A lot of Westerners think of India as a place that is undergoing swift modernization and democratization. How can the caste system persist in such an environment?

The great irony of Indian politics is that its modern, secular, parliamentary democracy enhances, rather than diminishes, the importance of caste identity and affiliation. A central theme of modern Indian politics is the rise of the "lower" castes, including "untouchables," through a process of asserting their own interests and capturing political power by exploiting the numerical strength of their caste.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of caste identity politics while discussing caste in modern India, fueled as it is by the extensive system of state patronage implied by the Government of India's (GoI) policies of reserving a share of seats in educational institutions, legislatures, as well as government jobs, to erstwhile "backward" castes. This has lead to the bizarre situation where castes compete with one another in declaring themselves "more backward" than the other, and of politics conducted on the basis of the caste composition of the electorate.

Caste is more alive today in the Indian political system because people see its utility in social and economic upliftment, as well as an instrument of political mobilization. It would be accurate to state that the goal of achieving a post-caste society, where one's caste is an irrelevant moniker, is impeded by the very same politicians that vilify the caste system as a grotesque relic. Political and caste-based violence have become inextricably intertwined as opposing political parties represent the interests of various castes, for instance landlords and landless laborers.

What teachings in Hinduism contradict the caste system?

Divinely revealed Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas and Upanishads deal with eternal truths such as the relationship of individuals to God, the purpose of human life, and various spiritual paths or techniques (yogas) to attain such ends. There is hardly any mention of caste in these texts and certainly no implication that "backward" castes are ineligible for spiritual advancement. In fact, many of these texts were authored by saints from the "backward" castes.

These scriptures state emphatically that divinity is inherent in every individual; that the ultimate purpose of Hindu spirituality and religion is to know, grow closer to, and experience, this divinity; and that all physical/social differences such as caste, gender, race, etc. are wholly unrelated to one's ability to achieve that goal. Numerous Hindu sacred texts, morality tales, and commentaries extol sama-drishti -- or the capability to look upon all life forms, let alone all humans, as equal. Thus, caste-based discrimination represents a societal neglect of these essential teachings of Hinduism, rather than an intrinsic feature of the religion, as some allege. Reform therefore consists of closing the gap between Hindu spiritual and religious teachings on the one hand and social practices on the other.

If Hindu texts do not support the idea of caste, why is this system so widespread in Hindu cultures?

Hinduism does not proselytize, unlike Christianity and Islam. Thus, the plural reference to "Hindu cultures" is largely limited to the general geographical area of ancient India. Hindus in other countries are largely Indians who emigrated, first as bonded labor for the British to countries such as Malaysia, the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji and in recent decades as professionals to developed Western nations, including the U.S. In general, Indian emigres of earlier centuries initially carried over socio-cultural practices, including caste, which weakened or disappeared over time in many diaspora societies. The millions of westerners who identify as Hindu obviously have no caste identity. Given this dynamic, we are really only talking about the persistence of caste in South Asia.