She is unemployed. She has a high school diploma, but will not continue her education. She speaks Kannada and minimal English. She is tall. She is slim. She has olive skin and serious eyes. Her laugh is light and sugary, but her smile is saccharine. She sits at a rickety table, one hand at her forehead, the other moving in elegant flourishes, gripping a pen. Like millions of Indians preparing for marriage, she is drafting a matrimonial ad for the local newspaper.
Her breath is uneven and ragged, the heat of fear for her future blooming in her chest; but even she doesn’t forget the most vital piece of information — her caste. She lists herself as a member of theScheduled Caste, formerly called the “untouchables.” Consequently, she can expect a quiet husband with an annual salary of Rs. 25,000 ($500) as a store manager for Big Bazaar (the Indian equivalent of Walmart). She is from the lowest rung of India’s social order and will return to dust with only one thought echoing in her mind: “What if?”
This young girl reflects the reality of 21st-century India and reveals the ancient social patterns deeply ingrained in daily life. The desperate need for uniformity and community often drives humans to irrationality, and the caste system serves as the perfect instance of how the search for a shared identity led to the crystallization of a dehumanizing social structure.
The caste system has endured for over 3,000 years, which makes it difficult to place a finger on its origin. It can be traced to the early part of the Vedic Period (1500-500 BCE), when Indo-Aryans settled in northern India, carrying in their hearts a virulent and potent disease. Supposedly the Aryans assimilated into Indian society, securing positions at the top of the social ladder (due to the idea that fair skin indicates superiority) and assuring an ailing future for India. This theory of “contagious diffusion” (the spread of ideas through direct person-to-person contact), which attributes the roots of the caste system to a racially defined encounter between fair-skinned Aryan invaders and dark-hued Indians, has been challenged for many years.
In contrast, some historians argue that the caste system is a manufactured political device “invented” by members of the upper class to maintain their position at the highest rung of the social hierarchy, which gradually progressed into rigid social machinery. However, the theory that economic specialization, with certain jobs possessing higher prestige, led to social disparity is also markedly prominent.
Despite the caste system’s hazy origins there is one indubitable truth: an epidemic of inequality was moments away for Vedic India. By the advent of the Classical Era (600 BCE-600 CE), the idea of societal segmentation into four ranked classes, or varna, was deeply entrenched in Indian philosophy, establishing the Aryans as dominant leaders and the natives as subordinate workers.
The virus was breeding.
Soon everyone in Indian society was born into a caste and remained a member of that caste for the span of a lifetime. According to varna theory, the caste system formed from the physical embodiment of the cosmic being Purusha. Therefore, it was eternal and unarguable, which ensured the superiority of the Aryans and ended the possibility of lasting social mobility.
At the top of this hierarchical system were the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, who were regarded as “pure” Aryans. Towards the bottom were the Sudras, who were incorporated into the periphery of Aryan society in servile and subordinate roles. Ranking even lower than the Sudras were the “untouchables,” who performed the most “polluting” and “unclean” duties, including cremation, management of dead animals, and execution. These ideas of ritual purity and pollution were applied to the caste system, which led to endogamy (marriage exclusively within a caste) and the segregation or discrimination of lower castes in an effort to avoid “impurity.”
Further support for the caste system stemmed from Hindu religious concepts around rebirth, including the concepts of karma and dharma. Birth into a caste was regarded as a reflection of morality in a previous lifetime (karma), and any hope for rebirth rested on the dedicated, selfless, and faithful fulfillment of one’s caste duties (dharma) in the current life. These concepts supported societal inequalities and created a viciously poisonous cycle of mistreatment and ostracism.
Prior to India’s independence in the 20th century, an Indian political identity did not exist, due to the country’s elaborate cultural diversity, regional fragmentation, and European colonialism. As foreign power slowly disintegrated during the 1800s and 1900s, the effort to regain control of the central government created political instability, which led to regional fragmentation and loyalty to local governments. In order to achieve a truly “communal experience” in the face of the fluctuating nature of central government, people looked to Hindu myths as a prescription for unity. This allowed the caste system to harden.
Religious commentator and author Reza Aslan acknowledges that when aspects of personal identity begin to collapse, religion tends to “fill the vacuum” and rise in significance. In this manner, the Purusha myth solidified as a social hierarchy and continued into the years following independence
Even today, Indian social distinctions are widely acknowledged and often lead to violence, even though discrimination by caste is illegal. The Ranvir Sena in Bihar is an upper class terrorist group dedicated to ending the “menace” of untouchables and is responsible for the death of hundreds of men, women, and children in events like the Laxmanpur and Bathani Tola Massacres. They have openly declared that they indiscriminately “kill children because they will grow up to become Naxalites [untouchables]” and “kill women because they will give birth to Naxalites,” which accurately echoes the xenophobic mentality surrounding caste in India.
Even affirmative action policies (referred to as “reservation”) for the untouchables, now called the “scheduled caste,” have caused substantial controversy. In fact, in late August, Hardik Patel incited a protest of half a million in Gujarat in order to protest “reservations” policies in India, which are designed to counteract the “manifold inequalities” of the caste system by establishing quotas in schools, universities, and governmental positions.
The caste system is a reflection of the inequality and injustice faced by millions across the globe. Racial divisions, prejudice, and stereotypes plague our society and the only antidote is a combination of cultural competency, religious tolerance, compassion, and understanding. Contrary to the popular saying, ignorance is not bliss; it is anarchy. It is conflict. It is violence. It is death. Educating oneself and understanding the concerns of others is the first step to recovery, to overcoming the inherent flaws of society.
The last thought in that 19-year-old girl’s mind while she wrote the matrimony ad was, “What if?”
What if there was no caste system? What if only equality, solidarity, and justice existed? What if mythology and ideology didn’t cause conflict? What if the sun revolved around the earth and the moon revolved around the sun? What if?
It is our moral obligation to answer her questions with resounding clarity and, one day, we will. One day our words will scream at the top of our lungs. One day camaraderie and tolerance will prevail. One day India’s “hidden apartheid” will turn to ash.
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