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Western perception of caste system

 

Being a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India, it is difficult to understand or appreciate the role of caste system in Indian society for the western world and modern generation educated in a system developed and deeply influenced by western thinking. Because of its complete localization and unfamiliarity with Western world, it is difficult for them to see it in its totality.

David Robertson describes caste system as “caste, along with class and status, is a system of social stratification, whereby social respect and wealth are distributed unequally… Beneath caste system are so-called untouchables, who perform most of menial tasks… Unlike class and status, however, it is impossible for an individual to alter their caste position, which is fixed by birth… Once born in a particular social position, with clearly defined rights and duties, a person is expected to accept it with no ambition for betterment… Caste system cannot ultimately sustain itself once even a moderate degree of education and exposure to alternative beliefs become widespread”.

Such a description of caste does not discribe the real nature and true picture of caste system. For an Indian, caste appears as a natural, dear and inevitable unit of society. Family, extended family, Kula and Caste are fundamental social institutions for an individual. Family is a part of extended family, extended family of a ‘Kula’. Many ‘Kulas’ having common family background, similar thinking, customs, language, style of living and occupation form a caste.

True that it is a system of social stratification. But stratification on the basis of caste depends on the difference of various social groups from each other in natural endowments, intelligence, aptitudes, attitudes, skills, personal needs and other innate characteristics.

It has nothing to do with the distribution of wealth and social respect. Caste system actually is a way of living, where social respect one earns through ones deeds. The persons/groups with spritual bent of mind and knowledge are given the highest respect, to whatever caste they belong.   

Little is known to Western world and modern generation influenced by thinking of western world about the life-style of common men/people in India, their past or present,  their social peculiarities and popular beliefs. Brahmins have usually been described by Western orientalists as a priestly class, but this betrays a semantic inadequacy in understanding and explaining Brahminical world view and Indian society. Greeks and Muslims showed a better understanding when they described Brahmins as Philosophers. Efforts and genius of Brahmins intellectuals and sages have made India rich in literary, philosophical and religious fields. Brahmins are supposed to live a simple life, have pure conduct, shun worldly possessions/temporal power and devote themselves to study/pursue knowledge and teach scriptures. They are responsible for spiritual growth of the whole society. Earlier they were expected to subsist on alms from rest of the society, including so-called lower castes of “Shudras”. According scriptures and texts, including the Manusmriti, a temple priest need not have been a Brahmin, but a Yajna priest usually was brahmin only.

Misunderstandings about caste-system would not sustain itself once there is even a moderate understanding and exposure about its origin, beliefs, systems and values become wide spread.

 

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August 12, 2008 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems |

2 Comments »

  1. The caste system has always boggled me. I know this was more of an informative post but what are your thoughts exactly on its purpose and effectiveness? I have several friends who have families that still strictly follow the caste system. I know that for much of the religious/cultural practices of India, its something you have to be born into.

    The explanation I received for its purpose is to preserve tradition, culture and the family name. I definitely see value in that but ultimately, the impenetrable hierarchy astounds me. People break of relationships because they cannot marry below their caste in the YEAR 2010?! India has technologically, economically and socially progressed in many ways but has clung to the caste system in the name of religious and cultural preservation. This preservation is noteworthy but to belittle one and place unjustified importance on the other based on outdated occupations is unjust.

    I think that the different groups should exist but the hierarchy is completely unnecessary. Am I missing something here?

    Comment by Tareen Alam | September 24, 2010 | Reply

    • In modern societies, especially in the West, wealth is generally associated with power, authority and social status. Traditionally India is not a materialistic society. Its systems have separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement in knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. Earlier the greatness of a person, institution or a nation was judged on the basis of the degree of righteousness and justice, with which the administration governed lives of the people, and not on the basis of the size of a state or its treasury. Similarly, in the society, a person or a caste was ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power.
      True that it is a system of social stratification. But stratification on the basis of caste depends on the difference of various social groups from each other in natural endowments, intelligence, aptitudes, attitudes, skills, personal needs and other innate characteristics.
      In modern societies, especially in the West, wealth is generally associated with power, authority and social status. In India its systems have separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement in knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. Earlier the greatness of a person, institution or a nation was judged on the basis of the degree of righteousness and justice, with which the administration governed lives of the people, and not on the basis of the size of a state or its treasury. Similarly, in the society, a person or a caste was ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power. Therefore, in caste system, distribution of wealth and social respect is not done on the basis of bank balance, one has. Caste system actually is a way of living, where social respect one earns through ones deeds. The persons/groups with spritual bent of mind and knowledge are given the highest respect, to whatever caste they belong.
      Misunderstandings about caste-system would not sustain itself once there is even a moderate understanding about its practices in today’s ground realities and exposure about its origin, beliefs, systems and values become wide spread.
      Assimilation of different social groups without conversion- In the past, caste assimilated numerous social groups – immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or others into its mainstream without any conversion. It assigned each incoming new group a separate caste identity and made them its integral part in due course of time. This way, neither it disturbed its existing internal social order nor prevented new groups to join the mainstream. It did not annihilate their faith, way of living, internal order, customs, culture or language. Instead, it gave them freedom to prosper according to their internal rhythm.
      Caste regarded as a natural institution by Hindus – Indian society regards family, extended family, Kula, Caste and religion as fundamental social institutions. An individual is a natural member of a family, which is a unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula, Kula of a tribe (Vish) – and a tribe of a Jana of Jati (Caste). Caste is second only to the family in widening a person’s social radius and in getting importance in his/her private and occupational life.
      Equal status to all within a caste – All the members within a caste enjoy equal social status vise-a-vise other castes. They share moments of joy and sorrow. A person’s relation with members of his caste are closer than with those belonging to other castes. Caste values, beliefs, prejudices, injunctions as well as distortions of reality becomes an indivisible part of a person’s psyche and conscience.
      Internalized caste norms define an individual role in the society. Earlier a person felt good and loved, when one lived up to these norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgressed them.
      Caste providing social security and stability – Caste provides to all its members social security and stability. Each caste maintains its own rules, regulations, customs, way of life and controls the conduct of its members. It encourages self-discipline, conscious, self-control, self-direction. Earlier, instead of government, elders (having sense of belonging, not a desire to exercise authority) took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped its destitute/helpless members.
      Castes as a series of vertical parallels – The key, to understand the caste system, is not in seeing it as a framework of hierarchical layers of social order each fitting neatly below the other, as pointed out by census operations done during imperial rule, but as a series of vertical parallels. Each caste is an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity.
      Inter-dependence an integral part of caste system – In ancient and medieval India, all people living in a village or city were bound together by economic and social ties. All castes living in a local area, whether high or low, had a strong bond of mutual dependence, caring, sharing and supporting each other in fulfilling different kind of needs. There was hardly any room for any section of society to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. Concept of forwards or backwards or feeling of exploitation of lower strata by upper castes was almost non-existent at that time. Industrialization and modernization have changed the scene.
      Ranking – In the past, considerations of self-discipline, hygiene, cleanliness, morality, knowledge, spirituality of different castes and usefulness of their work to the society as a whole were the factors to determine social, economic or political status of a group in society vise-a vise others. Higher a caste, purer it was considered, and greater were the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals.

      Mobility – Mobility of individuals from one caste to another was restricted in the past. But upward mobility of a group in the social scale was though difficult, but not impossible. Ancient India had allowed upward mobility of a caste possible through good deeds by adopting more orthodox practices, cleaner habits, self-discipline and observance of rituals or the position of a caste could be improved. This way, lower-castes were encouraged to follow discipline in life. Now different castes are racing to get a tag of backward castes.
      At present, caste-system has become more liberal and less restrictive in all walks of life. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes means little, while earlier it meant complete social ostracism. Old style of authority and power exercised by caste-elders has already diminished. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas. Traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality are loosing its importance.

      Comment by latasinha | September 29, 2010 | Reply


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