The Flawed Portrayal of Caste in Modern Social Studies Textbooks
Published by Rajesh Verma on
In American classrooms, the study of World Cultures or World History, which is typically done in middle school and high school, is intended to give students an appreciation of how other cultures and previous civilizations have contributed to the state of modern humanity. Students study the evolution and unique features of each civilization, along with how the world’s great faiths came about and evolved over time. However, when it comes to studying Hinduism and ancient India, a peculiar narrative is typically formulated in the classroom that bears little resemblance to how Hindu-American students view their cultural and religious heritage. Specifically, caste is injected as a defining characteristic of not only Hinduism but of Indian civilization. Even though most Hindus agree that caste-based discrimination, or casteism, must be rejected and eliminated in all its forms, caste is taught so poorly and with so little context that many Hindu-American students question their own faith after walking out of their global studies classes. They are embarrassed to be associated with a religion that allegedly sanctions discrimination against vast sections of its population. With such high stakes, we must explore how we arrived at the common misunderstanding of “caste” as it pertains to Indian and Hindu society, what current textbooks typically say about caste and the impact of these textbooks on Hindu students.
“The Indian caste system is perhaps the most extreme expression of a type of social organization that violates the most revered principles on which modern Western societies are based” (Stearns, et al. 24). This is the opening statement of a World History textbook passage on caste in India. With a self-righteous tone, this sentence indicts the entire Indian civilization and everyone associated with it, including innocent Hindu American students. The rest of the textbook pertaining to India employs bias by the commission to lay the blame for the inequities of the caste system entirely on the shoulders of Hindu civilization. It absolves the major Western colonizers, especially the British, of any blame in the current state of affairs. This is a pattern that repeats itself in other textbooks. However, history and Hindu scriptures paint an entirely different picture.
The Spanish and Portuguese origins of the word “caste” as “casta” are well known. What is less well-known are the European origins of birth-based caste, along with how Europeans imposed these concepts on their colonized peoples, as described by Sumit Guha in his online article. In addition, Hindu scriptures do not contain the word “casta” or any other derivative.
Las Castas (The Castes), Anonymous.
The above painting was completed in the 18th century and depicts the 16 race-based castes at birth as defined and imposed by Spanish colonizers on the Natives of Mexico. This type of classification was devised prior to British interference with the indigenous social system of India. The idea of caste hierarchy being determined by proximity to the white race was first propagated by the Spanish and later implemented by the British in India. The subordinate status of Spanish women as compared to Spanish men can be concluded from the more limited marital options available to women, as shown in the painting.
At the time of the Spanish caste system’s development, Indian society was following a very different social order. Amongst the Vedas, which are the primary scriptures of Hinduism and are believed to hold true regardless of era or geography, the only kind of social structure that was mentioned pertained to the four “varnas.” The term “varna” referred to the four qualities or functions that were found in society: priests/scholars, rulers/administrators, merchants/farmers, and artisans/laborers. The Purusha Sukta contains the following hymn:
brā̠hma̠ṇō̎sya̠ mukha̍māsīt । bā̠hū rā̍ja̠nya̍ḥ kṛ̠taḥ ।
ū̠rū tada̍sya̠ yadvaiśya̍ḥ । pa̠dbhyāgṃ śū̠drō a̍jāyataḥ ॥
ū̠rū tada̍sya̠ yadvaiśya̍ḥ । pa̠dbhyāgṃ śū̠drō a̍jāyataḥ ॥
From His mouth came forth the Brahmins and from His arms were Rajanya made
From His thighs came the Vaishyas and His feet gave birth to Sudras.
Even though the above hymn is not referring to a hierarchy between the four varnas, the fallacy of a hierarchical varna system has gained widespread traction in today’s literature. In reality, the varnas represent the four parallel pillars of a holistic society. In Hindu thought, the entirety of existence is described as the manifestation of God, or Purusha. As God, or Purusha, is One, no part of Purusha can be considered higher or lower. Therefore, one varna is not considered higher or lower than another. Also worth noting is that Purusha is frequently taken to mean Lord Vishnu, who is oftentimes depicted in a reclining pose, with no part of his body higher or lower than the other. The hierarchy misconception can be refuted even further if one examines the next two verses from the Purusha Sukta in the Rig Veda:
cha̠ndramā̠ mana̍sō jā̠taḥ । chakṣō̠ḥ sūryō̍ ajāyata ।
mukhā̠dindra̍śchā̠gniścha̍ । prā̠ṇādvā̠yura̍jāyata ॥
mukhā̠dindra̍śchā̠gniścha̍ । prā̠ṇādvā̠yura̍jāyata ॥
nābhyā̍ āsīda̠ntari̍kṣam । śī̠rṣṇō dyauḥ sama̍vartata ।
pa̠dbhyāṃ bhūmi̠rdiśa̠ḥ śrōtrā̎t । tathā̍ lō̠kāgṃ a̍kalpayan ॥
pa̠dbhyāṃ bhūmi̠rdiśa̠ḥ śrōtrā̎t । tathā̍ lō̠kāgṃ a̍kalpayan ॥
From His mind the Moon was born, from His eyes was born the Sun
From His mouth, Indra and Agni, and from His life-breath was born Vayu
Space unfolds from His navel, the sky well-formed from His head
From His feet, the earth, and His ears the Quarters.
If the Purusha Suktam referred to a hierarchy of the varnas, then, by the same logic, the Moon must be considered higher than the Sun, and space must be considered lower than the sky. Such nonsensical reasoning can be rejected, leading us to the conclusion that the Vedas do not recognize any sort of hierarchy in society. Instead, the varnas refer to psychological groupings of people based on their temperaments and qualities. These groupings achieve goals similar to that of today’s personality tests when they are used to predict what types of occupations may best suit a given individual. It is important to note that there are many examples of people having moved between varnas.
Another term that is native to Indian civilization and is mistakenly conflated with the caste system is “jati.” Unlike “varna,” the term “jati” is not found in Hindu scriptures. “Jati” typically refers to an endogamous community where a specific profession is often passed down in a hereditary fashion. Sharma quotes P.V. Kane in explaining how the jatis came into existence: “ …[jatis] arose from the unions of males of different varnas with women belonging to varnas differing from their own” (130). Sharma later calls out an important distinction between the traditional Indian concept of jati versus the modern Western misunderstanding of where jatis reside in the social fabric. In the traditional Indian view, jatis were formed outside of the traditional varnas. Jatis were formed to accommodate all of the different combinations of people in society that were derived from the original four varnas. The following figure depicts some of the many possible jatis that formed from the unions of the different varnas in succeeding generations:
Figure 1: Varna-Jati Relationship Prior to British Intervention
One can easily observe that over thousands of years, over many generations, and countless combinations resulting in thousands of different jatis, there was no way to create a definitive hierarchical order of jatis in pre-British Indian society. This indeed was the case, where the fluidity of movement between jatis and fluidity of jati status existed. Kane further describes this fluidity when he writes “Therefore, it must be admitted that the …social status of the several castes [ie. jatis] might have varied from country to country or from epoch to epoch…” (Sharma 130). Although there was jockeying for position within the larger society by the various jatis, there was no authority that dictated a jati’s social position.
However, the situation drastically changed when the British gained power in India and they socially engineered the creation of the modern caste system. Sharma describes how the British administrators chose to think of the jatis as being contained within the varnas, as shown in the figure below:
Figure 2: Varna-Jati Relationship After British Intervention
Using the British methodology, each jati now had to understand itself in relation to the varnas. With a clear hierarchical structure, it was in each jati’s interest to be viewed as high as possible in the pyramid. Force-fitting the entirety of Indian society into a neat pyramid satisfied the British thirst for order and categorization, resulting in what they called the “caste system.”
In their article, Walby and Haan describe how nineteenth-century Europeans felt a need to make sense of the world by classifying everything neatly into categories and then ordering them. Foucault proposed the creation of hierarchical taxonomies that would allow scholars to produce “truth,” or to reach conclusions about populations under study.
The problem was that in India, many British census takers and data compilers ran into great difficulties when it came to reaching a neatly categorized and hierarchical view of nationwide caste data. During the British censuses of India, “…many people were reported to not know their caste, to claim they had no caste, or to provide a caste name to enumerators [census takers] when they should not have had one (as was the case for Christians and Muslims)” (Walby & Haan 304). They further describe that one of the ways for census takers to overcome these difficulties was “often through fudging the process” (304). Another commonly employed tactic, of which there is much evidence, is that castes were frequently fabricated. By doing so, British census takers and administrators not only created a new pecking order for the vast diversity of jatis in Indian society, but they also fossilized this pecking order in official government publications with the completion of each census.
What before British rule had been an informal and fluid system of families and clans moving between different varnas and even jatis was hardened, with social hierarchy given official sanction by the colonizers. There are countless examples of jatis appealing to British officials to reassign their community to a higher status. These officials, and their census publications, became the ultimate judge of a jati’s stature in society.
ML Middleton, Superintendent of the Government of India, wrote the following in the 1911 census: “…we pigeon-holed everyone by castes and if we could not find a true caste for them labeled them with the name of a hereditary occupation…we are largely responsible for the [caste] system which we deplore.” (343)
Middleton further went on to speculate as to what may have happened if the British had not extensively tinkered with the indigenous system: “Left to themselves, such castes…would rapidly disappear and no one would suffer. The large number of people who have refused to record any caste at this census is a sign of progress and the breaking of customary bonds..[the British] Government’s passion for labels and pigeon-holes has led to a crystallization of the caste system, which, except amongst the aristocratic castes was really very fluid under indigenous rule” (343).
Aside from the European preoccupation with hierarchical categorization, there was another phenomenon at work that was even more pernicious. It was the nineteenth-century theory of race, which used pseudo-science in the form of anthropometric measurements to pin each race into a hierarchical order. Europeans considered the white race to be the most superior of the races, and they used this racial theory to justify the colonization and exploitation of other races around the world. In regards to the caste system, H.H. Risley reformulated caste along racial lines when he architected the 1901 Census of India. “Risley argued that caste was a system of social precedence deriving from a race-based hierarchy of social life” (Carlan). Risley used two anthropometric ratios to help him determine his social hierarchy based on race. The first was the nasal index, which was the ratio of the height to the width of the nose. The second was the cephalic index, which was the ratio of the length to the width of the head.
The British concoction of the modern caste system in India would change India forever, dividing its population against itself. Artificial racial boundaries of “Aryan” (ie. light-skinned) and “Dravidian” (ie. dark-skinned) were imposed on the native population, creating and shaping political movements that otherwise would never have existed. In addition to these effects, the modern caste system provided the British with yet another tool: the ability to deride Hinduism as the source of caste inequality and to position Christianity as a better alternative. Even though the caste system exists in other Indian religious communities such as Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam, the British successfully perpetrated the “casteism in Hinduism” trope throughout the West, leaving this as another marker of their colonial legacy.
That is why in Social Studies textbooks today, the lens of caste is simplistically used to explain almost everything about Hinduism and Indian history: “What gave Indian civilization a recognizable identity and character was…a unique social organization, the caste system” (Strayer and Nelson 125). The same book later claims that the caste system prevented pan-India empires from surviving for any length of time. The book’s obsession with caste is evident throughout its coverage of India and Hinduism, eventually tying a person’s caste to their spiritual progress. The authors neglect to discuss any Hindu saints who belonged to the so-called lower castes. And not once is there any mention of the British intervention that produced the caste system as we know it today.
As another example, another textbook states that “…the caste system continued to serve as the most powerful organizing feature of Indian society” (Bentley, et al 318). A few pages later, this statement appears: “Caste distinctions first became prominent in northern India following [white] Aryan migrations into the subcontinent” (323). Thus, the book successfully promotes the superimposition of race onto caste, as envisioned by Risley and others over a hundred years ago. The false association between the so-called Aryans, Hinduism, and the caste system is something that is still pervasive in modern textbooks, an anachronism that has managed to outlive British rule in India.
Books such as these are not purveyors of World History or World Cultures. They are purveyors of Hinduphobia.
Textbooks such as these come with real-world consequences. When the caste system is falsely tied to Hinduism as one of its defining characteristics, entire generations of Americans, both Hindus, and non-Hindus, walk out of the classroom with ingrained prejudices. The Hindu American Foundation published a report concluding that there is “a correlation between the intensity with which a school’s Hinduism unit focuses on caste and the likelihood both that the child will perceive that Hinduism has been taught negatively and that she/he will be bullied for her/his faith…” (HAF 6). The report goes on to suggest that when “an intense curricular focus on caste creates and reinforces a view of Hindu beliefs as uniquely repellant, it is the curriculum itself that needs to be reexamined” (6).
In conclusion, we find the lived reality of Hindu Americans to be at odds with the artificial reality found in Social Studies textbooks. No Hindu temple teaches its congregation about caste or any kind of social hierarchy. Many Hindu American children are not even aware of their caste affiliation. The colonial-era narrative that persists to this day in American textbooks insists that the hierarchical caste system is a fundamental part of Hinduism. This essay has attempted to point out that nothing could be further from the truth. With that being said, caste-based discrimination found in all of the religious communities in India must be eliminated because it is a social evil. When it comes to Hinduism, there is no room for this discrimination, or for any type of discrimination, in a faith community that recognizes each human being as divine. It is time for the narrative around caste and Hinduism to be rectified, especially in Social Studies textbooks for American students.
This article is an adaptation of a term paper required for the course “Reconstructing Hindu History: The Commissions,” taught by Dr. Raj Vedam.
Anonymous. Las Castas. 19th century. Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casta. Accessed 6 June 2021.
Bentley, Jerry H., et al. Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, UPDATED AP Edition. 6th ed., McGraw Hill, 2020.
Carlan, Hannah. “Sir Herbert Hope Risley.” southasia.ucla.edu/history-politics/colonialepistemologies/sir- herbert-hope-risley/. Accessed 8 June 2021.
Guha, Sumit. “What Did Europeans Contribute to the Caste System in India?” www.jhiblog.org/2018/05/30/what-did-europeans-contribute-to-the-caste-system-in-india. Accessed 6 June 2021.
Hindu American Foundation. “Caste in the Curriculum & the Bullying of Hindu Students: Secondary Analysis of Survey Results.” www.hinduamerican.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/HAFN_16_018- CasteInCurriculumReport_r2_0.pdf. Accessed 5 June 2021.
Middleton, L. and S.M. Jacob. Census of India, 1921. Volume XV, Punjab, and Delhi, Part 1. Civil and Military Gazette, 1923.
Sharma, Arvind. The Ruler’s Gaze: A Study of British Rule over India from a Saidian Perspective. HarperCollins Publishers India, 2017.
Stearns, Peter N., et al. World Civilizations: The Global Experience Since 1200, AP Edition. 8th ed., Pearson, 2020.
Strayer, Robert W., and Eric W. Nelson. Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources. 4th ed., Bedford, Freeman & Worth, 2020.
Walby, Kevin and Michael Haan. “Caste Confusion and Census Enumeration in Colonial India, 1871–1921.” Histoire Sociale/Social History, vol. 45, no. 90, 2012, pp. 301–318., doi:10.1353/his.2012.0026.
Tags: Hindu Studies, Hindu Americans, Society, Academia, Indology, Religious Studies, Humanities, Caste, Social Studies, Middle School, High School, School Textbooks