It is time to leave ‘caste’ behind 

Vishnu S. Pendyala-

The Indian Caste system has attracted plenty of infamous connotation from times immemorial and particularly recently (”santa+clara+county”+caste). More importantly, it has now entered the agenda of government bodies, such as the Human Rights Commission of Santa Clara County, and education systems such as the California State University’s most recent tentative Collective Bargaining Agreement ( Article 16.1) as covered in the columns of this newspaper as well. It is obvious that more and more entities will take cognizance of caste, which really is a misconstrued concept being carried forward through the ages without giving it much thought.

In the corporate world, employees are stratified into two broad classes, exempt and non-exempt, which are further divided into various levels and grades. This hierarchy helps in administration, defining the roles and responsibilities, and ensures some amount of discipline in the decision-making process. A similar concept is enshrined in the Hindu religion, which categorizes the society into four broad tiers, based on their professions and responsibilities toward the society in general. The hymn from the Vedas (ancient scriptures) from which these four tiers are considered to have originated clearly states that people from all these four tiers are born from the same God. The religion does not seem to advocate any discrimination, nor does it seem to indicate that the tiers be assigned based on lineage. The hymn itself has profound meaning as I’m discovering while explaining it to children (

However, for various reasons, including the fact that Britisher’s strategy in India was to divide and rule, social strata became increasingly predominant. Owing to the natural propensity of children continuing their parents’ profession by virtue of inheriting their genes and expertise, the tier system and the caste system arising from it, became based on lineage. The four tiers are further divided into what the Britishers called as “castes” (originally called “jati”). Each caste roughly maps to a profession. For instance, the fourth tier includes castes for scavengers, shoemakers, sweepers, janitors, and similar such professions. Possibly because these professions were thought to be polluting, the people belonging to these castes found it difficult to integrate into the mainstream and were, for some time considered “untouchables” and from a “lower” caste.

Recognizing untouchability as a social evil, several reformers, including Mahatma Gandhi strived to eradicate the practice. The Indian government enacted laws with stringent criminal provisions to protect this class of people, who are often referred to as “Dalits” (may be incorrectly, or “Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST).” The father of the Indian constitution, Dr. BR Ambedkar, himself was born into an SC/ST family, but later changed his religion to Buddhism, which is not expected to follow the caste system. The Indian caste system originated and is mainly practiced in the Hindu religion. Given the basis of the caste system is a lineage, marriages often happen within the same caste. It is commonly thought that marriages should happen between compatible families and caste is factored into assessing the compatibility. Thus, the caste system continues to perpetuate, although there are indications that it is weakening, particularly in the urban, educated population.

The original sense of caste indicating one’s profession is long gone, with people taking up diverse professions, not just what their parents practice. What remains is the inherited caste label. India’s affirmative action laws provide reservation in education and employment to the underserved castes, including those from SC/ST. A lot has been done to advance their place in society and many of them are now in high positions, commanding high respect. The current President of India, a past president, a past Chief Justice of India, a past president of the current ruling party, a famous music director, sports personalities, poets, entrepreneurs, multiple union ministers and chief ministers of states in the past are all from SC/ST.

Caste, as it is practiced today serves no purpose and does not have a good reason to continue. Giving its undue importance can worsen the situation and cause further rifts. Some evil practices are best allowed to die their natural death. So that humanity is not divided any further, it is imperative that all involved in these divisions that served or still serving ulterior motives come forward to voluntarily give up the man-made divisions. All divisions of humanity – region, religion, gender, are all meant to unite people. None to divide.


[Vishnu S. Pendyala, Ph.D., MBA(Finance) teaches machine learning and other data science courses at San Jose State University. He is an ACM distinguished speaker, book author, and has over two decades of experience in the software industry. Opinions expressed are his own and not that of his employer or any other entity that he is affiliated with.]