Hi, This is Rhitu Chatterjee. I'm looking forward to your questions and stories about caste among Indians in India, and here in the U.S.
Hi, Alex Gallafent here. I'm in New York, not Chennai, but looking forward to any questions you may have about my reporting trip there.
Rhitu this one--and I suspect many others--seems to be one you're best placed to answer. Is there a definitive *number* of castes even?
The caste system started centuries ago. It was a way to divide the society based on the kind of work people did. It was sort of India's class system. But the The connection between class and caste has been weakening, especially since India became independent in 1947. But we have a long way to go before we do away with it altogether.
Alex, broadly speaking there are four main castes, or varnas (in sanskrit). Kshatriya (the warrior caste), Brahmin (the priestly caste), Vaishyas (the business caste; they're called baniyas in many Indian languages) and the Shudras (the people who do physical labor, like farming). Then there's a fifth category, the Dalits, or Harijans. They're people who used to do what was considered unhygienic kind of work, like skinning cows, or cleaning people's toilets.
But there are a huge number of sub-castes. There are also newer castes that evolved over time based on specific professions. For example, my mom's family belongs to Kayastha, a caste of scribes and record keepers for royalty. They also worked as advisers and ministers for kings.
One of the things that really hit home in your (great) radio piece was this kind-of-paradox: that you grew up in a family that had rejected caste, but yet found yourself drawn (and steered by your parents) towards a life/profession entirely in line with your own caste. Do you think there's a distinction to be drawn between the kind of caste-by-another-name that occurs naturally in any family--'we're this kind of people' etc--and the formal caste delineations that are imposed on people by strangers/society?
(Interesting to note that you, a writer, have the scribe's caste in your heritage. I suppose for us our executive producer is the king??)
I think there are, Alex. My parents didn't even tell my brother and I our caste. Family friends did. Ma and Baba taught my brother and me not to judge people by their caste. No one in my family would bat an eyelid if anyone married outside their caste. And despite the unconscious ways in which caste has stayed in my family (my parents will probably disagree), I really respect my folks for taking a conscious stand. I think its crucial to do that to overhaul such an ancient system.
Rhitu, perhaps you could tell us a little more about the Brahmin organization you featured in your story. How did you find them? What were the biggest surprises for you?
Thanks for the question, Steven. Someone I spoke to for the story mentioned that Brahmins in the U.S. have their organizations, much like other Indian communities. I was surprised to learn about its existence. But I was also surprised to find that the group's members were having these debates and conversations amongst themselves about what caste means to them. They want to dissociate themselves with the discriminatory and exploitative aspects of the system. But they want to hold to their caste for nostalgic reasons, and to some extent to retain the status their families enjoyed in India.
Cate, stigmas against mentioning castes do exist. But only in urban, middle/upper-middle class circles. For the rest of India, I think caste is still quite important. A friend from southern India recently told me that right now, the caste wars are taking place not so much between higher and lower castes, but between many of the lower castes and sub-castes. Because they're fighting over quotas in education and jobs, and over their respective status in society.
Alex, I wonder if you could tell us more about how you found the website TamilMatrimony.com?
Noelan, remember that India used to be ruled by kings until well after the British colonized the country. So, religion and that ancient social system persisted until about a hundred or so years ago.Except for rural India, there's hardly a calculated effort by higher castes to dominate over lower castes. Right now, caste's persistence is partly because of something you heard in Alex's piece: caste is also culture. And it takes a long time to change culture.
Noelan, my instinct is that is has to do with all kinds of historical bars to social mobility--education, money, language, labor skills. It's only now, perhaps, as people from poorer backgrounds (and lower castes) are able to harness the opportunities made available by increased education and increasingly affordable technology, that the labor-specific caste system is being shaken. That said, in terms of Indian law, discrimination on the basis of caste has been illegal for years. Rhitu, following up from Noelan, how *is* religion tied up with religion in India?
Hey Steven, as I remember it was a journalist in Bangalore that told me about. I wish I had a better story for you.
Religion is a big reason for caste's persistence, especially for Brahmins. But, it isn't the only reason. You're right about education, money, skills etc. its easier for the middle and upper middle classes to ignore caste, than for the very poor.
Alex, did you ever ask the guy who owns Tamil Matrimony if he married within his caste, or outside it?
I also want to add that while the caste system has its negative sides, its a little like class systems in other parts of the world. As a friend of mine was telling me the other day, here in the U.S. people who went to ivy league schools will more often than not marry someone with the same background. In that respect caste in India is similar to class anywhere else. People of a particular caste tend to stick together. And there's little cross over between castes.
I did -- he's married within his own caste, but he said he had been open to an intercaste marriage. He found his wife on his own site, and had opted for 'any caste' in his selection criteria, but added that for his family him marrying someone of the same caste was very important.
Geoff, I think some people in the Brahmin organization would like to be seen as open and progressive. But that's certainly not true of all members. Many members, especially the older ones want to keep it restricted to people who're Brahmins by means of their ancestry. And there's a serious clash between these two points of view. Regarding your question, I don't know that there's overt caste based discrimination here in the U.S., because most Indians in this country belong to middle and upper castes. So the discrimination between castes is less. Also people are more self-conscious about openly discriminating against anyone. Still, would a Brahmin person be OK with their son/daughter marrying someone from a lower caste? By that I mean, say someone who comes from a Dalit background, or from a Shudra (farming caste) background? I don't think so. But I'm speculating here. And I'd be happy if someone proved me wrong on this point.
Rhitu, you mentioned in your story that the Brahmin organization was open to people of other castes too. Did you come across any ie had any non-Brahmins actually taken them up on the offer?
Alex, there are only a handful of non-Brahmins in that organization. I can't imagine that many non-Brahmins would jump up at the opportunity.
lwcalhoun, great question! I wish I could say I come from a privileged family. But I don't. Our family is educated, but not wealthy by any means. I should clarify my parents didn't say caste wasn't important in India. They said we're consciously abandoning our own caste. Unless we take this stand, we can't expect to do away with such an ancient and pervasive system. My parents also taught me to not consider caste when making friends, or picking life partners. (They also taught me not to consider class.) So it's a little different than saying caste doesn't exist. However, there's a negative aspect to this approach. I think it kept me from trying to really understand just how important caste is to most of India. Until working on this story, i hadn't bothered to find out much about the roots of the caste system, and explore the complicated ways in which caste plays out in the lives of Indians today. And I'm certainly more ignorant of India's caste wars than many other Indians. Part of the reason I think was because I wasn't a minority in terms of caste. Had I belonged to a lower caste I'm certain the inter-caste dynamics would have been more obvious to me.
Lwcalhoun, you raise an interesting question: is the idea of race as a bar to social mobility analogous to caste? I suspect there are some key differences, not least among them being the sheer number of castes and the historically specific way they've been identified according to function and attribute. (Which isn't to say races haven't been reduced to function, in equally appalling ways; of course they have.) I also wonder if there is a sense of caste-based guilt among educated, higher caste Indians? Rhitu, do you know how much there's been in the way of caste-related affirmative action in India?
Alex, my parents definitely had that guilt. It's something that they drilled into my brother and me too. That's why I'm always a little embarrassed to publicly acknowledge my caste. (This story is the first, and probably the last time I'll do it)
About affirmative action, there's been a ton of work in India since independence. And it remains the topic of furious debates even today. Which castes and sub-castes should be given access to quotas in jobs, schools and colleges? What percentage of seats/openings should be reserved for the under-privileged castes? These are questions being asked all over India today.
AM, well discrimination against castes is illegal. I doubt you'll find too many cases in India where someone was told outright that they didn't get a job or admission in a school because the belonged to a certain caste. But (and this is especially true for rural areas in many states) lower castes are still discriminated against in worse ways. In many Indian villages, women of lower castes are more likely to be beaten, raped, or publicly humiliated. Even in cities, Dalits and people of lower castes are treated awfully by the middle class, and the rich. That's why we need affirmative action. And it's made a huge difference all over India. But I'd say its still a work in progress.
@jhenrikpersson, I'd say a college degree makes a huge difference. With a college degree you're much more likely to get a stable job, with benefits. A college degree also teaches people to communicate in English, which comes with many privileges in my (post-colonial) country. It definitely opens up many more opportunities.
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Hello and welcome to our live chat about caste. The conversation is part of our special weeklong series on class called Beyond Class.