India is a land that is really thousands of diverse countries under one flag. Different religions, varying tongues, a myriad of food options, dissimilar dressing styles, sundry climates, a plethora of political affiliations and parties etc… I could go on ad-nauseam. But there is one thing unites this vast nation unlike anything else — cricket.
American football, futbol, basketball, baseball and even hockey, popular in huge swaths across the globe have no substantial following there. The average one day cricket match lasts more than six hours. That’s realistically about the average workday for most people in the West.
Everywhere one ventures there are boys playing cricket in fields, in streets, along railroad tracks, in the affluent gated communities, in her fetid slums, it permeates the national psyche. The commercials show cricketers hawking products, the billboards gleam with the faces of the cricket gods, whom millions of Indians adore. In a land with thousands of deities, Sachin Tendulkar, and his cricketing mates feel like part of the religious pantheon.
I was fortunate enough to be in Delhi for India’s historic World Cup win over their nemesis Pakistan (emphasis on “their,” as don’t feel that way personally) and the celebrations which followed. It was an amazing sight, to hear and see fireworks in all directions for hours after the match ended.
Two days later the country erupted again in euphoria nearly incomprehensible to anyone born and bred in the US, as India won the Cricket World Cup. Perhaps such merry-making is equaled in the futbol heartlands of South America or Europe. But I am nearly certain it could never surpass the party which the nation plunged itself headlong into after beating Sri Lanka. Brazil may go insane after a World Cup victory, ditto France or Italy, but they don’t have 1 billion plus people, all of whom seem like they have gone crazy with elation together. The scale of national ecstasy was astounding.
One and all were celebrating. Religious, cultural, social, and economic differences were all set aside as India coroneted their cricketing kings. They joined in massive street parties, where seemingly everyone waved the tri-color, honked their car horns in jubilation and united around their love for team India. Young, old, rich and poor, men and women, the have and the have-not’s meeting together to share their love and pride in their team, the World Champions.
It was a marvelous event to witness.
But if cricket unifies this country in extraordinary ways, the Hindu caste system, even in 2011, is its opposite – splitting it apart like nothing else.
Before I go “there,” I realize this is a highly controversial topic that I will never fully understand. Since I’m writing a blog post, not a dissertation, I will bypass deep details about its origins or the ideology behind it. There are many books and articles written about caste by Indians and non-Indians alike that do so. Read them if you are looking for scholarly analysis.
The following were my observations after five months of living there.
I know that many Indians get very defensive when caste is mentioned by a foreigner, believing “we” have no business being involved in judging their way of life. That’s a valid point and I have considered it, but being an Indian myself, though not raised here, I will take the liberty to voice my feelings about it anyway.
Recently I was in a discussion with a woman who said that caste and class was the same thing. I would emphatically and respectfully disagree.
First of all, caste in India is dogmatically sanctioned by the religious majority, Hinduism. So for that very reason alone, caste is different. Class is not based on a religious doctrine, but rather one’s socio-economic status. Caste on the other hand largely determines one’s socio-economic status.
Secondly, the entire formulation of the caste system is based on inequality. The Brahmins are the elite by their birth, not by anything else. Similarly if you are born a low-caste Hindu, you have no recourse. There’s nothing you can do as an individual to overcome your poor station in life. If you are in one of the scheduled castes or tribes, that’s your destiny. You can never fully leave it. You may rise above it, but the stigma of your upbringing will not fully fade.
The entire Brahmanical system was put in place to keep millions of people from ever achieving power, influence, education, money, freedom and a host of other things. Brahmins historically alone made the decisions. Even today many Indians who are well-off are high caste.
Even use of Sanskrit in Hindu teaching allowed Brahmins to maintain their superiority. Sanskrit was not the common language of India, and the Brahmins had sole possession of the ability to read and speak it. This meant that they alone knew the scriptures and were seen as the keepers of holy texts, ensuring gravitas to make pronouncements about Hindu daily life and rituals.
Lastly, there is nothing in class that compares with the practice of “untouchability” and impurity that exists within the Hindu caste system.
The system is not only one of inequality, it is absolutely concrete in its declarations that castes cannot inter-marry and fraternize. For caste Hindus merely coming into contact with a lower caste, defiles their person and makes them unclean. Nothing in the idea of class even remotely resembles this.
A poor person outside of South East Asia can generally enter any religious sanctuary, eat in any restaurant, work a job that is not completely demeaning, attend school, own land, and have faith in the rule of law. Certain opportunities may be closed to them depending on how much money they actually have. But if you are low-caste and depending on how low-caste one is, you cannot do any of these things. Or if you do, the consequences for such actions can be torture, rape or even death.
I cannot think of a single religion besides Hinduism which advocates and establishes an entrenched hierarchy in one’s own religious beliefs that maintains strict separation of groups of people who believe in and worship many of the same gods.
Furthermore, caste distinctions are hereditary. If your grandfather was a leather worker, your father was a leather work and you will also be a leather worker. Class may be generational, but there are not laws or entrenched social systems which prevent everyone in a particular class from improving their station in life. Though this has changed in more modern times, the effects of the system resonate all throughout Indian society.
If a poor person in the West wants to better themselves, they have options. In India, those options are middling in the cities, but nearly non-existent in the villages. And most of India lives in the villages.
Caste discrimination was abolished by the Indian Constitution written shortly after Independence. Its stigma has been lessened in the cosmopolitan areas of India and medium-sized cities. However, in the rural areas caste distinction and discrimination remains a huge problem.
During my time in India I had at least three conversations with people who want to marry someone they love, but cannot do so because they are of differing castes. Pardon my ignorance, but at the end of the day, how does separation by caste help the society in any way?
I understand the idea of community and know that it’s the social currency there. Everything is based on community, but when one community feels they are inherently better than another, you have problems.
That type of mentality, and notions of Brahmin superiority does not assist society, it helps the elite.
Think about all the time, energy and money being spent on keeping castes separate and maintaining the current social system in India. For what? All the wasted force by the Brahmins and other high castes, to continue exerting their dominance over people whom they believe are inherently inferior.
Ponder all the unused potential of hundreds of millions of Indians who spend their lives either fighting daily battles against caste-ism or have resigned themselves to its injustices. Might it stand to reason that somehow those people could add value to India in some way?
The idea of “white privilege” is the ability to not even think about race, because one has white skin. There is the similar concept that can apply to Hinduism. Brahmins and caste Hindus do not have to think about how their actions affect hundreds of millions of their kinsmen, because they are inside the system. It is the ones outside of it who bear the brunt of caste designation.
The division of Indian society by caste has occurred for thousands of years. When the British were colonizing India, they had to win over the elites, and those were the Brahmins. As a result, Brahmanical culture was equated with Indian culture by the Imperialists and millions of India’s minority classes, Jain, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Muslim and many others were considered not “pure” and “authentic” Indians.
Additionally, the British originally had a policy of non-interference in Indian societal affairs. Their refusal to speak out against practices like untouchability, sati (widow burning) and the sexual exploitation of low-caste women, among others, was viewed as tacit approval by high caste Hindus to continue shaping India according to the Brahmanical tradition. In time the British came to take a moral stand against those practices, but that happened only after a number of years.
According to the Constitution of India itself, India is a secular democracy. Being Hindu does not make one Indian, nor is being Hindu a prerequisite for being Indian. India is a great country because of, and despite its huge diversity. But it is not a Hindu nation and hopefully will never be. There is only one place on earth that called itself a “Hindu nation,” and that was Nepal. It lost that distinction in 2006 when its own parliament declared it a secular state.
Great article! I would definitely like to hear more about this. These cultural norms may never leave, hopefully they can progress and transform. Thanks!
Thanks for the comment Chris. I hope we can chat more about it sometime as well. That would be great.
I just listened to your 3-part podcast on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. My son is a bit older than you but with VERY similar experiences in his India travels some years back and including meeting/marrying an Indian woman in India….now living in the US. I am enjoying reading your blog.