Q: What about the caste system in India - is that race?

Audrey Smedley

I was in Japan back in September, and I met an Indian scholar there who had done a survey of the literature on caste in India. She had come to the conclusion that it was the British who essentially established the caste system in India. She points out that part of the Hindu religion identified people as having unequal spiritual, or unequal religious, identities. These jatis or castes - and there are thousands of jatis - were people who had different spiritual status, not that they were unequal intellectually or in any other kinds of ways. Their inherited inequality was based on a religious system. Secondly, the thing about the caste system in India is that it wasn't based on morphology or skin color. The British were the ones who tried to introduce this by attempting to elevate the light-skinned Brahmin people into positions of power, giving them Western education. And this tended to solidify the caste system in India and give it another meaning.

George Fredrickson

Well, I think Audrey knows more about that than I do. I base my understanding of the caste system on a French sociologist, Louis Dumont, who wrote about hierarchical societies, and tried to make a distinction with societies where hierarchy and inequality are accepted as a religious belief - in this case, spiritual inequality. It is basically consensual in the fact that, as far as we know anyway, the lower castes buy into the system. They accept this as a legitimate way of ranking, but that's a very different kind of situation than where there's some kind of norm of equality, where you're making a big exception for one group to be inferior and to be subordinated. He makes a pretty good argument that there's really two quite different kinds of systems, and also the fact that under the Hindu caste system, you're not fixed for eternity, because of the belief in reincarnation. You can move up or down in your next life, and that makes a difference.

However, I would add that now the caste system has lost a lot of its religious legitimacy; the untouchables, or Dalits as they are called, are making the claim that they are the victims of racism. They came en masse to the Durban racism conference. I saw them demonstrating there. At this point, the continued discrimination against them, in a situation where equality is the norm in India as it is in Western countries, could arguably constitute racism now although it wasn't, wouldn't have been that in the past.

Audrey Smedley

Actually, the caste system has been made illegal, as you know, and the Dalits are now able to occupy many different positions. They are getting an education, they are occupying many positions in the government and so forth. But the fundamental difference, I think, between race and caste is that, and as I said, my colleague believes that it was imported from Europe and she's tried to analyze the distinctions between what was present in India in the early 18th century before the British came in and changed things. The idea of religious purity is part of a long system of what we call "tribal religions" in anthropology. As people become more and more part of the cosmopolitan industrial world, these tend to assimilate anyway; they tend to die down, these kinds of beliefs. Skin color and physical appearance had nothing to do with it originally. The British introduced this. In fact, they tried to establish racial categories in India. In the 1920s, a fellow by the name of Majumdar wrote that he was able to identify about 30 different races in India, but these cut across caste lines and also tribal lines.

You also have to remember there are millions of people in India who are not Hindu, who do not hold to this system of religious beliefs, and who are still tribal in that their social organization is based in kinship.


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