The conflict between the traditional caste hierarchy and the Gandhian ideal of equality lies at the heart of the first half of Kanthapura. Many of Kanthapura’s residents initially fear Moorthy’s campaign of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, believing that he is “polluting” the village by overturning holy caste divisions, but most ultimately join the rebellion when they see that it promises to liberate them from the hierarchies of colonial governance and caste. By the end of the book, the vast majority of Kanthapura’s people have abandoned their traditional beliefs in the caste system and the town’s local goddess Kenchamma; instead, they begin worshipping Gandhi and Moorthy. This radical shift demonstrates how shared religious beliefs can determine and perpetuate social hierarchies, but also how a movement for equality and democracy can use the same tactic to strike back at hierarchy.
At the beginning of the book, traditional caste divisions permeate Kanthapura, determining every aspect of life: caste dictates who may associate with whom, who does certain work, and who may live in and enter certain places. The caste system oppresses the majority of the village’s population, working to the advantage of those in power. It benefits the brahmins, the religious leaders who stand at the top of the caste hierarchy, as well as the colonial government that benefits from people’s strong trust in the brahmins: the government collaborates with brahmins like the landowner Bhatta and the Swami in Mysore (an important religious teacher), in order to convince the villagers not to resist and preserve the caste system.
Gandhism’s belief in equality threatens to do away with the caste system entirely. Its first demand on the villagers is that all of them, no matter their caste, do the same work—spinning yarn and making cloth—which violates the village’s traditional division of labor along caste lines. The powerful brahmins are especially opposed to Moorthy’s Gandhian campaign, which they see as “polluting” the village. By threatening to excommunicate Moorthy and convert him into a pariah, the Swami prevents other villagers from joining him at first. Even Moorthy’s own mother, Narsamma, is so distraught over her son’s conversion to Gandhi’s movement—which means he will not marry and pass down the family bloodline—that she refuses to speak with him. In particular, many of Kanthapura’s inhabitants are horrified at Moorthy’s willingness to fraternize with the pariahs, which they consider a form of pollution. Even Achakka, the narrator, initially agrees, arguing that “we shall be dead before the world is polluted.” In fact, even Moorthy has considerable difficulty looking past caste, which demonstrates how powerful its hold can be. When he visits the pariah Rachanna’s house, Moorthy “stands trembling and undecided” in the doorway because he has never entered a pariah’s home, suspects that he smells animal carcasses (which pariahs, but no other Hindus, are allowed to touch), and is terrified to drink their milk. Later, his closest confidant Rangamma makes him enter through the rear door, shower, and drink water from the holy river Ganges because he has been inside a pariah’s home.
Moorthy overcomes the Swami’s injunction and convinces the villagers to join his resistance movement by offering them not only the promise of equality among castes but also an alternate belief system: he first appeals to their self-interest and second offers Gandhi as a religious figure to worship in place of the brahmins and local goddess. Moorthy’s first appeal to people of all castes is the promise of free spinning-wheels. Even though many refuse to believe, at first, that the wheels are truly free, they soon realize that they have the opportunity to produce something for themselves and that this will offer them an opportunity for spiritual practice (most are low-caste and do not perform rituals like the brahmins, but Gandhi argued that weaving was an important form of prayer), at which point many immediately accept. Once they begin spinning, Moorthy brings them to discourses and performances where he explains the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent resistance and turns the language of “pollution” against the caste system. He argues that “everything foreign makes us poor and pollutes us,” encouraging his followers to reject the caste system for the ways in which it props up Western imperialism. Soon, hierarchy and government become the “polluters” and Gandhi becomes the savior who could purify the village through his promise of equality. Eventually, the villagers start worshipping and acting in the name of the Mahatma, who they consider an incarnation of the nationally-worshipped god Siva, rather than their local goddess Kenchamma.
While the introduction of Gandhism into Kanthapura does not entirely do away with the brahmin caste’s power, it does displace caste as a system of belief, replacing the villagers’ worship of Kenchamma and respect for social hierarchy with reverence for the Mahatma and belief that everyone is equal before God. At the end of the book, the village women’s decision to burn down Kanthapura symbolically marks their rejection of the caste system that vested both political and religious authority in the brahmin caste; instead, they claim political power for themselves and reject social hierarchy. Moorthy was able to successfully transform the village forever by making an alternative system of worship accessible to and viable for Kanthapura’s poor, but their new politics is a form of worship nonetheless. Rao seems to be suggesting that, while democracy and equality are in oppressed people’s best interests, achieving them often requires using the same organizing tactics that the powerful use to sustain the status quo.
Gandhism and the Erosion of Caste ThemeTracker
Gandhism and the Erosion of Caste Quotes in Kanthapura
Till now I’ve spoken only of the Brahmin quarter. Our village had a Pariah quarter too, a Potters’ quarter, a Weavers’ quarter, and a Sudra quarter. How many huts had we there? I do not know. There may have been ninety or a hundred—though a hundred may be the right number. Of course you wouldn’t expect me to go into the Pariah quarter, but I have seen from the street-corner Beadle Timmayya’s hut.
I closed my ears when I heard [Moorthy] went to the Pariah quarter. We said to ourselves, he is one of these Gandhi-men, who say there is neither caste nor clan nor family, and yet they pray like us and they live like us. Only they say, too, one should not marry early, one should allow widows to take husbands and a Brahmin might marry a pariah and a pariah a Brahmin. Well, well, let them say it, how does it affect us? We shall be dead before the world is polluted. We shall have closed our eyes.
“Free spinning-wheels in the name of the Mahatma!”
“May I ask one thing, Moorthy? How much has one to pay?”
“Nothing, sister. I tell you the Congress gives it free.”
“And why should the Congress give it free?”
“Because millions and millions of yards of foreign cloth come to this country, and everything foreign makes us poor and pollutes us. To wear cloth spun and woven with your own God-given hands is sacred, says the Mahatma. And it gives work to the workless, and work to the lazy. And if you don’t need the cloth, sister—well, you can say, ‘Give it away to the poor,’ and we will give it to the poor. Our country is being bled to death by foreigners. We have to protect our mother.”
Every fellow with Matric or Inter asks, “What dowry do you offer? How far will you finance my studies?—I want to have this degree and that degree.” Degrees. Degrees. Nothing but degrees or this Gandhi vagabondage. When there are boys like Moorthy, who should safely get married and settle down, they begin this Gandhi business.
“There is but one force in life and that is Truth, and there is but one love in life and that is the love of mankind, and there is but one God in life and that is the god of all.”
There was something deep and desperate that hurried her on, and [Narsamma] passed by Rangamma’s sugarcane field and by the mango grove to the river, just where the whirlpool gropes and gurgles, and she looked up at the moonlit sky, and the winds of the night and the shadows of the night and the jackals of the night so pierced her breast that she shuddered and sank unconscious upon the sands, and the cold so pierced her that the next morning she was dead.
“Brothers, in the name of the Mahatma, let there be peace and love and order. As long as there is a God in Heaven and purity in our hearts evil cannot touch us. We hide nothing. We hurt none. And if these gentlemen want to arrest us, let them. Give yourself up to them. That is the true spirit of the Satyagrahi.”
He’ll never come again, He’ll never come again,
He’ll never come again, Moorthappa.
The God of death has sent for him,
Buffalo and rope and all,
They stole him from us, they lassoed him at night,
He’s gone, He’s gone, He’s gone, Moorthappa.