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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Attenuation of the Caste, System Among Hindus in the Carribean

Note from ROOP MISIR, PhD.
This paper was prepared in April 2000 by my son Anil J. Misir as part of an elective course (Caribbean Thought ) for the baccalaureate degree in Science at the University of Toronto. The course was taught by Professor A. Harrichand Itwaru. Anil has since completed his MD and is currently a Resident at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.


Many Into One Can Go

The Attenuation of the Caste System Among Hindus in the Caribbean

Anil J. Misir


The arrival of Indians in the Caribbean under Indenture began in 1838. Though Indenture ended in 1917, Indians remain a significant minority in the Caribbean, constituting a majority of the population in Guyana, and a plurality of the population in Trinidad. Indians, however, did not remain unchanged in this new environment. Perhaps one of the most notable social changes among Hindus (who constituted the majority of Indian immigrants) was the attenuation of the caste system.

The caste system is a system of social organization in India which has existed since ancient times. In the context of India, the hierarchical caste system has a number of central features. Castes are endogamous (caste members must marry within their caste group); non-commensal with other castes (different castes often do not dine with each other, especially at opposite ends of caste hierarchy), and adhere to certain spatial restrictions regarding “purity” (e.g., different castes in a village setting often have different water wells). Hindu society in India may be divided into a hierarchy of four varnas in the following descending order: Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (servants and labourers). The first three are dvija, or twice born, as they can undergo a second ritual birth. A fifth group consisting of Untouchables fall below the four varnas. Yet varnas are not castes; rather, they are groupings of occupational castes called jatis. It is these occupational groups to which the term “caste” refers. Among Shudras, for example, there may be different endogamous castes of weavers, pottery artisans or launderers. It is important to note that the caste system has been remarkably fluid throughout the history of India and South Asia, with castes constantly rising and falling in social standing, with new religious movements giving rise to new castes and economic change creating new occupational groups which also led to new castes.

Indentureship Forces Changes in Traditional Hinduism

In the Caribbean context, however, this system began to fundamentally break down almost immediately to the extent that it is currently almost non-existent, except for certain peripheral and residual functions. The factors leading to its destruction have occurred as a result of two separate but related groups of forces.

First, the very different social and political conditions that the indentured Indian was subject to worked to radically undermine the basic tenets and economies of the caste system. Secondly, and just as importantly, religious accommodation in the form of a modified and eventually homogenized Hinduism, ensured that the vast majority of Hindus who did emigrate to the Caribbean retained their religion, even as an allegedly fundamental part of it was rendered useless.

The social environment of the Caribbean differed substantially from that that the emigrants left behind. Indeed, the very act of embarkation and the sea voyage from India itself worked to undermine the system since all emigrants were placed in the same conditions, regardless of caste – ritual laws concerning purity and pollution simply could not be observed. The comparative lack of women emigrants also promoted caste attenuation as intermarriage between upper and lower castes, an idea previously unthinkable, was rendered necessary. Finally, the fact that Indians arrived as individuals rather than as families, even as networks of fictive kin were carefully constructed, worked against the retention of caste.

Out of Necessity The Hindu Caste System Adapts

From the very outset, the system of indentureship slowly corroded the system of caste. Every successive stage – the stay at a depot in the hinterland, the wait for embarkation at the metropole, the weeks-long sea voyage, semi-communal life in the ex-slave barracks of the plantation, the capitalist mindset of the cash-cropping plantation management – proved fatal to the maintenance and continuation of the caste system. The idea of ritual pollution, the demarcation of boundaries of commensality; the foundations of caste as the basis of occupational specialization in the village economy its consequent division of labour; caste endogamy – none of these could survive in the harsh alien conditions of the plantation. Indeed, a quote from an Indian immigrant to the South Pacific colony of Fiji typifies the situation of all indentured Indian emigrants:

One old woman told how she had set sail from Calcutta, and all on board had started to cook dinner, each caste with its own hearth. Suddenly a wave rocked the ship, all the cauldrons of food overturned onto the deck together. It was a choice of eating food which had been mixed and polluted, or of going hungry.

Even given these temporary conditions, it is conceivable that caste could have re-formed at a later time had conditions been more favourable. However, other indirect and more powerful forces were at work that prevented this from happening. As early as 1865, a British Guianese newspaper carried an article reporting that a high-caste Hindu had been readmitted into his caste after dining with a pariah, simply by paying $35 to hold a feast for the gods. The influences underlying this profound social shift were related to the fact that the rights and obligations of the immigrants in this new environment were quite alien to the one from which they came.

The traditional village economy, for example, with its specific economic, technological and social relations, was completely irrelevant. The new economy was administered by European managers who simply did not care about caste specifically, and the preservation of Indian ways in general. The assignment of tasks to indentured Indians was given irrespective of caste status and caste prohibitions. Moreover, the type of economic specialization found in the villages from which the indentured Indians were recruited simply did not exist. Men of different castes worked at the same jobs, in the same gangs under the direction of the overseer and were all paid at the same rate. Goods required by the labourers were not produced by other castes, but were instead purchased in the plantation store.

Just as importantly, the political system existing on the plantation bore no relation to the caste system. Overall decisions were made by a European manager and executed by a European overseer. Each overseer was assisted by one or two drivers selected from the labourers, and decisions made by the overseers and drivers had to be obeyed, regardless of the caste of the driver and the field workers. Most plantations also had courts presided over by management officials, who enforced policies relating to social life, settling both private and public disputes. These ranged from disputes between Hindus and Muslims, husbands and wives and the composition of households. Furthermore, labourers were not permitted to form associations to regulate important matters related to their economic and social interests: though there were sporadic strikes and other disputes, there were no panchayats, or caste councils. In later years, however, managers permitted and helped in the formation of religious associations, though the managers retained a close supervisory role.

Thus the caste hierarchy received no support from the plantation social and political environment. Rewards were dispensed based on ability and obedience, rather than caste. Managers did not care for, and had enough power to subvert, parallel hierarchies (such as caste) which would have divided the labourers and made them less efficient. Managers could and did intervene in areas which directly or indirectly affected discipline. Any attempt for a high caste to assert superiority could easily have led to the low caste victim complaining to management about provocation, at which point authority would assert itself.

The Caste System and Endogamy

Equally, and perhaps even more importantly, caste endogamy was destroyed by the relative scarcity of women. Given the nature of the work that indentured Indians were recruited for, it was in the economic interest of plantation managers to recruit young men. At the same time, this obvious need was tempered by the fact that the presence of women and potential wives for their workers would moderate the excesses of a group of largely young, single men. Nevertheless, comparatively few women left India under Indenture. Between 1844 and 1860, colonial regulations required a ratio of 50 women to 100 men; in 1860, no ship could leave harbour without a 50 to 50 ratio; however, from 1860 to 1863 the ratio fell to 25/100, increasing slightly to 33 1/3 to 100 in 1863-65. This was increased once again to 50/100 in 1866. After 1870, the ratio was set to 40/100. It is clear, therefore, that men significantly outnumbered women, a situation that had profound and far-reaching effects on social evolution. Notions of caste superiority were rapidly eroded. Hypogamy among men (“marrying down”) and hypergamy among women (“marrying up”) became common: upper caste men married women of middle or low caste origins. Even Brahmans, who in British Guiana comprised about 2 percent of Indian immigrants, married lower caste women.

This situation was broadly applicable all over the Caribbean. One observer in 1893 Trinidad noted that “Members of the Chattri, Rajput, and Thakur class frequently get married to or form connections with women of a lower class.” Conspicuously, the position of girls was inverted from the situation in India. Another observer in 1889 wrote that among Trinidadian Indians “a person with two or three female children here has very valuable property, because men want wives”. Indeed one aspect of this re-evaluation of daughters was the replacement, at this time, of the institution of dowry with that of bridewealth. Eventually, criteria other than caste, such as economic status, became important considerations which were able to over-ride caste considerations. By the beginning of the twentieth century in Trinidad, for example, caste endogamy constituted a preferred, rather than a prescribed form of marriage. The Caste System was certainly breaking down, or at least adapting.

Given the months-long sea voyage from India to the Caribbean basin, it is clear that Indians who arrived under Indenture were cut off from kin and family ties. This alone might have served to attenuate caste differences, but this factor was further enhanced by the fact that emigrants from a given caste had few representatives in a given location of Indenture. Quite simply, the emigrants were from a very large number of different places, with different caste customs. Given that the nature of caste identities and caste practises varied across India, the social re-consolidation of any institutional framework, as it existed in different parts of India, was simply impossible. For example, in Trinidad in 1879-80, no less than 60 caste groups numbering some 2507 people emigrated, with some castes having as few as two representatives. It is also important to note that a given individual could have many levels of caste affiliation. Someone who was listed under the comparatively popular caste of Ahir, for example, might easily have been from a large number endogamous sub-castes. Indeed the statistics listed above included emigrants from what some scholarly authorities have described as eight separate “caste-regions”, so that there was even further scope for caste fragmentation.

Jahaji Bonds Strenghtened

Cut off from family and caste networks, an interesting social institution developed that cut across caste and even religious lines – that of individuals who came on the same ship being a jahaji or jahajin – a ship-brother or ship-sister. This institution essentially functioned as a fictive kin network, working to overcome the social atomization that many Indians felt upon arrival. This secular and egalitarian concept proved remarkably strong. It symbolized a new start in a new land, embodying the notion that new relationships and attitudes were required in a foreign land. At the same time, it was pragmatic: it ensured the survival of the idea of extended kinship and encouraged a spirit of mutual obligation among those who had travelled on the same ship. Vertovec writes about Trinidad, but the same ideas can be said to hold true for British Guiana, or any other location of indenture:

A deep friendship was forged between diverse individuals (even between Hindus and Muslims) on the voyage to the new country…. Such friends would seek to serve their indenture on the same estates, and to settle near each other after their contracts had expired. Thereafter, they came to treat each other’s families as nata, or fictive kin, with whom marriage was frowned upon (many of these fictive relationships continue to exist between families in Trinidad today). Strong emotional bonds of this sort acted as important foundations for … the creation of shared social and cultural institutions.

Fictive kin thus not only included members of other castes, but members of other religions as well. Even “family” was not of the same caste!

Role of High Caste Brahmins in Facing Challenges to the New Hinduism

These social pressures also served to reinforce another means of change – religious accommodation. The Hinduism practiced in the Caribbean consequently underwent significant changes, which further accelerated the decline of caste. For example, Brahmans, who occupy a privileged position at the apex of the purity/pollution hierarchy of caste, reacted to the actions of aggressive Christian missionaries by inducting lower caste Hindus into the “Great Tradition” of Sanatan Dharma. Hinduism itself became less doctrinaire, and more flexible, adapting itself to the environment. Notably, the egalitarian bhakti current of Hinduism gained ground, stressing a personal, ecstatic relationship with God. Hinduism in the Caribbean context thus became more homogenous and egalitarian which slowly worked against the retention of notions of caste.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of religious change was the reaction of the high-caste Brahmans. Despite the harsh environment, they nevertheless made sure to attend to the spiritual needs of their people. This is perhaps understandable when one considers the monopoly that Brahman pandits had on many aspects of religious scripture in India. They alone could determine auspicious days, determine astrological information, as well as conduct important life cycle rites such as marriages, funerals and the naming of children. Religious continuity was entirely dependent upon their knowledge and effort. Indeed, one of the reasons why Hinduism decayed in Jamaica and other minor areas of indentureship was the comparative lack of Brahman pandits. In major areas of indentureship, Brahmans retained a position of relative privilege, not due to declining notions of caste and ritual purity, but due to their monopoly of priestcraft.

Almost startling is their reaction to the aggressive efforts of the proselytising Christian missionaries. In the face of this threat, the pandits adapted: they visited sugar estates and Indian villages, performing wedding ceremonies, religious readings and other Hindu ceremonies. In a sense, they became parish priests, serving as gurus to individual families and offering counselling on a range of social and secular matters. A measure of their success may be gleaned from the despair of a missionary in British Guiana in 1893 who said that “[the pandits exerted a] pernicious and powerful presence over the people,” and that they tried “their utmost to oppose and set aside the teaching and preaching of the Christian missionaries”.

Indeed a rigid adherence to ancient proscriptive law in the Caribbean in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have been counterproductive. For certainly, a more active and flexible approach to Hinduism was necessary. But perhaps the greatest manifestation of this flexibility was the embracing of the lowest castes to form a corporate pan-Hindu identity. The Chamars, the Dusadhs, the Doms and the Bhangis – all were admitted and encouraged to join the Sanatan Dharma tradition. This “conversion” was by no means one-way, as the lower castes responded with eagerness. As Jayawardena observes:

Since is was a ‘higher class cult’ it was an attraction to the low castes who had traditionally belonged to cults and sects with distinctive gods and rites because they had been excluded…. The redefinition of Hinduism as one religion common to all Indians led to acceptance of Sanatan Dharma by the small groups.

This was perhaps the most momentous and consequential ideological shift of the Brahman pandits. The lowest castes could now have unprecedented access to pandits in their homes. Brahmans would even eat the cooked food of the former untouchable. This was the ultimate symbol of change.

This is all the more striking when one considers the relative numbers of adherents to the various versions of Hinduism that came with the indentured Indians to the Caribbean. Mandelbaum (1966) gives a model of Hinduism in India in which a transcendent complex of universal gods, Sanskrit texts and rituals, dominated by priests of Brahman castes, is differentiated from a pragmatic complex of local gods, Sanskrit texts and rituals, dominated by local gods and low-caste priests. Given that the vast majority of Indian indentured labourers were not Brahman priests, it is reasonable to expect that a syncretic pragmatic complex would have emerged while the transcendent complex atrophied and disappeared. Yet precisely the opposite happened. In Surinam, for example, Hinduism was made Brahmanical by purifying it from “unacceptable” aspects, as for example the offering of cattle to “illness deities”. To counter the popularity of spirit possession, the magical aspects of Brahmanical Hinduism were emphasized. (Interestingly as well, other ethnic groups offered competition for this pragmatic complex, as is shown by the example of the Creole Winti specialist Bonuman.) Thus the higher status Sanatan Dharma version of Hinduism became dominant. This effort, indeed has precedents in India proper, in which context it is known as sanskritization. In the Caribbean context, however, the element of caste underwent a metamprhphosis as well, resulting in the wholesale adoption of very similar versions of Hinduism by all Hindus.

Doctrinal Flexibility Allowed Sanatan Dharma to Flourish

The doctrinal flexibility of Hinduism was also important. In Hinduism there were and are no weighty, immutable dogmas of universal application. Nothing intrinsic to Hinduism prevented a direct, intimate contact from developing between the dvija Brahman priest and the most humble labourer in his thatched hut, or his barrack-room on the plantation. In fact, it was this informal contact that provide the initial principal location for the practise of Hinduism. No mandirs (temples) were needed: neighbours, friends and jahajis attended the ceremonial kathas or Hanuman poojas (often called jhandis), officiated by the Brahman priest in the home of people of all castes. This facilitated religious continuity among the indentured labourers in British Guiana, long before community Hindu temples were constructed. As late as 1955, the anthropologist Elliot Skinner, noted the marginal role of the temple in the practise of Hinduism in a British Guianese village.

… The Hindus do not go at all to the nearest temple, though it is only two miles away. Despite the absence of temples, the presence of the Hindus is revealed by red and white flags flying from tall bamboo poles. These flags are erected during a ceremony called ‘jhandi’, at which a family gives thanks for some special favour they have received through prayers.

The variant of Hinduism practised in the Caribbean setting was flexibly adapted to the environment. It was neither austere, nor excessively metaphysical or philosophical. The pageantry of ritual and the rhythmic music offered respite from the difficulties of life on the plantation. Murtis, the alleged idols so hated by the Christian missionaries, brought the gods into one’s own simple home.

Another religious adaptation involved the emphasis of the bhakti tradition of Hinduism, particularly the Vaishnavite variant (in which the Hindu god Vishnu in his various incarnations is ecstatically worshipped). Brought along by the Northeast Indian emigrants who constituted the bulk of the indentured Indians in the Caribbean, it stressed three principle ideas: egalitarianism over particularistic caste ethics, individualism, and the direct relaxation of the caste system and its associated notions of purity/impurity. These allowed individual Hindus to exist in more personal relationship with their deities: they did not need a ‘pure’ human being to act as their mediator with the divine. Communal worship was stressed, which was particularly important given the low number of representatives from any given caste group. In addition, it encouraged the reading of the Ramayana by laymen, and the collective singing of bhajan (hymns of praise) by the congregation. It further allowed for the expositions of the Bhagavata Purana by pandits.

Sanatan Dharma adapted itself to the spiritual and secular needs of the people. It decreased the pain of separation with the homeland, and facilitated adaptation. Fused with the bhakti tradition, the egalitarian and individualistic cornerstones of the new Hinduism encouraged effort and accomplishment, which was particularly important given the radically different set of economic relations on the capitalistic plantation. Just as importantly, the changed relation between the Brahman pandits (as gurus) and their “parishioners” (an idea directly lifted, to good effect, from the Christian missionaries) strengthened the indentured Indians in their daily struggles. As a result of these various factors, therefore, a more homogenous Hinduism became the faith of all castes. As religion became more egalitarian, often by conscious effort, caste was eroded.

Thus the conditions and responses to Indenture served to rapidly undermine notions of caste. Profound social and political differences resulted in an entirely new set of individual and group relations. Religious accommodation also served to destroy what is often thought of as an integral part of Hinduism, showing it instead to be an unnecessary encumbrance.

Attenuation of Caste

In the modern Caribbean setting, caste has become even more attenuated. Caste no longer functions as a feature which determines social structure nor one that affects social interaction in any significant way. Some authors have termed the lingering effect of caste as one of “a residual aspect of prestige” in which caste is used to create evaluations of self-esteem, or simply as a “social attribute in its own right” sometimes offsetting other social characteristics. For example, a wealthy community leader may be from a Chamar background: he will be respected and admired, but if he should do something to the dislike of the others, the offended parties will resort to verbal abuse concerning his caste. Even so, it is fairly clear that caste is not the potent force it once was.

It is interesting also that legitimization for Brahmans currently takes the form of knowledge of rituals and Sanskritic texts, rather than caste birth. Though currently there is some residual desire among some who consider themselves Brahmans to main caste identity and hierarchy, based on the normative ideals of religious texts, even this truncated notion is disappearing. The question of whether a non-Brahman can become a priest is indeed a hotly debated topic in Trinidad. For the younger generation, as Vertovec pointed out in 1992, even this debate is largely irrelevant:

Most members of younger generations of Indo-Trinidadians, however, have lost practically all concern for caste: although many are still able to identify their caste group or varna, most young people simply shrug and say that caste is in “an ol’ time Indian t’ing”, best forgotten.

The Caribbean has changed Indians who live there in profound ways. In at least this respect, this change may have been for the better.



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Moore, B. Cultural Resistance and Pluralism. Colonial Guyana 1838-1900. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Montreal & Kingston: 1995

Schwartz, B, ed. Caste in Overseas Indian Communities. Chandler Publishing Company, San Francisco: 1967.

Seecharan, C. Tiger in the Stars: The Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana 1919-29. Macmillan Education, Ltd. London: 1997.

Stein, B. A History of India. Blackwell Publishers Limited. Oxford: 1998.

Vertovec, S. Hindu Trinidad. Religion, Ethnicity, and Socio-Economic Change. Macmillan Education, Ltd. London: 1992.


Hazareesingh, K. “The Religion and Culture of Indian Immigrants in Mauritius and the Effect of Social Change.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 8, pp. 241-257, 1965-1966.

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Mangru, B. “Tadjah in British Guiana”. Indo-Caribbean Resistance. Frank Birbalsingh, ed. TSAR. Toronto: 1993

Neihoff, A. “The Survival of Hindu Institutions in an Alien Environment”. The Eastern Anthropologist, Vol 12, No 3, pp 171-185, March-May 1959.

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van der Burg, C., and van der Veer, P. “Pandits, power and profit: religious organization and the construction of identity among Surinamese Hindus.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 9, Number 4, pp514-528, October 1986.

Stein, p.57.
Stein, p.57.
Schwartz, pp. 204-205.
Mangru, p. 20.
Schwartz, p. 51.
Schwartz, p. 52.
Vertovec, p. 62, footnote 10.
Seecharan, p. 40.
Vertovec, p. 99.
Vertovec, p. 103.
Schwartz, p. 122.
Vertovec, p. 97. An interesting point is that the statistics do not differentiate between men and women – perhaps the castes represented by two people were in fact represented by two men.
Vertovec, p. 97-98.
Vertovec, p. 95.
Seecharan, p.39.
Quoted in Seecharan, p.39.
Seecharan, p. 40.
Moore, p. 215.
Seecharan, p. 41.
Seecharan, p. 41.
Quoted in van der Burg, C., and van der Veer, p. 517.
van der Burg, C., and van der Veer, p. 517.
Seecharan, p. 41.
Seecharan, p. 42.
Moore, p. 208.
Seecharan, p. 42.
Vertovec, p. 100.
“Chamar” refers to an untouchable leather tanning caste.
Vertovec, p. 100.
Vertovec, p. 100.

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