Caste System - History

Caste System - History


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Caste System in India

The Indian society is socio-politically stratified. Caste system has prevailed for ages and arranges the people into social strata or classes. Though this system is similar to the concept of racism that prevails in western countries where people are discriminated on the basis of their skin color, in India, people are socially differentiated on the basis of tribe, region, class, and religion. This means that when a child is born their status on the social hierarchy gets fixed on the basis of the caste he/she is born into. Caste system becomes an obstruction in the growth of the people and nation.

Meaning of Caste

Caste, which is also known as ‘Jati’ or ‘Varna,’ can be defined as the hereditary classes of Hindu society or the classification of individuals into hierarchically ranked classes that becomes the identity of an individual at the time of his/her birth. Going by the Hindu shastras, four hereditary castes exist in India, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra.

The Brahmins are at the top of the caste hierarchy and comprise of scholars and priests. The next in line are Kshatriyas who are regarded to be soldiers and political leaders. These are followed by Vaishyas or merchants. The last in the hierarchy are Sudras who are usually servants, labourers, artisans or peasants. There are also the untouchables who are considered as outcaste and perform occupations like skinning dead animals and scavenging. The untouchables do not fall in the ranked castes.

The people of these classes derive their livelihood from specific occupations and the children born in their families follow the suit, acquiring the appropriate occupation as per their caste or jati, thus, maintaining the hierarchical ranking of occupations and hereditary occupational specialization.

Proper rituals, rules, and regulations govern the occupational pursuits and appropriate social behaviour of the people of these classes, including rules related to marriage as well.

Origin and History of Caste System in India

There are many theories relating to the origin of caste system in the country. While a few of these theories are historical, some are religious or biological. There is no universally accepted theory on caste system.

Going by the ancient Hindu book, the ‘Rig Veda,’ human body was created by ‘Purush’ by destroying himself. The different castes or varnas have been created from different parts of his body. It is said that the Brahmans were created from his head, Kshatriyas originated from his hands, Vaishias from his thighs and his feet created Sudras.

There is another theory pertaining to the origin of the caste system that states castes originated from the different body parts of ‘Brahma’, the Hindu deity referred to as the ‘Creator of the World.’ Going by this theory, inter-caste marriages, mixture of blood or contact of members of different races is regarded as a heinous crime.

Historically, it is believed that the caste system began in India around 1500 B.C during the arrival of Aryans in the country. It is believed that the Aryans, who possessed fair skin, came from northern Asia and southern Europe that contrasted with the indigenous natives of India. They started conquering regions all over north India and the locals were driven south towards jungles of mountains in northern part of the country at the same time. Aryans followed a specific social ordering called Varna Vyavastha which eventually resulted in four hierarchical divisions of the society.

Code of Conduct

Besides the stratification of people in different castes, these castes also followed some strict rules and regulations which were followed by the members of the caste religiously. Rules especially pertaining to religious worship, meals and marriage dominated their lives. However, the least amount of restrictions and regulations were implemented on Brahmins and Vaishyas. The most suffered ones were the Sudras as most of the society laws were applicable on them. Some of them were –

  • Brahmins could give food to anyone if they wished but the person from a lower caste was not allowed to even go near the place where a Brahmin was eating.
  • Sudras were not allowed to enter the temples or other places of worship whereas the other three classes had full rights to worship.
  • Sudras were not allowed to take water from ponds or wells as their touch would pollute the water.
  • Inter-caste marriages were forbidden. In many cases even marriages within one’s own sub-caste or jati was not allowed.
  • Sudras were also pushed towards the outskirts of the city and were not allowed to live anywhere near the Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishias.

Negative Effects of the Caste System On the Society

  • It hinders the choice of occupation as per one’s preferences and individuals are forced to take up the occupation of the family. This resuls in debarring mobility of labour that hindered the growth if the nation.
  • Higher classes look down upon the lower classes due to the rigidity of the caste system. This results in hindering the national unity. National interests are overlooked in the course of giving importance to caste interests.
  • Cast system stands against the norms of democracy. It works towards suppressing the lower classes resulting in the exploitation of people belonging to the lower caste.
  • National development and advancement gets hindered due to the deep rooted caste system.
  • Caste system is also held responsible for some religious conversions. The dominance of Brahmins drove Sudras to take up Christianity, Islam and other religions as they were allured by the philosophy and ideology of these communities.

Reforms and Constitutional Provisions

The upper castes treated the lower castes as their slaves. The social stratification resulted in the exploitation of sudras and untouchables. The so-called upper castes held the leadership positions in society, religion, and economy of the nation.

However, a number of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and various others gave their entire life working towards opposing evil practices and educating masses. Thus, when India broke the shackles of slavery and the Constitution was framed, the founding fathers of the constitution added provisions in order to reduce the ill-effects of prevailing caste system in the country.

Constitutional Provisions

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution ideates India as a country that practises political, economical and social justice a nation where the dignity and equality of status of the citizens is secured.

Discrimination on the basis of caste has been declared illegal by the independent India’s constitution. In 1950, in an attempt to rectify historical injustices, the authorities introduced reservations or quotas in educational institutions and government jobs for the lower castes referred to as scheduled tribes and schedule castes.

The reservation was extended to a group of people who fall between the traditional upper castes and the lowest, referring to then as other backward classes (OBCs) in 1989.

Article 14 of the constitution guarantees equality before law.

Article 15 (1) of the constitution enjoins the State not to make any discrimination on the grounds of caste against any citizen. Article 15 (2) of the constitution mandates that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability and restriction on grounds of race or caste.

Article 17 abolishes the practice of untouchability in any form.

Article 15 (4) and (5) empowers the state to make provisions for reservation in educational institutions. Article 16 (4), 16 (4A), 16 (4B) and Article 335 empowers to State to make reservations in appointments for posts in favour of Schedule Castes.

Article 330 provides for reservation of seats in Lok Sabha for Schedule Castes. The same is applied under Article 332 in state assemblies and Article 243D and Article 340T in the local self-government bodies.

The purpose of these reservations were to improve the situation of the underprivileged classes as a temporary affirmative, but over the years, it has become a vote-grabbing exercise for politicians who woe caste groups for their electoral gains in the name of reservation.

Article 46 of the constitutions makes sure that they are protected from social injustice and exploitation of all forms.

Acts That Ban Caste System

In order to make sure that the mandates laid by the constitution are fulfilled, a number of other acts were also passed in order to put an end to the discriminatory and exploitive practices against the lower classes. Following are some of those acts that ensure social justice for all.

  • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2013.
  • The Untouchability (Offenses) Act 1955. In 1976, it was renamed as Protection of Civil Rights Act.
  • Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989.

Contemporary India

The scenario within the country has undergone a lot of change with the progress in technology, education, social outlook, urbanisation, and modernization. With the spread of urbanization and rowing secular education, influence of caste has decreased. This has occurred especially in cities where inter-caste marriages and people of different castes living side-by-side in societies have become common.

However, despite the growing changes the caste identity still holds a lot of importance in the society. The last name of an individual strongly indicates the caste to which a person belongs. Caste-related violence has also been witnessed by the country after independence.

Only the political parties cannot be blamed for this, the prejudice lies in the minds of the citizens of the country. The country still struggles with the problem of the caste system. A lot of work needs to be done in order to uproot the evils of the caste system from the country. The laws and acts can only provide protection, but the change in perception and attitude has to be brought by the society.


Caste System in India a Brief History of Indian Culture

The Indian society is socio-politically stratified. Caste system has prevailed for ages and arranges the people into social strata or classes. Though this system is similar to the concept of racism that prevails in western countries where people are discriminated on the basis of their skin color, in India, people are socially differentiated on the basis of tribe, region, class, and religion. This means that when a child is born their status on the social hierarchy gets fixed on the basis of the caste he/she is born into. Caste system becomes an obstruction in the growth of the people and nation.

Meaning of Caste

Caste, which is also known as ‘Jati’ or ‘Varna,’ can be defined as the hereditary classes of Hindu society or the classification of individuals into hierarchically ranked classes that becomes the identity of an individual at the time of his/her birth. Going by the Hindu shastras, four hereditary castes exist in India, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra.

The Brahmins are at the top of the caste hierarchy and comprise of scholars and priests. The next in line are Kshatriyas who are regarded to be soldiers and political leaders. These are followed by Vaishyas or merchants. The last in the hierarchy are Sudras who are usually servants, labourers, artisans or peasants. There are also the untouchables who are considered as outcaste and perform occupations like skinning dead animals and scavenging. The untouchables do not fall in the ranked castes.

The people of these classes derive their livelihood from specific occupations and the children born in their families follow the suit, acquiring the appropriate occupation as per their caste or jati, thus, maintaining the hierarchical ranking of occupations and hereditary occupational specialization.

Proper rituals, rules, and regulations govern the occupational pursuits and appropriate social behaviour of the people of these classes, including rules related to marriage as well.

Origin and History of Caste System in India

There are many theories relating to the origin of caste system in the country. While a few of these theories are historical, some are religious or biological. There is no universally accepted theory on caste system.

Going by the ancient Hindu book, the ‘Rig Veda,’ human body was created by ‘Purush’ by destroying himself. The different castes or varnas have been created from different parts of his body. It is said that the Brahmans were created from his head, Kshatriyas originated from his hands, Vaishias from his thighs and his feet created Sudras.

There is another theory pertaining to the origin of the caste system that states castes originated from the different body parts of ‘Brahma’, the Hindu deity referred to as the ‘Creator of the World.’ Going by this theory, inter-caste marriages, mixture of blood or contact of members of different races is regarded as a heinous crime.

Historically, it is believed that the caste system began in India around 1500 B.C during the arrival of Aryans in the country. It is believed that the Aryans, who possessed fair skin, came from northern Asia and southern Europe that contrasted with the indigenous natives of India. They started conquering regions all over north India and the locals were driven south towards jungles of mountains in northern part of the country at the same time. Aryans followed a specific social ordering called Varna Vyavastha which eventually resulted in four hierarchical divisions of the society.

Code of Conduct

Besides the stratification of people in different castes, these castes also followed some strict rules and regulations which were followed by the members of the caste religiously. Rules especially pertaining to religious worship, meals and marriage dominated their lives. However, the least amount of restrictions and regulations were implemented on Brahmins and Vaishyas. The most suffered ones were the Sudras as most of the society laws were applicable on them. Some of them were –

  • Brahmins could give food to anyone if they wished but the person from a lower caste was not allowed to even go near the place where a Brahmin was eating.
  • Sudras were not allowed to enter the temples or other places of worship whereas the other three classes had full rights to worship.
  • Sudras were not allowed to take water from ponds or wells as their touch would pollute the water.
  • Inter-caste marriages were forbidden. In many cases even marriages within one’s own sub-caste or jati was not allowed.
  • Sudras were also pushed towards the outskirts of the city and were not allowed to live anywhere near the Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishias.

Negative Effects of the Caste System On the Society

  • It hinders the choice of occupation as per one’s preferences and individuals are forced to take up the occupation of the family. This resuls in debarring mobility of labour that hindered the growth if the nation.
  • Higher classes look down upon the lower classes due to the rigidity of the caste system. This results in hindering the national unity. National interests are overlooked in the course of giving importance to caste interests.
  • Cast system stands against the norms of democracy. It works towards suppressing the lower classes resulting in the exploitation of people belonging to the lower caste.
  • National development and advancement gets hindered due to the deep rooted caste system.
  • Caste system is also held responsible for some religious conversions. The dominance of Brahmins drove Sudras to take up Christianity, Islam and other religions as they were allured by the philosophy and ideology of these communities.

Reforms and Constitutional Provisions

The upper castes treated the lower castes as their slaves. The social stratification resulted in the exploitation of sudras and untouchables. The so-called upper castes held the leadership positions in society, religion, and economy of the nation.

However, a number of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and various others gave their entire life working towards opposing evil practices and educating masses. Thus, when India broke the shackles of slavery and the Constitution was framed, the founding fathers of the constitution added provisions in order to reduce the ill-effects of prevailing caste system in the country.

Constitutional Provisions

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution ideates India as a country that practises political, economical and social justice a nation where the dignity and equality of status of the citizens is secured.

Discrimination on the basis of caste has been declared illegal by the independent India’s constitution. In 1950, in an attempt to rectify historical injustices, the authorities introduced reservations or quotas in educational institutions and government jobs for the lower castes referred to as scheduled tribes and schedule castes.

The reservation was extended to a group of people who fall between the traditional upper castes and the lowest, referring to then as other backward classes (OBCs) in 1989.

Article 14 of the constitution guarantees equality before law.

Article 15 (1) of the constitution enjoins the State not to make any discrimination on the grounds of caste against any citizen. Article 15 (2) of the constitution mandates that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability and restriction on grounds of race or caste.

Article 17 abolishes the practice of untouchability in any form.

Article 15 (4) and (5) empowers the state to make provisions for reservation in educational institutions. Article 16 (4), 16 (4A), 16 (4B) and Article 335 empowers to State to make reservations in appointments for posts in favour of Schedule Castes.

Article 330 provides for reservation of seats in Lok Sabha for Schedule Castes. The same is applied under Article 332 in state assemblies and Article 243D and Article 340T in the local self-government bodies.

The purpose of these reservations were to improve the situation of the underprivileged classes as a temporary affirmative, but over the years, it has become a vote-grabbing exercise for politicians who woe caste groups for their electoral gains in the name of reservation.

Article 46 of the constitutions makes sure that they are protected from social injustice and exploitation of all forms.

Acts That Ban Caste System

In order to make sure that the mandates laid by the constitution are fulfilled, a number of other acts were also passed in order to put an end to the discriminatory and exploitive practices against the lower classes. Following are some of those acts that ensure social justice for all.

  • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2013.
  • The Untouchability (Offenses) Act 1955. In 1976, it was renamed as Protection of Civil Rights Act.
  • Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989.

Contemporary India

The scenario within the country has undergone a lot of change with the progress in technology, education, social outlook, urbanisation, and modernization. With the spread of urbanization and rowing secular education, influence of caste has decreased. This has occurred especially in cities where inter-caste marriages and people of different castes living side-by-side in societies have become common.

However, despite the growing changes the caste identity still holds a lot of importance in the society. The last name of an individual strongly indicates the caste to which a person belongs. Caste-related violence has also been witnessed by the country after independence.

Only the political parties cannot be blamed for this, the prejudice lies in the minds of the citizens of the country. The country still struggles with the problem of the caste system. A lot of work needs to be done in order to uproot the evils of the caste system from the country. The laws and acts can only provide protection, but the change in perception and attitude has to be brought by the society.


Origin of the Caste System?

This topic has always puzzled me. The traditional explanation of how the caste system came about is that the Aryans invaded and installed themselves as warriors and priests and created a hierarchy based on skin color - or at least that's how we were taught it in school in America.

More modern theories suggest that caste distinctions weren't prominently mentioned until much later on, and the British deliberately encouraged caste divisions to make India easier to rule.

I was always confused by the explanations because they seem to go against counterexamples in other countries. Throughout most of Asia where castes existed, they formed due to refugee crises. Nomadic peoples, the Khitans, would often settle in Korea, and were originally given horse riding, archery, and leather tanning roles, before being typecast by society in those roles, unable to move out. The untouchables of Korea were created in this way.

In Japan, the burakumin were created by refugee crises of feudal wars, when people weren't settled in by the governments.

Further, the idea that permanent outcastes were created by invasions seem dubious at best. In the Ottoman Empire, the Turks occupied positions best described as Brahmin or Kshatriya roles as the sole engines of higher bureaucracy and the military elite (with some exceptions - the Phanariot greeks/old Byzantine nobility were also prominent). The Greeks, Jews, and Donmeh occupied a merchant class, and the rest of the peoples of the empire were delegated to agricultural roles.

Despite this segregation as per the milliye system, outcasting remained a government induced phenomenon and not a socially enforced one.

So how exactly did the caste system, and specifically the system of untouchables come about? Did refugee crises from wars between Indian Kingdoms create an overflow of migrants? Did nomadic peoples settle on originally good relations with local rulers, but later were relegated to inferior jobs by the locals? Did cowherds and other mobile agriculturalists have a land/water conflict with local farmers?

DaveK

I am too underslept to respond intelligently, but there are a couple of great episodes of the "history of India" podcast that should shed some light:

Look for the episodes labeld 1D - the carvings of society. He goes into very good detail about varna and j&#257ti. The second episode, the conversation, is nice, because he chats with a scholar and native of India who corrects him on a few points.

Aupmanyav

Devdas

This topic has always puzzled me. The traditional explanation of how the caste system came about is that the Aryans invaded and installed themselves as warriors and priests and created a hierarchy based on skin color - or at least that's how we were taught it in school in America.

More modern theories suggest that caste distinctions weren't prominently mentioned until much later on, and the British deliberately encouraged caste divisions to make India easier to rule.

I was always confused by the explanations because they seem to go against counterexamples in other countries. Throughout most of Asia where castes existed, they formed due to refugee crises. Nomadic peoples, the Khitans, would often settle in Korea, and were originally given horse riding, archery, and leather tanning roles, before being typecast by society in those roles, unable to move out. The untouchables of Korea were created in this way.

In Japan, the burakumin were created by refugee crises of feudal wars, when people weren't settled in by the governments.

Further, the idea that permanent outcastes were created by invasions seem dubious at best. In the Ottoman Empire, the Turks occupied positions best described as Brahmin or Kshatriya roles as the sole engines of higher bureaucracy and the military elite (with some exceptions - the Phanariot greeks/old Byzantine nobility were also prominent). The Greeks, Jews, and Donmeh occupied a merchant class, and the rest of the peoples of the empire were delegated to agricultural roles.

Despite this segregation as per the milliye system, outcasting remained a government induced phenomenon and not a socially enforced one.

So how exactly did the caste system, and specifically the system of untouchables come about? Did refugee crises from wars between Indian Kingdoms create an overflow of migrants? Did nomadic peoples settle on originally good relations with local rulers, but later were relegated to inferior jobs by the locals? Did cowherds and other mobile agriculturalists have a land/water conflict with local farmers?

Bullit

There are social orders in all societies, even post industrial societies exhibit elements of hierarchy. However caste system in India is conspicious from others by being informed and embedded in Hinduism.

"Early on, there were distinct classes of people &#8212 the priests, the nobility and the common people &#8212 but no mention of segregation or occupational restrictions. By about 3,000 years ago, the texts mention a fourth, lowest class: the Sudras. But it wasn't until about 100 B.C. that a holy text called the Manusmruti explicitly forbade intermarriage across castes"

Its influence on all aspects of Hindu thought, particularly the justification of the caste system, has been profound.


some interesting thoughts by Dr. Ambedkar (who drafted the Indian constitution) on the caste system.

On Varna Theory: Ambedkar viewed Varna system as class. Because an individual is not treated on his or her merit but as class like a member of a Brahmin or Shudra or Dalit etc. even in family, as man or woman. So it was a great injustice to a merit of an individual. So, he questioned &#8216&#8216Does the Hindu Social order recognize equality?&#8221

Genesis of Caste System: On the genesis of caste system Ambedkar refutes all the theories of caste origin put forward by different thinkers. In his view the caste system has either been imposed upon the docile population of India by a lowgiver as divine dispensation or it has developed according to some law of social growth to the Indian people.

Caste and Division of Labour: Ambedkar says that the caste system assigns task to individuals on the basis of social status of the parents- and not on merit or aptitude of the individual. It is predestined by birth and unchangeable. This is against the principle of division of labour. This is an artificial device to keep some people to serve other. Therefore Ambedkar wanted annihilation of caste system. In his view caste divides men into separate communities and it places , the communities in a graded order- one above the other. The higher the grade of a caste, the greater is the member of religions and social rights. This is not only inequalities but also injustice. Therefore Ambedkar wanted annihilation of caste system at all.

Having analyzed the exploitative nature of Hindu social order born out a varnas, caste and sub caste Ambedkar gave his own vision of an ideal social order based liberty, equality, fraternity. Accordingly he incorporated the provisions which do away the castism and ensure the fundamental rights to citizens of India irrespective of caste, creed and sex. The right guarantees the equality of all Indians in social life

The origins of caste grounded in Manusmurit (Hindu Text Books) still has profound effects as is evidenced in this CBS report by Christian Amanpour. The report looks at a 3,000 year old legacy and has interview with Dr. Sunil Khilanani a author of the book "The idea of India" who says "purity is important facet of religious observance" - the idea that the lower castes are dirty.


Later Vedic Period (1000-600 BCE)

In an early Upanishad, Shudra is referred to as Pūşan or nourisher, suggesting that Shudras were the tillers of the soil. But soon afterwards, Shudras are not counted among the tax-payers and they are said to be given away along with the lands when it is gifted. The majority of the artisans were also reduced to the position of Shudras, but there is no contempt indicated for their work.

The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas are given a special position in the rituals, distinguishing them from both the Vaishyas and the Shudras. The Vaishya is said to be “oppressed at will” and the Shudra “beaten at will.”


Through the Fog of Delhi to the Parallels in India and America

My flight to India landed in a gray veil that hid the terminal and its tower at the international airport in Delhi. It was January 2018, my first moments on the subcontinent. The pilot searched for a jetway through the drapery of mist. It was 2 in the morning, and it was as if we had landed in a steam kettle, were still airborne in a cloud, the night air pressing against cabin windows, and we could see nothing of the ground. I had not heard of rain in the forecast and was fascinated by this supernatural fog in the middle of the night, until I realized that it was not fog at all but smoke — from coal plants, cars and burning stubble — trapped in stagnant wind. The pollution was a shroud at first to seeing India as it truly was.

At daybreak, the sun pushed through the haze, and once I connected with my hosts, I raced along with them to cross an intersection, an open stretch of asphalt with cars hurtling in every direction with no lanes or speed limits. We made our way along the side streets to the conference we were attending. I saw the wayside altars and mushroom temples with their garlands and silk flowers to the Hindu deities at the base of the sacred fig trees. There, commuters can pause for reflection as they head to work or an exam or a doctor’s visit. The sidewalk shrines seemed exotic to me until I thought of the American ritual of spontaneous altars of flowers and balloons at the site of something very different, at the site of an accident or tragedy, as for Heather Heyer, the counterprotester killed at the infamous neo-Confederate rally in Charlottesville, Va., just months before. Both reflect a human desire to connect with and honor something or someone beyond ourselves.

The United States and India are profoundly different from each other — in culture, technology, economics, history, ethnic composition. And yet, many generations ago, these two great lands paralleled each other, each protected by oceans, fertile and coveted and ruled for a time by the British. Each adopted social hierarchies and abides great chasms between the highest and the lowest in their respective lands. Each was conquered by people said to be Aryans arriving, in one case, from across the Atlantic Ocean, in the other, from the north. Those deemed lowest in each country would serve those deemed high. The younger country, the United States, would become the most powerful democracy on Earth. The older country, India, would become the largest.

Their hierarchies are profoundly different. And yet, as if operating from the same instruction manual translated to fit their distinctive cultures, both countries adopted similar methods of maintaining rigid lines of demarcation and protocols. Both countries kept their dominant caste separate, apart and above those deemed lower. Both exiled their Indigenous peoples — the Adivasi in India, the Native Americans in the United States — to remote lands and to the unseen margins of society. Both countries enacted an amalgam of laws to chain the lowliest group — Dalits in India (formerly known as the untouchables) and African-Americans in the United States — to the bottom, using terror and force to keep them there.

“Perhaps only the Jews have as long a history of suffering from discrimination as the Dalits,” the American civil rights advocate Yussuf Naim Kly wrote in 1987. “However, when we consider the nature of the suffering endured by the Dalits, it is the African-American parallel of enslavement, apartheid and forced assimilation that comes to mind.”

The United States and India have since abolished the formal laws that defined their caste systems — the United States in a series of civil rights laws in the 1960s and India more than a decade before, starting in 1949 — but both caste systems live on in hearts and habits, institutions and infrastructures. Both countries still live with the residue of codes that prevailed for far longer than they have not.

In both countries and often at the same time, the lowest castes toiled for their masters — African-Americans in the tobacco fields along the Chesapeake or in the cotton fields of Mississippi, Dalits plucking tea in Kerala and cotton in Nandurbar. Both worked as enslaved people and later for the right to live on the land that they were farming, African-Americans in the system of sharecropping, Dalits in the Indian equivalent, known as saldari, both still confined to their fixed roles at the bottom of their respective societies.

While doors have opened to the subordinated castes in India and in America in the decades since discrimination was officially prohibited, the same spasms of resistance have afflicted both countries. What is called “affirmative action” in the United States is called “reservations” in India, and they are equally unpopular with the upper castes in both countries, language tracking in lock step, with complaints of reverse discrimination in one and reverse casteism in the other.

There are many overarching similarities to the countries’ caste systems, but they are not the same in how they are structured or operate. The American system was founded as a primarily two-tiered hierarchy with its contours defined by the uppermost group, those identified as white, and by the subordinated group, those identified as Black, with immigrants from outside Europe forming blurred middle castes that sought to adjust themselves within a bipolar structure, and Native Americans largely exiled outside it.

The Indian caste system, by contrast, is an elaborate fretwork of thousands of subcastes, or jatis, correlated to region and village, which fall under the four main varnas — the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, the Shudra and the excluded fifth, the Dalits. It is further complicated by non-Hindus — including Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians — who are outside the original caste system but have incorporated themselves into the workings of the country, at times in the face of resistance and attack, and may or may not have informal rankings among themselves and in relation to the varnas.

The Indian caste system historically has been said to be stable and unquestioned by those within it, bound as it is by religion and the Hindu belief in reincarnation, the belief that a person carries out in this life the karma of the previous ones, suffers the punishment or reaps the rewards for deeds in a past life, and that the more keenly you follow the rules for the caste you were born into, the higher your station will be in the next life.

Some observers say that this is what distinguishes the Indian caste system from any other, that people in the lowest caste accept their lot, that it is fixed and unbending, that Dalits presumably live out their karma decreed by the gods and do their lowly work without complaint, knowing not to dream of anything more. In order to survive, some people in a subordinated caste may learn and believe that resistance is futile. But this condescending view disregards generations of resistance, and the work of the beloved Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar and the reformer Jyotiba Phule before him. It was also wrongly assumed of enslaved Africans, and it disregards a fundamental truth of the species, that all human beings want to be free.

The Dalits were no more contented with their lot than anyone would be. In a caste system, conflating compliance with approval is dehumanizing in itself. Many Dalits looked out beyond their homeland, surveyed the oppressed people all over the world and identified the people closest to their lamentations. They recognized a shared fate with African-Americans, few of whom would have known of the suffering of Dalits. Some Dalits felt so strong a kinship with one wing of the American civil rights movement and followed it so closely that in the 1970s they created the Dalit Panthers, inspired by the Black Panther Party.

Several years ago, a group of largely African-American professors made a trip to a rural village in the Indian state Uttar Pradesh. There, hundreds of villagers from the lowliest subcaste, the scavengers, came together for a ceremony to welcome the Americans.

The villagers sang Dalit liberation songs for the occasion. Then they turned to their American guests and invited them to sing a liberation song of their own. A law professor from Indiana University, Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, began a song that the civil rights marchers sang in Birmingham and Selma before they faced sheriffs’ dogs and fire hoses. As he reached the refrain, the Dalit hosts joined in and began to sing with their American counterparts. Across the oceans, they well knew the words to “We Shall Overcome.”


Black Voices: Cisco, caste discrimination and connections between Black and lower caste communities

IU Maurer School of Law Professor Kevin D. Brown poses for a photo. Brown is working with a group of lawyers working on a caste discrimination case against Cisco Systems.

Editor's note: Aditi T. requested that we not use her last name due to how it represents her caste. She has both upper and lower caste heritage, which is not reflected in her last name.

Cisco Systems, a multinational technology company, is facing a lawsuit filed June 30, 2020 by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for caste discrimination. An Indian Dalit, or untouchable in caste social hierarchy, tech worker has been facing workplace discrimination from his high-caste managers.

IU Maurer professor Kevin D. Brown is part of a group of lawyers working with the lawyers on the case.

Brown is also co-writing a paper arguing that Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin, would protect people from caste discrimination under the prohibitions defined by race. The legal argument is that caste discrimination is prohibited due to indivisble intersections with race. Dalits are South Asian.

“If you change the race of a Dalit from Asian to Black or white, well, they’re no longer a Dalit. Therefore the employer that’s discriminating against them based on their caste would no longer discriminate against them since they’re no longer a member of that caste,” Brown said. “Thus discrimination against Dalits would also be discrimination based on race.”

Brown said if this case is won by the California DFEH it would make the U.S. the first nation to explicitly allow people to sue for workplace caste discrimination.

A Brief Introduction to Caste History

The Cisco case is connected to thousands of years of caste history which endures despite discrimination being banned. Pallavi Rao, an IU Media School doctoral student who studies the caste system and Indian English-language media, said caste is deeply connected to Hindu scripture, especially the Manusmriti.

The caste system was designed to help society run efficiently through social stratification which assigned occupation, social practices and other rules at birth. The British colonial government over-simplistically narrowed caste categories to benefit colonial power, she said.

“It’s injustice. It favors Brahmins and upper castes who are at the top of this hierarchy with wealth, with land ownership,” Rao said.

It disempowers and exploits the labor of lower castes, especially Dalits, she said.

Dalits are among India’s most impoverished castes and are forced by caste into the worst occupations, which can include hard and degrading labor, Rao said.

Anti-caste activism, particularly under major Dalit politician and leader Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, have led to victories such as Affirmative Action and reservations, a system in which a percentage of employment in various industries is reserved for lower castes, Rao said. However, these victories have not ended caste oppression.

The Migration of Caste

When looking at the Cisco case, it’s important to understand how caste migrated with the Indian Diaspora.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed non-white immigrants to attain U.S. citizenship. Part of the act is that it was meant to attract skilled labor.

Rao said that this system favors the immigration of middle class, well-educated Indians who come to work professional jobs in medicine, engineering, and other fields. The structural disadvantages lower castes face in labor, education and economic resourcing means that only a small group of low-caste Indians can immigrate.

Lower caste individuals often hide their identity to protect themselves from prejudice. When discrimination occurs, justice may not be sought since there are few resources and often severe consequences, Rao said.

Black–Dalit Solidarity

Brown’s work against caste discrimination aligns with a history of solidarity between Black and low-caste communities. This connection is especially strong with Dalits.

“Dalits actually hold the African-American struggle in very high esteem. Their intellectual leaders are very much aware of the African American struggle,” Brown said.

Brown said this awareness can be seen in many Dalit efforts. Examples include Dalit Lives Matter and the Dalit Panthers, inspired by Black Lives Matter and the Black Panthers respectively.

IU School of Education doctoral student Aditi T., who studies caste and education, said it’s important to not combine caste with race. There are no sure phenotypic identifiers for caste. She also said whereas racism hinges on racializing some to justify oppression, caste is a system of graded inequality based on fundamentally religious hierarchy which oppresses the majority.

Issues with Ending Caste Oppression

Religion is a contentious issue in addressing caste. Aditi said Indian communities have to determine the extent to which Hinduism is implicated in the caste system’s existence.

“Ambedkarites, we believe that the dichotomy between Hinduism and Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, is a false one, right, because the root of the caste system lies in Hinduism,” Aditi. said.

Others strongly disagree, she said.

The Hindu American Foundation filed an intervention on the Cisco case citing that the California DFEH is violating Hindu’s constitutional and civil rights to religious freedom by connecting caste to Hinduism. They believe the lawsuit is culturally discriminatory and would lead to the targeting of Hindus.

Aditi T. said that the Hindu right often argues that in a white-dominated society, connecting caste to Hinduism and promoting certain forms of anti-caste activism is Hinduphobic. They have fought to erase caste history especially in textbooks.

Another issue is that while the Cisco case could provide protections in the US organized workforce, change may not also occur in India, Aditi said. 90% of the Indian workforce works in the informal economy. These jobs don’t have formal contracts, which limits the effects of organized workplace protections, she said.

Rao also said caste denial presents issues with facing caste.

“Caste is seen as a very rural phenomenon in India. It’s seen as something that’s in those backward places,” Rao said. Many imagine themselves as casteless, she said.

Continuing to Stand in Solidarity

Brown said an important way to stand in anti-caste solidarity is to educate yourself. To learn more about caste, read Gail Omvedt’s Understanding Caste: From Buddha to Ambedkar and Beyond. To learn more about anti-caste thought, Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste is foundational.

After further education, you can expand our efforts.

Despite the Indian state limiting foreign interference, providing material aid when possible is important given the poverty of many Dalit communities and how often they are deprived of state aid, Rao said.

Rao also believes educational, cultural, economic, and legal exchanges between anti-racist and anti-caste organizations in America and India can further social causes.

Aditi T. believes changing education systems in India is key to fighting caste and ending the reproduction of Brahmanical patriarchy.

Whatever form solidarity takes, it’s important to stand firm against oppression. Black people have a unique opportunity to continue a history of solidarity into the 21st century.


Varnas

It is essential to distinguish between large-scale and small-scale views of caste society, which may respectively be said to represent theory and practice, or ideology and the existing social reality. On the large scale, contemporary students of Hindu society recall an ancient fourfold arrangement of socioeconomic categories called the varnas, which is traced back to an oral tradition preserved in the Rigveda (dating perhaps from between 1500 and 1200 bce ). The Sanskrit word varna has many connotations, including colour, description, selection, and classification.

Indo-European-speaking peoples migrated probably about 1500 bce to northwestern India (the Indus valley and the Punjab Plain). Since the mid-19th century some scholars have identified these migrants as “ Aryans” this term, derived from the Sanskrit word arya (“noble” or “distinguished”), is found in the Rigveda. Some scholars postulated that these alleged Aryans encountered or conquered the indigenous people, whom they called daha (“enemies”) or dasyu (“servants”). The fact that varna may mean “colour” has led some scholars to posit that these so-called Aryans and the dasyus—alleged to have been light-skinned and dark-skinned, respectively—may have been antagonistic ethnic groups divided by physical features as well as by culture and language. Since the mid-20th century, however, some scholars have pointed to textual evidence that the distinction referred to ritual practices and not to skin colour further, the term arya may have been a term for nobility rather than an ethnic self-identification. In addition, it is also likely that the daha included earlier immigrants from Iran. Therefore, the tendency of some 20th-century writers to reduce the ancient bipolar classification to racial differences on the basis of skin colour is misleading and rightly no longer in vogue.

Whatever the relations between the so-called arya and daha, it is likely that they gradually became integrated into an internally plural social order reflecting a threefold division of society into priests, warriors, and commoners. In an early period, membership in a varna appears to have been based mainly on personal skills rather than birth, status, or wealth. By the end of the Rigvedic period, however, the hereditary principle of social rank had taken root. Thus the hymn of the Rigveda (probably a late addition to the text) in which the creation of humanity in the form of varnas emerges from a self-sacrificial rite of the primeval person ( purusha): Brahmans were the mouth of purusha, from his arms were made the Rajanyas (Kshatriyas), from his two thighs, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras were born from his feet. The extent to which the ideology’s hierarchical ordering of the four groups mirrored the social reality is unknown.

The highest-ranked among the varnas, the Brahmans, were priests and the masters and teachers of sacred knowledge (veda). Next in rank but hardly socially inferior was the ruling class of Rajanya (kinsmen of the king), later renamed Kshatriya, those endowed with sovereignty and, as warriors, responsible for the protection of the dominion (kshatra). A complex, mutually reinforcing relationship of sacerdotal authority and temporal power was obviously shaped over a long period of time.

Clearly ranked below the two top categories were the Vaishyas (from vish, “those settled on soils”), comprising agriculturists and merchants. These three varnas together were deemed to be “twice-born” (dvija), as the male members were entitled to go through a rite of initiation during childhood. This second birth entitled them to participate in specified sacraments and gave them access to sacred knowledge. They were also entitled alongside their social superiors to demand and receive menial services from the Shudras, the fourth and lowest-ranked varna. Certain degrading occupations, such as disposal of dead animals, excluded some Shudras from any physical contact with the “twice-born” varnas. Considered untouchable, they were simply dubbed “the fifth” (panchama) category.

In the varna framework, the Brahmans have everything, directly or indirectly: “noble” identity, “twice-born” status, sacerdotal authority, and dominion over the Vaishyas and the Shudras, who accounted for the great majority of the people. This is not surprising, for the ancient Brahmans were the authors of the ideology. The four varnas, together with the notional division of the individual life cycle into four stages, or ashramas (brahmacharya, the years of learning and extreme discipline garhasthya, householdership vanaprastha, retirement and sannyasa, renunciation of all worldly bonds) may at best be considered an archetypical blueprint for the good, moral life. Indeed, the Hindu way of life is traditionally called the varnashrama dharma (duties of the stages of life for one’s varna). The varna order remains relevant to the understanding of the system of jatis, as it provides the ideological setting for the patterns of interaction that are continuously under negotiation.


Caste System - History

[Links to websites, including those of the Indian government, that the author used in 2000, no longer function. — George P. Landow (8 November 2018)

History of the Caste System

Caste is defined as a rigid social system in which a social hierarchy is maintained for generations and allows little mobility out of the position to which a person is born ( Encarta Encyclopedia ). In Sanskrit, the word for caste is "Varna" which means color. The origins of this word refer to the old racial differences between conquerors and conquered the Aryans nomads which conquered the original natives around 1500 BC. However, the basis of the caste divisions was social and economic rather than racial. Under the caste system, Indian society was divided into four hereditary divisions. The highest is the Brahmans (priests and teachers). Second was the Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors). Followed by the Vaishyas (merchants and traders) and finally was the Sudras (workers and peasants). In additional to these four castes, there were the Harijans or Untouchables, which were not in the social order. The Indian caste was hereditary and marriage was only permitted within the same caste. Each caste had its own occupation and any contacts with another caste was strictly regulated and prohibited.

Impact of British Rule on the Caste System

By the time of British rule, starting from around the seventeenth century to 1947, the caste system had evolved and expanded into some 3000 different castes. The caste system although underwent great changes throughout this period but strictly speaking, never effectively eradicated. Interestingly, the first effect that the British had on the caste system was to strengthen rather than undermine it, for the British gave the Brahmans back certain special privileges which under Muslim had been withdrawn from them. On the other hand, the British legislators did not agree that the members of the lower-caste should receive greater punishment than members of the upper-caste for committing the same offense.

Under British rule, the untouchables and low-caste Indians enjoyed an improvement of their social standings. For example, with wealth and education, they could pass as members of higher castes from some distant area. The strict restrictions on social contacts became harder to enforce as members of different castes mingled increasing. The newly educated and affluence middle class in the cities mixed socially with people based on their financial position and class and not caste. Under the British, it was wealth and education, which determines a person's social status not caste.

By the end of the Raj, traditional Indian society began to break down into a westernized class system. A rising strong middle class with a heightened sense of Indian nationalism evolved out of the caste system allowing men of low castes to rise to high ranks and positions of power, previously closed to them. The moderation of the caste system was largely due to British rule and a man named Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948), a product of the British education system. But the degree to which the caste system is successfully challenged by British rule is questionable. although castes are now prohibited by law in India, they have not totally vanished in practice. Till today, some untouchables still do the dirty work as their forefathers had done so for centuries.


The History of the American Caste System

The house of America was built on a foundation of a caste system placing whites at the top and black people at the bottom. The infrastructure of the social and political landscapes is based on a human hierarchy developed 400 years ago when Europeans first came to this land.

The terms “cast” and “caste” have different meanings, but there’s a relationship between them that explains the development of race in colonial America, the advent of slavery, and the current social and political landscapes. For instance, a play involves a cast of characters given specific roles and directions for how to perform their parts. The identities of the actors disappear when they take on the characteristics of their role, and everyone knows their significance in the production. The leads are given special treatment, like private dressing rooms and the most lines, and they’re not expected to interact with those in the background who have no lines but are needed to make the narrative work.

Over the long career of a play, the actors change many times, but the characters remain the same. The new cast wears the costumes and assumes the characteristics handed down from their predecessors. The longer they perform their roles, the more the behaviors and lines become automatic. If any actor performs beyond the confines of their character or goes off script, the other actors keep them in check, or they are fired or written out of the story.

The roles Americans have played from one generation to the next within the original narrative of caste are similar. The directions guiding our behavior have not changed, nor have the expectations for how each of us fits into society. And if a member of the lowest caste tries to upstage the dominant caste or change the script, they’re kept in check with laws or violence, or they’re cast out to the margins of civilization.

The American caste narrative started with slavery and continues to be performed over and over. And the subordinate caste’s desire to rewrite the script led to a civil war, the Civil Rights Movement, and continued protests for equality in the modern era. To truly understand why we are the way we are, we must look to the original narrative.

The Structure of the American Caste System

The American caste system was based on differences in people’s appearance. This arbitrary manner of differentiating one group from another is what developed the concept of race. Without it, race would not carry the importance it does today or even be something we assign meaning to.

Race is an unwavering line drawn in the sand because it’s immediately noticeable. Skin color becomes the cue that triggers ingrained stereotypes and assumptions about how people fit into society. As these beliefs deepen, so do the expectations for what a certain group is capable of, where they should live, what they’re allowed to achieve, and what freedoms they can possess. These expectations get passed from generation to generation without question, enhancing social inequities and injustice for all future generations.

Race and caste are not synonyms, but they support each other within American culture. Race is the physical evidence of difference and the significance assigned to that evidence. Caste is how we organize that evidence to maintain division among groups and ascribe the appropriate lifestyles.

The Relationship Between History and Modern Society

Before there was a United States of America, there was a vast wilderness that was conquered and turned into territories. The Europeans who claimed the land in the 1600s saw an opportunity to build a prosperous existence, but to do so, they needed to turn the wild into civilization. The indigenous people were unwilling to help develop their ancestral land, so they were murdered or exiled. The next best option was to find a group of people the Europeans could control to extract the untapped resources of this pristine landscape.

For centuries, religion was the guiding distinction between who had power and who didn’t in Europe. At the top were Protestants, who used the Bible as evidence of their God-given superiority. British Christian missionaries conquered other undeveloped nations and exerted their power by colonizing the natives. Therefore, the decision to use the same tactic to develop this new world was easy. Europeans transported African people to the new world to continue building their kingdoms.

Africans were not the only people initially enslaved to help build the new world. The ranking of Europeans followed a line of heritage and religious affiliation to dictate who could be forced into labor and who couldn’t. Non-Protestant English and Irish immigrants were made to work, but because they were Christians, they were afforded more freedoms. The Africans had not yet adopted Christianity into their culture, so this distinction validated their inferior treatment.

However, once Africans started to convert to Christianity, the religious distinction vanished, and the Europeans needed a new way to justify their subordination. The obvious choice became the stark contrast in skin tone. Thus, they invented two classifications of people—those with light skin became one group called “white,” and those who were not white became “black,” or the opposite of white.

This series of events created the thought patterns upholding the bipolar infrastructure of the American caste system still ingrained in our culture. The power hierarchy developed based on skin color is still the guiding principle used today to determine who people are, where they belong, and what they deserve. Like language, these ideals are learned at a young age and automated into our view of society. We don’t think about how we talk, we just speak. Likewise, we don’t think about why white supremacy is the norm in America, we just move through life understanding that standard. The ranking system is the fabric of American life and considered a given instead of a choice.

Violence as a Habit

People in the American dominant caste lynched, hung, sexually assaulted, and burned at the stake subordinate members from the moment they brought them to the new world and well into the 20th century. These actions were unlawful when the victim was from the dominant caste, but there were no restrictions on the level of violence directed toward the subordinate caste. Violence was a critical part of the American caste system.

Torture on plantations was so common, the different methods had identifiable names. “Bucking” involved tying a slave to a stake in a seated position and forcing them to rotate while being whipped. The whipping could last up to three hours, and the abusers poured salt and red pepper into the wounds afterward. The “picket” was a sort of gallows-like contraption that slaves were fastened into for whipping. It took one enslaved man a month to recover enough to be removed from the picket and five months before he could walk again.

During slavery, owners would advertise their abuses on flyers made to locate runaway slaves. Under the description of the slave, an owner might note that he’d branded the runaway’s face with his initials or castrated him. The signs might encourage those who found the runaways to kill or abuse them upon capture if necessary.

Psychological Torture

Terror was also a daily tool used to regulate the behaviors of the subordinate caste in the South. The dominant caste kept subordinates in a consistent state of psychological terror to further diminish their spirit.

Slave owners strapped slaves into a contraption with metal spikes suspended a few feet above their heads to keep the threat of violence alive. This form of torture could be in response to anything from attempting to escape to not smiling wide enough at auction.

Both the Nazis and Americans had the habit of forcing other subordinate caste members to do the dirty work of abusing someone. This enabled the dominant castes to reinforce their power and the psychological terror of their captives. The fear of receiving the same punishment influenced the actions of the prisoners, and performing these acts of violence themselves damaged their sense of self.

Both dominant castes took this subjugation further by uplifting one member of the subordinate caste to a power position. In the concentration camps, the kapo was the head prisoner in charge of the other Jews in their cell block. On the plantation, the head slave was called the slave driver. Both positions were given enough power to discipline the other prisoners if necessary, which created dissension among the subordinate castes.

The Lasting Effects

Violence and terror reminded the enslaved of how little power they had over their bodies and warned others to stay in line. But when slavery was abolished, the investment the dominant caste had in those black bodies disappeared, and the nature of the violence and terror changed.

The favored action against blacks after Reconstruction changed from whippings to lynchings, often from highly visible trees that townspeople passed by every day. In fact, until the 1950s, there was a lynching in America every three or four days. The time of physical imprisonment was over, but the psychological imprisonment continued.


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Comments:

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