Why is the world so obsessed with India’s caste system?

There is an obsessive tendency to project the caste system as a form of social exclusivism found only in India. Clearly, not enough attention is being directed to the history of social hierarchies and exclusions in the western world, nor is the peculiar development of India’s social stratification under British colonialism being fully appreciated.

India’s caste system and ‘untouchability’ have been a matter of profound interest to a large number of social science researchers, historians, and even the general public in modern times. Perceptions of Indian caste have taken such deep roots in the minds of non-Indians that I am often asked whether I belong to an upper caste during casual conversations with westerners.

This is not surprising, because even today, high school textbooks in the US such as ‘World Civilizations: Global Experience’ (AP Edition) carry sentences such as: “The Indian caste system is perhaps the most extreme expression of a type of social organization that violates the most revered principles on which modern Western societies are based.”

Strangely, Indians themselves have internalized all these stories of exploitation of lower castes and untouchables and never asked questions about their validity or about similar practices in the western world. Was there really no caste system anywhere else except in India? How were the people who emptied human faeces from the privies of the rich citizens of Europe treated? How were the men who handled human corpses and animal carcasses treated? Did such people get the chance to sit at the same table as rich men or marry their daughters?

Executioners were shunned by European society even though their services were frequently used.

Executioners were shunned by European society even though their services were frequently used.

Many will be surprised to know that under the European caste system, the lowest castes lived in terrible conditions until the 20th century. In Defiled Trade and Social Outcasts – Honour and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany, author Kathy Stewart describes social groups that were “dishonourable by virtue of their trade” in the 17th century and lists executioners, skinners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, actors, latrine cleaners, night-watchmen and bailiffs.

Ms Stewart goes on to connect the dishonourable trades with the times of the Roman Empire. “Throughout the Holy Roman empire dishonourable tradesmen suffered various forms of social, economic, legal, and political discrimination on a graduated scale of dishonour at the hands of ‘‘honourable’’ guild artisans and in ‘‘honourable’’ society at large. As a matter of course, dishonourable people were excluded from most guilds. In the case of the most extreme dishonour, that of executioners and skinners, Unehrlichkeit [concept of dishonour] could lead to exclusion from virtually all normal sociability. Executioners and skinners might be pelted with stones by onlookers, they might be refused access to taverns, excluded from public baths, or denied an honourable burial. Dishonour was transmitted through heredity, often over several generations. The polluting quality of dishonour is one of its defining characteristics. By coming into casual contact with dishonourable people or by violating certain ritualized codes of conduct, honourable citizens could themselves become dishonourable. Being labelled dishonourable had disastrous consequences for an honourable artisan. The guildsman, who was tainted by dishonour suffered a kind of social death. He would be excluded from his guild and forbidden to practice his trade, so that he would lose both his livelihood and the social and political identity which guild membership conferred. The fear of pollution through personal contact could go so far that neighbours and onlookers would refuse to help a dishonourable person even in the face of mortal danger. A dramatic example is the executioner’s wife who was left to die in childbirth in the north German town of Husum in the 1680s, because the midwife refused to set foot in the executioner’s house.”

Throughout history, the task of handling wastes and faeces has never been a dignified one. Until as late as the 20th century, human excrement had to be removed physically from cesspits and privies in Europe. The European lower-caste people who did the dirty job were called gongfermours (French) or gong farmers in English. Do you think they were treated with respect and allowed to mingle freely with the upper echelons of society?

Gong farmers or gongfermours in Europe were tasked with digging out and removing human excrement from privies and cesspits.

Gong farmers or gongfermours in Europe were tasked with digging out and removing human excrement from privies and cesspits.

The gong farmers of England were only allowed to work at night, so they were also called nightmen. They came into respectable neighbourhoods in the dead of the night, emptied cesspits and carted away the wastes to the boundaries of the cities. They were required to live in certain areas at the fringes of the city and could not enter the city during day-time. There were severe penalties for breaking this rule. Even after water closets arrived on the scene, their contents flowed into cesspits for a long time and needed to be cleaned out by nightmen.

Worldwide, until modern systems of transporting and handling sewage and sludge came into existence, workers in this sector were ostracized from society. Until modern cities became populated with millions of migrants that helped to increase diversity and heterogeneity, communities were close-knit and exclusionary.

Interestingly, the English word ‘caste’ is derived from the Portugese ‘casta’. It was used by the Spanish elites who ruled over conquered territories. The terms sistema de castas or the sociedad de castas were used in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe the mixed-race people in Spanish-controlled America and Philippines. The castas system classified people on the basis of birth, colour and race. The more white a person, the higher were the privileges and lesser the tax burden. The casta was an extension of the idea of purity of blood developed in Christian Spain to denote those without the “taint” of Jewish or Muslim heritage. That concept had already been institutionalised during the Spanish Inquisition, when thousands of converted Jews and Muslims (European lower-castes) were killed on the suspicion that they had reverted to their previous religions.

Edward Alsworth Ross (Principles of Sociology, 1920) gives a detailed description of rigid and strict caste system of Europe and notes that it was a product of forces within the European society. He says:

“The tendency of the later [Roman] empire was to stereotype society by compelling men to follow the occupation of their fathers, and preventing a free circulation among different callings and grades of life. The man who brought the grain of Africa to the public stores of Ostia, the labourers who made it into loaves for distribution, the butchers who brought pigs from Samnium, Lucania or Bruttium, the purveyors of wine and oil, the men who fed the furnaces of the public baths, were bound to their calling from one generation to another… Every avenue of escape was closed… Men were not allowed to marry out of their guild… Not even a dispensation obtained by some means from the imperial chancery, not even the power of the Church could avail to break the bond of servitude.”

The Indian ‘caste system’ was a label imposed by the British colonialists and this label did not correctly represent the stratification of the society. In the Vedas, there was no concept of purity of blood, which was a characteristic of Europe’s caste system. On the other hand, there was a concept of actions and personal qualities determining one’s ‘varna’. The Indian term “jaati” that refers to occupational division of society into barbers, cobblers, cattle-herders, blacksmiths, metal-workers and other trades is not a concept exclusive to India (even though the concept of artisans’ guilds has most likely originated in India).  In every settled society in the world, traditionally, sons followed the same occupation as their fathers. The sons of carpenters became carpenters. The sons of weavers became weavers. It made sense because the children were well acquainted with the trades of their father, and could keep their trade secrets with themselves.

In India, the lines dividing jaatis were initially loose and there were many instances of people moving across the hierarchy. There have been saints from lower castes such as Ravidas, Chokhamela and Kanakadasa who earned the respect of people and were not regarded as lesser than Brahmin saints. The Maratha Peshwas were Brahmins who became Kshatriyas. The Maratha king Shivaji was regarded as a low-caste in the beginning who, after his victory over many kingdoms, proclaimed himself as a Kshatriya with support from liberal Brahmins.  Says M.N. Srinivas, the well-known sociologist:

“It is necessary to stress here that innumerable small castes in a region do not occupy clear and permanent positions in the system. Nebulousness as to position is of the essence of the system in operation as distinct from the system in conception. The varna-model has been the cause of misinterpretation of the realities of the caste system. A point that has emerged from recent field-research is that the position of a caste in the hierarchy may vary from village to village. It is not only that the hierarchy is nebulous here and there, and the castes are mobile over a period of time, but the hierarchy is also to some extent local.”

It must also be noted that the castes in India never had the upper-class/lower-class economic divisions as in Europe. The Brahmins were traditionally the poorest, often beggars. The Vaishya and Shudra merchants and tradesmen were often very well-off and hired the services of Brahmins. Land was typically owned by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The famous mathematician Aryabhata was himself a non-Brahmin and yet he had Namboodri Brahmins studying under him. Even today, there are hundreds of Brahmins engaged in cleaning toilets in India, whereas one will find it challenging to find a white man driving a garbage truck in America.

Historian Dharampal, in his work ‘The Beautiful Tree’ on the indigenous education systems in 18th century India has laid out how British surveys carried out in Madras, Punjab and Bengal Presidencies revealed the widespread enrolment of children in schools. Almost every village had a school. In many schools, the Shudra children outnumbered the Brahmin children. These schools were gradually shut down as poverty became widespread under the British and villagers moved to cities in search of jobs.

Casta system of Mexico as depicted by Spanish colonial art.

Casta system of Mexico as depicted by Spanish colonial art.

The lines of caste became more rigid on account of various factors such as foreign invasions and the British policy of “divide and rule”. Until the British carried out a wide-ranging survey from 1881 to list down various surnames into separate castes, most Indians were not aware of the placing of various castes. Typically, some family names were affiliated with a particular caste in one village and with a different caste in another village. Suddenly, hard lines of division were drawn with the survey. The sense of caste identity emphasized by the British which was aimed at preventing natives from uniting and resisting foreign occupation created deep schisms within Indian society.  The placing of several scheduled castes and tribes into criminal categories by the British also caused the hardening of the caste lines with disastrous consequences for free India. Funnily, even as the class and caste practicing British codified the Indian castes, they did not allow English women to marry Indian men, while they had no qualms in taking on Indian women as concubines.

It must be remembered that the stigmatising and hardening of India’s loosely-structured, occupation-based jaati system was a part of the strategy of the Christian missionaries. When Governor-General John Shore became a member of the evangelical Clapham Sect, missionary activity in India increased substantially. Hindus were declared to be the “most enslaved portion of the human race” on account of their superstitious religion. William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery champion who was also a member of the Clapham Sect declared in the House of Commons in 1813 that emancipating Hindus from their religion was as much the sacred duty of every Christian as emancipating Africans from slavery.

No country in the world is free from inequalities. A constant human endeavour for more money and more power ensures that. A discriminatory system has been widespread, whether it worked against non-Christians, non-Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, women, AIDS patients or lepers. The racism that was historically prevalent in western societies and continues in various forms today is also a kind of pernicious caste system. The holocaust has been blamed on Nazism and anti-Semitism, but few have noticed the caste system in which it was embedded Even the United Nations Security Council has its own caste system with just five permanent members, which have veto powers. The graduates from Ivy League universities and members of exclusive clubs enjoy their own caste privileges.

It can be argued that India has put together the world’s biggest affirmative action plan called “Reservations” to help the historically disadvantaged castes. With reserved slots in government schools and colleges, positions in government services and seats in electoral constituencies, there has been a massive effort to be inclusive. Whether the effort has yielded results or has resulted in a “reverse caste system” is something that needs to be examined.

The modern stratification of caste-identity in India and its bizarre expressions is an outcome of the institutionalized policies of the British and Indian governments abetted by the Marxists and minorities, as well as poverty and lack of opportunities for growth. It is not due to any imagined perversity of the original classification of society in Hindu traditions.

It is high time the world and Indians themselves stopped typecasting India as the land of the caste system and made an effort to understand its beginnings as well as the socio-economic hierarchies in every part of the globe. Having been the subject of sociological and anthropological studies of the western researchers for so long, the Indians have begun to believe that like laboratory specimens, their place is under the microscope. It is time to reverse the lenses. There is a whole world outside India waiting to be examined and understood from an Indian perspective.

The writer would like to acknowledge the role of Dr Raj Vedam and Dr Subroto Gangopadhyay from Indian History Awareness and Research in giving critical inputs for this article. She would like to thank Diwakar Krishnappa for helping in literature review.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Sahana Singh is a writer/editor who specializes in environmental issues, current affairs and Indian history. She is a member of Indian History Awareness and Research (IHAR), a think tank headquartered in Houston.