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Origin of caste as a system in 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.”

Through caste system, India has simultaneously accommodated “to almost endlessly, a 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)
“Positive aspects of Indian culture are so deep that the merits of ancient systems would be rejuvenated…. The caste system was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. 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)


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.

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.

Development of thousands of years of the association – 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.

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.

Development 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.

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 indispensible, need equal attention for its growth and care for balanced growth of the whole system. Coordinated functioning of all parts together keeps whole system fit and alive.
  • Employment, dignity and honor for 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.
  • Basis of segmental-ranking – Though the caste system believed in segmental ranking of different caste groups, according to their relevance and contribution to the society, it placed all the individuals, within a caste group – rich or poor – on the same footing. All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress. Elders took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped the members, who were weak and helpless.
  • Ranking – Varna system was so conceived by the genius sages that there was hardly any room for any Varna to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. The ranking of different castes was dependent on the nature and social relevance of their work, contribution of their work for social subsistence, efforts required to perform their duties and amount of self restraint/self discipline, they exercise, their relative purity, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards. Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene and cleanliness on the basis of climatic conditions of the region were also given importance, while ranking different castes.
  • Stress on self-restraint and self-discipline – Every caste was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. Brahmins, occupying the highest place in the society, were put under maximum restrictions and were denied accumulation of wealth. They were directed to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits.The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater was the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. The system of each caste having a specific position in the society and a specific work to do with its rights and duties boosted the morale of the people and promoted social equilibrium and solidarity.
  • Inter-dependence – All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring for each other. No caste took an all India character. There was no nationwide hierarchy of castes. However, in a local area, the relative standing of castes was more or less fixed. All local castes, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended and supported for fulfilling different kind of needs and cared for each other. All people living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Rituals required the participation of all castes.
  • Local character – Local character and semi-autonomous nature of caste system made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system making each local area self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people. People living in a local area shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. All castes including untouchables were assigned important social duties. Harijan women helped all castes at time of child-birth. Harijan males beat drums in front of Hindu’s houses or in front of a procession on important occasions/ceremonies. Village barber spread news, arranged marriages and served food during celebrations. Occasionally non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. The key, to understand the caste system, was not in seeing it as a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but as a series of vertical parallels. Each caste was an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity. All the castes were independent, yet their roles complementary.
  • Not much disparity – There was not much disparity between different castes or between urban and rural people. The concepts of forward castes or backward castes, disparities between different sections of society and exploitation of the weak were almost non-existent earlier. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long.
  • Automatic checks and balances – Decentralized self-regulated systems managed various activities in social, intellectual, political, and economic life and controlled its malfunctioning or dis-functioning. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group. There was not a single group identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. Laws remained unmodified and flexible with the capacity to adapt to local customs and situations. People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers. The system made upper castes generous in matters of food, drinks and loans, when required. The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. In fact, non-Kshatriya peasant provided leadership of most armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. The Brahmin strongholds were the centers of learning. The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, who remained outside caste system, were so strong, that they terrorized settled agriculturists for centuries. Forests, which competed with arable land in size and importance, till the 18th century, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society. Thus, from time to time, and place to place, different castes rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed.
  • More stress on duties – The system clearly specifies duties, privileges and restrictions of each role separately and managed relationship with others. It encourages self-discipline, self-control and self-direction. Sprees on one’s responsibilities/duties rather than on rights, combined with principle of inter- dependence provides its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority and leads to automatic decentralization of authority.
  • Flexibility and adaptability – Caste system took different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its adaptability and absorptive nature has pronged its life. The system evolved its structures and systems leisurely and kept on coping with the slow changes, time brought in. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in context of village, locality, region or religion.
  • High level of intelligence and specialization – Caste-system worked so well and efficiently in ancient India that when the world was passing through Dark Age, India was full of light. First few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. Caste system had wisely organized all activities of society properly.
  • Acted as a shield – During medieval India, caste system was a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway even after mass conversion. Though many evil practices developed in the system during this period, but it acted as a shield for Hindus to retain their cultural identity, while living under alien rule, whether it was of Mughals, Portuguese or British.

When the world was passing through the Dark Age, India was full of light. The first few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. During this period, arts, commerce, crafts, philosophy and knowledge flourished magnificently. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. Many travelers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. It was a cheerful land. Each person found a niche in the social system. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. It was a cheerful land.

Caste 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.

Caste inseparably inter-twined with Indian way of life – Later on, caste-system has became a dominant factor, a natural unit of Indian society, running through the entire fabric of its social structure. Slowly but steadily it got inseparably inter-twined with Indian way of life. So much and so that that, Muslims and Christians, Sikhs and Buddhist, living in India could not remain immune from it for long, though their respective religions believe in egalitarian society. They have, with all their equalitarian faith, formed caste groups within themselves.

Winding up

Developed deformities as time passed on – Caste system has travelled a very long distance since then. Many changes have taken place in the system especially during centuries of Muslim and British rule in the country. As time passed on, vested interests in each era had distorted or interpreted the original concepts in the manner, which suited to their purpose. Many deformities and rigidities had developed into system to preserve its indigenous identity and culture.

In political circles, caste is blamed for all the agonies of submerged sections of Indian society – Caste-system is blamed for everything – 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 lies somewhere else.

Caste-system presents one of the oldest social institution presenting before the world a continuous and uninterrupted living culture 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.

Caste system acted as a shield – Caste-system and its values 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 and even after the mass conversions of Hindus into Islam and Christianity. Even in 21st century’s atmosphere of chaos, as C. Rajgopalachari has pointed 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.

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May 10, 2016 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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