Why is the world so obsessed with India’s caste system?
By Sahana Singh
Indiafacts - 5 May 2016
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?
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.
Casta system of Mexico as depicted by Spanish colonial art.