Understanding The Caste System In India

Caste system is one of the biggest banes of Indian society. It divides the society like nothing else. Ironically, caste originated as a vocational group identity that had nothing to do with birth and parents. What mattered in the varna system that later got converted to caste system, was the duties and conduct expected from different vocational groups, and those who served the society were given a higher order in the social hierarchy.
Understanding the Caste System in India
Source - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATamil_Smartha_Brahman.jpg

'Caste' is perceived the greatest stigma on Indian societies today, and very rightly so. Yet, its origin lies in a system that was supposed to maximize the social welfare. The reasons for such contrasts between the original system and its distorted form that exists today lie in distortion, decay and dilution of values which led to certain factions of societies misusing it to dominate others and exploit them in the name of social order and tradition. Its propagation is also an evidence of the sad reality that ordinary people of society remain vulnerable to the temptation of opportunistic exploitation of

others when they offered with an opportunity to do so.

Origins of Caste System in India

The origins of modern caste lay in the 'VARNA' system of social division, which divided the society on the basis of their vocation and profession in four broad groups. Each of the groups was expected to behave in a particular way which was different from the others. The conduct expected from a scholar was different from that of a soldier, or that of a merchant, or that of a peasant. The social values prescribed for these groups can be compared with professional ethics of modern times, except that in those days, they were considered more sacrosanct and their violation was heavily condemned and looked down upon by the society.

The Four ‘Varnas’ of Ancient India

The first of these four groups or 'varnas' were 'BRAHMINS'. This group consisted of scholars, saints, teachers, doctors, religious preachers and advisers. These people constituted the highest group in social hierarchy. They were also supposed to be conscience of the society, and the reservoirs and preservers of social knowledge, skills, wisdom and values. The level of discretion and discipline expected from them as the saviors of the society was of the highest order. They were expected to lead a very simple life of austerity, without indulging in glamor or violence. They were supposed to desist accumulation of money, not indulge in business or profiting, keep away from all vices like alcohol, courtesans and gambling, eat simple vegetarian food, always maintain their composure and preserve all social values in their life. Thus they generally led a life with least luxuries, but were granted the highest respect by the society. Even the King was supposed to respect them, and killing or harming a Brahmin was considered a great sin.

The next varna in the social order was of 'KSHATRIYAS' - the warrior class, who were supposed to be brave and willing to put their life at risk to protect the society, expert in warfare and use of weapons, loyal to their King and in terms of conduct, very honorable persons. The King, the nobles and the soldiers belonged to this class. They were supposed to be respectful to the Brahmins and follow the values of valor like not attacking an unarmed person, never hurting old, female or child, and fighting for the right cause. Thus the duties of this class were different.

The third varna was that of 'VAISHYAS' - the merchant class, who were expected to work hard and generate wealth. Thus, traders, businessmen, entrepreneurs and artisans belonged to this group. Their goal of life was to accumulate wealth and become rich. In a way they were like modern businessmen, though unlike these times, their status in society was lower than that of the scholar and soldiers.

The last group was that of 'SHUDRAS' - the self-employed, peasants, employees and servants. A large segment of population fell in this category including farmers and laborers. This class constituted the most ordinary class of society with lesser expectations and relatively flexible conduct being the norm for them. They were expected to perform the duty for which they came to be employed with loyalty and honesty. This class was the lowest in the social hierarchy, but within this class too, there were people who enjoyed considerable influence like the village head or the respected elder. As ordinary laymen, they had more freedom in selecting their life-style.

Difference between the Varna System and the Caste System

The main characteristic of 'Varna' system that differentiates it from the 'Caste' system is that it was not based on descent or one's ancestors. Every person was free to choose his profession, and once a person decided to pursue a vocation, he was expected to follow the values and duties associated with it. It was not always easy to pursue the vocation you liked, especially those of scholar, soldier or businessman, as one required appropriate education, skill and qualification to be accepted as one of these three. It was here that gradually, descent and family crept in to the system.

For a son of a Brahmin, it was easy to acquire the knowledge required to become a scholar, as he could learn it from his parents and other family members. The same also applied for a soldier or businessman. Because each one of these vocations was highly specialized, and unlike these days, the avenues for learning were rather limited, more often it was the son of a soldier

who acquired fighting skills and qualified as a soldier, just as only a son of a businessman was able to acquire business skills. In the same vein, the son of a farmer or a labor learnt his father's skills and followed in his steps. Gradually, it became more and more difficult for an outsider to get entry in to the privileged vocational classes. That is how 'varna' got converted in to 'caste' with one's parent's caste deciding his vocation. With passage of time, each of these classes virtually closed themselves to outsiders.

Marriage & Family as the Main Pillars of Caste System

Since, the duties of each varna were vastly different from other, and since in Indian society, marriage used to be arranged by parents with the practice of bride continuing to live in husband's house with his family, often there was a preference for a bride from a similar varna, so that she does not have adjustment problems. To understand it, imagine a Brahmin girl getting married to a Kshatriya boy and coming to live in with them. While Brahmins were expected to eat simple vegetarian food, strictly avoid alcohol and violence, Kshatriyas were supposed to be non-vegetarian and allowed to enjoy life with alcohol and other pleasures, and be experts of violent fighting. To avoid the cultural shocks and mal-adjustments, preference was usually for a bride from the same varna. Unfortunately, this practice heavily reinforced the same-varna or same-caste bonding, gradually to the exclusion of all others.

Distortion of Varna into Caste System of Current Times

Thus, in time, caste became associated with birth. The higher classes, too, gradually forgot their role in society, and instead began to take pride in their own caste and deride others. Inter-caste marriages faced a social taboo, and struggle for dominance grew between different castes, in which usually the higher castes dominated. The lowest of the lower castes, like sweepers, scavengers and those working in similar jobs were the most affected, and some people even practiced untouchability, a practice that may have been reinforced by concerns relating to hygiene and fear of contagious diseases.

With time these practices worsened and acquired a form of social vice. They were resisted by great minds. From time to time there were social leaders who strongly resented and opposed them. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Hinduism experienced a mini-renaissance as many saints strongly opposed caste. Later, since eighteenth century onwards, many social and religious organizations have worked very hard to remove this menace. Mahatma Gandhi's views and actions helped a great deal, and independent India introduced 'reservation' of 27% jobs in educational institutes (including all Universities and Professional, Medical and Engineering schools), government service at each level as well as reserved seats in Parliament to ensure that the downtrodden are uplifted.

Reforms in Modern India

Today, India has already had a President from the so called backward casts. Several Chief Ministers are from backward classes. The reservation has been raised to 50% all over India. In some states it is as high as 85%. Today, people from all castes are dominating every aspect of social life, though the people from lower castes still form a big proportion of the poor. Inter-caste marriages do not raise a storm today and untouchability is a crime with mere allegation of untouchability being enough for arrest without bail.

However, caste is not dead as yet. A large number of marriages, particularly those arranged by the parents are still within the same caste, thereby keeping the menace alive, though it is also true that a larger proportion of marriages are between individuals of different castes. Another very bastion of caste. Political leaders run strong campaigns for their castes to woo voters from their caste. One can say that marriage and elections are the last two bastions of caste system in India and once they are gone, caste will also be past.


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Fortunately, the new generation today, is almost free of caste identity, especially in cities. India has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. The word 'caste' needs to be removed altogether from the psyche of people.

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