Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new series called India Reflections. The goal is to present a macro view of concepts that have been driven into Indian & Western consciousness. Such articles are likely to be a little longer & more elaborate in treatment.
You hear “India” and you think “Caste System”. The concept of “Caste” has become synonymous with India. But was “Caste” ever an Indian concept? Etymology points out that the British term “caste” is derived from Portuguese term “casta” which in turn comes from Latin “castus”. The term simply means lineage and is used to suggest hereditary transfer of rights.
Think back to medieval Europe and you see deeply embedded notions of caste or lineage based segregation of society. Military history going back to the Crusades shows that only Knights wore armor and were allowed to wear armor. And you could not be recognized as a Knight unless you were of “noble” birth. This reality and the struggle against it forms the theme of the Hollywood film “A Knight’s Tale” starring Heath Ledger.
What is an “Indian” concept anyway? What defines a “concept” as being a part of the Dharma, culture & civilization that is known as Indian or developed on the banks of the River Indus? Today’s India is a society that was subjugated by foreigners and occupied continuously since 1198. Today’s India is a society that has adopted norms of invader cultures including Afghan, Uzbek, Chagatai Mongol, British, as well as French, Portuguese in some areas. The elite lingua franca of North India was Persian for at least 500 years and Britlish for about 250 years. This period has seen introduction and enforced usage of Persian & British-European terms in Indian Society.
So to decide whether a term is truly “Indian”, you have to go back to pre-1000 CE. That Indian culture was all-Indian, true-Indian and the terms in usage were in Samskrut, the language of Indian Spiritual, Philosophical, Ethical texts. If you search Indian texts from that period back to the Rg-Ved, the earliest composition in known history, you will not find any term named “caste” or any term that sounds remotely like it.
This is not a tautology as some may argue given the distance between India & Europe. Because there are many words common between Samskrut & Latin. After all, Samskrut is the oldest living member of the Indo-European linguistic family, family to which many of today’s Indian & European languages belong. In other words, had a “caste” system been prevalent in India, its reflection would have been found in Samskrut language or discussed in Samskrut texts.
On the other hand, when you read Samskrut texts, you invariably come across descriptions and discussions of a term called “Varna”, a system of classification of professions in society. So what is a “Varna” system and how similar is it to the European “Caste” system?
2. Varna – Categorization & Hierarchy of Professions
Varna is a term that applies to professions and the Varna system is simply a system for classification & hierarchy of professions. The simplest American example is the classification of professions as “white-collar” and “blue-collar”. A “white-collar” profession has a higher social status than a “blue-collar” profession. The “white collar” profession has its own classification or hierarchy – an Investment Banker is of much higher social status than a bank teller or even a bank manager; a surgeon is of higher social status than a nurse. Such a social hierarchy or categorization is a natural outgrowth of human behavior and is present in every society.
Such broad professional categories were given the name “Varna” in Indian texts. When these texts were learnt or composed, Indian society had four major occupations – Priest/Teacher/Spiritual-counselor, Warrior/Soldier, Trader, & Worker with hands similar to today’s ” blue-collar” worker. This classification and hierarchy was given the name “Chaatur-Varnya”, literally a four-Varna system. The names given to these Varna were Braahman (derived from “Brahman”, simply the Ish or Overlord of the universe), Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra.
The first difference is that Varna is strictly based on profession while Caste is strictly based on lineage. The second big difference is the mobility across different Varna or professions. Simply put, people cannot change “caste/lineage” while people can migrate from one Varna/profession to another or higher Varna/profession by talent & ability.
3. Inter-Varna Mobility – Correlated with Material growth of Society?
Senator-elect Joni Ernst from Iowa proudly embraced her economic background in her victory speech in the recent Congressional Elections. She was beaming when she said she had only one pair of good shoes as a child and her mother would cover her good pair in plastic bags before sending her to school on a rainy day. Such proud sentiments comprise what is called the American Dream. This is upward Varna migration at its finest.
The Indian system enabled inter-Varna mobility based on ability & achievement. Some of the greatest Rushi or Sages of Indian culture came from parents of lower Varna. Rushi Valmiki, the poet who composed the Raamayan, used to be a thug who robbed travelers. Vyaas, perhaps the greatest of Rushis, a dark-complexioned man who composed the Mahaa-Bhaarat & integrated different Upanisad into Vedanta-Sutra, was born out of wedlock to a fisherwoman. A young man named Satyakaam, the son of a poor maid, was accepted as a Braahman by Sage Gautam.
The earliest Rushi (the term is both singular & plural) adopted multiple Varna as needed. Rushi Agastya crossed the Vindhya range with an axe & weapons to propagate Dharma in South India, Rushi Jamadagni moved to the banks of the river Narmada in today’s Gujarat and his son, Parashu-Raam went down to the Konkan coast of today’s Maharashtra. These Rushis adopted a dual Braahman (Priest-teacher) & Kshatriya (warrior) Varna. In the Imperial Magadh age (500-300 BCE), a Shudra barber became Emperor Mahaa-Padma via his diabolical intelligence and valor. Coming down to 18th century, a Braahman family took up the Kshatriya Varna to become commanders of Marathi Armies and conquered 80% of today’s India.
The reality is simple. When a society is in its material growth phase, it creates opportunities for the most able and talented. This is why Bajirao, the 18th century Braahman Commander of Marathi Army, chose as his main generals two men from a much lower strata of society – a farmer & a shepherd. These two, Ranoji Shinde & Malhaar Holkar, became synonymous with military might of Maharashtra.
The success of Indian immigrants in America is basically a story of professions that primarily need talent & ability – Technology firms, Management Consulting, Investment banks, Medicine etc. And changing one’s Varna or professional status is easier in America than in any other society in the world, a testament to America’s creed of higher growth via competition.
Europe, the cradle of the Caste system, changed and facilitated upward Varna migration in 16th century. That was a poor Europe which wanted to use its technology to conquer & plunder foreign lands. So it allowed an upward migration path to anyone with talent & ability to plunder South America, Asia, Africa and bring back the riches to Europe. The most successful among them were accorded high caste status by European rulers regardless of their parental lineage. In fact, the successful plunderers became the new aristocrats of Europe.
4. Mutation of Varna into Caste – Correlated with Societal Pie getting smaller?
College Education has traditionally been a key to upward migration in modern America. And America’s college education system has been a great filterer of the highly-talented from the less-talented. Historically, American education was more affordable and the rewards of higher compensation from a good college degree were much higher than the cost of education. This is a major reason why children of janitors, home workers, and poorer Americans have had an equal chance of professional success.
But this is changing. The biggest economic problem in today’s America is the crushing burden of student loans. This is because college costs have gone up while jobs broadly available to college graduates now offer salaries that are utterly inadequate to pay off student loans. As a result, college education is mutating from being a key to upward migration to an obstacle to upward migration.
The danger is that “college-educated” status could end up becoming a “caste” in today’s America. Look around you – college graduates invariably marry college graduates and their children invariably become college graduates. What is worse is that children of parents without college-education are increasingly opting for jobs instead of going to college. In other words, “college-educated” is indeed turning into a hereditary attribute or a “caste”.
Simply put, a Varna becomes a Caste when entry into that Varna becomes hereditary. That is mainly the result of reduced opportunities for upward migration which, in turn, are strongly correlated to the societal pie getting smaller.
5. The Turn Inwards in India, Its Corrosive Impact & Now the Turn Upward
History of Indian Society provides the best evidence of up and down cycles in Inter-Varna mobility. India turned decisively inward in the middle of 10th century CE. Her binding language, Samskrut, lost its cache and regional languages gained in popularity & primacy over Samskrut. The concept of one Indian land slowly withered and each region turned its focus inwards or in its immediate vicinity. This made it easier for foreign invaders to attack India and defeat the various regional kings one by one.
The battle that decidedly changed India was fought in 1198 CE. The winner, Mohammed Ghori, decided to remain in India & rule over Indians instead to returning to Afghanistan with his plunders. Since that victory, Delhi, the capital of India, has been ruled by a series of foreign invaders – Afghans, Uzbeks, Chagatai Mongols, & British – until 1947.
When a society lives under subjugation by foreigners, its economic pie goes into a relentless contraction. Under those conditions, the people who are relatively richer become dedicated to preserving their riches for their children & their grandchildren. On a broader scale, communities of rich & respected professionals become obsessed with preserving their professions, the key to their riches & social standing, for their progeny. This is achieved by ensuring your children join your profession & more so by ensuring outsiders cannot enter your cherished profession. This is the surest way of turning a cyclical decline into a secular one.
This is how Varna system or professional hierarchy mutated into a rigid lineage system or a “caste” system in India. The foreign occupiers, British in particular, encouraged this mutation into hereditary segregation to keep different sections of Indian society in perpetual conflict with one another.
But now we are beginning to see a turn back towards upward migration or a move back from a lineage or “caste” system back to a professional system or a “Varna” system. Large cities like Mumbai are getting de-casted; people from lower social strata are succeeding in cities like Mumbai by getting college degrees & well-paying jobs. Their social status is now determined by their professions like Doctor, Engineer, Businesss-owner or Corporate Executive. However, “caste” or lineage is still a huge obstacle in poorer, non-industrialized or non-educated rural areas. But the progress of cities like Mumbai is slowly entering these rural areas at least in more developed states in India.
This demonstrates that, even in Indian society, economic progress drives the need to get the best available talent overriding lineage or “caste”. It also suggests that as long as Indian society maintains its current upward economic trajectory, talent based opportunities will keep penetrating the rural hinterland and the so-called “caste” system will wither away.
This year saw the stunning victory and nationwide acceptance of a man born in one of the lowest strata of Indian society as the Prime Minister of India. We hope and believe that this is just a beginning. Some one born in the lower strata of society will, one day, be hailed as that day’s greatest Braahman – the greatest scholar-teacher of Samskrut & Dharma – in the land. That will be a fitting tribute to Ved-Vyaas, the most revered of Indian Rushi and a man born of wedlock to a fisherwoman.
Then the only remaining need will be to remove the horrific European term “Caste” from Indian vocabulary and replace it by the Sanskrut term “Varna”.
Editor’s PS; The closest term to “clan/tribe” in Indian society is “jaat” or “jaati” which literally means ethnic lineage/clan/tribe/race. In America, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans, Hispanic Americans would be termed as “race” or “jaat”. This has nothing to do with professions, at least not now. But there was a time when African-Americans were not accepted as “white-collar” professionals. The key point is that this race/jaat distinction is about ethnic superiority and it has nothing to do with professional categorization or Varna, at least not in growing societies. Europe, on the other hand, seems to be mutating back to primacy of ethnicity or jaat.
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