Unlike in western societies, where the principle of equality of individuals is stressed, in India one man in principle is not equal to the other.
Society is divided up in a hierarchy from high to low and this hierarchy determines a large part of daily life. The various groups are usually called ‘castes’. The subdivision in main castes includes the four varnas. The first varna is the class of priests, the Brahmins. The second varna is made up of nobility and fighters, the ksatriyas. This caste makes up the brunt of the present army, politicians and the police. The third caste is made up of craftsmen and tradesmen, the vaisyas, while the fourth caste consists of the sudras. The fourth varna’s task is to serve the other three. It is mostly the great mass of farmers belonging to this class. Apart from these four groups there is also the group of avarnas, the so-called outcastes.
These ‘untouchables’ are considered to be highly unclean, the dregs of society. They have to do the foulest jobs, such as cleaning toilets and streets. All professions that have to do with blood (butchers, even midwives) and death (cremators, leather workers) may only be exercised by outcasts. The untouchables are a very important part of Indian society. In the course of history, forward-thinking philosophers have condemned the caste system time and time again and of course they found supporters among this very group. In our time, Mahatma Gandhi has been so valiant to fight for the abolition of the caste system and he called the untouchables ‘harijanes’, children of god. Officially, the castes have now been abolished under the constitution and discrimination as to caste is forbidden. However, in practice it turns out that a system which has ruled society for over 3000 years cannot be eradicated in one or two generations.
Caste rules are most specific in three areas. In the first place, they rule the choice of a marriage partner. Castes are endogamous, meaning caste members marry only within their own caste. Secondly, professions are made up of the same caste. Thirdly, in theory it is not allowed to eat with non-caste members. The subdivision in castes has everything to do with the beliefs about the cleanliness of a caste. Many Indians believe that uncleanliness can be passed on by eating together. It is permitted to eat food prepared by someone from a higher caste; however, eating food that was prepared by someone from a lower caste leads to uncleanliness. Hence, Brahmins are very sought-after cooks, as food prepared by them is acceptable for anyone. There is also food which is never unclean, whoever prepared it. This applies to nuts, betel leaves and fruit. These can be accepted from anyone. Indians recognize each other’s caste by physical features or by language.