The Untouchables: A Modern Day Caste System

When we traditionally think of a caste system we think of India, however all societies rank their citizens based on varying factors intentionally as it as been done for centuries and unintentionally throug[Graphic]h societal attitudes and opinions about different groups. Throughout history, social order has been based on social ranking or hierarchical values placing one group above another in a society in order to establish rules and regulation for the society as a whole. No civilization, past or present, has not succumb to some form of caste system as many still operate under this concept whether voluntary or involuntarily associated. The justification for the caste system like democracy boils down to the simple fact it is better than the other options. In a democracy, you have the haves, the filthy rich, and the have nots, the extremely poor, and varying degrees in between with corruption occurring in all strata. The government allows for failure and therefore success allowing its citizens to face the consequences depending on the activity whether legal or illegal may face societal wrath. To most this seems better than the alternative. Likewise, in a traditional caste system their is power abuse occasionally between and within a particular group, however the means to which the problem is solved is through God’s intervention for the worst abuses in order to correct the wrong, but alas the caste system like democracy is a way to maintain excellence within the professions. Like, Darwin’s theory, survival of the fittest can easily sum up modern day government as well as the modern day caste system around the world.

The traditional caste is a social stratification using endogamy, hereditary transmission of a style of life which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution. A great example of this idea is the old say,”Born into wealth.” A good example of a long existing caste is the division of India’s Hindu society into strict social groups with the origins in India’s ancient past and persisting to this day. However the traditional sense of caste has given way to urbanization and affirmative action programs yet the same basic idea still persists around the glob today. Many sociologist and anthropologists look to the Hindu caste system as an analogical basis for the study of caste like social divisions in areas outside India and Hinduism. According to UNICEF and the Human Rights Watch, caste discrimination affects 250 million people worldwide. The English word “caste” derives from the Spanish and Portuguese casta, which according to the Oxford Dictionary quote’s John Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary (1599) to mean “race, lineage, or breed.” However the Portuguese used casta in the modern sense to describe the many in-marrying hereditary Hindu social groups encountered when they arrived in India in 1498. The modern spelling caste was first seen in English in 1613.

The beginnings of the caste system can be traced to India and Nepal, but it seems to have originated two thousand years ago under a system associated with Hinduism and categorizing people by profession. The idea started out with the work a person did as an occupation, but soon became related to heredity therefore the person was born into an unalterable social status. The four primary castes are as follows: Brahmin, the priests; Kshatriya, warriors and nobility; Vaishya, farmers, traders and artisans; and Shudra, tenant farmers and servants. Some people were born outside of (and below) the caste system. They were called “untouchables” or what is now referred to as the Dalits. The theology behind this ranking system deals with the basic belief of Hinduism which is Reincarnation where the soul is reborn into a new material form. The new soul being born depended on the virtuousness of the previous thus those who were a virtuous person from the Shudra caste could become a Brahmin in the next life. Souls can move among the different levels of human society as well as in animals thus the reason many Hindus are vegetarians. During one’s life though very little social mobility can happen so many strive for virtue in order to attain a higher station in the next life.

Applying this caste to everyday life, the practices associated with caste varied through time and across India but maintained some common features. The three main practices that dominated a person’s life in the caste system were marriage, meals and religious worship. Marrying someone outside your caste was forbidden and most people married within their own sub-caste or jati. At meal time, anyone could accept food from a Brahmin, but Brahmin could not accept food from a lower caste as the thinking was that they would be polluted. An even more extreme measure, when an untouchable or dalit drew water from a public well, he or she pollutes the well making the water no longer good for anyone else to use. In terms of religion, the priestly class, Brahmins, conducted the religious rituals and services including festivals, holidays, marriages and funerals. The Kshatrya and Vaishya castes had full rights to worship, but in some places Shudras (the servant caste) were not allowed to offer sacrifices to the gods. The untouchables were banned from temples and were not allowed to set food on temple grounds. If the shadow of a dalit touched a Brahmin then he or she became polluted making it so the dalits had to lay facing down at a distance when a Brahmin passed.

Besides the four primary groups of the caste system, there are also thousands of castes, sub-castes and communities within Indian society called jati where both social status and occupation factor in.  In the Bhagavad Gita, such groups as the Bhumihar or landowners, Kayastha or scribes, and the Rajput, who are a northern sector of the Kshatriya or warrior caste are included.  Some castes came from specific occupations such as the Garudi – snake charmers – or the Sonjhari, who collected gold from river beds, while people who vioated social norms could face being made an “untouchables.” However this was not the lowest caste as they and their descendants were now outside the caste system. The dalits as they are called now were so polluted that anyone who came into contact with them in the caste system would contaminate other people forcing the caste person to bathe and wash their clothing ASAP. The untouchables also could not eat in the same room and performed the work no one else would do such as scavenging animal carcasses, leather-work, or killing rats and other pests. They could not be cremated when they died.

Not only did the caste system greatly influence Hindu populations, but non-Hindu populations in Indian who organized themselves into the caste as well.  When Islam was introduced to the subcontinent, Muslims divided into classes such as the Sayed, Sheikh, Mughal, Pathan, and Qureshi with the Mughal and Pathan being ethnic groups and Qureshi deriving from the Prophet Muhammad’s clan in Mecca. Even after the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century when they brought Christianity to the country, many of those converted Christians remained in the caste system. Early written evidence about the caste system appears in the Veda, the Sanskrit-language texts from as early as 1500 BCE, which form the basis of Hindu scripture. The Rigveda, from c. 1700-1100 BCE, rarely mentions caste distinctions, and indicates that social mobility was common. The Bhagavad Gita, however, from c. 200 BCE-200 CE, emphasizes the importance of caste and the “Laws of Manu” or Manusmriti from the same era defines the rights and duties of the four different castes or varnas. Therefore, the Hindu caste system began to solidify probably sometime between 1000 and 200 BCE. The caste system in Indian history has not always been so absolute as renowned Gupta Dynasty, which ruled from 320 to 550 CE, had the ruling class hailing from the Vaishya caste rather than the Kshatriya. Many later rulers also were from different castes, such as the Madurai Nayaks (r. 1559-1739) who were Balijas (traders). From the 12th century and on, India was ruled by Muslims who reduced the power of the Hindu priestly caste, the Brahmins, and the traditional Hindu rulers and warrior, Kshatriyas, nearly ceased to exist in north and central India as the Vaishya and Shudra castes melded together. With the power shift to Muslim rulers and the upper Hindu castes became impacted, anti-Muslim feeling managed to strengthen the caste system in rural areas where Hindu villagers identified themselves through their caste affiliations. During the six centuries of Islamic rule (c. 1150-1750), the Brahmins relied on farming as income due to the Muslims kings not giving rich gifts to Hindu temples. The practice met the approval of the system only if the Shudras did the physical labor. When the British took control in 1757, the Raj took advantage of the caste as a means of social control by aligning themselves with the Brahmin caste and restoring privileges meanwhile outlawing any Indian custom concerning the lower castes that seems discriminatory. During the 1930s and 40s, the British government enacted laws to protect the untouchable and low caste people, while within Indian society the 19th and 20th century saw a movement to abolish untouchability. In 1928, the first temple welcomed untouchables to worship with the upper caste. Mohandas Gandhi advocated emancipation for the Dalits coining the phrase harijan or “Children of God” to describe them. The Republic of India instituted after August 15, 1947 laws to protect the untouchables and tribes using a quota system to ensure access to education and government posts.

Over the past 60 years though, a person’s caste has become more of a political category than a social or religious one as many parts of the world too see it similarly. The Nepalese caste system operates similar to the Indian jati system with numerous divisions within the Varna system.  Inscriptions confirm the beginnings of a caste system during the Lichchhavi period. Jayasthiti Malla (1382–95) categorized Newars into 64 castes (Gellner 2001). A similar exercise was made during the reign of Mahindra Malla (1506–75). The Hindu social code was later set up in Gorkha by Ram Shah (1603–36). In Pakistan, where the religion is predominantly Muslim, many Muslims prefer endogamous marriages based on the clan oriented nature of society taking into account similarities in social group identity, religion, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal affiliation. In ancient Sri Lankan texts such as  Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptions demonstrate that the above hierarchy was the prevailing system used in the feudal period. The system used in the 18th century, in the British/Kandyan period Kadayimpoth Boundary books as well, suggests that the tradition persisted up until the end of the Sri Lanka’s monarchy. The Karen people of the Burma-Thailand border region were claimed by Christian missionaries and British colonialists as people who were treated as low castes people or dirt feeders by the majority of society. Balinese caste structure described by 20th century European literature is based on three categories: triwangsa (thrice born) or the nobility, dwijati (twice born) in contrast to ekajati (once born) the low folks.  Similar to the castes of India, four statusescan be identified: Brahmanas – priest, Satrias – knighthood, Wesias – commerce and Sudras – servitude. In Japan, social strata was based on inherited position rather than personal merit with the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge) on top, together with the Shogun and daimyo, and the rest of the population divided into samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants called mibunsei. Japan has its own untouchable caste referred to as Eta now called Burakumin and while modern law abolished this distinction, discrimination against the Buraku or Burakumin underclasses remains along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and those of residents of Korean and Chinese descent. Several other countries in West Asia like Yemen, the continent of Africa, and countries in Europe like Spain and France follow a variation on the Indian caste system with discrimination continuing against the untouchable and lower castes in society even leading to segregation in some cases.


Despite the passing of time and rule by outside forces, beginning with the Mughals and ending with the British, the caste system continues to endure in India and in many parts of the world. Over the millenia, intermingling between populations has caused fusion of castes to take place causing the gene pool to diversify more so than with traditional caste systems therefore an effort to separate people on a vertical basis with some higher than others has become more difficult. People would rather see society analyzed in horizontal terms where people are different but equal. However, the caste system will continue around the globe as a group of people see themselves as above another and sometime resort to using force to ensure that it remains so. Even though the law mandates everyone should be given the chance to succeed, in many countries following a specific faith or coming from a particular region get preference over the rest. The more liberal a society becomes the greater the chance the idea of a caste will continue to thrive more so than in a conservative location in intellectual advancement and material progress. Given rise from the traditional caster system of India, is the global caste system where a group of powers consider themselves to have a right to enjoy privileges denied to the rest. Take for example the United Nations where the five permanent member of the UN Security Council dominate internal processes and procedures and three of the five belong to NATO which allows them a secure commanding position in segments of UN operations where they regularly interfere where they shouldn’t like peacekeeping. NATO has a record of inflicting civilian casualties through acts of war such as bombing and sanctions making the organization the most significant human rights violators on the globe. Therefore, the organization controls the international human rights mechanism allowing for no accountability to itself of actions it takes that leads to loss of life or human suffering on a large scale. Rules are meant for everyone except for those who make them.

A global caste system takes the stance of a vertical logic of caste lending itself to the same group that dominates the United Nations. Rather than be universal and accepting of different civilizations, the United States has allowed itself to become the drive behind the NATO member states to continue the privileges within the international community. The same powers of yester year have remained the same in the UN since the 1939-45 global war which includes the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. The last two are not as involved as before due to Russia’s weak economy and technology age and China not living up to the other members. The contributions of India and Russia during the WWII have largely been forgotten and credit given to France by Winston Churchill who loved the country for major victories over Berlin to regain France which is due to Moscow and the contribution of Paris to defeat the Axis powers which was minimal and actually far below what India did by sending two million troops to fight on behalf of the Allies. In Vietnam the forced mobilized by Nguyen Ai Quoc known as Ho Chi Minh demonstrated their resilience over the U.S. military which used more bomb loads on the small country than in the 1939-45 war. Despite these instances of human being achieving such success given the right leadership, some powers want the system to continue where NATO member states are on top and others are lower down. Because politicians would rather make money for themselves and their friends in India, decision making has been handed over to the bureaucracy which hesitates to challenge the global caste system. India has prevented itself from the benefits of technological upgrades made possible by their scientific achievement. When India wanted a ASAT test done which would destroy satellites in space, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defense Minister A K Antony have been reluctant to order an ASAT test and rely on computer simulations instead in order to prevent any retaliation from the NATO member states. The successive governments have also shown obedience to the international caste which has placed India far lower than other states with less potential. The system will continue as long as the victims like India, Brazil, and Indonesia to name a few remain reluctant to speak up.

According to Rajiv Malhotra, in a world where money defines who you are and it doesn’t matter if you make it by hook or crook the race to join the new emerging class or the new Brahmins of the evolving global caste system has crossed all barriers. The only requirement to join this class it the tag that shows you have enough money. As many have done in the past, exploiting natural resources to make a quick buck meets with applause claiming that it makes a difference in economic growth according to economists. Poisoning people with food and medicine, can be justified through economist who say it contributes to the GDP percentage extorting society through services in the name of health, education and insurance while still being considered to have the Midas touch. Nature itself at one point was considered valuable with no one trying to think of it in terms of GDP, however in the quest to join the Brahmins of the neocaste system, the global economy has almost brought the planet to a tripping point with carbon dioxide emissions, drilling, fracking, and deforestation. However, the economists still praise the growing economy across continents. It has become increasingly hard to live in the world where everything is for sale in comparison to a time when society despised a Shylock. As time passes, the world has seen a new powerful structure emerge divided in three classes which included the billionaires, the business class and finally the economy class (some call it the cattle class). The only thing that matters now is the scale of prosperity measured against the new caste index. The modern day Shylocks like in Shakespeare’s time demand their pound of flesh when it comes to investment in the poor especially billionaires who want to help the poor in their native land yet aim to fight poverty with profit. The idea of micro-financing for the poor to build their prosperity may sound like a great initiative  but many people are not aware of the harm such private initiatives/  companies have done to the dairy cooperative system that turned India into the world’s largest milk producer. Billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Vinod Khosla has been quoted as saying: “There needs to be more experiments in building sustainable businesses going after the market for the poor.” However the poor and hungry end up paying three times more interest to get a paltry micro-finance, but this detail most people never hear about. Those people who invested in the idea also by default will profit from the poorest of the poor being bled dry. How does this benefit the poor when most cannot pay back the 24 percent interest loan  which bumps to 35 percent weekly repayment plans under coercion? Unfortunately,  like most Shylocks the neocaste system requires its pound of flesh. The modern day Shylock has found ingenious and more benign forms of capitalism where small investors can make a killing with little regard to life or the environment.

According to Isabel Wilkerson, former New York Times bureau chief and national correspondent, and Dorothy Borders every society has strata and ethnic groups. In America, we have  ‘demographic segments’ such as  ‘inner city African Americans’, ‘rural Hispanics’, ‘suburban whites’, ‘Asian immigrants’, etc. and these references are reflected in consumer marketing. The book The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen gives an interesting insight into how the demographic group we now call’white’ emerged. He writes: “[Until the 17th century, the] white skin privilege was recognized neither in the law nor in the social practices of the labor classes. But by the early decades of the eighteenth century, racial oppression would be the norm in the plantation colonies, and African Americans would continue to suffer under its yoke for more than two centuries…African bond-laborers were turned into chattel slaves and were differentiated from their fellow proletarians of European origin. Rocked by the solidarity across racial lines exhibited by the rebellious laboring classes in the wake of the famous Bacon’s Rebellion, the plantation bourgeoisie sought a solution to its labor problems in the creation of a buffer control stratum of poor whites, who enjoyed little enough privilege in colonial society beyond that of their skin color, which protected them from enslavement…Such was the invention of the white race.” America’s color coding in the past especially with the freeing of the slaves and racially exclusive labor unions was based on the category of labor that one was place into for example the blacks were often factory workers in large centralized envirnment whereas construction jobs such as plumbing, electrical, masonry, and carpentry became the turf of specific European ethnic labor unions. Much like the American system, the Indian caste system corresponds to categories of labor with their own procedures for membership and strategies to compete with outsides. The idea was reinforced by the fact much of the training was done through work apprenticeships under the parent thereby turning family lineage into specialized labor. Language can be another qualifier as pronunciation, accent, idiom, sophistication in usage, and reference to prior literature with authority, all require great mastery of language leading certain language over time to be adopted by high society. The way one speaks becomes a marker of social status just as Sanskrit usage was caste related in India, so English is now a device for the caste hierarchy around the world today.

2 thoughts on “The Untouchables: A Modern Day Caste System

  1. Read More

    Thanks for the post, is there any way I can get an email when you make a new post?

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