What is the Caste System?
|The caste system in India can be described as an elaborately stratified social hierarchy distinguishing India’s social structure from any other nation. Its history is multifaceted and complex.|
|Caste is a term, which is used to specify a group of people having a specific social rank and dates back to 1200 BCE. The Indian term for caste is jati, and generally designates a group that can vary in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of jatis each with its own rules and customs. The various jatis are traditionally arranged in hierarchical order and fit into one of the four basic varnas the (Sanskrit word for “colors”).|
|--The varna of Brahmans, commonly identified with priests and the
--The varna of Kshatriyas, associated with rulers and warriors including property owners.
--The varna of Vaishyas, associated with commercial livelihoods (i.e. traders)
--The varna of Shudras, the servile laborers
|The Untouchables occupy a place that is not clearly defined by boundaries and is outside of the varna scheme. Their jobs (such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal) cause them to be considered impure and thus “untouchable.” Historically the untouchables were not allowed in temples and many other public places. In 1950 legislation was passed to prevent any form of discrimination towards the untouchables. Although legislation has affected the status of the people, they are yet very much a visible part of Indian society.|
|The earliest expressions of caste can be found in one of India’s
vast bodies of religious scripture known as the Vedas, which are though
to have been complied between 1500 and 1000 BCE, although the time of their
composition is under debate. They were transmitted orally for many generations
before being written down. Therefore, centuries may have passed before
they were ever committed to writing.
These works are considered the source of ancient Indian wisdom. The first of the four basic Vedic books is the Rig Veda; a collection of over 1,000 hymns containing the basic mythology of the Aryan gods. The Rig Veda contains one of the most famous sections in ancient Indian literature in which the first man created, Purusa, is sacrificed in order to give rise to the four varnas.
“The Brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the Rajanya [Kshatriya, king and warrior], his two thighs [loins] the Vaishya, from
households by the late nineteeth century.
|It can be argued that the composers of the Vedas, especially those
sections within the Vedas called the Brahmanas, were concerned with the
interconnections that organized reality (Smith, 7). This way of looking
at the varnas allows us to see how such a system can survive several millennia.
It classifies people not only in terms of their different qualities but
also with respect to their different privileges. Each class thus has a
special role to play in society as well as a unique function: this structure
is a means of creating and organizing an effective society.
The varna system is inter-linked with creation, lending itself a
great deal of reverence and validity.
|An important thing to note is that the Vedas do NOT mention a concept such as Untouchability. It is a part of the system that has been created by society itself.|
and is presumably from from one of the nineteenth century schools.
|Although the nation has a long and varied history, the role of the
caste system pre-colonialism can be understood by focusing on the major
eras in Indian history. Much of India is rural and that which is not, for
the most part, is much more urban. with such a drastic difference in the
city and the village there is also a difference in the way caste has been
interpreted and implemented over the years.
The early system most represented something analagous to the
mideval guild system. It allowed a specialization of society and each member
knew their role. Much laterin India's history, as India became more and
more prevalent in the international scene the concept of the caste sytem
began to have different connotaions. It was thought of as backward by much
of the west. The greatest changes in the perception as well as in the reality
came with the coming and going of the British.
Caste In Modern India
Theories and Future Implications