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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Caste as a “System”

Traditional living had been an anchor, keeping our boat in safe harbour, Now that the anchor had gone and the boat is at the mercy of wild waves on a stormy ocean.

“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”. C. Rajgopalachari

“In modern understanding of ‘caste-system’, element of ‘caste’ has been highlighted and mis-interpreted;  and element of ‘system’ has been considerably suppressed.” Lata Sinha

“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.” And 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

Introduction

Caste Very sensitive issue – Caste system has travelled a very long distance experiencing many ups and downs. It has been both defended and opposed over the course of Indian history up till the present day. Caste-system has always drawn the attention of politicians, intellectuals, activists or reformers from other faiths. It has been interpreted, praised, distorted or criticized many times in the manner, whatever suited to the purpose of that particular era.

Practices and values of caste system are regarded as problematic and complicated. Indian society is being portrayed as a ‘caste-ridden society’. Caste is being held responsible for all the miseries of submerged sections of 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, discrimination and exploitation of weaker, unprivileged sections of society to forcing destitution on vast number of people.

Stratification of a society, a natural phenomenon – Individuals differ from each other in natural endowments, intelligence, aptitudes, attitudes, skills, personal needs and other innate characteristics. Such differences are apt to give rise to the formations of different social groups and systems. It is quite natural that in every society, anywhere in the world emerge different groups out of functional necessity. Each society devises its own principles for stratification, for coordinated functioning of all parts together, for keeping its whole system fit and functional as well as for taking care of the interests of its people as a whole.

Usually variables like occupation, education, qualities, income, wealth, ownership of land, property etc. form different social groups within the society What determines their hierarchy/status or degree of influence varies from one society to another, or from place to place. It may be on basis of class, caste, religion, region, language, race or occupation.

Class the basis in Western Societies – In Western world, usually anthropologists, historians and sociologists identify ‘class’, as universal basis of stratification of society. Usually, stratification on the basis of Class begins with individuals. Division of society along ‘Class’ lines  forms different groups on the basis their economic and cultural level.

In materialistic Western societies, possession of wealth determines hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups within the society. Individuals of same economic and cultural level form one social group/class. More the wealth, more powerful and respected a person is. Social status of a person depends on material success and control over power/authority. Wealth is associated with power, authority and social status. Society is divided into two groups, powerful and powerless, which depends on wealth, one possesses. Wealthy class is always powerful and rules over poor classes. Other factors, which are considered important besides one’s wealth in determining class status, at least at higher levels, are costume and grooming, manners and cultural refinement, tastes and sensitivities etc. Social class with more power usually subordinate classes with less power.

Along with wealth, other factors like occupation, education and qualifications, income, bank-balance, ownership of land, property, grooming, manners and cultural refinement (tastes and sensitivities of different groups) decide the inter-personal relationship and ranking of different social groups.Political standing vis-à-vis church/temples/ mosques, government, and/or social clubs, as well as use of honorary titles, reputation of honor or disgrace, language, race determines degrees of influence on class standing.

Broadly, a society is usually divided into –

  • Upper class includes those persons with great influence, wealth and prestige.
  • Lower class/Working class includes poor, alienated and marginalized members of society. This class constitutes majority of people in any nation.
  • Middle Class – In between comes Middle Class.

Mystified Western World – Western world is mystified to a great extent by the amazing pluralities and unique social structure of India based on caste. It is difficult for it to understand the role of caste, both in the past or at present, in Indian society. Complete localization and unfamiliarity makes it difficult to understand and appreciate fully, caste as a system in its totality and to know the nuances, the nature, role and value of caste as a system. The confusion is because in the term ‘caste’, two indigenous systems of Varna and Jaati has been mixed up into one.

Caste-based Indian society – Stratification of Indian society is based on Principle of Varna, followed by Caste-system. Principle of Varna system has been conceptualized, originated and practiced exclusively in India. It has given a distinguished identity to Indian society. Principle of Varna separates wealth from status, power from authority, and knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts.

All individuals within a caste group – irrespective of one’s financial position – are equal having similar rank, rights and duties. Its constituent members are supposed to be independent, yet their roles complementary. Castes have its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati (extended family), and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. ‘Caste’. “Jaati”/caste is decided by “birth” and “Varna” by Karma/deeds.

Within society, status of a person or a caste is ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power. Similarly, the greatness of a state is judged on the basis of the degree of righteousness and justice, with which its governance being done, not on the basis of the size of a state or its treasury.

Difference between Caste-system and CasteismThere is a difference between ‘caste’ as a ‘system’ and ‘caste-ism’. In the modern understanding of caste system, the element of caste is predominant and the element of system is less. First of all, everybody needs to understand that there is a big difference between ‘caste-system’ and ‘caste-ism’.

  • Caste as system – Caste is a well-organized social institution. This term is specifically used to refer the social structure of Hindu India. .
  • Caste-ism – Rigid attitude in observance of caste practices without having regard for reason or rhyme or using it for vested interests by powerful lobbies leads to casteism. It has generated many abnormalities and distortions in the system. Caste is a social institution.  Bringing caste into politics had led to Casteism. Using it for political gains is the biggest disservice one can do to the nation.

Has caste system become obsolete? Now the question comes, has caste-system become obsolete? No. All over 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. After each assault, it re-emerged with greater force. Even today, caste-system has not become obsolete despite all the weaknesses developed into the system during aliens rule in India and all the attacks on it from time to time. It has survived the vicissitudes of time and saved itself so far by erosion from within or assault from outside. Otherwise, it would have given place to other systems. It still presents one of the oldest social institution and a continuous and uninterrupted living culture still existing in the whole world.

Caste-system (mixture of Varna and jaati pratha) is inseparably related to Hinduism by traditional customs, values and systems. The roots of Varna system and Jaati-Pratha are so deep,  that it is virtually impossible to think of India without it. It has been one of the dominant features still running through the entire social fabric of India. Caste has its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. It has both religious and social sanction behind it.

Common men in India are reluctant to abandon caste-system – an institution of proven value on trial and error basis. They are not sure about the effectiveness of any other system to be created by the critics of caste system. Therefore, elimination of caste still remains a distant dream. People understandably wish to make improvements in the tried and tested old system by removing deformities developed into it with time. A change is good for the growth of a society. But changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions, present requirements and existing ground realities of the place and future prospects.

Meaning of the terms Caste, Varṇa (वर्णः) and Jaati – The term “caste” was unknown in ancient and medieval India. The term ‘Caste’ has been in use ever since British and other European countries came to India. Anyway, so-called caste system of modern times is a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. The Sanskrit name for caste is varna + Jati, color, the different castes having been at first marked by differences of complexion and according to occupation.. At some point, with the growth in population, Varna became the basis of Jati-pratha, which gave birth to the system of belonging to “one of the hereditary social groups of India,”

  • Term Caste unfamiliar to India – Caste not an Indigenous term. The root of the word “caste” is the Latin “castus”, which means “cut off” or ” separated.” The word arrived in English through the Portuguese “casta”, which means “race” or “lineage,” or “breed”. Portuguese employed Casta in the modern sense when they applied it to hereditary Indian social groups called as Jati. Caste can be defined as hereditary endagamous group, having a common name, common traditional occupation, common culture, relatively rigid in matter of mobility, distinctiveness of status and forming a single homogeneous community. The term caste was first used in the 1613/1700s in reference to Hinduism’s system of rigid social stratification. The use of the word was based on the perception of the Europeans, including the British, of the society in India as they saw it at the time, and perhaps on what the locals told them.
  • Varna – In Indian Vernacular, uptill medieval period, the words used for caste are Varna + Jati. to identify different social groups and sub-groups. The entire system of Varna and Jati is now called as caste system. Every social group has its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati, and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. The term “Varna” is a Sanskrit word. which in Rigveda means type, order, colour, complexion or outward experience. Membership of ‘Varna’ is based on the attitude aptitude, occupation and deeds of a person. Four basic Varnas are defined under it, Brahmins (priests, teachers, researchers and intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings, administrators), Vaishyas (agriculturists, traders,, farmers etc) and Shudra (workers, labours, artisans). Varna system did not classify people as high or low or superior or inferior. It was just classification in the order of society based on skills of people. According to Bhagwat Gita, Varna is not hereditary or by birth, but based on quality, skills and deeds (Karma)
  • Jaati – ‘Jati’ is also a Sanskrit word  Jata’ meaning born or brought into existence.. whereas by birth, everyone belongs to a Jaati. ‘Jaāti’ refers to thousands of endogamous social groups, sub-groups and sub-sub- groups coming under each Varna, living across the subcontinent. A jati may be divided into exogamous groups based on the same gotras. (Dumont, Louis, 1980, Homo hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications, University of Chicago Press, pp. 66–67). The root word for jati is ‘Jana’. It is concerned by birth. Jati of an individual deals with his/her identity, beliefs, traditions, geographical location etc. The term Jaati appears in almost all Indian languages and is related to the idea of lineage or kinship group. A jaati is usually organized into a biradari (a brotherhood), Elders of Biradari whch carries out the business and oversees the its working. There are thousands of castes, sub-castes and sub-sub-castes. There are regional variation mostly based on linguistic and life-style differences. Each jaati has some unique job, but not everyone in jaati performs it. There may be variations in the placement of different castes due to economic, political and educational status of various social groups.
  • Difference between Varna and Jati or caste
    • Varna is concerned with occupation.
    • Varna has always been four.
    • It is an All-India phenomenon
    • In Varna system concept of purity and pollution is the basis of division of society.
    • Varnas are relatively more flexible as compared with jaati/caste. With the acquisition of of talents and virtues one can improve his status.
    • Varna system is free from socio economic and political disabilities or restrictions.

How the term caste came into existence? The term caste has originated from Portuguese ‘casta’, meaning race, breed, ancestry. Portuguese first used the terms ‘casta’ meaning “breed, race, caste and ‘casta-raça’ meaning ‘unmixed race’. Portuguese observers described that Hindu society in western and south-western India has divided itself through caste system into different socially ranked occupational groups. In an effort to maintain vertical social distance, these social groups practiced mutual exclusion in matters relating to eating and, presumably, marrying.

In Latin word castus means “chaste” or purity of breed. Application to Hindu social groups ‘Varna’ and ‘Jaati’ was picked up by English in India 1610s from Portuguese casta. British have merged both the terms ‘Varna’ and ‘caste’ into one word ‘cast’ or ‘caste’. Subsequently ‘caste’ has become the established word for the combination of ‘Varna’ and’’jaati’.

Later on, major European languages (notably Dutch and French) adopted the term ‘caste’ in the same specific sense. It has become established term and was recorded officially in 1840 for the first time by European colonizers, to mean persons belonging to the same hereditary social group. Instead of using ‘Varna or Jati’ separately, they Since then, the whole scenario about caste was messed up. The meaning and understanding about caste system has been changed drastically. 

‘Caste’ as a system in India –  Varna/Jaati or‘Caste’ system is one of the oldest social institutions in the world. It has given Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, way of life, and sense of direction.

Principles of ‘Varna’, ‘Dharma and ‘Karma, Foundation pillars of caste system – All the strength of caste system comes from its foundation pillars, which are based on principle of Varna (which later on gave birth to caste system), accompanied by principles of Dharma, and Karma. Principle of ‘Varna’ gave Indian Society a stable, sustainable and a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life and sense of direction. These principles together have ensured the continuity despite numerous foreign invasions, migrations and assimilation of various groups.

Principle of Varna has guided the division of the society. It has engineered a system for social stratification placing people into different groups according to aptitudes, occupation, and location. Principle of Dharma taught Indians to place one’s duties above rights and principle of Karma imbibed in them tolerance and belief in concepts like ‘live and let others live’ as well as ‘Vasudhev Kutumbkam’ (meaning whole world is a family). The multi-centricity of present society has given it a synergetic character, a pluralistic tradition and an absorptive nature of internalizing alien influences.

The principle of Varna was based on the assumption, that all persons were not identical and differed from one another on the grounds of natural endowments and aptitudes. Therefore, it gave rise to the fourfold division of society and assigned duties according to natural instincts and qualities of its people –

  • BrahmanMeaning of the word Brahman is all-pervading and consciousness. Persons, who could keep themselves away from ignorance, illusions and lust, and have a flair for learning were put in this category of Brahmans. They possessed intellectual and spiritual qualities. They were debarred from indulging in the pleasures of material world. They were assigned the duties like learning, pursuit of knowledge and setting norms for common man, so that whole society could benefit from their knowledge.
  • Kshatriya – People having warrior skills and men of action were put in this group. Their duty was to protect the people from internal disorders and external aggressions.
  • Vaishyas People having business acumen were included in this category. They were engaged in production, business, trade and commerce.
  • Shudras – People advised to do menial jobs and work under the guidance of any of the above three Varnas. They were either the people unable to do the above three tasks or the conquered ones. Mostly people belonging to this category were supposed to be incapable of maintaining self-discipline and contributing to the society directly without any guidance.

Greek philosophers’ Dream of an Ideal society comes true in India – Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle of ancient times were greatly influenced by the idea of what was actually realized in real life through Varna system of India. They dreamt of an ‘Ideal Society’ dreamt, which was divided into  following four groups according to aptitude, assigned jobs accordingly and did ranking in following order –

  •  “Philosopher Kings” – (Intellectuals).
  • “Army men” – (Warriors).
  • “Business Community”.
  • “Slaves” – People unable to do the above mentioned jobs or conquered people to do menial works.

In their ideal state, all people were supposed to belong to one group or the other, not on basis of birth, but on basis of their capabilities and aptitudes.

Most scientific social system – Many intellectuals and social reformers regard Varna system, in its purest form, as one of the most scientific social systems ever evolved anywhere in the world. Don Martindale says, Hinduism was the ideological and emotional buttress of caste. Caste was the system of social life, in which Hinduism was expressed. …… 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, 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 itself to an almost endlessly varied system of semi-autonomous community and at the same time bring 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).

Salient features of Varna/Jati, now known as caste systemAll the strength of caste system comes from its foundation pillars, i.e. the principle of Varna followed by Caste system. Its principles have ensured the continuity despite numerous foreign invasions, migrations and assimilation of various groups. It has survived for such a long period and is still alive because –  

  • Given a distinguished identity to Indian society – Varna/jati-pratha has given Indian society a distinguished identity and a stable, sustainable solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life, and sense of direction. It is one of the dominant features running through its entire social fabric.
  • Survived the vicissitudes of Time – Varna-Jaati system has survived the vicissitudes of time, saved itself by erosion from within and assault from outside only because of the adaptability. It has taken different shades and meaning with changing times and places. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase.
  • Principles of a good organization – Almost all the essentials of good organization are found in caste system. Division of different functions required in a society is the first requisite of any good institution. For an efficient and smooth functioning, Varna system has wisely organized all activities of a society. Vedic principles have divided wisely all the functions needed for the maintenance and growth of the Hindu society. Each basic Varna has been assigned a distinct function to perform – Brahmins Varna includes in itself priests, teachers, intellectuals and researchers etc.; Kshatriyas warriors, rulers, and administrators etc ; Vaishyas, agriculturists, traders, and farmers etc and; Shudras, workers, labours, artsans etc.
  • No confusion – There is no confusion or frustration in matter of work, because every body had his traditional occupation.  Each caste serves the community and feels that it, too, is contributing something to the society. Git boosts their confidence and it lives with dignity and honour. All functions and activities have been grouped as to avoid confusion. In its pure form, It has wisely organized all activities of society. Activities of similar nature or having same objectives have assigned to specific social group.
  • Strong structure – Caste system has provided a strong structure with well-defined functions. The structure is simple and easy to understand. It ensures continuous growth and, therefore, should not be rigid.
  • Balance of activities – Varna system has given proper weightage to different activities, in proportion to their contribution to organization as a whole, is necessary. No activity should either be over-valued or under-valued. Functions are assigned to different social groups on the basis qualifications, skills, attitude and aptitude of its employees.
  • Team spirit – Relationship between various groups within an organization should be based on the principle of “mutual help, mutual respect and mutual trust”. It facilitates better coordination of diverse activities performed by different sections. Smooth relations amongst its constituent’s leads to optimal utilization of resources and to satisfaction of all its constituent members.
  • Specialization – Cate system has prepared an atmosphere for high level of intelligence and specialization. Concentration of a social group on the performance of a single task, leads to greater efficiency and more specialization.
  • Creative thinking – The system has encouraged initiative and creative thinking. It firmly believes in lofty principles like “Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam” (the whole world is one family), “Live and let others live” and “to each according to his needs and from each according to his capacity” etc.
  • Satisfaction – It keeps its members comfortable and satisfied by fulfilling the biological as well as psychological needs of all the people, individually as well as at group-level.
  • Adaptability of new technologies and development – An organization helps adopts new improved means of doing things, permits prompt adoption and optimum use of technological advancements. It must avoid nepotism, favoritism and must give an upper hand to merit and talent.
  • Automatic System of checks and balances – Decentralized self-regulated systems managed various activities in social, intellectual, political, and economic life and controlled its malfunctioning or dis-functioning. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group. There was not a single group identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. Laws remained unmodified and flexible with the capacity to adapt to local customs and situations. People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers. The system made upper castes generous in matters of food, drinks and loans, when required. The plurality of society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. In fact, non-Kshatriya peasant provided leadership of most armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. The Brahmin strongholds were the centres of learning. The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers, who remained outside caste system, were so strong, that they terrorized settled agriculturists for centuries. Forests, which competed with arable land in size and importance, till the 18th century, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society. Thus, from time to time, and place to place, different castes rose and fell in their social order, some died out and new ones were formed. Clearly defined rights and duties of each role – The system assigns clearly duties to different sections of society according to their natural instincts and qualities. The system clearly specifies duties, privileges and restrictions of each role separately and managed relationship with others. It encourages self-discipline, self-control and self-direction. Sprees on one’s responsibilities/duties rather than on rights, combined with principle of inter- dependence provides its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority and leads to automatic decentralization of authority.
  • Based on the vision of an organic society – Caste-system is based on the “vision” of an organic society. Society as an organic body needs services of all its constituents equally. Each part has been assigned a particular function. All the parts are equally important and indispensable, need equal attention for its growth and care for balanced growth of the whole system. Coordinated functioning of all parts together keeps whole system fit and alive.
  • Inter-dependence – Local character and semi-autonomous nature of caste system made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system making each local area self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people. People living in a local area shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. All castes were assigned important social duties.
  • Segmental-ranking – Varna system was so conceived by the genius sages that there was hardly any room for any Varna to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. No caste took an all India character. There was no nationwide hierarchy of castes. However, in a local area, the relative standing of castes was more or less fixed. Ranking of different caste groups within a local area, was done according to nature and social relevance of their work, contribution of their work for social subsistence, and efforts required to perform their duties, and amount of self-restraint/self-discipline, they exercise, their relative purity, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards. Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene and cleanliness on the basis of climatic conditions of the region were also given importance, while ranking different castes.
  • Set-rules – Considerations of self-discipline, self-restraint, hygiene and cleanliness (concept of purity and impurity) on the basis of climatic conditions of the region were also given importance, standard of morality, knowledge and spirituality were given importance, while ranking different castes. Every caste was advised to lead a self-restraint and self-disciplined life in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater was the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. The system of each caste having a specific position in the society and a specific work to do with its rights and duties boosted the morale of the people and promoted social equilibrium and solidarity.
  • Team-work – Local character and semi-autonomous nature of caste system made close interaction and cooperation between different castes a reality. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of caste system making each local area self-sufficient and capable to fulfill all the needs of its people.
  • Inter-dependence – All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area. People living, whether in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence.  They had very little links with the outside world because of slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient. Different local castes, whether high or low, were interdependent in taking care of basic needs of the society. They were inter-dependent and cared and supported each other in taking care of different kinds of basic needs of their society.  Rituals required the participation of all castes. People living in a local area shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. All castes including untouchables were assigned important social duties. Harijan women helped all castes at time of child-birth. Harijan males beat drums in front of Hindu’s houses or in front of a procession on important occasions/ceremonies. Village barber spread news, arranged marriages and served food during celebrations. Occasionally non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. The key, to understand the caste system, was not in seeing it as a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but as a series of vertical parallels. Each caste was an independent entity, with its own hierarchy, based either on a tribal identity or an occupational identity. All the castes were independent, yet their roles complementary.
  • Flexibility and adaptability – Caste system has taken different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its adaptability and absorptive nature has pronged its life. The system evolved its structures and systems leisurely and kept on coping with the slow changes, time brought in. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in context of village, locality, region or religion.
  • Assimilation without conversion- Caste system is a natural response of mixing up of numerous social multi-ethnic groups with indigenous groups of the land into a single cultural system. Beauty of caste system lies in the way; it assimilated numerous social groups coming from different parts of the world at different points of time in waves.– immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or others – into its mainstream. Unlike Islam or Christianity, it has brought them under one umbrella without any conversion.
  • Caste used as a mechanism for inclusion of other groups – Caste system assigned each incoming new group a separate caste identity. Society remained stable, while offering a place to a new community. The system neither disturbed its existing internal social order nor prevented any new group to develop itself. Without any conversion, caste system made new groups its integral part. It never tried to annihilate their faith, originality, internal order, customs, culture or language. Instead, it gave them freedom to prosper/make changes into their systems according to their internal rhythm.
  • Employment, dignity and honor for all – The unique feature of caste system was that it provided work and employment to everyone. There was no dearth of employment opportunities for persons willing to work or wanting to become soldiers. Caste system inspired people to do their jobs well, as all worldly honor and spiritual happiness were vested there. It assured the people that proper performance of one’s work, whether high or humble, whether of a priest, warrior, Shudra or yogi were equally important for the society and were, therefore, right, respectable and worth pursuing. It provided the whole society a quality of life.
  • Not much disparity – There was not much disparity between different castes or between urban and rural people. The concepts of forward castes or backward castes, disparities between different sections of society and exploitation of the weak were almost non-existent earlier. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long. The system has placed all the individuals, within a caste grou, rich or poor, on the same footing. All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress. Elders took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped the members, who were weak and helpless. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long.
  • Acted as a shield – During medieval India, caste system was a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway even after mass conversion. Though many evil practices developed in the system during this period, but it acted as a shield for Hindus to retain their cultural identity, while living under alien rule, whether it was of Mughals, Portuguese or British.

Caste-system worked so well and efficiently in ancient India that when the world was passing through Dark Age, India was full of light. The first few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. During this period, arts, commerce, crafts, philosophy and knowledge flourished magnificently. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas. Many travelers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. It was a cheerful land.

Varna-system giving way to Caste-SystemAs the population increased and more and more indigenous and foreign groups were merged into the Hindu-fold, Vedic Varna system gave rise to caste system. Numerous castes and sub-castes emerged within each Varna. ‘Varnas’ were never more or less than four and always remained the same.

  • 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. Later on, instead of Varna, caste became a dominant factor, a natural unit of Hindu society, running through the entire fabric of its social structure.
  • Each caste found its place under a Varna on the basis of their nature of work, its being ritually clean or unclean and amount of self-discipline, they exercised. Castes had its ethnic roots as denoted by Jati and a ritualistic and symbolic significance in its Varna aspect. 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.
  • People, who fell outside caste-system were anti-social elements, Adivasis and foreigners, because they did not subscribe to rules and values of the Varna system. Groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes.
  • Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. 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. However Aryan princes did not regard Dasa princes as inferior, for they made alliances with them.

Special features of Varna/Caste-system –  Caste system is one of the oldest social institutions in the world. Caste-system gives Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, way of life, and sense of direction.

  • 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.
  • Natural response – As Basham has pointed out, Caste system may well be called a natural response of 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, 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 – 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. 
  • Different shades and meaning of caste system with changing times – Caste system i.e. Jaati-pratha has survived the vicissitudes of time, and saved itself by erosion from within and assault from outside. Credit of its prolonged life goes to its adaptability, flexibility and absorptive nature, which has internalized even the alien influences. It has taken different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Such flexibility is not seen in the West. When Christianity broke away from Judaism, it departed totally from the common cultural traditions. 
  • Gave coherence, stability, continuity to Indian society – The system of Varna/caste has given Indian society coherence, stability, continuity and led to its all-round growth. It has prepared an atmosphere of co-existence for co-existence of for numerous castes and communities having diverse languages and practices. Generation after generations, they could survive despite numerous foreign invasions, centuries of foreign rule, migrations and assimilation of various social groups into it. Credit of it goes to culture of India, which binds together all people of Indian peninsula from one end to the other, thus making unity in diversity a reality.
  • Covers entire social fabric of India – It covers almost the entire social fabric of India. Not only in the past, but at present also, caste system commands respect and attention of all Indians. common man in India as a natural, valid and inevitable unit of society. It is popular not only amongst Hindus, but amongst other sects as well living in India, whether foreign or indigenous.  Muslims or Christians, Sikhs or Buddhist could not remain immune from its caste system for long. They also have been influenced and absorbed many of the systems and practices of caste-system.
  • A natural social institution – An individual is a natural member of a family, which is the unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula (clan), Kula of a tribe (Vish) and a tribe of a Jana or Jati (Caste). Caste is second only to the family and is a natural, valid, useful and inevitable unit of Indian society. Family, extended family, Kula, and Caste are fundamental social institutions. Caste is nothing but a large extended family bonded by same language, customs, thinking and way of living and occupation. Rules of endogamy, ritual purity, interdependence, specialization and hierarchical order of social units were its important traits.
  • Wonderful process of assimilation – As Basham has pointed out, Caste system may well be called a natural response of many small and primitive groups of people, who were forced to come to terms, with a more advanced economic and social system. Caste system provided a mechanism, by which numerous discrete tribes, all sorts of groups and associations arising for political, sectarian or other reasons could be internalized and preserved within the whole. Wonderful process of assimilation and fusion of different social groups has been a continuous process of the Hindu civilization. It contributed to the cultural richness of Bharat.  All the sects present in India, whether foreign or indigenous, have been influenced greatly by Hindu thinking, caste system, its practices and systems.
  • Closer relations – 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 define 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.
  • Indian culture and caste inseparable – Indian culture and caste are inseparably related each other by traditional customs. It is virtually impossible to think of one without another. Being a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India, it is difficult for Westerners and non-Indians to understand what ‘caste system’ is and what caste means to a common man. 
  • Indian culture and caste inseparable – Indian culture and caste are inseparably related each other by traditional customs. It is virtually impossible to think of one without another. Being a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India, it is difficult for Westerners and non-Indians to understand what ‘caste system’ is and what caste means to a common man. 

Caste system has travelled a very long distance since then. Many changes have taken place in the system especially during centuries of foreign rule in the country. In order to save their identity, many deformities have developed into the practices of caste system under centuries of alien rule.

System of Caste under British rule

British rulers vehemently criticized caste system. British rulers drew the attention of Indians towards its weaknesses and carefully avoided telling its strong points. They developed a complex in Indian minds about efficacy of caste system. According to them –

  • Caste system being highly stratified – According to rulers caste system had divided the population into vast number of groups having distinct and diverse thinking and life styles. However, the British thinkers could not appreciate the role of caste system in integrating different tribes, groups and communities together under one system for centuries. Instead of adopting the policy to convert the new groups in Hindu religion and thrusting on them its own values, thoughts, processes, superstructures and practices Hindu religion, through caste system, presented an unique example in the world history. All the incoming groups were welcomed and accommodated in Hinduism on their own terms. It legitimized their beliefs, behaviour patterns and life styles with freedom to evolve and change according to their internal rhythm.
  • It is discriminatory system It is an anomaly that British, who themselves played discriminatory practices by keeping their railway compartments, waiting rooms, parks, clubs, hotels, places of other entertainment and residences segregated, criticized caste system as being discriminatory. It was not very difficult for the British to present the examples showing the prejudice, high handedness or rude behaviour of some of bigoted caste Hindus towards the lower strata of society.
  • Disregard for menial work – According to British rulers, giving lower status to menial workers, i.e. Shudra shows that caste system disregards menial work. They suppressed the reality. In fact,  It was not the caste system, but the industrial revolution, which taught humanity to hate or escape from menial work. The creation of new white collared jobs by British developed the attitude to discredit manual work. The more a person withdrew from physical labour, the more civilized and qualified he was regarded by modern society. Such an attitude lured all the sections of society to leave their traditional occupations and join white collared jobs in organized sectors, irrespective of their background, aptitude, skill and knowledge.
  • Employment, dignity and honour for all – The unique feature of caste system was that it provided work and employment to everyone. There was no dearth of employment opportunities for persons willing to work or wanting to become soldiers. Caste system inspired people to do their jobs well, as all worldly honour and spiritual happiness were vested there. It assured the people that proper performance of one’s work, whether high or humble, whether of a priest, warrior, Shudra or yogi were equally important for the society and were, therefore, right, respectable and worth pursuing. It provided the whole society a quality of life.

Nature of Caste After IndependenceIndependent India is committed to democratic, secular and egalitarian principles as enshrined in the Constitution of India. Preamble of the Indian Constitution promises to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination on grounds of caste, race, religion, gender or place of birth; Article 16 gives equality of opportunity in matter of public employment, Article 338 creates National commission for Scheduled Castes to safeguard their interests etc.

Caste now more liberal in social sphere – With the spread of literacy and growing awareness among masses, Castes system has become less restrictive in social arena. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes now means little. Earlier it meant complete social ostracism. Old style of authority and power exercised by caste-elders has already diminished except for a few castes in, rural areas especially in Haryana and Rajasthan. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas.

Entry of caste into politics of the nation – The nature of caste system has been changed after the process of modernization, industrialization, urbanization, globalization. technological advancement began. It has lessened the rigidities of caste system in social arena. But entry of caste into politics of independent India has done a great damage. The seeds of ‘divide and rule’ sown by British imperial rulers have blossomed in full. Casteism, corruption, criminalization, favouritism, in-discipline, violence, and chase of materialism based on ruthless competition etc. are some of the direct consequences of political expediency and opportunism. They have weakened the social fabric beyond repair. Present-day politics encourages sectional forces, which are vocal and demand enough space for themselves in job-market and higher education aggressively. There is no respite from casteism.

Weakening of caste system in social arena and its growing politicization has made life difficult for all sections of society. Aversion of people from traditional and moral values has created confusion in the atmosphere. Their total concentration is on pursuit of money and materialistic pleasures by hook or crook. Erosion of basic moral and human values has turned life of men, “nasty, brutish and short”. Scientific progress has endowed man with tremendous power both to preserve and destroy, but at slightest provocation, he does not hesitate to unleash destructive powers accessible to him. There are alarming disparities of power, wealth and culture amongst different sections of society.

Centralization of control systems in the hands of a few Individuals or groups – There is complete centralization of control systems in the hands of a few Individuals and groups with political, money or muscle power, who control destiny of millions and have say in almost every walk of national life. Attempts for social changes make a virtue of narrow loyalties of caste and religion, generating sub-cultures like favoritism, lure for easy money, nepotism and, in-discipline in the society. Caste and communal conflicts are increasing. There are sectarian and regional imbalances generating social and psychological tensions. The work culture has been degenerated. Under-currents of caste politics have made the task of governance difficult, making the governance of the nation difficult and ineffective. The administration has become incompetent to solve the burning national issues. It has turned the vision of national development into an empty dream.

Conclusion

Empowerment of masses depends on inculcation of knowledge and awareness through ‘education for all’. Usually Power rests with those having either knowledge or physical strength or wealth. Knowledge brings in both force and wealth. Instead of putting blame on caste-system, it would be more desirable to make arrangements for sound system of education for empowering the submerged sections of society.

Despite all the undesirable developments taken place in the system, caste system is still quite popular amongst Indian masses. Not only Hindus, but other sects living in India, with all their egalitarian faith, whether foreign or indigenous, like Muslims and Christians, Sikhs or Buddhist, have not remained immune from its caste system. They have also absorbed many of its practices and systems.

Change one must. Past should not be idolized. Any system, which in light of modern times appears to be ineffective or inefficient should be replaced by a better one. But it will be suicidal to sacrifice something to an increasing passion for change. Changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions.

Vivekanand said, “It is we, who are responsible for our degradation.” … “Each nation like each individual has a theme in this life, which is its centre, the principle note, around which every other notes, comes to form the harmony. If any nation attempts to throw off its national vitality or the direction, which has become its own through the transmission of centuries, it dies.”… “The main reason of our economic and spiritual degeneration is that we have not correctly followed the “Varna System”. This is the main reason of poverty and unemployment and one of the main reasons that there is un-touchability”. He suggested that for the growth of a self-contained and self-regulated society, it was necessary to encourage education amongst the masses, all the occupations be given equal importance, people no be forced to adopt their hereditary occupations and difference of income derived from various occupations be narrowed down to the minimum.

June 30, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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