What are the similarities and differences between the caste system in India and the US class system?

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The caste system in India and the class system in the United States are both based on wealth levels and are set up to favor those of higher class, or those with greater wealth. However, there is increasingly little mobility in the US system, whereas the caste system sees members of lower and upper classes change their monetary status without also changing class distinction. Another difference is that India's system is based on religion while that of the US is not.

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The caste system in India is very complex, but at its most basic level consists of the categorization of all Indians into four groups based on their traditional occupations: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. There is an implicit fifth class of Dalits and Adivasis, the "untouchables," and then there are tribal people who are outside these four castes.

The caste system is still an important system of social stratification in India. It is broadly correlated with wealth and power. However, while it is still relatively uncommon to find a Shudra or Dalit in a high position, it is very common to encounter a Brahmin who is comparatively poor.

The American class system, by contrast, is much more closely correlated with wealth. While it has become more rigid in recent decades, it is still more flexible than the caste system, which is based entirely on birth. A Brahmin who is poor is still a Brahmin and a Dalit who becomes rich is still a Dalit, but in America one changes class as one's income rises or falls. A multi-millionaire might have working class origins, but is not himself regarded as working class. Even those members of the upper classes who do see the self-made millionaire as a parvenu would probably accept his children, who have been educated at expensive preparatory schools alongside their own, as being part of the same class.

The New England upper classes are sometimes described as "Boston Brahmins," suggesting a link between the American class system and the Hindu caste system. However, there is a significant difference in that everyone in India is aware of the caste system and its distinctions even if they regard these distinctions as unimportant. In America, it is often said that the closest thing to royalty is the Kennedy family. Even the Kennedys are far from being Boston Brahmins, since their fortune is of a comparatively recent date. Within the closed circle of the Boston Brahmins themselves an Emerson or a Winthrop might be far more impressive than a Kennedy, but the public at large would disagree.

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A main difference between the Indian caste and American class systems is religion. The Indian caste system derives from Hinduism, which taught that people were naturally fitted for different castes or roles in life, such as the sage, the government bureaucrat, the merchant, or the worker, as well those once called untouchables who had no caste. These castes were meant to be based on the attributes of each individual but soon became solidly locked into heredity: your caste in India became determined by your parents' caste.

The Indian caste system thus has been more rigid than the American class system and harder to challenge because of the religious underpinnings that validate it as the will of god. The American class system has gone through various permutations: the racial class system, for example, that determined that some were slaves and some free in the American south was extremely rigid, but it was also overturned. A racially based class system now still exists in which blacks tend to be the underclass and whites the overclass, and this also has been extremely difficult to dislodge--but a greater degree of porousness has entered the racialized class system in the last fifty years than ever before.

After World War II and up until the twenty-first century, the United States experienced a high degree of class mobility, with many Americans entering the middle class for the first time. This was due to government programs such as the G.I. bill, low cost higher education, economic growth, and strong unions. Starting in the 1980s, but not becoming apparent until the last twenty years, class began to become much more rigid in this country, making it more difficult for those born into poverty to ascend the class ladder. However, a chief difference between the Indian and the American systems is that the American system is not hard-wired into the theology of the dominant religious faith, and therefore it is more malleable and changeable.

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Both the caste system and the American class system are forms of social stratification and hierarchy. They are ways of organizing society and tend to limit social mobility (though the class system allows far greater capacity for social mobility, both up and down the social structure, when compared with the Caste System, which is an entirely closed system). However, the differences between the two are profound.

The class system is ultimately built upon income and occupation. While it can be highly difficult to rise within that social structure, it is not impossible. (Indeed, the American Dream is itself founded upon this notion: that people can raise themselves, through hard work, beyond the circumstances of their birth, and aspire towards higher echelons of society.) The caste system, however, is far more restrictive.

The caste system is deeply intertwined with religious traditions (this is something which cannot be said of the class system, which is an entirely socio-economic phenomenon), particularly beliefs involving reincarnation and karma. Apply these beliefs to the caste system, and we find that one's place within it has been ultimately shaped by one's conduct in past lives, which have determined where a person is born in their current life. From this perspective, there is no overcoming caste: it is entirely defining.

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The class system in the United States is very rigid, there is no doubt about it. It is very difficult to be born into poverty and eventually become wealthy in your lifetime. The major distinction between the caste and class system are the words "very difficult" in the previous sentence. In a caste system, it is not even possible to be born into one caste and move to the next. The caste system guarantees that people are born into a caste and must perform the duties of that caste for their entire life. Only by performing these duties admirably, can a person hope to increase their lot in the next life through reincarnation. In the United States, some members of the lower classes, through hard work, education and luck can move to the middle or upper classes. While this should not be considered common, it is quite possible and does happen. The same can be said of wealthy people that make poor decisions and end up in the lower classes.  The caste system is also closely tied to the religion of Hinduism and not such religious connection exists in the American class system.  

The major similarities between the caste system and American class system are the difficulty for social mobility and how the caste or class limits the potential success of its members.  Both are systems to organize and control different parts of the population.  

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