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Caste System in India

Caste System in India

Caste System in India is an ancient classification of people based on their occupations and societal roles. It has been in practice for over 3000 years, with individuals being identified by their caste, which determines their social status. In the past, this system rigidly assigned occupations and restricted people to specific roles. While it is less strict today, the historical impact and lingering effects of the caste system are still present in Indian society. Understanding its history and prevalence is crucial to appreciating its influence even in modern times.

What is Caste System?

The caste system in India is like a historical way of sorting people into different groups based on their jobs and social status. India has a big and diverse society, and this system has been a part of its culture for a long time. In India, your caste is a big deal – it’s like your social identity card that also determines how people see you.

The caste system says that these groups are formed based on what you do in life (karma) and what you’re supposed to do (dharma). Unfortunately, it’s led to some people thinking they’re better than others – like those in the “upper caste” feeling superior, and those in the “lower caste” feeling inferior. This has been going on for a really long time and has resulted in a lot of unfair treatment toward the “lower caste” folks.

About Caste System in India

The Indian caste system has been around since ancient times, dating back to the Vedic society from around 1000 to 500 BCE. It managed to stick around through various historical periods like the Classical Period, Medieval Period, the Mughal Era, and even British Rule. Many consider it a significant way of categorizing Indian society. However, there’s a lot of criticism directed towards the caste system for promoting unfairness and discrimination against those labeled as “lower castes.”

The history of the caste system in India is shared here:

Classical Period (320–650 CE) – The varna system colour-coded the prevailing castes in the society.

Medieval Period (650–1400 CE) – The caste system was well established by this time.

Mughal Era (1000–1750 CE) – The Indian caste system was prevalent even during the Mughal Era. Some people within the caste hierarchy embraced Islam because of the caste discrimination they were facing.

British Rule (1857–1947) – The Britishers tried to bring reform and act against some of the injustices that the “lower caste” people faced.

How Many Caste in India?

There are four total castes in India. An individual’s membership to a caste is predetermined by their birth. It is believed that those with superior karma and dharma are birthed into “upper castes”. Here are the names of all castes of the caste system in India:

CasteOccupationPosition in the Caste Hierarchy
BrahminsPriests, TeachersSuperiors in the caste hierarchy.
KshatriyasRulers, WarriorsInferior to Brahmins, superior to others.
VaishyasMerchants, Land OwnersInferior to Brahmins and Kshatriyas, superior to others.
ShudrasServantsConsidered inferiors in the caste hierarchy.
DalitsOdd JobsConsidered “Untouchables”.

How did Caste System Originate in India?

There are many theories like traditional, racial, political, occupational, evolutionary etc which try to explain the caste system in India.

1.Traditional Theory
  • According to this theory, the caste system is believed to have divine origins. It suggests that the system is an extension of the varna system, where the four varnas (or social classes) originated from different parts of Brahma’s body.
  • At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins, who were mainly teachers and intellectuals, and were believed to come from Brahma’s head. The Kshatriyas, representing warriors and rulers, were said to come from his arms. Vaishyas, associated with traders and business, were created from his thighs. At the bottom were the Shudras, who were believed to come from Brahma’s feet. The theory suggests that each varna has a specific role based on its origin – Brahmins for preaching and learning, Kshatriyas for protection, Vaishyas for business, and Shudras to serve the other three.
  • The theory also proposes that sub-castes emerged later due to intermarriages between the four varnas. Proponents of this theory point to ancient texts like the Purushasukta of Rigveda and Manusmriti to support their perspective.
2. Racial Theory
  • The term for caste in Sanskrit is “varna,” which translates to color. The caste system in Indian society originated from the chaturvarna system, consisting of four main categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. According to Indian sociologist D.N. Majumdar in his book “Races and Culture in India,” the caste system emerged after the Aryans arrived in India.
  • In Rig Vedic literature, there is a notable emphasis on distinctions between the Arya and non-Aryans (Dasa), including differences in complexion, speech, religious practices, and physical features.
  • During the Vedic period, the Varna system was primarily based on the division of labor and occupation. The Rig Veda frequently mentions the three classes: Brahma, representing poet-priests; Kshatra, representing warrior-chiefs; and Vis, comprising the common people. The fourth class, Sudra, is mentioned only once in the Rig Veda, representing domestic servants.
3. Political Theory
  • According to this theory, the caste system is believed to be a strategic creation by the Brahmins to secure the top position in society. Dr. Ghurye suggests that caste originated from Indo-Aryan culture along the Ganges and later spread to other parts of India.
  • The Brahmins, it is claimed, introduced the idea of the king’s spiritual merit, mediated by a priest or purohit, to gain the support of the ruling authority.

4. Occupational Theory
  • Caste hierarchy is according to the occupation. Those professions which were regarded as better and respectable made the persons who performed them superior to those who were engaged in dirty professions.
  • According to Newfield, “Function and function alone is responsible for the origin of caste structure in India.” With functional differentiation there came in occupational differentiation and numerous sub-castes such as Lohar(blacksmith), Chamar(tanner), Teli(oil-pressers).
5. Evolution Theory

According to this theory, the caste system did not come into existence all of a sudden or at a particular date. It is the result of a long process of social evolution.

  • Hereditary occupations;
  • The desire of the Brahmins to keep themselves pure;
  • The lack of rigid unitary control of the state;
  • The unwillingness of rulers to enforce a uniform standard of law and custom
  • The ‘Karma’ and ‘Dharma’ doctrines also explain the origin of caste system. Whereas the Karma doctrine holds the view that a man is born in a particular caste because of the result of his action in the previous incarnation, the doctrine of Dharma explains that a man who accepts the caste system and the principles of the caste to which he belongs, is living according to Dharma. Confirmation to one’s own dharma also remits on one’s birth in the rich high caste and violation gives a birth in a lower and poor caste.
  • Ideas of exclusive family, ancestor worship, and the sacramental meal;
  • Clash of antagonistic cultures particularly of the patriarchal and the matriarchal systems;
  • Clash of races, colour prejudices and conquest;
  • Deliberate economic and administrative policies followed by various conquerors
  • Geographical isolation of the Indian peninsula;
  • Foreign invasions;
  • Rural social structure.

Principal Features of Caste System in India

Segmental Division of Society: Our society is split into smaller groups known as castes, with membership determined by birth.

Hierarchy: Castes establish a social hierarchy, with the Brahmin caste at the top and the untouchable caste at the bottom. The positions of intermediate castes are not always clear.

Endogamy: Members must marry within their own caste. Violating this rule leads to ostracism and loss of caste. However, practices like hypergamy and hypogamy were also observed.

Hereditary Status and Occupation: Castes are associated with hereditary occupations, as mentioned by the ancient Greek traveler Megasthenes.

Food and Drink Restrictions: Castes typically avoid accepting cooked food from lower castes due to pollution concerns. Various taboos, including cooking, eating, and commensal practices, exist. Brahmins, for instance, traditionally accepted pakka food from specific castes.

Particular Name: Each caste has a specific name by which it is identified, sometimes associated with a particular occupation.

Concept of Purity and Pollution: Higher castes claim ritual, spiritual, and racial purity, maintaining separation from lower castes to avoid pollution. Even a touch or shadow of a lower caste person is considered polluting to a higher caste.

Jati Panchayat: Caste status is protected by caste laws and conventions, enforced by governing bodies like Jati Panchayats, with names like Kuldriya and Jokhila in different regions.

Functions of the Caste System in India

    • The system stuck to India’s traditional social setup.
    • It made sure each community had control over specific jobs, giving them job security.
    • Individuals got social security and recognition. Your caste influenced marriage choices, acted like a state-club, orphanage, and even provided health insurance and funeral benefits.
    • Knowledge and skills were passed down through generations, preserving culture and ensuring productivity.
    • Caste played a vital role in teaching individuals about their society’s culture, traditions, and values during the socialization process.
    • Different castes interacted through jajmani relationships, acting like a trade union to protect members from exploitation.
    • Kshatriyas, protected by the caste system, enjoyed stability as they were shielded from political competition, conflicts, and violence.
    • The system upheld racial purity through endogamy.
    • Specialized roles led to high-quality production, boosting economic development. For instance, many Indian handicrafts gained global acclaim due to this specialization.

    Read Also: Diversity in India

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