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What is caste system?

”In modern understanding of ‘caste-system’, element of ‘caste’ has been highlighted and misstated; and element of ‘system’ has been suppressed.”

Caste-system in India

Caste system has given Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life, and sense of direction. Castes had its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. It is one of the dominant features running through its entire social fabric.

Issue

In modern times, intellectuals and political leaders, both in India and abroad, consider ‘caste’ a problematic, complicated and derogatory word. They hold caste-system responsible for mind-blowing disparities, discrimination and exploitation. In such a situation, it would be interesting to see what actually ‘caste-system is? How and when did it come into existence? What are the salient features of caste system? Has it become obsolete in modern India? If not, then how much influence, the system still exercise over the minds of common-men in India? How can such an institution be discarded, which has so many qualities of good organization?

What is caste system?

A mechanism to assimilate new groups – ’Caste system’ has provided a mechanism, through which numerous discrete tribes/social groups could be internalized in the mainstream of the society. As more and more indigenous and foreign groups desired to merge into the Hindu-fold in the past, caste system came into existence.

Origin in Varna System – Vedic ‘Varna’ system gave rise to caste system. Numerous castes and sub-castes emerged within each Varna. However, the four Varnas and their order in precedence remained the same. Caste system has taken different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Its character is different in the context of village, locality, region or religion.

Assimilated various groups under one umbrella – The assimilation of various groups, be it racial, immigrants, locals, tribal, professional or others was done under Hindu society cordially through caste-system at different points of time by assigning each new group by assigning each new group a separate caste identity. Caste-system has created a plural society long long ago. The beauty of the system was that the main society as a whole remained stable, even while offering a place to new groups within the main-stream.

Preserved carefully the culture of new in-coming groups – Caste system never tried to liquidate or absorb new groups artificially into its main stream. Rather it gave them opportunity to come under one umbrella, to preserve their own culture, style of living and traditions, as also an atmosphere to flourish in their own way. While other races and their systems have converted people belonging to other faiths into their own faith, imposing on them their own value system, caste-system has absorbed other groups as whole into itself without annihilating their originality, internal order, customs or language.

Why caste-system came into existence

Natural response – As Basham says, 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 known as ‘Hinduism’.

Assimilation did not disturbed then existing social order – Hindu society had assigned each new group a separate caste name and included it within its folds without disturbing its existing social order. That is the reason for having a large number of castes in India.
Each new-coming group allowed to flourish – It never prevented any new group from developing within its own parameters and preserving its specialties and indigenous culture. Each group was allowed to maintain its own rules, regulations, customs, ways of life, beliefs in its own god/goddess and control the conduct of its members.

Basis of ranking different castes – Different social groups were fitted well from time to time as a integral part of the whole society on the basis of their being ritually clean or unclean, nature of work and amount of self-discipline they exercised. As far as castes are concerned, they rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed from time to time.

Developed a composite culture – The culture of each identity, coming into its fold, has been carefully nurtured and preserved. Hindu society has absorbed the good points of other cultures as well, which has enriched the composite culture of India.

Today more than anywhere else in the world, it holds a multitude of thoughts, processes them and practices them. There has been co-existence of varied belief, pattern and thought due to inter-mixing and cultural mingling.

Adaptability of Caste- system, its savior – Caste- system has survived the vicissitudes of time, saved itself by erosion from within and assault from outside only because of the adaptability. Numerous castes and sub-castes emerged within each Varna. However, the four ‘Varnas’ and their order in precedence remained the same. Caste system has taken different shades and meaning with the changing times and places.

A continuous and uninterrupted living culture – Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. Its character is different in the context of village, locality, region or religion. Once changed, the system never returned to its original form. Its absorptive nature has internalized alien influences. That is why, it presents one of the oldest social institution and a continuous and uninterrupted living culture still existing in the whole world.

Caste for a common-man in India – For a common man, caste appears to be a fundamental social institution – a natural, inevitable unit of society. An individual is a natural member of a family, which is the unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula, Kula of a tribe (Vish) – and a tribe of a Jana of Jati (Caste). In a way, 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.

Closer-relationship with caste-fellows – A person’s relation with members of his caste is 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. Caste norms define an individual role in the society. It makes one feel good and loved, when he lives up to the norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgresses them. It still provides an individual with social security.

Salient features of Caste-system– Following salient features have been the same throughout allover India –

Respect for knowledge – Varna/Caste-system has given a high regard to knowledge, wisdom, virtues, characters and will power. Knowledge has always been given importance. It is considered essential for the purpose of giving activities their due meaning and value. According to Hindu philosophy even a wise man may get puzzled without knowledge, as to what he should do or should not do. It is only after the acquisition of knowledge, that a person could understand the real nature of work and could distinguish correctly between action, forbidden action, and inaction.

Ranking not on the basis of material successes – Brahmins were given the highest respect in the past, not because of their material successes, but for their learning, character, spirituality and ability to guide the masses. A powerful Emperor, like Ashoka the great, thought it his duty, to bow before the monks “as a mark of my deep respect for their learning, wisdom and sacrifice. What matters in life, are not a person’s status or position, but his virtues and wisdom. Only when you have raised yourself up from ignorance, can you recognize the greatness of a few in a sea of humanity.

Seeds of liberalism – In ancient times, caste system had the seeds of liberalism. It provided the right and opportunity to get to the top from the humblest origin and earn the respect of the whole society. For example, ‘Vashishtha’, the principal of the conservative school of Brahmanism, was the son of ‘Uravshi’, a prostitute. ‘Vishwamitra’, the maker of the very ‘Gayatri’ Mantra, the quintessence of the Vedic Brahmanism, was a Kshatriya. ‘Aitreya’, after whom the sacramental part of Rig-Veda is named as ‘Aitreya Brahamana’, was the son from a non-Aryan wife of a Brahman sage. ‘Vyasa’ of Mahabharata fame was the son of a fish-woman and he was not ashamed of his origin. ‘Balmiki’, an untouchable according to present standards, the original author of Ramayana, is highly respected all over India.

Disassociation between Wealth and Status – In Western societies, wealth has always been associated with power, authority and social status. India has never been a materialistic society. Caste system has separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement in knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. The greatness of a state is judged on the basis of the degree of righteousness and justice, with which the administration governs lives of the people, and not on the basis of the size of a state or its treasury. Similarly, in the society, status of a person or a caste is ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power.

Stress on duty – Whereas, Western cultures have grown around the idea of `rights‘ forming the natural foundation of human relationship, caste system evolves around the concept of “duty, tolerance and sacrifice”. Emphasis on duty usually makes a person or a group humble and tolerant.

Rituals to discipline masses – Discipline was inculcated amongst ignorant masses and a sense of direction was given to them through infinite variety of rituals, prayers, practices, customs and meditation. At present, its place has been taken over by the laws of a nation, which are enforced on the masses by state authorities to keep them disciplined. Fear of punishment compels the mobs to observe the rules and regulations set-up by state authorities.

Stopped people from taking law in their own hands – In this system, sacrifice is regarded far more important than success and renunciation as the crowning achievement. Such an attitude prevented ancient India to exercise coercion against its working class, whereas in ancient Greece, Rome or other European countries, people were made to work under the threat of a whip. It stopped people from taking law in their own hands.

While other nations have passed through many bloody revolutions, India kept on adapting itself to changing times. Its value-system helps people to adjust themselves, without much difficulty, to most drastic changes. India has achieved its freedom in a peaceful manner under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. People, here, are filled with a sense of duty.

Ranking of different castes– Earlier ranking of different castes was earlier dependent on their relative purity, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards. Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene and cleanliness on the basis of climatic conditions of the region were given importance. Every caste was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. The system of each caste having a specific position in the society and a specific work to do with its rights and duties boosted the morale of the people and promoted social equilibrium and solidarity.

No group at disadvantageous position – Varna system was so conceived by the sages that there was hardly any room for any Varna to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater were the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. Brahmins, occupying the highest place in the society, were put under maximum restrictions and were denied accumulation of wealth. They were directed to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits.

After the Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution of India assured all its citizens – EQUALITY of status; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution confers Fundamental rights of “Equality before law.” Article 15 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16 assures equality of opportunity in matters of public employment.

Equitable System – Caste system has been associated, more or less, with social position of each caste group, the restrictions and privileges in matters of social intercourse and clearly defined rights and duties. Though the caste system believes in segmental ranking of different caste groups, according to their relevance and contribution to the society, it has placed all the individuals, within a caste group – rich or poor – on the same footing.

All members within a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress. A person’s relation with members of his caste remains closer and equal than with those belonging to other castes. His relations with other castes are usually formal. All the members of a caste share moments of joy and sorrow with each other. Establishment of Uniform law code – a nationwide civil, criminal and commercial legal system by British and its uniform application to all castes and communities helped in bringing in the parity.

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, 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. In the past, there was not much disparity between different castes or between urban and rural people. Concepts of forward castes or backward castes, disparities between different sections of society and exploitation of the weak were almost non-existent. All this is a development of last hundred and fifty years.

Interdependence – Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system. It was practically impossible for a single caste to fulfill all its needs by itself. Local semi-autonomous nature of Caste system has made all the people self-sufficient and capable to fulfill their needs. Every regional area produced enough to fulfill the basic needs of its people. The society had control over its natural resources.

Now, with the emergence of Global society, people have been divided into different watertight compartments. They want full independence and do not care for others with the result that dependence on market forces has increased to fulfill even their basic needs, for which they need enough money.

Bond between Individual and Caste – Every individual has a caste. There has been a close bond between individual and the society and individual and the occupation through caste, which has held them together. People help their caste fellows in times of need/emergency. Earlier the placement of power and access to authority was through the network of kinship and community.

Employment, dignity and honour for all – The unique feature of caste system was that it provided work and employment to everyone. There was no dearth of employment opportunities for persons willing to work or wanting to become soldiers. Caste system inspired people to do their jobs well, as all worldly honour and spiritual happiness were vested there. It assured the people that proper performance of one’s work, whether high or humble, whether of a priest, warrior, Shudra or yogi were equally important for the society and were, therefore, right, respectable and worth pursuing. It provided the whole society a quality of life.

Now the government has taken over the responsibility of providing jobs to its people. The trend has adversely affected the work-culture. Also it has become a big challenge for the government to give employment to all according to their capabilities and keep everybody satisfied.

Division of Labour – Caste system is based on the principle of “division of labor”. All the functions needed for the maintenance and growth of the society have divided among various groups appropriately. Each caste group has been assigned a distinct function to perform. There was no confusion or frustration on matter of work earlier, because every body had his traditional occupation. Each and every caste serves the needs of Indian community.

Its own system of checks and balances – All people earlier lived with dignity and honour with the feeling that they, too, were contributing something to the society. Clear-cut definition of rights and duties for each caste based on its traditional occupation, developed a clear vision of one’s responsibilities. The separation of rights and duties combined with the principle of inter dependence provided its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority. There was an automatic decentralization of authority.

Assignment of work – Assignment of work was based on attitude , aptitude of individuals, on certain fundamental principles and realities of life. According to Indian philosophy all people do not have the same attitude and aptitude. There are variations in their physical strength, mental capacity and moral aspirations, like and dislikes, inclination and expectations.

Hindu philosophy believed that the whole world of activities was a result of complex intermixing of three basic qualities of human nature – goodness (Satwa), Passion (Rajas) and dullness (Tamas). `Goodness” was associated with purity, peace and knowledge; `Passion” with comfort and action; and `Tamas” with ignorance, sloth, sleep and carelessness. These qualities determined the tendencies, potentialities, limitations, traits and character of different individuals and give them direction for action. `Adharma” (immoral behavior), “Alasya” (laziness) and Agyan (ignorance) are usually responsible for evils, exploitation, and miseries of the people.

Earlier different activities were assigned to different groups according to its natural endowment/inclinations, qualities and aptitudes/psychological characteristics. Brahmins having `Sat” or `austerity” were assigned the work of pursuing knowledge. Rajas” quality of Kashtriyas was befitting for actions of courage, bravery, power and protection of the weak. Initially, according to “Smritis” it was not birth, but the qualities and deeds, which fitted one into a particular group. But, later on, upbringing, atmosphere and convenience tended to make these groups hereditary.

At present, it is the choice of an individual to decide for ones career and acquire qualifications accordingly through formal education and training.

Natural leaders – Don Martindale said that India possessed a reservoir of natural leaders – Brahman trained in literary skills and Kashitryas in art of leadership. Most of them were sensitive and caring and totally devoted to their profession. It was with their sincere efforts that numerous reforms were sought and the nation entered the modern era without any cultural break.

Natural training without investment – The Caste system transmitted the traits of a trade, intelligence abilities, experiences, values and skills from one generation to another in a natural way. People, while growing up, learnt the secrets of their trade, hidden intricacies, solutions of their occupational problems, informally from their elders. It gave them confidence and saved them from confusion or unhealthy competition. Being in constant contact with the family occupation, it was natural for the people to learn maximum about their traditional occupations.

Specialization– The Caste 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. It was encouraged with religious and semi-religious sanctions. 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.

Mobility- Caste system in its earlier ideology did not restrict mobility. Mobility from one caste to another, was though difficult, but not impossible. Through good deeds, the position of a caste could be improved. Caste system developed the practice of making mobility possible, not for an individual, but for the whole group. Upward mobility could be gained by a caste, either by change in geographical locations, or improving ritual status leading to self-discipline.

It gave an incentive to groups belonging to lower strata to adopt more orthodox practices, cleaner habits, self-discipline and observance of the rules of Smrities in order to rise in the social scale.`Kayastha” community, which is an amalgam of groups from all the four Varnas, secured for itself a place next to Brahmins through its intellectual pursuits, specialization in revenue work and observance of rituals.

From fourteenth to the eighteenth century, people from all strata of society including the lowest joined army. There was no discrimination in the recruitment and treatment of soldiers of any kind on the basis of caste. Rajput status was given to soldiers.

Conclusion

As is evident, institution of ‘Caste’ contains all the essentials of an organization, whether social, political or economic, which help its smooth functioning like it –

• Provides a stable, sustainable social structure based on Principle of Varna.

•Satisfies all biological as well as psychological needs of its members as an individual and as a group.
•Follows the principle of Division of labour.
•De-centralizes control systems.
•Defines clearly duties and vocations for different sections of society,
•Prepares an atmosphere for Specialisation

•Balances various activities, no activity either be over-valued or under-valued.

•Believes inself-discipline, inter-dependence, mutual respect for each other, trust and tolrence.

• Creates Team spirit to secure coordination, peace and prosperity for all.

The system had been able to provide such an atmosphere in the past that when the world was passing through the Dark Age, India was full of light. The first few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. During this period, arts, commerce, crafts, philosophy and knowledge flourished magnificently. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas.It has become rich in literary, philosophical and religious fields.

It was a cheerful land. 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”.Recently U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbrigth remarked, “While he had seen poverty in many countries of the world, he found an unusual attribute among the poor of India. There is richness in their poverty. They did not count wealth in money alone”.

Many travelers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. German scholars, in the early Nineteenth Century and English scholars in the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century were deeply fascinated by its scriptures and translated it in their languages.

After the Independence, spread of education, process of modernization, industrialization, attempts of reformers and growing awareness of the masses have made caste less restrictive and rigid. The system allows its members a greater degree of freedom in all walks of life. The post Independence era witnessed the castes becoming socially more and more liberal. Children are brought up in a much more homogenous atmosphere. The ideas, beliefs and values, have changed to a great extent.

The traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality, have started disappearing. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life. The old style of authority of caste-elders in every day life has already diminished. Unquestioned obedience or following blindly orders of family or caste elders is no longer there. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes means little. Through Constitution itself, there is free access to public places to everybody, irrespective of caste or creed.

In social life, caste continues to excercise considerable influence on the minds of its respective members. It still meets important needs of its members more than any political or economic institution. People rely on it for moral and emotional support during normal times, as well as during crisis. That is why an ordinary person is reluctant to abondon the institution of caste, which has proven its value.Cadte system still acts as a strong cementing force that binds all the caste together into under one umbrella i.e. Hinduism from one end of the country to the other. Caste hadalways been and are still a well-accepted and well established reality of Indian social system.

But its entry into politics, in modern times, has made it rigid and led the Indians towards caste-ism, because of which all the communities are facing hardships. There is centralization of control systems. There is cut-throat competition and rivalry/bitterness for pelf, power or position now allover in India. Besides, total aversion o f youth from their traditional occupation has rendered millions of them unemployed or underemployed, thus wasting their time, energy and efforts. This they could have utilized for constructive purposes.

Some leaders, intellectuals and social reformers want to replace caste system by creating a new social order, common men are reluctant to abandon the institution of caste, which has proven its value. Caste system still acts in India as a strong cementing force that binds all the castes together into a single system, known as Hinduism, from one end of the country to the other. Caste still continues to be a well-accepted and well-established reality of the Indian social life and its systems. It exercises considerable influence on the minds of its all Indians. It meets important needs of people more than any other institutions. People rely on it for moral and emotional support during normal times as well as during emergency/crisis.

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March 3, 2014 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems |

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