Thenmozhi Soundararajan describes caste as secretive. “So much is hidden. So much is unspoken,” she writes in The Trauma of Caste. “There is so much shame, secrecy, complicity. It is taboo held in place by ignorance and violence.” Caste originated in India as a system of organizing people based on birth and hereditary position. As such, it is a category of power, similar to race, gender, class, and religion. Through religion, caste engages with ideas rooted in race as well as class and gender to disempower in ways that range from ridicule to exclusion.
But seeing how caste operates as a category of power is difficult if one is unaware of its imprint on one’s identity. Though the caste system has marked persons of South Asian ancestry across most faiths associated with India and the other nations of South Asia—including Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism—it is explicitly mentioned in Hindu texts. Most South Asians in the United States who grew up in the Hindu faith are caste-privileged or savarna (which means having varna, a term often equated to having spiritual purity). Dalits like Soundararajan are avarna (without varna) and thereby deemed within this system as impure. These categorizations have found legitimacy through the promulgation of a Brahmanical form of Hinduism that shares affinities with the conservative pro-Hindu politics of India’s current leadership. In the United States, the number of avarna is smaller than savarna, and avarna are less visible, particularly outside of South Asian communities.
Dalit activists are now speaking out. It’s important that scholars of religion listen and respond by studying and teaching more about how the caste system’s injustices persist. Because of this, it is also important to ally with Dalit-led efforts to fight caste discrimination as discrimination on the basis of caste difference is an affront to humanity.
For Hindu-identifying individuals such as myself, caste is sensitive, partly because our caste identities make us complicit with the discriminatory treatments that those without caste privilege suffer. In addition, being born and/or brought up in the United States might have meant growing up unaware of what those caste identities meant. These reasons suggest fighting caste discrimination might begin by looking deep into the self. In the paragraphs that follow, I use an autoethnographic approach to unpack how caste has contributed to the sociopolitical shape of the Indian American community of which I’m a part.
I was born in 1962 to Hindu immigrant parents who had left India for the United States a year earlier. As a child, I knew caste existed but little else about it. As I grew older, I became aware of how race, gender, and religion had formed and were informing my identity. Being born into a Hindu family and growing up in a small, predominantly white city in the Midwest where nearly everyone else was Christian made me aware of myself as a non-Christian. Being dark skinned and female, I was conscious of myself as not normative within this social environment.
As a journalist in the 1980s through mid-1990s, I began writing stories about other people’s experiences of racial and religious isolation that were similar to mine. In the process, news about the growing strength of a fundamentalist movement in India seeking to build a Hindu nation caught my attention. The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the movement paralleled disparaging remarks about Muslims I would hear uttered by some Hindu Indians I knew. I was curious as to why these individuals who had been defined in the United States racially and religiously as minorities in a white Christian society would turn against members of a religious minority group who shared their ethnic and national roots. I needed more answers and decided in my mid-thirties to go to graduate school to find them.
I buried myself in books on India’s histories of religions, politics, and British coloniality as well as the histories of Indian immigration to the United States. Over time, my research began to center on how the Hindu nationalist movement in India was drawing support from affluent Hindu Indians in the United States. I didn’t think at all about caste until one of my professors encouraged me to try analyzing its role in shaping the Hindu American identity being formed in efforts to cultivate support for Hindu nationalist projects in India. He could see the influence of caste in how Hindu Americans he knew would welcome some South Asians into community gatherings but exclude others. By then, I was familiar with scholarship on the complex system of caste and its histories of discrimination and violence in India. But texts on Indians and other South Asians in the United States made little mention of caste, beyond noting its presence in marital ads and in the fact that a majority of the South Asian émigrés in the United States were of upper-middle-class and upper-caste backgrounds. In a way, this was not surprising because you had to live within a caste defined world to fully see it. Perhaps because of these scholars’ inattention to caste, I did not see even the marital ads as treating caste in a discriminatory way. Caste seemed more like one preferential quality out of many, not an overt exclusion.
My former professor, though a radical thinker, was a part of the elite Tamil Brahmin caste. I had grown up as a member of a caste that was not Brahmin but was still a part of the four upper castes established in the varna system of the oldest Vedic texts. I had learned this fact about my caste identity as a teen but was unaware of any caste privilege I had experienced or of any widespread caste discrimination that existed in the United States. I worked and socialized mostly with people who were not South Asian and married a man of Swedish and German ancestry. Hence, I did not see the implications of caste difference in the ways that an individual who had grown up in India could, and I acknowledged this point in my 2018 book.
In the early twenty-first century, momentum to fight caste discrimination began to build. A key catalyst in the United States was the 2019 release of the first-ever study of caste discrimination in the United States by Equality Labs, a community-based activist group. At about this time, I responded to an invitation to join a reading group focused on Dalit writers and read memoirs such as Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants and Yashica Dutt’s Coming Out as Dalit, both of which underscored the injustices of caste. I also attended one of Equality Labs’ Unlearning Caste Supremacy workshops, which articulated not only how caste discrimination was occurring in the United States but also how justification for such discriminatory acts had become a part of the Brahmanical Hinduism being promulgated by economically powerful groups aligned with the Hindu nationalist movement in India. I was familiar with this movement’s diasporic ties from my earlier research, but I was not familiar with the markers of caste identity and privilege that the workshop revealed.
Through an overview of Indian history that was offered, I started to see how the Gupta Dynasty, whose history holds my last name, implicates my family’s gotra or kinship line in caste discrimination. The Gupta kings were conquest driven in a way that was particularly violent toward avarna communities. I also saw how caste became entangled with the institutional foundations of the South Asian community in the United States. Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians who began emigrating to the United States in the 1960s were the first Indians, Pakistanis, and other South Asians to do so in significant numbers since the enactment of anti-Indian immigration policies in the early twentieth century. They took advantage of new immigration laws that outlawed racist restrictions and gave preference to those with the education and skills to support the United States post-World War II economy. South Asians from affluent families had these qualities because their social status in their home countries—India, in particular—gave them access to premier educational institutions that the British colonial system had established. Their social status was enabled by their caste privilege.
Caste discrimination was abolished in India in 1948, shortly after independence from the British. The ban on caste discrimination was codified two years later in India’s constitution. Caste-privileged Hindus might have wanted to believe a formal ban on caste discrimination had put an end to caste itself. However, alongside the ban on caste discrimination, the Indian government enacted laws allotting college seats and government jobs to members of the communities who had been denied such opportunities previously. Those policies enabled Dalits and others to achieve the educational attainment and economic success that had previously been accessible primarily to the upper castes. These Dalits and others have been joining the upper-caste dominant South Asian diaspora to the United States in growing numbers. Their activism has started to shatter taboos of speaking about caste.
Many caste-privileged allies of these Dalit-led movements are helping to put political pressure on universities, employers, and local governments to make caste a protected category, alongside race, gender, and sexual orientation. Though these efforts are important, the capability of the caste-privileged to dominate and oppress avarna can continue as long as widespread belief that such behaviors have a religious justification remains. Pushback from groups aligned with the Hindu right is evidence of this, as many such groups claim nondiscrimination on the basis of caste is discrimination because it singles out a particular religious group. Buried in the subtext of such claims is how a Hindu identity is also a caste identity.
Therefore, there is also a need to interrogate what Hinduism is and how its practices have changed in the United States as the numbers of South Asians have increased. We should recall that, like caste, Hinduism is complex. It is much less an organized religion and much more a multitude of many practices, beliefs, and ways of life, as I show in Revealing the Sacred in Hindu America. Scholars of religion who bring Hinduism into their teaching and research need to interrogate texts that condone caste discrimination and place them alongside histories of movements within the faith that sought an end to caste and persist to this day. Those of us who were born into Hindu families need to explore and critique our complicities with caste regardless of what faith, if any, we might now affiliate with. In these ways, we can better address the interconnectedness of being human that lies at the core of religious studies.
Some contend caste-privileged Hindus are afraid to engage in self-criticism. I have found such self-critique insightful. For knowing what Soundararajan calls the secret of caste provides the tools to see caste more clearly and advocate for its abolition.