Q: A question that has always nagged me is how an advanced spiritual system such as Hinduism can support the huge inequality of the caste system and the disrespect it showers on life. Based on my very brief research, it seems that not everyone agreed with the original Varnas, or categories of occupations, which excluded the untouchables. The system of varna or caste system has been regularly challenged from the time of Buddha with opposition noted in the Upanishads and by religious figures since that time. Why has it remained? Because it is a multi-layered issue mired by historical circumstances? – Brenda Piquette
A: What you mention is true; on one hand Hindu religion has enunciated some very complex philosophies in the realm of spirituality. These do not however reflect in the realm of human relationships and rights. In the every-day life the system of caste hierarchy and exclusion dominates every aspect of personal and social life. In some ways, one can compare it to how Christian religion – despite its very progressive teaching – considered it right to relegate women as the handmaids of men.
Anti-caste movements are also of old, from religious and reform movements to continued protests and religious conversions. While some changes have also come about, owing to the Constitution overturning the caste structure legally with affirmative action built into it, much has not changed in social life. Even while caste-based disabilities have been legally abolished, accessing justice is still a struggle as the social and mental attitudes are still dictated by caste.
In my thinking, the caste system continues to hold sway, because it is more than religion, it is the way of personal and social life – directing and guiding every aspect of life from where you live to what you eat to whom you will get married to. It prescribes one’s economic, occupational and even political affiliations. The system survives because it vests multiple privileges – religious, social, economic and political power with those at the top of the ladder and naturally has no interest in changing the system. The graded inequality within the system also provides a strong incentive for those at various layers to maintain the system having others below them that can be exploited and those above whom they can aspire to reach.
Q: Can people who grew up in India generally tell what caste someone belongs to by looking at him/her? Are there physical qualities that suggest a person's caste? Or would you have to learn the person's surname or other information about him/her to know? If there are no physical traits, perhaps with education and migration, the caste system could disappear within a few generations. – Jeanette Falkenstein
A: As explained earlier, we in India can and generally identify the caste one belongs to. However, an important demarcating line is the “line of touchability,” which separates the Dalit community as those who are outside or below the line of touchability. They are worst sufferers under the caste system. As those above the line of touchability are not prohibited by untouchability practice, intermingling is easier among them. There are norms of commensality, but inter-marrying continues to be a taboo. While legally there is no bar to inter-caste marriages and the state even makes provisions, it remains on paper. Marriages are most often arranged within one’s caste and sub-caste ensuring that many other norms are also followed.
The deeply entrenched caste norms do not make it easy for even educated progressive thinking people to cross caste boundaries in matters like marriage. Even when young people studying in universities may consider marrying across caste, sooner or later they realize the impracticalities of it – that inter-caste marriage is very rare. Sunday columns in Indian newspapers have long lists of advertisements seeking brides and grooms by caste, religion, language, culture, class, education and multiples of them. The progress in the information and communication technology has upgraded them to caste-wide “matrimonial.dot.coms.”
Q: I have two questions: one, given that the caste system is defended by a set of religious beliefs that have endured for millennia, do you need to change those beliefs before you can stop discrimination? Or is the religious component just a smokescreen to allow one group of people to oppress another?