Written by Amy Franz
In the United States, we don’t have castes, but these historical cultural divisions can still denote our identities. Asian Indians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States and Canada. They bring with them diverse surnames indicating differences in religion, language, and culture, and frequently stemming from an inherited social system from across the globe.
The caste system is a form of social stratification where, historically, Hindu Indians were grouped by their occupation within society. When these people adopted surnames, they turned to the caste system as a means to obtain a family name, thereby adopting names related to a distant ancestor’s occupation.
In the Indian caste system, there are four different varnas, or the major social classes, that caste-based surnames generally fall under.
The Brahmins form the top of this social hierarchy. This class consists of the intellectuals, teachers, and priests. A couple examples of Brahmin surnames are Bhat, ‘scholar’ in Sanskirt, and Mukherjee.
Next are Kshatriyas¸ the warriors at times of war and governors at times of peace. Names such as Pusapati and Kothapalli are both Kshatriya surnames. Singh, primarily a Punjabi Sikh surname meaning ‘lion’ in Sanskrit, was also adopted by the Hindu Kshatriya varna since the name alludes to the characteristics of a warrior.
Under the Kshatriyas are the Vaishyas, the farmers, traders, and merchants. Families with the names Agrawal, Khandelwal and Mahawars all fall under this varna.
The last major social class of the caste system is the Shudras. The Shudras are the community’s laborers, performing numerous different service jobs. Patel, Yadav and Kurmi are a few of surnames historically associated with the Shudra working class.
The Indian caste system is a complex part of Hindu culture and this only touches the surface of its intricacies. There are many subcategories that fall under the umbrella of the four major varnas, many more names, and even more spelling variations.
While there is rich cultural significance in these Hindu surnames, it is important to highlight the fact that once these families immigrate to the United States or Canada, they are not defined by these social classes. That said, their surnames come from a rich historical context which directly influences how Asian Indians interact with and respond to marketing.