To the Editors:
For Mr. Jasper Griffin [Letters, NYR, January 20] the evils of the caste system are represented by a Brahmin shooting a low-caste peasant for drawing water from the well. He no doubt also knows that among the educated white-collar Indians who have migrated to the US in the last three decades—doctors, engineers, scientists, software designers—a majority are married within their caste and often belong to caste associations in the US, where they hope their children will meet and marry their castemates. And they don’t shoot low-caste peasants.
I wonder if Mr. Griffin isn’t confusing the caste system with untouchability, which certainly could be described as “the greatest single evil in the modern world.” The two are distantly related but not identical, which tends to mislead many Westerners unfamiliar with India.
Anyone considering the caste system must consider why it has lasted for centuries without a central authority to enforce it, why it operates between peer-castes, and why even those who have opted out of Hinduism continue to practice it. For instance, Catholics in Goa are proud of their original caste identity after more than 350 years in the Church and the Dalits (untouchables) who have rejected Hinduism in favor of Buddhism still cannot shed it. Since Mr. Griffin is interested in today’s India, he might like to know that it has been argued that, given that 88 percent of India is Hindu, the internal diversity resulting from the caste system may be our main defense against a Hindu fascist state controlled by the traditionally advantaged classes.
Mr. Griffin has a lot to learn before he can begin to teach the East.
Jasper Griffin replies:
Mr. Karnad’s letter is charming. It is no surprise that Indians who are fortunate enough to belong to good castes are well contented with the system, and that they see no reason not to belong to caste associations. Of course, it is not quite so agreeable if their children prefer not to oblige by meeting and marrying their castemates. But the point is that untouchability is not, as he hopefully says, “distantly related” to the caste system. It is fully set out in the Laws of Manu, the classic code of Indian sacred law, where Mr. Karnad will find, if he is interested, such rules as these:
The dwellings of the candala (Untouchables) should be outside the village; they must use discarded bowls, and dogs and donkeys should be their wealth. Their clothing should be the clothes of the dead, and their food should be in broken dishes.
They should not walk about in villages and cities by night. They may move by day to do their work, recognisable by distinctive marks.
If a man has touched a “Notorious by Day”Untouchable, he can be cleansed by a bath.
Those who are…born of degradation should make their living by their innate activities, which are reviled by the twice born (the higher castes).
It is not by coincidence that untouchability exists in the society which maintains the caste system. Its contemporary evil results can be seen constantly in the newspapers.
June 15, 2000