Caste System in India – Origin, Features, and Problems

 Caste System in India – Origin, Features, and Problems

The caste system is one of the unique features in Indian Society. Its root can be traced back to thousands of years.

Jana → Jati → Caste

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’ originates from the root word ‘Jana’ which implies taking birth. Thus, caste is concerned with birth.

According to Anderson and Parker, “Caste is that extreme form of social class organization in which the position of individuals in the status hierarchy is determined by descent and birth.”

How did Caste System originate in India: Various Theories

There are many theories like traditional, racial, political, occupational, evolutionary etc which try to explain the caste system in India.

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 mouth signifies its use for preaching, learning etc, the arms – protections, thighs – to cultivate or business, feet – helps the whole body, so the duty of the Shudras is to serve all the others. 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.

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2. Racial Theory

The Sanskrit word for caste is varna which means colour. The caste stratification of the Indian society had its origin in the chaturvarna system – Brahmins, Kashtriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Indian sociologist D.N. Majumdar writes in his book, “Races and Culture in India”, the caste system took its birth after the arrival of Aryans in India.

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.

The Varna system prevalent during the Vedic period was mainly based on division of labour and occupation. The three classes, Brahma, Kshatra and Vis are frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda. Brahma and Kshatra represented the poet-priest and the warrior-chief. Vis comprised all the common people. The name of the fourth class, the ‘Sudra’, occurs only once in the Rig Veda. The Sudra class represented domestic servants.

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 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.

According to Newfield, “Function and function alone is responsible for the origin of caste structure in India.” With functional differentiation there came in occupational differentiation and numerous sub-castes such as Lohar(blacksmith), Chamar(tanner), Teli(oil-pressers).

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.

  • Hereditary occupations;
  • The desire of the Brahmins to keep themselves pure;
  • The lack of rigid unitary control of the state;
  • The unwillingness of rulers to enforce a uniform standard of law and custom
  • The ‘Karma’ and ‘Dharma’ doctrines also explain the origin of caste system. Whereas the Karma doctrine holds the view that a man is born in a particular caste because of the result of his action in the previous incarnation, the doctrine of Dharma explains that a man who accepts the caste system and the principles of the caste to which he belongs, is living according to Dharma. Confirmation to one’s own dharma also remits on one’s birth in the rich high caste and violation gives a birth in a lower and poor caste.
  • Ideas of exclusive family, ancestor worship, and the sacramental meal;
  • Clash of antagonistic cultures particularly of the patriarchal and the matriarchal systems;
  • Clash of races, colour prejudices and conquest;
  • Deliberate economic and administrative policies followed by various conquerors
  • Geographical isolation of the Indian peninsula;
  • Foreign invasions;
  • Rural social structure.

Note: It is from the post-Vedic period, the old distinction of Arya and Sudra appears as Dvija and Sudra, The first three classes are called Dvija (twice-born) because they have to go through the initiation ceremony which is symbolic of rebirth. “The Sudra was called “ekajati” (once born).

Note: Caste system developed on rigid lines post Mauryan period, especially after the establishment of Sunga dynasty by Pushyamitra Sunga (184 BC). This dynasty was an ardent patron of ‘Brahminism’. Through Manusmriti, Brahmins once again succeeded in organizing the supremacy and imposed severe restrictions on the Sudras. Manusmriti mentioned that, ‘the Sudra, who insults a twice-born man, shall have his tongue cut out’.

Note: Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang, who visited India in 630 AD , writes that, “Brahminism dominated the country, caste ruled the social structure and the persons following unclean occupations like butchers, scavengers had to live outside the city”.

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 which is concerned with the person with whom one may take food. Finally, the taboo which has to do with the nature of the vessel (whether made of earth, copper or brass) that one may use for drinking or cooking. For eg: In North India Brahmin would accept pakka food (cooked in ghee) only from some castes lower than his own. However, no individual would accept kachcha(cooked in water) food prepared by an inferior caste. 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 by any castes, except harijans.
  6. A 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.

Varna vs Caste – The difference

Varna and caste are 2 different concepts, though some people wrongly consider it the same.

 Varna  Caste
Literally ‘Varna’ means colour and originates from the world ‘Vri’ meaning the choice of one’s occupation. Hence Varna is concerned with one’s colour or occupation. Caste or ‘Jati’ originates from the root word ‘Jana’ which implies taking birth. Thus, caste is concerned with birth.
Varna’s are only four in number i.e. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra Castes are very large in number. Castes also have many subdivisions known as sub-castes.
 It is an all-India phenomenon Presence of regional variations mostly based on linguistic differences.
Mobility pattern Varna’s are relatively flexible with one’s talent and knowledge, compared with the castes. It is based on rigid principles and mobility is less. It is a closed type of stratification
Varna system is free from socio-economic and political disabilities  Imposes many restrictions on the members.
Varna-class correlation is mostly positive Caste-class correlation is not always positive, There may be variations in the placement due to economic, political arid educational status of various groups.

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.

Is the caste system unique to India?

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.

However, India is unique in some aspects.

  1. India has had a cultural continuity that no other civilization has had. The ancient systems, religions, cultures of other civilizations have been mostly gone. In India, history is present and even the external empires mostly co-opted the system rather than changing them.
  2. The caste has been merged into a modern religion, making it hard to remove.
  3. India has integrated multiple systems more easily. What is known as “caste” in Portuguese/English is actually made of 3 distinct components – jati, jana, varna. Jati is an occupational identification. Jana is an ethnic identification. Varna is a philosophical identification. These have been more tightly merged over the centuries.
  4. In the world’s most transformative period – of the past 3 centuries, India spent most of it under European colonialism. Thus, India lost a lot of time changing. Most of the changes to the system came only in 1950 when India became a republic.

To summarize 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.

There are four sociological approaches to caste by distin­guishing between the two levels of theoretical formulation, i.e., cultural and structural, and universalistic and particularistic. These four ap­proaches are cultural-universalistic, cultural-particularistic, structural- universalistic and structural-particularistic.

  • Structural-particularistic view of caste has maintained that the caste system is restricted to the Indian society
  • Structural-universalistic category holds that caste in India is a general phenomenon of a closed form of social stratification found across the world.
  • The third position of sociologists like Ghurye who treat caste as a cultural universalistic phenome­non maintains that caste-like cultural bases of stratifica­tion are found in most traditional societies. Caste in India is a special form of status-based social stratification. This viewpoint was early formulated by Max Weber.
  • The cultural-particularistic view is held by Louis Dumont who holds that caste is found only in India.

Is the caste system unique to Hinduism?

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.

As a general rule, higher castes converts became higher castes in other religions while lower caste converts acquired lower caste positions.

  • Islam – Some upper caste Hindus converted to Islam and became part of the governing group of Sultanates and Mughal Empire, who along with Arabs, Persians and Afghans came to be known as Ashrafs. Below them are the middle caste Muslims calledAjlafs, and the lowest status is those of the
  • Christianity – In Goa, Hindu converts became Christian Bamonns while Kshatriya and Vaishya became Christian noblemen called Chardos. Those Vaishya who could not get admitted into the Chardo caste became Gauddos, and Shudras became Sudirs. Dalits who converted to Christianity became Mahars and Chamars
  • Buddhism– various forms of the caste system are practised in several Buddhist countries, mainly in Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Japan where butchers, leather and metal workers and janitors are sometimes regarded as being impure.
  • Jainism – There are Jain castes wherein all the members of a particular caste are Jains. At the same time, there have been Jain divisions of several Hindu castes.
  • Sikhism – Sikh literature mentionVarnaas Varan, and Jati as Zat. Eleanor Nesbitt, a professor of Religion, states that the Varan is described as a class system, while Zat has some caste system features in Sikh literature.  All Gurus of Sikhs married within their Zat, and they did not condemn or break with the convention of endogamous marriages.

Caste Divisions – The future?

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.

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