Features of Caste System in India

The word caste is derived from Portuguese word “casta” which denotes a group.  Castes / Jati are inscriptive groups, membership of which is detailed by birth; and encompass a concrete empirical grouping based on social, ritual and occupational criteria. The castes are endogamous characterised by hereditary occupation and operation of marriage rules, occupational rigidity, social taboos and even village politics at their level.

There are several theories of evolution of castes.

There are several theories regarding origin and evolution of castes. The political theory says that this system was developed by Brahmins to maintain their occupational supremacy. The traditional / divine theory says that four varnas originated from different parts of Brahma’s body {Brahmin-mouth; Kshatrita-arms; Vaishyas- Stomach and Shudra-feet}; and all other castes were born due to their intermixing. The occupational theory says that castes evolved from the occupations of people which were not hereditary in the beginning. This theory links names of castes with their occupation such as goldsmiths, ironsmiths and so on. The racial theory rests upon Aryan invasion theory and Varna system. Each of them gives narrow interpretation and fails to justify the origin of castes. Only multitude of factors has helped in creation of various castes.

Features Caste System

Following are salient features of the traditional caste system in India.

  • Castes have resulted in segmental division of the Indian society. Each caste is hereditary and different from other castes by behavioural pattern, manners of dialogue, food habits and interaction. Further, each caste in India has its own caste council or Jati Panchayat.
  • In each region of India, there are numerous castes which can be arranged into a hierarchy on the basis of their social precedence. Brahmins are on top of this hierarchy while Sudras are at the bottom. In between are the other castes.
  • There are rules and restrictions regarding eating, drinking and social interaction from other castes. These rules are powerfully enforced by the caste panchayats.
  • The hereditary caste has made choice of occupation impossible and closed system.
  • The Endogamous marriages are an essential feature of the caste system. A person has to marry within one’s own caste.
  • Within jajmani system at the village level, each caste is dependent on other castes. Their dependence is not only economic but also social, cultural and religious.

Functions of the Caste System

Caste system has continued the traditional social organization of India. It has accommodated multiple communities by ensuring each of them a monopoly of a specific means of livelihood. It has handed over the knowledge and skills of the hereditary occupation of a caste from one generation to another, which has helped preservation of culture and ensured productivity. It has also led to interdependent interaction between different castes following different occupations in a village, through jajmani relationships.

Further, this system has enforced the concepts of Karma and Dharma. Performance of rites and rituals promoted cooperation of the members of the caste and among’ different castes.

Maladies of Caste System

Caste system has done more harm to India than any other social institutions. It has obstructed the unity of the country, imposed restrictions on dalits and lower castes forcing them to live in misery for centuries, preserved  the ideas of purity-pollution; opposed the national consciousness and gave rise to “untouchability”.  It restricted horizontal and vertical social mobility and closed the options of occupations available to people at their will.

Conditions Favouring the Caste System

Among the conditions that have favoured the continued existence of the caste system include Geographical Isolation {immobility and lack of transport means}; Static nature of Indian Society {the rituals, customs and practices failed to change with changing times}; Foreign aggressions {Aryan invasion theory, invasion of various tribes; Islamic invaders which led to strict caste rules to protect Hindu society}; Rural social structure {rural social structure is usually unchanging and static}; Influence of religion {caste system is divine and violation is sin} and Lack of education {superstitions dominate the life of illiterates}.

Factors that weakened the Caste System

The factors which have played role in weakening of the caste system include Modern Education {is rational, scientific and independent thinking, stresses on liberty and equality of humans, encourages intercaste marriage; eliminates caste superiority complex}; Industrialization and means of communication / transportation {persons from all castes sought and obtained work in factories, brought people in close contact with each other}; increased importance of wealth {wealth is new indicator of social prestige, choice of profession no longer based on birth}; Social movements {Bhakti / Sufi movements and efforts of social activists including Jyotiba Phule, Swami Dayanand; Dr. Ambedkar; Mahatma Gandhi and so on}; Constitution and Law {establishment of judicial courts undermined the caste panchayats; parliamentary laws including constitution promoting equality and liberty} etc.

Nevertheless the caste system still flourishes in the country and is deep rooted in the Indian society.

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  • Catharine Raju
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    useful….