Fractured social structure of India
Introduction – Today, the social fabric in India has broken almost completely. Population has exploded virtually unchecked. There are sectoral and regional imbalances, which are sources of great social and psychological tensions. Science and technology have yet to make their full impact. Social change processes and the larger political turmoils have made a virtue of narrow loyalties of caste and religion and the sub-cultures like – favouritism, nepotism and corruption.
Social structure of India based on Varna/caste system – In India, Caste has its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. Varna system has given India people a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life, and sense of direction. Many structures, systems and principles have been evolved for the harmonious and peaceful living of all its members in a society throughout the world from time immemorial. They remained in vogue for some time, then faded and gave way to new structures, systems and concepts. However it does not apply to Indian society.
Evolved in a natural way -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. Over thousands of years, the experiences and deep thinking of many learned sages and intellectuals belonging to different communities have at different points of time have contributed to evolve the social structure of India. Its origin can not be found in one single authoritative text, nor can it be attributed to one single founder. It has taken thousands of years to develop with the association of numerous social groups into it at different point of time. It started with the arrival of Aryans hereditary kinship and tribal groups in India in waves, from different parts of the world. Their mixing up with the indigenous people (popularly known as Hindus) gave birth to Indian social structure based on caste system. Varna/caste is one of the dominant features still running through the entire social fabric of India.
A unique system – In the past, the social structure of India, as Don Martindale says, succeeded in doing 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. It “succeeded in wielding an enormously varied plurality of semi-autonomous communities arising at many times and in many places and adopting themselves to many different conditions into a single system of society.
Salient features of Caste System – Caste system derives its strength from the basic principles of Varna, Dharma and Karma. Principle of Varna gives Indian Society a stable, sustainable and a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life and sense of direction. Principles of Dharma and Karma ensures the continuity despite numerous foreign invasions, migrations and assimilation of various groups. Caste system could survive for such a long period because –
- Principles of a good organization – Almost all principles of a good organization are found in caste system. It provides strong structure based on principles of ‘Varna, Dharma and Karma”, keeps its members comfortable and satisfied, assigns duties to different sections of society according to their natural instincts and qualities and instills amongst people feeling of interdependence and team-spirit etc. Caste-system believes in lofty principles like “Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam” (whole world is one family), “live and let live”, “Self restraint”, “automatic checks and balances” “division of labor” along with “to each according to his needs and from each according to his capacity” etc. etc.
- Assimilation without conversion- Caste system is a natural response of mixing up of numerous social multi-ethnic groups with indigenous groups of the land into a single cultural system. Beauty of caste system lies in the way; it assimilated numerous social groups coming from different parts of the world at different points of time in waves.– immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or others – into its mainstream. Unlike Islam or Christianity, it has brought them under one umbrella without any conversion.
- Caste as a mechanism for inclusion of other groups – Caste system worked as a mechanism, assigning each incoming new group a separate caste identity. Society remained stable, while offering a place to a new community. The system neither disturbed its existing internal social order nor prevented any new group to develop itself. Without any conversion, caste system made new groups its integral part. It never tried to annihilate their faith, originality, internal order, customs, culture or language. Instead, it gave them freedom to prosper/make changes into their systems according to their internal rhythm.
- Based on the vision of an organic society – Caste-system is based on the “vision” of an organic society. Society as an organic body needs services of all its constituents equally. Each part has been assigned a particular function. All the parts are equally important and indispensible, need equal attention for its growth and care for balanced growth of the whole system. Coordinated functioning of all parts together keeps whole system fit and alive.
- Employment, dignity and honor 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 honor 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.
- Basis of segmental-ranking – Though the caste system believed in segmental ranking of different caste groups, according to their relevance and contribution to the society, it placed all the individuals, within a caste group – rich or poor – on the same footing. All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress. Elders took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped the members, who were weak and helpless.
- Ranking – Varna system was so conceived by the genius 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 ranking of different castes was dependent on the nature and social relevance of their work, contribution of their work for social subsistence, efforts required to perform their duties and amount of self restraint/self discipline, they exercise, 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 also given importance, while ranking different castes.
- Stress on self-restraint and self-discipline – 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. 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.The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater was the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. 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.
- Inter-dependence – All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring” for each other. No caste took an all India character. There was no nationwide hierarchy of castes. However, in a local area, the relative standing of castes was more or less fixed. All local castes, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended and supported for fulfilling different kind of needs and cared for each other. All people living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Rituals required the participation of all castes.
- Local character – Local character and semi-autonomous nature of caste system made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system making each local area self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people. People living in a local area shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. All castes including untouchables were assigned important social duties. Harijan women helped all castes at time of child-birth. Harijan males beat drums in front of Hindu’s houses or in front of a procession on important occasions/ceremonies. Village barber spread news, arranged marriages and served food during celebrations. Occasionally non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. The key, to understand the caste system, was 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 was an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity. All the castes were independent, yet their roles complementary.
- Not much disparity – There was not much disparity between different castes or between urban and rural people. The concepts of forward castes or backward castes, disparities between different sections of society and exploitation of the weak were almost non-existent earlier. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long.
- Automatic checks and balances – Decentralized self-regulated systems managed various activities in social, intellectual, political, and economic life and controlled its malfunctioning or dis-functioning. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group. There was not a single group identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. Laws remained unmodified and flexible with the capacity to adapt to local customs and situations. People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers. The system made upper castes generous in matters of food, drinks and loans, when required. The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. In fact, non-Kshatriya peasant provided leadership of most armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. The Brahmin strongholds were the centers of learning. The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, who remained outside caste system, were so strong, that they terrorized settled agriculturists for centuries. Forests, which competed with arable land in size and importance, till the 18th century, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society. Thus, from time to time, and place to place, different castes rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed.
- More stress on duties – The system clearly specifies duties, privileges and restrictions of each role separately and managed relationship with others. It encourages self-discipline, self-control and self-direction. Sprees on one’s responsibilities/duties rather than on rights, combined with principle of inter- dependence provides its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority and leads to automatic decentralization of authority.
- Flexibility and adaptability – Caste system took different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its adaptability and absorptive nature has pronged its life. The system evolved its structures and systems leisurely and kept on coping with the slow changes, time brought in. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in context of village, locality, region or religion.
- High level of intelligence and specialization – Caste-system worked so well and efficiently in ancient India that when the world was passing through Dark Age, India was full of light. First few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. Caste system had wisely organized all activities of society properly.
- Acted as a shield – During medieval India, caste system was a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway even after mass conversion. Though many evil practices developed in the system during this period, but it acted as a shield for Hindus to retain their cultural identity, while living under alien rule, whether it was of Mughals, Portuguese or British.
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. Many travelers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. It was a cheerful land. Each person found a niche in the social system. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. It was a cheerful land.
Caste inseparably inter-twined with Indian way of life – 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.
Caste still a strong social institution – 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).
Caste second only to family – 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.
Indian society has travelled a very long distance since then. Many changes have taken place in the system especially during centuries of Muslim and British rule in the country. As time passed on, vested interests in each era had distorted or interpreted the original concepts in the manner, which suited to their purpose. Many deformities and rigidities had developed into system to preserve its indigenous identity and culture.
Contains all essentials of a good organization – In short, the structure of Indian society includes all the essentials of a good organization, whether social, political or economic, which has helped its functioning so far, 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 Specialization,
- Balances various activities, no activity either be over-valued or under-valued.
- Believes in self-discipline, inter-dependence, mutual respect for each other, trust and tolrence.
- Inculcates 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.
However, in recent past, under British imperial rule, Caste-ism and communalism were fanned by British rulers for perpetuating their rule in India as long as possible.
Under British rule – Karl Marx had remarked that British had a double mission in India, one destructive, the other regenerating; the annihilation of the old Asiatic Society and laying the material foundation of Western Society in Asia. The regenerating character was concerned with social transformation through modern education, English language as a medium of learning and official language, modernization in economic sphere, political unification of the country and laying foundations for many democratic institutions.
The reactionary and destructive character was seen in the economic and social sphere. British rulers made purposely an ideological attack on Indian society. They developed a complex in the minds of Indian intellectuals about efficacy of its social-structure. British rulers portrayed it as “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. They held it responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution.
Propagated Racial superiority of ‘white-race’ – British rulers were always very clear about their aims and objectives. British rulers, missionaries, philosophers, writers and Historians like Mill, Wilson, Ward launched an ideological attack and vehemently denounced the culture, character and social structure of the native people. It effected minds of many educated Indians so densely that they considered native practices indefensible. Side by side, British propagated theories of racial the superiority of ‘White-race’, thereby, justifying their domination over dark races of the globe.
They excluded Indians from every honour, dignity or office, which lowest of Englishman could be given. But gradually, it became difficult for them to import enough Englishmen to man large and increasing number of subordinate or lower level posts in administration. It compelled them to introduce modern education in India. However, they used even the education system shrewdly to meet their objectives effectively.
Created split in Indian society – The British Government in India, very cleverly, created a split in the society introducing Modern education system in India. In 1835 introduction of modern education and in 1844, announcement of making knowledge of English compulsory for government employment paved way for imperial designs and created rift within the Indian society. The main purpose of modern education was to get Indians, “Anglicized in terms of both cultural and intellectual attainments”. The intention, as Lord Macaulay said, was, “To form a class, who may be interpreters between us and millions of whom, we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect”. In the near absence of industrial, commercial or social service activity, the educated Indians depended entirely on Government jobs. This led to a keen competition between different sections of Indian society.
The British launched an ideological attack on Brahmins in their effort to secure a reasonable combination of various races and castes in administration and other modern callings. On one hand, to counter Brahmins hold in education and other areas, they slighted the role of Brahmins as Indian intelligentsia and reformers and on the other, portrayed them as oppressors and exploiters of others, especially the poor and minorities. The rulers created venom in the hearts of Muslims and non-Brahmin castes and encouraged them to resist vociferously the dominance of Brahmins in modern callings.
First communal divide – The rulers first drifted Muslims from Hindus in a very shrewd and planned manner. Muslims always had a grudge over the loss of their dominant position. Also, their educational level and thus their ability to compete was poor. Realizing it, the British government established, Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College was at Aligarh in 1850s. Its English Principals like Archibold, Theodore Beck or Morrison played an important role in keeping Muslims away from mainstream and inculcating in them a feeling of separation. The seeds of communalism were sown during Lord Lytton’s Vice-royalty (1876-80). On Dec. 30, 1906 a separate party – Muslim League – was launched to pursue and safeguard Muslim interests. Their demands were accepted through Minto-Morley Reforms known as Government of India Act of 1909. This Act devised a novel method to distribute and balance the power. The Act came as the first effective dose of communalization of Indian politics.
Non-Brahmin movement – After gaining the loyalty of Muslims, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the British turned their attention to uplift non-Brahmin castes and to secure their confidence. British very carefully and effectively sidetracked the socially transformative movements of great scope, initiated by the intelligentsia of Indian Society. They portrayed Brahmins and upper castes as oppressors and exploiters of others, especially the poor. Also, the rulers and missionaries encouraged the leaders of non-Brahmin communities to raise their voice against Brahmins. Thus, educated Hindus of these two sections holding widely different views, got divided into two. Such a division had strengthened immensely the position of rulers.
Portrayed Brahmins as oppressors – Initially, the British rulers encouraged Brahmins to opt for modern education. Reasons being –
it became difficult for them to import enough Englishmen to man large and increasing number of subordinate or lower posts in administration.
the British, who annexed authority from the Muslim rulers, looked favorably towards Hindu community.
being natural learners and pursuers of knowledge, they were quick and far ahead of other communities to opt for modern education.
The appalling poverty of Brahmins, because of the gradual displacement from their source of income after the decline in the financial status of their patrons, compelled them to opt for modern education and earn their living respectfully.
Brahmins long tradition and undisputed role in the field of knowledge and learning, their intelligence, sincerity and hard work helped them not only to occupy almost all the lower levels posts in administration available to Indians, as desired by the rulers, but also offered to Indian intelligentsia, the key to the treasures of scientific and democratic thought of Modern West. It opened up the doors of knowledge and widened the mental horizons of Indian intelligentsia. In due course of time, it produced many National Leaders and Reformers. By second half of nineteenth century, preponderance of Brahmins everywhere including freedom movement alarmed the British rulers.
Seeds of ‘divide and rule’ sown – Along with the mental doze of criticizing vehemently the social-structure of Vedic Indian society, the British encouraged the formation of many caste groups against Brahmins, in whom they saw a potential threat to their rule in India. The movement against Brahmins forged ahead with ferocity in the Southern and Western parts of India. It remained mild in North India, where communalism had already disrupted the peace of the land. The seeds to fracture Indian social- structure were already sown. Along with it, modern education, introduction of Electoral policy, Census operations, and Reservation Policy, initiated by British rulers with specific purpose, together were responsible for creating permanent rift in Indian society.
Western societies have always been associated ranking of different social groups with power, authority and social status. On the other hand, India was never considered a materialistic society. Its systems separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement of knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. The greatness of a state 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 its size, its treasury or number of people, it governs. Similarly, in the society, a person or a social group popularly known as ‘caste’ was ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power.
Classification of society in India
Since beginning, Indian society has been classified into four functional groups known as “Varna” with…
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