Day 4: Ram’s House

Caste System

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A doctor? A firefighter? A veterinarian? A teacher?

In America and many other countries, children grow up and choose their own jobs. We have many choices and can work hard to make our dreams come true.

But if you lived in India, your job - and your position in society - would be determined long before you are even born. You would have the same job as your parents...and grandparents...and someday your own children would do the same work.

This is because of something called the caste system. For centuries, Hinduism has divided Indian society into four main varnas, or castes.

  • Sudras are the lowest caste, and do hard work and manual labor.
  • The Vaisya caste includes merchants, farmers, and artisans.
  • Warriors and rulers belong to the Kshatriya caste.
  • The highest caste, Brahmin, is the smallest and most powerful group. Hindu priests and religious leaders come from the Brahmin caste.

Each varna is divided into thousands of subcastes, called jatis. There are different subcastes for every kind of job - blacksmiths, lawyers, stoneworkers, etc. Often members of a jati will live and work together, forming communities based on castes. Mothers and fathers choose marriage partners for their sons and daughters from the same caste.

Words to know:

  • Varna: caste
  • Jati: subcaste
  • Reincarnation: an eternal cycle of life & death
  • Karma: you get what you deserve

India's caste system is similar in some ways to discrimination based on skin color, gender, or ethnicity. But there is one big difference: Hindus believe their gods decide a person's caste as either a punishment or a blessing.

Hindus believe the gods decide what caste people are born into based on their karma, or how they lived in a past life. They believe when a person dies, they are reincarnated, or reborn into a new body.

If you pleased the gods in a past life, then you are reincarnated into a higher caste. But if you anger the gods, they will condemn you to a lower caste in the next life.

What's caste like?
Role-playing activity

We'll never know exactly what it's like to grow up with the caste system. It is hard to imagine someone not wanting to talk to us or even touch us just because of the family we were born into.

Click here for a role-playing activity to get a taste of what living under the caste system is like.

That is why in India, you cannot choose to leave the caste you are born into. If you are born into the highest levels, then people think the gods have blessed you. You will always be treated with respect by the lower castes. You will feel more important than others and even have the power to treat lower castes badly.

But if you are born into a low caste family, Hindus believe you must have angered the gods in a previous life and are being punished. You are looked down upon and even shunned by higher castes. An upper caste person can refuse to eat with someone from a lower caste. Sometimes in school, children won't sit near or talk to lower-caste students.

This kind of behavior, called caste discrimination, is against the law in India. Even though caste discrimination is illegal, this ancient social practice is still very alive today, especially in rural villages. In India, your caste is your identity.

India's Untouchables

What if no one would touch you?

What if people told you that you were so worthless, you weren't even human?

That is what life is like for millions of people in India, known as the Untouchables.

This group is considered so unworthy that they are not even in the caste system. This is where the word "outcast" comes from. Today, Untouchables choose to call themselves Dalits, which means crushed or broken. Gandhi called them harijan, or "Children of God."

Many of India's Hindus believe that Dalits are less than human and are spiritually unclean. Dalits were once forced to drink from clay cups that would be destroyed after each use. They had to walk with brooms tied behind them, to sweep away their "unclean" footprints.

For centuries, Dalits have done the dirtiest, most awful jobs in society. They must clean human waste and sewers by hand, butcher animals, and do leather work.

Because they are considered unclean, Dalits are ostracized in Indian society and most live in separate villages or urban slums. Many upper caste people believe even a Dalit's shadow is unclean. They will not share a well with Dalits.

Discrimination against Dalits is illegal in modern India. But it continues in social practice even today.

Many Dalit people have defied social traditions and gone on to achieve great success in society, becoming doctors, writers, and political leaders. India has even had a Dalit president: KR Narayanan was elected the tenth president of India in 1997 and served until 2002. But they are still considered "outcasts" by many upper caste people. Some upper caste Hindus even look down upon these successful Dalits because they believe the Dalits are not accepting the low status bestowed on them by their gods.