Caste is one of the most complicated and misunderstood concepts encountered when attempting to understand India and Indian society. In light of recent decisions in higher education and discrimination lawsuits attempting to grapple with the implications of how caste and caste discrimination play out in the South Asian diaspora — and often erroneously place all blame on Hindu theology — HAF has compiled these frequently asked questions on caste.

What is HAF’s stance on caste-based discrimination?

HAF condemns all forms of caste-based discrimination and supports holistic, community-based solutions that incorporate education, upliftment, and empowerment.

Caste-based discrimination is a serious social problem across every religious community in India and throughout South Asia. It is outlawed in India and other countries in South Asia.

Caste-based discrimination is in direct violation of the most profound and fundamental Hindu teachings. Hindu scriptures and their tenets articulate that Divinity is manifest equally in every being.

What is caste?

The term “caste” is derived from “casta”, the Portuguese word for lineage, breed, or race. In modern India, caste is primarily understood to mean jāti and is a feature across all religious communities. But in America, caste is confused with varna.

Jāti are hereditary social units or sub-communities largely based on traditional occupations (akin to medieval guilds) that people often identify with and marry within. There are thousands of jāti, and each has its own unique cultural practices and traditions that are passed down orally.

Varna are four archetypes or personality types in Hindu sacred texts that lay out a framework for a balanced and well-functioning society. In this model, each individual is to serve one of four societal functions of education, governance, economy, or service. Varna is not hereditary nor hierarchical according to Hindu teachings, but based on one’s characteristics, inclinations, and behavior.

At some point, ideas around the four archetypes (varna) and how society was actually organized (jāti) became intertwined. And while this social system was initially neither rigid, uniformly hierarchical, nor hereditary, over time, it evolved both organically and through colonial policies into a rigid, hierarchical, and hereditary system.

To learn more, read HAF’s primer on caste.

Are caste and color related in any way?

No, not at all.

There is a misguided perception in the West that colorism (and even racism) is a product of caste, and that the contemporary view of social stratification within India is somehow linked to skin color.  It is not.

This is not to say colorism, or a preference for fairer skin, is not a real fixation for many South Asians, just as it is in other communities of color. This partially stems from a deep legacy of white supremacist and European Christian imperialism embedded within color preferences and a multi-million dollar skin-lightening industry promoting colorism.

The conflation of caste with color is a direct product of a 19th century racist European theory that claimed that light-skinned invaders (pre-Europeans), who would become the so-called ‘upper castes’ took over dark-skinned indigenous groups or ‘lower castes’ on the subcontinent, despite a complete lack of archaeological or genetic evidence supporting the claim.

Today, one need only look at the diversity of hues among South Asians from not just the same geographical region, but also the same caste community and even same family to understand that caste and color are unrelated.

To learn more, read Race and Colorism in Education, Chapter 9.

Is caste something only Hindus follow?

No.

All religious communities in India and generally South Asia — Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim, and Sikh — have their own caste identities with perceived differences and notions of hierarchy.

There are regular reports of so-called ‘low-caste’ individuals being discriminated against both by their co-religionists and members of other faiths. At the same time, there are religious leaders of every tradition decrying this discrimination.

Does Hinduism promote inequality?

No.

Portrayals of caste (jāti) and discrimination based on caste as being integral to the teachings and practice of Hinduism are wrong (see here, here, and here).

Hindu sacred texts explicitly and repeatedly emphasize the equality of all humans and recognize the existence of the divine in all beings as demonstrated in the ancient hymn:

Ajyesthaso akanishthaso ete sambhrataro vahaduhu saubhagaya

“No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.”

Lacking any authoritative scriptural basis, it is unfortunate that the Hindu tradition has been conflated with the reprehensible practice of social discrimination that has manifested as racism, religious persecution, and slavery in other cultures throughout the world.

Every major sampradaya (Hindu religious traditions) and Hindu socio-religious organization rejects caste-based discrimination and a hereditary hierarchy. Moreover, numerous Hindu saints and reformers have opposed caste-based discrimination over the millennia and have brought about and promoted the dignity, mutual respect, and equal worth of all people.

Is caste relevant for South Asians in the US?

There are no reliable, independent statistics on the caste of immigrants coming to the United States from South Asia.

We do know that historically the earliest waves of Indian immigrants to the United States came to pursue higher education, and were thereby likely to be from more so-called upper or dominant castes, which had greater access to education and opportunity.

While some immigrants from South Asia may carry over caste attitudes from their countries and communities of origin, the vast majority of cultural and religious organizations and institutions bring together and serve people of all caste backgrounds. It is also true that some families, across all South Asian religious communities, may still show preference towards marrying within a specific caste, in addition to regional or linguistic communities, but for every example of this there are ones to the contrary. And finally, for second and third generation people of Indian origin in the US and other diasporas, anecdotally, the importance of caste has declined rapidly, playing little to no role in day to day interactions, let alone the way in which they self-identify.

It’s important to note that for Hindu “converts” — those tens of thousands of people without any ethnic connection to South Asia who have embraced Hinduism — caste is entirely irrelevant, thus further validating the point that caste is not intrinsic to the teachings and practice of Hinduism.

What is India doing about caste discrimination?

Though the social practice of caste based discrimination still exists in certain segments of Indian society, it has been illegal in India since the country’s founding as an independent nation in 1947.

To redress social and economic disadvantages faced by historically disadvantaged communities (categorized as Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Other Backward Castes), the Government of India has established what is in essence the world’s largest affirmative action program. This program reserves positions in civil service, academia, and other spheres specifically for members of disadvantaged communities.

Much has been accomplished in rectifying historical disadvantage to education, access to opportunity, and representation, and much remains to be done.

Does HAF think that caste should be a protected category for purposes of discrimination complaints in the US?

HAF unequivocally stands against discrimination based on caste, no matter where it occurs. When incidents of caste discrimination do occur, they should be brought to light, thoroughly investigated, and rectified.

Caste does not require specific legal protection for several reasons:

  1. Discrimination based on national origin is already prohibited under US law (or ancestry under many state laws). Caste-based discrimination is thus covered under existing law because national origin includes birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics closely associated with an ethnic group.
  2. Given the stereotyped and inaccurate narratives around caste, India, and Hinduism  — narratives which are rooted in white supremacy and European Christian imperialism —  there is a real risk of only Hindus of Indian origin being unfairly singled out for something that is a South Asian issue impacting Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, and Sikhs from historically disadvantaged communities, especially as we see caste-identities increasingly diluting generationally in South Asian diasporas. For this reason, HAF believes that caste-discrimination should not be prosecuted on the basis or in the context of religion or religious identity.
  3. Both human resource professionals, state agencies, and courts need proper training to ensure they have the requisite cultural proficiency to assess competently the complexities of identity amongst South Asians, which might entail religious, linguistic, political, socio-economical, generational, or even personal differences. Contact the Hindu American Foundation for a cultural proficiency training for your institution at info@hinduamerican.org.
  4. There is scant evidence that caste discrimination is practiced in the United States, and the Equality Labs survey often cited, is non-scientific and riddled with observer  bias, selection bias, variability errors, and other issues. For example, dozens of South Asian organizations are listed as partner organizations who assisted in distributing the survey.  Not a single Hindu organization is listed, nor were any of the major national Hindu organizations invited to participate. A breakdown of respondents by religion is also not provided in spite of the survey asking about religious identity. And the survey does not investigate the national origin of those engaging in discriminatory behavior, which would provide critical generational data points with regard to caste awareness. Read HAF’s critical analysis of the survey, read: Recrimination or Reconciliation