The Denial of Caste

Deconstruction as an intellectual device has played havoc in universities across the West. Now it is casting its spell over developing countries, making a powerful play to rewrite India's past, as Deepak Lal suggests.

India's ancient and medieval history is notoriously malleable. The country's Hindu nationalists unleashed the latest furor over the nature of India's past. They reject the widely accepted view, based on early sacred texts, that ancient believers did not ban the slaughter of cattle, and that such a ban probably became part of the Hindu moral code only around the fifth and sixth centuries AD, when the later Puranas were written.

The trouble with reaching definitive conclusions about this or any other contested aspect of India's distant past is that, unlike in neighboring China, there is little in the way of an objective historical record to rely upon. Some archaeological evidence exists. But the main sources for ancient India are orally transmitted literary accounts dating to the Rigveda (around 1500-1300 BC) and the subjective records of foreign travelers. The social history of ancient India, as one scholar admits, "appears to be a string of conjectures and speculations."

So it is hardly surprising that India's ancient past can be manipulated to fit alternative ideological preconceptions. Nowhere is this more evident than in discussions about the origins and nature of India's caste system.