Monday, March 05, 2007

Redefining "Brahmin" in the USA

Ever since Oliver Wendell Holmes published his article "The Brahmin Caste of New England" in 1860, the term "Brahmin" in the United States has usually been understood to mean the Boston Brahmins. This elite group claimed descent from the families constituting the Masachusetts establishment who originally settled New England, and are described in a poem of the period

So this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God

(Boston Toast by John Collins Bossidy)

Now, nearly 150 years after Oliver Wendell Holmes thus christened the elite of New England, Asian Indians are staking their own claim to perpetuating an elite hereditary class in a country that otherwise aspires to classlessness and intergenerational mobility.

This comes at a time when the mantra of equality of opportunity is wearing thin in the United States. The composition of the meritocracy of the 21st Century, to be determined by access to higher education, is increasingly consolidating within its existing ranks as the cost of that education continues to escalate. It is no coincidence that 90% of the students in the elite American Universities come from the top 50% of the income spectrum.

In this process, Asian Indians in America now occupy pole position in the race to establish a new power group. With annual household incomes higher than the white majority and spending more on their children's education than the national median, they already count 60% of their number as graduates (another statistic well above the average for other ethnic groups). They are set on a course to consolidate their privileges still further as their children, after graduation, usually follow the more lucrative and socially prized professions.Their numbers will be strengthened by new students from India, most of whom have historically remained behind after graduating. There were 70,000+ of students from India enrolled in American universities at last count, and their numbers are forecast to grow by 20% over the next five years.

We are surely witnessing the emergence of a new upper caste in America, grouped by ethnicity in a way not seen since the 19th Century. Unlike the 19th Century Boston Brahmins though, the flourishing Indian elite class will not be localised like the Boston Brahmins, but spread out throughout the entire country. Business, Law, Medicine, Engineering and Financial Services will be the areas of activity in which they will excel, giving them a prominent voice in their local communities.

Asian Indians have already made sure that when the word "Indian" is spoken in America, everybody understands that these are not the same people that Columbus named when he set eyes on the inhabitants of the new land. The question remains whether they will also exercise their growing wealth and position to exercise a positive influence the society around them. Their 19th Century New England predecessors did so to great effect by creating academic institutions like the Ivy League universities, and the ideologies of the Boston Brahmins continue to be associated with the most progressive policies. If the new Indian "Brahmins" achieve anything resembling the same effect wherever they are concentrated around America, it may soon be accepted that not all the Brahmins in America are the ones that Holmes observed in Boston. The Indian Americans of the 21st Century may well justify Holmes's own words "...now and then a seedling apple, or a seedling pear, springs from a nameless ancestry and grows to be the pride of all the gardens in the land."


3 comments:

ishani said...

Senator Clinton's Presidential campaign is likely to bring the Indian American community as well as individuals centrestage.

An interesting development in UK is the official demand by Indians to be recognised separately as British Indians rather than be clubbed together as South Asians in Britain. This demand was officially put forward through powerful Indian associations last year. AN alarming trend in London is the rise of gangs of young people based on ethnic groups such as Punjabi, Tamil and Bangladeshi.

freenie said...

As the group of successful Indian professionals grow so does the disparity between them and the Indian "underclass" - the taxi drivers, restaurant workers, street vendors, to name a few. Often these are new immigrants whose children grow up in the inner-city neighborhoods, "enjoying" all the amenities that come with living in the ghettos (including intergenerational poverty).The latter group adds to the perception of an "Indian" in America, a perception that is not necessarily positive one, and a perception from which the new "Brahmins" desperately try to disassociate themselves from. In times of need, as happened during post-9/11 period when brown men and women simply disappeared from the streets of New York, this dissociation remained, if not become stronger. Triggered by growing economic disparity, I fear that the ever so familiar caste system of India is gradually making itself familiar in the US as well in economic terms.

Nalliah said...

For several centuries, "Brahmins" - the "priestly caste" - were religious and spiritual figures, educators, thinkers and philosophers in India. Among Brahmins gotras are reckoned patrilineally and each gotra takes the name of a famous Rishi (or sage) who was the patrilineal forebearer of that clan.The Brahmins belonging to the same gotra are related to each other patrilineally, and there may be very little else in common between them. According to the Vedic system, a man and a woman belonging to the same gotra are considered to be a brother and sister, so a wedding between a man and a woman belonging to the same gotra (known as sa-gotra) is forbidden as it will cause anomalies in the progeny that come out of such a wedding.. A married woman takes up the gotra of her husband. Ambalavaasi people (living in (by) ambalam or temple - temple inmates) and vishwakarma (acharis) caste people also now claim that they are Brahmins.
The caste system is an evil introduced by the Brahmins, which have eaten every fabric of the Indian society. It has corroded and corrupted the Indian society to the extent that Non-Brahmins are equally caste conscious as the real Brahmins!
The Bhagwad Gita states that caste is not a birthright! A Brahmin is one who is educated and knowledgeable of the scriptures and leads a holy life and is not a birthright!. I understand an immigrant’s need to connect to his or her roots. But in western countries Brahmins have their sons go through the sacred thread ceremony and that child grows up to be a meat eater, drinker with no knowledge of the scriptures. What is wrong is that in the age of 'Kali Yuga' anyone is claiming Brahmin as a birthright even when they eat meat, indulge in alcohol and live arrogant materialistic lives. Most of the Bengali Brahmins never made any qualms about relishing various fish and chicken delicacies. Most of the Brahmins in North America to celebrate their teenage boys' sacred thread ceremony which is a coming-of-age ceremony held only for brainwashed impressionable Brahmin boys into thinking within the narrow walls of their caste. Sacred thread ceremony is a ritual for initiating a boy in to the spiritual life and as per vedas, all Hindus (except the shudras) have the right for sacred thread ceremony. For most of the Brahmins in North America caste is an important part of their identity as if it is the 24th pair of chromosomes and wear their Brahmin identity on their lapel. Indians keep on making pathetic efforts to tell the world that they belong to the "Brahmin" - upper caste. There is nothing to be proud about one’s so called upper caste. One contributes nothing to be born in a particular caste. It is a chance occurrence. No human being is born superior. In fact, there is nothing to be proud of a system, which is blatantly discriminatory. The caste system is a very backward culture. Indians not only embrace but also tout their upper caste while living in USA which has fought two civil wars against discrimination. It is a disgrace!

Cheers!

Nalliah Thayabharan