Caste System in India


A number of social evils have been prevalent in the Indian society since centuries and caste system is one of them.

The word caste derives from the Spanish and Portuguese “casta”, means “race, lineage, or breed”.

Portuguese employed casta in the modern sense when they applied it to hereditary Indian social groups called as ‘jati’ in India.

 ‘Jati’ term is derived from the Sanskrit jāta, “born” or “brought into existence,” and indicates a form of existence determined by birth. In Indian philosophy, jati (genus) describes any group of things that have generic characteristics in common.

A defining feature of Hinduism, caste encompasses a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity. A person is considered a member of the caste into which he or she is born and remains within that caste until death, although the particular ranking of that caste may vary among regions and over time.
Differences in status are traditionally justified by the religious doctrine of karma, a belief that one's place in life is determined by one's deeds in previous lifetimes.
It has been criticized immensely by the people over the years. However, it still has a strong hold on the social and political system of the country.

Theories Regarding Caste

1.Traditional Theory

According to this theory, the caste system is of divine origin. It says the caste system is an extension of the varna system, where the 4 varnas originated from the body of Bramha.

At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and came from Brahma’s head.
Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, came from his arms.
Vaishyas, or the traders, were created from his thighs.
At the bottom were the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet.
The sub-castes emerged later due to intermarriages between the 4 varnas.

The proponents of this theory cite Purushasukta of Rigveda, Manusmriti etc to support their stand.

2. Racial Theory

The Sanskrit word for caste is varna which means colour.

Rig Vedic literature stresses very significantly the differences between the Arya and non-Aryans (Dasa), not only in their complexion but also in their speech, religious practices, and physical features.

3. Political Theory

According to this theory, the caste system is a clever device invented by the Brahmins in order to place themselves on the highest ladder of social hierarchy.

Dr. Ghurye, a social scientist, states, “Caste is a Brahminic child of Indo-Aryan culture cradled in the land of the Ganges and then transferred to other parts of India.”

The Brahmins even added the concept of spiritual merit of the king, through the priest or purohit in order to get the support of the ruler of the land.

4. Occupational Theory

Caste hierarchy is according to the occupation. Those professions which were regarded as better and respectable made the persons who performed them superior to those who were engaged in dirty professions.

5. Evolution Theory

According to this theory, the caste system did not come into existence all of a sudden or at a particular date. It is the result of a long process of social evolution.

Principal features of caste system in India

1. Segmental Division of Society: 

The society is divided into various small social groups called castes. Each of these castes is a well developed social group, the membership of which is determined by the consideration of birth.

2. Hierarchy: 

According to Louis Dumont, castes teach us a fundamental social principle of hierarchy. At the top of this hierarchy is the Brahmin caste and at the bottom is the untouchable caste. In between are the intermediate castes, the relative positions of which are not always clear.

3. Endogamy: 

Endogamy is the chief characteristic of caste, i.e. the members of a caste or sub-caste should marry within their own caste or sub-caste. The violation of the rule of endogamy would mean ostracism and loss of caste.

However, hypergamy (the practice of women marrying someone who is wealthier or of higher caste or social status.) and hypogamy (marriage with a person of lower social status) were also prevalent. Gotra exogamy is also maintained in each caste. Every caste is subdivided into different small units on the basis of gotra. The members of one gotra are believed to be successors of a common ancestor-hence prohibition of marriage within the same gotra.

4. Hereditary status and occupation: 

Megasthenes, the Greek traveller to India in 300 B. C., mentions hereditary occupation as one of the two features of caste system, the other being endogamy.

5. Restriction on Food and Drink: 

Usually a caste would not accept cooked food from any other caste that stands lower than itself in the social scale, due to the notion of getting polluted.
There were also variously associated taboos related to food.
The cooking taboo, which defines the persons who may cook the food.
The eating taboo which may lay down the ritual to be followed at meals.
The commensal taboo (relationship between organisms of two different species) which is concerned with the person with whom one may take food.
Food prepared by Brahmin is acceptable to all, the reason for which domination of Brahmins in the hotel industry for a long time. The beef was not allowed to be eaten by any castes, except harijans.

6. Particular Name: 

Every caste has a particular name though which we can identify it. Sometimes, an occupation is also associated with a particular caste.

7. The Concept of Purity and Pollution: 

The higher castes claimed to have ritual, spiritual and racial purity which they maintained by keeping the lower castes away through the notion of pollution. The idea of pollution means a touch of lower caste man would pollute or defile a man of higher caste. Even his shadow is considered enough to pollute a higher caste man.

8. Jati Panchayat: 

The status of each caste is carefully protected, not only by caste laws but also by the conventions. These are openly enforced by the community through a governing body or board called Jati Panchayat. These Panchayats in different regions and castes are named in a particular fashion such as Kuldriya in Madhya Pradesh and Jokhila in South Rajasthan.

Functions of the caste system

1. It continued the traditional social organization of India.

2. It has accommodated multiple communities by ensuring each of them a monopoly of a specific means of livelihood.

3. Provided social security and social recognition to individuals. It is the individual’s caste that canalizes his choice in marriage, plays the roles of the state-club, the orphanage and the benefits society. Besides, it also provides him with health insurance benefits. It even provides for his funeral.

4. It has handed over the knowledge and skills of the hereditary occupation of a caste from one generation to another, which has helped the preservation of culture and ensured productivity.

5. Caste plays a crucial role in the process of socialization by teaching individuals the culture and traditions, values and norms of their society.

6. It has also led to interdependent interaction between different castes, through jajmani relationships. Caste acted as a trade union and protected its members from the exploitation.

7. Promoted political stability, as Kshatriyas were generally protected from political competition, conflict and violence by the caste system.

8. Maintained racial purity through endogamy.

9. Specialization led to quality production of goods and thus promoted economic development. For eg: Many handicraft items of India gained international recognition due to this.

Dysfunctions of the caste system

1. The caste system is a check on economic and intellectual advancement and a great stumbling block in the way of social reforms because it keeps economic and intellectual opportunities confined to a certain section of the population only.

2. It undermines the efficiency of labour and prevents perfect mobility of labour, capital and productive effort

3. It perpetuates the exploitation of the economically weaker and socially inferior castes, especially the untouchables.

4. It has inflicted untold hardships on women through its insistence on practices like child-marriage, prohibition of widow-remarriage, seclusion of women etc.

5. It opposes real democracy by giving a political monopoly to Kshatriyas in the past and acting as a vote bank in the present political scenario. There are political parties which solely represent a caste. eg: BSP was formed by Kanshi Ram mainly to represent SC, ST and OBC.

6. It has stood in the way of national and collective consciousness and proved to be a disintegrating rather than an integrating factor. Caste conflicts are widely prevalent in politics, reservation in jobs and education, inter-caste marriages etc. eg: Demand for Jat reservation, agitation by Patidar community.

7. It has given scope for religious conversion. The lower caste people are getting converted into Islam and Christianity due to the tyranny of the upper castes.

8. The caste system by compelling an individual to act strictly in accordance with caste norms stands in the way of modernization, by opposing change.

Caste System in Other Countries

The caste system is found in other countries like Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Caste-like systems are also found in countries like Indonesia, China, Korea, Yemen and certain countries in Africa, Europe as well.

But what distinguishes Indian caste system from the rest is the core theme of purity and pollution, which is either peripheral or negligible in other similar systems of the world. In Yemen, there exists a hereditary caste, Al-Akhdam who are kept as perennial manual workers. Burakumin in Japan, originally members of outcast communities in the Japanese feudal era, includes those with occupations considered impure or tainted by death.

Theoretically, caste as a cultural phenomenon (i.e., as a matter of ideology or value system) is found only in India while when it is viewed as a structural phenomenon, it is found in other societies too.

Caste system in other religion

Caste-based differences are practised in other religions like Nepalese Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. But the main difference is – caste system in Hinduism is mentioned in its scriptures while other religions adopted casteism as a part of socialization or religious conversions. In other words, the caste system in Hinduism is a religious institution while it is social in others.

Legal System

Independent India's constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste, and, in an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy, in 1950.

In 1989, quotas were extended to include a grouping called the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) which fall between the traditional upper castes and the lowest.

Present Status

The caste system in India is undergoing changes due to progress in education, technology, modernization and changes in general social outlook. In spite of the general improvement in conditions of the lower castes, India has still a long way to go, to root out the evils of the caste system from the society.

In recent decades, with the spread of secular education and growing urbanisation, the influence of caste has somewhat declined, especially in cities where different castes live side-by-side and inter-caste marriages are becoming more common.

But in recent years, there have been demands from several communities to be recognised as OBCs - in 2016 there were violent protests by the Jat community in Haryana and the Patel community led huge protests in Gujarat in 2015 demanding access to caste quotas.

PM Modi said that there are now just two “castes”: the poor and those who will contribute to eradicating poverty. Modi’s stated aim is to make traditional castes irrelevant.

Saturday, 12th Oct 2019, 07:27:45 PM

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