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Enduring Stereotypes about South Asia: India’s Caste System

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For decades most United States textbooks dealing with South Asia have contained sections on India’s caste system, and most such sections have contrasted India’s “immobile caste society” negatively with America’s “open and mobile class society.” People in India are seen (presumably) as locked forever in birth-determined positions, while people in the United States can (presumably) rise to whatever levels their abilities and good fortune permit. Caste in India is described as a fatalistically-accepted system of discrimination, an inducer of lethargy, and the generator of a mindset that continues to permit a tiny minority of high-caste brahman priests to exploit a large majority of lower-caste farmers and laborers. Implicit—and sometimes explicit—questions in these textbooks are: “When will Indians treat each other more fairly?” and “When will India get rid of its caste system?”(note 1 )

One difficulty in discussing caste in India is that the term itself is applied to several quite different Indian social phenomena. “Casta” was originally a Portuguese word, used in places such as Brazil to describe groups with different proportions of “racial purity” as the Portuguese inter-bred with local Indians and Blacks. The Portuguese applied the term “casta” (inappropriately) to the inter-marrying groups they found in India. The British changed the word to “caste” and incorporated it into their legal documents, where it continues to be used by the post-independence government of India.

Today in India the word “caste” is applied to at least three different social phenomena.


According to the Rig Veda (X, 90) (note 2 ) four categories of humans emerged from four different parts of the bodyof the primeval man, Purusa when he sacrificed himself on a cosmic funeral pyre at the dawn of creation. In Sanskrit texts, these categories are often referred to by the termvarna. The dawn-of-creation story had been in circulation for centuries before priestly intellectuals generated different rules for each of the four mythical categories. Such rules were incorporated, for example, in the frequently cited Laws of Manu Central to the Laws of Manuwere requirements that men and women marry within their category (varna) and perform occupations assigned to their category (varna). Thus, members of the brahman varna (that emerged from Purusa’s mouth) should be priests; members of the ksatriya varna (that emerged from Purusa’s arms) should be warriors and administrators; members of the vaisyavarna (that emerged from Purusa’s thighs) should be producers of wealth; and members of the  sudravarna (that emerged from Purusa’s feet) should serve the other threevarnas.The Laws of Manudescribe a fifth “mixed” varna, the canadalas. Canalas were, according to myth, the offspring of brahman women impregnated by sudra men—in gross violation of rules prohibiting such inter-varna sexual relations. According to the Laws of Manu, candalas were to be dealt with as social pariahs, excluded from sacred places and events, and required to perform the least pleasant tasks of society, including removing human feces and disposing of the carcasses of dead animals. The mythical candalas may have provided a basis for the more recent identification and segregation of India’s “untouchables.”

It is unlikely that the mythical four-varna society ever historically existed for any extended period of time. However, such a mythical society is described in epics and folk tales, and it serves even today as a point of reference for an idealized  harmonious society.


1. For a review of U.S. textbook presentations of India, see Bonnie R. Crown, “Textbook Images of India,” in Barbara J. Harrison (ed.), Learning About India: An Annotated Guide for Nonspecialists (Albany: Center for International Programs and Comparative Studies, New York State Education Department, 1977), 21–37.

2. Vedas Rgveda, Rgveda Samhita, with English translation by Svami Satya Prakash Sarasvati and Satyakam Vi


India (Republic), Backward Classes Commission. Report of the Backward Classes Commission. Vols. I–VII. New Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1980.

Manu. The Laws of Manu. Trans. by George Bühler. Vol. 25. Sacred Books of the East; reprint New York: Dover, 1969.