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Origin of caste system of India

The origin of Caste-system can not be found in one single authoritative text, nor can it be attributed to one single founder. It evolved in a natural way over thousands of years. The experiences and deep thinking of many learned sages and intellectuals belonging to different communities at different points of time have contributed to evolve this system. It is a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India.

As Basham has pointed out, Caste system may well be called a natural response to many small and primitive groups of people, who were forced to come to terms, with a more advanced economic and social system. It provided a mechanism, by which numerous discrete tribes could be, all sorts of groups and associations arising for political, sectarian or other reasons could be internalized and preserved within the whole.

Caste is the development of thousands of years of the association of many racial and other groups in a single cultural systemi. The arrival of Aryans hereditary kinship and tribal groups in India in waves, from different parts of the world and their mixing up with the indigenous people (popularly known as Hindus) gave birth Varna-system of Vedic culture.

The beginning of the system can be traced from the times of pastoral tribal society, when people started forming small groups mostly living in hilly areas, not far from rivers. Tribal communities were nomadic or semi nomadic and egalitarian. They depended on nature for its subsistence.

Gradually pastoral tribal society transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. Agricultural society leisurely evolved its structures and systems over about 2000 years (roughly between 2000 BC to about 600 BC) and kept on coping with the changes slowly, time had brought in. As reflected in ‘Rigveda’, when people ceased to be a wandering people, started the early stages of Vedic Age.

Clans and tribes settled permanently in different parts of the country. Possession of land, slaves and hired laborers started. People hardly possessed more than what was needed for their subsistence/survival. The practice of cultivation, rise of crafts and iron tools transformed the egalitarian society into fully agricultural and stratified society sometime during 6th century BC.

After entering into India, first Aryans conquered its original inhabitants of Northern part of India, colonized and established kingdoms, then Deccan and then south. During the period, it was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes. Initially a simple class division was seen in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. The units of social-political organizations were family, clan, village, tribe and Jana. Family was the unit of society headed by father. Three or four generations lived together, and probably owned property in common. A number of families living in one locality formed grama (village). A number of such fighting units dwelling in a particular region constituted constituted a vis (canton). Jana (a group of tribes) consisted of a number of such cantons, with a king as their ruler.

 In the beginning, Varna – meaning color – guided the division of the society. Starting with arrival of Aryans in waves and mixing up of their culture with native culture of the land evolved a social structure based on the principles of “Varna” (giving birth to caste system), “Dharma” and “Karma”, which together distributed, organized performance of various functions and contributed to the growth of Indian society. These principles gave Vedic society a distinct character, defined roles and organized inter-relationship of various sections of society.  Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. They spread their language and culture allover the North. Many changes started taking place in the life, manners, religion, language and literature of people.

Principle of ‘Varna’ had stratified Vedic society into four groups – Bramins (intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (Businessmen) and shudras (service providers) according to aptitudes, occupation and location of people. Aryans dependents of Brahmins and Kshatriyas were the subject class. Vaishyas followed the profession of agriculture or cattle raising and formed also the armed forces of their princes. The three classes were not rigidly separated. People, who were conquered and admitted into the fold of Aryan society, were looked upon as the lowest of the four classes. Conquered Kols and Dravid tribes formed the fourth class of Dasas or Shudras. Aryan princes did not regard Dasa princes as inferior, for they made alliances with them.

Possession of land, slaves and hired laborers started. People started producing and possessing more than they needed. The kings collected their surplus yields. The power of kings gradually increased. For regular collection, administrative and religious methods were devised.

As more and more indigenous and foreign groups were merged into the Hindu-fold, Vedic Varna system gave rise to caste system. For making place for new groups, caste system provided a mechanism. Through it, the job of assimilation of different tribal, local and immigrant groups was done cordially, at different points of time. Each new group joining it was given a separate caste identity. It neither disturbed the existing internal social order nor any new group was prevented from joining it and still allowed new groups to preserve its specialties and indigenous culture. It gave each one opportunities to develop within its own parameters. Thousands of endogamous groups were included into it. Each group was allowed to maintain its own rules, regulations, customs, way of life and power to control conduct of its members. However, principles of Varna, Dharma, and Karma remained the foundation stones of caste system and contributed to its growth in a systematic way.

Castes had its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. Different castes found their place under a Varna on the basis of their being ritually clean or unclean, nature of work and amount of self-discipline they exercised. Numerous castes and sub-castes emerged within each Varna. The four Varnas remained the same. These were never more or less than four. For over 2000 years, their order in precedence remained the same.  As far as castes were concerned, they rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed from time to time.

Perhaps, the first faint trace of caste is to be found in the careful cataloguing of traders and professions in later Vedic literature. Many traders were organized into guilds around 5th century AD, in which, some authorities have seen the origin of commercial castes. These can be seen as the castes in making. Even up to 7th century AD, people showed no clear knowledge of the existence of castes. Huan Tsang, in the Seventh century was well aware of the existence of Varna, but not of castes.

Later on, caste-system has became a dominant factor, a natural unit of Indian society, running through the entire fabric of its social structure. Slowly but steadily it got inseparably inter-twined with Indian way of life. So much and so that that, Muslims and Christians, Sikhs and Buddhist, living in India could not remain immune from it for long, though their respective religions believe in egalitarian society. They have, with all their equalitarian faith, formed caste groups within themselves.

Not only in the past, but at present also, caste system appears to be a valid and useful, a natural and inevitable unit of society. It is popular and commands respect and attention of majority of Indian masses of all sects present in India, whether foreign or indigenous. For them following four are fundamental social institutions. An individual is supposed to be 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 or Jati (Caste).

A person’s relations 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 are the indivisible part of a person’s psyche and conscience. Internalized caste norms defines an individual role in the society. It makes one feel good and loved, when he lives up to these norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgresses them. In a way, caste is still second only to the family in widening a person’s social radius and in getting importance in his/her private and occupational life.

Caste system has travelled a very long distance since its inception. Many changes took place in the system. Once changed, the system never returned to its original form.



November 18, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |


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