Tell me about India's caste system.

On this web page (an article about a border closing ceremony at the India-Pakistan border), I saw an ad for an Indian (Hindu?) dating service, The ad flashes through a series of photographs of women; at first it surprised me to realize that along with their names and ages, they were listing their caste. “Same planet, different worlds,” I thought to myself.

Then it was pointed out to me that here in the US, it’s not uncommon for people on dating services to list their ethnicity, along with ethnicities they’re interested in meeting. Maybe not different worlds afterall?

So what’s the deal with India’s caste system? Are inter-caste relationships:

-a non-issue?
-eyebrow-raising but permissible?
-grudgingly tolerated?
-frowned upon?
-forbidden on pain of violence?

If they are now a non-issue/permissible, were they always this way?

Are the Indian castes a hierarchy? I always understood the “untouchables” to be at the bottom of the pecking order, but are the other castes in rank-order, or are they all on an equal plane somewhere above the untouchables?

India is a very diverse country. For every possibility that you propose you will find at least one identity group for which it is true. Idenity groups break down along dozens of lines, including ethnicity, language, dialect, religion, sect, food habits, historical origins, caste, status within caste, socioeconomics, education, … It goes on and on.

Since your question was prmpted by Bengali matrimonial and my experience is with Bengali society, I can address some issues there directly. Bengali society was one of the first in India to adopt western education, philosophy, and politics, so very broadly speaking, you will find less adherence to tradition.

You also should know that the “four-color” caste system (priests-warriors-merchants-laborers) as taught in textbooks doesn’t exist in real life. Each locality has a complex system based mostly on historical accident.

Among Bengali Hindus, the caste system basically breaks down into two groups: high (Brahmins/priests, Vaidyas/Boidyas/healers, and Kayasthas/scribes) and low (everyone else). Currently, the high castes are in the process of merging on a social level.

On the other hand, caste no longer place such a determinative role in an individual’s fate. That is becoming more and more dependent on wealth and education. Of course there is stll a correlation between those and caste, but there is significant mobility today compared to the past.

The one area on which caste still plays a major role is in marriage. Almost all arranged marriages will be within the specific caste and often within even more specific criteria, such as whether your family’s pre-1947 seat was in East Bengal (Bangal) or West Bengal (Ghoti). And then there is the issue of gotra (sometimes translated as “clan” but has little relationship to the western idea of a clan) - you can’t marry within your gotra. And it also depends on the general “conservativeness” of your group. Wealthy educated high caste Bengalis of North Calcutta are far more likely to adhere to tradition than wealthy educated high caste Bengalis of South Calcutta.

Non-arranged marriages among affluent educated high caste Bengali Hindus (“love matches”) don’t really follow any rules however, crossing all kinds of lines. There are many intercaste and interethnic marriages in my father’s generation (born in the 1930s and 1940s). It’s not considered transgressive.

However as I said India is diverse enough to harbor every variation. There are certainly still identity groups (although not among Bengalis) who will kill their daughters rather than see them marry outside the circle. Among even wealthy Biharis for example, a daughter marrying a Muslim won’t be tolerated.

And there are groups who would like to enforce such rules, but their children have the means to do what they want. There’s not really a tradition of “honor killing” once a wedding has taken place, especially if the couple have moved to a different locality.

Secret weddings do still take place. Everyone in their 20s has at least one friend who has gotten married without the knowledge of their parents. This is particularly tricky in situations in which they are living in the same city as their parents, because regardless of education and affluence, it’s still not acceptable for a son or an umarried daughter to set up a separate household ftom his or her parents when they are in the same city.

There is of course a degree of hierarchy on the caste system but it basically amounts to high-low-casteless, although a particular locality might include dozens of castes. Anything more specific than that is always subject to extensive dipute. Even the the high castes of Bengal don’t agree among themselves what their relative status is and really nobody cares.

acsenray has said it all. I will add that I myself was adopted into a mixed-caste marriage, and they got married in the seventies, so it’s not like it doesn’t happen and didn’t happen.

And my parents, in turn, would have accepted any caste for me, I think, but not a Muslim. And so it goes.

Serious question, are there any Jews in India? What’s their status socially?

There have been Jews in India for millennia and there are still some now. However, intermarriage with other groups as well as some emigration to Israel following WWII has doomed the Jewish community to demographic extinction.

You might have noted that one of the targets in the terrorist attacks in Bombay in 2008 was a Chabad house and the rabbi and dome others were killed.

What’s the status of Jews? I think it’s hard to say since there are so few left.

The wikipedia page on Indian Jews seems tobepretty good.

Historically, Hindu society absorbed all religious groups into the caste system. So in the localities where there were some Jews, they essentially became their own caste; the same happened with Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, etc. Sectarian strife is a more modern phenomenon on a society-wide basis and can largely find it’s origins with the arrival of Islam, jizta, purdah, and government-sanctioned conversion.

In my parents Encyclopedia Americana, it said something to the effect of, “Every group knows of at least one other, to whom they consider themselves superior.” :wink:

This has been very interesting. A dear friend of mine is a Bengali Hindu and I have inferred from conversations that she is from a much higher caste than her husband (who changed his last name at some point because his original name was associated with a low caste). But as far as I can tell, no one in their families care about their different caste statuses. It is a bigger issue - although not actually a problem, it just means they have different first languages - that she is Bengali and he isn’t.

It’s a complicated area. As I said before, when people find their own mates, there is a high likelihood that there will be differences in caste and other identity marks. But when people are going the “introduced by family” route (which most arranged marriages come down to among educated groups) it will almost always be within caste boundaries.

Of course there is always a tendency for families to resist “unlike” characteristics, but in this respect Indian society is any different from any other.

So, in a mixed caste marriage, what caste are the kids? Does the family as a unit have a caste identity?

Generally speaking you get everything identity related from your father, whether it’s caste, gotra, family name (if your group uses family names), or anything else. But if you are part of a society on which intercaste marriage is accepted, it’s not like this will really gone up as a question you will have to worry about

Oh and traditionally adoption will confer the full identity status of the adoptive father, although there have always been ultraconservative elements of society that hewed to birth status.

Traditionally, Indian monarchs were not subject to primogentiture. They could designate their successors through adoption. When the British cake along they enforced the Doctrine of Lapse, which essentially revoked sovereignty if a monarch didn’t have an rligiblenatursl don to succeed him.

Eligible natural son, dammit

My friend that I referenced earlier in this thread told me that when she gets asked what caste she is, she responds “no caste”, which she thinks people infer to mean that she is from a very low caste. She doesn’t care, she hates the caste system. (Her family is very left-wing and highly educated. I think the only conflict that arose when she married was that her husband’s family insisted they consult an astrologer to find the most auspicious time for the wedding; her dad threw a fit about living in the dark ages and following superstitions. They did end up doing it, and as a result, their wedding took place at 2 am.)

So it seems as though people might care somewhat, if they ask.

I read in The Jew in the Lotus about protests against affirmative action for low-caste people, for things like government jobs and admission to universities. Is that still done?

India has an extensive quota system for “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes” (SAST). The term comes from a list in the form of a “schedule” appended to the constitution. A certain percentage of goverment jobs and spaces in public and private educationAl institutions are reserved. There are also reservations for women, religious groups, and the reservations include management positions. The Supreme Court has capped cumulative national and state level reservations at 50 percent, but Rajasthan wants to go up to 68 percent (plus another reservation of 14 percent for nondisadvantaged groups). There is also a reservation of seats in the Parliament. These quotas do create difficulties for members of historically advantaged commnities, and there are occasionally protests. It’s an ongoing policy dispute. There are also backlash perceptions. I have been told that one should never go to a physician with a low caste background because they are admitted and allowed to pass without having to demonstrate their competence. Not that I would or would be able to take advantage of any such advice anyway.

I suppose it would be logical for the most anti-caste prople go gone ftom communities in which caste discrimination is strongest. In communities in which caste diffeences are fading, there are few people who “hate” the caste system.

Well, astrology, that’s another ball of wax. I hate the prevalence of brlief in that nonsense.

Yes. One of my names is an abrogation of my father’s name. My mother is a higher caste.

But you know, I think about it so little in the States. And I was heavily, heavily involved and invested in my culture. And no one cared about my caste, or, if they did, they were the kind to already infer it from my dad’s last name and move from there.

When I was growing up there just weren’t an enormous amount of Indians around. You took what you could get. When I was very young, we associated primarily with a Muslim communit simply because most of the Indians around Detroit, where we lived, were S. Indian - different languages and clothes and culture and customs. We hung out with the Muslims because Urdu is close enough and they had similar cultures.

Caste was so far off the radar we didn’t even talk about it and I think I was ten before I even found out what caste I was, or that I was mixed caste.

I suppose it might have come up had I had an arranged marriage. I really don’t know.