Caste, California and Confusion

For many, India is about Caste, Cows and Curry— a phrase first used by Rajiv Malhotra, to portray misunderstood and misinterpreted socioeconomic issues as judged by the western world. For California, caste is a confusing gift that keeps on giving. First, it was the California Department of Education (CDE) tryst in court with the Hindu community, the eventually resulted in revising it’s history framework in 2016, correcting colonial narratives on India related topics including caste. Now, it is the turn of California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (CDFEH) using a labor discrimination lawsuit against Cisco and two of its managers, alleging it was based on caste as a Hindu religious concept, upon ‘information and belief’. The petition first filed in a US federal court was withdrawn and refiled in a California state court.

Clearly, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, perhaps intentionally — yet it becomes necessary to clarify why the state of California is confused about caste.

Court Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Caste System is of European Origin

It is settled that Caste system is of European origin. When Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions converted native populations in Africa and South America into Christian belief, it wasn’t easy to accept mixing between the ‘pure’ fair-skinned and dark-skinned new converts, though they were all children of one God. So the Europeans created the Casta System, as a rigid, hierarchical racial classification to control marriages, and other obsessions such as lineage and purity of blood. Here is the excerpt from the California History Framework:

When Europeans began to visit India in modern times, they used the word “caste” to characterize the social system because of the sharp separation they perceived between groups who did not intermarry and thus did not mix with each other.

Casta Syatem: Source: Wikimedia Commons

The CDFEH petition itself cites a survey report, which also concedes the word caste is of European origin -— excerpt from the report is below:

The word “Caste” itself stems from the Spanish and Portuguese “casta”, which means “race, lineage, or breed.” It was applied by white colonials during the 17th century C.E. to refer to the system of social codification they witnessed existing in South Asia.

In short, caste is an inaccurate word to describe the classifications that existed in the ancient Indian society. There is no racial, no rigid and no hierarchical system comparable to casta. At a minimum, California should get the terminology correct on an important discrimination case placed before a court, rather than continue with an inaccurate historic mapping of racial obsessions.

Caste mixes up Varna and Jati

It is important to clarify that Caste actually mixes up two distinct Indian models, varna and jAti, prevalent for centuries in the Indian society. Each is described below, so it would be easy to see why caste is confusing the two — and why both aren’t quite ordained “systems”.

The previous article described the Hindu or Indian civilizational evolution of Arya and Dasyu during Vedic times — from hunter-gatherer to village/farming lifestyle. The Arya population organized themselves and evolved within the villages. Rig veda and Bhagvad Gita outline a varna model, that served the Arya society very well.

Independent of varna, the Indian civilization through the centuries of evolution, also formed groups called jAti, each of which evolved in myriad ways — jAti is not mentioned in Hindu texts and hence, not of religious origin. Last names from A to Z, such as Agrawal, Goel, Iyer, Nair, Shetty or Verma may suggest a jAti, and by dead-habit presumed to map to a varna, but neither the word jAti nor such last names are mentioned in vedic texts.

Varna — Four-Pillar model for separation of powers

Varna is indeed defined in the Hindu religious texts, as a natural reality and to benefit society — not as a “system”, and definitely with no intent to discriminate. The following verse from Bhagvad Gita (4.13) is a center-piece on varna:

chAtur varnyam mayA srushtam guna karma vibhAgasah

tasya kartAram api mAm viddhy akartAram avyayam

The first line of the verse essentially says there are four types of people, split along the lines of guna or instinctive qualities of a person and karma, action or occupation that brings out the true colors of the person. Clearly, if the person does not have an opportunity to act out their skills, possessing is rather useless — so guna and karma go together in some proportion. Varna literally means color, as in type — it is a division, but not as four classes which would incorrectly suggest an hierarchical classification.

Bhagvad Gita: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guna is also defined in Bhagvad Gita through a few verses, as three-fold: rajas (ambitious), sAtvik (balanced) and tamas (inert). An individual with a predominantly balanced mind is a brAhmana (or brahmin, in English); an individual that shows strong ambition to be a political or military leader, with a bit of balanced mind, is a kshatriya; an individual largely inert towards knowledge or power, but does have an ambition towards building wealth is a vaishya; other common people that are mostly inert with no ambition are shudra.

Nowhere does it say that varna is based on birth. In fact, Bhagvad Gita takes so much effort to explain guna, and not use the word janma (birth). It is usually argued that individuals inherit instinctive qualities from parents, but the point easily missed is that it is never 100% of parents’ DNA — there could be a dormant DNA that found its way from another ancestor that passed through. That makes it hereditary but not by birth — meaning varna does not default to the parents’ varna.

Varna: Not a Pyramid but Pillar Model

Varna is based on baseline and advanced skills to groom the best talent for the benefit the society, and the delineation was for separation of powers towards good governance. There is no language to suggest high and low varna either. Somewhat parallel is the modern legislature, executive and judiciary setup from the separation of powers point of view. In any case, the pillar model has been twisted into a presumptive hierarchical pyramid model to fit colonial and missionary narratives.

It is also important to note that this is a division based on qualities happens by nature — the second line of the verse quoted above does clarify that Krishna, symbolizing natural governance or a sub-atomic force that rules all matter, is disinterested in such an exercise. Do atoms care whether they are combining to form oxygen or nitrogen molecule? But they do, or the world wouldn’t exist as we know it. In other words, varna is not a system ordained by humans — neither brahmins nor the Hindu kings are responsible for such classification that is just a natural reality.

Normally, this latter part of the verse is ignored in translations or citations when driving an agenda to show that the Hindu text creates an intentionally divisive classification.

Au contraire, Bhagvad Gita also says ‘panditah sama darshinah’ (5.18), meaning a learned person treats everyone equally, regardless if the individual is a brahmin or even a dog-eater. It implores humans to attain that level of learning. The California History Framework captures it thus:

Ancient Hindu sages (brahmins and others) expounded the idea of the oneness of all living things and of Brahman as the divine principle of being.

Bhagvad Gita (18.40) also says no human in this world is free of the three guna , implying that these four types of people will exist in any society. In reality, however, societies may pretend that such a classification does not exist. In fact, this pretense is actually an issue with much of the world today obsessed with the idea that everyone is equally qualified for everything — it is possible to teach ethics, but not honesty; it is possible to provide arms training, but not valor; it is possible to get a business degree, but not business acumen. The end-result is the society cannot easily identify the truly trusted talent for the job at hand.

Only when instinctive qualities are given attention and developed from elementary or middle school, it is possible to tell who can be trusted for honesty, valor, business-acumen — it is important to catch them young and nurture their qualities! In varna model, children who showed any of the brahmana, kshatriya or vaishya qualities were considered a dvijA (twice-born) and their skills developed further for the benefit of entire society, not for enriching themselves. This could have become a ‘Like father, like son’ default over generations. However, it should be clear that the original intent of varna as defined in the vedic texts was not an automatic birth-based division, nor a rigid, racial, hierarchical or discriminatory “system” like casta.

Vedas. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rig veda, and a later text Manusmriti, originally called manava dharma shastra, also mention the four varnas, and that they emerged from the purusha, a gigantic human being, as a metaphor that models the primordial universal matter which gives rise to all life. It says things like Brahmin came from the purusha’s mouth (speaking skills needed for surviving with knowledge), kshatriya from shoulders (power and war involves muscles), vaishyas from stomach (hungry for wealth) and shudra from feet (common people close to the ground doing farming). However, this has been misinterpreted as if it is a standing human being, and since mouth is the highest, brahmin is highest, followed by kshatriya, vaishya and shudra in that corresponding order of organ mapping. What if the purusha is lying down? Should that be interpreted in some modulating order? The metaphorical verses also say a thousand cows emerged from the eyes of the purusha — the misinterpretations ignore that, probably because it’s inconvenient to label cows as superior to humans. If the court agrees with the mis-interpretations about caste, curry-favored by the state, then it could be extended to legally establish that cows are superior class to humans — perhaps, labeling humans into one jAti called YaMoos (like the YaHoos of Gulliver’s Travels fame) and giving Caste, Cows and Curry a new meaning!

Further, Manusmriti was never known to have been adopted by any king. It actually became popular only after the British East India company ( colonial government) took control of administration in India — they adopted sharia for Muslims, and someone suggested Manusmriti as such a single law book for the Hindus, who were actually self-organized in thousands of jAti groups! The colonial government was also responsible for mapping the thousands of jAti groups into four varna-s, and drew up the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe (SC/ST) list of communities — thus creating the wrong mix of religious and non-religious models!

jAti— socio-economic evolution of groups

jAti came about due to socioeconomic evolution of thousands of groups, based on food habits, marriage customs, occupation and other factors. The jAti system was neither rigid, racial, hierarchical, nor had any of the other obsessions associated with casta.

jAti is fluid and mobile, unlike casta. Ancient jAtis have disappeared as they morphed over centuries, new jAtis have appeared, and sometimes jAtis merge or split over time. This again is due to socioeconomic reasons, as fortunes, occupations, habits, locations and customs change with time and political environment. Through the centuries, jAti was a strength to individuals and families by providing what Professor Vaidyanathan calls as social capital — stability by way of hereditary occupations, social security through community funding, and risk-free debt financing from friends and family belonging to the same jati. In contrast, western world throws a challenge in landing a first job, relies on centralized social security system and a credit score based debt financing — no reason to think jAti is an inferior or nefarious model.

Human Transitions including Hindu/Indian Civilizations

Just as the hunter-gatherer to village/farming lifestyle transition, the Indian society has been making a transition into industrial lifestyle, over the last couple of hundred years. Some jAtis that have been in knowledge-centric occupations, have been quick to transition when the colonial administration introduced railways, post offices, schools and modern court systems and did very well financially. The colonial government’s exorbitant taxation also pushed some jAtis into penury overnight and changed their lives forever — they lost rights to their land and many were even forced to accept bonded labor overseas in far off places like South Africa and Carribean. Thus, inequality was exacerbated during colonial rule, causing much of the disparity that is seen even today. Clearly, this is due to political and socioeconomic causes and not religion.

As industrial economy grows worldwide, and many other jAtis continue to transition generation after generation, it can be fairly expected that any remaining or perceived discrimination will eventually go away — the state will do well do focus on growing the economy rather than embrace divisive narratives.

jAti carries over to other religions as well. The CFEH petition itself cites a report, which also concedes this as well. Even honor killings among jAtis have been carried over to other religions, as this case would show — a Christian with origin from one of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) jAti killed just two days after marriage to a ‘Latin Christian’ girl belonging to a different jAti. Despite being a large converted catholic population, sparingly few SC/ST Christians are appointed as bishops. Usually, this is attributed again to the Hindu origin of the converts, but that can only refer to Hindu society or Hindu civilization, and not Hindu religion, as jAti isn’t mentioned in Hindu texts. Rather, this should be yet another proof that Hindu religion, which preaches ahimsa paramo dharma (non-violence towards weaker beings is a superior value) as a key practice and beseeches followers to foster universal peace (vishva shanthi), isn’t the underlying reason for jAti based discrimination. Clearly, socioeconomic and political causes drive the behavior and there is no “system”, ordained religiously or otherwise.


Owing these big differences in varna and jAti, the term caste is not only inaccurate to describe them, it is also a confusing term — it is always unclear whether the term is being used to refer to varna or jati. Since only varna is in religious texts, clearly defined in non-discriminatory, non-hierarchical language, it also wrongly associates caste with the Hindu religion. Mapping jAti or last-names to varna has no religious basis either.

The state of California has been a pioneer in leading progressive change for humanity. Starting from civil rights movement in the 1960s, no-fault divorce in the 1970s, all the way to LGBT rights in the new millennium, the state has drove change that has shaped the whole country. However, the state still moves at snail’s pace in decades, rather than silicon valley Internet speed when it comes to understanding Hindu perspectives — learning right would actually help rather than hurt humanity. Just when the education department began to see reason and correct some of the colonial views on Ancient India and Hinduism in its history framework, the fair employment department embarks on another misadventure based on misinformation and confusion about Hindu religious texts, Hindu (or Indian) civilization, and Hindu (or Indian) society’s socioeconomic evolution.

The state’s intent towards fixing workplace discrimination may be commendable, but the approach in wrongly attributing to Hindu religious origin towards this purpose is condemnable. Such an approach would be intellectually dishonest, regressive and counter-productive in the long run — a good time to recall history and rethink what happened to the western world with fake Aryan race theory! In Vedic parlance, dharmO rakshati rakshitah — a value system protects those who nurture it.

The Hindu American Foundation has rightly filed a motion to intervene in the case, in my opinion.

matirmama means ‘my opinion’ in Sanskrit. My opinions to influence open minds — together we drive the highest values.