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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Origin of Caste System

“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.” …. And 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, India since 1947, p 39)

“In present understanding of caste system, element of caste is dominant and element of system has been considerably suppressed.” Lata Sinha

Introduction – It will be interesting to know as to when and how caste system originated. caste system is a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. Since then, has travelled a very long distance experiencing many ups and downs. Many changes have taken place in the system as time passed on.

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.

Caste is social institution. Caste-system is inseparably related to Hinduism by traditional customs, values and systems. It has both religious and social sanction behind it.

Foreign origin of the term ‘caste’,  – The term “caste” was unknown in ancient India. The terms ‘Varna and jaati’ were used in ancient and medieval India to identify different social groups and sub-groups. The term ‘Caste’ has been in use ever since British came to rule India.

The term caste has originated from Portuguese ‘casta’, meaning race, breed, ancestry. Portuguese first used the terms ‘casta’ meaning “breed, race, caste and ‘casta-raça’ meaning ‘unmixed race’. The Latin word for it is castus, meaning “chaste” or purity of breed.

Application to Hindu social groups ‘Varna’ and ‘Jaati’ was picked up by English in India 1610s from Portuguese casta. Subsequently, British have merged both the terms ‘Varna’ and ‘caste’ into one word ‘cast’ or ‘caste’. Subsequently ‘caste’ has become the established word for the combination of ‘Varna’ and’’jaati’. Later on, major European languages (notably Dutch and French) also, ‘caste’ in the same specific sense.  has become established term

The term Caste was recorded officially in 1840 for the first time by European colonizers, to mean persons belonging to the same hereditary social group. Instead of using ‘Varna or Jati’ separately, they Since then, the whole scenario about caste was messed up. The meaning and understanding about caste system has been changed drastically. 

Caste-system is inseparably related to Hinduism by traditional customs, values and systems. The roots of Varna system and Jaati-Pratha are so deep,  that it is virtually impossible to think of India without it. It has been one of the dominant features still running through the entire social fabric of India. Caste has its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect.

Meaning of the indigenous terms Varṇa (वर्णः) and Jaati – ‘Caste’ has its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. The term “Varna” is a Sanskrit word, which means type, order, colour or class. ‘Jati’ is also a Sanskrit word  meaning ‘Jana’. Membership of ‘Varna’ is based on the attitude aptitude and deeds of a person, whereas by birth, everyone belongs to a Jaati. ‘Jaāti’ refers to thousands of endogamous social groups, sub-groups and sub-sub- groups coming under each Varna, living across the subcontinent. A jati may be divided into exogamous groups based on the same gotras. (Dumont, Louis, 1980, Homo hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications, University of Chicago Press, pp. 66–67)

Origin of Varna and Jaati Pratha (Caste system) in India – The origin of ‘Varna or Jaati’ can-not be found in one single authoritative text like Christian’s “Bible” or Islam’s “Kuran”, nor can it be attributed to one single founder, like Jesus Christ for Christianity or Mohammad Sahib for Islam. It is the development of thousands of years. to develop with the association of numerous social groups into it at different point of time. It started with the arrival of Aryans hereditary kinship and tribal groups in India in waves, from different parts of the world.

Different shades and meaning of caste system with changing times – Caste system i.e. Jaati-pratha has survived the vicissitudes of time, and saved itself by erosion from within and assault from outside. Credit of its prolonged life goes to its adaptability, flexibility and absorptive nature, which has internalized even the alien influences. It has taken different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Such flexibility is not seen in the West. When Christianity broke away from Judaism, it departed totally from the common cultural traditions. 

Wonderful process of assimilation – Wonderful process of assimilation and fusion of different social groups has been a continuous process of the Hindu civilization. It contributed to the cultural richness of Bharat.  All the sects present in India, whether foreign or indigenous, have been influenced greatly by Hindu thinking, caste system, its practices and systems.

Different stages of making and evolution of Varna/caste – 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. Caste system 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.  Following are the different stages of the evolution of Varna/caste – 

  • Caste during Ancient period 
  • Tribal Society of Pre-Vedic period – The making of caste system can be traced from the times of pastoral tribal society. Roughly ten millennia ago, people lived  in small migratory groups, living the life-style of wandering “nomadic herdsmen”. These small groups mostly lived in hilly areas, not far from rivers. Tribal communities were nomadic or semi nomadic and egalitarian. They depended on nature for its subsistence.
  • Settled agricultural society – Then came the period of making of the agricultural societies. People started  cultivating land and settled down Gradually pastoral tribal society transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. Clans and tribes settled permanently in different parts of the country. As reflected in ‘Rigveda’, during early stages of Vedic Age people ceased to be a wandering people, started a settled life.
  • Entry of Aryans – Aryans entered into India in waves from land-side at different points of time. Aryans, after entering into India first conquered its original inhabitants of Northern part of India, colonized and established kingdoms, then Deccan and then south. During the period, it was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes.
  • Development of structures and systems – Socio-political structures and systems were evolved leisurely over about 2000 years (roughly between 2000 BC to about 600 BC) and kept on coping with the changes slowly, time had brought in. In the beginning 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.
  • Nobility and ordinary tribes-men – Initially a simple division was seen in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. Slowly, 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.
  • Varnas and Jaatis (Caste) during Vedic Period – Vedic society is considered as the most advanced civilization in every respect be its social structure or its culture. This was the time when the social structure was taking shape under “Varna System”.
  • Historical time of the the start of Vedic Period – Historical time of the origin and slow but steady evolution of Varna system is estimated around 3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1900 BCE. It was the period of beginning of Indus Valley Civilization. 
  • Varna system originated and flourished in northern parts of India (on the Indo-Gangetic Plains of the Indian subcontinent) and later on spread throughout India during 1500 BC and 500 BC. Society was relatively egalitarian one. There was no distinct hierarchy of socio-economic classes or castes.
  • Emergence of “Jaatis” after assimilation of migrating social groups – Numerous racial, tribal, occupational and other groups entered in waves into India via land routes from different parts of the world. The assimilation of all migrating social groups from different parts into the  main-stream of Hinduism was done through jaati pratha.
  • New Jati/caste name for each migrating group – Each incoming new group was assigned a separate Jaati (caste) name.
  • Numerous Jaatis emerged within each Varna – This way, numerous Jaatis emerged within each Varna. Jaati pratha had not only accommodated and bound migrating social groups into a single cultural system, but gave them full freedom to continue their own culture and way of living and flourish.
  • Categorization based on deeds – Initially assignment of Varna was based on the deeds of a person, like learned persons were given Brahmin name, warriors were called Kshatriyas, business men Vaishyas and manual workers Shudras.
  • Not much disparity – There was not much disparity between different Varnas. There was not much disparity between different forward or lower castes.  There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group.  Not a single group was identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. 
  • Defined Rights and Duties for all- To discipline the society, society had clearly defined rights and duties.
  • Neither repulsed, nor allowed others to sweep its indigenous culture – Along with the freedom to flourish within its own soil, the Hindu society had imposed some restrictions as well like rules of endogamy, ritual purity, inter-dependence and hierarchical order of its social units. This way, Hinduism has neither repulsed any trend vehemently, nor allowed others to sweep its established culture off the roots.
  • Castes during Medieval Period – Many changes took place, during medieval period in the caste system.
  • Turks, Afghans and Mughals continuously invaded India. Invasion of Ghazni (998-1030 AD), and others, the establishment of Slave Dynasty (1206-1290), Khilji Dynasty (1290-1320), Tuglak Dynasty (1320-1412 AD) Sayyed Dynasty (1414-51) Lodi Dynasty (1451-1526) and Mughal Empire (1526 to 1757) continuously pressurized Hindu Social system.
  • Earlier they drained out the wealth of the nation to foreign lands.  But afterwards, they conquered and made India their homeland.
  • Downfall of Hindu Raj along with decline of traditional Hindu values, imposition of Zaziya on Hindus and intolerance of alien rulers towards their Hindu subjects made it difficult for Hindus to preserve their identity and indigenous culture.
  • Hindu society turned inwards to save their identity. Excesses by rulers resulted in conscious efforts by Hindus to save their identity, values and honour by making caste rules and rituals stricter and more rigidly applied than before[i].
  • It gave birth to many social evils like Sati Pratha; Dowry, Purdah system or superstitions. Feudalistic attitude, extravagance and luxurious life style of rulers and those at the helm of authority had increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.
  • Despite of all these socio-economic and political changes, the institution of caste was independent of the government’s intervention till medieval period.   It made the Hindu society stable but not static.
  • Traditional decentralized self-regulated systems were the mode for keeping checks and balances in the social life of the country. The influence of caste system was immense on public minds.
  • The cultural endowments formed the basis of social status of different Varnas.
  • The ranking of different Varna was not based on wealth or material gains, but on intellectual and spiritual attainments and on self-discipline.
  • Position of Caste system before the Colonial rule – As late as the eighteenth century, no all-India hierarchical order of different Varna has taken an all-India character. Generally the position of Brahmins was considered at the top and that of Shudras at the bottom.
  • The Brahmin strongholds were the centres of learning. But in between the two, there was an ambiguity about the status of all the castes, which was acceptable to all concerned in any local area. 
  • This, itself, has given a large element of fluidity to caste system.
  • Upward mobility was possible for different groups by improving their attitude and mannerism.
  • There was a close association of caste with occupation. As leading sociologists pointed out, in addition to their hereditary occupation, agriculture and army were open and had accommodated all social groups of society – indigenous or alien. The basic qualification for doing any work was mainly having the qualifications needed for that specific job.
    • There was no dearth of employment for aspiring workers.  A substantial labour market existed in agricultural sector. Immense influence  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. They were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. 
    • Military service was also accessible to anybody, from any strata of society including the lowest in the ritual terms.  There was no discrimination in recruitment and treatment of soldiers of any kind on the basis of caste.  Rajput status was given to soldiers. [Jain Girilal – The Hindu Phenomenon p9, 1994.]
  • Members of any caste group did not exercise 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.  In order to increase their strength, there were times, when inter caste marriages took place in the past. ]
  • Alternative ideologies and styles of life were available in India. 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.
  • People of different social-groups enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life styles. All activities were confined within a small local area, having very little links with the outside world due slower means of transport.  Only merchants visited different distant places.
  • The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Upward mobility was possible for different groups. Sometimes inter-caste marriages were also permitted. [ii]
  • The local character of societies – Local character of society made close interaction and cooperation between different castes, a reality. used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring for each other. They were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Traditions and rituals required the participation of all social groups (castes). Even untouchables were assigned important social duties. Harijan women helped all castes at the time of child birth, sweepers beat drums in front of Hindu’s houses or in front of a procession at the time of an important ceremony, 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.
  • 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 tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long. [Sriniwas MN,  Times of India, Dated September 9, 1990, p 6.]
  • Teachings of Bhakti and Sufi saints like Sur, Tulsidas, Chaitnya Mahaprabhu, Nanak, Kabir etc. gave some breathing space to the rigidity of caste system, which suffocated the society during medieval India.

Pr. Rajni Kothari also accepts that till medieval times: –

  • There was a hierarchical social order, through which infinite ambiguities had been accepted, tolerated and regulated.
  • A multi-cultural framework of governance existed, which had restrained hegemonical and majority’s dominating tendencies.
  • A highly flexible ethics code was there, through which constant and continuing distortions, clash of personalities, major paradoxes in elite behaviours and instances of humiliation, acrimony and hypocritical behaviours in the conduct of public affairs were managed.[Times of India, dated July 28, 1997,  p13.]
  • Caste system during Modern Period – 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.

During Seventeenth century, many Dutch, Portuguese, French, British and Spanish companies came to India in search of market. Weakening of Islamic power, internal fights among various group leaders and communal unrest gave East India Company success not only in ousting other European companies from India, but also in establishing its rule in India and monopolizing its trade. Once firmly established, the authority was transferred from the Company to the Crown, through the Act of 1858.

Caste during British rule -Through Modern education system, British succeeded in disassociating many individuals from their traditional way of living, classical roots and knowledge. With it faded Indian values, philosophies, systems and traditions.

After establishing their rule in India, British rulers adopted the policy of “divide and rule”. To keep their power intact, they played off one part against other, Prince  against Princes, Hindus against Muslims, province against provinces and caste against caste.

They launched an ideological attack on Hindu practices and caste-system. To them, caste system was “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. It was responsible for all evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution. It made many Indians to lose their faith in social values and systems.

Many leaders like Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh instilled in the minds of millions of unlettered Hindus, venom against caste-system and the Brahmin community. They also held Caste system responsible for treating lower strata of society as lesser human beings; engaging them in forced labour, unsavoury jobs imposing many restrictions on them; preventing them from joining the mainstream of the society; and the subjugation of lower castes with the help of religion. They regarded untouchability as an inevitable concomitant of caste system.

There was another group of national leaders and reformers, who got alarmed at the erosion of Indian Culture, divisible policies of the rulers, economic loot, political subjugation, racial discrimination, assertion of lordly superiority over the subject on the ground of race, assumption of  haughty exclusiveness, persistent insulting and supercilious behaviour towards all Indians, exclusion of Indians from all places of authority and responsibility and denial of their capacity for self-governance united Indians against British rule. It gave birth to National movement.

Reformers also organized meetings to make ignorant masses aware of the social evils/real issues like superstitions or irrationality in observing rituals blindly. They advised people to stop treating low caste Hindus inhumanly. They advised to give underprivileged sections of society their rightful place in society. The intellectual ferment was strongest in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

In 1928, Raja Ram Mohan Roy founded Brahma Samaj in Bengal. He inspired the people of Bengal, UP, Punjab, Madras and other provinces, to form similar organizations and interpret religion rationally. Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra (1867), Arya Samaj in Northern India, Rama Krishna Mission, Theosophical Society of India (1879), Dev Samaj in Lahore and Servants of India Society took up the job to awaken the masses. They talked about the greatness of Hindu Vedic culture and about Vedas as the source of all knowledge and truth. Swami Vivekanand founded the Rama Krishna Mission tried to reveal to the world Indian Philosophy and culture. Some reform institutes like Vivekanand’s or Rama Krishna Mission or Theosophical Society of India tried to familiarize the Western World, too, to the charm and graciousness of Indian Culture. All of them advised people not to be swayed away by Western culture. First they should know their own heritage and try to revive what is good in it.

Swami Vivekanand gave a call to “Return to Vedas”. He said, “Each nation like each individual has a theme in this life, which is its centre, the principle note, around which every other note comes to form the harmony. If any nation attempts to throw off its national vitality the direction which has become its own through the transmission of centuries the nation dies.”

Caste system after the Independence – Seventy four years after the Independence, Indians have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. Since 15th August 1947, 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.

In the eyes of common-man, Caste a social Institution – General public in India still considers as one of the fundamental social institution – a natural, inevitable unit of society. Family, which is a natural unit of an extended family; Extended family of Kula; Kula of a tribe (Vish); and a tribe of a Jana of Jati (Caste). In a way, all are fundamental social institutions. To them, Caste is a large extended family bonded by same language, customs, thinking and way of living and occupation. It is second only to the family in widening a person’s social radius and in getting importance in his/her private and occupational life.

A person’s relation with members of his caste is closer than with those, belonging to other castes. Caste values, beliefs, prejudices, injunctions as well as distortions of reality are the indivisible part of a person’s psyche and conscience. It makes one feel good and loved, when he lives up to the norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgresses them. It still provides an individual with social security. To foreigners, Varna/caste system represent the ancient culture in its eternity.

Amendments and legislations to protect people from the rigidities of Caste System – Since Independence, the government has passed a number of amendments in the Constitution and legislations to remove the unreasonable practices developed into the system. Like untouchability is declared a crime. Bonded labour 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, who are found guilty.

Caste now more liberal in social sphere – With the spread of literacy and growing awareness among masses, Castes system has become less restrictive in social arena. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes now means little. Earlier it meant complete social ostracism. Old style of authority and power exercised by caste-elders has already diminished except for a few castes in, 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.

Winding up – At present, the whole atmosphere in India is in a state of turmoil. Economy of the nation is in a critical condition. Technology has advanced to such an extent, that phones are wireless; cooking is fire-less; cars are key-less; food is fat-less; tyres are tubeless; and tools are cordless. But along with it, main organs of the Government  political institutions are clueless. They have almost paralyzed because of corruption. Political leaders are shameless. Masses are helpless; youth are jobless; relations are meaningless; feelings are heartless; education is valueless; attitude is careless, and children are manner-less.

Modernity has ignited the desire for position, name and possession. People are gradually losing faith in traditional values and systems. Even institution like family has lost its sheen. It is quite a tough job for India to cope with the new challenges. Traditional living has been like an anchor, keeping the boat in safe harbour. Now that the anchor has gone and the boat is at the mercy of wild waves on a stormy ocean.

People like C. Rajagopalachari think that 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.

Today, when people are getting away from their roots, Hinduism can make their feet firmly grounded on earth and  instill right values in them. Its values and traditions give to the people, a purpose to live for and ideals to be achieved. Only after raising oneself from ignorance, a person could be able to understand the greatness of the Indian value system. Like a jeweler, one should spot out gems from among worthless pebbles.  A knowledgeable person could pick up knowledge and leave the undesired obsolete elements developed in it with passage of time. 

Modern India is desperate to pick up the lost threads of its true culture, and beliefs. It has to create an atmosphere, where different identities can once again live together in harmony and people can say proudly “we belong to a nation known as India.”.


June 25, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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