As we near the end of the year, I would like to reflect on a few of the biggest misconceptions I’ve noticed people, even those interested in South Asia, have about the region, especially India. As a writer on South Asian issues, I found that some of these most common recurring misconceptions included the following:
Most Indians are Vegetarian. This is a common misconception held by many non-Indians and Indians as well. In fact, most Hindus also eat meat. Around 60 percent of Indians eat meat and the percentage is growing. While this still means that the world’s largest vegetarian population is in India, it also means that the majority of Indians are meat-eaters, like every other country in the world. Contrary to popular belief, the consumption of meat and vegetarianism have generally not been personal choices, though to some extent the idea of vegetarianism has been linked to a belief in non-violence. However, for the most part, vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism have been linked to notions of purity and status that distinguished different caste and subcastes from each other or are regionally colored.
Generally, vegetarianism has been associated with higher castes as it distanced an individual from the blood and gore of an earthly, labor-based existence. There are still many, many exceptions and permutations all over India, making it hard to make categorical statements about Indian eating habits. For example, most Gujarati people of any caste are vegetarian. However, not all Brahmins (members of the highest caste, traditionally associated with vegetarianism) are vegetarian, as Bengali Brahmins eat fish and Kashmiri Brahmins eat goat. Kshatriyas and Rajputs, a highly ranked caste associated with warfare and government eat meat for the most part as well. Most members of lower castes, including the Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) eat meat, including sometimes beef, but their cuisine rarely makes it to international restaurants. It is likely that the notion of most Indians being vegetarian arose due to the fact that many public gatherings and institutions serve only vegetarian food which accommodates everyone, unlike non-vegetarian food.
Additionally, the proportion of vegetarians is higher among India’s elite who mostly derive from groups that practiced vegetarianism even if they no longer follow the traditional taboos of their ancestors. In India’s segmented society, it is likely that the meat-eating practices of the majority often fail to be noticed by those who write about India and food. The point is, Indian food practices are far from homogenous.
Caste is a four tiered class system like many other hierarchical social systems around the world. While it may have originated as a class system similar to those that prevailed in many other pre-modern societies, the caste system of South Asia is totally unlike any other in the world. It pervades all religious groups in South Asia. While modernization is leading to the disappearance of caste, especially in urban areas, it is still a major factor in rural areas and in Indian politics, so it is important to understand. Many non-Indians and Indians educated in modern, urban schools fail to understand the actual nature of caste. In order to do so, it is important to not think of caste in the traditional manner it is explained in schools (including American school textbooks in their brief chapters on India). Instead, one ought to think of the caste system of being a complex system of thousands of profession-based groups that did not traditionally marry with or socialize with people outside of their group.
These groups, called jati in Sanskrit, included thousands of clans, tribes, and communities in India, all of which were self-contained and mostly interacted with other groups for economic purposes. In theory, most of these groups were classified broadly into one of four hierarchal categories, the basis of the common notion of the caste system, but it was jati that really mattered. Although an individual could not change their jati, it was possible for whole groups to improve their overall position relative to other groups. There is significant evidence that shows that in the early stages of Indian history, there was intermixing between groups and that individuals were assigned to caste on the basis of professional and merit. However, this state of affairs definitely gave way to the notion of caste described above by 2,000 years ago.
Genetic evidence shows that around 1,900 years ago, intermarriage between jatis ceased. While some barriers, such as different castes eating together have been overcome, the main prop holding caste together is the deep fear many castes have of intermarriage. Significant intermarriage would essentially dissolve the castes, which is hard for many to stomach. However, this would also be the best way to get rid of the caste system, rather than by merely abolishing it, since mixed-caste individuals would merely be members of Indian society rather than the society of their caste. All these facts point to a social dynamic that is deeply embedded in the culture of the subcontinent and can only be overcome with time. Contrary to the assertions of some apologists, caste was not created by the Mughals or British to control India; such deeply held notions do not have such recent and shallow roots.
Indian history is false. A very common theme among South Asia commentators is that Indian history is false, or has been deliberately misinterpreted by people with “vested interests.” This particularly refers to historical theories about the veracity of events described in ancient Indian religious scriptures, the origin of Indian Civilization, and the role of Muslims and Europeans in later Indian history. The common theme among people with these sets of beliefs is that Indian history is deliberately being written to minimalize the contributions and achievements of Indian civilization and its people. As there are obviously many gaps in Indian history, this idea relies on the notion that ancient Indian civilization must have been the most advanced and ancient in the world.
The alternative on the other hand, many non-nationalistic historians have an unimaginative ideological variation of Indian history that relies heavily on Marxist ideas of history that are simply not relevant to Indian history. Without commenting on the veracity or lack thereof of these notions of history, I will say that an objective methodology and idea of history for South Asia needs to be established. Most scholars of India deeply love their subject and most certainly do not have any “agenda” other than the establishment of accurate information. There are currently many objective histories of India both online and offline that interpret the history of India and describe the methods used to do so. This scientific criteria will undoubtedly prove that Indian culture and history are even more amazing than currently believed and that there is no need to exaggerate its considerable achievements. On the other hand, they will also prove that India is a civilization like many others, flawed and backwards in some ways, advanced in other ways, and perhaps not as ancient or glorious as some nationalists would like to believe. But that is the purpose of objective history.