The caste system

Hi Everyone

One question that I get quite frequently by Norwegian friends and colleagues is about the Indian caste system. What is it all about? How does it affect the everyday at the office?

Let me start with the last part first. I have never seen anything in the office that indicates that caste is important. Not any discrimination or anything like that. That off course does not mean that it does not exists. What I have noted is that you can understand a lot by reading the name of a person. For example; people with the sir name Patel are most often from Gujarat, while people with the sir name Patil are likely to be from Maharashtra. In Gujarat Jainism is quite common, while Maharashtra is mostly a Hindu dominated stated. So if someone introduces him/herself to you and say that the sir name is Patel, you can maybe ask: “Ohh nice, so you’re a Gujarati Jain?” But be careful. It is not always like that. It is also said that in Maharashtra people with last name that ends with “kar” have names that indicates where they come from. But even here you must be a bit careful. If it was 100 % like this, the famous cricketer Sachin Tendulkar would have been from Azerbaijan.

I have heard people in HR asking new joiners where they are from based on their name. But that seems to be more of the curiosity than to check about whom they are or anything like that.

So what is this caste system then?

First of all I would like to point out that it is not restricted only to Hinduism. In India you find the caste system also among Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. And you find the caste system in countries like Yemen, Spain and Japan.

Any discrimination of people due to caste has been illegal since 1950. It is actually stated in the Indian constitution.

Traditionally the castes have been divided into four groups. These are the Brahmins (priests or scholars), Ksatriya (marshal or royals), Vaishya (merchants), and Sudhra (who are the labors). Below this is the dalits, or the untouchables.

One question that have been asked me a number of times is if it is possible to move from one caste to another, and also if it is possible for one caste to increase its status. Well. That was maybe two questions in one. But I guess that these questions are so closed connected that I will try to answer them together. And I would like to stress that what I write about here is something that is somewhat disputed, and that there are probably not one single true answer to these questions.

When it comes to move between castes, my understanding is that this is something that is quite very difficult. You’re born into one caste and you will belong to that caste for the rest of your life. It is only when you die and reborn that you can eventually move upwards to another caste. One slight exception to that rule might be that of a marriage. If you marry someone from a higher cast, I do think that it is possible for you to join that caste. Or am I completely wrong here?

Regarding the possibility for one caste to move upwards (or downwards for that case) in the hierarchy, the opportunities are greater. There is a concept called Sanskritisation that describes this concept. This is the situation where people in a caste of a lower rank start to do rituals that have previously only been done by higher castes. The caste system is highly complex and quite strict about what different castes can do or not. Let me take one example. This is not a real example, but meant as an example of how it could be… Let’s say that a cricket team consists of people from different castes. You might have some who belong to the higher “batting caste” or “bowling caste”. While some belongs to the lower “fielding caste”. People from that caste are allowed to neither bowl nor bat. As those of you who follow cricket know, if everyone from the “batting caste” gets out, you have to turn to the people from the “fielding caste” to do the batting. If they perform well, the whole idea of a “fielding caste” might get removed. Another example, which might be closer to real life, is what happens in Varanasi. Here there are some people who are responsible for the fires where people are cremated. I spoke to one of these people when I visited Varanasi last year. He told me that he had inherited the job from his father. I do then presume that he belongs to a specific caste that is responsible for executing this specific task. At least it sounded like this the way he spoke. I can only guess that there are people from a different caste who are responsible to get all the firewood that is needed for the fires. What if some people from this caste someday also require working on the fire? Most probably they will initially get refused. But maybe this will change over time and that they will be given these new tasks. By doing it this way a whole caste can get new tasks and move upwards in the hierarchy.

Talk to you soon!



3 thoughts on “The caste system

  1. Hi Karsten, I have been trotting on your blog for a while, but this is the first time I am commenting.. You have written a good article , especially without any judgements, which is quiet difficult in the expat blog community! lol

    just wanted to point out certain mistakes :

    1. Its Surname not Sirname! 🙂
    2. Being a Gujarati or a Marathi is more a question of belonging to a different state than a caste.
    3. Haven’t heard of deliberately ‘changing castes’, but I know families whose castes got changed over the generations due to change of profession..

  2. Upper caste men can marry who they like, if they choose to exercise that option (most don’t). A lower-caste woman who marries a Brahmin man, for example, is automatically included in her husband’s caste, as are her children. Lower caste groups also moved upwards by adopting Sanskritisation. No meat, alcohol, priest-conducted rituals and marriage, etc.

  3. If you ask Norwegians if there is racism in Norway – they would deny it. Right? But the fact is else otherwise as it does happen in implicit and explicit ways.
    Breivik is a symptom of xenophbic nature of the society and the negative potrayal of norwegian minorities in the media and the right wing politics only gives fuel to such people.
    What the world needs is tolerance education.


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