What Does Being A Hindu Mean?

Svástika – A divine and spiritual symbol in Hindusim

I am born into a Hindu Brahmin family in India. This statement alone equals to passport to respect, social privileges, and positive discrimination for life. Every single application form asks for your caste and I wrote ‘Brahmin’, unbeknownst to me at the time its importance in terms of being accepted in whatever it was I was wanting to choose as long as I had the right credentials.

So, why in the world would I even want to highlight the wrongs of the millennia-old system, – ‘The Caste System of India’?

The answer is – my conscience does not allow me to continue without questioning.

This world; its system, environment and abundance should also belong to someone else as much as they do to me.

Same as I am opposed to monarchy, which represents all that meritocracy does not, I am vocal about casteism as this too advocates the by-birth rights, undermining the efforts and struggles of those from the ever-growing educated class, some of whom were not born into the upper strata of the caste hierarchy, but qualify only through the constitutional concessions, in spite of having the right credentials. Funnily, this new breed became a target of mockery – ‘educational success because of concessions’.

How can an upper caste person’s access to privileges not be labelled as a concession instead of a prerogative?

So, in some way, both sides of the caste-scale fall under constitutional concessions. One side has all set. The other, not so. If the caste-scale transformed into a caste-balance, it will tip to one side. The more the weight of privileges, the lighter it becomes. Oppositely, the burden of inequality is heavier, which means those on that side will forever struggle to tip the balance in their favour.

Will it ever happen? I doubt it would in my lifetime, for there is a life beyond the educational system. The upper-caste mafia rules the roost in every region, department, field, discipline, branch, sector, and so on. For some have-nots, it is a grim situation of one-step-forward-and-two-step-backwards.

Social inequality is rife worldwide. India, on the other hand, has it etched in its institution of caste. India’s caste system dates back thousands of years. It is much debated, argued and, in recent years, even denied, especially by the “modern” Indians. Constitutionally, caste-based discrimination is abolished, but socially, it is practised as openly, and somewhat shamelessly, as it always has been and reflects a different reality to the radical statement of the modern-day Indian youth.

Having said that, in my experience, the caste-based discrimination among Indians living in the West is far greater than those living in India’s urban settings. The migrators who left the subcontinent decades ago held onto the ancient and un-progressive order they were born into like an infant onto its mother’s bosom. In many cases, minimal to none social integration, or interaction with the indigenous population meant further isolation from the progressive mindset, one which India’s youth wholeheartedly adopted and want to perpetuate. The mindset I gradually started to embrace by mentally shedding the upper caste skin. I don’t remember having interactions around religon or caste. I mildly lived that life in my home, around family who had their own cultural beliefs, but without being imposed upon. We had discussions in the house, but never foisting of ideologies. A pleasantly secular household. I had freedom to make choices in life. I was like a pampered child who was left loose in a sweet shop. Perhaps, that was partly the reason I felt ill-prepared for a world beyond my childhood, a world where freedom was not considered a birth-right.

My friends were from all faiths, castes and genders. There was no fear about anything in my life that was being shaped in the same pre-dominantly Hindu and casteist society. We discussed everything under the sky, except our differences. For a girl like me, stepping into the Indian life of Britain was like stepping into a world I did not grow up knowing. Even my parents did not grow up knowing that world. This might have been a world somewhat before theirs.

British Indian society, I felt, was a sort of strange concoction of desi and fringed native, an impotent east-west cocktail with illogical, uncompromising values at its core. The elders were unwilling to adapt, leaving their offsprings in a state of utter confusion. The result was sheer misery for many. Casteism, plus racism, combined with ever-present misogynistic attitude and double standards. This is not to say that Indians in India do not have these, but they can be excused for not having lived in the West where there is far greater equality. How can one enjoy the freedom that western life offers, but be unwilling to relinquish the life alien to the free world?

Some elders go as far as making their kids feel guilty by loudly reminiscing their own marriages to their uncles’ and aunts’ family relations, skipping one gotra, as they say. If kids had any sense, or freedom to that sense, they would argue back by calling it ‘marrying a second cousin’. So, the elders not only want their children to marry in the same caste, but in the same family too, if they can help it. Familyism?

Intercaste interactions will, despite the brainwashing and emotional blackmailing, occur. They have been happening for centuries. But, somehow, such interactions seem less in a familial situation than in the realms of matrimony or out-of-family friendships. Marrying outside the caste is still seen as an unacceptable, and somewhat shameful, act. One elder actually told me that her entire family had to relocate to another city, cutting off all the neighbourhood ties, because the daughter brought shame on the family by marrying a, what she described as, a lower caste man. This elder would never mention her daughter’s married surname to people because of the shame factor.

This is another thing… In Indian families, even if you leave the caste, the caste doesn’t leave you. It’s attached in the form of your surname. This whole ‘shame’ concept is simply incomprehensible to me, especially when families living in England engage in this kind of nonsense, but I also know that it’s a culturally inherent trait that has to be dealt at grass-roots level. It is almost like no one wants to steer the boat that faces the tide.

Each caste is happily or unhappily a part of this very complex network of occupational inter-dependence. This is a chain where every unit plays a designated role. You break that link, the whole network is affected. So, when the modern youth starts uttering liberal platitudes, he has to think about which section of the matrix he should first snap in order for the system to respond positively to bring about the much-required change.

What remains to be seen is how long can a system, which took thousands of years to evolve and perfect to this degree of inter-exploitation, be changed within the lifetime of any of those alive!

Will that change be internal, or will it only be a superficial victory?

….Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

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