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Caste and India

So, I don't think I nearly know the whole story here, but having used the indices of my books and read Wikipedia I've learned as much as I'm going to immediately.

Varna If your education is at all like mine, you'll have heard of the 4+1 division by at least the English names: brahmin (priest), kshatriya (warrior/ruler), vaisya (peasant/merchant), sudra (indigenous artisans) + pariahs (untouchables, those who handle dead bodies and human waste.) The first four are the varna in Hindu terminology.

One thing I didn't mention about Wood is that he quotes Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador in 302 BC, describing *seven* castes: brahmins (and a huge annual gathering, possibly precursor to the khumba mela), peasants, cattle herders + sherpherds, hunters + trappers + bird-catchers, artisans + craftsmen + material-workers, military (kshatriyas), civil service, councillors + administrators + magistrates. Wood says this is also found in *southern* Indian brahaminical accounts. Megasthenes notes the usual, allegedly over-simplified caste rules: can't marry outside caste or change professions. I don't see much discussion of this seven-fold division elsewhere.

But there's also the jati, often translated as "sub-caste"; these are what you have hundreds and thousands of, and which seem to be actually in force. Honestly the details, not to mention history, of everything here seems in dispute; my other books talk about varna coming first, and being sub-divided later, but Wikipedia has indications of the jati being primordial, and the varna being a descriptive simplification, much like the Three Estates of France or "upper middle class" today. But seems like in practice you don't worry about marrying another brahmin or vaisya, you worry about marrying another Iyer or Gandhi, endogamous groups which belong to the brahmin or vaisya varnas, with specific occupations to boot. Except that some jati used to span more than one varna, which might support the jati coming first and the varna being a descriptive simplification, rather than prescriptive. Also, pariahs are outside the varna system, not a fifth varna, but they have their own jati, with some untouchables looking down on others. ("We may be clotheswashers, but you touch corpses. Ewwww.")

One thing that would make sense to me would be that the jati are like civilized tribes. India still *has* tribes (the real, pre-Dravidian, ingigenes, probably; "forest tribes" and hill tribes), endogamous groups that control some land and practice a closed subsistence economy. Jati are endogamous groups that are part of a more complex economy; perhaps various tribes got taken up by civilization, while retaining their endogamous nature, like Orthodox Jews today, or Korean immigrants wanting to marry other Koreans. Here, the occupational focus would be secondary, a result of inherited-occupation tendencies, a matter not so much of law as one naturally learning one's parents' occupations. OTOH, a new occupation might form a guild and turn endogamous, goldsmiths marrying goldsmiths for bonding and to keep secrets within the group.

Going back to the classical varna, the first three are all Aryan. Aryan priests (but see below), Aryan warriors, and Aryan everyone else -- Vaisya comes from 'vis', free. Note this matches the Three Estates perfectly: priest, warrior, others. The three varna are also "twice-born", and allowed to study the Vedas, the Aryan scriptures; the Sudras, the "dark-skinned" (in Aryan words) native artisans aren't. Though a Wikipedia page says that prohibition may have developed later.

Sooo complicated
One source also says that in southern India, native jati don't belong to the kshatriya or vaisya varnas, just brahmin and sudra. The latter makes sense, everyone in the south is 'indigenous' in that sense. The former... maybe the priest-concept moved south faster. Or maybe it had native analogues; one page said brahmin might actually be a Dravidian word. And Kerala, which is as far from the Aryan invasion as one can get in India, has brahminic jati that study the Vedas... also some brahminic jati that are matriarchal [matriarchal or matrilineal?], again suggesting really deep tribal roots. [Edit: but later I read stuff suggesting those jati are opportunistically matrilineal, accommodating non-first sons of a high status brahmin jati; when it stopped expelling its excess sons, the others stopped having female line inheritance.]

"Everything's worse with colonialism". Sources tend to agree that whatever was originally the case got rigidified by the British, trying to match varna to their own ideas of class, trying to shoehorn jati into single varnas everywhere and to fix them in a rigid rank of prestige vs. earlier fluidity, using the census to bring this to the forefront and hammer it in. As for the past, force is always good for social mobility, with mention of sudra and brahmin kings, as well as ones of obscure origins. (But priest-kings aren't too exotic, and sudra might just mean native rulers; where're the vaisya kings?)

Religion. Is all this a Hindu thing? Sort of. Varnas have descriptions in early Vedas, but aren't very prominent; they're prescribed more in the later Manusmirti. Jati might be primordial, as mentioned. Various Hindu reformers, especially the bhakti, have attacked the caste system, not just Buddhist and Jain outsiders. Conversely, Indian converts to Christianity and Islam often keep the caste system, especially with regard to discrimination against pariahs. So there's association with Hinduism, but neither seems sufficient or necessary for the other. I'm not sure if Buddhism is more successful in breaking this down. Currently 90% of Indian Buddhists are from scheduled (officially recognized as prone to massive discrimination and thus targeted for affirmative action) castes and tribes, perhaps representing an attempt to escape -- of limited success, if no one else joins you, but at least ti might break down barriers within the underclass.

Hopefully you're now as confused as I am! Takeaway: there's the four varna, yeah. But what matters more is jati, not whether you're "scholar" but whether you're "Sullivan" or "Tilson". Also whether you're untouchable or not. Some Hindus, among others, have tried to reform or break all this; they've all failed. It survives even if you convert away from Hinduism, at least for some religions.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 26th, 2011 05:27 am (UTC)
I think this post answers some of your later ones: expertise in Chinese history or culture is more atttractive because it presents a more coherent object. Anyone claiming to be an expert on India is inviting a hail of rotten fruit from the peanut gallery, because there are always more exceptions rhan rules and learned opinion is either politically motivated or head-shakingly dismissive. To add some more cow dung to your fire, I had an anthro professor, specialized in Sri Lanka, who mainainted that both the caste system and Hinduism were substantially British constructs: that really there were just lots and lots of communities and traditions, and the reason none of it made coherent sense was that nobody designed it to do so. Then there's the language issue...

Orientalism (that European fetish lambasted by Said) at least tried to construct coherent objects of study out of China and Islam, giving us something to argue about. My sense is that this project never got very far with India, although lotsof work was done and it came up with lovely decorative flourishes.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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