Hindu culture recognizes four Varna, or social divisions. Varna should not be confused with caste, which is the job one performs within their Varna. At the top of the Varna system are the Brahmin, who are priests and spiritual teachers. Second are the Kshatriya, who are soldiers and political figures. Next are the Vaishya, who are merchants, artisans and skilled laborers. Last of all are the Shudra, who provide unskilled manual labor. Beneath Varna entirely are the Untouchables, or Dalits, who perform tasks such as tanning leather and burning the dead, which make them un-pure and supposedly unfit for normal interaction with non-Dalits. This system is not at all arbitrary and is in fact extremely logical. One’s Varna determines their caste or job, which supplies them with their duty or Dharma. The degree to which you fulfill your Dharma determines your Karma, which determines the Varna you will be born into in your next life. The system gives everyone a purpose and a reason to be proud of their work. In America we have strikingly similar social distinctions, only we have no universal theology to placate those at the bottom–indeed we function in a way that constantly reminds the unlucky of how truly unlucky they are. The caste system in India is no different from the way American civilization functions–it simply provides justification.
In America we have the equivalent of Brahmin and Kshatriya–our political figures, our men and women in arms, our religious leaders. As in India they are accorded the highest levels of the respect, the most affluent, powerful members of society fall under these categories (Although not all people who fall under these categories are affluent and powerful). Though not all of them are upper class, they are generally respected. We accept their roles as necessary and honorable and deserving of respect. The difference lies in the ways we assume they have earned those positions. In India Brahmins and Kshatriyas are at the top of the ladder, and they are there because in past lives they have fulfilled their Dharmas admirably. They are respected because their Varna is supposedly proof that their souls are more pure than the average person’s. In America we have what we call ‘The American Dream’–that is, if you work hard enough you’ll move up in life. By this logic, our political and religious leaders must be powerful because they have worked hard and deserve it, even if they happen to come from a very rich family; they deserve our respect because they are upper class and are therefore hard workers.
We also have an American version of the Vaishya and Shudra Varnas, which we refer to as the middle class. In both cultures these people are the backbone of society–without them the whole system would crumble. In both India and America they are generally seen as hard workers who simply lack the extra zest the upper class must have. Our two cultures split ways when it comes to the implications of this position in society. In theory, in India there is no real moral judgement implicit in this station–Vaishya and Shudra are not as close to Nirvana as Kshatriya and Brahmin, but this is not because they are inherently inferior–everyone must be a Vaishya or a Shudra in at least one of their lives, it is a necessary stage for everyone to go through. In America we recognize the necessity of the middle class, but in a society which teaches that if you work hard enough there’s nowhere to go but up, the middle class appears to have just given up halfway to the top. While not quite lazy, they are by no means on equal par with the upper class.
There also exists an American equivalent of the Dalit. The lower class–people who hold either menial, minimum wage jobs, or no job at all, the people who fall through the cracks. In both societies these people are ignored and often mistreated. The difference lies in the way we perceive them as having ended up in this position. American culture frames them as lazy–we tell them to ‘get a job’ and rarely pay any attention to them. In India they are simply paying for misdeeds in past lives, as is everyone else, albiet to a lesser extent. Their purpose is no less important, no less meaningful. In Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue Skinned God a Dalit named Suraj Chaudrhi is a prime example of this. “His place in the universe, Suraj knows, is to burn bodies. That is why he was put on the earth. It is an important task, a necessary task, a task vital to the survival of society.” (Arrow 138) Indian Dalits are not lazy–they are in fact vital to the functioning of the culture. They need not yearn for anything better–what they have is exactly what they were meant to have in this life, and they can feel free to take pride in doing it to the best of their ability.
These concepts do not only hold true in America and India–worldwide the class/caste system falls into similar patterns. It is undeniable that the modern Varna system has very serious flaws that must be dealt with, but in many ways it is superior to our method. The American system only serves to further oppress the oppressed, to remove any and all hope these people may have had, any sense of purpose. In India the Dalits and the Shudras serve an undeniably necessary function–no one would deny that without them the entire system would collapse. The Indian system is in many ways superior, not because it fixes the inherent flaws in a class-based society, but because it deals with them head on and gives every member of society a clear and defined purpose.