The caste system, while less prevalent as an institution, is still an issue in India. Caste is a system based on birth, meaning that a person's caste never changes, no matter what job they have or how much wealth they accumulate. A person inherits their parents' caste note
Although there is a strong association between caste, occupation, and economic status, it is not a rigid system in practice, particularly in modern times. People can and have taken occupations outside those that are considered traditional for their caste. Modern caste identity is something akin to ethnicity or race, and as with race, some caste groups are distinctly disadvantaged.
The Hindu scriptures theoretically divide society into four "varnas" listed below, which are further divided into "jatis".note
- Brahmin - intellectuals, religious priests and scholars
- Kshatriya - kings and warriors
- Vaishya - merchants and artisans
- Sudra - service
Outside of these four caste groups is the Dalit- earlier so called "untouchables" who can historically do only menial jobs, like street cleaning, cremation and leather tanning. There about 160 million Dalits in India today.
Caste Changes - Castes Today
The Indian Government classifies people into castes in order to run affirmative action programs as it reserves some seats in the various national and state legislatures for disadvantaged castes, as well as universities and government jobs. This is subject to controversy similar to debates about affirmative action in the United States. Intermarriage between castes does take place, but is unusual. With arranged marriages, often people will specify what caste they want potential partners to belong to. Caste-based political parties also exist.
The Caste System in Fiction
Almost all Indian authors have responded to Caste in one type or another and even the earliest fiction in India deals with Caste.
The Caste System in Movies
- The Mahabharata: Karna is condemned to not participate in a match of arms because he is the son of a charioteer by Kuru elders and the Pandavas. He is rejected by Draupadi as a potential suitor because of his origin. He becomes a warrior and a King regardless due to the help of Duryodhana, the serial antagonist who gifts him the kingdom of Anga and his superior archery skills. It is later revealed that he was actually the son of Kunti and therefore half-brother to the Pandavas.
- In the expanded version of the Mahabharata, Krishna, the Avatar is criticized by Uttanka, a brahmin for not having stopped the Kurushetra war and his partiality towards the Pandavas. Krishna is impressed by his argument and promises him that he would get water whenever he is thirsty. Uttanka wanders in the desert and is thirsty. He sees a untouchable who walks up to him and offers him water in a bag made of animal skin. Uttanka refuses due to his prejudice. Krishna appears and states that the untouchable was actually Indra who had ambrosia/nectar in his bag that would make him immortal. He then chastises Uttanka for his own prejudice.
- Women in the Mahabharata were less subjected to caste restrictions and could rise up to a higher caste/social station through hypergamy. Satyavati is the daughter of a fisherwoman and becomes the wife and Queen of Shantanu. Vidura's mother is a slave who slept with Author Avatar Vyasa whose son therefore easily rises to the level of Vizier.
- In an apparent subversion, in the Ramayana, the author, Valmiki's profession was that of being a thief. He repented of his thievery and became instead a hermit and a poet. It does not seem like Valmiki had any obstacles to this path, perhaps because being a hermit/sage removes one from all obligations to society and by default, caste. It could also be that caste was not as rigid back at that time as it turned out to be much later.
- This is very much the case. The caste system reached the peak of its complexity and oppressiveness only in the 19th century, during the British occupation, as the Brits limited their favour to few castes, in practice leaving the rest with nothing.
- Thillai Govindan (1901)
- The God of Small Things
- 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry
Depictions of Caste outside India
- Devdas ends up as a tragedy because of this. Paro is born of a family of traders while Devdas is born of a higher class. This leads to them being Starcrossed Lovers
- Mughal-e-Azam ends in a tragedy because of this as well. Salim is the Prince and the son of the Emperor Akbar. Anarkali is a tawaif, a dancer who entertains the court. Their differing social status leads them to become Starcrossed Lovers
- The Movie Lagaan addresses this issue. Kachra, their bowler, is a crippled Dalit. Some of the members refuse to participate in the game and get a morality lecture from the Protagonist.
- The Movie Swades deals with this issue as well. The protagonist finds that Dalits were segregated and not allowed into school in the village that he was educating. He is able to better their condition by the end though.
- Dilli 6, another Bollywood movie released in 2008, deals with caste as one of the many stories of Dilli 6. A Dalit woman in the movie is shunned by a higher caste man that she loves because of her caste. She is not allowed to touch anyone who is higher caste in case she "pollutes" them. She is also subject to harassment by the local police officer. The movie ends with the higher caste man reciprocating her love and bemoaning the foolishness of caste segregation and meaningless rituals.
- In Lajja, two young side characters, Sushma and Prakash are in love. Sushma is the daughter of Gajendra, a wealthy politician, and Prakash is the son of a widowed and poor country midwife (who is also not liked by Gajendra for her radical desire to educate the women of her rural village). When Gajendra finds out that Sushma has kissed Prakash and is helping him escape from her father (who wanted him castrated), he disowns her and tells everyone she's dead.
- The Moonstone (published in 1868) correctly states that observant Hindus lose their caste when they cross the sea/large body of water.
- This is, however, by no means universal. South Indian Hindus didn't have much of an issue with crossing the Black Water as the maritime kingdoms of the region attest.
- Hindus living in the Caribbean (the descendants of Indian indentured laborers brought by the British to Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica) eagerly used this loophole to escape from the caste oppression that had bound them when they lived in India, to the point where Indo-Caribbeans today have pretty much put the caste system completely behind them.
- The matter is also touched upon in the Raj Quartet set in The Raj, where an Indian brought up in England is asked to take part in a ceremony to rectify this.
- In an episode of TheSimpsons, Apu has casual sex with a random Indian woman at a party. He promises to "tell everyone [she was] untouchable", presumably to defend her reputation.
- Osamu Tezuka's Buddha, a fictionalized biography of the Gautama Buddha, deals heavily with issues of caste prejudice throughout the series.