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When I was in ninth grade, my classmates were introduced to Hinduism and some basic Hindu tenets in our Global Studies class. One of the first things that we covered was the concept of the caste system. There were the brahmins (priests) at the top, followed by the kshatriyas (warriors), then the vaishyas (merchants), and sudras (unskilled workers). Absent from the hierarchy were the untouchables. It had always been my understanding that caste was a birthright. One was born into a certain caste based on their past karma (fruits of their actions). The hereditary quality of caste, like eye color and skin tone, seemed indisputable. If my parents were one caste, then I would be of the same caste. Hence, at the time, marrying within the same caste made complete sense.
I read this article recently in the New York Times, detailing the honor killing of a Brahmin girl in Northern India who was secretly engaged to someone from a lower caste. The parents had apparently feared, “…ostracism, and accused her of defiling their religion.” She was 22 years old when she was found dead, and was apparently pregnant. While the argument from the family’s side is that she committed suicide, it is hard not to believe that she died at the hands of her family. I can’t seriously believe her fiancé could have posed a serious threat aside from being a threat to questionable ideals and the pride that the family derived from adhering to those ideals.
My discontent with the caste system as it exists today probably started with my most recent trip to India. I was about to head off to college, and was visiting India partly to pray at some of the temples. One of the temples I visited was a small temple in Ernakulam devoted to Devi (the female embodiment of divinity). We had gone to perform a puja (ritual offering) in honor of one of the manifestations of Devi, Saraswati (the goddess of learning). The priest was unsurprisingly, a brahmin. My experience with priests here in the U.S. has always been positive; they have always been very friendly and interacted with us as though we were family. Yet this priest, nice as he was, would not permit us to touch his feet as a sign of respect, nor accidentally touch his hands when he gave us prasadam (food sanctified by having offered it to the deity). Even Nairs (at least in the old days…maybe even now in some rural parts of Kerala) had a physical hierarchy, where the castes are segregated to some extent, intermingling only as much as necessary. That never seemed right to me. While we set ourselves apart from each other with these supposedly hereditary castes, I’m pretty sure there are people in each caste who may not necessarily fit what it means to be from that caste, whether that means they rise above the defining characteristics or fall well below the cultural expectations.
To my knowledge, there is no scriptural basis for the theory that caste is hereditary. In the Bhagavad Gita, there is the following verse:
sudranam ca parantapa
Brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras are distinguished by their qualities of work, O chastiser of the enemy, in accordance with the modes of nature.
(Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Chapter 18, Verse 41)
The next few verses delineate the qualities of each level of the caste system, without any reference to family or lineage as a deciding factor. The son of a sudra is not necessarily a sudra just because he is born to one. The same is true for other castes. It’s like saying the son of a doctor is a doctor too…ok well some parents may actually believe that one.
Unfortunately, caste still exists as a rigid, unchanging system where mobility is not an option. Intermingling among castes, while accepted nowadays in most contexts (more or less), romantic relationships still remain taboo. It is truly unfortunate and deplorable when parents react so harshly (and sometimes violently) in the face of an intercaste union. It is equally deplorable that, while people do interact across caste boundaries, some still hold on to the antiquated sense of superiority of inferiority supposedly conferred by caste. I really do hope this changes, it just seems like the product of centuries of misinterpretation and an intrinsic need to create a sense of “us” versus “them”. Once we move past those terms and realize that we are all in this together, and that we must do what we can to elevate each other socially and spiritually, then only can we make real progress.
So I’m Malayalee, but more specifically, I’m a Nair. Nairs are one of the many castes in Kerala, and were traditionally warriors and rulers, so something a la “kshatriyas” for those more familiar with that term. This is meant to be an informal, yet informative piece. It’s based on my own understanding, what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read from various sources.
By the way…as a sidenote, we are not in any way associated with the hair-removal product of the same name. In fact, Nair isn’t even pronounced the same way. Nair, the caste, is pronounced “na-yer.” “Na” as it sounds in “narwhal” and “yer” as it sounds in…yer… Please get this straight, I can’t tell you how irritating it is when people mispronounce it. Of course, I’m not assuming people are born with the innate sense of how to pronounce “Nair.” Now you know.
Nairs themselves can be subdivided into a whole host of subcastes. For the life of me I don’t know the differences between all of them, but there are at least four or five I can name off-hand. Nair, Kurup, Menon, Pillai, Nambiar, Panicker, and Paliath, to name a few. Nairs have, traditionally, held a pretty prominent place in Malayalee society. Sometimes a bit too prominent, and this gets into the whole mess of caste discrimination.
The most curious aspect of Nairs, I think, are their origins. I don’t mean mythological, though from what I understand, the claim is that they were from the North and fled to the South to escape Parashurama. However, perhaps even more interesting than that, is their ethnic origins. While there is one school of thought that claims that Nairs are most likely descended from the Newars (from Nepal/Tibet)–owing mostly to the presence of pagoda-like motifs in traditional Nair homes and temples–there are others that claim alternate origins. A friend of mine sent me an article a while back, the citation is below:
Thomas R, Nair SB, Banerjee M. A crypto-Dravidian origin for the nontribal communities of South India based on human leukocyte antigen class I diversity. Tissue Antigens. 2006; 68(3): 225-234
This article analyzes a set of South Indian nontribal and tribal groups to determine their similarity to other ethnic groups. For Nairs, what was found was that according to the analysis of HLA Class I haplotypes was that, Nairs were most similar to Western Europeans. I am incredibly curious to know if any migration theories exist for this postulation. Another existing theory places Nairs under the same umbrella as other supposed Indo-Scythian descendants (Pashtuns, Jats, Rajputs, etc.). Indo-Scythians spent most of their heydey in the region from present-day southern Afghanistan to around present-day Mathura, in northern India. This ties in weakly with the mythological origin of the Nairs having Northern ancestry.
I suppose if Nairs are related to Jats, that justifies my love for bhangra…right? Maybe? Ok, I’m getting off topic.
Nairs have their own martial arts system, known as kalaripayattu (color-ee-pie-yettu). It is most notably a form of swordfighting, but it does incorporate hand-to-hand combat as well. It is an incredibly elegant system of fighting (note: the fighters may look wiry but they are fast!). There has been speculation that kalaripayattu found its way into East Asia, by way of Bodhidharma–a Buddhist monk supposedly from Kerala–and this gave rise to the modern system of kung fu. Again, just speculation…but it would be pretty cool if someone definitively proved this to be the case.
Nairs were (and to a degree still are), notably, matrilineal. This is a rarity in most of the world, let alone India, where patrilineal societies are still the norm. Indeed even among Nairs, this has taken root. Yet it used to be that the women, not the men, were the real power-wielders in the household. Women were the property owners and family heads, though men were the legal heads of household in some cases.
Nairs have also had an enduring tradition of snake worship. I actually don’t understand the nuances of this, aside from the fact that most Nair households in Kerala had a sarpa kaavu on their property for the worship of snakes. The tradition fits in alongside traditional Hindu practice, but I believe this may be something that even predates Hinduism in the area.
If anyone else happens to have some cool/interesting Nair facts, or other information related to what I’ve presented here, feel free to comment.