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Past and Present of Caste System of India

“Caste was the system of social life, in which Hinduism was expressed. …… Hinduism was the ideological and emotional buttress of caste…. Caste and Hinduism 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.” Don Martindale

Introduction – In present day definition of caste-system  “element of caste is dominant and that of system suppressed”. The main reason behind it, is that the word ‘caste’ is not of Indian origin. It was the contribution of British. When India was under the domination of British Empire, the word  ‘caste’ was used by the rulers for different social groups (known as ‘Jaatis’ under “Varna System”, which stratified Hindu society into four groups on the basis of their aptitude and occupation). The words ‘Varna’ and ‘Jaati’ are very old and indigenous systems, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India.  It is difficult for Westerners and people deeply influenced by Western practices to understand,  what ‘Varna/Jaati systems  are and what Jaati, now popularly known caste-system means to a common man in India.

Deep roots of caste system in India – Indian culture and caste are inseparably related each other by traditional customs. It is virtually impossible to think of one without another. The roots caste system are so deep that it is almost impossible to bring caste system to an end and create a casteless society in India.

The caste system had worked well in ancient times. Don Martindale has say,  “Caste was the system of social life, in which Hinduism was expressed. …… Hinduism was the ideological and emotional buttress of caste…. Caste and Hinduism 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.”

 

Why so much criticism of Caste-system and by whom?   Hinduism and its caste system have always been a centre of attention for Westerners, missionaries, politicians, intellectuals, activists or followers of other faiths, who are deeply influenced by western thinking. Caste-system has been both defended and opposed vehemently inside as well as outside India.  No doubt, many bad practices, deformities and rigidities have developed into the system during its long period of evolution especially during Mughal and British rule. In some quarters caste-system has been criticized as following –

  • British Imperial rulers and missionaries had criticized Hinduism and caste-system vehemently with an ulterior motive. They highlighted some evil practices and weaknesses developed in caste-system under alien rule and avoided telling its strong points.
  • Intellectuals doubts the efficacy of the sayings/teachings of Hindu epics/scriptures like Vedas, story of Ramayana-Mahabharata etc. They have developed a doubt/complex about its rationality. They say that caste-system as has been described in the ancient scriptures and Dharmasastras is an exploitative social system responsible for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of ruling class.  (Ancient caste system worked well: ICHR head, p.1, TOI July 15,2014)
  • Some Activists, Academicians and Writers have condemned caste system saying, “Vemula (a student of Hyderabad university) had committed suicide (in 2016) against an ugly caste system in India. It shows the treatment being meted out to Dalits in educational institutions and other fields of daily life”. (T.O.I., p. 13, March 28, 2016)
  • In recent past, in general, Hinduism and caste have earned a bad name in some political arena. Secular forces have denounced caste-system and think it is irrational, hierarchical, unfair and unjust system.
  • Feminist activists criticize caste-system vehemently, as it encourages patriarchy, systems of which put many unjust restrictions on females.

Westerners, missionaries, and intelligentsia influence by Britishers description of caste could not digest the idea that through caste system, Hinduism in India has simultaneously accommodated into “it an almost endlessly varied system of semi-autonomous community and at the same time, it brings considerable unity, harmony and condition of peace.” It has “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…” (Don Martindale, India since 1947, p 39)

It is a historical fact that after each assault, Hinduism and caste system has not only re-emerged but re-emerged with greater force. In modern India, with increasing urbanization, modernization, literacy and attempts of reformists to rationalize caste practices have removed many unreasonable caste practices and superstitions.

Stratification of a Society, a must – Stratification of a society becomes necessary for organizing human and social behavior in tune with the objectives of a society.  Individuals living in any society in any part of the world  differ from each other 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 and systems. It is quite natural that in every society, anywhere in the world emerge different groups out of functional necessity. Each society devises its own principles for stratification, for coordinated functioning of all parts together, for keeping its whole system fit and functional as well as for taking care of the interests of its people as a whole. Its basis may differ from place to place. It may be on basis of class, caste, religion, region, language or occupation.

Western societies stratified on basis of classWestern societies are stratified on class- basis. For them and young generation of modern India influenced by Western thought process, it is difficult to understand the nuances of cast-as a system. They are mystified by amazing pluralities and unique social structure of India. It is difficult for them to understand role of caste – past or present – in Indian society because –

  • Complete localization – Complete localization of caste as a system of social stratification and unfamiliarity of western world, makes it difficult to understand caste as a system in its totality and to know the nuances, the nature, role) and value of caste as a system.
  • Caste not class basis of stratification – While in Western world, usually anthropologists, historians and sociologists identify ‘class’, as universal basis of stratification within a society, Indian society has been stratified socially on the basis of Varna/caste-system, primarily based on the nature of their occupation.
  • Power associated with wealth – In materialistic Western societies, wealth has always been associated with power, authority and social status. 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.
  • No conversion – Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism has made new groups its integral part without any conversion and brought them under one umbrella without annihilating their own faith.
  • Stress on duties rather than rights – Whereas, Western cultures have grown around the idea of `rights‘, forming the natural foundation of human relationship, caste system has evolved around the concept of duty, tolerance and sacrifice. Emphasis on duty usually makes a person or a group humble and tolerant. Its value-system helps people to adjust themselves, without much difficulty, to most drastic changes. It has been one of the reasons why India achieved its freedom in a peaceful manner under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Common men, here, are filled with a sense of duty.
  • While Western world gives importance to exclusiveness, India believes in inclusiveness.
  • Truth, Ahimsa, peace and non-aggression – Truth, Ahimsa, peace and non-aggression have always been the part of Indian ethos. Indians had accepted oppression and exploitation without much protest.
  • Tolerance – Whereas in ancient Greece, Rome or other European countries, people were made to work under the threat of a whip, it stopped people from doing that. Indian way of life and tolerance of its people has prevented the masses to exercise coercion so far. While in the past, intolerance of people led to bloody revolutions elsewhere in the world, India kept on adapting itself to changing times and the nation entered the modern era without any cultural break.
  • The focus of class-based stratification is on individual. Division of society along ‘Class’ lines forms different groups on the basis individuals’ economic and cultural level. Individuals of same economic and cultural level form one social group/class.  Broadly, a society is usually divided into –
    • Upper class includes those persons with great influence, wealth and prestige.
    • Lower class/Working class includes poor, alienated and marginalized members of society. This class constitutes majority of people in any nation.
    • Middle Class – In between comes Middle Class.
  • Usually variables like material success, occupation, education and qualifications, income, wealth, ownership of land, property etc. decide the social status of different groups within a society. Possession of wealth is the main source of an individual’s social status and and hold over power/authority within society. Powerful or Wealthy class dominates lower class/ powerless section of society.

Besides, there are other factors as well considered as important as one’s wealth in determining class status, at least at higher levels, like costume and grooming, manners and cultural refinement (tastes and sensitivities of different groups). Political standing vis-à-vis church/temples/ mosques, government, and/or social clubs, as well as use of honorary titles, reputation of honor or disgrace, language, race determines degrees of influence on class standing.

‘Caste’, basis of stratification of Indian society – In India, stratification begins with a social group, called caste. Caste-system is different from class on some points. Caste system does not deal with persons individually, but with people belonging to a social group. All individuals within a caste group – irrespective of one’s financial position – are equal having similar rank, rights and duties. It separates wealth from status, power from authority and knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. Its constituent members are supposed to be independent, yet their roles complementary.

  • ‘Caste’, oldest method of stratification –  ‘Principle of Varna’, one of the oldest principle of social stratification in the world  gave birth to  Caste system. What Greek philosophers like Plato or Aristotle dreamt about the classification of an ideal society (into Philosopher Kings, Warriors, Business community and workers) was  being already practised in real life in India.
  • A natural social institution – An individual is a natural member of a family, which is the unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula (clan), Kula of a tribe (Vish) and a tribe of a Jana or Jati (Caste). Caste is second only to the family and is a natural, valid, useful and inevitable unit of Indian society. Family, extended family, Kula, and Caste are fundamental social institutions. Caste is nothing but a large extended family bonded by same language, customs, thinking and way of living and occupation. Rules of endogamy, ritual purity, interdependence, specialization and hierarchical order of social units were its important traits.
  • Covers entire social fabric of India – It covers almost the entire social fabric of India. Not only in the past, but at present also, caste system commands respect and attention of a common man in India as a natural, valid and inevitable unit of society. It is popular not only amongst Hindus, but amongst other sects as well living in India, whether foreign or indigenous. Muslims or Christians, Sikhs or Buddhist could not remain immune from its caste system for long. They also have been influenced and absorbed many of the systems and practices of caste-system.
  • Closer relations amongst caste-fellows – 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 define 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, a development of thousands of years – The credit for the origin of Varna/Caste-system can neither be attributed to any authoritative text, nor to single founder.

Varna system led to the origin of caste-system – Initially, the arrival of many 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. Deep thinking and experiences of many learned sages and intellectuals belonging to different communities and different generations, at different points of time have contributed to evolve Varna system followed by caste system. It is a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. It suggests a shared membership of individuals in a particular social group.

Provided a Mechanism to assimilate small and primitive groups – 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.

Stages of Evolution of Caste System – Caste-system evolved slowly but steadily in a natural way over thousands of years  from the association of many racial and other groups in a single cultural system. Principle of Varna/Caste-system has given Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, way of life and sense of direction.

Society during pastoral society

The beginning of the system can be traced from the times, when it was pastoral tribal society, but 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.

Beginning of settled social life

Gradually pastoral tribal society transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. Slowly these  social-political units developed institutions like family, clan, village, tribe and Jana. Family was the unit of society headed by father.

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.

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.

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 units dwelling in a particular region constituted a ‘vis’ (canton), ‘Jana’ (a group of tribes) consisted of a number of such cantons, with a king as their ruler.

Social Structure and systems in India during Agricultural society – Structure and Systems in 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. This period could be divided into two stages –

  1. Vedic age and
  2. After migration of social groups from other places.

Vedic Age – As reflected in ‘Rigveda’, when people ceased to be a wandering people, started the early stages of Vedic Age.

  1. Social structure in India during Vedic Period – Intermixing of the culture of Aryan invaders, who came to India in waves, with the culture of indigenous tribal people of India during 2nd century BC to 650 AD gave birth to Vedic society. Initially Vedic society originated and flourished in northern parts of India and later on spread throughout India.                                                                                                                                               From time immemorial, philosophy of Vedic times has been handed down generation after generation, earlier by verbal transmission and later on, in written form   It does not prescribes final absolutes. The Rishis and Munies (Intellectuals of that period) taught that there should be a constant search for more knowledge.  Vedas are not the end of quest for knowledge. Leaning is a non-ending process.
  2. Principles of ‘Varna’, ‘Dharma’ and ‘Karma’ the foundation of Vedic society –  During Vedic Period,  a social structure had been evolved, which was based on the principles of “Varna” (giving birth to caste system), “Dharma” and “Karma”.  On the basis of these principles various important functions, a society needed, were distributed, and organized their  performance effectively in real life situations. These principles together gave Vedic society a distinct character, defined roles and organized inter-relationship of various sections of society.
  3. Formation of different groups on the basis of attitude and aptitude – Principle of Varna (meaning color) guided the division of the society. Principle of ‘Varna’ had stratified Vedic society into four groups according to the attitude, aptitudes, occupation and location of people. 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. Originally the following groups were not rigidly separated.–  Brahmins (intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors),  Vaishyas (Businessmen) followed the profession of agriculture or cattle raising and formed also the armed forces of their princes, and  Shudras (service providers).  People, who were conquered and admitted into the fold of Aryan society, like Kols and Dravid tribes formed the fourth class of ‘Dasas’ or ‘Shudras’.  Aryan princes did not regard ‘Dasa’ princes as inferior. They made alliances with them.

This was also the time of –

  • Arrival of  many other social groups from different parts of the world and their mixing up with native culture of the land  In India, with the arrival of Aryans and other social groups in waves, many changes took place in the social structure, people’s life, manners, religion, language and literature etc.
    • After entering into India, first Aryans conquered India’s original inhabitants of Northern part of India, colonized and established kingdoms. Most of  original inhabitants moved to Deccan and then south. Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. They spread their language and culture all-over the North.
    • Then came many other ethnic groups like –
      • Negritos  – the earliest men coming probably from Africa, now represented by tribal population in some interior jungles of South India and Andamans.
      • Proto-Australoids – considered being the original builders of the Indus valley civilization.  They had settled in the hilly and forest tracts of Central and Southern India and in the lower strata of North India.
      • Mongoloids – coming from China, they settled mostly in Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal, Assam and the North Eastern States.
      • Mediterranean – Fairly civilized people coming from Southwest Asia around 2000 BC.  They are believed to be the bearers of the earliest form of Hinduism and were the architects of later Indus Valley Civilization.  Later, they were pushed to the Ganga plain and down the Central and South India.   Today they constitute the bulk of population in South India and bulk of scheduled castes in the North, including Punjab.
      • Alphinoids, Dinarics and Armenoids – Coming from South Europe, now they are found in the Coorgis and the Parsis.
      • Nordics – They came to India around 2000 BC. Their concentration is now in Northwest India and among the upper castes of North India.

These multi-ethnic migrants came to India in waves. In due course of time, they desired to get assimilated into Indian Society as its integral parts.  The assimilation of these multi-ethnic migrants into Indian society has made India’s ethnic diversity a striking feature. Even after their assimilation in Hindu society, they were allowed to preserve their distinct dialects, beliefs, and values, customs and traditions, which are intact even today. As its result, their assimilation led to : –

Linguistic Diversity,                                                                                                                Occupational Diversity, and                                                                                                      Cultural Diversity.

As more and more indigenous and foreign groups were merged into the Hindu-fold, Vedic Varna system gave rise to caste system. Principles of Varna, Dharma, and Karma continued to remain the foundation stones of caste system and contributed to its growth in a systematic way.

  • Start of caste system

    Connection between ‘Varna’ and ‘Caste’ -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’. 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.

    Why Varna gave way to caste system? – For making place for numerous multi ethnic new groups  groups, caste system was used as a mechanism, so that the job of assimilation of numerous racial, tribal, local, immigrants, and professional groups could be done cordially, at different points of time without disturbing its own internal systems. They were brought into Hindu fold by assigning each new group a separate caste status. Caste system had, thus, accommodated under one umbrella of Hinduism,  different social groups with diverse belief and way of living  and bound them into a single cultural system.                                                                                                                                      Formed a single cultural system While joining hands with thousands of endogamous groups, coming into terms with them and forming a single social and cultural system without conversions, caste system neither disturbed its own existing internal social order nor prevented any new desirous group from joining it. Not only this, but it still allowed new groups to preserve their specialties and indigenous culture. Each group was allowed to maintain its own rules, regulations, customs, way of life and power to control conduct of its members. It gave each one opportunities to develop within its own parameters.          Castes in the Making around 5th century – 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.  Xuanzang (pronounced usually as HuanTsang), a famous Chinese, Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler and translator, of the Seventh century, was well aware of the existence of Varna, but not of castes.                                                                                                           Strong points of Caste System – All the strength of caste system comes from its basic principle of Varna, which  gave Indian Society a stable, sustainable and a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life and sense of direction. It is accompanied by principles of Dharma, and Karma,  the basic principles which has ensured the continuity despite numerous foreign invasions, migrations and assimilation of various groups. Caste system has survive for such a long period because it includes in itself –

    • 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.
    • 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 indispensable, 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.
    • 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 system as a mechanism for include new groups under Hinduism – In ancient times, 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.
    • System of automatic checks and balances – It had developed decentralized self-regulated systems and 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.
    • 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.
    • Importance to knowledge, relevance of their work while ranking their place in society – Though the caste system believed in segmental ranking of different caste groups, according to their knowledge, relevance of work 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.
    • Not much disparity – Earlier, 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. 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.
    • Stress on self-restraint and self-discipline – Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene and cleanliness on the basis of climatic conditions of the region were also given importance, while ranking different castes. 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. 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.
    • Employment, dignity and honor for allThe 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.
    • Division of labor along with Inter-dependence – Earlier when caste system worked well, 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.
    • 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.
    • No caste group in a more advantageous position – 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.
    • 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.

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 system has travelled a very long distance since then. Many changes have taken place in the system especially during centuries of foreign rule in the country.

Caste system during Middle ages – Caste system during middle ages was not 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. Caste was a flexible and fluid unit of Indian society. Census operations done during British rule had led to a crystallization of the caste system, and made it rigid.

Some of the features of caste system during Medieval Period were –

  • No fixed hierarchical order till 18th century As late as the eighteenth century, there was no fixed hierarchical social order over large parts of the sub-continent. As earlier, ranking of different castes was not based on wealth or material gains, but on cultural endowments. Intellectual and spiritual attainments, aptitude, ritual purity and contribution of their work to the welfare of whole of the society formed the basis of their social status.
  • Almost free from caste rivalries and clashes The nation was more or less free from caste wars or class clashes. Not a single caste group was identified as very strong, dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. Laws remained unmodified and flexible enough to adapt to local customs and situations.
  • Immense influence of caste on public mind – Before British rule in India, influence of caste was immense on public minds. 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.It was the major force for the failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway in India even after mass conversion.
  • Plurality of Indian society during medieval period – Alternative ideologies and styles of life were available in India. The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. Non-Kshatriya peasant community provided leadership to many armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level.
  •  Position of Brahmins The Brahmin strongholds were the centers of learning. 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. The learned community of Kayasthas gave a tough competition to Brahmins, which helped in controlling the arrogance of Brahmins.
  • Floating communities in India before British Rule The floating population, consisting of groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, did not belong to any Varna and remained outside caste system. They terrorized settled agriculturists and kept a check on 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.
  • Contribution of Sufi saints –  Teachings of Shri Chaitnya, Nanak, Kabir, Bhakti and Sufi saints gave some breathing space to people from the rigidities of caste system, whenever it suffocated the society during medieval India.
  • Not much disparity between forward and lower caste economically Till Medieval times, there was not much disparity between forward or lower castes. Ranking of different castes was independent of the government.                                                      Though position of Brahmins was on the top and that of Shudras at the bottom, but in between the two, there was an ambiguity about the status of several castes, which was acceptable to all concerned. This, itself, gave a large element of fluidity in the system.
  • Close association of caste with occupation – All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of the 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. People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers.                                                                                                                                   All castes including untouchables living in a local areawere assigned one or the other important duty. Harijan (scheduled caste) women helped all castes at time of childbirth. Harijan males beat drums in front of the house of a Hindu or in front of a procession on important occasions/ceremonies. Village barber (an OBC) 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.                                                                                                                                     Despite a close association of caste with occupation, no caste group exercised monopoly over a profession. As earlier, Brahmin or even Shudras sometimes became the kings. Khatriyas and Shudra were accepted and revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers. and army were accessible and open to all sections of society. It had accommodated many groups – indigenous or alien. The recruits in Military came from all strata of society including the lowest in the ritual terms. Once recruited, there was no discrimination in treatment of soldiers on the basis of caste. Rajput status was given to soldiers.
  • Local character of caste  The local character of caste made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. All castes, 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.                                                        Each caste group still enjoyed freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life-styles. Decentralized self-regulated systems were the mode in the social, political, and economic life of the country.

 Interdependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system before British established their rule in India. It made each local area self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people. Interdependence made close interaction possible between different caste groups. Local character and semi-autonomous nature of caste system made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. People of all castes  living in the same local area shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other.

Caste system during British rule – The modern political understanding of caste system, in which the element of caste is predominant and the element of system is less, can be traced back to the period of British rule.  It was during East India Company’s rule, that the atmosphere was prepared for the emergence of rigid and stratified system of castes, making society more closed and endogamous.  Karl Marx 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.(Dutt RP, India Today,  p476)

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. The growth of casteism had a close connection with these developments.

After consolidating its position, the British Government in India made an effort to know about the people, whom they want to rule and chalk out strategies for the colonial governance.

British anthropologists worked very hard to collect data and to catalogue various castes and tribes.  They codified the castes and standardized the system by placing all the jatis into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines. Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community.  We deplore its effect on social and economic problems.  But we are largely responsible for the system…Our land records and official documents have added iron-bonds to the old rigidity of caste.  Caste, in itself, was rigid among the higher castes, but malleable amongst the lower…”

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. Therefore, the Census operations destroyed the flexibility of caste system, led to an all-round hardening of social-system and to frantic effort by each group-for upward mobility.

The first volume of Man in 1901 (the Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute) noted, The entire framework of native life in India is made up of groups of castes and tribes, and status and conduct of individuals are, largely, determined by the rules of the group, to which he belonged.

Risley’s efforts, in 1901 census, of recording and putting in order numerous castes in hierarchical order like modern Manu had fossilized, imparting it a solidity, it did not have earlier. (Das Veena and Kagal Ayesha, Through the Prism of Clerkdom, Times of India, dated September 16, 1990, p2).  Therefore, the Census operations instigated caste consciousness, caste animosities and made caste a tool in political, religious and cultural battles, that Hindus fought amongst themselves.

The process of Census enumeration was far from neutral.  The British retained the 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.  The Census operation kept Brahmins, whom, the British administrators, Christian Missionaries and Orientalists, pinpointed as the potential threat to the British, at periphery and, instigated other castes against them.

For the first time, the Census operations drew the attention of the rulers, intelligentsia and public to the diversity of Indian society and multiplicity of castes and sub-castes throughout India.

Census Operations transformed caste-system – Census operations changed the older system drastically, giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. All this was done in a piecemeal and with due regard to the safety and perpetuation of British domination as long as possible. The process of Census enumeration was far from neutral. The British retained the 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.  The Census operation kept Brahmins on top of hierarchy. British administrators, Christian Missionaries and Orientalists, pinpointed them as the potential threat to the British and instigated other castes against them.

Pigeonholed everyone by caste and community – All the floating population like Gujjars, Bhattis, Ranger Rajputs, who remained outside caste system were fused into one. Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, “We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community. We deplore its effect on social and economic problems. But we are largely responsible for the system…Our land records and official documents have added iron-bonds to the old rigidity of caste. Caste, in itself, was rigid among the higher castes, but malleable amongst the lower.” This way, the Census operations destroyed the flexibility of caste system, led to an all-round hardening of social-system and to frantic effort by each group-for upward mobility.

 Like modern Manu, “The census operations divided all the castes and communities into following groups – Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes”. This division remains a by-word even for the present leaders of Independent India.

After Census Operations, British rulers codified all the castes and standardized the system by placing them into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines. So far, Hindu Society was classified into four Varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold. Like modern Manu, The census operations divided all the castes and communities into following groups – Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes.

This division remains a by-word even for the present leaders of Independent India. After Independence, politicians of Independent India have divided all castes into five new unbridgeable compartments by census operations – Backward caste, forward caste (caste Hindus), untouchable or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority. Through legal process, they gave each one a new separate and distinct identity.

Caste-system after Independence – BR Ambedkar has said “By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong”   BR Ambedkar, (quoted from TOI, P.20, Jan 26, 2010)                 ()

From 15th of August 1947 onwards, Independent India is committed to democratic, secular and egalitarian principles as enshrined in the Constitution of India. Preamble of the Indian Constitution promises to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination on grounds of caste, race, religion, gender or place of birth; Article 16 gives equality of opportunity in matter of public employment, Article 338 creates National commission for Scheduled Castes to safeguard their interests etc.

Concern of Government for the protection of underprivileged-castes – A number of amendments in the Constitution and legislations have been passed to remove the disabilities of backward castes. Untouchability has been declared a crime. Bonded labor is abolished by law. Civil Rights Act, 1955, aims to eliminate injustice against weaker sections. Amendment to Prevention of Atrocities Act (SCT) 1989 provides for stern punishments for offenses committed against SCT by Upper Castes. Special Courts, under SCT Act, have been established for punishing officials, if found guilty.

Caste more liberal in social sphere – In modern India, spread of literacy and growing awareness among masses has already brought to an end slowly but steadily many of the discriminatory practices and deformities developed in Caste system, while living under alien rule. It has become more liberal and less restrictive in social life of the people. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions.

Castes Less restrictive – 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 except for a few rural areas especially in Haryana and Rajasthan. 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.

Poor governance – Despite all the above mentioned efforts, there is no respite to a large number of people from discriminatory practices. Even now after 70 years of Independence, millions of people suffer from poverty, disparity, discrimination and deprivation. They are still exploited mercilessly by strong men of society. And blame for everything is on caste-system.

It is not the caste-system, but the bad politics and poor governance, which is responsible. Modern India is sharply divided into two – “haves” and “have-nots”. The most important factors responsible for disparities are vote-bank politics, irrational and corrupt ways of pursuing the paternal policies and government’s failure to address real issues at central and State levels.

‘Caste-ism’, used as the most powerful weapon to garner votes  –  ‘Caste’ has become a bye-word for Indian politicians. For the present-day political leaders caste is the easiest and most powerful tool to sway public opinion emotionally and to create a larger vote bank for them. It may be called ossification of caste-system fallen into the hands of power brokers and vote guzzlers.

Emergence of political identities – For political and governance purposes, modern Indian society has been stratified in most insensitive manner. For grabbing the political power, the modern Indian society  has been divided into the following unbridgeable groups – Upper castes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled tribes, Other Backward Class and Minorities. Sectional interests are being promoted on caste or communal basis shamelessly.

Narrow loyalties of caste and religion  – Narrow loyalties of caste and religion are encouraged in political arena. It has generated sub-cultures like caste-ism, favoritism, and lure for easy money, nepotism, parochialism, communalism, regionalism etc. Bigoted sentiments and irresponsible comments are spreading in-discipline in the society. The rising aspirations and demands of people, with the spread of education and awareness, has created added problem for the government.

Undercurrents of caste politics – Undercurrents of caste politics have made the government incapable to solve the burning national issues. It has made to maintain law and order difficult. Inter-caste and intra-caste, inter-community and intra-community and inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts are increasing day by day in order to get more space in the corridors of power.

Real issues pushed into the background – Real issues like mass-scale illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, inflation, deteriorated law and order situation, increasing violence or general coarsening of moral fiber of the Indian society etc. are pushed into the background. the voice of upright and honest people belonging to middle class is being continuously throttled mercilessly. They are being punished for following sincerely family-planning norms, which has decreased their numbers. In present day vote-bank politics based on game of numbers, it is very easy now for the pursuers of political power to sideline them.

Winding up

Caste inseparably intertwined with Indian way of life – Caste-system has became a dominant factor, a natural institutions for all Indians. It is running through the entire fabric of the social structure of India. Slowly but steadily caste identity has been 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.

Developed some deformities as time passed on While marching ahead during its  travel to a very long distance, many changes, desirable as well as undesirable have taken place in the caste-system especially during centuries of Muslim and British domination in India. 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.

Politicians blaming Caste for all evils In political circles, caste is blamed for all the agonies of submerged sections of Indian society – it could vary from illiteracy to creating disparities of power, wealth and culture, escalation of violence, crimes and corruption leading the nation towards disintegration and discrimination and exploitation of weaker, unprivileged sections of society, forcing destitution on vast number of people. But the fault for it lies somewhere else.

A continuous and uninterrupted living System/Culture – Still, even now caste-system presents one of the oldest social institution and a continuous and uninterrupted living culture and system of stratification of Indian society, still existing in the whole world. The strength of caste system has been proved by the following facts:

  • Despite centuries of foreign rule over 75% of Indian population remains Hindu and have strong feelings for caste-system.
  • Had caste system become obsolete, it would have given place to other system.
  • Caste system has influenced all other communities living in India.

Acted as a shield to keep Hindu religion alive – Systems and values of caste-system have acted as a shield. During medieval and initial period of modern India, caste system has been a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway during the Muslims or British rule. Even after the mass conversions of Hindus into Islam and Christianity, more than 75% population have faith in Hinduism.

C. Rajgopalachari points out “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”.

Conclusion – All over the world, many systems, institutions, structures, principles, and cultures have been developed from time to time, which created a wave sweeping the entire world with it for some time. But soon, they became obsolete and were replaced by anti-waves which replaced them and wiped off the previous influence. Caste system, on which Indian social structure is based, has proved to be an exception. Its character is different in the context of village, locality, region or religion. Its absorptive nature has internalized alien influences.

Don Martindale is correct in saying that India has simultaneously accommodated caste “to an almost endlessly varied system of semi-autonomous community and at the same time, it brings considerable unity, harmony and condition of peace.” 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…”

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March 31, 2016 Posted by | Social and political values and systems | | 1 Comment