I’m finding it so hard to even begin this entry, as the caste system is one of the most basic elements in the differences between the U.S. and India. What I am writing here is not based on any academic work (though was certainly influenced by the documentary, “India Untouched”), and certainly reflects both my own opinion and the information I’ve gathered from talking to my teachers and friends here.
To give you a super brief overview – caste in India, within the Hindu community (which influences all of culture, since over 80% of Indians are Hindu), is separated into 4 – Brahmin (the priests, i.e. those that could read, were most educated, and got to decide how to interpret the Vedas [scriptures] – therefore considered the highest caste), Kshatriya (upper middle class), Vaishya (lower middle class) and Shudra (meaning outcast, those assumed to be in a servant role). Considered to be even further below Shudra, so far below that they cannot even be considered as having a caste, are dalits, or Untouchables. While Untouchability (discrimination by caste) is now considered to be a crime, it is still practiced regularly in tightly-knit rural villages (where a majority of India’s 1.2 BILLION people live).
Caste is tied so deeply and so immovably to India that it not only affects Hindus – in India, caste is non-discriminatory based on religion. Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Muslims – In India, they all have developed caste of their own. They have different temples to go to, different entrances to use, different places to sit, all based on their caste within their religion. What adds to caste being so entrenched in the system, even in cities, where most people will tell you caste no longer exists, are the subleties of recognizing caste.
For example, Hindu lower castes traditionally must pray not to the core Gods (Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu) but to their incarnations, a rite which automatically separates the castes into separate temples (each temple usually is in honor of a different God/Goddess) without even seeming like discrimination at all.
Naming is also tied to caste – according to Hindu scripture, those of the lowest caste should be given names that inspire disgust while the higher caste should be given names that inspire respect and emulate spiritual fulfillment (names of Gods, virtues, etc.)
Just to complicate things further, not only are there the four castes and dalits, there is also you jati, your exact Hindu name which further separates caste into miniscule substrates, down to your family. Certain Vaishyas cannot marry other Vaishyas, even dalits have rules about what other dalits they may marry. It is absolutely entrenched in society.
To make it worse though, the perks the government offers (called reservations, very similar to Affirmative Action in the U.S.) are quickly becoming an issue of contention amongst higher caste citizens, who feel that being treated differently as a member of a traditionally underrepresented subculture only increases divisions in caste. These citizens are usually Brahmin, and, including many of our friends here, claim that caste no longer exists (particularly within cities). However, the caste system in India is integral to the functioning of the entire social hierarchy. Where in the U.S. we are trying so desparately to overcome racism, so India is fighting to overcome caste. That is, if you are a member of a priveledged group, be it a Brahmin in India or a Caucasian in the U.S., you’re right, you aren’t seeing Untouchability/racism in everyday life. But if you are a member of a non-priveledged caste/race, you will be feeling its impact throughout your lifetime.