghurye, G.S.1932. Caste and Race in India. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner.

Khare, R. S (ed.). 2006. Caste, Hierarchy and Individualism: Indian Critiques of Louis Dumont’s Contributions. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rocher, R. 1993. ‘British Orientalism in the Eighteenth Century: The Dialects of Knowledge and Government’, In Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (eds.) Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tarkasaraswati, S. K. 1931[1920].  Jati Purabritta. Silchar, Assam: S. Bhattacharjee & Co.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hargopal Singh permalink
    March 15, 2013 4:05 PM

    The ones who are interested in knowing the origin of caste would be naturally like to go through this book.It is doubtful if this book is available. Certainly it will throw more light on the subject.If it is mad available in English ,the volume will be much in demand

  2. March 15, 2013 6:51 PM

    Not clear why this book is of interest to India these days. There are more interesting debates about ‘peopling of India’ post genetic studies of cross sections of India. Won’t that be more relevant?

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 71,830 other followers

%d bloggers like this: