Why Does Caste Matter to US?

I think I found this after reading an email sent out on the ASATA listserv; it asked for participants for a survey on caste and Sikhism. Since I’m interested in both, I decided to take a quick look. The first notes wafted tentatively through my iBook’s wee speakers and I smiled: Van Halen. I knew exactly what kind of video this would be. We used to make ones just like it for JSA‘s Fall and Spring “State”, usually to open the conference. Well, it was either that or we’d blare Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power“…

After watching it, I was moved, because I felt like so much of it was applicable to all of us, not just Sikhs. Someone Malayalee needs to make one of these, stat, I muttered…and then I realized that they didn’t. Maybe they should just watch this, I thought and that’s when I knew it belonged here, in a space where it would get the attention it rightly deserves.

Ravidasia // Khatri // Jatt // Tarkhan…The labels that divide us are endless. Caste, gender, class, and power tear apart our Qaum, our Gurdwaras, and our Pariwars. How do we overcome? How do we forge unity without silencing voices? [Jakara]

My closest friend in college was a Sikh girl from Fremont, who happened to be Tarkhan. My boyfriend from Freshman through Junior year was Jatt. So were all of his friends. They made fun of her when she wasn’t around and ignored her when she was. This baffled coconut-flavored me. “Why are you so mean to her?” I’d ask him, over and over. “She’s nice.”

“Because she’s…Tarkhan. They’re lower class. And so backwards– didn’t you say her parents tried to get her married when she was 17, that they didn’t even want to send her to college? Who the hell does that?”
“That’s not her fault, why are you taking it out on her?”
“Look, it’s a Sikh thing…it’s probably difficult to understand. Don’t you have a sorority thing to go to?”

::

I’m amazed at how often caste shows up on our comment threads, among second gen kids who should know better. Then I am humbled as I remember that I’m complicit in this too, when I tease my best friend about doing TamBrahm stuff or when I embroider stories from bygone UC Davis days with an extra adjective which probably isn’t necessary:

“Well a lot of students were from the Central Valley or Yuba City…so a good number of the desis I befriended were Jatt Sikh.”

It’s so insidious, the way this need to inform others of where we are in some dated hierarchy persists. Right now, we need to ask ourselves…why?

582 thoughts on “Why Does Caste Matter to US?

  1. kurma: thanks for the clarification, seriously. i forgot about the whole ‘splaining comment, my bad. :) you make a lot of good points in your previous post — there is so much i used to believe as a child. i’m glad that more and more resources are avaiable on the web, so i can do some thinking for myself — although, i find myself questioning the bias of those sources as well. anyway, yes, i do and have always thought it is 100% possible for a person to be fully Hindu and not pay attention to their caste. my participation in this thread has only confirmed this conviction more. (i know this contradicts something i wrote earlier, but that was operating on a different idea of caste). i really have strong feelings about non-Brahmin exclusion from various rites and believe that anyone, male/female/whatever family background, should have an equal opportunity to learn about and participate in all religious practices. too bad that is not the case. (i think there are some smarta traditions that exercise gender equality?) taking what “iyengar” means in theory, i.e. following a particular Vaishnava philosphy, i think anyone on the planet can be an iyengar.

    a question about gothrams: i have met Brahmins (always N. Indian, does anyone know why?) who do not know their gothrams. when it comes time to state it, they will tell the priest they don’t know it and he will always insert some particular gothram. it is always the same each time. does anyone know what gothram this would be?

    jati: sorry, i misread what you had written earlier about iyers and iyengars. i mistakenly thought you were referring to all south indian brahmins, not just TN.

    HMF: yeah, the pomona people are hardcore. btw, who are these “peeps” that “run with” mani varadarajan and venkat kanumalla. those are not the words i’d use when talking about either of those men ;) indeed, we probably have crossed paths. let us never speak of this again. :)

  2. “You can just as easily rationalize everything away as harmless :-) You should ask some non-Brahmins how they feel about this outside the temple. I know some who refuse to go to American temples because they find the gothra business completely offputting. Why is the birthstar (nakshatram) not enough?”

    I think quite a few Telugu non-brahmins have gothrams-I know that all kshatriyas and vaishyas do-and aren’t all the gothrams from Rishis?

    In most temples in Andhra, if you don’t know your gothram, they just repeat your name. I think that’s how most temples operate here-particularly when North Indians come for worship.

  3. Beautiful anecdote about Vivekananda. Ahem, I believe it was Shubash Bose who mentioned the Tartars and Mongols. Got confused.

    Actually you were right first time. According to that same link:

    “Swami Vivekananda was proud of his race and his dark complexion. ‘He was scornful,’ wrote Sister Nivedita, ‘in his repudiation of the pseudo-ethnology of privileged races. “If I am grateful to my white-skinned Aryan ancestors,” he said, “I am far more so to my yellow-skinned Mongolian ancestors, and most of all to the black-skinned negroids.” He was immensely proud of his physiognomy, especially of what he called his “Mongolian jaw,” regarding it as a sign of “bulldog tenacity of purpose.” Referring to this particular racial characteristic, which is believed to be behind every Aryan people, he one day exclaimed: “Don’t you see? The Tartar is the wine of the race! He gives energy and power to every blood.”‘

    Vivekananda must have mentioned tartar and african ancestry as a dig at the white supremacist aryan invasion theory to which he did not subscribe:

    “Our archaeologists’ dreams of India being full of dark-eyed aborigines, and the bright Aryans came from – the Lord knows where. According to some, they came from Central Tibet; others will have it that they came from Central Asia. There are patriotic Englishmen who think that the Aryans were all red haired. Others, according to their idea, think that they were all black-haired. If the writer happens to be a black-haired man, the Aryans were all black-haired. Of late, there was an attempt made to prove that the Aryans lived on Swiss lake. I should not be sorry if they had been all drowned there, theory and all. Some say now that they lived at the North Pole. Lord bless the Aryans and their habitations! As for as the truth of these theories, there is not one word in our scriptures, not one, to prove that the Aryans came from anywhere outside of India, and in ancient India was included Afghanistan. There it ends…” (The Complete Work of Swami Vivekananda, Vol.III)

    I recall reading about Vivekanda’s observation, during a stop in Japan on his way to America, how the proud mongoloid japanese did not take any crap from white caucasians. Such a refreshing contrast to the servile obsequiousness of indians towards europeans. He admired them enormously for it, noting also that they were a very intelligent race that had adopted an indian religion: buddhism. He was clearly impressed by mongolian brains, vigor, self-confidence and spine.

  4. And in 1905, just 12 years after Vivekananda’s visit to Japan, the japanese inflicted a crushing defeat on the Imperial Russian Navy and earned the status of Great Power.

  5. Kenneth Eng:

    Contrary to media depictions, I would argue that blacks are weak-willed. They are the only race that has been enslaved for 300 years. It is unbelievable that it took them that long to fight back. On the other hand, we slaughtered the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War.

    Prema:

    And in 1905, just 12 years after Vivekananda’s visit to Japan, the japanese inflicted a crushing defeat on the Imperial Russian Navy and earned the status of Great Power.

    I guess it’s true what they say about great minds…

  6. I think — and again, not 100% sure here — that Ramanuja accepted “converts” from lower castes and even other religions. The acnestors of some Hebbar Iyengars, for example, are rumored to be Jain or non-Brahmin converts who eventually came to follow a Tengalai sampradayam.

    Hi milli, thanks for all of your work on this thread. This is what I have heard, too.

    Re use of Vedas, although I have seen all 4 used as you describe, I think I have been to rituals where only one specific Veda is used, that which is either associated with a family or particular Iyengar community – sorry to be so vague. If I can confirm this and get more specific, I’ll let you know.

  7. I think quite a few Telugu non-brahmins have gothrams…all the gothrams from Rishis?

    I said as much in #459 abt Telegu Non-Brahmins, and last time I checked, Shiva and Vishnu aren’t rishis :-)

    I am not a Brahmin and when asked, say no gothram. Was surprised that this is asked in American temples the few times I did archanai to please the wife. It does not bother me, though.

    It bothers and insults many people, especially when they read a little and realize thats its not just a matter of not knowing but not having. Not just Tamils, I know a Nair family that has stopped going to temples for the same reason. In US temples it makes sense to be more accomodative rather than less, which is why I favor abolishment of the practice.

  8. yeah, the pomona people are hardcore. btw, who are these “peeps” that “run with” mani varadarajan and venkat kanumalla. those are not the words i’d use when talking about either of those men ;)

    I don’t know the former too well, but the latter is very much a “gangsta.” You either run with him, or get kicked to the curb. I’m talking about my parents, uncles, and various family friends.

    indeed, we probably have crossed paths. let us never speak of this again. :)

    .

    Who knows? Maybe I’ll serendipitously be seated next to you on a plane.

  9. So what are the conclusions? Is it possible to live life happily in the US without paying attention to caste or is it necessary for our spirituality and keeping connections with our culture? I’ll give it a try. Whatever caste’s origin, it no longer has utility in India or the US and whatever warm fuzzies we caste Hindus derive from its observances are outweighed by the misery it causes for Dalits. As many members of small communities decide to “marry out”, their less forward thinking compatriots will be forced to choose from an ever dwindling supply of mates and will give rise to a new race of baby “fishpeople” with gills who will continue to observe the ancient rites of their human ancestors in Lemuria under the sea

    There are still many communities and families who strongly, strongly believe in caste tradition – marriage being the biggest of them.

    How have people dealt with opposition to being in an intercaste marriage, assuming religion and other things are generally the same? India is probably a different story depending on metros. vs. more rural areas, but how about in the USA, where it may harder to only associate with South Asians from your own community and caste? (Regardless of how many conventions and associations you may attend :) – at school and work you’re going to find all types )

    How did you get around the opposition? Did you just go through with it and say the hell with your family? Did anyone get completely cut out from their family/community/temple…

    Has anyone involved with groups like Sakhi or other ones dealing with community issues and domestic violence dealt with caste issues? What would you suggest to someone dealing with strong opposition to an intercaste marriage (same religion, values, financially stable, etc.)?

  10. In my above comment what I’m trying to get at is that people who believe in caste believe in it as a core belief. You can try to reason with them all you want, appeal to the idea that we’ll human beings, bring up all the other theories and stories and anecdotes mentioned above – but it’s one of those things that desis can be the most stubborn about to the point of illogic

  11. Caste is not a belief. It is simply a tradition. It does not make sense to say something like I wear a sacred thread because I believe it means such and such. Or that my bindi signifies such and such. If one reflects on one’s experience, the responses that resonate best go along the lines of “I wear my thread because it has been a practice within my family.” Naturally there are so-called reasons for all of these things. Kids will always ask questions and will either be told some story – different ones for the same practice in different parts of the country – or they’ll be told to just do it because the parents say so. Now, if any old reason suffices for a practice, it simply means the reason is not important. Notice how uncomfortable parents become when they are questioned too much about their practices. They simply do not have explanations or knowledge about them. The reasons they come up with are cookie-cutter ones which nobody relates too. If you stop and consider why you do certain things, the reasons you provide for them will not actually match up to the reality of it which is – just because that’s how I’ve always done it, or that’s how I learned to do it.

    I do realize most people here are American and as such reason plays an important role in life. It is probably through this lens that second genners look at the Indian traditions. There absolutely has to be a reason for everything. But in doing so we’re ascribing meanings and reasons to practices that were perhaps simply meant to be done for their own sake. Perhaps it just brings about a certain regulation in life. Perhaps ritual helps keep the family together. Perhaps the nonsense mantras do really have magic. None of this is directly related to any reason why there must be a lamp on the aarti tray, or why we ring a bell, or anything. Yet, there are meanings and significance ascribed to all of these things as if the it is these beliefs that are central.

    There’s a wonderful book by Frits Staal called Ritual: Rules Without Meaning that discusses some of these things.

    The other point to consider is that most people complain that their parents did not teach them anything about hinduism. This holds as true for back in the desh as it does anywhere else in the world. So if nobody knows anything, howcome the tradition has survived? What kind of knowledge are we looking for when we ask our questions? Is that the knowledge that has been passed on so that the tradition has survived or is it something else altogether?

  12. Caste is tied into social hierarchy, there is little doubt that it is used for this purpose. While it also becomes intertwinned with cultural narratives, one can hardly seperate this out from its basic function. This is why most social reformers in India have set upon the caste system as a problem. Accidental Enlightenment brings up a good point on the tenacity of these beliefs.

    For example, a jatt might think it’s a harmless past-time to sing songs about “living with a stride in your step” which is one of the more popular lyrics in a lot of bhangra songs. But unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there, there is a built-in route by which caste-conciousness leads to discrimination; in the diaspora, this leads mostly to uncomfortable social situations like the one ANNA describes in her original post; it might also lead to family drama regarding marriage. In india, it can lead to poverty and violence.

    We can’t all be automatons and stop singing songs or telling legends that are a part of our culture. Many people engage with the strand of South Asian culture and are troubled by the problematic aspects of it; this isn’t always easy. But, its pretty clear that its difficult to celebrate caste in good conscience, given the destructive use caste has been put to.

  13. Sahej – I haven’t heard the song you refer to, but I think it’s a wonderful thing to instill pride in one’s traditions and heritage. If people then use this to imagine they are better than everyone else, its a different problem altogether.

    Anna’s original post does refer to this, but just for a second take away the caste aspect from it. What did these people really consider themselves superior about? Perhaps the others didn’t dress the right way, perhaps they didn’t read the right books or listen to the right music, perhaps they were totally not cool. This kind of snobbery exists all over the place. If one of those others in fact had all of the cool elements, caste would not matter at all. It’s easy to blame it on caste but in my experience it’s habits, customs and taste that set people apart. This will always be the case. Birds of a feather flock together as they say.

    Remember the US is a country where only one type of people came and settled and had a lot of time to instill their values. It’s easy to have homogenity and let that masquerade as tolerance. In India there are millions who have never been beyond a 30 mile radius their whole lives. Naturally they will find others’ customs strange. But, in spite of all that we hear about the atrocities, most people manage to live harmoniously and there is a wealth of diversity. Moreover, we need to establish that these atrociies are in fact a result of caste conscioussness and not simply related to economics or other forms of rivalry or corruption.

  14. Not to pick nits, but this is not entirely true. People outside the Tambram community do have gothrams, and often provide them when doing archanais. Aside from Siva gotram and Vishnu gotram, I’ve heard people use the names of flowers, other temples, etc. as their gothram names, in place of the pravara rishis the Brahmins use. In the end, a gotram is merely a very broad “family identifier” and I don’t see anything particularly casteist about this practice.

    Gothram means family lineage or religious affiliation here? Shiva gothram and Vishnu gothram means the Deity that you worship. Citing flowers as a gothram has what significance?

    In the cases that gothram is meant to signify family lineage — does caste play into that? My understanding was that caste was family lineage and how it tied into occupation/work was that one did the work that their family had been doing for decades or centuries.

  15. Caste is not a belief. It is simply a tradition. It does not make sense to say something like I wear a sacred thread because I believe it means such and such. Or that my bindi signifies such and such. If one reflects on one’s experience, the responses that resonate best go along the lines of “I wear my thread because it has been a practice within my family.

    So many non-Indians who have diksha into the Brahma-gayatri mantra wear the sacred thread. It’s obviously not a family tradition for them, but has a type of spiritual significance in that the thread is used to chant the mantra on during the mantra’s recitation.

  16. “I said as much in #459 abt Telegu Non-Brahmins, and last time I checked, Shiva and Vishnu aren’t rishis :-)

    But who uses “Shiva” and “Vishnu” as Rishis…?

    At any rate, I don’t know how much gothram specifies exactly which caste you are…mainly cause I know that my families gothram is found in brahmins and non-brahmins…

    I was actually wondering how Chettiars in TN deal with this then because they have a strong tradition of temple worship, probably more so than even some brahmin castes in the south…

  17. actually come to think of it, a family friend of ours did archana the other day at this temple and she mentioned some gothram…I think she is a kamma…

  18. If caste were in-extricably tied to India’s religions then no non-Indians would ever be allowed entrance into these religions (various Hindu sects). Therefore my conclusion is that caste and Indian spirituality are exclusive of each other.
    Thanks, but this may not be a tight argument if there are people who don’t consider such converts fully Hindu (are there?).

    There may be Indians that don’t consider such converts to be “fully Hindu”. I’ve not really come across such an attitude, but what I have come across is Indians in the same sects who accept such converts as part of the religion, but still doubt that they are able to follow the cleanliness standards or “achar” of the rule for ritual activities such as pujas and such. They seem to think that such converts also do not know how to bath properly or cleanse their anuses after pooing, and are constantly reminding us to wash hands, not use left hand for this or that, and other such things, despite the fact that we have already been following these “rules” for sometimes decades.

    Hence, sometimes they do not want such converts to serve out “prasad” in the temple/ashram because they fear they have pooed and not bathed and changed into clean clothing.

    They are trippy as hell.

  19. Red Snapper (#411), I haven’t had enough time to really educate myself about the disturbances. What little I know leads me to believe the head of the Dera was wrong to dress like Guru Gobind Singh, and wrong to print that image in newspapers. I don’t know what the caste breakdown of the Dera’s followers is. More sinister is what might be going on behind the scenes (i.e. who are the vested interests that are trying to stir things up, and for what political or other reasons?) Also, the parallels to what the Nirankaris did back in the 70s are striking…and so is the potential for equally disastrous outcomes (i.e militancy, the Khalistan issue coming back, etc).

    Amitabh, get ready! You are going to lose another opportunity

    .

    ???

    “living with a stride in your step” which is one of the more popular lyrics in a lot of bhangra songs

    O kehra?

  20. ^^ Lines like maruk nall thurna….jeona marna ank nall; those kinds of things

  21. Contrary to media depictions, I would argue that blacks are weak-willed. They are the only race that has been enslaved for 300 years. It is unbelievable that it took them that long to fight back. On the other hand, we slaughtered the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War.

    This racist nutjob sounds just like all them “drrrty poonjabis” with their imaginary “scythian” ancestors who, though themselves dark by international standards and with no history of world conquest, look down on the non-martial slightly darker-skinned natives of hindoostan……..who made low caste sudras out of them :)

    Am I right or what?

    As for blacks being “the only race that has been enslaved for 300 years”, only ignorant fools like Kenneth Eng would claim that. That happens to be the same amount of time the biblical hebrews (supposedly of Iraqi origin) were slaves in Africa. The Russians were under the Mongol Yoke for 250 years. Eastern Europeans were captured and sold as slaves by muslim arabs and turks for many more centuries than that. The very words slave and slav are related. The chinese ancestors of Eng were conquered and ruled for centuries by the northern barbarians: mongols and manchus. A large number of chinese were taken as slaves by arabs after they lost the Battle of Talas. And so on…..

  22. My understanding was that caste was family lineage and how it tied into occupation/work was that one did the work that their family had been doing for decades or centuries.

    My understanding is that gothram is a much more narrow concept than caste. Caste is a broader concept, and seems to be more of an occupation-based social identifier.

    That is, X and Y can have the same caste, but still have different gothrams. The gothram is more of a family lineage identifier, and is (generally, but not always) a signifier of patrilineal descent from a particular clan, rishi, etc. Using the names of flowers merely identifies you as belonging to a particular clan, and distinguishes you from those belonging to other clans. In Tamil Nadu (and maybe in Andhra Pradesh), gothrams/clan identifiers are used not just by Brahmins but by many others as well.

    I think “siva” and “vishnu” are just substitutions made when a person can’t identify their gothram…they’re not meant to be gothrams themselves.

  23. But who uses “Shiva” and “Vishnu” as Rishis…?

    As I’ve said repeatedly, Tamils use them as gothrams, because they don’t have one. In Malaysia, they don’t request gothrams in temples, in the States they do, I suspect because many of the temples were started by either Tamil Brahmins or Telugu Non-Brahmins, both of whom have gothrams.

    Amongst Tamils, the request of gothram clearly creates a caste-based distinction, since Tamil Brahmins believe they’re descended from Vedic rishis. Malyalee Nairs also do not have gothrams. Not surprisingly, I have heard complaints mainly from these two groups. Many North Indians do not know their gothrams. In temples here which they frequent, the typical response is Malum Nahin, Malum Nahin, every time the question is raised by the priest:D and yet the priests continue asking.

    Clearly, this is an unnecessary practice which can easily be abolished in the name of avoiding caste based distinctions and creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness.

  24. sometimes they do not want such converts to serve out “prasad” in the temple/ashram because they fear they have pooed and not bathed and changed into clean clothing. They are trippy as hell.

    What good is ritual purity of body or food when their minds remain so stubbornly dirty? Its an obscene farce that a caste notorious for such anti-spiritual qualities as greed, selfishness, conceit and contempt pretends to be the upholders of spirituality and religion.

    Is it karmic payback that these purity-obsessed whackjobs are considered unhygenic and smelly by foreigners? Or that India is widely, and justifiably, seen as the filthiest nation on earth?

  25. So a gothram then is your ancient lineage? Like which tribe or whatever your family descends from?

    Gaudiya Vaishnavas (Bengali Vaishnavas) say that all are “Achyuta Gothram” – or descended from Krishna, the achyuta, the infallible one. Oddly enough I have read that achyuta is used to refer to low-castes/no-castes (the meaning being, can’t fall any lower).

  26. 523 risible,

    In Malaysia, they don’t request gothrams in temples, in the States they do

    Most temples in Tamil Nadu don’t ask either. Perhaps if the Kurukal knows the family they may ask, I don’t know, or those with gothrams may volunteer it without being asked when asked for the nakshatram.

  27. What good is ritual purity of body or food when their minds remain so stubbornly dirty? Its an obscene farce that a caste notorious for such anti-spiritual qualities as greed, selfishness, conceit and contempt pretends to be the upholders of spirituality and religion. Is it karmic payback that these purity-obsessed whackjobs are considered unhygenic and smelly by foreigners? Or that India is widely, and justifiably, seen as the filthiest nation on earth?

    Prema, the Indians I am referring to above are not neccessarily brahmins. Most are not. Yet they grow up with certain exposure to the “achar” principle surrounding cleanliness and purity which most foriegners who take up their religion in their adult years do not. Hence they feel that we may not be in the regular habit of all these things.

  28. Perhaps if the Kurukal knows the family they may ask, I don’t know, or those with gothrams may volunteer it without being asked when asked for the nakshatram.

    What is meant by nakshatram here? I thought the word meant stellar constallation.

  29. Nakshatram is your “birth star.” It basically coresponds to the western idea of your zodiac sign.

  30. When performing an archanai in a temple on one’s behalf the pujari asks one’s name and their nakshatram (the star constellation corresponding to the date and time when they were born). In the US temples they ask for the gothram (lineage) also.

  31. Perhaps if the Kurukal knows the family they may ask, I don’t know, or those with gothrams may volunteer it without being asked when asked for the nakshatram.

    This is what I have observed as well. The gurukkal usually stars by asking for your name and nakshatram and people who have gothrams volunteer the information. In the US, they tend to ask for the gothram as well. One thing I’ve noticed in both temples that I frequent regularly is that the priests happen to be Telugu, which makes me wonder if requesting a gothram is more common in Andhra Pradesh than in Tamil Nadu.

    PG:

    Nakshatram refers to the star that is ascendant when a person is born, based on Vedic astrology. It’s allegedly pretty easy to figure out, if you provide a time and date of birth. Your “rashi” or your astrological sign is decided based on your nakshatram. During an archana, the temple priest typically requests your name and nakshatram.

  32. Nakshatram refers to the star that is ascendant when a person is born, based on Vedic astrology. It’s allegedly pretty easy to figure out, if you provide a time and date of birth. Your “rashi” or your astrological sign is decided based on your nakshatram. During an archana, the temple priest typically requests your name and nakshatram.

    One’s rising sign. OK. Never knew that was asked at temples. I think the temples I frequent are not into that kind of thing (North India and Bengal).

  33. I think the temples I frequent are not into that kind of thing (North India and Bengal).

    From my (admittedly limited) experience of North Indian temples, I don’t think individual archanai is really a part of the usual routine. Worship seems to be much more congregational than in southern temples.

  34. Most temples in Tamil Nadu don’t ask either.

    For very obvious reasons, and neither in Kerala. I’ve explained why I think the US temples are carrying on with this irrelevant practice.

    There may be Indians that don’t consider such converts to be “fully Hindu”. I’ve not really come across such an attitude, but what I have come across is Indians in the same sects who accept such converts as part of the religion, but still doubt that they are able to follow the cleanliness standards or “achar” of the rule for ritual activities such as pujas and such.

    Caste has a tendency to creep back in to even the most liberal organizations. I’ll give an example. The Kabir panthis are a Hindu sampradey found on the tenets of Kabir, a weaver sant who spoke out against both Brahmanic excess and untouchability. And yet today, the Varnasi branch of the Kabir Panthis are mandated to follow caste rules, even after declaring themselves sanyasis. This is patently abusrd, given what Kabir stood for, but such is the tentacled grip of Varnashrama Dharma.

  35. In my trips to India, I’ve seen members of lower castes themselves reinforce certain caste values with great vigour – resulting in some rather ironical situations. For example, in a small town where I lived for a year, our maid refused to clean the toilet. When I asked her what the tenant upstairs did for the toilet, she said with a (somewhat gleeful) smile ‘Didi kore’. So the brahmin tenant upstairs cleaned a toilet which her maid thought she was too good to clean.

    Similarly, when a dead rat sat on my father’s street, no one would touch it. My father, having apparently forgotten everything related to caste in his thirty years abroad, offered various people money (with increasing desperation) to take it away. Finally someone (the garbage dude) told him it was a ‘Dom’s’ job, and the ‘Dom’ would have to be called.

  36. After 500+ let me re interpret the title… “Why Does Caste Matter to the US Government?” apparently, to make declarations against it targetting a specifc country, i.e. India, and coming off as even more supremacist and arrogant than thought possible.

    See- Resolution against caste.

  37. “Why Does Caste Matter to the US Government?” apparently, to make declarations against it targetting a specifc country, i.e. India, and coming off as even more supremacist and arrogant than thought possible. See- Resolution against caste.

    It took the “supremacist and arrogant” british to force an end to the age old practices of widow burning and human sacrifice in India. Was that a good or bad result? Similarly, if it takes american and european pressure to force an end to the age old abomination of untouchability in India, anyone with a conscience would welcome it. The question is why did it take so long? From the link:

    http://www.sajaforum.org/2007/05/religion_us_hou.html

    The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution on May 1, saying the U.S. needs to address the issue of untouchability in India.

    The resolution, when passed, will be the first official statement of Congress that Untouchability is an unacceptable practice in any modern democracy and that the United States Congress should do all within its power to ensure American Business and the United States Government are not discriminating against Dalits in their programs, hiring, and funding.

    Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona) introduced the resolution, and used the word ‘apartheid’ to describe caste discrimination.

    Echoing the December 27 th, 2006 words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he likened the Caste system in India to Apartheid in South Africa and called on the United States Congress to join with him in raising the issue with the Indian Government.”

    http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/02/13/india15303.htm

    A resolution passed by the European Parliament on February 1, 2007 found India’s efforts to enforce laws protecting Dalits to be “grossly inadequate,” adding that “atrocities, untouchability, illiteracy, [and] inequality of opportunity, continue to blight the lives of India’s Dalits.” The resolution called on the Indian government to engage with CERD in its efforts to end caste-based discrimination. Dalit leaders welcomed the resolution, but Indian officials dismissed it as lacking in “balance and perspective.”

    “International scrutiny is growing and with it the condemnation of abuses resulting from the caste system and the government’s failure to protect Dalits,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “India needs to mobilize the entire government and make good on its paper commitments to end caste abuses. Otherwise, it risks pariah status for its homegrown brand of apartheid.”

  38. It took the “supremacist and arrogant” british to force an end to the age old practices of widow burning and human sacrifice in India. Was that a good or bad result?

    I think it would be better if you rephrase it as

    It took the “supremacist and arrogant” british to force an end to the age old practices of widow burning and human sacrifice in upper caste Bengal and Rajputana . Was that a good or bad result?

    ‘Sati’ was of great propaganda value to the Brits. The same time they were apparently banning “Sati”, the Brit lawmakers are taking out the meagre rights offered to the Brit women.

  39. 525 PG,

    So a gothram then is your ancient lineage? Like which tribe or whatever your family descends from?

    Gothram means lineage and is patrilineal as followed by the Iyers and Iyengars in Tamil Nadu, and they have seven of them. Endogamy was pretty common among most jaathis, especially in predominantly rural and agricultural communities. So people kept track of lineages and had names for them like kootam or distinguised them by pattapeyar (surname) to keep land relationships in balance. People with the same pattapeyar or kootam (or gothram) in landowning communities for instance were called pangaali in Tamil and did not marry each other because they were akin to brothers and sisters to each other. Not all jaathis engaged the services of Iyer or Iyengar poojaris, but those who did, knew that gothram meant lineage even though the terms used by different communities was different.

    risible,

    You said that some of the Nairs you knew were putoff by questions about gothram, since they didn’t have any. They do keep track of lineage as well, except as you know it is matrilineal and called ‘tharavadu‘. The poojaris in many temples in the US happen to be from Tamil Nadu and Andhra, who had traditions of keeping track of gothram ask for it here (is that a stronger Andhra influence?) when performing archanai, the Nairs can give the name of their tharavadu. I agree with you though that they can dispense with asking for it explicitly and invoke it, if volunteered, as is the practice back in Tamil Nadu for instance.

  40. The word, as far as I know, is ‘Jat’. ‘Jatt’ might be the transliteration of the Punjabi accent, for that is the only time I’ve heard the word pronounced that way.

  41. The word, as far as I know, is ‘Jat’. ‘Jatt’ might be the transliteration of the Punjabi accent, for that is the only time I’ve heard the word pronounced that way.

    Tomato, tomahto. I’ve seen both versions of the term and am always hesitant to decree that “x” is the definitive English spelling of a desi word, not that you were in any way attempting to do that.

  42. Milli and others who are willing to go along with “madi”,

    I wonder if you have considered the fact that madi is a practice that discriminates against women. What logic can justify this? Don’t men and women equally excrete stuff from their bodies every day – and isn’t that stuff more unclean than what comes out of a woman during the madi time? How can something that enables children to be raised in the womb be ‘unclean’ to a Hindu?

    I believe that madi is no different than any other rules on women like wearing a burqua or a sari, or having a pallu over the woman’s head all year long, 24/7. It places arbitrary restrictions on what they can and cannot do. A woman cannot be a temple priestess for this reason.

    I was myself raised with this madi concept, but refuse to allow this to be part my sampradayam. Some, but not all, of the sampradayam I choose to follow is drawn from what I learned from the elders in my family. A lot of the rituals followed by our elders are misogynistic, this one is no different.

  43. I wonder if you have considered the fact that madi is a practice that discriminates against women. What logic can justify this? Don’t men and women equally excrete stuff from their bodies every day – and isn’t that stuff more unclean than what comes out of a woman during the madi time? How can something that enables children to be raised in the womb be ‘unclean’ to a Hindu?…I was myself raised with this madi concept, but refuse to allow this to be part my sampradayam.

    I’m glad somebody said this. I refuse to allow it to be part of my life and I’m not putting my daughter through it, either. I wish my parents hadn’t been so consumed with such a pointless, mean-spirited ritual which made me feel less than human once a month.

  44. too lazy to look up my previous comment, but as far as following madi goes, i don’t follow it at all in my own home. none of my cousins (who are all older and married) follow it either. in their houses, nothing is “off limits” when i have my period, and i’m pretty sure they go to the temple during that time. at my parents’ house, i am only not allowed to go into the puja room, but everything else, including the kitchen, is now fair game. i shower on the 1st and 4th day if i remember, but if not, oh well. this was not the case as i was growing up, but my mom has eased up quite a bit in the last decade. my mom and i have had numerous screaming matches over this. the thing about my mom is that on top of her orthodoxy, she is also extremely OCD. she readily admits this many of her house rules have nothing to do with religion or keeping madi but just her own special brand of craziness. i follow along to avoid argument — been there, done that — but she knows things are quite different in my own house. she has actually told me that she hopes i don’t continue such silly practices with my own daughters.

  45. madi is a practice that discriminates against women. Don’t men and women equally excrete stuff from their bodies …isn’t that stuff more unclean than what comes out of a woman during

    This is a classic example of yet-another-guideline in Hinduism that’s been twisted in the last couple of centuries.

    The guideline is: Any person who has an uncontrollable physical condition that excretes any fluid or gas from his/her body is exempt from religious rituals/places.

    Note the emphasis: exempt – not prohibited.

    This uncontrollable physical condition is not only what women experience periodically, it also includes runny nose, open wounds, boils with puss, diahrrea, gas, weak bladder(among the elderly and children) etc etc that could happen to men too.

    What logic can justify this?

    The logic was that people with these conditions usually have a pensive mind that is not conducive to group worship. (If I could count the number of times I’ve been to pujas where people are farting…).

    It so happened that the puja room usually used to be in the kitchen in rural India(still is), and hence people with such conditions were discouraged from going there, as well as to temples, weddings etc. Somewhere along the line, discouraged became prohibited, and a guideline became a rule.

    I refuse to allow it to be part of my life and I’m not putting my daughter through it, either

    Good! These practices have to be eradicated by individual effort.

    However, I disagree with the allegation that this practice is misogynistic. I also disagree with women who choose to protest this rule by going to the temple/other’s pujas during those days of the month. The temple is not a public place – there are rules and guidelines set. If you have a problem with them, first debate and get them removed. Otherwise, Hinduism encourages you to start your own temple where you can openly proclaim that women during that time of the month are welcome to pray. Don’t go to someone else’s temple/house and expect them to accept your moral code. It’s not fair to them.

    Change has to be brought by debate and example – not confrontation.

    M. Nam

  46. by the way, i’d be very curious to know what the historical roots of madi are. did it actually begin as something prohibitive or has it become that way more recently? in other words, was it simply a suggestion rather than a strict rule? could it have been intended to give women a break from the normal routine (god knows my anemic self could use some time off during my period) but then became an isolating practice? (i know the criticism here is that needing a “break” pathologizes the female condition). i do think that the way it is exercised now, it is an extremely oppressive and misogynstic practice, but i have some doubts that it has always been that way. similar practices have been found across religions but have slowly faded out of most.

  47. Milli,

    Though I never had to follow madi in my parental home, holidays at ‘patti’s’ home were different.

    When I had to ‘sit out’ the first ( and only !) time I traveled to my grandma’s place during ‘those days’ – I was just 13 and it was very traumatic ( Male cousins were served on the dining table and I had food thrown into my plate and had to sit on the floor outside the main dining area etc !)

    The elders in my family explained that it really did start as a way to give the women in the family a complete break. I heard that in our ancestral homes there was a separate room where the women were left undisturbed for the duration and did not have to do whatever their normal womanly household chores were,. Personally, I actually wish I could get time off from home and work to be by myself in a dark room every month – but that is just me and my abnormal estrogen levels speaking :-) Please note : this is all anecdotal and I make no claims to its veracity besides reporting it

  48. at my parents’ house, i am only not allowed to go into the puja room, but everything else, including the kitchen, is now fair game

    This is pretty how it is with my parents (and my extended family and my in-laws as well). My mother is a super-traditional woman, but in this one respect, I give her a world of credit for being practical instead of superstitious. She always said she thought the whole ritual isolation business was so wrong, because there was no need for every random visitor to a house in the south to know what was happening with the women of the house.

    I do think the practice probably originated with the need to give women a decent three days of rest. Plus, personal hygiene being what it was back in the day, isolation prevented any potential embarassment from clothing “accidents”, I suppose. Some families take it too far though.

  49. The word, as far as I know, is ‘Jat’. ‘Jatt’ might be the transliteration of the Punjabi accent, for that is the only time I’ve heard the word pronounced that way.

    The same word has different pronunciations in Punjabi (jatttt to rhyme with gut) and Hindi (jaaaat to rhyme with…pot?) Lots of words display that difference in the two languages…ajj/aaj (today), kann/kaan (ear), kamm/kaam (work), nach/naach (dance), akkh/aankh (eye), hatth/haath (hand), nakk/naak (nose),agg/aag (fire), dhupp/dhoop (sunshine), duddh/doodh (milk), dand/daant (tooth) etc.