Dear Readers,

Couple of weeks back, while we are sitting in a get together at Mr.Binayaka Panda's house, here in Huntsville, the topic turned to caste system. Intercaste marriage was our basis of discussion. One person just observed how intercaste marriages have become a huge step forward towards weakening caste system in neighboring state of West Bengal. The next day, perhaps, this discussion on caste system ensued on Ornet. But the dialog was abnormally term- inated by someone posting one line in UPPERCASE letter "DO NOT DISCUSS CASTE SYSTEM ON ORNET!". To my surprise, people really stopped and Bijoy Misra concluded with "... May be Ornet is not ready for a discussion on this topic, yet!". I don't think so. I am sure a lot of other Ornetters DO NOT think so. Here it is. Weekend Thoughts forum has received this very thought provocative article from another brilliant minds in our Ornet Community, Sadananda Sahu from Purdue, Indiana. He has provided a very sincere analysis of caste system, from its past to its present and more importantly, its future. And we invite you all, each one of you, who has an opinion, an idea, more information, to reply to this posting on Ornet or send his/her article to us. ORNET is THE place to make your voice heard; it is THE platform where this discussion MUST take place. Think about it. That's what this column stands for.

Thank you.

Surjit Sahoo April 19, 1996
Huntsville, Alabama

About the Author

Sadananda Sahu

Current Address:  Post-doctoral Research Associate
                  School of Civil Engineering
                  Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907
                  Email: sahu@ecn.purdue.edu

Birth place:      Daringbadi, Phulbani district

Education and Training:

    High School:              Daringbadi, 1978.
    I.Sc. and B.Sc.:          Phulbani College.
    M. Sc. (Chemistry):       Berhampur University, 1985.
    Post Graduate Diploma:    (in Cement Technology)
                              National Council for cement and
                              Building Materials, New Delhi, 1986.
    Worked from 1986-89:      Larsen and Toubro Ltd (cement division).
    Ph.D.(Materials Science): Slovak Technical University,
                              Bratislava, Slovakia, 1992.
    Scientist:                Slovak Academy of sciences, 1993-94.
    Post-doc:                 Purdue University, 1994- present

Caste System and Where We Stand

In last few weeks there was some discussion going on about the caste system in our society in Ornet. So I thought it is appropriate to share some of my views regarding this system. I am not a sociologist to focus all the issues involved with caste system or the social hierarchy, but some of the complications associated with this system and its impact on our society and daily life will be discussed.

The caste system in India is as old as the Hindu religion. It is very hard to determine the exact year when this system came into existence. The caste system or major hierarchical division in ancient Indian society during the Vedic period (most probably between the second millennium BC and the middle of the first millennium) called "Varna". Which was basically divided into four groups: Brahmin - priests, Kshatriya - rulers and warriors, Vaishya - peasants, Shudras - the servant class. Subsequently the subdivision (castes) of this major four groups (Varna) evolved depending upon the profession of the family. And caste system is defined by sociologist/ anthropologist as "a hierarchy of endogamous division in which membership is hereditary and permanent". From this definition two words could be very well stressed. Endogamy restricts the hybridization with in the society as whole and limits within a small community leading to some kind of biological degeneration, which might have not well established in the Hindu community but could be well seen in some closed Indian Muslim families. Hierarchy includes inequality both in status and access to goods and services, which is against our democratic constitution of "equal opportunity to all". That means we have not paid serious attention to our own created constitution, which is another example of poor implementation of laws.

If we analyze globally, whether such caste system exists any where else in the world. The answer is yes e.g. Polynesia, Africa, Guatemala, Japan, but in very passive form, without dividing the society miserably like ours, and inter-caste marriage is quite prevalent.

Though, we are marching ahead towards twenty-first century, still our social stratification is so intense that it may take few centuries to make a near homogeneous society as human beings. In this hierarchy system Brahmins have traditionally occupied the top ranking position Shudras and untouchables at the bottom. This type of stratification is so intense and rigid that the society, as a whole is divided into several groups and few generations back each caste has their own colony e.g. in a Brahmin colony a shudder and untouchable has no access to live. But on the other hand, when manual work is needed the shudder can very well work in constructing their house. For economic gain also they can receive gifts without any hesitation. Within the same caste there are several sub-categories and matrimonial relation is restricted within the sub-category. This type of social discrimination is no way different from that of the racial discrimination in USA or apartheid in South Africa. If we are condemning racial discrimination as civilized individuals, why not we should condemn our caste system and social discrimination.

The above mentioned two nations have realized that their society can't be healthy until unless they abolish this cruel racial discrimination system. Though slavery has been abolished in USA more than hundred yeas ago racial discrimination and equal opportunity to blacks was not existed till 1970s. The society was always in unrest and chaos due to race related problem. Though racial discrimination is officially banned in early '70s still it exists in passive form, similarly though apartheid is finished, still color discrimination exists but quickly it is taking a passive form. A similar comparison in Indian contest can be made. Though untouchability is a social crime and constitutionally banned almost fifty years ago it still exist in passive form in cities and very active form in small villages where the upper caste is the dominant group, leading to social segregation. This also leads to social unrest when the untouchables are majority.

The racial and caste discrimination are synonyms as both determined by birth and membership is automatically ascribed and unaltered. Individuals in low castes are considered inherently inferior and are relegated to a disadvantage position regardless of their behavior and quality. High castes maintain their superior position by exercising powerful sanctions and they rationalize their status with elaborate philosophical, religious or sometime genetic explanation. For example the superstitious belief preached by the upper caste or is part of the Vedic explanation that the division of the ancient society is from the body parts of the creator God, his mouth became the Brahmin, his arms were made into the Kshatriya, his thighs the Vaishya and from his feet the Shudra were born. Such cosmogony becomes the starting point for the enunciation of the duties the creator allocated to each of the social classes. There is another popular notion that one's particular duty is calibrated to the class into which one was born and the stage of life one is presently passing through, the belief in karma and the cycle of rebirth whereby one's social position in this life is ethically determined by moral action in the past life. These are all the formulation made by the upper caste people to their advantage. There are thousands of these type of stories were made by the upper caste people to their economic gain and high social status and cheap manual labor exploitation.

During the moghul empire the foreigners had not paid any attention to change the caste system and it was to their advantage that they could convert the lower caste people to Muslim religion. Again during the British rule a similar situation was observed, the conversion of lower caste to Christianity. To the British it was a definitive advantage to rule for so long time due to such a divided society. There is a strong linkage of present day religious riots with caste system in India. If the lower caste people have not been segregated and suppressed in our society, there would not have been effective mass conversion of lower caste people to Muslims or Christians and they would have been very insignificant minors. However, during the British rule the caste segregation took a new turn by the introduction of new political, administrative and educational system, where caste was not a barrier to get these opportunity. Whatsoever the situation the upper caste people were traditionally in advantageous position than the lower caste. After independence this scenario did not change rather the caste system became much stronger with a new face. Elections were fought on the basis of caste. typical examples of Yadav revolution in Utter Pradesh and Bihar. Another similar lower caste movement against the upper caste can also be seen in Tamilnadu. Job opportunity and educational facilities were provided to the tribal people on the basis of caste. Several other problems were recreated and our society remained divided for ever.

Being born and brought up in such a divided society I had a chance to spend sometime in Czechoslovakia in late '80s when communists were still in power. It was incredible to see a highly homogeneous caste and class- less society. Every individual is respected equally with whatsoever profession, they do their duty with dignity and no body undermines anybody on the basis of his profession.

In the present day Indian society caste on the basis of profession carries no meaning, however the caste system is as strong as before. The reason for this that there is a very rigid caste system being preserved by individuals and commanded by their caste leader and there is scanty scope of intermixing. Though it is clearly established that caste system divides us globally and binds us in tiny communities, which has no meaning in this modern world, still we are not ready to change it.

No society can move forward unless it sets itself an ideal of achievement that is superior to the present reality. So it is high time for us to develop a caste-less homogeneous society to live happily and prosperously. The change could be achieved in two ways by revolution or by evolution. The former process is fastest and the later process is the slowest. But we should follow the second process because we are not trained to bring a revolution without bloodshed like Czechoslovakian people e.g. they brought down the communist rule and with in another two years divided into two countries the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic without a single drop of bloodshed.

Orissa the land of Jagannath and peace and Oriyas the peace loving people should take the leading role to create a fast evolutionary process and set an example nationally and internally by showing the world caste system is our past not our future.

Now I will leave open to the reader to think over the weekend that what could be the essential contributing factors and what individually we can dedicate for this evolutionary process.

Disclaimer: This article is neither intended to spread the hatred of casteism nor to demoralize the upper-caste people.



Amitabh Mishra (amishra@cadev6.intel.com)
Sidhartha Mohanty (sid@aluxpo.att.com)
Surjit Sahoo (ssahoo@ingr.com)

Click here for some AFTER THOUGHTS posted in ORNET

Your comments are always welcome...

Sadananda Sahu

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