Of races and other castes

While studying development sociology at Cornell in my early twenties, I took a trip to see my Marathi family in India. I was pleasantly sipping tea with older relatives whom my father was making conversation with.

“One of Amod’s colleagues in his graduate program is Marathi,” he said. The family members nodded appreciatively and expressed their approval.

“And her name is Rukmini,” he added. The family nodded appreciatively again. “Ah! Rukmini! Very nice.”

Wanting to add to the conversation, I chimed in: “Yes, Rukmini Potdar.”

Suddenly the tone in the room took a dramatic shift. “Oh, Potdar,” one of them spat as they all rolled their eyes and shook their heads. I looked around in bewilderment – what was so wrong with being called Potdar? – but no further explanation came up. The conversation just moved on to different topics.

After we left, I turned to my father. “What happened there?” I asked him. Rukmini was a perfectly nice person and Potdar seemed to me a perfectly nice name. What did they have to object to?

“Well,” he said, “Rukmini is a nice old-fashioned Marathi name, so they appreciated that. But Potdar is a Bania name.”

I had stumbled into the world of modern Indian caste prejudice.

My family on his side are the extremely highly placed Chitpavan brahmins. Banias are traditionally merchants – roughly what in Sanskrit would have been called vaiṣyas. Rukmini was a fine name that other brahmins might have given their children. But my older family members wanted nothing to do with a mere Bania.

I come back to this conversation when friends back home talk about their more “rednecked” American family members. In the educated urban world I inhabit, overt racism is prohibited. I sometimes encounter overt racism from strangers; among people I know, many of us might do badly on implicit bias tests, and some comments unintentionally feel insulting – so-called microaggressions. But in no conversation here would anyone I know unapologetically admit to thinking less of someone because of their race. Such comments are something my friends encounter from rednecked relatives back in the countryside or the South, and it can strain those family relationships. I’ve never encountered anything like that in my family with respect to race. But I have encountered it with respect to caste. My father tells me that when they encounter someone behaving incompetently at work, some family members will shrug it off with “what do you expect? He’s an SC” – scheduled caste, the official government term for the groups once called untouchable.

Caste functions in India very much like race does in the US – enough so that one can plausibly map the groups in one hierarchy onto the group in the other. Brahmins, like white people, have traditionally been on the top of everything, and retain a lot of that position, though social mobility does exist and make it more complicated. SCs (most commonly known to academics as Dalits, “oppressed”), like black people, were traditionally despised openly and treated like dirt – and have long been the beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that have not yet been sufficient to remedy this. The largest group in the Indian caste hierarchy is known as OBCs (“other backward castes”), who, like American Latinos, were traditionally low but not at the bottom, and now span a wide range of social and economic statuses. Banias, like Asians in the US, are generally well off but still face the kind of prejudice my family expressed. And this hierarchy was all imposed from outside on indigenous peoples – called Scheduled Tribes in India – who are typically poor and often ignored. I’m oversimplifying considerably with these parallels – zoom in a little bit and you’d find many details according to which the mapping works less well – but the fact that I can draw them at all, even in this oversimplified way, should indicate that Indian caste and American race have a lot in common.

Race – unlike sex and gender – is not a universal feature of human societies. The concept of race as we know it was invented by Europeans in the colonial era. What’s more common, if not universal, is humans making prejudiced distinctions between groups, saying people in this group are better than people in that group – and often reinforcing those distinctions in (or deriving them from) hierarchies of social, economic, and political power.

What the Indian experience reminds us is that that prejudice is not fundamentally about biology. (Varṇa, the older Sanskrit word for caste, can also literally mean “colour”, but as far as I know its usage for caste is never connected to colour of skin.) You can’t tell whether someone is a brahmin or an SC by looking at their facial features. You know because of social connections – locally, in a less-mobile society like India’s, everyone knows everyone. Or when it’s someone more distant, you go by last name, as in the case of poor Dr. Potdar. That’s more than enough for people to discriminate overtly in exactly the sorts of ways that, were the groups defined differently, we would describe as racism.

And, also like race in the US, caste in India is a complex phenomenon, where prejudices don’t run only one way. Once, during a long wait for a plane in Bombay airport, I started chatting with an Indian-American woman next to me, who had come to India for medical school because the tuition was cheaper. A group of her fellow students had told her, “You’re a brahmin, so we wouldn’t normally hang out with you – but you’re American, so it’s okay.”

I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isabel Wilkerson’s book that uses the concept of caste to theorize hierarchies including race, but I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea, for reasons I’ve just explained. In its own way the English word caste – from casta, the word for “lineage” that the Portuguese used to describe the hierarchy they saw in India – is already a theoretical generalization, because it lumps together two separate Sanskrit words whose relationship to each other is always muddy. The traditional classification of human beings into four neat categories, found prescriptively in the Vedas and dharmaśāstra and descriptively in the Pali canon, is referred to as varṇa; but the messier modern hierarchy I’ve talked about here is jāti. English-speakers refer to “the Indian caste system” in ways that don’t distinguish between varṇa and jāti; it’s not possible to do that using native Indian words. When you have a concept like “caste” that already implicitly generalizes theoretically between varṇa and jāti, why not have it generalize to race too?

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

5 Replies to “Of races and other castes”

  1. I am not sure what ‘most commonly known to academics as Dalits, “oppressed”’ is intended to mean here. But if it means that ‘Dalit’ is an academic term, then that’s far from the truth. ‘Dailt’ as a term was chosen by Marathi Untouchables themselves way back in the middle of the 19th century and has remained popular among the community.

    It is also not true that ‘the largest group in the Indian caste hierarchy is known as OBCs (“other backward castes”)’. OBCs or Other Backward *Classes* are not a caste group. That was an official designation created by the colonial state, just like SCs or Scheduled Castes was for the Untouchables or Dailts.

    While I have not read any historian claim that ‘jāti’ is an acient organisational unit, I have not read anyone claim it is ‘modern’ either. It is very much a premodern category though its history, it seems, is still not well understood. And academics who study caste in India today, study it is the organisation of jātis, not varnas. One reason political scientist Sunil Khilnani has criticised Wilkerson’s bold thesis is on the ground that race does not exhibit the mobility that caste does, that is, social processes have developed over the past 1,000 years that allow jātis to change their positions; you cannot imagine that for race (and your point about caste lacking any nonlocal distinguishing markers speaks to this).

    • Thank you, Vipul. Some responses…

      No, I didn’t mean “Dalit” was coined by academics – merely that it is the term most commonly used by academics to describe the group. (As opposed to the government, which uses SC; I’ve been told anecdotal evidence that the members of that group often prefer “Harijan”). Similarly, when I say that “the messier modern hierarchy I’ve talked about here is jāti” I don’t mean that the word jāti is a modern coinage, only that the system that exists in modern times is described by jāti and not varṇa.

      OBC is a grouping of multiple jātis, just like SC is. You’re right that the official term is “class”, but it’s not referring to actual social classes (property owners, the educated, etc.) but to jāti groups.

      Your point about social mobility is interesting and important – but I will disagree with you on it. Race itself is a lot more mobile and fluid than it is often taken to be. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White is the clearest illustration of this point: in the 19th century the English (and their descendants in the Americas) considered the Irish a “race” as low as the Africans, but over the 20th century they raised their status remarkably to have the same “whiteness” that the English or Germans had. It’s a remarkable parallel to the “Sanskritization” where dominant jāti groups that might have been considered śudra come to establish themselves as kṣatriyas or even brahmins.

      • Thanks, Amod. Will look up Ignatiev.

        When I said ‘jāti’ is premodern I did not mean only the term, but the practice too.

        And yes, ‘class’ in OBC does not mean production classes. However, going by your reading, OBC _would_ be a 20th c. caste group, so largest in the _modern_ Indian caste hierarchy.

  2. Caste/Varna/Jati…all may have analytical nuances and differences…but they are functionally same and together they can be said to be classic case of Weitgensteinian “family resemblance”…. of course Hindu Conservatives will follow Gandhian/Vivekanandan strategy disambiguate to Varna & Jati( that is Semantic revisionism)..Some unscrupulous will do dishonest “deconstruction” to show that caste system is alien which British imposed ( or reifed) on “innocent” hindus via enumerative anthropology( see American twice-borns response to anti-caste legislation in California)…
    BUT PHILOSOPHICALLY speaking, Nyaya philosophers invested huge philosophical capital to justify Caste system… Their realist epistemology of UNIVERSALs ( which literally called “Jāti”) is motivated to prove that different Varnas are logically different set..That means it is not justified as Biologically as Race is…but it is LOGICALLY distinguished…

    In the heart of Buddhist Apoha and Nyaya Jati debate is this justification of caste supremacy…( See the book Classical Buddhism , Neo-Buddhism and Question of Caste ..edited by Pradeep Kumar Gokhale..specially the chapter by P K Sen)

    When scholars generally discuss this Realist vs Nominalist debate , they sidesteps this caste question…which may be innocent act ( if done by western scholars)..but this ommision is political act by so many philosophy academics of indian descent…

    But hopefully modernity and Ambedkarite challenge have been significant so that as Pratap Bhanu Mehta says ” Civilisational arc of india definitively shifted away from caste oppression”..or I may reiterate Winston Churchill “Now this is not the end, not even beginning of the end..but this is end of the beginning for sure)…

    As an aside, for last 2 months Indian public intellectuals are debating “(f)utility of Sanatana Dharma” prompted by indictment of Santana Dhama and its vicious legacy of casteism by one south Indian politician…
    Most vigorous defense of the indictment is provided by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his Indian Express column “Tradition and Its Discontents”(5 spt ,2023).. see some excerpts..

    “””The practice of the Indian caste system is vile and oppressive. We can debate its theological complexities, the periodic revolts against it and its transformation during modernity. There is still a remarkable invisibility to the depth of its persistence. One surest sign of this is the following. Many votaries of “Sanatan Dharma” claim it to be eternal, encompassing and ecumenical. But a basic empathy escapes them when it comes to caste. How does the Indian tradition look to those who have been its most persistent victims? After such knowledge, what identification with this tradition?

    It is more our horror at the prospect that once Dalits are in an empowered position, they might choose to reject the abstract pieties of dominant Sanatan Dharma altogether. This fragile compromise of empowerment within the confines of Hinduism may not survive the genuine achievement of voice…. Only a resentful, insecure caricature of Sanatan Dharma…..can worry about the possibility that their dharma might not survive justice…

    ….. this kind of response requires an exemplariness and credibility that a Narayana Guru or a Gandhi might have carried —even Gandhi’s stock now runs low. So the substitute for exemplarity is the mendacious abstraction called Sanatan Dharma. In this particular case, we cannot look at real victims in the eye. And so to avert their haunting moral gaze, we invent another contrived victimhood…

    ….. Should the Ambedkarite call be seen as ultimately more a cri de coeur? No country can move forward without confronting the oppression at the heart of it, and there is oppression at the heart of various versions of Sanatan Dharma. …

    ….. Any genuine defender of that tradition would work towards a politics of moral exemplarity, not act like a thuggish crybaby. It is a pity no so-called Sanatani has the moral courage to make this obvious point.”””

  3. How are ST’s indegenous people? there is no proof of it. President of India who is a ST most probably migrated to india in last 1-2000 years later than all the mainstream castes you mentioned.

    Race is noway equal to caste, there was a institutional mechanism by government before mid 20th century to benefit one race over other. There is nothing like that for castes. India was never ruled power which perpetuated caste system in last 200years

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