EP 10 – Making sense of the caste system in India for travelers to Delhi

In this episode, Ketaki and Anubhav make sense of the caste system in India

Ketaki and Anubhav try to understand the caste system. We talk to Akhilesh who tells us how Caste is not the right word to capture the system. The right words in India are Jati and Varna.

Caste should be replaced with Jati.
Jati was economic and not social. There was a Jati of potters, weavers, goldsmith’s or professions. It pre industrial time each village would have different communities grouped by profession. They shared best practices and lived together.

The common challenge with caste system is that there is discrimination against caste.

Now lets look at Varnas. There are four Varna’s in India.
1. Brahmin
2. Kshatriya
3. Vaishya
4. Shudra

There is a mapping between Jatis and Varnas. This mapping was never fixed. A Jati could move between Varnas. It was not a rigid system. when the Varna system was created, it was not on the basis of birth but it was on the basis of Guna (propensities) and Karma (deeds).

Varna were cased on Guna and Karma. Propensity of a human decided his or her Varna.

Jati might be best understood as a job family.

Caste system for travelers to Delhi
Caste system for travelers to Delhi

Today, we look at the caste system in a rigid way. There are problems with the caste system that we own. In today’s urban centre my Jati have no bearing on my life. There is still discrimination in villages and it is our responsibility to see that it changes. Various attempts are being page.

Interestingly this caste system is not implemented by law. Its a part of our society and it is slowly dying. For example, you will not ask a stranger or your friend in a city, what is his or her Jati or caste. A certain section of society is still being persecutive but the govt and people are working hard to eliminate this.

Like any good story, there are two sides to the caste system. Most people are reluctant to talk about what was good about the caste system. Lets be the minority and talk about its positive aspects too.

Thomas Jefferson had slaves but he is also seen a positive figure and the founding father of the US. There was a time when slavery was accepted. Same holds for the caste system. New caste systems are coming into place today too.

Lets talk about potters. If you want to become a good potter you can apprentice or learn from your father. There was no university to become a potter. Your home was your university. You inherited customers and skills because of your lineage. Since potters lived together, they gave each other strength and their voice had weight. They could set prices. There was no insurance in pre industrial times. The Jati provide insurance too. It is comparable to a guild or union in today’s parlance.

People say, “I’m born into a caste, I’m not allowed to change my caste it, very very few people are able to move to another caste, a lot of people draw generalities based on your caste”. Replace “Caste” with “Country” in the above sentence. Then you will realise how many such categorisations exist in the world today. Its not just India. You can replace caste with “economic status” and these are just mental shortcuts to help you make sense of the world. This is common throughout the world. Unfortunately, this is basic human nature.

Everyone being equal is does not mean everyone is the same. Our countries diversity is what makes it beautiful. Our knowledge and artisan traditions are diverse and rich. They make India different from the world. Appreciate this diversity and you will love India.

If you come to India from the outside don’t try to understand it from Wikipedia. Come talk to its people, talk to the merchants and markets. India has to get inside you.

We talk about Ashish Nandi’s ideas on “Museum and Trains vs interaction” as a philosophy of travel. He is a sociologist. He says that museums are a way to travel to the past but you come out unscathed. We will not be harmed but get a sense that time by going to a museum. Traveling in a train as a britisher in India was similar. The train was their cocoon. Travel can’t be like going to a museum or a train and watching India from the inside. Travel to India will delight you if you allow yourself to be touched by India.

We discuss the impact of the industrial revolution on society and India’s Jatis and Varnas. Let’s take the Pottery example further. Potters as a community – Jaiti – were involved in all facets of pottery. The Technical, scientific , design and commercial aspects of pottery were responsibilities of the Jati and everyone from the household participated in these activities. The price at which a pot was sold also decided by the Jati based on the buyer. A low income buyer was charged less than a rich person for the same pot. This discriminatory pricing was decided by the Jati and for every product. The economy of a village was based on spending and lot income.

The entire system supported a sustainable livelihood. This has changed entirely after the industrial revolution. Job specialization as taken a lot of joy out of creation. How can you enjoy just making a collar day in and day out when the joy was in making a T-Shirt?

We are using factory produced rather than Jati-produced products. And, due to urbanisation your Jati is no longer relevant.

Before you go, grab our free food and packing guide to Delhi.