By V. G. Julie Rajan

Caste is not a pleasant topic for Hindus, and in the international arena today, it has elicited a shame upon the Hindu religion. I have written this article to initiate dialogue within our community. The negative issues associated with caste will not go away, but will only tear at the credibility of the religion. I am not suggesting the abolishment of Hinduism or of Hindu texts or the defamation of those in the upper castes. Rather, I write out of reverence for Hinduism itself, to initiate change, to affirm the positive aspects of Hinduism and to bring a spiritual sense of unity to Hindu believers worldwide.

Origins: The standard explanations of India’s caste system are based on the now discredited “Aryan Invasion” theory of ancient India. We await new speculations from the historians and anthropologists. Suffice it to say that many ancient societies had hereditary classes of people, eventually lost in social upheaval. The modern term caste is derived from the Portuguese casta, alluding to family, tribe or race, and was introduced into Indian society in the late 16th century.

The Hindu religious texts describe varna ashrama dharma, the religious/social law delineating duties of four castes. Gurudeva, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, founder of Hinduism Today, wrote, “The original caste system had these four divisions. The divisions were all based on the ability of the individual to manage his body, his mind and his emotions properly. If he stopped fulfilling the dharma of his caste, society would recognize that he had moved from one caste and was now in another. The original caste system was based on self-discipline through education and through personal sadhana. The original caste system was based on the unfoldment of the consciousness within each individual through the chakras. People everywhere naturally divide themselves up into castes. We have the workers. You go to work, you work under somebody else–that happens all over the world–that’s the shudra caste. We have the merchants, who are self-motivated. That’s the vaishya caste. We have the politicians and the lawmakers and the law-enforcement people. That’s the kshatriya caste. And then you have the priests, the ministers, the missionaries. That’s the brahmin caste. Every society has these four castes working within it in one way or another.”

Jati and its advantages: Today, most Hindus do not abide by the chaturvarna (four caste) system but classify themselves according to the more specific colloquial form of caste known as the jati system. Jati are horizontal divisions within the four castes, and there are thousands of them, segregated according to occupational, sectarian, regional and linguistic distinctions. “The operative unit even today for social and marriage purposes is not caste but jati. You talk of brahmins as a caste, which is pan-Indian, but the fact is that a Tamilian brahmin would rarely have a marriage alliance with a Punjabi brahmin,” stated Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi magazine and one of India’s foremost women’s rights advocates. “They are as far apart from each other culturally as could possibly be. It’s really not the operative and, yet, we have the whole notion of brahmin domination, brahmins as a caste, whereas the regional differences matter much more.”

Kishwar points out the advantages of the jati system: “It allows even the most disadvantaged and impoverished groups to identify themselves and a political assertion based on their numerical strength. It has kept democracy not just alive, but has given it very deep roots. I think all these modernists attacking caste can’t understand the survival strategy of the subcontinent. For example, it has provided social security for a rural migrant when he or she comes to the city as an impoverished economic refugee.”

Kishwar’s points are valid. There are certain advantages to the caste system with regard to communal pride and access to political power. But what about those at the bottom, the untouchable Dalits? On November 4, 2001, the conversion of several thousand Dalits to Buddhism gained worldwide attention. “I am walking out of Hinduism because the 3,000-year-old caste system will never allow me any respect or dignity,” stated the organizer of the event, Ram Raj, who dropped his first name upon conversion.

Caste and class discrimination: As a Hindu, you might wonder: Is this really a fair portrayal of Hinduism? Is the caste system so unique to Hindu society? And is it really that bad? It cannot be denied that all countries have experienced, or are experiencing, some form of caste. For example, modern-day Britain supports strong class divisions on the basis of economics. Recently Laura Spence, a student of the lower social economic class, was not admitted into upper-crust Oxford, despite her extraordinary academic qualifications. Harvard University gladly admitted her, on a full scholarship.

Hierarchical divisions on the basis of race and economics are part and parcel of the American experience as well. “In America, we have caste. There are black people and white people, rich people and poor people, superior people and inferior people,” states Swami Brahmavidyananda of the Institute of Holistic Yoga of North America.

According to Smita Narula, Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, the difference between class and caste is “that being born into a particular caste invites a certain amount of restrictions on your basic freedoms, your basic rights. So it is the combination of work and descent-based discrimination that makes caste different from the class system. There’s very little mobility.”

Class divisions are mostly culturally and economically based and, therefore, have the capacity to change as culture changes [though slowlyÑsee sidebar, page 33]. The inequalities associated with the Hindu caste system are more complex, mainly with regard to its undeniable roots in scripture and to the shameful existence of the untouchables. Other religions receive bad press due to patriarchal constraints of women, for example, but Hinduism is the only religion to be bombarded with issues of race, intolerable human rights violations among its own believers and inequality on such a grand scale.

The untouchables: Although untouchability was abolished under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution in 1950, it is still widely practiced all over India today. The untouchables or “scheduled castes and scheduled tribes” (as they are listed by name on government schedules) are not associated with any caste mentioned in the original chatur varna Hindu system. Rather, untouchables are outcastes placed below the sudra caste. The untouchable sect of Hinduism is relegated to labor that no other caste will perform, such as the cleaning of latrines, scavenging dead animals and funeral duties.

In the 1970s with the revolutionary activities of the Dalit Panthers in Maharastra, untouchables assumed the name Dalit, or “broken people,” to represent themselves as politically empowered and mobilized nationwide. “The word itself implies the need to revolt, the need to identify one’s oppressions, and then the need to act against it,” said Narula. Today, Dalits represent over 16 percent of India’s population of over 160 million.

After being approached over several years to monitor the issue, Human Rights Watch embarked on a deep investigation of the systemic human rights abuses against the Dalit community across six different states of India. “We realized that we needed to look not only at the outward manifestations of violence but also at the roots of why things were happening, and the roots were both large-scale segregation and economic exploitation,” Narula said.

Social stratification has forced the physical separation of untouchables from the rest of Hindu society in much the same way Blacks were forceably kept apart in America 40 years ago or in South Africa ten years back. They are not allowed to live within the boundary lines of casted Hindu society and, instead, subsist on separate lands, drinking from separate wells. “We found that in cases, for example, when Dalits demanded land rights or the return of land that had been taken from them, punishment would be meted out against their entire community,” Narula said. “Or if somebody drew water from an upper-castewell, that they were not supposed to touch even though it was a public well, their entire village would be burned down.”

Protective legislation has been enacted, but is slow to be enforced. For example, the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), offered protection for untouchables and allowed for remuneration in cases of violent acts against them. But police corruption, lack of strong law enforcement and political unwillingness have rendered the law almost useless.

The Dalit human rights movements have been subjected to a variety of violent acts, as stated in Broken People, the published culmination of Human Rights Watch’s investigations (available []). It is the most comprehensive NGO documentation of human rights violations against Dalits. In addition to several massacres of Dalits in the 1990s, upper caste men are accused of ongoing cases of rape against dalit women. Out of hundreds of documented cases, for example, the rape of a 12-year-old Dalit girl by a man of the Thevar caste in Tamil Nadu was covered up by the Thevar community via blackmail and kickbacks.

Origin of untouchability: In a religion that preaches the all-pervasiveness of God, how did untouchability even come to be? Mahatma Gandhi called it a product of “sheer ignorance and cruelty.” “The scheduled tribes and scheduled castes in IndiaÑthis is the biggest problem that we have,” said Swami Brahmavidyananda. “This is man’s creation.” Explanations also include the “unclean” occupations of the untouchables and the eating of meat.

Swami Tathagatananda of the Vedanta Center of New York believes that the development of untouchability through Hindu history is a result of some basic human tendency, and has nothing to do with Hinduism itself. “America is a democratic country, but democracy is not practiced all of the time,” he points out. “Good Hindus, like Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and others, did not believe in untouchability, but regardless of their beliefs or convictions or vocations against it, they were not able to remove it. Suppose the American government wants to abolish drugs. Just because we make a law, you cannot abolish drugs. There are many laws, but who is obeying the laws? The division of all society is always based on color, on gender and on money or education.”

Gurudeva noted boldly, “CasteÑor at least discrimination on the basis of casteÑhas been thrown out of the laws of India, but people still hang on to it as an ego structure. The high caste people love to hurt the low caste people, so to speak, by ignoring them, treating them roughly. That’s not the way it should be. If you find the high caste people in your society ignoring and not wanting to speak with and associate with the lower castes, those are nasty people, and those are people you should avoid. Spiritual people, even ordinary kindly people, would never think of behaving that way.”

Swami Tathagatananda concurs, “What you are seeing today is the hardened system which has misinterpreted the main points of division of labor. This hereditary business was not there originally. Hindu people have perpetuated this system in order to enjoy the benefit of the status.” Swami Brahmavidyananda said, “The caste system is in one way good, but in another way harmful. When the ego bonds with ignorance, then it brings harm to society.”

Other religions and regions: Caste is by no means only a Hindu issue. Today, caste, or the jati system, more specifically, is pervasive, cutting across religions, cultures and national identities both in South Asia and its diaspora, according to Kishwar. All of the religions practiced within the South Asian subcontinent reflect this very same caste system, especially with regard to untouchability. Those who convert from Hinduism into Christianity, Buddhism and Islam still face discrimination on the basis of caste. There are separate churches in South India for brahmin converts and Dalit converts. The Dalits are also rendered more vulnerable to violence from the upper castes, as they lose their right to protection under the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act when they change religion.

Caste proves to be a troubling factor for the younger generation of Hindus in the diaspora. An anonymous contributor from the US notes: “I am not a brahmin but have brahmin friends who do, from time to time, bring up their spiritual and intellectual superiority to me, in very subtle ways. This really undercuts our friendships and is pretty ridiculous, since I have demonstrated equally, if not more, spiritual and intellectual superiority than they have.”

Toward a solution: Swami Brahmavidyananda suggests, “We have to reinterpret problematic texts and set a good example in our society. We should not disrespect our culture, but we should condemn those who are not properly versed in the philosophy that God belongs to everyone, God does not feel color or sex, or whether you are white or black.”

Most activists fighting for Dalits are not fighting to dismantle HinduismÑthough some areÑbut to demand accountability from the Indian government to uphold existing laws, such as the constitutional abolishment of untouchability and the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). Narula states: “The Dalit movement is also asking for the international community to work hand in hand with the Indian government and with NGOs in India to insure enforcement of the laws that are already in place to take care of issues such as violence, rape, scavenging, bonded labor and other issues.” Higher government representation for Dalits is needed to bring visibility to their issues.

Dr. Kiran Bedi, India’s highest ranking female police officer, said, “The largest deterrents are the local politicians who use and abuse the situations for narrow political gain.” Bedi points out that Dalit leaders themselves need to unite in their views.

Swami Brahmavidyananda said, “India today is not the India of 50 years ago. People want to change. In order to protect our religion, our system, we should reorganize properly and slowly. We should pass out right information and correct these issues.” The rise in interfaith and intercaste marriages has forced families to overlook issues of caste, to learn to live with one another equally.

Gurudeva summarized: “We can see around us the deterioration of the system which has been abused beyond the point of recognition. Members of the brahmin caste are now beating their children, abusing their wives. Members of the kshatriya caste disrespect the laws of the land. Members of the business caste are deceptive and dishonest. All are confused, living in anger and in jealousy. No wonder their families break apart and their businesses fail. In the eyes of the Gods, most of those who adhere to the caste system that exists today are low caste. This is because they live in lower consciousness. These undeveloped humans are struggling through the lower chakras, trying to get out of the dark worlds of the mind. Let us not be deluded about what the sapta rishis [the “seven sages”] had in mind when they casted humans according to the soul’s spiritual unfoldment. We should totally ignore the Hindu caste system as lived in India today and, through example, show a better and more wholesome path for modern society.”

Caste as a Fact of Life in India

Economics bends the ancient system


As deeply embedded in the psyche of hindus ascaste is, there has been a revolutionary change in the situation at the grassroot level in the past few decades. This positive development is more visible and has taken place in a big way in India’s metropolitan cities, such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. These cities have developed a unique culture and character of their own in which the question of caste is generally relegated to the background. The fast lifestyle, materialism and pressure of living in big cities are factors which leave little patience for people to watch the whole scenario through the glasses of caste. In these cosmopolitan cities there is a free intermingling and interaction between the masses of different castes and religions which allows people to think and live beyond the barriers of caste. Economic interests, not castism, reign supreme in these cities.

My personal assessment is that in the cities it is the upper and lower economic strata of the Hindu society who are most caste conscious. The upper stratum is so because they can choose to live the way they want. The lower stratum is entangled in the caste system because they have to live in the slum areas where caste consciousness remains stronger. The real revolution has come in the middle class of India where there is a phenomenal change in the outlook towards the caste system. It is the middle class which is intermingling with all sections and castes of the society, working together in offices, industries, business and government. It is the girls and boys of the Hindu middle class who take part in intercaste and interreligious marriages in a big way.

Two other factors are noteworthy in the context of caste-ridden Hindu society in India. One is that latelyÑin the past two decades or soÑthe political system has produced over two dozen well-known national and scores of state level leaders from the lower castes. Due to these leaders, the lower castes and Dalits are now no longer meek and subdued. They have discovered their self respect and prestige, and had a small taste of political clout. Mayawati, of the Dalit community, is the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, one of the biggest states of India. She projects herself as a leader from the lower caste, proud of her roots and identity. Then there are national leaders, such as Ram Vilas Paswan, who have also helped the Dalits to be proud of their community. We had a Dalit president, which enormously boosted the morale of the lower castes in this country.

The second significant factor is the reservation policy of the government. The reservation policy is India’s version of affirmative action, providing education and employment opportunities for disadvantaged communities. A government job is a matter of prestige. In India, jobs are reserved, even promotions are given, to those of lower castes on a preferential basis. Government jobs and high government posts have boosted the morale and prestige of the lower caste masses. Lower caste people who thus became successful economically have been welcomed by the middle class Hindus in matrimonial alliances. Times have truly changed in India when affluence trumps caste affiliation.

Unfortunately, the situation has not changed much in the villages, where long-practiced caste-based system and infrastructure flourish. There is a little improvement being made in the villages and small towns, but they are far behind the big cities. Caste in the village continues to play an major role in arranging marriages.

Now in the cities, and increasingly in the villages, if the choice is between a high-caste poor groom and a low-caste rich groom, the father of the bride, and the bride herself, will consider the well settled, economically well-off lower-caste person very seriously. Similarly, if the choice is between a higher caste girl who is not likely to work outside the home and a lower caste girl working as a government official who has status and money both, the boy and his father definitely consider the proposal of the lower caste girl very seriously.

I am not an expert on the extremely complex caste system, but offer my views as an engaged observer within India’s middle class.

Untouchability, American Style

America’s version of untouchability is the still-existent racial discrimination against African-Americans. The slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and made citizens of the US in 1868. But upon the reconstruction of the former Southern slave states by 1877, local government policies of segregation went into full effect. Blacks lived in certain areas of town, had different schools, hotels, beauty salons, drinking fountains and public toilets. The US military had separate units for Black soldiers. There were no Black baseball or basketball players in the major leagues. Some of the greatest athletes of the time were relegated to the American Negro league.

The military led the way in integration, beginning in 1940. In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal was inherently unequal” on the issue of segregated schooling. Desegregation of the South began in earnest with the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, employing the methods of Mahatma Gandhi [see page 56].

How far has America come? Still today, Blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed, and when they do have a job, they earn 70 cents to the white man’s one dollar for the same work. The typical Black family’s net worth is an eighth of the typical white family’s. Blacks, 14 percent of the population, make up 50 percent of the prison inmates, and get stiffer sentences. While overall segregation has decreased in America, it remains very high in the major cities, such as New York, Detroit and Chicago. There white people have fled to the suburbs, leaving Black and now Hispanic students in typically inferior schools. The interracial marriage rate is a mere four percent.

On the plus side, President Bush has the most racially diverse cabinet in history. Both his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor are Black. Most Americans don’t tolerate racist attitudes too well anymore. Just ask Senator Trent Lott. He was unceremoniously dumped by his own party as Senate Majority Leader, one of the nation’s most powerful positions, for informal remarks taken as an endorsement of racial segregation.