Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, January 27, 2006

Caste Mobility and Trickery

The other day, Half-Sigma posted a link to an older post of his about Jewish people in Europe in ancient times. He pointed out something obvious: no one really needed to be Jewish.

During the 2000 years of the Diaspora, it sucked to be Jewish. Not only were you discriminated against by the Christians, you also had to follow strict Jewish laws that took all the fun out of life. Yet it was pretty easy for Jews to simply give up the faith and blend in with goyish society. Remember, this was the old days before there were zillions of records about your existence. All a Jewish person had to do in the old days was just walk to the next town, tell everyone he was Catholic, and that was it.

Of course, most Jewish people never did that or else there would be no Jews today. Most Jews put up with the mistreatment because they believed in their religion and because they were loyal to their family and extended family. But some people did leave.

This raises an interesting question: why didn’t outcaste Hindus simply move to another village, change their names, and become high-caste Hindus? Obviously it wouldn’t be that easy, but then there was enormous incentive. Was the punishment for impersonating someone of higher caste death? Otherwise, why not go for it?

Sure, people might have been suspicious of that outside person. Who really knew what his background was? Maybe he brought his mom and dad along but who knew about them either. But if he was marriageable and a high-caste Hindu had a daughter and no money for dowry, there might be a deal. The trickster might be willing marry someone of high caste for little or no dowry, and he gains a wife and a family of people who will back his case as a bona fide high-caste Hindu. In a couple of generations, everyone will have forgotten that the trickster was of dubious origin.

When Islam came to India, low-caste and outcaste Hindus had the opportunity to simply leave Hinduism altogether. Therefore, why did some stay? They weren’t allowed into the temples. They were treated badly and had the worst jobs. Why put up with it?

Some obviously did leave and others stayed. The curious thing here is that even if there were no actual difference genetically between high-caste Hindus and low-caste Hindus thousands of years ago, after thousands of years of self-selection there might actually be differences. On the positive side, low-caste Hindus might be intensely loyal to family. On the negative side, they might have inherited a lack of ambition- if this is inheritable- since that would be one characteristic that their ancestors seemed to have had. And for high-caste Hindus, there might be a tendency to be ethically challenged because some of their ancestors were probably cheats. But, then again, Australia was founded by convicts and look where they are today.

The main question I have is, “What really kept the low-caste Hindus from pretending to be high-caste.” What was the enforcement mechanism and how effective was it. My guess is that more trickery took place than you might have guessed because trickery, if it is any good, is always unseen.


  • While I am not particularly knowledgeable on the subject, my understanding is that:

    1. Leaving your religion, even in a society that ill treats you, was/is probably very difficult due to issues of faith, which was/is deeply ingrained in whole lifestyle of people. Logically all of us should be atheist but not many in the world are (including me).

    2. Either it is because Muslims and Christians had lived in India for long and imbibed Hindu way of looking, or some other reason, there are more than miority of incidents which show that converts were not treated well by converted religion as well. They are considered second-class Christians or Muslims. I don't know/care if that is true to their religion but it was definitely true in practice. And as I understand, even though they are not called castes, there are numerous - may be not as many as in Hinduism, yet - classes and subclasses within Christianity and Islam as well. Somehow converts ended up in the lowest of them.

    3. There are lots of Christian missionaries working in India right now who try to convert lower-caste or tribal people by service/propaganda/coercion/allurement, and in absence of any statistics in the matter but from individual accounts as published in magazines time-to-time, it appears that their (lower-caste people's) condition has not improved (much) in anyway.

    Hmmph. Longest comment I have ever written!

    By Blogger Ashish Gupta, at 11:03 AM  

  • To attempt to answer your main question - the reason could have been, in those days the main difference between so-called high-caste & low-caste Hindus was in eating habits, religious practices, knowledge of scriptures etc. The high-caste Hindus had a more regimented lifestyle, I guess. So for a so-called low-caste Hindu to pass off as a high-caste one, he would have to impose certain rules on himself and be able to follow them. We are talking both ability & motivation to do so, here.

    By Blogger Vee Cee, at 12:36 PM  

  • Michael, is being "ethically challenged" something that can actually be passed down through genes? I don't know, but I would be really surprised. In any case, there is ample evidence of upper caste Hindus taking up cudgels for the oppressed lower-castes and arguing for reform. Exhibit A: Gandhi.

    I think VC's point about knowledge of the scriptures (education, broadly speaking) and eating habits make sense. However, eating habits are not significantly different in some areas - in the Eastern part of the country, for example (Brahmins are also meat-eaters). This could be a relatively recent trend, though.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:05 AM  

  • Btw, the scriptures and eating habits would only serve to differentiate (for the most part) between Brahmins and others. That still leaves the question unanswered.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:08 AM  

  • The difference was education and training in crafts. Brahmins were taught to read and write at a very early stage in their lives. Kshatriyas were trained in warfare.
    Many of the sub-castes in Hinduism are classified on the basis of profession. So a potter's son only knew about pottery or a cobbler only knew about fixing footwear. Furthermore, this knowledge was passed on from generation to generation and not taught in any schools. (Apart from the kings who learnt it from brahmin gurus)

    Now if a person decides to transcend his caste or behave differently, how does he earn his livelihood? To become a Brahmin he should know the scriptures. To become a bania he ought to know how to keep accounts. If he starts learning these things as an adult there will be inevitable questions as to why didn't his parents teach him these things. That would give him away. So I think it was all about livelihood that almost precluded any choice of changing professions.

    Also, the accent spoken by each caste varies. It is not easy to hide ones accent. It might have been a prime giveaway.

    As to why they did not convert after onset of Islam and Christianity... One reason again can be livelihood. If you belong to the caste of potters and you convert to Islam, no Hindu would have bought pot from you. If there is a distribution chain you would have tough time fitting in and may be discriminated against resulting in a loss in income.

    A sociological reason maybe the tyranny of the unit called village where the majority lived. Each caste had its own community. However low in the structure a caste may be, the community ties were strong and it provided the security needed to cope with the oppression from the upper castes. If one converted, your own community would disown you. You will then not only be fending the upper castes who already know that you were a lower caste person before you converted but also have to face the scorn of your own community. It is easy to enforce violence in a unit like a village. What if the villagers stop you from drawing water from the well if you are a Muslim? You would be worse off than the lowest of castes. The ones who converted during the Mughal era were either forced conversions or the ones who converted to curry favour with the emperor. These were from urban areas where there were no one to enforce the tyranny of the villagers.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:23 AM  

  • The problem was not exit Michael. It was entry.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:29 PM  

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