Saturday, October 22, 2011

Name Post: The Consequence of Caste

It doesn’t take long to realize that a lot of daily life in India is organized by hierarchy. From the many different classes you have the option of taking on trains, to the seemingly countless different jobs people fulfill in restaurants here, to the interactions between professors and their secretaries that I’ve noticed as I do my research (of most interest to me is that several times now I’ve seen professors get out a water bottle to drink, but then wait for their secretary to pour it into a glass for them).

I think that some of this multiplicity and hierarchy is due to the fact that India is such a populous country. A LOT of people need jobs here and Indian society is set up to give them that. But this society is also clearly still operating on some lingering remnants of the caste system. And although there are many people leading social reforms to remedy some of this inequality (for example, I only recently found out that there’s a system in the Indian government that’s akin to affirmative action where they keep record of people’s castes and sub-castes in order to promote positive discrimination for education and jobs), like most kinds of social change, it’s a slow process. Habits are hard to break.

A lot of this hierarchy goes unsaid, which is why in India I’m often unaware when I’m breaking social taboos. It is also the reason why, despite a month of doing research here, before today, I had no idea how hierarchal names in India were.

I met with Dr. Thamilarasan, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Madras and he kindly sat down with me for an hour, boosted my confidence by telling me how important he thought studying Indian names were, and shared a lot about caste and naming. (I also want to thank him for his permission to quote him here and share all of this with you).

I had heard previously that you could usually tell someone’s caste from their surname, but what I hadn’t realized before my meeting today, was that actually, in previous years, you could tell someone’s caste just by their first name. In other words, parents who were deciding on a name for their children were limited by caste restrictions.

Dr. Thamilarasan explained that Brahmins (the upper caste) could give their children names of the gods and goddesses (one of the 1,000 names I’ve mentioned previously), but those in other castes could only select from certain names. He gave this example: Someone in the Brahmin caste might name their child Vajrahast, which is a form that Lord Shiva takes, but people in other castes would not have access to that name. Instead, they could name their child something like Ganesh. Ganesha, is, of course, a god as well, but the difference is that he was the son of Shiva, not a form of Shiva himself.

I was kind of amazed by this. Especially because it wasn’t a system that was monitored by any kind of government, but just by social pressure and social stigma. Dr. Thamilarasan went onto explain that other castes had the option of naming their children after the sons and daughters of gods and goddesses, or they could use the name of local deities. For example, a Brahmin family could name their daughter “Parvati ‘(the wife of Lord Shiva), but a non-Brahmin family could name their daughter “Chammundi”, a form of the goddess Parvati who is relevant only to the story of Mysore specifically (See: Name Post: The Story of Mysore).

The part that is so amazing to me is that this system of naming reveals just how well people know these stories. It made me realize, even more than I had already, the extent to which Hinduism is vital to life here. Everyone somehow knows what names are appropriate, what names are accessible to them, and they know the stories behind them. In some ways, I can’t think of anything in the U.S. that acts as an equivalent of a body of shared knowledge for the entire population.

Earlier this month I compared the stories of gods and goddesses in India to literary stories in the U.S. that people might pick names from. I suggested that there are certain names in the U.S. as well that are inseparable from a certain story or value (I believe I suggested names like Ophelia or Holden or Hermione, specifically). But this new dimension of hierarchy means that only certain people can be named after certain characters. It would be as if one group of people can choose to name their kid “Harry Potter” but a certain other group of people don’t have access to that name, and instead, have to settle on the name of his son, “Albus”, or the name of a character who isn’t that relevant to the whole series, but is only a “local god”, (say, someone who only exists in one book). It would be like having the option to name your kid “Albus” or “Bill Weasley.”

Excuse my Harry Potter example, which is probably an inaccurate (and possibly offensive) analogy to the Indian caste system of naming. Despite its over-simplification, I’m hoping this example may help you, as American readers, understand how learning about this trend, frankly, blew my mind. It means that the entire Hindu population knows these stories, and knows where they are allowed to fit in in relationship to them, and that these stories, in turn, become their names. They become how they identify themselves and how others identify them. That’s how ingrained these stories are.

Things have been changing in India in recent years. Dr. Thamilarasan estimated that fifty years ago you could tell, just from someone’s first name, what caste they were in. He thinks today you could only guess. You would probably be right, but now, non-Brahmins are using Brahmin names. He told me about a sociologist named M.N. Srinivas who coined the term “sanskritization” to describe this trend. Traditionally, the only people in India who knew Sanskrit were Brahmins. Today, however, this is changing, and as a result , people from other castes have been taking on customs previously reserved to Brahmins exclusively. This also includes using the names of gods and goddesses.

Interestingly, Dr. Thamilarasan told me that although those of different castes have begun to use Brahmin names (like Parvati or Vajrahast), he doesn’t know of any Brahmins who have not named their children from one of the gods and goddesses.

“Not one?” I asked.

He thought about it, “Not one.” He said. He believes that Brahmins would never name their children after local deities or the sons of gods and goddesses, because, as he put it, “That would seem like a waste of a privilege to them.” In other words, if you have the option of naming your son “Harry Potter”, why in the world would you choose to name your son after Harry Potter’s son, Albus, or after Bill Weasley, who no one really remembers? What this means is that people of lower castes deciding on a name for their children actually have more names to choose from than Brahmins who are sticking to the 1,000 names of gods and goddesses. Today, non-Brahmins can choose freely from the names of gods and goddesses, but they can also still choose to use the names of the sons and daughters of gods and goddesses, local deities, western names, or names of celebrities.

It seems I am just beginning to tap into this massive, tangled web of the system of Indian names. And my quest to unearth them and find their meanings is taking me into territory that is buried deep with history and politics and religion. I’m not sure what I’ve gotten into, but perhaps that is all the more reason to (try to) unearth them.

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