By Franchetta Groves
On October 16 in the Pryzbla center, Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd discussed India’s caste system and its effects on the country. With India’s caste system being over 3,500 years old there are deep and long lasting consequences which cannot be fixed overnight.
Professor Shepherd explained how the caste system’s history lies in the Hinduism’s creation story. According to tradition, God created each caste group from a different part of his body. The first group, coming from the head, are the Brahmins or priests. These individuals are viewed as the most important as they are the group associated with being created from the head.
Below the Brahmins are those who are in the military or the Kshatriyas come from the shoulders. Those assigned to this caste system work as the warriors and soldiers. The third caste group comes from the thigh and it is in this group that those of the business field are assigned. Below them are those of the Shudras caste or those who come from the feet. On the bottom however are the untouchables who are deemed the lowest in society.
One of the challenging characteristics of the caste system is the systematic divides it creates, as well as a lack of mobility from one caste to another. It is seen as something you are born into and it is something you are branded for life. Due to the tie of religion, Professor Shepherd argues that by changing spiritual thought first around the caste system social progress will follow. Professor Shepherd points to the example of Jesus and how he worked towards ending a caste system among the pharisees of Israel.
Dr. Shepherd also drew comparisons between the creation story found in Genesis and Hindu’s creation story to explain how deep the caste identity’s roots run. While Genesis says all of creation was made in the image of God, there is a divide created by the caste system’s origin story. These divides mean that intermarriages are frowned upon and social interactions often revolve around caste identity. These divides also contribute to the social and political challenges that women in India face.
Women have to overcome the Patriarchal challenges of the culture, the caste system divides, as well as religious separations. Women face the challenges of not being addressed in society as well as their place being seen as in the home and the home alone. The negative effects of the caste identities on women are clearly identified by the frequency of honor killings which India sees.
However it is through activism and education, such as the work that Professor Shepherd does, that India can see a possible annihilation of the caste system. It is by reframing the way one looks at spiritual thought that change can be made. With such deep rooted divides changes to the culture may be challenging however talks such as this provide the hope and education needed to begin that change.