How Do Foreigners Fit into the Caste System in India?


I consider myself an American practitioner of Hindu ideas. As a foreigner how can I expect to be treated when visiting India, and where do foreigners fall in the world of caste?

—alan, us


Dear Alan,

Living in India for the past 6 years I have found that Indians in general are courteous and friendly to Americans.

Of course, the more Westernized a city, the more likely are its residents to speak English and accommodate American customs. It’s important for us as guests, however, to respect Indian customs, which often can be very different from ours (remember that we are on the other side of the world, and many things are opposite!)

Indians in general are more reserved than Americans, and have more conservative morals. For example, you won’t see many public displays of affection. They are also a little more formal and polite than Americans, which I find very charming.

The thing I find most distressing among Americans is our tendency to compare the two countries unfavorably. There is much to appreciate about India, as well as much that is unpleasant. When Americans make an attempt to fit in as well as we can, we often learn a lot and grow in the process.

I’ve asked a few friends about your caste question. In general, modern educated Indians try to transcend caste; however, it is so ingrained in the consciousness that it sometimes comes out without their realizing it.

That said, foreigners are outside the caste system. In certain ashrams that means that they are not allowed in the temple. My only other encounter with caste has to do with being served. Those in the servant castes treat Americans as though they were a higher caste, and won’t allow us to lift a finger. Nor are they comfortable with too much “equality.” Even if invited, they won’t eat with you, for example. In time you get used to it, and you will learn how to be kind and appreciative of their services without confusing them with unfamiliar customs.

If you would like to read more about India from a Westerner’s point of view, my husband has a blog you can read.

Joy to you,
Nayaswami Sadhana Devi