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20 Nov


India is a hierarchical society. Within Indian culture, whether in the north or the south, Hindu or Muslim, urban or rural, virtually all things, people and groups of people are ranked according to various essential qualities. If one is attuned to the theme of hierarchy in India, one can discern it everywhere. Although India is a political democracy, in daily life there is little advocacy of or adherence to notions of equality.
Castes and caste like groups – those quintessential groups with which almost all Indians are associated are ranked. Within most villages or towns, everyone knows the relative rankings of each locally represented caste and people’s behaviour towards one another is constantly shaped by this knowledge. Between the extremes of the very high and very low castes, however, there is sometimes disagreement on the exact relative ranking of castes clustered in the middle.
Castes are primarily associated with Hinduism but also exist among other Indian religious groups. Muslims sometimes expressly deny that they have castes – they state that all Muslims are brothers under God – but observation of Muslim life in various parts of India reveals the existence of caste-like groups and clear concern with social hierarchy. Among Indian Christians, too, differences in caste are acknowledged and maintained.
Throughout India, individuals are also ranked according to their wealth and power. For example, there are “Rich men” and “Poor men” everywhere. “Rich men” sit confidently on chairs, while “Poor men” come before them to make requests, either standing or crouching down on their haunches, certainly not presuming to sit beside a man of high status as an equal. Even men of nearly equal status who might share a string cot to sit on take their places carefully the higher-ranking man at the head of the cot, the lower-ranking man at the foot.
Within families and kinship groupings, there are many distinctions of hierarchy. Men outrank women of the same or similar age and senior relatives outrank junior relatives. Several other kinship relations involve formal
respect. For example, in northern India, a daughter-in-law of a household shows deference to a daughter of the household. Even among young siblings in a household, there is constant acknowledgment of age differences: younger siblings never address an older sibling by name, but rather by respectful terms for elder brother or elder sister. However, an older sibling may address the younger by name.
Even in a business or academic setting, where colleagues may not openly espouse traditional observance of caste or class ranking behaviour, they may set up fictive kinship relations, addressing one another by kinship terms reflecting family or village-style hierarchy. For example, a younger colleague might respectfully address an older colleague as chachaji (respected father’s younger brother), gracefully acknowledging the superior position of the older colleague.

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