India is a vibrant and fascinating country and one that frequently pushes foreigners far outside of their comfort zone.
One of the aspects of Indian life that many foreigners find hard to get used to is the prevalence of hierarchy that affects every part of life in this intriguing country. Of course, India is not unique in using hierarchy to assign values and order, but for an outsider, the way it is done can result in a real culture shock. For Indians, it is the norm, and they will happily explain it, but to express any criticism is considered disrespectful. Therefore, it is well worth gaining some prior insight into class, caste and hierarchy in India.
Hierarchy in families
The hierarchical structure is first learned within the family unit. Men will ‘rank’ higher than women of similar ages, older relatives hold a higher position than younger members of the family, younger siblings hold a lower position than older ones and daughters-in-law come below the husband, senior in-laws and non in-law daughters.
The respect that a family member shows a higher-standing relative is characterised by language, specifically, the way family members are addressed. Members of the family are often not addressed by name, but by certain terms. For example, a wife may refer to her husband as ‘daddy’ or a similar term and a child will frequently address an elder as uncle or aunty even when they are not related.
When talking about hierarchy in India, one must include the social grouping referred to as ‘caste’.
Initially a Hindu creation, castes (or varnas) concerned groups who were given a ranking according to their social standing and occupation.
Originally, there were four Castes – Brahmins/priests, Kshatriyas/rulers, Vaishyas/merchants or farmers, and Shudras/artisans or servants.
Though originally a Hindu concept, the caste system was adopted across all of India and thousands more caste and sub-caste groups were established. The criteria for belonging to a particular caste group became diverse and could concern anything from name to skin colour.
The Abolition of the Caste System
Officially, the caste system was abolished in 1947, when India gained independence, but the reality is that the ideals and perceptions remain prevalent in Indian life today. The degree of prevalence tends to be dependent on the region of India. However, though the caste system is still very much alive, there have been vast improvements for the lower caste groups, who were previously at a significant disadvantage when it came to education and vocation. This is an especially welcome development for those who found themselves at the very bottom of the caste system – the Dalits.
Dalits were associated with ‘impure’ occupations, such as butchering or cleaning sewers. As such, they were considered to be ‘polluted’ and for anyone outside of Dalit status to interact with them was considered to be polluting to that individual. Accordingly, Dalits were extremely segregated, not being allowed into villages, temples or schools.
In modern India, thanks to the implementation of many laws and initiatives, the socio-economic status of much of its Dalit population has improved, though more so in urbanised areas. In 1997, India even elected its first Dalit president, K. R. Narayanan – a massive step forward for the Dalit population.
Predictably, class in India is predicated upon caste. There are three main classes – forward, backward and Dalit. Accordingly, the higher classes correspond with the higher castes and generally have access to better and more numerous options than the other classes.
India’s class divide has long been characterised by a huge wealth divide between the upper and lower, with little in-between. However, the economic landscape is changing for India, and more and more people are beginning to occupy the ‘middle’. Great news for both the class and caste system, and indeed, India.
Business relationships are also created and maintained with long-established hierarchies.
Indians assign a lot of value to pleasing their superiors within the work environment. Those in positions of authority are shown the utmost respect, never challenged (even if wrong) and are always obeyed. Treating everyone as an equal, as is common in the West, is not the norm in India.
Business culture in India is often said to be a ‘shame-based’ one. In the West, if an employee makes a mistake, it may well be talked about, explained and even learned from. In India, this is not the case. Mistakes are not to be made at any time and if one does occur, it is not to have any attention drawn to it, but rather it is to be downplayed and covered up as quickly as possible.
To those not accustomed to it, the hierarchical culture of India can present a view of the country that is old-fashioned and based almost solely on inequalities. However, it can be said that hierarchy is that which creates and maintains order in Indian society. Spending time in India, one begins to see where the hierarchy works well, such as within family units, and where it needs to be improved or altered, such as the rural Dalits and their status in society.