[In-depth] Caste System in India – Origin, Features and Evil Effects

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Divisions in society based on various parameters have been there for ages. India is not an exception. Rather India, being a land of diversity has been more prone to such divisions. One such prominent social division noticed in India is the caste system. The system has its roots in India since ancient times and plays a dominant role in present times as well. It not only decides India’s social structure but also affects economic and political spheres and their functioning.

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Caste system – Definition

  • The term ‘caste’ is of Spanish and Portuguese origin derived from the word ‘casta’ which means lineage, breed, or race.
  • It is a system in which society is divided into various social groups. It is mostly noticed in Hindu society or religion. However, such distinctions are noticed in other religions as well.
  • Usually, the basis for such social stratification is hereditary, economic or occupational.
    • Hereditary – Belonging to a particular caste for taking birth in a particular family that belongs to a particular caste.
    • Economic – Belonging to a particular caste for having a particular economic status.
    • Occupational – Belonging to a particular caste for practising a particular occupation.

Origin of caste system in India

  • There are various theories regarding the origin of the caste system in India.
    • As per the religious theory, the caste system bears its origin to the Varna system. The Varna system states that four Varnas were created from the body of Brahma (the creator of the world).
      • Those who were created from his mouth were Brahmanas.
      • Those who were created from his hands were Kshatriyas.
      • Vaishyas were those who were created out of his thighs.
      • Shudras were the ones who were created from his feet.
    • Another theory regarding the origin of the caste system in India is the social-historical theory. It states that the caste system originated with the arrival of Aryans, around 1500 BC. They organised themselves into three groups:
      • The first group of Aryans which comprised warriors were called Rajanyas who later came to be known as Kshatriyas.
      • The second group had priests as its members and was known as Brahmanas.
      • The third group was Vaishyas who were mainly farmers and craftsmen.
      • When Aryans had arrived in India, they did not accept the local culture. Most of the locals were pushed away. The locals who were subdued by Aryans and those who were descendants of Aryans with locals were considered to be Shudras.
  • If we see from the perspective of the timeline, the earliest traces of the caste system can be found in the Purusha Suktam verse of Rig Veda which is believed to have been developed during 1500-800 BC and here it was in the form of the Varna system.
    • As per the verse, Purusha (believed to be the first being) is constituted by a combination of the four Varnas. Following this, the Varna system was developed.
    • The Varna system divided Hindu society into four groups according to their work and responsibilities to maintain prosperity and eternal order.
    • The system was developed to avoid conflicts within business and encroachment on respective duties.
    • This division later turned into the caste system in society.
  • The Bhagavad Gita composed between 200 BC to 200 AD had also emphasized the importance of caste.
  • The Laws of Manu or Manusmriti which is believed to have been written during the same period also defined and specified the rights and duties of four varnas of Hinduism in Indian society.
  • The text of Mahabharata which was completed by the 4th century AD also has evidence of the four-tier varna system.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

Is the Varna system synonymous with the caste system?

  • Precisely, the Varna system is the textual model or book view of how the society should be organised whereas the caste system is contextual or the on-field view of the Indian social system.
  • There are only four varnas whereas there are around 4000 Jatis (castes).
  • In the Varna system, initially, the untouchables did not form a part but in the Jati or caste system, the untouchables form an integral part.
  • Additionally, in the Varna system, there was a possibility of social mobility if one’s condition (socio-economic) was improved but in the caste system, improvement in one’s socio-economic condition does not change his/her caste.

Evolution of the caste system in India

  • The caste system has gone through several phases in India. Historians believe that during the Early Vedic Period, the Varna system was not that rigid and there was social mobility.
  • The system did not have untouchables initially. It was during the Later Vedic Period (around 1000 BC), the term “Asat Shudra” finds a mention which meant untouchable community.
  • However, from 1000 to 200 BC, the caste system began to solidify.
  • Around 2nd Century BC to the 1st century AD, the occupations in society diversified and several occupational groups came into being now known by name of different Jatis.
  • Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras were the major caste groups. The Brahmins had tremendous social respect whereas the Shudras were despised.
  • The resultant discrimination based on one’s caste led to the advent of religions promoting social equality like Buddhism.
  • Brahmins enjoyed a lot of power and privileges and over time, certain castes were placed even below Shudras and were known as Avarnas (considered Dalits in modern times). These were the people who performed menial jobs in society such as sweepers, scavengers and others.
  • During the Islamic rule in India, the power of the Hindu priestly caste was considerably reduced. However, in the rural areas, anti-Islamic feelings strengthened the caste system. In the later periods of Islamic rule, the caste system considerably evolved and Brahmins began to do farming as long as the physical labour was performed by the lower caste individuals.
  • During the British Raj, the caste system became more discriminatory and the British took advantage of this situation. They misused the Indian caste system to gain social control. It was also during that period that strong voices were raised against the caste system and the discrimination on its grounds which forced the British to make laws for the protection of lower castes and untouchables.
  • With India attaining independence and a fresh Constitution being drafted, those who had long been discriminated against gained some rights and privileges and the journey to an equal Indian society began.
  • However, discrimination and social distinction based on caste have not reduced that much in independent India but it is evident that the boundaries have disappeared considerably.
  • Now, there is no compulsion on individuals to perform certain tasks because they belong to a particular social group. People enjoy a considerable amount of freedom in choosing their occupation and their way of life. Although this change is uneven and still there are some places in India where the caste system and its repercussions are strongly felt.

Main Features

  • Hereditary
    • An individual’s caste is determined by the caste of the family he is born in. It is generally hereditary.
    • One’s caste is unalterable no matter what his/her social position is. One inherits the membership of a caste by his/her birth.
  • Hierarchy
    • Hierarchy refers to the ladder of command where different castes are positioned on the upper and lower strata as per their positioning in the caste ladder. It shows who is considered superior and who is considered to be inferior.
    • In this ladder, Brahmins occupy the superior position and the untouchables occupy the inferior one.
    • In between the Brahmins and untouchables are the intermediate castes.
  • Endogamy
    • This refers to the rule where individuals are supposed to marry a person belonging to one’s caste.
    • Marriage outside one’s caste is not preferable. Those who violate the rule are ostracised or lose their caste status.
    • However, these rules are gradually changing.
  • Restrictions on the way to lead a life
    • The caste system puts various restrictions on how a person can lead his/her life.
    • It tends to set particular rules for particular castes. A person’s occupation, choices, custom, dress and speech – everything is decided by the caste he has taken birth in.
    • For instance, a Brahmin is supposed to teach or practise priesthood while an untouchable is supposed to perform menial tasks like sweeping, hair-cutting and others.
    • Similarly, a Brahmin cannot accept food and drink from a lower caste person. People belonging to lower castes are not allowed to enter certain temples.
    • Usually, the higher caste people speak pure or refined language whereas the lower caste people use colloquial language. Previously, Sanskrit was considered to be the language of Brahmins. It was much later that lower caste members had access to learning such languages.
    • Although such practises are changing with time yet they are still very much prevalent in rural areas.
  • Concept of purity and pollution
    • A very important feature of the caste system is the concept of purity and pollution.
    • People and practices of lower castes are considered to be impure and it is believed that the lower caste’s touch, food and shadow may pollute a higher caste person’s body, food or image.
    • Even certain foods are not supposed to be consumed by higher caste members as they are considered to be impure. These include consumption of non-vegetarian food, liquor etc.
    • However, with growing urbanisation and the spread of western education, such social patterns are changing.
  • Others
    • These include conventions and conflict resolving mechanisms of various castes of their own. Caste panchayats at the village and inter-village levels are quite common.

Evil effects of the caste system

  • Untouchability
    • This is the worst effect of the caste system. The caste system fostered the idea of untouchability.
    • The lower castes or people who performed menial jobs were treated as untouchables. They were not allowed to visit temples, take water from ponds and wells used by upper castes.
    • To prevent the upper caste students from being polluted by the shadow and touch of lower caste people, children of the latter were not allowed in schools thus preventing them from accessing education.
  • Discrimination
    • The lower caste people face discrimination in various ways. They were not treated at par with upper caste people. They could not inter-dine or inter-mix with upper caste people.
    • Moreover, their cultures and practices were considered to be profane and they were ill-treated.
    • Lower caste people have faced a lot of exploitation such as bonded labour, harassment and others, the basis of which is nothing but caste.
  • Threat to national integration and development
    • People belonging to various castes develop caste consciousness and thus tend to fulfil and fight for their caste interests which ultimately hinders national unity and integrity.
    • Furthermore, as some of the castes had access to various government facilities and those who belonged to lower caste faced discrimination, the nation has not been able to attain an even development throughout.
    • However, the situation is changing as the developmental services are now reaching the downtrodden.
  • Inferior status of women
    • The worst effects of the caste system were borne by women members of the group. They were supposed to adhere to all the social and cultural norms that discriminated against them.
    • On one hand, the upper caste women faced child marriage and widowhood at a younger age, the lower caste women faced physical and sexual harassment by the upper caste men.
    • In short, the caste system perpetuated the sorry state of women in society.
  • Fall of Hinduism
    • History has evidence that the evils of the caste system led to the fall of Hinduism and the birth of other religions.
    • Those who faced discrimination in Hinduism due to its caste system chose to disregard it which ultimately weakened and defamed Hinduism.
  • Religious conversion
    • Many people who faced discrimination and exploitation in the Hindu caste system choose to convert to other religions like Islam and Christianity which further leads to religious hatred and enmity among various communities.

Affirmative action

  • Since the time, India was struggling for its freedom from British imperialism, among many goals that the freedom fighters had in their minds to achieve, eradication of evil effects of the caste system was one of the prominent ones. Therefore, the constitution-makers introduced the following provisions:
    • Fundamental Rights
      • Right to Equality includes Equality before Law (Article 14), Social Equality and Equal Access to Public Areas (Article 15), Equality in Matters of Public Employment (Article 16) and Abolition of Untouchability (Article 17).
  • To punish those who harass, exploit or discriminate against the lower caste people, the Government of India introduced the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
  • Furthermore, to make education and jobs accessible to lower caste people, there are provisions of reservation in places like educational institutions and employment opportunities etc.
  • The establishment of social welfare departments and national commissions for the welfare of scheduled castes and tribes is another such initiative to augment the upliftment of lower caste people.
  • The Governments at both State and national levels launch welfare schemes from time to time for the welfare of backward castes and the downtrodden. Some of the initiatives include scholarships for education, schemes for social and economic empowerment and others.

Conclusion

The caste system in India is not an isolated issue. It influences all the sectors in society. Sometimes it mixes with politics, in other times it shapes the social and political equations. The main victims have always been the people belonging to lower castes. They have been wooed and exploited by many for the fulfilment of political and personal goals. Although the situation is changing gradually and there have been remarkable advancements in the social and economic status of the untouchables yet a lot needs to be done. The evil effects of the caste system still haunt the downtrodden in rural areas and are covertly practised in urban areas. The system needs reformation and not only governmental efforts but a multi-pronged approach is needed.

Practise Question

  1. What are the recent trends noticed in the Indian caste system? Discuss.
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Prashant Bhardwaj
Prashant Bhardwaj
2 months ago

In depth and covers all the aspects of the castism and the language is so simple that is easy to understand. Thanks for such in depth article very well written.

Santhosh
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Santhosh
2 months ago

Thanks for the feedback.

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