The Indian word for caste is jati, which means a large kin-community or descent-group. The word “caste” comes from the Portuguese casta (breed or race). The Sanskrit word applied to these groupings is varna, which means several things but is often interpreted to signify color. In a verse from the first millennium epic, the Mahabharata, Brigu, the sage explains: “The brahmans are fair, the ksatriyas are reddish, the vaisyas yellow and the sudras are black” (Huttton). In this essay I look at how the caste system existed in ancient India and how it currently exists in modern India. I will also try and explain how the caste system has evolved from its ancient ways and how it currently functions in modern India: for example, what sort of role it plays in India’s politics and in government policies. I will also give my personal opinion on the Indian caste system.
Of the many cultures that flourished in India the literary records of the Indo-Aryan culture are not only the earliest but contain the first mention of the components of the ancient Indian caste. The Indo-Aryan, when they entered India, considered themselves more advanced and more developed than the native aborigines of India. When they (Aryans) came they had mainly three well-defined classes amongst themselves, intermarriage between which must have been rather rare, though not forbidden. These three classes to a great extent worked and functioned the way the caste system functioned but the differences between the three classes was not all that rigidly marked. (Bashm).
When the Aryans entered India their first task was to exclude the sudras, a class largely composed of the aborigines, from their (Aryan) religious worship. The lowest caste of the Indian society represented the sudras at that time. The sudras were not allowed to practice religious worship that was developed by the Aryans and they were not allowed to be present in the sacrificial halls of worship. The sudras were further divided into two groups “pure” or “not-excluded” (aniravasita) and “excluded” (niravasita). The latter were quite outside the pale of the Hindu society, and were virtually indistinguishable from the body of the people later to be known as the untouchables. According to the brahman cal textbooks the chief duty of the pure sudra was to wait on the other three classes. He was to eat the remnants of his master’s food, wear his cast-off clothing, and use his old furniture (Bashm).
Below the sudras was a group of people called the untouchables. Sometimes they were called the “fifth class” (pancama), but most historians rejected this term, since they believed that this class of people were so low that they were excluded from the Aryan social order altogether. The untouchables were also known as the candala. According to the ancient Indian law the Candals were to be dressed in the garments of the corpse they had cremated (candals cremated the dead), should eat their food from broken vessels, and should wear only iron ornaments (Bashm).
The other three classes at that time were that of the brahmans, ksatriya and the vaisya. There was a sharp distinction between the higher three classes and the sudras. The former were twice born (dvija), once at their natural birth and again at their initiation, when they were invested with the sacred thread and received into the Aryan society (Bashm). This distinction was made on the basis of their varna, or skin color. This type of distinction became even more rigid after the fairer Aryans came into contact with the darker aborigines of India.
The brahman was a great divinity in human form. His spiritual power was such that he could destroy the king and his army, if they attempted to infringe on his rights. In law he claimed great privileges, and in every respect he demanded precedence, honor and worship. Often the brahman lived under the patronage of a king, and was provided for by grants of tax-free land, farmed by peasants, who would pay their taxes to the brahman instead of to the king. They performed all the religious sacrifices for the kings and other higher classes for which they were paid and given gifts. No other caste besides the Brahmans could perform religious sacrifices. The brahmans were also considered to be the people between the gods and the mortals. At all times the brahmans supposedly led a truly religious life praying to god and learning the scriptures (Bashm).
The second class was the ruling one, the members of which were in the Vedic period called rajana, and later ksatriya. The theoretical duty of the ksatriya was “protection”, which included fighting in war and governing in peace. In earlier times he often claimed precedence over the brahman. The kings were considered to be ksatriyas and they could check the power of the Brahman, as the brahmans were supposed to check the power of the ksatriya (Bashm).
The third class was that of the vaisya, or the mercantile class, though entitled to the services of the priesthood and to the sacred thread of initiation, but this class was poorer than the brahmans and the ksatriya. The vaisya was sometimes also symbolized as the downtrodden cultivator or a petty merchant who was interested in nothing else but his profit.
To understand the functioning of the Indian caste system effectively and simply it will be best if we divide the features of the Hindu society into six major groups:
Division in society and how the various castes functioned – Castes were groups with well developed lives of their own, and individuals membership to his or her own caste was determined by his birth in that particular caste. The status of a person depended not on his wealth but on the traditional importance of the caste that he had the luck of being born into. Each of the castes was supposed to perform a set of activities and follow a set of rules. Often the set of activities and rules that were assigned to different castes were very different from one another. Each caste had its own panchayat or a governing body.
Some of the offences that it dealt with, were : (a) eating, or drinking; (b) seduction of or adultery with a married women; (c) refusal to fulfill the promise of marriage; (d) refusing to send a wife to her husband when old enough; (e) non-payments of debts; (f) petty assaults; (g) insulting a brahman; (h) defying customs. The panchayat was also responsible for sentencing punishments. They also looked after the well being of the individuals of their own caste. Thus, each caste was in a way it’s own ruler. Hence the members of a caste ceased to be members of the community as a whole. The citizens owned moral allegiance to their caste first, rather than to the community as a whole Dennis, Hutton).
Hierarchy – As I have earlier mentioned in my paper before hierarchy was a major part of the ancient Indian society. The brahmans were certainly at the top of this hierarchical order followed by the ksatriya, the vaisya and then the sudras. This system of hierarchy was common almost all over India except for a few areas in the south where the artisan caste maintained a struggle for a higher place in the social order and disputed the supremacy of the brahmans (Dennis).
Restrictions of Feeding and Social Intercourse – There were numerous rules as to what sort of food and drink could be accepted by a person and from what caste. All food was divided into two classes: “Kachcha” and “Pakka”. The former was any food in the cooking of which water had been used; and the latter was food cooked in “ghi” or oil without the addition of water. As a rule, a man would never eat “Kachcha” food unless it was prepared by a fellow caste man, who in actual practice meant a member of his own endogamous group, or else prepared by his brahmin guru. But a brahmin could accept “Kachcha” food at the hands of no other caste. As for the “Pakka” food, a brahmin might take it from the hands of some other castes only. A man of higher caste would not accept “Kachcha” food from one of the lower.
The idea of impurity or pollution was also a very important concept in ancient Indian society. A member of the upper cast could become impure just by the shadow of an untouchable or by his approaching within a certain distance of that member of the upper caste. No Hindu of decent caste would touch a chamar or a dom both of whom were members of the untouchable class. The members of a higher class often restricted the untouchables from using the same wells or the same rivers as theirs since they (untouchables) might pollute the water in the well or the river stream if they accidentally touched it with their hands. In certain areas the untouchables were not allowed to come out of their houses during dawn because their bodies cast too long shadows, which might defile a member of a higher class if it fell on him (Hutton, Dennis).
Civil and Religious disabilities and Privileges of the different sections – Different areas in India had different ways of distinguishing between people of different classes. In north India impure castes were segregated and made to live on the outskirts of villages. In some parts of east India the lower castes were given some parts of the cities where they were allowed to live. In other parts of southern India the lower castes were given certain streets on which they could live and they were forbidden to enter certain streets because member of the higher classes lived on those. For example a paraiyan (a caste which came under the shudras) would not be allowed to enter a land or a village that was owned by a brahmin and even a Brahmin would not be allowed to pass through their street.
If he happened to enter he would be greeted with cow-dung and water. Also, some of the lower castes were made to drag thorny branches with them to wipe out their footprints and lie at a distance prostrate on the ground if a brahmin passed by, so that the foul shadow might not defile the holy brahmin. Even the schools that were maintained at public cost were practically closed to such impure castes as the chamars and mahars (both of which belonged to the untouchables). The shanars and the izhavas were not allowed to build two story houses because their height might cast a shadow on other houses, bringing bad luck. Under some emperors there were distinctions made between the punishments that were given to a brahmin and a member of the lower caste.
The brahmin enjoyed certain privileges that were not enjoyed by any other caste. For example a brahmin could accept gifts and food from a clean sudra. No caste could employ any other priests than the brahmins to perform sacrifices any other religious ceremonies. A brahmin never bowed before any one else, but required others to salute him. A brahmin only could promote a person to a higher caste. A brahmin was considered so important in some kingdoms that he was given special protection by the king (Hutton, Dennis, Bashm).
Lack Of Choice of Occupation – Generally a caste or a group considered some activities as their hereditary occupation which they thought were right for them and suited their status. Thus a brahmin thought that it was right for him to be a priest and a chamar thought that it was right for him to prepare shoes. This was also true of other occupations such as trading, laboring in the fields and military service. Also, no caste let a member from the other caste take up their work. Preaching was especially reserved for the brahmins. A person who not brahmin born could not preach and would not be allowed to become a priest. The effect of these rules was that the priestly profession was entirely monopolized by the brahmins, leaving aside the people from the other classes (Hutton).
Restrictions on Marriage – Most of the groups, whose features I have attempted to characterize had a number of sub-groups, every one of which forbade its members to marry persons from outside their own caste. Each of these groups, popularly known as sub-castes, is thus endogamous. In some parts of India, however, the endogamy system was not that strict and a man from a higher caste was allowed to marry a girl from a lower caste. Except for some exceptional cases like the one mentioned above, inter-caste marriage was extremely limited and each group was expected to marry within their own caste or community. However, if this rule was ever broken, then expulsion from the membership of the group was generally the penalty, which the offending parties had to suffer. Generally expulsion from ones own community was a very major thing since he would not get admission into a higher caste and would have to become a member of a lower caste (Hutton, Dennis).
After much discussion about the caste system in ancient India, I feel that I will not do justice to the topic unless I look at its influence in modern India. In the following I will talk about how the caste system works in modern India and how it affects the politics and the policies of modern India. I will conclude by giving my personal opinion on the caste system.
The caste system in modern India has been deeply influenced by the mobility that was brought under the British rule; the movement to the cities for higher education and for employment. Lower castes were promoted by certain grants and concessions. The caste system became much less rigid during this time, and the artificial barriers that were set by the brahmans between various castes fell. In addition, all the non-Hindus like the Jains, Christians and Muslims were treated equally. Even the ideas of pollution and untouchability specially weakened in the cities; even the villages experienced a certain amount of liberalization (Srinivas).
However, all this change has been accompanied by a large involvement of caste in administration and policies. Election candidates stand from their castes rather than their respective political parties and get elected on the basis of their caste. Numerically, large castes have become important pressure groups in politics at the District and the State levels. For example a candidate from Maharashtra cannot hope to win elections if he does not allot special deals and packages to the marathas, brahmins, and the mahars (all of these castes are the numerically dominant caste in Maharashtra). The same is true for a candidate standing from Gujrat who will have to promote the interests of the banias, patidars and the kolis; and a candidate from Bihar who would have to promote the bhumihar, kayasth and the rajputs (Srinivas).
Modern rural India has been divided into villages and each village has a village leader, who normally is fairly rich and is from a high caste. These village leaders play a very important role in the politics of modern India. Political leaders who stand for elections from their area normally need the help of the village leaders to get the votes of the people of that village and to win elections. In return these village heads can ask the political leaders for loans and grants for their village, which are normally not distributed evenly among the people of that village. Since the village leaders often belong to higher classes, they give most of these loans and grants to the people of the higher class and the people from the lower class get very little of this share. Thus, this results in the higher classes becoming richer and the lower classes becoming poorer. Even the political leaders do not bother to improve their condition till they keep getting their votes and keep winning the elections (Srinivas).
I will divide my conclusion into two parts. In my first conclusion I will judge the caste system according to all the knowledge I have gained from reading books of various foreign scholars. For my second conclusion, I will talk about the caste system based on my experience and cultural insights. In my first conclusion, I would describe the Indian caste system as a necessary evil. While it was essential to keep the different parts of the Indian society interconnected and together, I think the way it was followed and implemented was wrong. Every stable and developing society has a hierarchy system with a group of people at the top, some in the middle and then some at the bottom. However, I do not believe it correct for the lowest group to be ill treated and abused, as in the case of the sudras and the untouchables. I believe this where the Indian caste system went wrong.
For my second conclusion I would like to propose an argument. We really do not have a lot of information on the caste system to make a judgment about it. Most of the information that we have so far is from 19th century colonialist historians who saw only its surface rigidities and made sweeping generalizations, (condemnatory for the most part), based on too little knowledge and even less experience. They probably did not see this sort of division, as parallel to anything they had in Europe so they could have misunderstood the whole concept altogether.
Therefore I don’t exactly know what to say about the caste system based on their readings, since we really do not have a lot of information on the caste system to be judgmental about it. Could it be possible that the ancient Indians were not really racists and as I have mentioned did not divide society on the basis of their color. Could it be that they divided their people on the basis of their profession and deeds? The truth of the matter probably lays in the fact that varna, like a lot of Sanskrit words, changed its meaning according to the context it is used in and can denote form, quality, class, category, race, merit or virtue.
Whatever be the reality the truth is that the caste system is probably not as apparent in modern India as apparent as it was in the ancient India but I think that the influence that it is now having on India’s politics is disturbing.