Another time, Pariyar brought up his experiences with caste discrimination during a classroom discussion about the trauma of racism and sexism. Some South Asian students in the class, he said, reacted as though caste discrimination was completely foreign to them. He felt they were effectively gaslighting him. And when he tried to organize a conference on issues of caste, Pariyar said he got little support from other South Asians.
The story starts out with the experiences of a Dalit from Nepal who seems to have immigrated to the US. Many of the instances of caste discrimination in the US seem to be from fellow Nepali immigrants. It is possible that immigrants from Nepal bring some caste attitudes? Obviously. But when you switch to the context of talking about caste with Indian Americans born or raised in the US, they may actually honestly not understand much what it means. The piece is flattening the experience of a recent immigrant with Indian Americans, and this flattening and conflation is what’s going to happen if caste becomes a protected class more broadly.
Later on in the piece:
The opponents, who included alumni, professors and community members, argued that discussions about caste unnecessarily divided South Asians and that caste discrimination no longer existed. They claimed that caste was a construct of British colonialism, even though it had existed for millennia, and insisted that the resolution would instead provoke hate against Hindus on campus.
Krystal Raynes, a student at Cal State Bakersfield who currently serves as a CSU student trustee, wasn’t familiar with caste and caste-based discrimination before that meeting. But the language and line of reasoning she heard that day rang familiar.
“It reminded me so much of the discrimination happening against Black people in America,” she said. “Black students being gaslighted, [being told] your experience isn’t discrimination, your experience isn’t oppression.”
There are a few issues here. Indians quite often engage in what we’ll call “denialism” about caste and how it shapes Indian society. When you go around claiming caste was a construct of British colonialism, and discrimination no longer exists, you’ll seem crazy to people. Even though the reality is that in the US making caste a protected class cause huge problems, obfuscating or whitewashing the reality of caste in India does not help your argument in America.
Second, Americans are really just reinterpreting caste in the context of black-white relationships in this country. It’s not about India, it’s about America, and some Indian Americans (the founder of Equality Labs) are engaging in “cultural arbitrage” to to provide a “product” that American administrators can “consume.”
Yes, it will. American liberals will now start talking incessantly about caste. Some notes
– <1% of Indian Americans are Dalits from surveys I have seen
– 30-40% of 1.5 and 2nd gen. Indian Americans out marry racially. Most do not, in my experience, in-marry in terms of jati when they marry other Indian Americans
– 25% of Indian Americans are Brahmin, but they are not wealthier or more educated than other groups on the whole. The richest Indian Americans seem to have names like Agrawal from what I have seen in private data
This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna
Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.
One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads
Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.
Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.
However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.
Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.
The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.
It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.
Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.
So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.
But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas. Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.
This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma.
This could have resulted in two primary effects:
It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.
It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).
However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.
Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.
Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).
But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.
Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.
None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.
In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams.
What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.
– The piece is mostly about India. Not the USA or Silicon Valley. To me, this indicates there wasn’t much real material in Silicon Valley to report on
– It seems that the American press is recycling the same incidents and quoting the same experts. There’s no deep scholarly analysis, just anecdotes and assertions
Overall, I think there really isn’t much of an issue around “caste” in the USA. Part of it is the fact that Americans of Indian origin are not representative of the demographics of India. 25% are Brahmin, but for the other groups, there is no variation in income education and income (or not much). I’ve seen the data that consulting firms use that is not widely shared. The selective sieve is strong. There are very few self-identified Dalits. About 1%. It could be these Dalits are on the receiving end of prejudice, but there aren’t that many of them for this to be pervasive.
This is not to deny that there aren’t issues with the Indian American community, which is mostly immigrant and dates to after the year 2000. But it’s not a simple and easy morality story that the media and social justice activists want. So they are manufacturing this, and that really angers me, because I dislike lying and propaganda.
When perusing Twitter I occasionally see arguments between the troll Araingang and contributors to this weblog on various topics. Many times I don’t really what the argument is about because I feel it’s deeply semantic.
So, for example, caste, varna, and jati. I know the dictionary definition of all this stuff and the various arguments. As an atheist, and someone who has “no caste” or varna or jati, I’m not very interested in theological arguments as to the origin of these concepts, their validity, and their application. Muslims for example can write 1,000-page books on Tawhid. I don’t care. What I care about is the application of Shariah law upon dhimmis and the heterodox. The rest is commentary.
In the 2000’s I read books such as Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. The argument and evidence marshaled suggest that the raw materials of the caste system predate the British, but their system of manipulation, organization, and rationalization was critical.
Then, in the period after 2010, I began reading and analyze the genetic data. I was shocked at how clear and distinct varna and jati differences were. My friend Surya Yalamanchili sent me his DNA last year, and I asked him if he was Kamma. He had no idea what that meant, but the genetic evidence seemed persuasive to me from other people he clustered within my private data. He asked his mother, and she said “yes.” He was shocked. I was not.
The conclusion I draw from this, along with patterns such as higher steppe ancestry in “higher varna,” is that there are deep roots and structures to the inequality we see across the Indian subcontinent. It is possible that in fact, the jatis were “separate but equal.” But I doubt that just as I doubt the “peace” Islam imposed upon dhimmis was welcomed on the whole (in some cases, yes). Dalits in particular have very small effective populations. That means their genes show evidence of high levels of inbreeding because of incredibly small marriage networks.
This post is less about what I believe, then trying to understand what you know and believe. The genetic data is something I am familiar with. I work with it. The historical evidence I do not know. Were there Dalit kings? Were there long periods where Brahmins were subordinate as menial servants to Sudra jatis?
I understand that Hindus of a more progressive bent are uncomfortable with the association between caste and their religion and identity. Religion is what man makes it, and so I do not see its connection to Hinduism as necessary, ineluctable, and eternal. But, the impact of caste is so strongly stamped on the genes of so many Indians I cannot brush it away as a detail of history.
The regional patterns turn out to be the most striking. More than education, income, or caste status. You can even see the outline of states, which is indicative of the impact of regional governments on policy and culture.
In the 2000s I read a fair number of books such as Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind. The impression one gets from these books is that jati-varna status and stratification are protean. Much of it a recent function of jockeying during the colonial and liminal colonial era. The “uplift” of groups such as Patidars and Marathas, for example. Or the emergence of Kayasthas as literate non-Brahmin service castes for Muslim rulers.
The genetic data that emerged in the 2000s though shocked me with two facts:
– There is within region a rough correlation, imperfect, but existent, of what we now call “steppe ancestry” and caste status
– Jati groups in a given region were shockingly distinct, and many exhibited a lot of genetic drift.
Endogamy was deep, ancient, powerful, and, genetic differences of the deep past persisted, rather than mixing away.
These are not perfect generalizations. The correlation between steppe and and status breaks down in the northwest to a great extent (thought still not totally). There are groups, such as Bengali Kayasthas, who approximate Brahmin status (even still being lower), but are genetically similar to non-elite non-Brahmins. Within the data there are castes which seem composites (Khamboj in some recent data).
This is a preface to the fact that I’ve gotten into recent arguments inadvertently online about caste, and its role in the Indian future. So I decided to look at the data. Here is my short conclusion: jati-varana is way more robust than I would have thought. Outmarriage rates were 5% as of 2011, and they didn’t vary that much by social status. At current rates it could take 500 years for caste not to be a big deal in India. Continue reading Long long with caste be a bar? Perhaps more than three centuries!
Kushal Mehra and I had a discussion on the Brown Pundits podcast about caste. I will post for Patrons today and push it live tomorrow. I want to review a few things from my perspective on this issue related to what we talked about.
– The paper The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia highlights a fact: jati has a very strong genetic reality. The stylized fact is that caste endogamy has been strong across southern Asia for 1,500 years. Genetically you can have two castes in the same village in Andhra Pradesh who are as distinct as people from Finland and Sicily.
Additionally, jati is not arbitrary. Brahmins across India may not be closely related, but they tend to have more “Ancestral North Indian” than their non-Brahmin neighbors, on average (true everywhere except for the Northwest of the subcontinent).
– Kushal asked if jati varna was an ESS. I have suggested that caste fragmentation made it harder for non-Indians to take over and assimilate Indian society. But, it is not the only ESS.
– The main contrast I give is to China. People who can read classical Chinese (which was the norm in the early 20th century) can still read oracle bones from the Shang dynasty 3,400 years ago. This is a civilization with continuity and integrity.
The Chinese are a population that has managed to absorb other groups and do it without caste endogamy. Rather, like Europeans, Chinese genetic variation is a function of geography, not class/caste. In fact, the Chinese never developed a blood nobility like Europe. The basis of Chinese civilization has unapologetically been the peasantry.
– In The WEIRDest People in the World Harvard’s Joe Henrich makes the argument that the Western Christian Church’s destruction of extended family networks led to the rise of the West. I won’t recapitulate the argument which I’ve outlined elsewhere. But the idea is rather persuasive.
It seems that the hostility and skepticism toward caste from some on the “Hindu Right” really has to do with Indian nationalism. Jati varna was a reasonable institution in a pre-modern context, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that national cohesion is reduced when people view themselves as members of a “community” first and foremost, and not a nation-state.
From the traditionalist side, the idea that jati varna is a great functional system is really not the point. Let’s be frank: people are invested in their particular traditions and their purity. The rest is commentary.
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States as brown was different than now. The Indian Americans I knew were a heterodox bunch who, like me, grew up around white people, and habituated themselves to American culture. Though most were Hindu, a fair number enjoyed beef hamburgers, just like other kids.
This is why the story of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley is so striking to me. Most of you know already about what is happening with Cisco, but The New York Times covers it well in The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley. The author of Coming out Dalit, she is herself a Dalit Indian American, and so has a unique perspective.
There is one number which is reported in the piece and aligns with everything I’ve ever seen in the United States of America: 90% of Indian Americans are not lower caste. Of those who are lower caste, whatever that means, I doubt much more than 1% are Dalit. I know this partly because I have a sampling of 300 Indian American genotypes from one of the DTC firms (four parents born in India), and the genetic variation aligns pretty much with the above distribution.
Therefore, I am skeptical of the idea of pervasive caste discrimination because there are just not that many Dalits, period. The last data I have seen shows that 25% of Indian Americans are Brahmin.
That being said since the late 1990s a massive wave of immigrants from India have arrived to work in tech and recreated their home country in the US. When I was in graduate school I met a young woman who was a master’s student with a very mild Indian accent. I asked her when she had arrived from India, and she said that she was born in Cupertino! So it would not surprise me if some people did bring the habits and views of the old country, and without assimilation into diverse workplaces, things such as caste discrimination may occur (I have heard from people that networks of people from the same region and caste are a thing, though not pervasive).
But, I don’t think this will ever be huge in the United States for a simple reason: the number of Indian Americans of 1.5 and 2nd generation who marry within caste/jati is not that high. The last data from the 2010s indicate 35-40% of those born or raised here marry non-Indians. Of the remainder, many of them marry people from other backgrounds than that of their parents. In fact, the majority.
Caste is about pedigree. That is just not maintained in the USA.
Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The lingering, millenniums-long caste system of India. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.
When shared on Twitter even Left-Indians, normally sympathetic to Left-American journalists and their Weltanschauung, recoiled. My main comment is simple: write what you know. From the extract, the author does not seem to know enough about the Indian social system and history to make informative and illuminating comparisons to the United States.
Also, though I personally am not positively disposed toward caste, comparing it to Nazi Germany seems needlessly inflammatory.
I will note a few things
– The latest surveys suggest intercase marriages in India are now at 10%
– In America, 20% of the marriage partners of black Americans are not black
In 300 years about 20% of the ancestry of black Americans is now of European origin. In contrast, there are villages in Andhra Pradesh where people of different castes (jati) are genetically more distinct than Scandinavians are from Italians. David Reich’s group has an estimated < 1% intermarriage rate between the groups, with a rough crystallization of caste boundaries 1,500 years ago.