I am Indian and I was born into the ‘caste system’.
I could describe my experience of being ‘upper caste’ but people wouldn’t really be interested in hearing me out. The established literary trope of rich person bad, poor person good is rewritten as upper caste bad, lower caste good in many of the write-ups I have come across on the topic.
Others’ views on the Indian caste system are freely available on the net. Ours are not. From what I have heard and read in the media I get the impression that ‘upper caste’ people are cut off mid-sentence and given lectures on human rights when they try to clarify their position.
Why are people so interested in giving their opinions on our so-called caste system? I have lived in it all my life and I see it as something that belongs in the spiritual world and is an individual soul’s quest for moksh. It is not a social construct but is about the purification of the soul, i.e. becoming a better person, over many lifetimes.
And this is what people seem to have issue with, the part about purity, which is construed as the reason for untouchability. I don’t think untouchability is at all acceptable, but this is not the explanation for its existence.
The concept of karma being the arbiter of one’s station in life is abstract and complicated. It isn’t enough to pull out a reference from Manu-smriti or some Rig Vedic poetry and triumphantly say, “See? Hindu caste system!”
Every belief system in the world is simplified for the masses and taught in bullet points, like ‘the ten commandments’, etc. and the highly abstract points are only studied by scholars. I know only a little of the vast fund of spiritual knowledge that is Sanatana Dharma, aka Hinduism.
I didn’t choose my family. I simply manifested here on Earth.
If my soul chose this family it’s down to the Wheel of Karma, not the present Me. I am not expected to feel guilty or apologize for being upper caste. And even if none of these beliefs are true, the world is not a fair place as we define fair, but it is a finely balanced place, so that every electron is exactly where it should be, and every planet moves in its own orbit. Presumably, this applies to us too.
“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?”
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
As children, most of us were taught that since we have been given so much we ought to be humble and grateful and not lord it over people who haven’t been as fortunate in this life time. We were raised on the simple concepts of paap, punya, karma and punarjanam: what goes around comes around and nobody can save our souls from the consequences of our actions. Heaven or Hell is right here on Earth as a reward or punishment for our actions in past lives.
This is the essence of Hinduism. Anyone jumping into the fray from a completely different ethos cannot quite see it this way any more than a non-Christian without a belief in the back story can understand why some people don’t receive communion in church.
But, regardless of religious and moral education, a small percentage of a cohort taken from any religion will turn out petty, greedy, unjust, dishonest, exploitative, cruel or outright criminal. If they happen to be upper caste Hindu, or powerful members of the Christian/Muslim/etc. clergy, they might feed their petty little egos by treating people lower down the social ladder with arrogance and disrespect. This is down to genetics, character and upbringing rather than to caste or religion.
Most ‘upper caste’ people are decent to the ‘lower castes’. Of course, I’ve probably got hold of a demographic that is different from the one that has been studied by people who publish articles on the ‘Indian caste system’. I can’t substantiate my claim with stats; I can only say that this is so in my experience. I don’t think any sample size is large enough for the findings of a study to be extrapolated to apply equally to Hindus everywhere.
A country whose diversity is possibly unrivalled cannot also be homogeneous! Is there any large country without a stratified social order? I would dearly like to know. There is always an upper class that pulls the strings, and a class of downtrodden people, in any large country, especially one that has been settled for thousands of years. Everybody else is the ‘middle class’ that is mostly self-satisfied in its own bubble.
The cases of caste discrimination in India that appear in news reports across the world are about as commonplace as reports of gun violence in American schools and racially motivated crimes that we regularly hear about in India. But that doesn’t mean we imagine that gun-toting youngsters are going on a rampage in every town in the US and that Indian children will copy them in this as they do in clothes, language, recreation, etc., and we should therefore start drafting alarmist ordinances in India!
The City Council of Seattle, USA, that recently passed an ordinance to protect against caste discrimination there defines caste as ‘a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law or religion’. Doesn’t this describe social stratification even in places where they don’t call it caste?!
Society is stratified everywhere but concealed behind polite manners, unspoken rules and clever language by people who have managed to reach a position of power and are continuously scheming to hold on to it. Status is hereditary, which is why legacy means a lot in college admissions, and recent graduates get to hold leadership positions in their parents’ companies, passing over experienced senior employees.
‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?’ is not as simple as it was in the 60s’ movie, as Megan Markle might attest. Hence, endogamy as happened with Kate and William, is the norm in most societies, royal or otherwise.
How come Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of Britain were first cousins? Endogamy! People tend to prefer marrying within a specific social or religious group, and the same holds true for Indians. This is possibly true for the more conservative, less visible, parts of the US too.
According to the above definition of caste, social barriers are custom, law and religion, unlike in the US where social barriers are colour, race and probably other things I don’t know about. However, advanced academic degrees, financial worth and political power often overcome all barriers in most places in the world, including India and the US!
The ordinance passed in Seattle is based on somebody’s idea of caste, but there is no place in this definition of caste for varna, kula, gotra, jati, etc., that go to make up one’s caste!
Varna is the original social order that goes back to Vedic times. In ultra-simplistic terms, it is what you do, like scholar, soldier, businessman, leather worker, and is not hereditary. Your varna changes depending on your interest and talent for a particular profession. Nobody in India talks about varna, mainly because it got incorporated into caste when the caste system was invented.
Kula is your lineage and it goes back generations. The known part of my kula goes back seven generations to our family temple in Ponda, Goa. The bust of our kul-purush is enshrined in the Ramnathi temple as he saved the murthis of our kul-devathas when the Portuguese executed the Goa Inquisition in 1541 and destroyed our temple in Loutolim. The orally transmitted kula history reminds us that our forefather survived all that and we feel proud to be his descendants!
My kula is a part of my identity. When other people talk about their State, native village or their language they often tell you their caste and its geographical history and special customs, and it’s always interesting to see how similar we are despite being different.
Then there is gotra. A gotra is a patrilineal group. Marriage within the same gotra is not allowed because they are descended from the same ancestor and are like brother and sister. It may not be considered consanguineous/incestuous now, after tens of generations, but its origin is scientific. I don’t know how this fits into the caste system, considering everybody has a gotra and there are a limited number of them.
Jati is a kinship group, like a Scottish Clan. Belonging to a jati is like being part of a very, very large extended family. When I meet someone with a surname belonging to my jati it sometimes takes us only about ten minutes to discover how we are related, often in two different ways, one through my father and one through my mother, though many degrees of separation can make the link difficult to trace. But we invariably find we have relatives in common.
Indians who do not have a jati belong to other kinship groups, e.g. tribes that specialise in creating art like bidriware, dhokra, traditional handloom weaves, stone sculptures, etc. Some kinship groups are like the Aghoris, tribes that are concentrated in a particular location and haven’t fully joined the mainstream of Indian life.
Isabel and the aghoris
These networks that connect me to my forefathers and cousins-many-times-removed give me a sense of belonging to this land. They are like intricately branching roots of a big tree that go down deep and tether it to Earth. The other jatis are like different trees in the same forest to which we all belong, their deepest roots and highest branches reaching towards each other. One can extend this to include everybody who descended from mitochondrial Eve . . . or even prior to that . . . vasudhaiva kutumbakam . . . the world is one family.
An Indian hired to live and work in the US obviously doesn’t bring only his professional skills. His jati, the ancestral-religious-cultural-linguistic subgroup to which he belongs, goes with him. It stays for the course of his lifetime because that’s his core identity, especially if he hasn’t had an identity-erasing, ‘cosmopolitan’ upbringing in India.
In an alien country where he has to change and adapt to fit in, his jati gives a new immigrant a stable sense of self. He does not identify with Whites or Blacks or with Indian-Americans, and in the early days of his American life, maybe not even with Indians from parts of India that are far from where he grew up.
So he gets in touch with the local association that meets his needs. For instance, if he’s from Bihar he might get together with other Biharis for chhath pooja, a comforting microcosm of home. I suppose an American who goes to a Baptist church at home will not stop being Baptist when he comes to India; he might look for a Baptist church here for fellowship with people belonging to the same denomination.
Jati groups work somewhat like Old Boys’ Clubs that exist in every society. They generally look out for one another and give members a leg up when needed. Religions, sects, denominations, castes and all sorts of divisive groups exist everywhere because tribalism is inherent in human beings and othering is the norm.
In America, influential Old Boys’ Clubs have traditionally been the preserve of privileged groups of White people. Those whose European ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, etc. may not treat as equals the descendants of those who were dragged in from Africa during the Middle Passage and bought and sold like livestock. There are laws to stop discrimination on the basis of race, but going by news reports from America, I’m not sure how well they are working.
The background, or at least how I understand it, having lived in the system all my life:
The varna and jati systems evolved the way most social systems do. They are obviously not what they were when they began.
There were four varnas of which the first three were Vedic scholars and teachers (Brahman), rulers and warriors (Kshatriya) and merchants/traders and landowners (Vaishya).
The last varna (Shudra) included occupations like carpenter, potter, leather worker, blacksmith, etc., all of which needed talent and artistic skills that the scholars, warriors and merchants did not have! Not very different from professionals working mundane jobs in air-conditioned offices getting more respect and money than artisans and artists painstakingly creating beautiful works of art in the current scenario!
We have been taught that these occupational names hardened into jati over time, presided over by upper caste people, apparently unlike in Europe where they merely became surnames like Smith, Baker, Carpenter, Carter, Kellogg (=“kill hog”, pork butcher), Schmidt, Faber, Herrera, Kovacs, etc.
Actually, these surnames give away one’s ancestry and a Rothschild or Chamberlain might covertly assign a class to the bearer of an occupational-sounding name, though that’s probably as far as it goes. But the fact is, he notices; otherwise the binary of aristocrat/commoner would not exist.
To continue, below these four varnas were people who were – and still are – involved in ‘unclean’ occupations like working with hides of dead cattle, sweepers and garbage collectors, drain cleaners, crematorium workers, and tribal people who ate the flesh of scavenging pigs. They are called ‘untouchables’ because of the nature of their occupations.
When I was a First Year medical student all weekday afternoons were given over to cadaver dissection. I lived in the student hostel so nothing much was made of it, but had I lived at home I would have been expected to shower and change before entering the kitchen/dining room/pooja ghar, or giving my little sister a hug. I was untouchable because I was unclean . . . This is how untouchability was always explained to us.
This is a touchy topic. There are laws, but laws are not enough. We have to make this go away, but without causing an upheaval that would make the country go up in flames. For that, these occupations should not exist.
Things are changing for the better, though. Ensuring that every child gets a decent education and is trained in some vocation is the only way for them to move into a life of dignity. There are some hopeful reports in the news now and then that indicate this is happening in some pockets. And if our Economy is doing as well as the world says it is, more people will stop bothering about caste so much as they climb out of poverty.
Currently, people who are not included in the jati system are known by a number of either pejorative, or well intentioned but patronizing, names. Unfortunately, these names get tagged on to the name of whatever religion they convert to with hopes of being respected as equals. Therefore, they continue to be marked out for discrimination among adherents of their new religion as well. For e.g. we have Dalit Christians/Muslims, or low-caste Christians/Muslims. Though there is no caste system in these religions, they have compromised their principles and adopted a version of what is called the Hindu caste system!
The jati system was far from perfect to begin with. Nevertheless, the British set it in stone on the lines of their own class system and the Spanish/Portuguese casta system. They named it caste.
There are many theories about how and when the caste system was established in its present form, most theories attributing its origin to the Vedas. On the contrary, Pandit Satish Sharma’s research, published as a book in 2021, points to more recent hardening of caste barriers. It is based on a trove of information derived from written exchanges between people in British government during colonial times.
‘Caste’ in India now encapsulates a person’s varna + jati + remote geographical origins/native place of past few generations + mother tongue + familydeity/guru. And we inherit this thumbnail sketch of ourselves – our ‘caste’ – the way children all over the world inherit their parents’ religion, ancestral immigration history and caste-equivalents.
Actually, it seems to me that most countries are heterogeneous groups of people who have banded together behind one totem pole. Sometimes the fault lines between them can cause disintegration, like what happened in Yugoslavia thirty years ago. Our country is made up of thousands of jatis. If we insist on instant equality right now, at any cost, instead of the slow give-and-take process that has been going on for the past few decades, our country will be blown to smithereens.
Caste divisions are slowly blurring, and inter-caste marriages have become more common. When my daughter was six she came home from school one day and wonderingly asked, “Do you know both of Latika’s parents speak the same language – Hindi?!” That’s when we realised we knew hardly anyone who had married as per caste.
Also, city people are now more aware of the need to save our dying arts and are making forays into villages to help revive them, so there’s a growing realisation that every jati or kinship group adds beauty and utility to this patchwork quilt that is India.
The Indian government has a Reservation policy to help lower castes better their lot. Therefore, some born into privilege lose out on college admissions despite their hard work and excellent grades. They harbor resentment against ‘people with no merit who get in through Reservation’ and work with a vengeance to leave this ‘unfair’ country.
They carry their resentment and anger with them to their new country and possibly take it out on Indians there who represent that injustice. Apparently not everybody in the US is happy with Affirmative Action either and considers it discriminatory – it’s a similar situation here.
So the incident of an Indian CEO discriminating against an employee from a lower caste arises from entrenched roots, though that by no means makes it right, only more comprehensible in terms of human behaviour in its raw, uncensored form in response to a perceived injustice. I have no idea how frequent these occurrences are in the US, though.
Anyway, if an ordinance or law is good enough to check caste-based discrimination in the US, without being misused, that will be something to applaud I suppose.