What is ‘caste system’? – ‘Past’ and ‘Present’
Some sort of classification or stratification is natural and necessary for every society, be it ancient or modern. The basis of stratification of various groups may differ – it may be occupational, economic, intellectual or social. Different groups and classes emerge in every society out of functional necessity as well, which need to be organized systematically.
All individuals in a society belong to one group or the other.Individuals differ from one another in natural endowments, intelligence, aptitudes, attitudes, skills, personal needs and other innate characteristics. Such differences are apt to give rise to the formations of different social groups.
A feeling, being different from other groups on account of differences in callings, problems and difficulties lead individuals to constitute independent groups. Each society is composed of a large number of groups. And it leads a society to stratification. which decentralizes authority and resources, makes management within each unit effective and organizes human and social behavior in tune with the objectives of the society.
Each society devises its own principles, ways and means to group its people in such a way, that each group, through its creative efforts in given position, can contribute to the sustainable development of the society. Such an arrangement, on one hand serves whole society by taking care of collective interests, purposes and aspirations of all its people, on the other; it serves interests of a person as an individual.
Even ancient and Medieval societies were divided into two, three, four or five well-marked status groups all over the world. There were Noblemen (Clergy and ruling class) Common free men and slaves.Stratification was further divided into the privileged, middle and lower underprivileged class. In ancient Iran, there were four Pistras or classes – Priests, Warriors husbandman and artisans.
In ancient Egypt, three principal classes – landowners, serfs and slaves existed. Ancient Roman society was divided into Patricians, Plebeians and slavery. Later during the 18th dynasty, there were at least four classes – soldiers, priests, craftsman and serfs. existed all over the world. From time immemorial,
Chinese society, has been divided into Gentlemen, Agriculturists, Artisans and Merchants. In Japan from 12th to middle of 19th century, the society was divided into five distinct groups – hereditary soldiers, farmers, artisans, traders and pariahs or out-castes (Eta and Henin communities).
After revolution of 1867-78 up to present day, three classes are established by law – nobility, gentry and common people. In Mexico, the population is distinctly divided into Spaniards, Half-breed and pure Indians with numerous sub-divisions.
In modern world, usually anthropologists, historians and sociologists identify ‘class’ as universal basis of stratification within a society. For them, it is difficult to understand and appreciate Hindu system of stratification, which is based on ‘caste-system’. They are mystified by amazing pluralities and unique social structure.
Caste system is an indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. Its complete localization and unfamiliarity with rest of world made the task more difficult. They criticize Indian society being “a highly stratified society”, where Caste system has provided a mechanism to stratify various social groups in India. To them caste has divided the Indian population into vast number of groups, each one being distinct and having diverse thinking and life styles.
Stratification on the basis of caste may be called one of the oldest systems of stratification in the world. The process of the mixing up of the native culture of land with Aryan culture evolved this system of stratification.
All incoming groups were welcomed and accommodated in Hinduism on their own terms. It legitimized their beliefs, behavior patterns and life styles with freedom to evolve and change according to their internal rhythm. Thousands of endogamous groups existing in Indian society, were termed as caste or ‘jaati’.
Originally caste or grouping of different individuals was based on their qualities, aptitude and occupation as enunciated in Hindu scriptures. Over time, due to economic and social factors, caste system became a traditional, hereditary system of social stratification.
Hindu philosophy believed that whole world of activities is a result of complex intermixing of three basic qualities of human nature – goodness (Satwa) associated with purity, peace and knowledge; Passion (Rajas)with comfort and action; and dullness (Tamas) with ignorance, sloth, sleep and carelessness.These qualities determines physical strength, mental capacity, aspirations, likes and dislikes, inclinations, expectations, tendencies, potentialities, limitations, traits and character of individuals and gave them direction for action.
According to their natural instincts and qualities Manu, who set norms of Ancient Indian society, classified Hindu society into four Varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold and assigned duties – classified Hindu society into four Varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold and assigned duties Brahmins having flair for learning and possessing intellectual/spiritual qualities to preach, Kshtriyas having warrior skills and men of action to rule and defend the community, Vaishyas having business acumen to carry on business, and Shudras unable to do above three tasks or conquered ones to do service.
The system of classification in ancient India worked well when society of a local area was small and simple. It had made the nation a cheerful land. There was no rivalry or bitterness for pelf, power or position in ancient India. Many travelers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time confirmed it.
The system had made India rich in literary, philosophical and religious fields. Vast treasures of rational thinking, social and religious experiences, evolution of traditional culture etc. are contained in its scriptures. German scholars, in the early Nineteenth Century and English scholars in the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century were deeply fascinated by it.
Apart from it, the system served as a spawning bed for social and technical skills. By its very nature, it encouraged the development and preservation of local skills. There was a tendency to bring in the most diversified skills to high level of excellence. Assignment of different functions to different communities led to the transfer of knowledge and expertise, from one generation to another, through inheritance and evolved an atmosphere, where a high level of Specialization and wisdom in different areas of activities could be achieved.
People still have faith in good intentions and wisdom of their ancestors, who contributed in building social culture of India. Almost all the principles of good organisation are found in the system like “team-spirit”, “Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam” (whole world is one family), “live and let live”, “Self restraint”, “automatic checks and balances” “division of labour” along with “to each according to his needs and from each according to his capacity” etc.
It was because of it that in the past, its people could reach upto a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. It had contributed to all round growth of cultural heritage and encouraged self-discipline, consciousness, self-control and self-direction. Decentralized self-regulated systems directed all activities in social, political, and economic life and controlled its malfunctioning or disfunctioning.
Authority/power was decentralised. Each caste was an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity. There was not much disparity between different castes or between urban and rural people. It prepared an atmosphere for co-existence of different groups and provided unity of culture throughout India. It gave Indian society coherence, stability and continuity.
Each person found a niche in the social system. An average Indian, according to Dr. Albert Swheitzen, “Did not find life a vale of tears, from which to escape at all costs, rather he was willing to accept the world, as he finds it and, extract, what happiness he could, from it”. Former U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbrigth remarked that he found “an unusual attribute among the poor of India. There is richness in their poverty. They did not count wealth in money alone.”
However, in the beginning of Twentieth century, like modern Manu, in 1901 census, Risley, then the Census Commissioner, India, invented a new method to stratify Indian society. Earlier Hindu Society was classified into four varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold. Instead of four Vernas, British rulers created five new unbridgeable compartments within Indian social structure. – Backward caste, forward caste (caste Hindus), untochable or sceduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority. Through legal process, they gave each one a new seperate and distinct identity.
The new method of stratifying Indian society has changed the older system in a fundamental way giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. It led to castism in politics. He recorded and placed numerous castes into Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes or in categories of outcastes and aborigines and put them in hierarchical order.Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, “We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community. We deplore its effect on social and economic problems”… “The government’s act for labels and pigeon-holes had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which, except amongst the aristocratic caste, was really very fluid under indigenous rule.” This division remains a by-word even for the present-day political leaders of Independent India.
The process of Census enumeration was far from neutral. Through it, British rulers in India made an effort to chalk out strategies for the colonial governance. They retained distinctions between different sub-castes, relevant to them for organizing labor and homogenized all those sub-castes, for which they had no use, therefore, no interest. All the floating population like Gujjars, Bhattis, Ranger Rajputs, who remained out-side caste system were fused into one. Census operations kept Brahmins at periphery and instigated other castes against them, because British administrators, Christian Missionaries and Orientalists considered them as potential threat to British rule.
The consequences of this system has been that Indians got away from their roots. It made a virtue of narrow loyalties of caste and religion, generating sub-cultures like favoritism, lure for easy money, nepotism and, in-discipline in the society. Caste and communal conflicts increased. Sectarian and regional imbalances generated social and psychological tensions. Work culture has been degenerated. People lost faith not only in basic principles/systems of their own culture, but also in themselves and their fellow-beings. Favoritism, in-discipline, violence, corruption, and chase of materialism based on ruthless competition have weakened social fabric beyond repair. A few Individuals and groups, with political, money or muscle power control destiny of millions and have a say in almost every walk of national life. They work day and night to deny justice to ordinary citizens. Erosion of basic moral and human values has turned life of men, “nasty, brutish and short”. Scientific progress has endowed him with tremendous power both to preserve and destroy, but at slightest provocation, they do not hesitate to unleash its destructive powers accessible to them. Swami Vivekanand had said, “It is we, who are responsible for our degradation.”
Real India does not believe in words/theories/doctrines only, but realizes it in real life – not in only believing but also in being and becoming. Seeing the way, the great philosophers dream-t of stratifying an ideal society, was already practiced by ancient India in real life. Many people still regard it as one of the most scientific social system of classification ever evolved anywhere in the world.
Swami Vivekanand had once said “Each nation like each individual has a theme in this life, which is its center, the principle note, around which every other note comes to form the harmony. If any nation attempts to throw off its national vitality or the direction, which has become its own through the transmission of centuries, it dies.” C. Rajgopalachari said, “If there is honesty in India today, any hospitality, any charity- any aversion to evil, any love to be good, it is due to whatever remains of the old faith and the old culture”. Don Martindale says, that the system of stratification on caste basis has “succeeded in doing in India, what no state, no conqueror and no economy was able to do – the establishment of a single unified system of society throughout the whole of India,… (accommodating numerous semi-autonomous communities arising at many times and in many places), a system of society, which was able to comprise a greater range of local differences in a single system than any society has previously accomplished” and “at the same time bring considerable unity, harmony and condition of peace.”
Traditional systems and way of living is always like anchor, keeping our boat in safe harbor. Once that the anchor goes away, the boat is left at the mercy of wild waves on a stormy ocean. As far as stratification of Indian society to adopt caste as basis is concerned, neither it could be said to be unusual nor to be an exception to the universal rules of stratification.
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