2006-09-04

Guide to the Indian caste system

Whenever you use the word "caste", people only think of the Indian society. True, India is quite (in)famous for its caste system but it is not the only part of the world where people are judged simply by their birth. But, due to many having asked me how the caste system works, this article is devoted to the Indian system...

The Indian caste system has four major castes which, in decreasing order of importance, are: Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (business people) and Shudra (workers). Within each caste are sub-castes and within that are sub-sub-castes. For example, Agrawals are a sub-caste of Vaishyas and are further subdivided into Beesa and Dassa. Each sub-sub-caste is an insular world when it comes to marriage and strong family connections. Each caste has a protected job that only the members of that caste are allowed to do. If a person of cobbler caste wants to get into farming, both the cobbler and farmer groups would get extremely unhappy with him. In the old days, serious infractions could cause you to be kicked out of your caste. This, for those who weren't independently wealthy, was a death sentence. They not only couldn't join in the various social events, they could lose their only livelihood!

You can think of the Indian caste system as an extended version of the European guild system. As long as you stayed within the boundaries sketched out by tradition, you would be fine. You could even prosper as long as you knew "your place" in the society. This is not too different from the way Blacks were treated in USA after emancipation. For example, a millionaire weaver could be a lord in his group and lord over the lower castes but when interacting with the higher castes, he better show the proper humility or else he could be considered "too uppity" and find himself on the wrong side of some very powerful people.

Through most of history, each sub-sub-caste has lived in a microcosm of their own. Therefore, not only do they have limited connection to other castes in ordinary lives, they continuously reinforce the boundaries of the caste system. Even today, it is easy to spot people of different castes by their names and often by their choice of words in normal conversation and their style of pronunciation. You can think of My Fair Lady and the dialect-reinforced caste system of England.

However, things are changing in India. In large cities, caste matters less every day. Many people are realizing that they can defy the caste system without any consequences. I would like to think that some of my ancestors (especially Sri Prakasa and Bhagwan Das) had a hand in undermining the power of the conservatives. But the caste system is still a reality for the majority in India and even for a large segment of Americans of Indian origin! It is disheartening to see how people are still so enamored with their particular caste.

And then there is the political side to this all. Many governments, in an attempt to apportion the resources in an "equitable" manner, have steered India away from a caste-less society by making various opportunities available on the basis of caste. But that is discussion for another day...

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Actually caste system looks like a very big conspiracy.

Rohit said...

Nicely written sir..