Caste is an ancient system of social hierarchy based on one’s birth tied to concepts of purity and social status. Its history, development and current status are complex.
A move to outlaw race-based discrimination in Seattle has put this complex — and often misunderstood — system in the spotlight. If the Seattle City Council votes Tuesday to approve an ordinance that would include race in its anti-discrimination laws, Seattle would become the first city in the United States to outlaw this type of discrimination.
While the definition of caste has evolved over the centuries, under both Muslim and British rule, the suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid—known as Dalits, which means “broken” in Sanskrit—continues.
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The word caste has its origin in Latin (castus), which means holy or pure. Caste made its way into Indian lexicon in the 1700s with the arrival of the Portuguese, who first used the term “casta” to refer to social hierarchy in the Indian subcontinent.
How did the caste system originate?
References to a social hierarchy can be found in the millennium-old Rigveda where a hymn describes the origin of all life from Purusha or “the divine”. In one verse it is said that the four categories (varnas) of Hindu society came from this infinite existence. The Brahmins (priestly class) emerged from his head, the Kshatriyas (warriors) from his arms, the Vaishyas (merchant class) from his thighs and the Shudras (working class) from his feet. The hymn does not go into the details of these categories or which is superior or inferior.
The Varna system initially served to classify individuals on the basis of their characteristics and abilities. However, over time, this evolved into the caste system where a person’s occupation and status in society were determined by birth. Those who were outside the system were called outcastes or untouchables and later called Dalits.
The word “caste” appears in almost all Indian languages and is closest to the word “caste” because it is related to the idea of lineage. There are more than 3,000 castes in India. Each region in India has its own ranking of castes. However, in every field, Dalits are at the bottom of the hierarchy and have faced discrimination for centuries. Members of the Dalit community have also historically engaged in manual scavenging, the dangerous and inhumane practice of manually removing human waste from sewers. The practice continues in many parts of the country, even though the Indian government banned it in 2013.
Caste also plays an important role in arranged marriage systems, where parents seek mates for their children within their own caste. This is common in expatriate communities where online matrimonial sites may be filtered by caste.
Is caste exclusive to India or Hinduism?
While the concepts of varna and caste are referenced in Hindu texts such as the Manu Smriti and the Bhagavad Gita, caste divisions are not exclusive to India or Hinduism. The caste can be found in other countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and in the diaspora around the world, and in faith communities including Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim and Sikh. Dalits who have converted to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Sikhism still experience segregation and exclusion from places of worship and burial or cremation sites throughout the region.
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Is caste a British creation?
Under British rule, the caste system, previously more fluid, was made more rigid with the use of the census, which classified entire countries into categories and schedules, said Ananya Chakraborty, who teaches history at Georgetown University. Key Associate Professor with a focus on the South. Asia and Latin America.
He said, “While the British never invented caste, they played a role in perpetuating these caste identities.” “As an institution, caste has had a long life, long before the arrival of the Europeans.”
The British also introduced elements of affirmative action in India, which provided representation to marginalized groups in education, employment, government programs, scholarship, and politics. Based on constitutional provisions, the central and state governments are allowed to set “reserved quotas or seats” in colleges, workplaces and government agencies for disadvantaged groups such as Dalits. The system of reservation has been a source of animosity between castes, with upper caste Indians claiming that such programs and policies are antithetical to a merit-based system.
Are race and caste the same?
Chakraborty cautions against equality of race and caste, especially in America where both exist. She cites the example of BAPS, a prominent Hindu sect, which is facing trial new Jersey The organization was accused of forcing hundreds of low-caste workers to labor in dangerous conditions at temple sites across America for $450 a month.
Chakraborty said, “In this case, all the people involved in the case belong to the same caste.” “So race does not adequately cover the question of caste.”
Cornell West, professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary and scholar of African American studies, feels a kinship with Dalit activists, calling racism and racism “institutionalized forms of hate”.
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“We have no other option but to fight morally, intellectually and politically,” he said.
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