Caste: A Primer and Thoughts On Why It's Still an Issue

As with most things like this, let us begin with a brief definition of caste. Despite being something that is closely associated with Hindu culture, caste has its linguistic roots in the Portuguese word casta, meaning ‘breed, ‘ although there is no equivalent in any Indian language for caste. Hinduism Today explains that there are the four overarching varnas and a large multitude of jatis (Hinduism Today, 14 Questions). The four varnas are conceptual categories, and are not used for actual stratification. The varna are as follows:

  • Shudra - Laborers (farmers, construction workers, carpenters, plumbers, etc.)
  • Vaishya - Business People (merchants, shop owners, bankers, etc.)
  • Kshatriya - Lawmakers / Law Enforcers (police, military, government office holders, legislators, monarchs, etc.)
  • Brahmin - Scholars / Priests

These four divisions of labor, so to speak, exist in all cultures and societies. The examples given above are applicable to modern society here in the USA, but are also applicable in ancient Hindu societies. The key difference here is that critics argue caste is based on birth, while in modern societies people can choose to take up any occupation or lifestyle regardless of birth. The governing systems in place in those times were usually monarchies, with a king or queen as the head of state.  This monarch would be the ultimate lawmaker, and would often consult with the royal rishi as well as the ministers of that court, and also lead the military in battle (whether defensive or offensive in nature). The priests served many roles, and were not limited to religious duties only. For example, Patanjali wrote the treatise on yoga which is a well researched documentation of asanas, pranayamas, and various dhyana techniques and their benefits; the compilation of this knowledge is still used by yoga instructors to this day. By modern standards, someone who conducts exhaustive research and compiles information in such a way would be called a scientist or academic, but we simply refer to them as a rishi. Sanyasin, or renunciates, came from all strata of society and were effectively outside of any attachment to caste once they renounced their worldliness. Intended for specialization in any number of professions, jati are what we understand as caste.

When invaders and colonizers from the west began to come more and more frequently, caste became even more firmly entrenched. The theory is that society’s focus shifted to fighting off the invading armies, so cultural development took a backseat. Many commonly misunderstood customs come from this time period (eg. sati) as the entirety of the subcontinental society was under immense pressure: military, royalty, business owners, laborers, and farmers all put everything on hold for the sake of mortal and cultural survival.  Additionally, a coherent professional guild (caste) provided a safety net during difficult periods of invasions and subjugation by foreign rulers and ideologies.

When the British Raj arrived, one of the policies instituted was a census which paid special attention to a person’s religion and caste.  This census is understood to be a policy to create division and sow discord on a subjugated population, the governors of British India would only give government positions to high caste Indians. They then began to disavow the evils of caste and decry the violations against the lower castes in academic discourse and other avenues.  Missionaries found a scapegoat in caste and Brahmins, which had been the keepers of ritual and scriptural knowledge; these missionaries were aided by the Caste Disabilities Removal Act (1850), among many other laws, which removed any legal hurdles for conversion.  Instead of thinking of solutions to uplift the unfortunate, missionaries advocated for a new religion altogether, marketing conversion to Christianity as an escape from the shadow of caste.

The current portrayal of anything caste related in modern textbooks and media is inevitably negative, always highlighting cases of discrimination and caste driven violence.  This caste driven narrative is an easy one to compose and is inexorably tied to the Hinduphobic attitude of Western media as well as the foreign owned Indian media houses.  What isn’t discussed is that there have been consistent efforts to eradicate caste based discrimination by many organizations and individuals, which will be discussed in a later article. Additionally, discrimination faced by low caste members of the other religions present in India is seldom reported, which serves to reinforce the Hinduphobic narrative because it drives home the idea that the Hindu community is the only one suffering from a caste problem despite the fact that caste is not integral to Hindu culture (HAF, 5 Reasons).

Similar to the existence of caste among the many religions in India, other nations also have systems under different names. In the United States we see a disparity between the vastly rich influential elite, and the population of homeless and destitute.  Although the middle class has been growing, many would prefer to do white-collar jobs instead of manual labor.  There is a cultural aversion to undertaking trade-skills, even though these professions often have good pay and constant demand for employment (College Consensus). And yet, the established mentality is that all high school graduates should attend a four year university and earn a baccalaureate degree. Those who choose to attend a community college or trade school are inevitably looked down as lacking the intelligence to gain acceptance to a university or lacking the drive to pursue higher education.  National legislators sit in offices far away from their jurisdiction having no understanding of the issues their constituents face, nor the long term effects of legislation they endorse.  Meanwhile, wealthy businesses, nations and interest groups lobby politicians through donations and favors.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar led an effort of mass conversions of low caste Hindus to Buddhism.  Unfortunately, instead of alleviating these new Buddhist practitioners, they were cut off from any protections offered by the government.  On returning to their homes, the new converts were treated the same way as before their conversion because their caste status had not disappeared.  However, since they were not enumerated in the laws as members of a Scheduled Caste, they could not seek refuge under those laws.  Dr. Ambedkar’s well intentioned effort was for naught due to the simple fact that caste isn’t limited to religion.In his PhD thesis Dr. Koenraad Elst writes at some length on who can be considered a Hindu.  Elst mentions caste being a part of each religion in India.  Sikh teachings preach the equality of all, indeed it is often hailed as something which sets Sikhs apart from Hindus.  However, in reality, caste continues to be a part of Punjabi culture (where Sikh culture is most prevalent) as well as it’s politics.  Similarly, Buddhists, Jains, and even revivalist/reformist movements of Hinduism eventually end in conforming to caste norms (Elst, 2001).

Often, low caste Hindus have been targeted by Christian and Muslim missionaries to convert by promising them a better life.  However, little to nothing changes afterward because despite converting to a new religion.  Indian Christians are treated the same as they were before conversion (Britannica, Christian Caste).  Indian Muslims have long held caste stratifications of their own.  In each of these cases, whether they are new converts or have been a different religion for generations, their caste status essentially remains the same as if they were Hindu.  So missionaries who promise low caste Hindus escape from discrimination if they convert are flat out lying in their eagerness to earn converts.  In contrast, new Hindu “converts,” or those outside of India, feel no need to embrace caste as a part of their new belief system.

In the USA, the government has passed federal laws to encourage education, increase upward economic mobility, prevent discrimination, etc. through legislation such as the Equal Pay Act (1963), Civil Rights Act (1964), Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972), Civil Service Reform Act (1978), Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), as well as various non-legislative Executive Orders.  The Indian central government has enshrined anti-discrimination into it’s Constitution, the writing of which was led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (the same as mentioned above).  Part III of the Indian Constitution enumerates fundamental rights of every Indian citizen.  Article 15 specifically prohibits discrimination deriving from religion, race, gender, or caste; Article 17 specifically prohibits the custom of un-touchability.  Some protections include: prohibition of forced labor, protection from social injustice and exploitation, and ensures access to wells, clean water, patronage at shops, restaurants, and educational institutions.  The Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) strengthens the intent to protect these groups, giving protection against forcing a member of SC or ST to eat/drink something against their will, humiliation, forcibly taking property and/or land, prevention of free voting, molestation and sexual harassment, and forcing them to leave their home or neighborhood.

Lawmaking can be an effective means of righting wrongs, but the problem with India is that it has a law enforcement problem.  Indian police officers are chronically underfunded and undermanned, and the justice system suffers from similar issues.  So despite having the legal backing, Indian law is ineffective as eradicating this blight.  This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that law enforcement has significantly reduced presence and influence in villages and small towns because “When Hindus move away from the village and/or into other countries, their attachment to the caste system often dissipates accordingly” (HAF, 5 Reasons).  It is my belief that caste discrimination would continue even if the laws were enforced, because caste is a social issue and not a legal issue.  Those who benefit from caste stratification would find ways to perpetuate caste, just as the former slave owners in southern USA found ways to control and exploit African Americans.  Indian policies such as reservations, where members of the SC/ST community are given preference in college admittance and government positions.  However, these policies being aimed only at SC/ST communities instead of being directed by the economic situation has drawn some criticism because caste isn’t always an indicator of financial well-being.  Laws serve a stop-gap while true solutions are devised and implemented.  Caste is a community and society: it dictates who can marry who, how clothes are worn, and how food is cooked.  Caste discrimination is a social issue.  Social issues need social solutions.

There are social workers and reformers who have been vigorously working under the radar throughout India to right the wrongs of caste discrimination instead of complaining, being misleading, or passing ineffective laws.  In brief, these activists have recognized that caste is a social issue so they are working at the grassroots level where these changes will be most effective.  One such example is Brahmin pandits, those who are trained and accepted as religious ritual experts and are the ones who conduct religious ceremonies, teaching these customs and practices to non Brahmin Hindus.  This seemingly simple act lends legitimacy and helps break down caste barriers.  These stories deserve an article of their own, so we will write about them in the short future.

- Arjun Pandava