caste by danielle defrancesco on Flickr
caste by danielle defrancesco on Flickr

Reading this op-ed on the caste system in India made me immensely sad, especially this honest and sincere but still utterly nonsensical defense by an educated, modern, upper class Brahmin:

For the last two years, I have been speaking with a Brahmin from Bengal, a philosopher and a teacher of ancient logic, a man conversant with both Eastern and Western intellectual traditions. I admire him in many ways — his immense learning, his defense of tradition in the face of Western influence — but when I questioned him about the prohibitions of caste he gave me an answer that turned my stomach.

“If a person is suffering from a communicable disease, you would not let him touch your utensils,” he said. “You have this one idea of contamination, but you refuse to accept that there might be certain spiritual conditions …” His voice trailed off. He seemed to know that he had lost me. As if wanting to clear the air, he said: “You have to understand that modern European culture is based on the idea that all men are born equal, and later become differentiated. The Indian idea is different. We believe that men are born unequal, but we are all — Brahmin, sage, cobbler, outcaste — heading toward the same destiny.”

It was a valiant attempt at a defense, but in the end absurd. It would mean that millions of lower-caste Indians, like Rohith Vemula, had to forfeit the aspirations of this life in exchange for the promise of some ultimate destiny, many lifetimes away, in which all differences would be obliterated.

For the record, the man’s summary of what western culture is based on is as propagandic as his own defense of caste. I think all societies are based on one kind of inequality or another. In the West, the explicit equality for “all men.. created equal” hinged on the definition of “men” which both implicitly and explicitly excluded some men, and all women.

Caste is India’s original sin, like slavery is America’s, occupation is Israel’s, Communism is China’s, etc. A nation can overcome its sin on paper – usually legally – but at a social level, the repercussions continue to reverberate down through its life.

There’s no salvation for a nation in the divine, or forgiveness, either.

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