“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.”
Through caste system, India has simultaneously accommodated “it 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…” Don Martindale
Caste system has always been a centre of attention for Westerners, politicians, intellectuals, activists or reformers from other faiths. It has been both defended and opposed vehemently in the political circles of modern India. Many assaults have been made on caste-system, especially because of the deformities and rigidity developed into the system during a very long period of its evolution and its being under alien rule. However, after each assault, caste system has re-emerged with greater force.
In the past, British Imperial rulers and missionaries had criticized caste-system vehemently.In recent past, caste has become more of a politician crutch. It is often misinterpreted as “an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of ruling class. … Indian caste system, which has evolved an answer the requirements of civilization at a later phase of development of culture, was integrated with Varna system as enunciated in the ancient scriptures and Dharmasastras.” (Quoted from Ancient caste system worked well: ICHR head, p.1, TOI July15,2014)
Many activists, academicians and writers condemn caste system saying, “Vemula (a student of Hyderabadad university) 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”. (Quoted from TOI, p. 13, March 28, 2016)
Deep roots of caste system in India – Positive aspects of Indian culture and its 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 and people do not find any complaint against it even now. To a great extent, Don Martindale is right in saying, “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.”
Through caste system, India has simultaneously accommodated “it 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 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)
Indian culture and caste inseparable – Indian culture and caste are inseparably related each other by traditional customs. It is virtually impossible to think of one without another. Being a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India, it is difficult for Westerners and non-Indians to understand what ‘caste system’ is and what caste means to a common man.
Mystified Western World – Western world is mystified by amazing pluralities and unique social structure of India. It is difficult for the western world to understand role of caste – past or present – in Indian society because –
- Complete localization and unfamiliarity 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 – Stratification of a society becomes necessary for organizing human and social behavior in tune with the objectives of a society. 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.
- Power associated with wealth – In materialistic Western societies, wealth has always been associated with power, authority and social status. In India, its 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 duties rather than rights – 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. 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. Common men, here, are filled with a sense of duty.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- While other nations have passed through many bloody revolutions, India kept on adapting itself to changing times and the nation entered the modern era without any cultural break.
What is caste system?
Stratification of a society, a natural phenomenon
Individuals 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.
Stratification of a Society
Usually, class stratification begins with individuals. Division of society along ‘Class’ lines forms different groups on the basis their economic and cultural level. What determines ‘class’ varies from one society to another. Usually possession of wealth determines hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups within a community . Distinction between two groups depends on their being powerful and powerless. Social classes with more power usually subordinate classes with less power, which Power was closely linked to ability to assert one’s status through physical strength. Usually different variables are adopted to decide status of different groups within a society, like occupation, education and qualifications, income, wealth, ownership of land, property etc.
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.
Western societies stratified on basis of class – Western societies are stratified on basis of class. Its focus is on individual. Individuals of same economic and cultural level form one social group/class. Social status of a person depends on material success and control over power/authority. Wealthy class usually rules over poor classes in such societies. 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.
‘Caste’ as 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. It is not concerned with persons individually, but with persons belonging to different social groups.
Caste-system separates wealth from status, power from authority and knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. All individuals within a caste group – irrespective of ones financial position – are equal having similar rank, rights and duties. Its constituent members are supposed to be independent, yet their roles complementary.
‘Caste’, an oldest social institution – Caste system is one of the oldest social institutions in the world. Caste-system gives Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, way of life, and sense of direction.
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.
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.
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.
Varna system developed into caste-system gradually – How small and primitive tribal
in India transformed into Varna system and finally into caste system has been as following –
Start during ancient pastoral society – The beginning of the system can be traced from the times of pastoral tribal society, when people started forming small groups mostly living in hilly areas, not far from rivers. Tribal communities were nomadic or semi nomadic and egalitarian. They depended on nature for its subsistence.
Developed during Agricultural society – Gradually pastoral tribal society transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. Agricultural society leisurely evolved its structures and systems over about 2000 years (roughly between 2000 BC to about 600 BC) and kept on coping with the changes slowly, time had brought in. As reflected in ‘Rigveda’, when people ceased to be a wandering people, started the early stages of Vedic Age.
Clans and tribes settled permanently in different parts of the country. Possession of land, slaves and hired laborers started. People hardly possessed more than what was needed for their subsistence/survival. The practice of cultivation, rise of crafts and iron tools transformed the egalitarian society into fully agricultural and stratified society sometime during 6th century BC.
Beginning of settled life – 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. During the period, it was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes. Initially a simple class division was seen in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. The units of social-political organizations were family, clan, village, tribe and Jana. Family was the unit of society headed by father. Three or four generations lived together, and probably owned property in common. A number of families living in one locality formed ‘grama’ (village). A number of such fighting units dwelling in a particular region constituted a ‘vis’ (canton), ‘Jana’ (a group of tribes) consisted of a number of such cantons, with a king as their ruler.
Mixing up of their culture with native culture of the land – Starting with arrival of Aryans in waves and mixing up of their culture with native culture of the land evolved a social structure based on the principles of “Varna” (giving birth to caste system), “Dharma” and “Karma”, which together distributed, organized performance of various functions and contributed to the growth of Indian society. In the beginning, Varna – meaning color – guided the division of the society. These principles gave Vedic society a distinct character, defined roles and organized inter-relationship of various sections of society. Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. They spread their language and culture allover the North. Many changes started taking place in the life, manners, religion, language and literature of people.
Social structure bases on ‘Varna’ – Principle of ‘Varna’ had stratified Vedic society into four groups – Brahmins (intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (Businessmen) and shudras (service providers) according to aptitudes, occupation and location of people. Aryans dependents of Brahmins and Kshatriyas were the subject class. Vaishyas followed the profession of agriculture or cattle raising and formed also the armed forces of their princes. The three classes were not rigidly separated. People, who were conquered and admitted into the fold of Aryan society, were looked upon as the lowest of the four classes. Conquered Kols and Dravid tribes formed the fourth class of ‘Dasas’ or ‘Shudras’. Aryan princes did not regard ‘Dasa’ princes as inferior, for they made alliances with them.
Possession of land, slaves and hired laborers started. People started producing and possessing more than they needed. The kings collected their surplus yields. The power of kings gradually increased. For regular collection, administrative and religious methods were devised.
Rise of caste system – As more and more indigenous and foreign groups were merged into the Hindu-fold, Vedic Varna system gave rise to caste system. For making place for new groups, caste system provided a mechanism. Through it, the job of assimilation of different tribal, local and immigrant groups was done cordially, at different points of time. Each new group joining it was given a separate caste identity. It neither disturbed the existing internal social order nor any new group was prevented from joining it and still allowed new groups to preserve its specialties and indigenous culture. It gave each one opportunities to develop within its own parameters. Thousands of endogamous groups were included into it. Each group was allowed to maintain its own rules, regulations, customs, way of life and power to control conduct of its members. However, principles of Varna, Dharma, and Karma remained the foundation stones of caste system and contributed to its growth in a systematic way.
Natural response – As Basham has pointed out, Caste system may well be called a natural response of 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, all sorts of groups and associations arising for political, sectarian or other reasons could be internalized and preserved within the whole.
Development of thousands of years – Caste is the development of thousands of years of the association of many racial and other groups in a single cultural system. The arrival of Aryans hereditary kinship and tribal groups in India in waves, from different parts of the world and their mixing up with the indigenous people (popularly known as Hindus) gave birth Varna-system of Vedic culture.
Caste-system 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. The experiences and deep thinking of many learned sages and intellectuals belonging to different communities at different points of time have contributed to evolve this system. It is a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. It suggests a shared membership in a homogenous social group as contrasted with the individual or with a selected class.
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.
Formed a single cultural system – Caste is the development of thousands of years of the association of many racial and other groups – coming into terms and forming a single cultural system. The arrival of Aryans hereditary kinship and tribal groups in India in waves, from different parts of the world and their mixing up with the indigenous people (popularly known as Hindus) gave birth Varna-system of Vedic culture.
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.
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. Huan Tsang, in the Seventh century was well aware of the existence of Varna, but not of castes.
Salient features 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, accompanied by principles of Dharma, and Karma, The principles which ensured 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 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.
- 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 knowledge, 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.
- 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. 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 – 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 before census of 1901
Before Census operations began in 1901, there were many floating communities like Kayasthas or Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, which did not belong to any Varna and remained outside Varna/caste system. The government’s attempts to label and pigeon-hole all such communities along with others into one or the other group had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which till now was really very fluid under indigenous rule.
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. 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.
Not much disparity between forward and lower caste economically – Usually the position of Brahmins was at 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. There was not much disparity between forward or lower castes. Ranking of different castes was independent of the government.
Close association of caste with occupation – Despite a close association of caste with occupation, no caste group exercised monopoly over a profession. It is an established fact of Indian History that Brahmin or even Shudras sometimes became the kings. Khatriyas and Shudra were accepted and revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers. As leading sociologists pointed out, in addition to their hereditary occupation, agriculture 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 – Influence of caste was immense on public minds before census operations. 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. Still each caste group 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.
Close interaction between different caste groups – 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.
Duties assigned for each caste group – 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.
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.
Different castes as a series of vertical parallels – 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.
Caste as a major force to retain Hindu identity – Caste acted as a major force, through which Hindus retained their cultural identity, while living under an alien political order for centuries, whether it was Mughal, 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.
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.
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. Non-Kshatriya peasant community provided leadership to many 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. 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.
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.
Floating communities in India before British Rule – The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, 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 – The Brahmin strongholds were the centers of learning. The learned community of Kayasthas gave a tough competition to Brahmins, which helped in controlling the arrogance of Brahmins. 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.
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.
New Changes Done by British Rulers – 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. Later on, earlier British rulers and now politicians of Independent India have divided it 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.
Changes in caste system through Census Operations – It changed the older system drastically, giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. All this was done in a piece-meal 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. All the floating population like Gujjars, Bhattis, Ranger Rajputs, who remained out-side caste system were fused into one. 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 – 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.
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) ()
Post Independent India – 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. Why?
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’, the most powerful tool for creation of vote-banks – ‘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.
Under-currents of caste politics – Under-currents 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.
Caste inseparably inter-twined 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 – Allover 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
- Wisdom/Enlightenment and empowerment
- Rights and duties
- Role of Bureaucracy in good governance
- India – Unity in Diversity
- Fusion of many cultures in India
- Theory of biological Evolution
- Dalit Assertion, A Journey from ‘Shudras’to Outcastes, to’Panchamas’ and to ‘Dalits’
- Untouchables (“Dalits” of modern India) in Ancient India
- Happiness in life
- Census operations
- Good Governance
- Basic tenets of Hindu philosophy/Hinduism
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