Opinion · Poverty Facts

The Caste System in India Lives

I recently blogged about how the caste system was being lived out on the streets of India in the life of one very poor dalit woman.

About a month ago, (yes, I’m behind on blogging) the Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page weekend edition piece called “Caste Away” about a dalit (aka an Untouchable) who has attempted to break into the fast-growing, professional IT business in India. The article tells the story of how Mr. Thoti was been discriminated against throughout his attempt to build a career. There are moments of hope when he finds hiring managers who are color-blind to the caste system, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Even the chief economist of the Royal Bank of India (equivalent to USA central bank), another rare dalit success story, still faces discrimination.

If you are interested in further reading, there is a book written over a century ago by Mahatma Phule called Slavery which argues that India’s caste system is similar to the slavery issue faced by the USA.

The India Caste System Overview

At the top of the caste system are the brahmins … historically the priests and by far are the current ruling class (almost every institution) in India today. Then their nearest high-caste cohorts are the kshatriyas (warrior caste) and vaishyas (merchant caste). The vaishyas overwhelming oversee the banking and financial systems in India. The Sudras are the low-caste peoples … numbering over 500 million in India! … who are identified with a particular occupation (e.g. potter’s caste, shepherd’s caste, buthcher’s caste, etc.) And then below the caste system are the dalits or untouchables.

Here is a picture of the caste hierarchy.

What is interesting is that the dalits, while still overwhelmingly extremely poor, are often better off than the low-caste peoples. Part of this is due to the affirmative action setup for dalits.

Have you experienced the caste system? Please post a comment (and please include your caste name in your comment!)

21 thoughts on “The Caste System in India Lives

  1. Dave, benjamin,Nice to see that someone so far away is concerned.I have experienced it. My parents and their parents and their parents have experienced it. We are denied water.It goes on…I was born in a ‘Chamar’ family. The cobbler’s caste: people who historically used to remove dead animals and make use of the leather. This is supposed to be among the worst kind of jobs, placed a little above the janitorial work [‘bhangi’ or ‘mehtar’ caste]. Note that these janitors have to work with the human waste even today. Our society is so entrenched in this system that these janitors are ‘lower’ caste people even for our caste, and we are supposed to stay away from them!!

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  2. Posted for: Madhukar TannaFirst of all, I champion the cause as you do. I fully agree with your observation that Upper caste (Vaishays) rule the business world completely, particularly banking, stock market, trading, high paying jobs in MNCs etc. It is extremely hard for someone living in India and get networked with different caste people and hence lack of opportunities. It is so sad to observe it, live in it. People who argue that caste system is gone, or not practiced are completely wrong. Even today, Dalits are not allowed to become priests and in number of places not allowed to enter the temple. Last year, I went to Himalayas for tracking and met with many of the Hindu dalits who come form Nepal and neighboring region. They preach the gods from outside the temple and upper caste people go inside to preach. More I think of it, more anguish and frustration is created. Another good topic to research is beliefs in superstitions in Indian society – Rampant to say the least amongst educated folks.

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  3. Apoliges…I dont agree with any of this!!!!!!! You are reading a 5,000 year old text book and doing a replace all with some modern jargon. MNCs (Coke, Pepsi, McKinsey) are unlikely to be caste-biased. They are meritocratic!Nobody prevents you from getting into any of these places. Infact, the reseverations for the ‘lower castes’ makes things quite competitive.You need to know more…

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  4. Being a third generation Indian, I’m very proud of the Indian civilisation and its history and culture that the country has to offer. However it’s quite sad and embarrassing that Indians still follow the caste system today, even outside of India.It’s disgusting that even today’s generation still discriminate towards the lower caste communities. Although India is trying to move forward and develop, the caste system will always hold the country back. It’s not only your caste people look down on you for; it’s the colour of your skin, your status and also your profession. To me Indians wherever they live will always have the same mentality because it’s what their fathers and forefathers have taught them. Indians are ignorant and racist and no matter how much NGO’s or aid workers try to educate people, it will never change, because we don’t want to change.

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  5. one of the comments stating that multinational companies are looking for meritorious people. is true to some extent. i lived in India for about 30 years and i ve done my education in professional institution. caste system exists and it get reflects in all fields…socio-economic, political.the irony is that the caste based outlook is high even in the educated class. i dont want to mention any caste coz i dont believe in idiotic systems. caste system exists in names, so we can call it as ‘scientific naming’. i wonder how this propaganda is travelling across generations. Dave im going to write a satire on this topic. i do get it published and send the message across the world.

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  6. I agree with the view of Sri RajS. Not because I am a brahmin, but because the reservation system was a way out as conceived by the authors of our constitution to eradicate the ‘caste system’. But in effect, it is breeding in ‘caste consciousness’ and ‘caste assertiveness’ by people across all castes. The divide is fortified now. The ‘caste at birth’ theory has to be replaced with the Varna ashram based on one’s qualities and professions as described by Lord Krishna in the Bhagawat Geetha.

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  7. Hello,

    Interesting discussion–I am teaching a unit on India to the children at our church. They were fascinated to learn more about the caste system–if it still exists, etc. It reminds me a lot of the United States and the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. It took our country almost a hundred years to secure the rights of people regardless of their race.

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  8. As the human beings evolved, they segregated into the four castes as was advised by the highly evolved sages. All the castes are equal and necessary part of one body. Just as the legs are as important to the functioning of a body as the head, the caste system segregates people by employment:
    1) The head represent the Brahmins, the spiritual educators or seekers.
    2) The shoulders represent the Kshatriya, needed for protection of the community.
    3) The stomach represent the Vaisya, the entrepreneurs and business executives.
    4) The legs represent the Sudras, the instruction followers who go through life obeying
    instructions.
    Thus the four castes are the limbs of one body of society. The justification for the caste system is similar to the justification for democracy, in that, it has problems but it is better than the alternative. In a democracy, certain segments of populations go to poverty and others become filthy rich, and there is associated corruption. The right to fail and face the consequences, so as to learn, is its greatest advantage, making it much better than the alternative. Similarly, the power abuse of one caste over the others will happen from time to time. Sometimes it may even get bad enough for God himself to correct it, but the caste system is the best way to ensure excellence is maintained in the various professions. It is just like Darwin’s theory of evolution, where animals get specialized in acquiring a certain set of food. In this case, humans get specialized in their job functions so that they excel in it over time, therefore increasing their spiritual level. God had to incarnate as Parashurama to solve one of these cases of imbalance of power among the castes. The Kshatriyas had become too powerful and were abusing the other castes. The logic behind the caste system can be visualized in the present scenario of any country. Every country, whatever the stages of progress, must have three requisites:
    1) Material resources – provided for by:
    i) The workforce who follow instruction
    ii) The entrepreneurs who give the instructions
    2) Protective power – provided for by the Security personnel
    3) A proper education system – provided for by the spiritually inclined people.
    The peace and prosperity of the world depends on the work of these four classes of people. They form the legs of a table. Even if one leg is weak, the other three cannot support the table. When production is plentiful, it has to be guarded against loot and plunder. When soldiers and security men become powerful, they turn into a menace to the country, while production declines. When production and protection are adequate, if the educational system takes a wrong track, the country is weakened. The development of material resources and the defense of the country ultimately depend on the education that is imparted. The table is not only “four legs”! How can one use a table of four legs? There should be a plank of love that is to say, love for the country. A country does not mean a specified area on the map, the soil. It means the human community inhabiting the territory. And ‘love’ means the sense of inter-relationships and involvement of the individuals within that community. Without all the five aspects, there will be a breakdown in society. For example, today the degree of love is absent in many highly educated and highly placed persons. As a result, the process of education too is suffering from misuse and the billions of dollars set aside for education goes to waste. Since education affects the other three sections, even the money spent on instruction-followers, entrepreneurs, and protectors does not yield the full fruit. Each caste is not supposed to be inferior to another. The superiority and inferiority of castes developed in the current day India is due to the weakened plank of love. There are various ages when different castes seem prominent or prosperous on earth. Humans who were teachers or spiritual seekers (Brahmins) since ancient times will have some mental and physical characteristics, which can be inherited by their children. This inheritance could be biological or via education passed from parents to children. In the very ancient times, Brahmins with their mantras seemed to have most of the power. They commanded the most respect because they could get anything people wanted through their mantras; rain, good crop yields, and weapons. Even the movements of materials for the construction of buildings depended upon their mantras. Great sages like sage Satyavarta, sage Durvasa and sage Agastya and others were like the leaders of civilizations the world over. Humans, who were fighting (Kshatriyas) since millions of years ago will have developed strengths in certain areas of their bodies and have mental skills to dodge enemy attacks and to kill when necessary. These abilities can be passed down biologically or through education within families over the ages. The Kshatriyas became the most powerful leaders of society during the next age, with their fighting skills and weapons. During these times, kings like Alexander, King Arthur, Ashoka, Ghengis Khan and numerous others became respected and powerful leaders of society. If entrepreneurial producers (Vaisas), which include most professions of today (engineer, doctors, artisans, businessmen and farmers) descended from ancestors who were entrepreneurs since millions of years ago, they will have the correct skills as negotiators, who constantly weigh the profit potential. In recent times, success in business made people and countries great. Vaisyas have become the most prominent people today. People today respect business leaders like Thomas Edison, Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Micheal Dell and Jack Welch, for what they have accomplished. The instruction-following producers (Sudras – current day factory operators and clerks are in this category) whose ancestors were following instructions will be able to handle the orders given by others. When computers take over most jobs, it will be the Sudras, who willingly follow instructions of computers the best, who will have the most power. They will be the ones, who can get things done for the rest of the human population. Using their instruction-following skills, they will be the most respected people because they will get people things from computer controlled farms, factories and even construction (food, clothing and shelter). Other people will have to wait on these instruction-followers for their livelihood. In the opinion of this author, India was conquered for a thousand years by foreigners (firstly by the Muslims and then the Christians), so that she can finally overcome this fault of the different castes disrespecting each other. The different castes were supposed to be equal parts of one body but with different jobs. Would a person not allow his head (Brahmin) to touch his feet (Sudra or instruction follower)? Would a person not allow his feet (Sudra) to touch his shoulders/hands (Kshatriya or warrior group)? Or would a person not allow his hands to touch his stomach (Viasya or producer group)?
    Karunakaran, Prashobh. The History of Earth The Indian Version. Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2010.

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  9. Yes you are right Avunuri surname belogs to VELUMA Caste which is mine and also it was seen in PADMASHALI Caste also.

    May be it can be used by different castes, because its and name of the village and now that village name was also modified to some other which we don’t know

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  10. Important topic it is…..We have all the views ranging from reservations to no reservations. But the fact remains that the problem still remains from the time when there were no reservations and when v have reservations. Reservations were implementing not to eradicate this evil but to give immediate help to the most deprived section of the society which has been suffering from ages and getting them to a stage from where they can start taking the world as it comes, creator of the constitution himself knew this that only this cannot eradicate the evil, so certain specific things were mentioned in the constitution like equality for all religions,castes, creeds and color.

    Well on reservation i feel that this empirical reservation has just come into existence some half a century ago but the real reservation exists in the mind set of the people who take some sadistic pleasure by calling themselves high and claim that certain sections are low. That reservations needs to be dismantled, empirical reservation will go on its own the day the objective for which it was constituted is met and that is to eradicate poverty,grief and getting people to a level playing field.

    Here i must mention that the only way to eradicate this evil is when we submit ourselves to a neutral mindset in terms of caste.

    Shame to our politicians for getting us to a situation that even after 65 years, they have not been able to eradicate poverty among these sections and benefits been reaped either by the middlemen or very small section of the society. The rate of progress is too slow and needs a real corrective action.

    I hope someday the country which has the 2nd highest population in the world, the biggest democracy, which constitutes almost one third of the world’s poverty stricken people and which won her freedom after a great struggle is free in true terms………Free from inequality, caste-ism and poverty

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  11. Caste system in India is worth studying research subject.
    It is very easy to take support of so called Lord Krishna and Bhagvsthgeetha to defend caste system and saying nothing wrong with the caste system. To me who ever follows the caste is a sick man of the nation and there is no proper treatment for this sickness therefore constitutional reservation is the only supportive treatment available at present for this deadly communicable disease. People taking birth in the same caste and dieing in the same caste cannot understand easily the mystery played by the history and our scriptures. Please read carefully about Indian scriptures and great Hindu reformers how they failed to solve the caste system in India.

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