Caste System

The Caste System in India and Nepal: A Closer Look at Its Profound Impact and Struggles

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

Beyond the Surface: Caste System Inquiries on the Annapurna Circuit

“In Nepal and India,” I asked our 20-some, well-educated, and articulate porter, “how do people determine your caste? After all, it’s not written on your forehead, and it is probably a sensitive topic, which not everyone may be comfortable sharing.” He explained that when people care to know your caste, they often pay attention to how you introduce yourself. For instance, if you were to introduce yourself as “Ramesh,” those who care to know your caste would follow up with the question, “What is your family name?” This inquiry is because, in Hindu cultures, a person’s last name is associated with their caste identity.

“Why would a young, well-educated individual choose to work as a trekking porter in the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal?” you might wonder. It’s a good question; the main reason is the financial aspect. But the full answer might go beyond that. And this essay will offer a glimpse into the broader reasons.

The cultural practice of inquiring about surnames to determine caste can evoke different responses. Some may feel proud of their caste heritage and openly share their last name, while others may prefer not to disclose it or may even challenge the relevance of caste distinctions altogether. I asked our porter, “Have you ever lied when asked your family name?”

During my visits to India and Nepal, which began in 1982 and continued a few times since, I had never before engaged in a straightforward conversation with a local about their true feelings regarding the caste system. Our porter’s openness and honesty blew me away during our three weeks on the Annapurna Circuit trail in March 2023.

The caste system could be traced back to ancient Hindu texts, which classified society into four varnas or classes in the following order: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Chhatris (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants and traders), and Shudras (laborers and artisans). Outside this framework were the Dalits, formerly known as “Untouchables,” who were considered outside the system and subjected to severe discrimination.

However, in reality, the caste system in India and Nepal are much more complex and diverse. And it is challenging to provide an exact number of castes as they can vary depending on different regions and communities. In both countries, there are thousands of castes, sub-castes, and clans, each with unique social, cultural, and historical characteristics.

In this essay, I aim to explore various facets of the caste system. My primary focus is understanding how the caste system influences individuals’ perspectives, aspirations, and sense of identity; how it shapes their perceptions of their roles and place within society. Furthermore, I examine this system from the perspective of intergenerational trauma.

Tracing the Roots of the Caste System in Hindu Society

Let’s explore the caste system in traditional Hindu society and the reasons people offer to justify it. Here are the top four justifications:

  1. Divine Ordination: According to ancient Hindu scriptures, it’s believed that Brahma, the creator deity, divided society into different varnas based on their qualities and functions. So, you know, it’s all his doing up there!
  2. Karma and Reincarnation: They strongly believe in the law of cause and effect, where one’s past life actions determine their current caste status. So, if you were successful or a real go-getter in your previous life, you may find yourself in a higher caste in this life. The karma train is rolling in!
  3. Social Order and Stability: Advocates of the caste system claim that it keeps society organized and functioning smoothly. It’s like a well-oiled machine, with clear roles and responsibilities for each varna, ensuring society won’t fall into chaos. Order and stability, baby!
  4. Preservation of Dharma: Each varna has specific duties, and adhering to them is seen as upholding Dharma, which is often translated as “duty.” Dharma is a central concept in Hindu philosophy, and it is believed to earn good karma points for spiritual growth.

So there you have it, the four pillars supporting the grand spectacle of the caste system. However, like any complex system, there are varying opinions on this, and some folks might not be so keen on the whole caste idea. It’s a hot topic, and it’s been stirring up conversations for ages!

Demographic Insights: Hindu Population and Caste Divisions in India and Nepal

Hindus make up 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people. However, specific caste percentages within the Hindu segment are challenging to obtain, as the data can be confusing and varies. Based on the 2011 census, which is the most recent available, the division of castes is as follows: Brahmin: 4.1%, Chhatri: 10.8%, Vaishya: 13.6%, Shudra: 49.9%, Dalit: comprised of Scheduled Castes: 16.7% and Scheduled Tribes: 8.0%.

A 2021 Pew Research Center study indicates that most Indians (69%) identify themselves as members of lower castes, including 34% who are part of either Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Scheduled Tribes (STs) and 35% who belong to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or Most Backward Classes.

As of 2023, Nepal’s population is estimated to be 30.4 million, with Hindus comprising 80% of the total. The division of castes in Nepal, based on the 2011 censuses, includes Brahmin: 12.2%, Chhatri: 16.6%, Magar: 7.1%, Tamang: 5.8%, Newar: 5%, Kami: 4.8%, Musalman: 4.4%, Yadav: 4%, and Rai: 2.3%.

It is essential to note that the caste names in Nepal differ from those in India, adding another layer of complexity. Nevertheless, the underlying principle remains the same; the caste system divides people into groups based on their birth and assigns them different social statuses.

Behind Closed Doors: Understanding Discriminatory Practices in Traditional Homes

I couldn’t help but ask our dedicated and friendly porter, “How does this system affect you?” His response was both heartfelt and deeply personal. “You see,” he began, “I belong to a lower caste, and it’s something I confront every single day of my life.” While he shared some personal examples, I’ll respect his confidentiality by refraining from delving into the specifics and instead describing his experiences’ broader implications.

Suppose you are a lower-caste individual visiting the house of a higher-caste person or family in traditional and conservative Hindu societies. In that case, you may encounter various limitations and discriminatory practices. Some of these practices include restricted access to certain areas of the house, like the kitchen, which is considered more sacred by the higher-caste family. Lower-caste guests may also be provided with separate utensils and seating arrangements, emphasizing caste-based segregation.

Furthermore, lower-caste individuals may face denial of participation in religious or cultural ceremonies exclusive to higher-caste members, leading to feelings of exclusion during their visit. Stereotyping and prejudices based on their caste background can also be prevalent, resulting in condescending attitudes or assumptions about their capabilities and intelligence.

Some households may impose dress code restrictions on lower-caste guests, expecting them to dress modestly and differently from higher-caste members. Additionally, they might not receive the same level of hospitality and warmth as higher-caste guests, extending to differences in food and accommodations.

It is important to acknowledge that not all households practice these discriminatory behaviors, and attitudes toward the caste system are evolving. Many individuals and communities are actively working to challenge and dismantle caste-based discrimination. However, these limitations and discriminatory practices may persist in certain traditional and conservative settings.

A Dance of Love and Despair: The Rollercoaster of Inter-Caste Marriages

All facets of life take a particular shape through the prism of the caste system, but I found myself intrigued by the rollercoaster ride of love relationships. And let me tell you, inter-caste marriages make for quite the emotional Romeo and Juliet like drama!

The thrill of young love! Picture this: a couple meets in high school, oblivious to the looming storm of societal norms. But sadly, fate has its own plans, and when they realize they hail from different castes, be prepared for the heartbreak of the century. Inter-caste lovebirds’ journey is bound to be bumpy, with family disapproval raining down like thunder and lightning, resorting to social ostracization or physical harm. In some cases, it leads to forced separation, where couples may be abducted or confined to prevent the marriage.

Picture this dark tale: the young lovers, against all odds, manage to tie the knot, only to find themselves in a nightmarish world of torment and despair. They enter a realm of social boycotts, where their communities and relatives shun their very existence. Isolation and loneliness become their constant companions as they wander through the desolate wasteland of caste-based prejudice.

But that’s not all; the shadows of harassment and violence loom large as malevolent community members lash out with physical assaults and vicious verbal abuse. Their love is a flame, but the fires of hatred scorch it.

You’d think that legal recognition would offer some respite, but the nightmare persists. Even in the eyes of the law, their union becomes a battleground of caste-based objections and bureaucratic delays. The grim specter of the caste system haunts them at every turn as if determined to crush their spirits.

In this macabre dance of love and despair, the young lovers fight to survive, battling against a world that refuses to accept their union. It’s a dark and haunting reality where the cold, unyielding grasp of the caste system smothers love’s tender embrace.

The Golden Ticket: Unveiling Higher-Caste Privileges in India and Nepal

Now, look at India and Nepal’s higher-caste privileges. It’s like being handed a golden ticket to the social elite club. First up, they have access to education fit for royalty. Higher-caste individuals get the red-carpet treatment when it comes to schooling. Private schools, top-notch resources, and all the academic goodies you could ever need. It’s like Hogwarts from the “Harry Potter” series but for real! Meanwhile, the rest hope that their local school has enough textbooks.

Now, let’s talk about jobs. Ever heard of the “higher-caste hiring hotline”? Okay, maybe it’s not an actual hotline, but it might as well be. When it comes to employment, higher-caste individuals might have a leg up, especially in those circles where social connections matter more than qualifications. Oh, the joys of networking, right?

Oh, and who needs a piggy bank when you’ve got inherited land and property? Higher-caste families may have accumulated wealth over the ages, making them real estate tycoons without lifting a finger while the rest ponder how to make their next rent payment.

Let’s not forget politics! Higher-caste individuals may find themselves playing a starring role in the political scene. It’s like they have a VIP pass to the decision-making club. “Vote for me, and I’ll make sure we have a whole lot of privileges for everyone… who’s in my caste!”

And when it comes to love, well, higher-caste families prefer to keep it all in the family. Inter-caste marriages? Not on their watch! They want to maintain their social status and preserve their traditions like a well-guarded family recipe.

In the social arena, higher-caste individuals are like the kings and queens of the party. Their names are whispered with reverence, and they bask in the glow of admiration from their fellow castemates.

Finally, higher-caste individuals may find themselves leading the religious charge. They’re like the high priests and priestesses, wielding their spiritual powers like bosses.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all higher-caste folks are keen on these privileges, and many are working to promote equality and fairness. But like a persistent rumor, these age-old traditions can still cast a shadow over the modern world.

A Tapestry of Attitudes: Exploring Caste System’s Impact on Identity

Let’s return to our lower-caste shy and quiet porter and explore how the caste system affects one’s attitude towards their present life. How does it shape perspectives, aspirations, and a sense of identity?

People’s attitudes toward the caste system can differ widely, ranging from apathy to motivation. Many individuals accept their assigned caste and the corresponding roles, leading to contentment or resignation from their current station in life. In other words, to a sense of apathy, whatever they will do to pursue certain opportunities and professions, in the end, they are limited.

On the other hand, some use their situation to conclude that fulfilling caste-specific duties and responsibilities is essential to maintain Dharma (righteousness). This sense of duty can foster a strong work ethic and a commitment to meeting societal expectations. Some individuals may use the concept of Karma and reincarnation as motivation for spiritual growth. They may focus on accumulating good Karma in their present life to improve their prospects in future lifetimes.

And then there is the third option, out of a deep sense of belonging, they may take pride in their caste heritage or feel a deep connection to their caste community, contributing to a sense of collective identity. Furthermore, they may be driven to change and improve their collective standing, challenge the system’s inherent inequalities and advocate for social change and equality.

The Far-Reaching Impact: Exploring Intergenerational Trauma Intersection with Caste System

In the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” Isabel Wilkerson writes: “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission of trauma experiences and their effects across generations. In the context of the caste system, the discrimination, oppression, and violence faced by lower-caste individuals and communities over centuries have resulted in deep-rooted psychological, social, and economic impacts that are passed down from one generation to another.

The caste system’s hierarchical structure perpetuates discrimination and unequal treatment, leading to a cycle of trauma and suffering for lower caste individuals and their descendants. The effects of intergenerational trauma related to the caste system can include:

  1. Psychological Impact: Lower caste individuals and communities may internalize feelings of inferiority, shame, and worthlessness due to the discrimination they face. These negative self-perceptions can be passed on to future generations, impacting their mental well-being.
  2. Social Exclusion: Lower caste individuals may face social ostracization and exclusion, leading to feelings of isolation and a sense of not belonging to the broader community. This exclusionary treatment can be carried forward to subsequent generations, perpetuating a cycle of marginalization.
  3. Economic Disadvantage: The caste system often restricts lower caste individuals’ access to education, employment opportunities, and resources. This economic disadvantage can be transmitted to future generations, limiting their socio-economic mobility.
  4. Health Disparities: Lower caste communities may experience limited access to healthcare and higher rates of health problems due to systemic discrimination. These health disparities can affect successive generations.

Addressing intergenerational trauma caused by the caste system requires efforts to dismantle systemic discrimination and ensure equal rights and opportunities for all individuals, irrespective of their caste. Providing access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities can help break the cycle of trauma and promote social justice and equality. Fostering empathy, understanding, and social integration between different caste groups can contribute to healing and reconciliation.

Breaking Barriers: Lower-Caste Struggles for Equal Rights

I asked our porter, who sometimes had a vail of melancholy, “How do individuals of lower castes, like yourself, challenge and oppose their discriminatory status?”

Not surprisingly, social media plays a significant role in the fight against caste discrimination in India and Nepal. It has provided a platform for lower-caste people to share their stories and experiences, which has helped raise awareness of the issue and mobilize support for change.

For example, the Dalit Camera is a YouTube channel featuring videos of Dalits about their experiences of discrimination and oppression. Another example is the Facebook group Dalit Women Fight, which was created to provide a space for Dalit women to share their experiences of discrimination and violence. These and others have become important platforms for raising awareness of the issue and mobilizing support for change.

Lower-caste individuals seek legal recourse to fight against caste-based discrimination. They use constitutional provisions and anti-discrimination laws to challenge discriminatory practices and demand equal rights and opportunities.

Education plays a crucial role in empowering lower-caste individuals. Many organizations and activists work towards providing educational opportunities to children from lower-caste communities, promoting awareness of their rights and encouraging social mobility.

Some lower-caste individuals challenge caste-based norms by choosing to marry outside their caste. Inter-caste marriages challenge traditional boundaries and help break down caste-based prejudices.

Economic empowerment initiatives help lower-caste individuals uplift themselves economically and gain financial independence. For example, in Nepal, the Samajik Bandhu is a government program that provides financial assistance to SC (Scheduled Castes) and under privilege communities. The program aims to help these communities improve their economic conditions by providing them with loans, grants, and other financial aid.

Lower-caste individuals actively participate in politics to secure representation and a voice in decision-making processes. Through elected positions, they advocate for policies that address caste-based discrimination. Examples include Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, and Jignesh Mevani. Of course, the most prominent Dalit leader in the early days of independent India was Babasaheb Ambedkar, who famously said, “Caste is not a state of mind. It is a disease of the mind. The teachings of the Hindu religion are the root cause of this disease.”

Lower-caste individuals use media and art to raise awareness about their struggles and challenge stereotypes. Books, movies, and documentaries often shed light on the harsh realities of caste discrimination.

Some lower-caste individuals and organizations collaborate with international human rights groups to draw attention to caste-based discrimination on a global scale and seek support for their cause.

Appreciating the Complexity of Hindu Dharma Beyond Judeo-Christian Critiques

Critics of the caste system from Judeo-Christian backgrounds, like myself, may express strong opposition to it. However, it would be arrogant to assume that the Western tradition of equality is inherently superior to the Dharmic tradition of Hinduism.

Though I have some educational understanding of Dharma, I recognize that this principle goes beyond just intellectual comprehension. It is woven into the very fabric of Hindu identity, deeply ingrained and passed down through generations. It is not merely a theoretical concept but an integral part of the Hindu DNA, enriched through lived experiences and handed down through time.

Hindu societies, especially that of India, stand as a unique and cohesive civilization with a remarkable capacity to harmoniously handle profound differences, creatively interact with diverse cultures, religions, and philosophies, and successfully integrate a wide array of human experiences. Thus, with time, it will adjust.

I will end with the words of Sathya Sai Baba, “There is only one caste… the caste of humanity. There is only one religion… the religion of love. There is only one language… the language of the heart.”