Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion. Rich in history, mythology, literature and practiced as a lifestyle by its hundreds of millions of contemporary adherents, it has a dark side. It socially divides Hindus into four distinct castes. This social stratification begins at birth. If a child is born into a Brahmin family it is a Brahmin for life. One cannot move from one caste to another. An untouchable remains an untouchable no matter how much learning, wealth or wisdom he or she attains.
Some call it a form of apartheid; some racism. Others faith sanctioned discrimination. It has damaged India’s ability to progress, diluted its human capital and caused untold misery and suffering for those unfortunate to have been born to the lower castes i.e. Shudras or Dalits.
Essentially there are four distinct castes:
Brahmins (at the very top) – keepers of the faith, its institutions, and occupying the exalted positions of priests and teachers.
Kushatriyas – the rulers, warriors, administrators and protectors of the law.
Vaysyas – merchants, traders and tradesmen, peasants and animal husbandry.
Shudras – leatherworkers, caretakers of the dead, sweepers and cleaners. Today known as Harijans or Dalits.
Statistically one in six people in the world are Indians and one in six Indians an untouchable.
Casteism over the centuries has created and led to the observance of taboos that to this day are religiously followed in many parts of rural India and certain close-knit communities. A very complex behaviour and observance system is followed in inter-caste and intra-caste dealings. For example a Brahmin cannot, at the risk of expulsion from his caste, accept food or drink at the hands of an untouchable or some lower-born. Inter-caste romance or marriage leads to honour killings in many communities. Thus knowing your place is encouraged. A lower-born flaunting newfound wealth etc is soon put in their place, often with violence or threat of it. Crimes committed against them are often not investigated and go unpunished, this also due to the rampant corruption in the police and justice system.
The Indian constitution has made the practice of casteism illegal. However long held beliefs and social structures will take generations to be dismantled. What is truly helping is the rapid economic progress, rising employment particularly in construction and manufacturing, free education for the oppressed classes and the poor, guaranteed quotas in employment as well as the social activism of those with modern education. There is statistical evidence of the effect of opportunity, entrepreneurship and raw capitalism on the break-up, albeit glacial, of the caste albatross. In urban areas, caste is becoming less of a social issue.
Casteism is not limited to the Hindus in India. In it’s subtler and not so subtle forms it exists in Sikhism, Christianity and in those of the Muslim faith. It has been and remains pervasive. Even in the latest census in India and after sixty years of not being included, the status of one’s caste was included. This is explained away as necessary for future government planning and welfare distribution.
It is sad and amusing at the same time, particularly when reading matrimonial advertisements in Indian or the Diaspora newspapers or websites, caste remains an enduring question. It still is important to those seeking a match to find someone suitable from their own caste. “American born Brahmin doctor seeks suitably qualified Brahmin girl. Vegetarian. Kundli match a must.” When I read these it saddens me that even those gifted with a birth and citizenship in a country like America and education in a freer society continue to adhere to this odious custom.
I for one remain opposed to any reason that divides us as humans and compartmentalizes us into clans.