Indian Caste System

This would be a good Hindu Student Council topic!


A Pluralist’s encounter with a Missionary


Kalavai Venkat


Once, a Southern Baptist missionary was my co-passenger in a flight.

Like every missionary out to seek a convert, he was pleasant. After

learning that I am a Hindu he asked, "Is the caste system going away

in India?" I quipped "Why should it go away?" He was surprised by my

response and remarked, "You are the first Hindu who responded this

way. Most Hindus agree that caste must go away and say that it is

slowly going away."


I decided to turn the tables on him. I asked him, "What language do

the African Americans speak?" He replied, "English." I asked, "What

did their ancestors speak 500 years ago?" He began to contemplate. I

thought that I might have to wait for eternity like the Christians

have waited for the second coming of their messiah before the

missionary would answer, so I prompted him, "Swahili? Hausa?" He

agreed, "Yes." I asked, "Do the African Americans worship the animist

deities of their ancestors? Do they wed and bury per their ancestral

customs?" The missionary replied, "No."


I said that one could replace African Americans with any immigrant

group: The Dutch, the Germans, the French or the Latinos. I added,

"What you proudly advertise as the melting pot actually imposed the

language, culture, religion and customs of the dominant ethnic group

on all others. On the other hand, visit even a small village in India

with just 300 families. The chances are that this population would be

made up of 10 different castes and each of them retains its distinct

religious, wedding, funerary, culinary and dialectic features. This is

because, as a truly pluralistic society, the Hindu India allowed each

ethnic group, regardless of how numerically small it was, to retain

its identity."


"So," I added, "Caste is a result of this spirit of freedom and

pluralism. It is something to be proud of. On the other hand, the

so-called melting pot is actually a result of cultural, and often

physical, extermination of diverse identities by one intolerant and

powerful group."


I continued to pontificate: "Like every other man made institution,

caste too has been misused. Then, so has been every other man made

institution like democracy or secularism. It was a democratically

elected Hitler who exterminated mentally

retarded patients. It was a democratically elected Jefferson who fixed

the worth of every African American child at $ 22.50 and proposed to

forcibly snatch them away from their parents and ship them back to

Africa after ensuring that the adult African American population does

not procreate any further. It was a democratically elected Roosevelt

who declared that the extermination at the hands of the Whites was the

best thing that happened to the Native Americans. Stalin and Mao were

secular but they mercilessly sent millions to death camps."


I asked him, "Is anyone demanding that democracy or secularism be

abandoned because of a Jefferson, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin or Mao?

Why should caste be abandoned just because it was misused? Hindus have

systematically addressed caste inequities over the last 80 years or

so. If we assume that we rid our society of all discriminations in the

next 30 years, members of every caste, be it Brahmin, Kayastha,

Maratha or Paraiyah could proudly say that they follow the millennia

old religion, customs and dialects of their forefathers. Suppose the

Christian West similarly resolves racial discriminations, could an

African American, Dutch American or Latino make similar assertion?"


I pointed out that in the casteless Christian West, the minorities

have been forced to abandon their identities and instead have been

made to imitate the dominant group in every aspect of life such as

religion, language, wedding and funeral customs. I cited the words of

Nathan Katz and pointed out how Hindu pluralism, of which caste is an

integral part, actually preserved minority customs. Katz, while

discussing how the Jewish people flourished for centuries amidst the

Hindus, writes:


"A crucial distinction between India and the rest of the Diaspora,

however, is that in India acculturation is not paid for in the

currency of assimilation. By acculturation I mean fitting comfortably

into a society while retaining one’s own identity, whereas by

assimilation I mean that the loss of that identity is a perceived

condition for acceptance. The study of Indian Jewish communities

demonstrates that in Indian culture an immigrant group gains status

precisely by maintaining its own identity. Such is the experience not

only of India’s Jews, but also of local Christians, Zoroastrians, and

recently, Tibetan Buddhists. This striking feature of Indian

civilization is reflected by each of these immigrant groups.


Now let us forget the Southern Baptist missionary and ask the Hindus:

Would this preservation have been possible without the spirit of

pluralism, which was ensured by the caste system? Are the Hindus going

to repeat the missionary propaganda and deny the strengths of their

own civilization or are they going to understand the institution of

caste dispassionately? The missionary and the imperialist know that

the institution of caste must be obliterated if the Hindu society were

to be weakened and converted. A Hindu should critically analyze his

traditions instead of uncritically absorbing propaganda.



About aschvetahata

Interests: Sanskrit, Hindi, Classical Greek, Latin, French, German Philosophy: especially Friedrich Nietzsche and South Asian Indian thought Computers
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One Response to Indian Caste System

  1. says:

    But what if some Hindus don\’t want the so-called "identity" and the torment it brings along?The point is some universal values such as freedom,equity, which caste system is surely against,should be respected in the modern world, don\’t you think so?

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