Passport Caste

Modern Mythmaking 13 Comments

Published in First City, June 2011


There is a general discomfort in academia today when they study religion. To appear appreciating the religion is frowned upon: it indicates bias. So, the counter is rather popular amongst researchers, harsh criticism, to earn their academic stripes. This is easy when there is a categorical divide between the method of research and the object of research. The method of research is grounded and logical and is called ‘social science’. The object is based on beliefs, which are inherently irrational and subjective. How does one use logic to understand that which is not logical? The approach itself creates a power equation with the scientist placing himself on a dominant position and the object becoming defensive. Not surprisingly, followers of the faith reject academic writings on religions. And they end up being branded as fundamentalists by the still dominant scientist.

When studying India, in general, and Hinduism, in particular, there is no escaping a study of caste. Unfortunately, the moment the word caste is used, its politics surfaces with such lethal force, that all discussion on this topic becomes tempered with so much political correctness, that it ends up being everything but scientific. It is the easiest way to make Hindus defensive about their religion. It is like equating Islam only with jihad, and the Catholic faith only with pedophile priests, Europe only with Imperialism and America only with materialism.

To understand the caste system, one must begin with the human desire to dominate. In nature, animals create pecking orders so that the dominant animal gets more access to food and exclusive access to mates. This is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the best of genes. Genetically speaking, humans are 96-99% animals and so this desire to dominate, and be territorial, has not gone away. It is still there. If anything, it has amplified, because of imagination.

Culture was created to break free from the law of the jungle. Animals have to search for food and shun predators every minute of their lives. Humans created society so that with enough food and adequate protection, humans can pursue activities that validate their humanity. Unfortunately, culture ended up creating structures that ended up celebrating the animal desire to dominate and be territorial, within us. That is why, in every society, we still have hierarchies, based on various parameters, even though human imagination allows us to create a world without pecking orders.

Every animal is different. This difference grants it a place in the food chain. Thus the capabilities and capacities of an animal cannot be separated from its place in the hierarchy. The strong animal, willy-nilly, will dominate. Amongst humans, the strong can celebrate his strength by choosing not to dominate. This idea is expressed in the idea of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey-god, who is animal and exceptionally strong, but functions with such humility and gentleness that it makes him worthy of veneration.

Every human being can be distinguished on various basis. Natural criteria like height, weight, color, race, ethnicity, looks, lineage, intelligence, skills and social criteria like politics, economics, geography, history. Any one of these can be used to dominate, or not dominate other human beings. Each one of these has been used to dominate, and not dominate. There is not a single society where hierarchy and domination do not exist. Everybody imagines a world without it, aspires for it, but ends up creating it.

The American Declaration of Independence speaks of equality. The men who wrote it were white, patriarchal, Protestant, owned slaves, owned land obtained by wiping out Native Americans. After two centuries,America remains a hierarchical society, hierarchy being determined by wealth, technology and glamor. Every nation state signed the Declaration of Human Rights nearly half a century ago. But even today 80% of the world’s resources is enjoyed by 20% of the world’s population, and ironically people belonging to the 20% point fingers at those in the 80% for human rights abuses!

The caste system took hierarchy and inequality to unbelievable heights. People have tried to explain this caste-based hierarchy on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, race, economics and politics and have failed. The Vedic hymns acknowledge the existence of varnas, divisions of human society based on certain criteria. References to rights and responsibilities of each varna is found in almost every Hindu scripture. On religious ground, Brahmins dominated society. On political ground, Kshatriyas dominated society. On economic ground, Vaishyas dominated society. The rest served these three groups. The idea seems to have been to create a society based on division of capabilities where there were no single criteria of domination.

However, what we call caste system today is based not on varna, but on jati, professions. Scholars are divided if varna thoughts inspired the jati system. One will never know for sure, but the idea of human diversity and hierarchy is rooted in hymns that speak of varna. The method by which the jati system was adopted was deceptively simple: no sharing of women and food with members of other castes.

British interpreters of the caste system, made it sound rather rigid, more for administrative convenience, than to reflect reality, while Indian academicians have noted the fluid nature of jati. A term called ‘sanskritization’ came into being to show how castes moved up the social ladder as they acquired economic and political clout.

More than the unequal division of resources that this system perpetrated, it is the impact it had on human dignity that was worse. For the system, dehumanized a vast section of people called variously in various periods of Indian history as Shudras, Chandalas, Harijans and Dalits. They were denied water. They were not touched. Their shadows and footprints were avoided. They were regarded as impure. By contrast, members of the Brahmin jatis, were revered as deities. Somewhere along the line, Hinduism celebrated the Vedic notion of hierarchy indicated by  and forgot the Vedic notion of equality indicated by the atma or soul concept, or the impact of karma if humans were treated so inhumanely!

One hoped that democracy would slowly wipe out the caste system that plague not just Hindus but also Muslims and Christians. But it has not. Vote-bank politics has reinforced it. Positive discrimination has led to social divides. In academic circles, in India and abroad, one hears of language conferences where Brahmins are not invited, as neo-jati systems are on the rise, purportedly to overturn centuries of injustice. Newspaper reports still speak of how Dalits remain marginalized, raped, denied resources and repeatedly stripped of dignity.

The error that is made by modern political systems is the assumption that laws can change humanity. Laws can domesticate humans, force humans to tolerate other humans, but do not change humanity. If anything, they breed resentment, and increasingly innovative means of perpetrating hierarchies.

The caste system of India is like the passport system of the world. Passports give us two things: an identity and access to certain rights and resources. Everyone knows the power an American passport yields. Everyone knows how difficult it is for a person with an Israeli passport to travel to certain parts of the world. In airports, different people with different passports are treated differently: some are allowed to roam freely, others are strip-searched. Passports determine what education we have access to, where we can work, where we can earn, where we can stay and where we can buy property. Changing passports is not easy. It is a complex process and one can spend a lifetime waiting for it. We all want to create a perfect world where everyone is treated with equal dignity, but no one is willing to burn their passports. So it is with the caste system. No one likes its dark side, its denial of dignity and resources. And yet, as a source of identity, it plays an important functional role in society. So caste still thrives in India but now everyone uses the globally permitted and politically correct term: community!

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    Nice article Sir!!

    You have given a nice comparison between our caste system and the passport system the world follows.

    As regards discrimination what always amuses me that as children we are thought to observe different things and identify them correctly but as we become old we are expected to look at every one with the same lens.

  • sandy

    Hello sir,
    before coming to any conclusion I just want to say castrisk is no separate from favoritism. In that case there is caste everywere. I think it all starts from childhood.U favoured more among your sibling. In school u want to be friends with the smart kid, class topper or when u r a class topper others want to be ur friend. Same goes in the college. I dont see any equality over there. Same when it comes to work place. Favoritism exists in all fields. Take the case of sharukh khan and karan johar. U work with ur friends. For outsiders it is like favoring there own people and not encouraging new talent.
    I dont think the only problem facing by India is caste. North Indians think there r superior to south Indians. We say India is a largest democratic country. Who goes and see what a common Indian is going through in everyday life..iam not being superficial. I am a common man. I know the problems I face.
    I just want to we have different names for the same problems. If Gandhi cannot change India then who will..

  • sandy

    Iam sorry the above comment has many grammatical mistakes.

  • excellent Devdutt gaaru! the usual: riveting text and explanation. you have become a staple now. i do enjoy these longer exposes though compared to your snippets that are neither here nor there. requesting more such. warm regards from DC.


    Well we can say caste system took inequality and hierarchy to unbelievable heights. But do you think this great Indian parliamentary democracy has done anything in the constitution ,laws to reduce this. Even today all states in this country divide votes based on caste for vote gains and politicians gain .

    We have has more than 50 years of independence and in all states CM’s,MP’s are elected based on

    INDIA needs to change , have a two party system , elect its leaders who are not corrupt and who can execute.

    It is easy to write a lot of articles but execution is the key.

    In India we have been doing more of journalism and myth rather than execution of things in fixed timelines

  • Shankaran AT

    Fantastic article with deep insight and citing / stating the sequence of thoughts / reactions as they flow from human mind. Human efforts to have a perfect and peaceful society seems just an idea (not a reality) formed consequently as a result of witnessing the reality of so-called evolved human beings (which is, as beautifully explained by you, “dominant animal gets more access to food and exclusive access to mates……….”).

  • venkatesan

    The illustrations – is it based on
    Purusha Shukta?
    when did Varna system become Jati system?
    How do you make the sense of
    Adi Shankra – meeting with a chandela-Hunter with four dogs;
    The discussions; (The hunter is Lord Siva himself);

  • Pramod

    Laws can domesticate humans, force humans to tolerate other humans, but do not change humanity. If anything, they breed resentment, and increasingly innovative means of perpetrating hierarchies.

    Wah Devduttji , what a way to point out limitations of law !

    Lokayukta included . Our desire to control and vainness of the limited means is eternal battle , with a illusion of conquest !

    Very well written as always !


  • How strange that the worst excesses of caste system were enshrined in law during the time when India was ruled by non-Hindus !! Muslims and Christians !!

    As you have mentioned, caste system was created to make best use of inborn talents of the community and dividing the work accordingly. Sadly, inborn talents were soon forgotten and simply being born into a family was all that was needed.

    The topsy turvy world we live in means the caste system is even more rigid than before and those who were “in” favour are now “out” of favour.

    In the socialist democratic republic of India, we have enshrined caste, its divisions, its privileges even more accurately than before. Sadly, instead of progressing, we have people desperate to “prove” how “backward” their own caste / community is to get as many gov sops as they can.

  • Chhavi

    “It is like equating Islam only with jihad, and the Catholic faith only with pedophile priests, Europe only with Imperialism and America only with materialism.”

    I don’t understand how one can argue that caste system is anything like, for example, pedophilia in Catholicism. Is pedophilia sanctioned & in fact, constructed by the catholic faith? No. Is it institutionalized? No. Are there pseudo-scientific researches being published in religious magazines about how pedophilia is consistent with natural laws? No. Are people being systematically discriminated against because of pedophilia? No. And is pedophilia unique to Catholics???? What an insinuation!

    At least Catholics lost faith in the system or felt ashamed after the sexual exploitation came to light. Somehow, repeated studies & newspaper reports don’t make us Hindus feel even slightly embarrassed for all the cruelty that is licensed by the caste system.

    Let’s not make it sound distant & academic by thinking of when varna became jati etc. These are not questions that are meaningful for those subject to this everyday discrimination. I assume none of the above commentators are from a Dalit family, nor know one. Being married to a Dalit man, I can testify to how it is a daily struggle to deal with prejudice.

    Devdutt, I’m a big fan of yours, so I’m trying to understand you here rather than criticize. It seems to me that you see this from too distant an eye than I can possibly have.

    • kakatiya

      The caste system started with a strong role to play in a society that existed thousands of years ago.
      Yes, it may not have a role in today’s world, definitely not in its present form.
      A societal tool of development (being non-hereditary and simply a division of labour for greater efficiency probably) was corrupted by whomever it benefited, as and when people started to forget it’s true purpose, probably because they stopped educating themselves in the matter.
      The Brahmans made it hereditary; todays political parties, who gained training from the british, use it as a tool to ‘divide and rule’.
      The answer, is to probably educate ourselves better on the subject. Before calling someone else pseudo, we must partake of knowledge ourselves so that we are not a pseudo voice.

  • Manish

    Dear Devdutt ji,
    the unique beauty of your writing, as I see it,is that you analyze the matter so well, give examples, analogies, historical background and needs YET NEVER pass your own judegment of ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’….you leave it to the wisdom of readers…


  • Abhinav

    People follow caste system in India without understanding its meaning and using it for their own benefits. Is caste system the biggest devil of our religion?