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CASTE SYSTEM IN INDIA
of the most controversial topic regarding the India's society and
culture is its stringent caste system. The word "caste” is taken
from the Portuguese word ‘casta’. It can be defined as a rigid
social system in which a social hierarchy is maintained generation
after generation and allows little mobility out of the position to
which a person is born.
This system dates almost 3000 years back and was formed based on the need to form a social order in ancient India. It is still very prevalent as part of India's society. Today, it occurs more in the rural villages than in big urban cities; and more in the social matters of kinship and marriages than in impersonal day-to-day interaction, such as taking the bus. Having been around for centuries, it is highly doubtful that the caste system will die out completely. Its presence will still be felt in the near future.
The original caste system came about when the Aryans migrated from the north to India around 1600BC. During the Vedic age, Manu, the founder of this ancient Hindu or Aryan society established the new social order, reflecting a return to spiritual values from an earlier and materialistic humanity. He founded four social orders based on four main goals of both humans and society. A social classification system of four different classes (varnas) was thus devised so that the human race could have a smooth and ordered life in society.
The origin of the caste system is in Hinduism, but it affected the whole Indian society. The caste system in the religious form is basically a simple division of society in which there are four castes arranged in a hierarchy and below them the outcast. But socially the caste system was more complicated, with much more castes and sub-castes and other divisions. Legally the government disallows the practice of caste system but has a policy of affirmative discrimination of the backward classes.
The caste system in India can be described as an elaborately stratified social hierarchy distinguishing India’s social structure from any other nation. Its history is multifaceted and complex Caste is a term, which is used to specify a group of people having a specific social rank and dates back to 1200 BCE. The Indian term for caste is jati, and generally designates a group that can vary in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of jatis each with its own rules and customs. The various jatis are traditionally arranged in hierarchical order and fit into one of the four basic varnas the (Sanskrit word for “colors”).
*The varna of Brahmans, commonly identified with priests and the learned class
*The varna of Kshatriyas, associated with rulers and warriors including property owners.
*The varna of Vaishyas, associated with commercial livelihoods (i.e. traders)
*The varna of Shudras, the servile laborers
The Untouchables occupy a place that is not clearly defined by boundaries and is outside of the varna scheme. Their jobs (such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal) cause them to be considered impure and thus “untouchable.” Historically the untouchables were not allowed in temples and many other public places. In 1950 legislation was passed to prevent any form of discrimination towards the untouchables. Although legislation has affected the status of the people, they are yet very much a visible part of Indian society.
The earliest expressions of caste can be found in one of India’s vast bodies of religious scripture known as the Vedas, which are though to have been complied between 1500 and 1000 BCE, although the time of their composition is under debate. They were transmitted orally for many generations before being written down. Therefore, centuries may have passed before they were ever committed to writing. These works are considered the source of ancient Indian wisdom. The first of the four basic Vedic books is the Rig Veda; a collection of over 1,000 hymns containing the basic mythology of the Aryan gods. The Rig Veda contains one of the most famous sections in ancient Indian literature in which the first man created, Purusa, is sacrificed in order to give rise to the four varnas.
“The Brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the Rajanya [Kshatriya, king and warrior], his two thighs [loins] the Vaishya, from his feet the Sudra [servile class] was born.”
It can be argued that the composers of the Vedas, especially those sections within the Vedas called the Brahmanas, were concerned with the interconnections that organized reality (Smith, 7). This way of looking at the varnas allows us to see how such a system can survive several millennia. It classifies people not only in terms of their different qualities but also with respect to their different privileges. Each class thus has a special role to play in society as well as a unique function: this structure is a means of creating and organizing an effective society. The varna system is inter-linked with creation, lending itself a great deal of reverence and validity. If space, time the congregation of the gods and goddesses, the natural world, scripture and ritual, and the human body itself- if all these realms bear classification according to varna, how could an organization of society be regarded as anything other than the way things should be? An important thing to note is that the Vedas do NOT mention a concept such as Untouchability. It is a part of the system that has been created by society itself.
Although the nation has a long and varied history, the role of the caste system pre-colonialism can be understood by focusing on the major eras in Indian history. Much of India is rural and that which is not, for the most part, is much more urban. With such a drastic difference in the city and the village there is also a difference in the way caste has been interpreted and implemented over the years. The early system most represented something analogous to the medieval guild system. It allowed a specialization of society and each member knew their role. Much later in India's history, as India became more and more prevalent in the international scene the concept of the caste system began to have different connotations. It was thought of as backward by much of the west. The greatest changes in the perception as well as in the reality came with the coming and going of the British.
Caste System in Modern India
The leaders of independent India decided that India will be democratic, socialist and secular country. According to this policy there is a separation between religion and state. Practicing untouchability or discriminating a person based on his caste is legally forbidden. Along with this law the government allows positive discrimination of the depressed classes of India.
The Indians have also become more flexible in their caste system customs. In general the urban people in India are less strict about the caste system than the rural. In cities one can see different caste people mingling with each other, while in some rural areas there is still discrimination based on castes and sometimes also on untouchability. Sometimes in villages or in the cities there are violent clashes which, are connected to caste tensions. Sometimes the high castes strike the lower castes who dare to uplift their status. Sometimes the lower caste get back on the higher castes.
In modern India the term caste is used for Jat and also for Varna. The term, caste was used by the British who ruled India until 1947. The British who wanted to rule India efficiently made lists of Indian communities. They used two terms to describe Indian communities.
Castes and Tribes
The term caste was used for Jats and also for Varnas. Tribes were those communities who lived deep in jungles, forests and mountains far away from the main population and also communities who were hard to be defined as castes for example communities who made a living from stealing or robbery. These lists, which the British made, were used later on by the Indian governments to create lists of communities who were entitled for positive discrimination.
The castes, which were the elite of the Indian society, were classified as high castes. The other communities were classified as lower castes or lower classes. The lower classes were listed in three categories. The first category is called Scheduled Castes. This category includes in it communities who were untouchables. In modern India, untouchability exists at a very low extent. The untouchables call themselves Dalit, meaning depressed. Until the late 1980s they were called Harijan, meaning children of God. This title was given to them by Mahatma Gandhi who wanted the society to accept untouchables within them.
The second category is Scheduled Tribes. This category includes in it those communities who did not accept the caste system and preferred to reside deep in the jungles, forests and mountains of India, away from the main population. The Scheduled Tribes are also called Adivasi, meaning aboriginals.
The third category is called sometimes Other Backward Classes or Backward Classes. This category includes in it castes who belong to Sudra Varna and also former untouchables who converted from Hinduism to other religions. This category also includes in it nomads and tribes who made a living from criminal acts.
According to the central government policy these three categories are entitled for positive discrimination. Sometimes these three categories are defined together as Backward Classes. 15% of India's population are Scheduled Castes. According to central government policy 15% of the government jobs and 15% of the students admitted to universities must be from Scheduled Castes. For the Scheduled Tribes about 7.5% places are reserved which is their proportion in Indian population. The Other Backwards Classes are about 50% of India's population, but only 27% of government jobs are reserved for them.
Along with the central government, the state governments of India also follow a positive discrimination policy. Different states have different figures of communities entitled for positive discrimination based on the population of each state. Different state governments have different lists of communities entitled for positive discrimination. Sometimes a specific community is entitled for rights in a particular state but not in another state of India.
In modern India new tensions were created because of these positive discrimination policies. The high caste communities feel discriminated by the government policy to reserve positions for the Backward Classes. In many cases a large number of high caste members compete for a few places reserved for them. While the Backward Classes members do not have to compete at all because of the large number of reserved places for them compared to the candidates. Sometimes in order to fill the quota, candidates from the lower classes are accepted even though they are not suitable. Sometimes some reserved positions remain unmanned because there were few candidates from the lower classes causing more tension between the castes. Between the lower castes there are also tensions over reservation.
In the order of priority for a reserved place of the Backward Classes, candidate from the Scheduled castes is preferred over a candidate from the Scheduled Tribes who is preferred over a candidate from the other Backward Classes. As stated earlier Other Backward Classes are about 50% of India's population but only 27% of the Other Backward Classes are entitled for positive discrimination according to central government policy. Some Other Backward Classes communities are organizing politically to be recognized as Backward Classes entitled for positive discrimination.
The Scheduled Tribes who are seen as the aborigines of India got ownership and certain rights over Indian land. Many communities in India claim also to be aborigines of India and they are claiming the same rights as the Scheduled Tribes.
The caste identity has become a subject of political, social and legal interpretation. Communities who get listed as entitled for positive discrimination do not get out of this list even if their social and political conditions get better. In many cases the legal system is involved to decide if a certain person is entitled for positive discrimination.
But with all this positive discrimination policy, most of the communities who were low in the caste hierarchy remain low in the social order even today. Communities who were high in the social hierarchy remain even today high in the social hierarchy. Most of the degrading jobs are even today done by the Dalits, while the Brahmans remain at the top of the hierarchy by being the doctors, engineers and lawyers of India.