Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Understanding the Caste System

**Grammar Fanatic Alert** Please keep in mind many of the Indic words in this post may not be spelled the way you're used to seeing them. Due to differences in pronunciation among regions, this is normal. Please do not fault me, I copied spellings from the book.

**India Fanatics** This post applies ONLY to the Hindu caste system. Sikhs and Muslims have different caste designations. I apologize but I do not know enough about these and thus have not included anything about them in the post. I included links at the end of this post to Sikh and Muslim castes as starting points if you are looking for information on those religions.

**White Privilege Fanatics** The stereotypes I discuss are not my own opinion (except where I specifically mention "IMO"). These come from the literature. Please be patient, I have a special post coming on the wrongs of stereotyping all races

It can be difficult for a pardesi in a new relationship with an Indian to understand what is meant by terms like:
  • Jatt
  • Brahmin
  • Kshatriya
These terms are important historically in India but are no longer relevant in many settings. That may not be what you're hearing from those around you though. So before we go on one of the first things I will say from a pardesi perspective is that India as a country has chosen to abolish the caste system. So it is no longer relevant in many aspects.

Still, that doesn't stop some from clinging to it. So be cautioned if your Indian SO chooses to hold onto his caste as if it is a valuable aspect. This could be a testament to his belief in the old ways. I'm not saying he's bad for it, but there are many aspects of Indian tradition that the entire country wishes to abolish along with the caste system so you should at least learn what those are and talk to your SO about them.

My husband's family sided with the government and chose to drop their caste entirely shortly after the partition. His family was divided by the partition and as part of starting a new life and staying safe amidst all that was going on at that time, they changed their last name to something generic. The family caste name is still known but is not on a single birth certificate in my husband's generation nor his parents. Discovering the caste system was something I only learned about from other pardesi women and then subsequently through my own studies.

Here I'm going to define some of the more popular castes that I hear either from the pardesi's I know or from Indians I've encountered. These definitions come directly from the free books I have listed for you at the end of this post. You're more than welcome to look up your SO's caste if their history interests you. 

I'll start with the most popular, "Jatt." Many girls hear this in the sense that it is an important caste. (I'm not making a determination, simply stating what I've experienced.) I've had it said to me as if a Jatt was the most important caste in India by one Indian and two pardesi women. I had no clue at the time what that was and didn't really care. It wasn't until later that I read this definition and formed my own opinion.

Volume 3: Jatt - Landowner and cultivator. The passage on the history of Jatt's goes on to mention their late arrival into India as immigrants and a description of Jatt's (called Jarttikas) in the Mahabharata. Specifically the Mahabharata talks of their "shameful" customs (Mahābhārata, viii. 2026). Even if you're not interested in the caste system, this particular caste designation is one I would recommend reading. It talks about a part of India most will deny exists.

Pieces from the Mahabharata passage I mentioned - "The practices of these people are very censurable. They drink the liquor called Gauda...." "Of righteous practices they have none. Their women, intoxicated with drink and divested of robes, laugh and dance outside the walls of the houses in cities, without garlands and unguents, singing while drunk obscene songs of diverse kinds that are as musical as the bray of the ass or the bleat of the camel. In intercourse they are absolutely without any restraint, and in all other matters they act as they like. Maddened with drink, they call upon one another, using many endearing epithets." 

My opinion (IMO) - In today's society in India I have heard the word "Jatt" used as an insult as well as a prideful remark. This seems to be common with many caste designations. For those of you in America (and not those in other countries who have heard rumors) and have real experience with rednecks, Jatt's are the stereotypical equivalent of rednecks. Not bad people, but not known for their place in 'refined' society. You can take that however you want but I don't mean it negatively.

Volume 4: Rajput - "Son of a King," or soldier and landowner. This caste came from the Kshatriya (warrior) caste. There is a reference in the Jatt passage in Volume 3 that links Rajputs and Jatt's as being of the same kind. Over time this caste has split into many smaller castes. It's way too many to list here and none of the names stood out to me but they could to you.

IMO- I've heard of this caste and the 'royalty' of it rings true in the tones I've heard it used. I've never heard of it mentioned in the same tone or insinuations as Jatt. But, it's not a word I heard often in/around Punjab.

Volume 1: Brahmin - Priests. This caste is often portrayed as the biggest, best and most important in India. There are several subcastes including Maharashtra and Malwi.

IMO - I think that the status of this caste is over-rated. Yes, priests are important to any religion. However, it should be the goal of a priest to treat all human kind with respect, especially in a religion where it is said that God lives in every single person. They of all people should not be putting themselves on the top of the hierarchy and promoting inequality IMO.

Volume 1: Chamar - Tanner and menial laborer. While it's not specifically listed in these books, this is one of the "dalit" castes (another being Mehras). Recently they have began fighting more publicly (the war has been on for a long time) for their equality in Indian society. It's interesting to note that historically the books states the Chamar women were known to be some of the most beautiful in the country, yet the caste was treated like worthless slaves.

IMO - I've not heard anyone proclaim they are a chamar, dalit, etc. I've only seen it in the newspapers where they're currently promoting their own genre of music. That doesn't mean it's not a word you won't hear.

And for a little fun to lighten up the potential intensity of this post, I highlight the Thug caste. Yep, I bet you thought that was an American word didn't you? Nope. The origin of the word comes from a well known criminal, a historic serial killer. He and his gang are alleged to have killed more people than any other serial killer in history. (Sorry, as a criminal justice junkie I just seem to find these things.) So, it's believed he and his gang of "thugs" killed well over 900 people. The murders were typically via strangulation and there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to them. If you want to know more about this, read this link or the section in Volume 4.

Recommended Reading:
Abu Dhabi Media, The National: Indian Unable to Do Away With the Caste System
DNA India: Abolish the Caste System Now
The Indian Express: Abolish Caste System, SC, gives lifer to 6 for Dalit killings

Historical Books on the Caste System (All free!)
Project Gutenberg: The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India Volume 1
Project Gutenberg: The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India Volume 2
Amazon: The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India Volume 3 of 4 
Project Gutenberg: The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India Volume 4

If you don't have an eReader, you can click this link for an HTML version of the castes list from these books and then find what you're looking for from there.
Project Gutenberg: Volume 2
Project Gutenberg: Volume 3
Project Gutenberg: Volume 4

Non-Hindu Caste Systems:
Sikh Castes
Encyclopedia Britannica: Islamic Caste


  1. How about Reddy? They tend to be pretty fanatical about their caste, right down to wearing it as a last name and creating whole facebook groups in their honor!! :) Are you familiar with that group, would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. The jats and rajputs are descendants of foreign tribes like huns, sakas and kushans who attacked India and later settled down. There was an interesting story about how there was a religious ceremony and different clans of rajputs emerged out of the holy fire. This hints at the initiation of these foreign tribes into hinduism. These tribes also participated in the Mahabharata war and were renowned for their ferocity. Gandhari the mother of Duryadhana came from Gandhar which is Kandhar in present day Afghanisthan.

    About the caste system I read a simplified explanation of it. It says that when the nomadic Aryans settled down into agricultural communities, there arose the need to divide the work according to occupational specialization. The society was thus divided into the four castes:-

    1. The Brahmins who were responsible for providing intellectual and spiritual guidance to the society.

    2. The Kastriyas or warriors who were responsible for protecting the village from ferocious animals and rival tribes.

    3. The Vaishyas or businessman who provided the goods for day to day life.

    4. The sudras who provided services and produced various kinds of goods like pots, baskets etc.

    The system was based on occupation and not birth. Somewhere down the line some smart jackass in order to maintain the supremacy of his own caste turned it into a birth based system. There have been instances where people have changed their caste by virtue of their deeds. Like King Vishawamitra who became a great sage after renouncing his kingdom or Parsurama who became a fierce warrior to avenge the injustice done to his family though he was a brahmin. I strongly suspect that caste system was definately very dynamic in the beginning.

  3. Boy, am I glad to be atheist! Indian people need to assimilate to the 21st century and stop all this caste/colour/creed/religion/region/sex bullshit. What a backward culture!

  4. APPI, you have barely touched the tip of the iceberg on this subject! Yes, of course the Indian government says they want to "abolish caste" but the reality is very, very different. The "casteless" India idea was part of Ghandi's ideology. Question for you: Why are Indians obsessed with arranged marriages? To maintain the caste system, of course! and also to control women and keep the patriarchy in place, as the marriages always benefit the man's family more than the woman's.

    Within caste, there is also class, so you can have high class Brahmins, and lower class Brahmins who work in menial jobs. Some castes are more dominant in certain regions: Jats predominate in Haryana, UP and parts of Rajasthan. I've never heard of Jats from South India. Gujjars too are in and around the Delhi area, but I don't think you'll find many in south India, unless they are migrants.

    The British had a lot to do with reinforcing the caste system, as those who were more cooperative, better educated, more "British" obtained higher positions within the Raj. Nehru and Ghandi are examples. The designations that the govt. uses today, such as Scheduled Caste, derive from the Raj. Rajputs were designated a "martial" caste and the British recruited them, and Sikhs, heavily into the military. Parsis obtained some of the highest positions in the Raj because they were educated, wealthy, hard-working, a non-threatening minority, and more "white" in appearance. Many Indian Christians and Muslims are looked down upon, not because of their religion, but because they were converts from the very lowest castes. Obviously, if you were on the bottom of the Hindu totem pole, wouldn't Christianity and Islam have a lot of appeal? Yet, they too can never completely escape caste because despite their religion, they are often considered of lower status.

    Rajputs dominate in Rajasthan, but there have also occasionally been Muslim and Sikh Rajputs too. Some castes and sub-castes are ethnically homogeneous (Jats in Haryana) others are more mixed. Rajputs seem to be more by geography than ethnicity, and yes, are probably descended from Huns or Scythians. Rajputs still today have a cult of the horse, which was also an important animal to the Scythian nomads. The British built Mayo College expressly for the purpose of educating Rajput nobility in the 1800s. Interesting to note that the Romani people (aka Gypsies) were probably one of the various castes from Rajasthan and/or Punjab.

    Don't forget the OBC's and tribal/scheduled castes! They are ethnically homogeneous and some, like the Bhils, are very ancient and were probably some of the first people to settle in the subcontinent.

    I never, ever believe an Indian when he/she tells me that caste doesn't matter or that he/she doesn't know his/her caste. I will only believe that when arranged marriages, the vote banks, and caste reservations have all disappeared.

  5. I think it would take at least 100 posts to adequately cover the caste system lol. There are so many aspects to it, as you mentioned, that I'm not sure I would even want to try to address it fully.

    I asked hubby about what caste certificates and such are even used for and he said that mostly you never need them anymore unless you're applying for some type of social welfare type programs. My hubby is a little clueless on a lot of things so I do believe he didn't know his caste. He's led a sheltered (and spoiled) life lol. HIs family actually did away with all you mentioned though (marriages, etc.) at least in regards to family matters. All of the marriages in this generation are love marriages and all of them mixed (either caste or culture) so far! I've yet to find a single thing online or offline about his caste though. It's so odd.

    I appreciate the insight. I agree that if you're on the bottom of the totem pole, religion does sound good. I think that's also how a lot of religions find support, they look to the lower classes.

  6. Several castes have FB groups in their own honor lol. I can understand wanting to belong to a prominent group (Reddy means merchants and cultivators) but in reality that kind of label doesn't automatically make you someone great. We each have to make our own path in life and we can't just live off of the potential of generations before us.

  7. I love the way you said "some smart jackass" hahahaha. I couldn't agree more. What started out as an innocent answer to current need got perverted into a big old mess.

    I have heard of a few changing their caste. I know our family completely renounced caste 2 generations ago. So a few are at least starting to reject things and maybe this will gain momentum.

  8. A good part of the world needs to stop acting this way. We are only dividing ourselves via the use of labels. It's very disheartening.

  9. It is said that he who has attained "Brahma" or the almighty become brahamin. Brahamin means the enlighten one. It is definitely not related the priests. Similarly, sudras were people who provided services. None superior or inferior to others.

  10. I am reminded of the Reddit India thread someone started one time where the question posited was "What caste are you?" The answers ranged from "Why is this so important to you?" to "F*** you." Not a single person of the 4000 or so subscribers at the time and hundreds of regular commenters listed their caste in that thread. It can be a touchy subject. Even if your name shows your caste very obviously (Iyengar, Khatri, Patel) it isn't something people generally go around parading. And what castes were thousands of years ago or even a few generations ago isn't necessarily what they are today. Amit Trivedi writes music; he doesn't study the Vedas. And he might write a song for Kunal Ganjawala who is absolutely not a drug dealer. Yadavs aren't all milkmen today; they run governments :D

    I was discussing all this with a friend from India the other day. He said that the way Americans look at caste is generally backward from what it is. That arranged marriages, etc. are just there to perpetuate caste, as if upholding of caste is The Most Important Thing (or otherwise, subverting caste being The Most Important Thing.)

    But it is often just a background piece in life; being Brahmin or Rajput or Iyer or Reddy or Bania or Jatt is something that shapes the food you eat, the religious rituals you do, etc. just like being a New England WASP or a California surfer or a Kansas farmer does in this country. When people marry inside their community (a term that is used more often than caste), they are likely to find someone on the same page: same language, same food habits, same festivals, etc. It's not "we must uphold our caste" as much as an idea that the two people would be compatible. Just as a Boston Mayflower descendant might not have very much in common with someone who grew up in the wild of Alaska, or a New Orleans socialite might be ill-matched with a Cajun from Breaux Bridge. (Of course, this is all surface and perhaps those matches, despite their differences would work out well! But they would be intercultural, just as our own marriages are. Same with inter-caste marriages.

    There are places in India where casteism (particularly untouchability) is still a problem. But it isn't everywhere; for many people it's just another thing like being Gujarati or middle class or from a very religious family or a military family that shapes your way of living life. It is not the be-all and end-all of what it means to be Indian.

  11. what r u a american christian missionary married to a hindu doing in india.whats ur target how many hindu souls u have to save/rescue in india

  12. indian govt doesnt say it will abolish caste but caste based Unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice

  13. some jatts & rajputs suffer from superiority complex becoz they r a bit fair they consider themselves foreigner .
    there r many blue eyed very fair kashmiri pandits but they consider themselves a local its only natural the farther u go away from equator u find more lighter skinned people not much to do with race

  14. I think my count is up to 5,006,089 ungodly souls converted....... And if you believe that I've also go some oceanfront property in Manali I'd be happy to sell you.

    Please don't come here making assumptions about me. I don't know what kind of blashpemy you've been exposed to but I do not support the Christian agenda or the false way many promote it in India. I'm Hindu, not Christian.

  15. ok im sorry for my ignorant remark. but i was a bit the goal christians they want to convert 100 million hindus in india

    & other links exposing churchs anti hindu agenda fooling hindus to get more converts

  16. I really appreciate the links. I wasn't offended by your original comment. I was just messing with you when I replied and hopefully you weren't offended by me either. :)

    I feel like you have every right to feel offended. It is repulsive what some people do in the name of Christianity in India. It's not what the Holy Bible tells them to do. I know, I was raised in the church and a good bit of what they do is just wrong. It goes against the God they worship and yet they somehow still think it's okay. It makes me sick!

  17. i was not offended but impressed it seems u r a cool customer, even when my comment was discourteous & ignorant u maintained calm.

    if u watched the 1st video which which tells us how south indians r sent to north for conversion i knew this but it was not clear to me what south indian christian r doing in north but its clear now.

  18. I've been working a lot lately but I plan to watch the videos now. This is a topic that interest me (and disgusts me). I've heard all kinds of stories about the things that go on, I just don't know enough of the language to involve myself and see it first hand.