Posts Tagged ‘Caste’

Ants Among Elephants: A Portrait of Untouchability in India

January 13, 2018

By Kabir Altaf

One of the frequent topics of debate among those interested in South Asia is the caste system and whether it is unique to Hinduism or features in other South Asian religions as well. Hindu society has traditionally been divided into four castes (or varnas): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and tradesmen), and Shudras (artisans, farmers and laboring classes). A fifth group consists of those who do not fit into this hierarchy at all and are considered “untouchable”. What separates caste from other systems of social stratification are the aspects of purity and ascribed status. Upper-castes consider lower castes to be “impure” and have rigid rules about the kind of social interaction they can have with them. For example, upper castes will not accept food from those of a lower caste, while lower castes will accept food from those above them. Caste status is also ascribed at birth and has nothing to do with an individual’s achievements. A Brahmin peasant remains a Brahmin while an “untouchable” engineer is still an “untouchable”. This system persists in India today, though the government does provide affirmative action in order to uplift members of “backward” castes.

Coming from a Pakistani background, I was not familiar with the operation of the caste system in daily life. Though Pakistan is a highly socially stratified society, this system has no religious sanction. In Islam, all believers are considered equal in the eyes of Allah. Unlike in India, where until recently, “untouchables” could not go into several temples, all social classes pray together in the same mosques. This fact is highlighted in one of the famous couplets from Allama Iqbal’s poem Shikwa (the complaint) which states: “Ek hi saf mein khare ho gaye Mahmood-o-Ayaz/ Na koi banda raha aur na koi banda nawaz” (Mahmood the king and slave Ayaz, in line as equals stood arrayed/ The lord was no more lord to slave: while both to the One Master prayed). At least in religious terms, one Muslim is not better than any other, no matter what his social status. Of course, this does not mean that social stratification ceases to exist. To this day, rich Pakistani families have separate utensils in their homes which are to be used by the servants. Punjabi Christians who engage in janitorial work are still known as “chuhras”, a derogatory reference to their pre-conversion caste status as “untouchables”. However, unlike the Hindu caste system, social class in Pakistan is not based on ascribed status. If someone from a low socio-economic background attains an education and a well-paying job, he or she will no longer be treated as belonging to their previous socioeconomic group. This is a major difference from India, where one’s caste remains salient, no matter one’s economic status.

A first hand account of caste in India is given by Sujatha Gidla’s recent book “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017). Gidla was born into an “untouchable” family in the southern Indian state of Andra Pradesh. Through the story of her ancestors, she presents a portrait of India from the end of British rule to the 1990s. It is particularly interesting to note that while her family is Christian (a religion in which there is technically no caste), they are still considered “untouchable” in Hindu society. Gidla writes: “Christians, untouchables—it came to the same thing. All Christians in India were untouchables, as far as I knew (though only a small minority of all untouchables are Christian.) I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu. I knew no Hindu who did not look right through a Christian man standing in front of him as if he did not exist. I accepted this. No questions asked” (Gidla 5). Caste is so pervasive in India that it applies even to those groups whose religions formally believe in equality.

Another aspect that differentiates Gidla’s family from that of the typical “untouchable” is their educational attainment. Starting with her grandparents’ generation, her family was educated in missionary schools. Gidla herself studied engineering in India and then moved to the United States for further education. However, these educational achievements did not stop the family from experiencing discrimination based on their caste. After Gidla’s mother, Manjula, passed the exams that qualified her to work as a university lecturer, she was posted by the government to a distant town. When she got there, the principal of the college, a Brahmin woman, refused to let her take up her post. (243-244). Luckily, she was able to return to the job she had just left and her ex-boss was kind enough to rip up her resignation letter. This incident is just one example of the bigotry the family had to face.

Much of the book tells the story of Gidla’s maternal uncle Satyam who was engaged with the Communist Party from an early age and became one of the founders of the Maoist movement. However, caste remained salient even within the Communist movement. Gidla describes how new recruits were given jobs that reflected their caste status: “Barber-caste members were told to shave their comrades’ chins and washer-caste members to wash their comrades’ clothes. Untouchables, of course, were made to sweep and mop the floors and clean the lavatories” (302). Even though Satyam had initially believed that the communist movement should not focus too much on caste, but on fighting for the rights of all workers, he eventually came to believe that upper-caste peasants and workers “couldn’t be won to a truly revolutionary program” (305). When he tried to advocate for the concerns of “untouchable” recruits, he was accused of trying to divide the party and expelled.

Gidla’s book is an illuminating and accessible read. Through the story of one family, she shows how the phenomenon of caste operates in modern India. The book is particularly important for those of us who live in India’s neighboring countries, where caste does not operate in the same way—or at least not to the same extent—as it does in India.

Kabir Altaf is an editor. He graduated from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

Back to Main Page


Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?

October 12, 2008

Is it a Religion?

(The subtitle has been added following an intensive discussion that is recorded in the comments section. The point at issue was that the title of the post was misleading giving the impression that the subject pertained to the content of Hinduism whereas the intended perspective was quite different. The series was intended to explore the interactions of three religions (which is how we perceive history in retrospect, incorrectly as this series intends to argue) for which reason it was important to define at the outset the ways in which the three religions were alike and different. This anticipated the point raised in Part 2 of the series which referred to the first census in British India which institutionalized religious identities for non-religious purposes. In this census, the census-takers made the claim that in the etymological sense of the word, Hinduism is not, and never was a religion. The first two posts in the series were an attempt to deal with this definitional dilemma which is why the term Hinduism was used in quotes.)

I need some help from readers.

I am not a historian, nor do I have the luxury to devote time to intensive research. And yet, I have some hypotheses about ‘Hinduism’ turning over in my mind that I need to work through.

The only way I can do so is to take advantage of the blog format. I will set out the hypotheses as markers of my present state of ignorance and hope that readers will help chip away the false from the true and lead to a more accurate understanding.

This exercise will benefit me but I am sure it will be useful to all those in South Asia who are now growing up without adequate knowledge and information about their neighbors.

The principal questions in my mind are the following: What is ‘Hinduism’? What were the major characteristics of Muslim and Christian interaction with ‘Hinduism’? And how is today’s ‘Hinduism’ impacted by those interactions?

Here is how I see the questions at this time:

What is ‘Hinduism’?

There is a reason I have put the term ‘Hinduism’ in quotes. The very word makes me wary because it is an obvious Anglicism. The term ‘Hinduism’ could not have existed before the arrival of the British in India. It’s like referring to Islam as Mohammedanism, which is not quite the same thing. It is one of the isms like socialism or communism that derives its meaning from what precedes it.

So is it the ism, the ideology, of the Hindus? But the term ‘Hindu’ itself is of Persian origin and could not have existed before the arrival of the Persian speakers from Afghanistan. The river Indus marked the boundary of the domain of the Afghans and anyone who lived beyond the Indus was a ‘Hindu’. This was quite analogous to their use of ‘Hindi’ or ‘Hindavi’ as the generic term for the language of the people living beyond the Indus. This generic characterization made no concessions to the differences that no doubt existed between old Punjabi, khari boli, braj bhasa, Oudhi, etc.

People belonging to monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity could not have helped speculating about the ‘religion’ of the ‘Hindus’. But was what they termed ‘Hinduism’ really a religion in the terms in which they understood it?

‘Hinduism’ has no one founder, no one sacred text, no one place of pilgrimage, no one time of worship. If we feel the need to pigeonhole it in the category of a ‘religion’ we must make the effort to understand what kind of religion it might be.

One can infer that before the terms ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ came into vogue there were dharms or ways that characterized the behaviors of the people who lived in the lands of the Indus.

There were two principal characteristics of these dharms that are relevant to our discussion. First, the practices that made up these dharms were extremely localized. Different communities could worship the deity of their choice, participate in the rituals of their preference, and do it in ways that were convenient for them. Second, there was a uniform social organization that was very hierarchical with extremes of segregation amongst caste groups determined by birth.

Note that this societal arrangement of a centralized and common social organization with localized and differentiated ‘religious’ practices was quite contrary to what we are familiar with in pre-Enlightenment Europe with its centralized religious practices and localized social organizations.

I don’t know enough to go into how and why these arrangements emerged but from a modern day perspective I can hazard two observations about this ‘way’ or dharm.

First, from a modern-day perspective, the fuzziness (or lack of rigidity) of ‘Hinduism’ was its great strength. It made ‘Hinduism’ extremely tolerant, if not indifferent, to variations in ‘religious’ practices. There was no such thing as ‘deviation,’ no ‘heresy,’ and therefore no ‘inquisition.’ ‘Hindus’ did not feel the need to convert anyone to their own superior way or ‘religion’ and could coexist easily with outsiders. ‘Hinduism’ had the kind of philosophy and attributes one would want in all religions today.

Second, again from a modern-day perspective, the hierarchical social organization and discrimination in ‘Hinduism’ was its major weakness. Today, a worldview that looks upon others as ‘inferior,’ whose very shadow can be polluting, is not acceptable in the framework of human rights. This was acknowledged by the government of India that made caste discrimination illegal in the Constitution of 1949.

To conclude: ‘Hinduism’ before its interaction with Afghans and Europeans was better characterized not as a religion (in the Judeo-Christian framework) but as a ‘way’ with two dominating attributes; localized and flexible worship practices and centralized and rigid social organization. From a modern-day perspective, the first constituted a major strength, the second a major weakness.

To be continued…

Back to Main Page