Before coming to India, I had learned that the caste system had “dissolved.†I’m not sure why I learned this, but from my experiences, it is completely untrue. Basic outline of the Hindu caste system:

–Brahmins (priests)

–Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers)

–Vaishyas (skilled traders)

–Sudras (unskilled workers)

–Dalits/Untouchables (do all work below others like picking up garbage)

Some basic observations: all of my professors are Brahmins, and all of our host families are Brahmins. The “help†or maid staff are all Dalits. The caste system divides labor and power in society. It is completely connected to the Hindu religion. It is one of the most sophisticated systems of oppression I have ever learned of. Caste is prevalent in every aspect of life in India: your diet, your occupation, your level of education, where you live, who you marry, etc. There’s no escape from caste: caste is known by your last name. Caste is Hindu so often people of the lowest castes have converted to Christianity or Buddhism to escape the caste system. This does not work well in practicality (it is a good source of empowerment). Even if you are Buddhist or Christian, your birth certificate still deems you as a Dalit or Other Backward Caste, etc. I learned about someone administrating a survey. One of the questions was, “What caste are you?†The answer was, “I’m Buddhist.†What does this mean? It means the person is Dalit.

Social justice workers will try to improve the lower caste people’s situation. Let’s say a Dalit woman is regularly abused and raped…the social justice worker will say, “Why don’t you leave your husband? We can help you settle down elsewhere, teach you a skill?†The woman responded with, “No, this is my dogma. If I am a good woman and persist, then in my next life I will improve.†It is a viscous cycle because the system is so attached to religion. In order for caste to die, Hinduism and culture will have to also dissolve.

The caste system is somewhat helped by reservations. India has a system of reservations, which is very similar to affirmative action in the US. It is a catch-22 though. Universities have to hold a certain percentage of spots of students from the Dalit and Other Backward Caste(OBC)/Tribal communities. The reservations help them, but they also sustain the caste system. Even Buddhists and Christians get reservations because they are “truly†Dalits or OBC.

I have heard host families say things like, “We will eat at a restaurant of the common man today.†Or I have asked a person why they do not eat eggs: “because I am Brahmin.†Brahmins tend to be very proud of their heritage. Some Brahmins (very few) have started eating non-veg or eggs or have changed their last name to revolt against the caste system. One girl I know will not kiss her boyfriend if he eats eggs. Very few people will date/marry people across caste lines. A boy approached a girl I know, and he was flirting with her. He asked her out on a date, and he gave her his name. His surname was of the Brahmin caste. I asked her if his surname had been a Dalit name if she would have gone on the date with him. She responded, “This is a very difficult question.â€

Only about 30% of female Dalit children go to school. About 60% of male Dalit children go to school. Very few Dalit children graduate. These families are so impoverished that the children are forced to quit school and start laboring to support their family. Mandatory school policies don’t really exist in India. They are hardly enforced, and who is going to go to the extra effort to ensure a Dalit child attends school?

Police barracks have been found to be separated by caste. Technically casticism is illegal. It is often not enforced. Class and caste often have the same meaning in India. A term called clasticism exists.

Everything I have described is in urban India. Urban India is more educated and developed. About 30% of India’s population lives in urban India. Caste is even worse in rural India, where 70% of the population lives.

Tribal communities do not practice caste as much; they have a different social system. Tribal communities live in rural India, but they are not villagers; they are tribals. Tribes make up about 15% of India’s population.

Hopefully as India becomes more secular, caste will fade. India’s constitution calls itself a secular state. A documentary I watched called it a “Hindu state,†and I very much agree with this statement. As globalization and modernization occur, religion and culture will erode. Ideally the oppressive parts will disappear, and India can retain important parts of its culture.