The Caste System: The Demise of India

“India is a great place for backpackers who see what they come to see, but a difficult place for us cyclists who see it all.”

This was said by a fellow world touring cyclist, who, after visiting over fifty countries across five continents (over a seven year period) finds India to be the most difficult and frustrating of them all. This conversation, which I have now had several times with many different world touring cyclists (who all say India is their least favorite) got me thinking about what makes it so difficult.

India’s problems do not originate from poverty as many people believe, but rather from the harsh and despicable caste system which causes never ending inequality. Imagine being born into a low-caste and treated like a dirty dog from day one of your life. Imagine literally being called an “untouchable,” because the higher caste society around you avoids you at all costs. Imagine the never ending cycle of poverty and ignorance created from a system which puts you in your place from the second you enter into this world, which makes it clear to you from birth that you are not allowed to progress from the bottom rungs of society just because of your family’s name.

Now imagine you are born with an undue sense of entitlement because you were fortunate enough to be born into a high-classe. Imagine never working a day in your life because you have all the money in the world while so many people around you are condemned to destitute. Imagine the bossy, arrogant, and rude nature you acquire from the wealthy people surrounding you, and the sense of self-worth you use against those less fortunate than you.

Now put these together and you have the dramatic and unspeakable effects of the caste system, an artificial division which separates humans at birth due to their family’s worth. There are those who live their lives in absolutely poverty, unable to obtain an education or descent job because society has forbidden them to progress, while there are those living beside them who arrogantly think they rule the world though they have never done anything worthwhile in their lives. Though I knew in theory what the caste system was before coming to India, seeing the harmful effects, both through the poor and through the rich, has made traveling through such an unequal society extremely difficult and frustrating.

You may argue that this system is part of their culture, that the caste system is in part what makes India, “India.” But how could someone be proud of a system that creates such inequality, a system that allows Indian men to treat women like pieces of meat, a system that allows the rich to treat the poor like animals. It’s a system which, besides creating such a vast crater between the rich and the poor, creates a hopeless mentality on both ends of the spectrum which leads to daily violence, corruption, and inhuman treatment.

Take this for example. A friendly and generous high-caste wealthy family took a cyclist friend of mine to a gigantic three-day birthday party for their little girl. The event was catered by a group of low-caste Indians who, at the end of all their work, awaited their pay. The family who had so kindly taken in my friend for over two weeks turned their back on the workers and told them that since they were low-caste, they didn’t deserve the price they had agreed upon before the celebration began. The workers were left empty handed by this wealthy family just because they wanted to prove that their high caste status made them superior human beings. Not such a generous family anymore is it?

This system of oppression and lack of respect for individuals has led to the cold blooded stares that characterize India, to the inhuman treatment of women, and to many of the inappropriate comments and actions I find so difficult to deal with as a western women. They don’t value me as a human because so many times they have not been valued themselves. At the same time, I can no longer count the number of wealthy Indians on vacation who have demanded a photo with me, only to be absolutely shocked when I tell them no because as a high-caste member of society, they may have never heard that word directed at them. They are use to using their arrogance and position in society to get everyone below them to do their bidding in a heat-beat. Since the caste system has taught these people to act as they do it’s hardly each individuals fault, but rather their society as a whole, which has created this unlawful environment.

In North America we have this too, we have discrimination, and we still do have social classes, but lucky for us, they are not ingrained in everyone’s mind in the same unchangeable way as it is here. But it use to be. The people who lived in the States for centuries before the Europeans, the native Americans, the true “Americans” in every sense, have now been wiped out because of this mentality. And do you remember when the blacks in the United States were slaves? Remember when they couldn’t even drink from the same fountain as the whites? Remember when they didn’t have the same educational opportunities? And even today, crimes are still blamed on the blacks just because of their color. Hopefully in time India and the rest of the world will see what damage inequality causes, and will find a way to reverse this harmful way of thinking.

32 thoughts on “The Caste System: The Demise of India

  1. I do not disagree with you nor do I wish to defend India’s caste system but I do want to point out that it is changing, albeit very slowly. When I first visited India, many, many decades ago, I was often invited into Indian family’s homes to eat and often to sleep. These families would prepare elaborate meals for me and my companion but they would never, ever sit down and eat with us. We were considered outcasts and they would be polluted by eating with us. In the last 10 years, no one has ever offered me a meal and refused to sit and eat with me.. This is an example of how things are changing. It will take a very long time but it will change. The IT field is another example of a more level playing field because if one is educated, any one can go into that field. It has no history of caste. No one wants to give up their control but technology will be a leading factor here. We may not live to see the day but it is coming.

    • That’s great to hear, and I too have heard that it is changing though I haven’t seen it first hand. I believe the change is inevitable just as it was and still is for the blacks in my home country the USA, and in this case, change is great.

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  4. You write: “many different world touring cyclists (who all say India is their least favorite)”. I do not understand that, because I have heard many people talk positive about the chaotic and colorful India – but not their caste system. At the moment I am reading this:

    http://www.bikequarterly.com//images/BQIndia.pdf

    Here is what the female bicyclist Jada Van Vliet thinks about India:

    Cycle touring in India has been the easi- est, yet most adventurous place I have traveled by bicycle. The images and experiences of the places, its people and culture pass through my mind nearly every day since. It is an amazing country of openness, hospitality and warmth. Each state offers a unique opportunity to see and learn things you could never imagine. India truly holds something for everyone, no matter your age or interests. All it takes is a sense of adventure and an interest in the un- known. So hop on your bike, because there is no better way to expose yourself to the visceral beauty of this exciting, dynamic culture!

    • I too thought this during my first trip here and during my first three months I wrote similar things about India being an easy and amazing place to visit. Then I became less naive and started to realize what was going on around me, and suddenly everything wasn’t so rosy. Though there are many things about India, and I too experienced amazing hospitality and warmth, I have also seen the detrimental effects of a caste system which separates humans by birth to create an extremely unequal society. I have never met a cycle tourist who leaves with an overal positive impression (except if they only did regions such as Ladakh), and in my experiences, many of the cyclists dislike the country more than I do.

  5. Centuries of ingrained mindset is indeed very difficult to change. While many parts of India are still subjected to much inequality, like what ninagrandiose has said, things are indeed slowly changing. I personally have many friends who have managed to move on despite their last names.

    Nobody said fighting inequality would be easy, many are fighting everyday to bring this system around. It’s an uphill battle, yes. But so is each and every one of the mountain passes you’ve conquered. While it might seem futile to try to fight, every one can contribute in their own way.

    In the end, even if you’ve only managed to change a few strangers you’ve met on your tour. That is still a few more that will start believing in equality and carry on the message. Cycle on>~

  6. Important read! “You may argue that this system is part of their culture, that the caste system is in part what makes India, “India.”” I have heard this argument a lot too. Classifying injustices and oppressions in other places as being part of a group’s culture (and thereby excusing it) is something I’ve thought about often. In one of my classes in college, we had a long discussion about this and my personal conclusion is that what a lot of people consider culture (like the caste system or extreme oppression of women) is in fact an apparatus designed to keep a group of people in power over another. Human groups often do this, unfortunately, all over the world. Regardless of where this happens, I don’t think it should be excused whether or not it is labeled as culture. I think it is important though, that when discussing injustices in other places we shouldn’t ignore problems in our own countries (like you said, it’s not as if America has a great record, either!). It seems like some things are getting better in this world, but there is still a long way to go and we should all be cognizant and do what we can to progress.

    • Yes seeing the inequality here so blatantly has made me more aware of it in my own country and throughout the world as well. And I agree that just because it’s part of someone’s culture doesn’t condone it, it makes it worst if anything since it means the mentality is accepted!

  7. We’ve cycled India with two dogs – and it was not our favorite country (from around 40 countries visited) to cycle as well… And yes, we too blame the “system”, whether it is the caste system, the cultural part, the different religions, it’s a very difficult mix and for us nearly impossible to understand. But don’t forget: the 4 Hindu “categories” where more or less comprehensible, the “castes” where created, sub-divided and forced from the conquerors (moguls, brits, …), and still, after independence, “they kept the system”. That’s what we do have problems to understand… Or maybe Shashi Tharoor is right in his book, The Great Indian Novel: “India is not an underdeveloped country, India is an overdeveloped country in an advanced state of decay.”
    So, yes, India is colourful, amazing, and everything if you travel “lite”, that means a short time, or without thinking and looking too much or too deep. But if you start thinking and even try to understand things, India may become a big problem to you… We had the feeling the more you read, listen and look, the less you understand…

    • That’s exactly what I experienced. My first time around I was naive, happy to be in a country so many short term travelers describe as amazing. After being constantly harassed and attacked by men, and after seeing first hand how even the women consider themselves inferior to men,mi started to rethink everything I saw and why. I agree, the more you try and understand the harder it becomes.

  8. India is a dichotomy. life is unequal and the law of nature the only truth. The world is a jungle, home to predators and to prey. This is the only thing that is real. Fairness and equality seems not to be able to maintain continuity. Everything is in a state of constant flux and a point of balance is not permanent.
    The real problem seems to be that some humans expect equality amongst themselves regardless of the effect it has on anything else.
    I don’t mean to come across as cynical and/or heartless but this is what I see and good intention is fragile, circumstances can change the individual and all the good intention in the world can fly straight out of the window, when the balance shifts.
    I live in hope of a better, fairer world but to live naturally this is not possible, at least through the human concept of equality.
    More we need to look at the universal balance and synchronicity.
    And try this: If the majority of the world said I have had enough of this and sat down and did nothing, then within 2 to 3 months there would be no more hierachy, anywhere.
    The numbers of the downtrodden far outweigh the numbers that pull the strings. This may not be an option for to much longer though, as the dark forces have almost completed the main agenda.

  9. First of all congrats for this exciting journey on cycle crisscrossing the world. You get to to see life only when you are walking or cycling !
    Regarding, your post on India it seemed too much of generalization & stereotyping of a country which has 1.2 billion people of all caste, creed, community, 31 states, more than 100 languages, innumerable food delicacies, and six seasons.
    Your few incident should not paint the whole country in the same colour. India has many countries in it. India has many communities into it. India has many faiths into it. India has many aspirations and hopes into it. India has richest and poorest of poor. India has enlightenment and has social evils too.
    I admit there are caste issues and many other social challenges which we are fighting in individual capacity and in community. There are good number of examples where people have rose from lower caste and has been accepted at highest level of the office in governance and in other positions.

    However, I wish you could have thrown some light on the country where you come from , where colour of skin still matters, where what faith you follow still matters to get acceptance and last but not the least the record in killing people in name of religion all across the globe.

    I sincerely wish you broaden your own horizon as you travel along. See from eyes & heart.
    India has survived for thousand years and it will survive and it will keep evolving itself.

    Have a happy & safe journey !

    • Yes, it is true these issues reside all around the world and I will continue to bring ligh to them when I come across them in other countries, but as I am now in inida, this is what I am living. It is a diverse place with many countries and religions. I loved Ladakh and Zanskar, for me, they are some of the most beautiful places on earth, but nearly everywhere else I went, of course not everywhere it is a huge country, I experienced this and it played a very predominant part in my travels so for me it needs to be shared. It does indeed happen everywhere, my own country is extremely guilty of it, and when I am there I will do more reach into it since that is what I will be living. That being said, I did experience it much more harshly than any of the thirty countries I have already been through.

      • Thanks for your reply. I would only request not to be generalizing and stereotyping the whole country !
        Best of luck for your journey ahead and i hope you have good experiences in India.
        Thanks.

  10. I have experienced all you have even though I was born and brought up in India. Thankfully for me, my parents were not supportive of the caste system and hence I’m one of the (many like me) exceptions who do not abide by or support or condone the caste system but rather condemn it and try to influence people around us to not follow it.

    India is a land of extreme contradictions. I am sure your perception will change about many things during your remaining trip in India.

    I am not defending my home country or dismissing the ‘fact’ that caste system exists and is rampant everywhere. But having spent 23 years in India and then now when I observe the changes from outside, I see the differences (when I re-run experiences) over the years that suggest India is changing. As one of the other commentator on your blog said ‘albeit, slowly.’ which is entirely true.

    That is the one constant fact about India since it got independence. It is changing, like the turtle in the turtle-rabbit story we have all heard.

    About Indian (wealthy or middle class) tourists wanting to take a photo with you (because you are white/foreigner) is something I have seen myself and agree with. Its a way of the un-cool wealthy people ( many who are rich but come from villages and small towns or have recently acquired lot of money) to show off to their friends and society how cool and awesome they are that they got a photo clicked with a foreigner.

    I had a similar experience in China with a lot of Chinese people coming up to us and asking if they could take a photo with us. A husband asked if we could pose for a photo with his wife (which is weird when you think of it, in some manner- or may be this is my thinking due to growing up in Indian society). But we obliged and luckily there were many foreigners besides us who other people could go trouble for photos 😛

    The experience one of your fellow cyclist’s had is terrible and one of the negative extremes of India. They happen, in many places, quite frequently. I had read an article from a British traveler/student in Delhi about how she modeled/worked as a walking drinks table at the wedding of a wealthy (filthy rich) Indian couple. She being white was paid much much more than the other Indian (brown) workers that were washing the dishes, cooking and what not. I still don’t know what to make of such actions of people. The sad part is, not many people talk about their good experiences. I hope you’ll have more positive experiences about India. Go to an ashram or temple of Swaminarayan sect/faith and or if possible also to an event of Sai Baba followers. Free food to any one and everyone, irrespective of what color, creed, caste, credit card balance you come from. But I think you might not have time for doing it all and you probably want to cycle more than investigate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of India.

    I used to dislike living there for various reasons and wanted to move out to a western/foreign/developed/free society. But now that I am here, away from India, there are many things I have begun to value and appreciate which I earlier did not. Especially the food. I hope you like our food, if you’re in the north of India, best to eat is aloo and gobi ka paratha with dahi ( fresh yoghurt).

    P.S. just realized that this could be a small blogpost of mine if addressed to general public and not just as a comment to your experience. But I am lazy so whatever 😛

    • Hello! Thank you for your reply! It is true it’s changing, and it’s because of people like you who can open other people’s eyes to equality. It’s true, I loved the Sikh golden temple because caste or race was not a thing, everyone was invited in whic created an amazing environment!

  11. Thank you for the courage to share your thoughts, insights and heart. You are truly gifted in many ways.

    I left Boston in 1986 for what I thought would be a 2 year cycling trip around the world. Being kind of slow it ended up taking 8. One leg was Kathmandu to Bombay. India was NOT one of the more enjoyable countries I cycled though. To me, being on a bike I witnessed far to much of mans inhumanity to man… But you know that.

    What I really wanted to say is, you are well on your way to a P. H. D in experiential learning! Well done. And at a fraction of the cost of a traditional education.

    Also, don’t believe anyone who tells you its all down hill or you can’t possible do that on a bike. As I’m sure you’ve already discovered, You get the best advice from people who have NEVER been there.

    Cheers, Marc

    • Haha yes! Or when you ask someone how far to a restaurant or site, and they say juba round the corner… Four hours later you see it! And I define it’ll agree this is the best education, cheaper, more productive, and all around more useful than the one you get sitting in a classroom.

  12. “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”

  13. Hindu (body) four community: brahmin (head) kshatriya (arm) vaishya (belly) shudra (feet) All these four community called as hindu. We all are parts of one body. Without each part our body is not complete. If we lost one part of our body then we become handicap. The human body is the entire structure of a human being. Human Body is considered so loving that God even wants to have it. Spiritual Yogis have found that after going through the 84 millions species this souls get the most dignified human body. So it is the last step to explore the God or to get the view of almighty father god. We know that the soul never dies it takes birth again and again just like as we take new clothes to wear the soul as it takes new body and it is an infinite process. But the body what we get in next birth depend on our karma that thas been cited in Gita by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. We all here to perform our duties. Our action makes our destiny and nothing else. The result is in the hand of supreme power. Karma is the seed of plant and if the seed is genuine it must be fruitful.

  14. Many a time, man has taken birth in high caste and low caste; but this does not make him great or lowHaving been born in high caste man thinks himself to be great and being born in low caste thinks himself to be low and pitiable; both of these states of mind are wrong because many times man has been born in high and low castes. Hence, one should not be proud of having been born in high caste and not feel low if born in low caste family.

    Greatness has nothing to do with high caste. Man becomes great because of his noble work, exemplary character and becomes loathsome because of his immorality and evil conduct. Thus, it is his conduct only that decides his greatness or lowliness. Who does not know that high family born Ravana, Kansa, Duryodhana and others are censurable; whereas Metarya muni, Harikeshi muni and others, though born in low family, are venerable.

    Then, what is the importance of high or low caste?

  15. We always talk about religion and castesim but in reality there is no any caste and religion. We all are same our blood are same.then why we believe in discrimination. God never created any caste they made simple human being.. Mentally sick people take the path of fundamentalism and spread casteism and communism. They suffer from inferiority complex and divide the society into “we” and “they”. They (belonging either to higher or lower ranked caste) have a fear in their heart that if they do not get a higher place for themselves in society, “other” people are going to exploit them and going to put them down.They don’t have believe on themselves and their own work. They have doubt own their capability. People with negative mindset suffer from inferiority complex and divide society into compartments like higher castes or lower castes.and can’t tolerate “others” progress or well-being. They cannot work hard and cannot tolerate anybody else’s achievements. These are the people with negative mindset who believe in ranking some belonging to higher castes and/or some to lower castes. They are coward and they are unable to protect themselves…

  16. All Hindu communities in the country follow the varnashram system of Aryans and have divided the society in four castes – Kshatryas, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Shudras. Sindhis do not have such division in their society. They never followed a rigid caste system. That is why Sindhis are considered to be only businessmen. All members of the society inter-mingle with one another without any consideration of four castes of Aryans. There are no untouchables in Sindhis…..These religion and caste set up by mad and stupid people to control others not by god…who are still mentally sick they are following this castesim blindly..i must say be like all sindhi..leave these castesim and make only one hindu religion like sindhi religion dont create any caste,community and class…bcs its only give you tension and create problems for your own self..

  17. Who divided society in caste line……only stupid and mentally sick hindu..first change your thinking that all people as a human being so the system ll be change itself understood..be like sindhi religion, make one religion and killed the bloody varan system n caste system…you ll b more happiest person in this world if you all mad hindu change ur narrow minded thinking about these caste n class…Because “I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being–neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”……..if you mad n psycho fanatic hindu people dont divided the hindu religion into four castes then we dont ever faced reservation at all…..if you accepted that hindu religion divided into four category like this; brahmin hindu,kashtriya hindu,vaishya hindu,shudra hindu…..but your cheap n small brain always misbehaved with shudra people ( shudra means pure from heart n soul) they r fourth category..they got fourth rank so they r belong to lower caste n brahmin got first rank so they r belong to upper….for all fanatic ( kattar ) hindu they r other.they r not part of hindu religion..if they r not part of hindu religion then why u said that hindu religion has divided into four castes.. just accepted n say hindu religion divided into three caste okh……now shut your bloody mouth abt reservation..first change your cheapo thinking about the people because god never made any religion n caste.god just made simple human being n this world okh..

  18. i just believe in humanity not this stupid caste system…i want to tell all lower caste people if upper caste against of reservation n some day it ll b stop then u dont need to follow this stupid religion n caste okh…whenever someone ask about ur caste just tell them u r hindu n proudly say u r also brahmin okh….castesim aise hi khatam hogi sabhi brahmin hi bano….or itne intelligent bano or smart bano ki brahmino ko bhi sharm mehsoos ho khudh par….castesim aise hi khatam hogi…jis community ko baar baar lower bola ja raha hai dalit bola ja raha agr wohi community nhi rahi tb kisko bolenge tb number lagega…kshtriya or vaishya ka…tb pata chalega lower hona kya hota hai..jb reservation nhi toh kya bataoge kya caste hai proudly bolo hum brahmin hai..samjhe..hum hindu hai

  19. You cannot put people in high and low rank the basis of religious belief and caste. But those people do this who has a problem in their mind.

    God doesn’t need Brahmin priest, god isn’t so narrow minded. god accept everyone. actually Brahmin priest needs god to make money.

  20. The brahmin community has been one of the dirty communities which has planned strategically to fool people in the name of god by generating the highest donations in the temple, doing business to fool and loot money in the name of puja, death, marriage, new home… For any occasion, there’s one puja. They charge very high prices and take away all the items after the puja. They have created prostitution in the name of devadasis. They suppress jobs and employment and welfare and equality are destroyed. they have destroyed the Indian medical system. They have killed Indian medical science like siddha vaidhyam and created ayurveda and carnatic music by destroying dravidian music. Even today they have the temples under their control. They say they don’t like untouchables, but they have always been sexually harassing low caste women.

  21. I have now been on a 2 month bike trip from Mumbai and around the southern coast of India ( http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/southindia). What I loved about India was the people. They were all very friendly and kind to me. People is the reason for me to travel, not monuments, so in that way the tour was great.

    What I don´t like is the nearly islamic style separation between women and men, the pollution and the caste system. Here is a sad love story:

    But then I meet Manoj, who was a graduated teacher. He asked me if I was in for a cultural experience. Of course I was. So he invited me to a wedding today at 11 o´clock in Chalisgaon, which was 80 km out west.

    When I should have his mobile number, he had to call a friend to see what number he had. I asked why. It was because he had fallen in love with a girl from a lower caste, and his father had taken his old sim card to break that relationship.

    Later he told me, that the family had drugged him for 5 days while they arranged, that the girl he was in love with was married away to another man. Since then he had lost 6 kg in weight. He wants to take the girl, who loves him and not her new husband, and run away with her.

    He said, that in India everything is about caste and corruption (me: religion too).

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