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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Origin of caste system of India

“Caste was the system of social life, in which Hinduism was expressed. …… Hinduism was the ideological and emotional buttress of caste…. Caste and Hinduism succeeded in doing in India, what no state, no conqueror and no economy was able to do – the establishment of a single unified system of society throughout the whole of India (accommodating numerous semi-autonomous communities arising at many times and in many places), a system of society, which was able to comprise a greater range of local differences in a single system than any society has previously accomplished.” 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.” 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)

“Positive aspects of Indian culture are so deep that the merits of ancient systems would be rejuvenated…. The caste system was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of ruling class. … Indian caste system, which has evolved an answer the requirements of civilization at a later phase of development of culture, was integrated with Varna system as enunciated in the ancient scriptures and Dharmasastras.” (Quoted from Ancient caste system worked well: ICHR head, p.1, TOI July15,2014)

Evolved in a natural way -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. It is a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India.

Provided a Mechanism to assimilate small and primitive groups – As Basham has pointed out, Caste system may well be called a natural response to many small and primitive groups of people, who were forced to come to terms, with a more advanced economic and social system. It provided a mechanism, by which numerous discrete tribes could be, all sorts of groups and associations arising for political, sectarian or other reasons could be internalized and preserved within the whole.

Development of thousands of years of the association – Caste is the development of thousands of years of the association of many racial and other groups in a single cultural system. The arrival of Aryans hereditary kinship and tribal groups in India in waves, from different parts of the world and their mixing up with the indigenous people (popularly known as Hindus) gave birth Varna-system of Vedic culture.

Start during ancient pastoral society – The beginning of the system can be traced from the times of pastoral tribal society, when people started forming small groups mostly living in hilly areas, not far from rivers. Tribal communities were nomadic or semi nomadic and egalitarian. They depended on nature for its subsistence.

Developed during Agricultural society – Gradually pastoral tribal society transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. Agricultural society leisurely evolved its structures and systems over about 2000 years (roughly between 2000 BC to about 600 BC) and kept on coping with the changes slowly, time had brought in. As reflected in ‘Rigveda’, when people ceased to be a wandering people, started the early stages of Vedic Age.

Clans and tribes settled permanently in different parts of the country. Possession of land, slaves and hired laborers started. 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.

Beginning of settled life – After entering into India, first Aryans conquered India’s original inhabitants of Northern part of India, colonized and established kingdoms. Most of original inhabitants moved to Deccan and then south. During the period, it was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes. Initially a simple class division was seen in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. The units of social-political organizations were family, clan, village, tribe and Jana. Family was the unit of society headed by father. Three or four generations lived together, and probably owned property in common. A number of families living in one locality formed ‘grama’ (village). A number of such fighting units dwelling in a particular region constituted a ‘vis’ (canton), ‘Jana’ (a group of tribes) consisted of a number of such cantons, with a king as their ruler.

Mixing up of their culture with native culture of the land – Starting with arrival of Aryans in waves and mixing up of their culture with native culture of the land evolved a social structure based on the principles of “Varna” (giving birth to caste system), “Dharma” and “Karma”, which together distributed, organized performance of various functions and contributed to the growth of Indian society. In the beginning, Varna – meaning color – guided the division of the society. These principles gave Vedic society a distinct character, defined roles and organized inter-relationship of various sections of society. Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. They spread their language and culture allover the North. Many changes started taking place in the life, manners, religion, language and literature of people.

Social structure based on ‘Varna’ – Principle of ‘Varna’ had stratified Vedic society into four groups – Brahmins (intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (Businessmen) and shudras (service providers) according to aptitudes, occupation and location of people. Aryans dependents of Brahmins and Kshatriyas were the subject class. Vaishyas followed the profession of agriculture or cattle raising and formed also the armed forces of their princes. The three classes were not rigidly separated. People, who were conquered and admitted into the fold of Aryan society, were looked upon as the lowest of the four classes. Conquered Kols and Dravid tribes formed the fourth class of ‘Dasas’ or ‘Shudras’. Aryan princes did not regard ‘Dasa’ princes as inferior, for they made alliances with them.

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.

Rise of caste system – As more and more indigenous and foreign groups were merged into the Hindu-fold, Vedic Varna system gave rise to caste system. For making place for new groups, caste system provided a mechanism. Through it, the job of assimilation of different tribal, local and immigrant groups was done cordially, at different points of time. Each new group joining it was given a separate caste identity. It neither disturbed the existing internal social order nor any new group was prevented from joining it and still allowed new groups to preserve its specialties and indigenous culture. It gave each one opportunities to develop within its own parameters. Thousands of endogamous groups were included into it. Each group was allowed to maintain its own rules, regulations, customs, way of life and power to control conduct of its members. However, principles of Varna, Dharma, and Karma remained the foundation stones of caste system and contributed to its growth in a systematic way.

Connection between ‘Varna’ and ‘Caste’ -Castes had its ethnic roots as denoted by ‘Jati’, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its ‘Varna’ aspect. Different castes found their place under a ‘Varna’ on the basis of their being ritually clean or unclean, nature of work and amount of self-discipline they exercised. Numerous castes and sub-castes emerged within each ‘Varna’. Four ‘Varnas’ remained the same. These were never more or less than four. For over 2000 years, their order in precedence remained the same. As far as castes were concerned, they rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed from time to time.

Castes in the Making around 5th century – Perhaps, the first faint trace of caste is to be found in the careful cataloguing of traders and professions in later Vedic literature. Many traders were organized into guilds around 5th century AD, in which, some authorities have seen the origin of commercial castes. These can be seen as the castes in making. Even up to 7th century AD, people showed no clear knowledge of the existence of castes. Huan Tsang, in the Seventh century was well aware of the existence of Varna, but not of castes.

Caste inseparably inter-twined with Indian way of life – Later on, caste-system has became a dominant factor, a natural unit of Indian society, running through the entire fabric of its social structure. Slowly but steadily it got inseparably inter-twined with Indian way of life. So much and so that that, Muslims and Christians, Sikhs and Buddhist, living in India could not remain immune from it for long, though their respective religions believe in egalitarian society. They have, with all their equalitarian faith, formed caste groups within themselves.

Caste still a strong social institution – Not only in the past, but at present also, caste system appears to be a valid and useful, a natural and inevitable unit of society. It is popular and commands respect and attention of majority of Indian masses of all sects present in India, whether foreign or indigenous. For them following four are fundamental social institutions. An individual is supposed to be a natural member of a family, which is a unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula, Kula of a tribe (Vish) – and a tribe of a Jana or Jati (Caste).

Caste second only to family – only A person’s relations with members of his caste are 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. Internalized caste norms defines an individual role in the society. It makes one feel good and loved, when he lives up to these norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgresses them. In a way, caste is still second only to the family in widening a person’s social radius and in getting importance in his/her private and occupational life.

Winding up

Caste system has travelled a very long distance since then. Many changes have taken place in the system especially during centuries of Muslim and British rule in the country. As time passed on, vested interests in each era had distorted or interpreted the original concepts in the manner, which suited to their purpose. Many deformities and rigidities had developed into system to preserve its indigenous identity and culture.

In political circles, caste is blamed for all the agonies of submerged sections of Indian society – it could vary from illiteracy to creating disparities of power, wealth and culture, escalation of violence, crimes and corruption leading the nation towards disintegration and discrimination and exploitation of weaker, unprivileged sections of society, forcing destitution on vast number of people. But the fault lies somewhere else.

Still Caste-system presents one of the oldest social institution and a continuous and uninterrupted living culture still existing in the whole world. The strength of caste system has been proved by the following facts:
•Despite centuries of foreign rule over 75% of Indian population remains Hindu and have strong feelings for caste-system.
•Had caste system become obsolete, it would have given place to other system.
•Caste system has influenced all other communities living in India.

Its values have acted as a shield. During medieval and initial period of modern India, caste system has been a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway during the Muslims or British rule and even after the mass conversions of Hindus into Islam and Christianity. Even in 21st century’s atmosphere of chaos, as C. Rajgopalachari has pointed out “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”.

Allover the world, many systems, institutions, structures, principles, and cultures have been developed from time to time, which created a wave sweeping the entire world with it for some time. But soon, they became obsolete and were replaced by anti-waves which replaced them and wiped off the previous influence. Caste system, on which Indian social structure is based, has proved to be an exception. Its character is different in the context of village, locality, region or religion. Its absorptive nature has internalized alien influences.

September 10, 2014 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems | ,


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