Caste – Meaning, features, theories of origin, changes in caste, caste and class

Caste is closely connected with the Hindu philosophy and religion, custom and tradition .It is believed to have had a divine origin and sanction. It is deeply rooted social institution in India. There are more than 2800 castes and sub-castes with all their peculiarities.

The English word ‘Caste’ is derived from the Portuguese word ‘Casta’ meaning breed, race or kind. In India caste is popularly known as ‘Jati’ which comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Jana’. The Sanskrit word for caste is varna which means colour.

The caste stratification of the Indian society had its origin in the chaturvarna system. According to this doctrine the Hindu society was divided into four main varnas – Brahmins, Kashtriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The Varna system prevalent during the Vedic period was mainly based on division of labour and occupation. The caste system owns its origin to the Varna system. Ghurye says any attempt to define caste is bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon.

According to Risely, caste is a collection of families bearing a common name claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor professing to follow the same hereditary calling and regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community.

According to Maclver and Page when status is wholly predetermined so that men are born to their lot without any hope of changing it, then the class takes the extreme form of caste.

M.N Srinivas sees caste as a segmentary system. Every caste for him divided into sub castes which are the units of endogamy whose members follow a common occupation, social and ritual life and common culture and whose members are governed by the same authoritative body viz the panchayat.

According to For Dumont caste is not a form of stratification but as a special form of inequality. The major attributes of caste are the hierarchy, the separation and the division of labour.Weber sees caste as the enhancement and transformation of social distance into religious or strictly a magical principle. For Adrian Mayer caste hierarchy is not just determined by economic and political factors although these are important.


Traditional features of caste

G.S. Ghurye has proposed six main characteristics of caste system.

1. Segmental division of society:

The caste system divides the whole society into various segments or sections. Each of these castes is a well developed social group, the membership of which is fixed by birth. So change from one caste to another caste is not possible.

2. Hierarchy:

The caste system is characterized by hierarchical order. Dumount believes that the hierarchical order of caste system is based on the concept of purity and pollution. At the top of this hierarchy are the Brahmins and at the bottom is the Shudras.

3. Restriction on feeding and social inter-course:

In caste system there are several restrictions which are related to food, drink and social inter-course. The members of the upper caste cannot take food or water from the lower caste members, even not interact with the members of the other castes but the vice-versa is permissible.

4. Civil and religious disabilities:

In caste system, there is an unequal distribution of privileges and restrictions among its members. Generally, the higher caste people enjoy all the privileges and the lower caste people are put to all kinds of restrictions.

5. Lack of unrestricted choice of occupation:

Under caste system, each caste has its own traditional occupation. Occupation is fixed at the time of birth and the members of a caste are forced to follow the occupation of that caste.

6. Restriction on marriage:

In caste system the principles of endogamy is strictly followed. That means, marriage within the own caste on sub-caste is purely followed.


Theories of the origin of caste

Earlier, the caste of a person in India used to define his or her occupation and till death the person had to stick to that occupation. People from upper caste were not allowed to mingle and marry a person from any other caste. Thereby, castes in India were exactly demarcating the society.

When and how so many castes originated in India is not clear. Many theories have been put forward regarding the origin of caste system but, so far, no solid proof has been collected in this regard. The records of the Indo-Aryan culture contain the first mention and a continuous history of the factors that make up caste.

(i) Racial Theory:

According to Dr. Mazumdar, the caste system took its birth after the arrival of Aryans in India. In order to maintain their separate existence the Indo-Aiyans used for certain groups and orders of people the favourite word ‘varna’, ‘colour’. Thus they spoke of the ‘Dasa varna’, or more properly the Dasa people.

Rig Vedic literature stresses very significantly the differences between the Arya and Dasa, not only in their colour but also in their speech, religious practices, and physical features.


(ii) Political Theory:

Caste system is a clever device invented by the Brahmins in order to place themselves on the highest ladder of social hierarchy. Dr. Ghurye states, “Caste is a Brahminic child of Indo-Aryan culture cradled in the land of the Ganges and thence transferred to other parts of India.”

The Brahmanic literature of the post-Vedic period mentions certain mixed classes (Sankara jati) and also a group of outcaste classes (Antyavasayin). Among the four varnas, the old distinction of Arya and Sudra now appears as Dvija and Sudra, The first three classes are called Dvija (twice born) because they have to go through the initiation ceremony which is symbolic of rebirth. “The Sudra was called “ekajati” (once born).

The three lower classes are ordered to live according to the teaching of the Brahmin, who shall declare their duties, while the king also is exhorted to regulate his conduct accordingly. The pre-eminence of the Brahmin had secured him many social privileges sanctioned by the law givers. The statement that God created the Sudra to be the slave of all is repeated and he is given the name of “padaja” (born from the feet).

As the priestly influence grew in India, complicated rules of ritual and conduct were built up and incorporated into the religious books. The Brahmins closed their ranks and tried to maintain their superiority over the other classes.

(iii) Occupational Theory:

According to this theory, the origin of caste system can be found in the nature and quality of social work performed by the various groups of people. Those professions which were regarded as better and respectable made the persons who performed them superior to those who were engaged in dirty professions.

According to Newfield, “Function and function alone is responsible for the origin of caste structure in India.” With functional differentiation there came in occupational differentiation and numerous sub-castes such as Lohar, Sonar, Chamar. Bhangi. Barhai, Patwa, Teli, Nai, Tamboli, Kahar, Gadaria. Mali, etc. came into existence.

(iv) Traditional Theory:

According to this theory, the caste system is of divine origin. There are some references in Vedic literature wherein it is said that castes were created by Brahma the supreme creator, so that human beings may harmoniously perform the various social functions essential for the maintenance of society. According to Dr. Mazumdar, “if, however we take the divine origin of the Varna’s as an allegorical explanation of the functional division of society, the theory assumes practical significance.”

(v) Guild Theory:

According to Denzil Ibbetson, castes are the modified forms of guilds. In his opinion, caste system is the product of interaction of three forces:

(i) tribes,

(ii) guilds, and

(iii) religion.

The tribes adopted certain fixed professions and assumed the form of guilds. In ancient India, the priests enjoyed greater prestige. They were a hereditary and endogamous group. The other guilds also adopted the same practices and in course of time became castes.

(vi) Religious Theory:

Hocart and Senart are the two main advocates of religious theory. According to Hocart, social stratification originated on account of religious principles and customs. In ancient India religion had a prominent place. The king was considered the image of God. The priest kings accorded different positions to different functional groups. Senart has tried to explain the origin of caste system on the basis of prohibitions regarding sacramental food.

He holds that on account of different family duties there grew up certain prohibitions regarding sacramental food. The followers of one particular deity considered themselves the descendants of the same ancestor and offered a particular kind of food as offering to their deity. Those who believed in the same deity considered themselves as different from those who believed in some other deity.

(vii) Evolutionary Theory:

According to this theory, the caste system did not come into existence all of a sudden or at a particular date. It is the result of a long process of social evolution. A number of factors played their part in the development of the present caste system.

Among these factors we may enumerate the following ones:

(i) Hereditary occupations;

(ii) The desire of the Brahmins to keep themselves pure;

(iii) The lack of rigid unitary control of the state;

(iv) The unwillingness of rulers to enforce a uniform standard of law and custom and their readiness to recognize the varying customs of different groups as valid;

(v) Beliefs in re-incarnation and the doctrine of Karma;

(vi) Ideas of exclusive family, ancestor worship, and the sacramental meal;

(vii) Clash of antagonistic cultures particularly of the patriarchal and the matriarchal systems;

(viii) Clash of races, colour prejudices and conquest;

(ix) Deliberate economic and administrative policies followed by the various conquerors particularly by the British;

(x) Geographical isolation of the Indian peninsula;

(xi) Static nature of Hindu society;

(xii) Foreign invasions;

(xiii) Rural social structure.

All the above factors helps the formation of small groups based on petty distinctions from time to time. The lack of rigid unitary control of the state, the unwillingness of the rulers to enforce a uniform standard of law and custom, their readiness to recognize the varying customs of different groups as valid, and their usual practice of allowing things somehow to adjust themselves led to the growth of groups and promoted the spirit of solidarity and community feeling in every group.


Changes in caste

Due to various factors such as modern education, industrialisation, urbanisation, Indian Constitution etc., the society is experiencing different changes in the caste system.

At first, the relative position of different castes in the hierarchy is difficult to pinpoint. In the past, each caste had its own fixed position in the hierarchy and accordingly they followed their own way of life. But now the low caste people by following the way of life of the high caste people are trying to change their position. Sanskritisation is one of the most important factors for it.

Secondly, there is decline in the supremacy of Brahmins. Brahmins were considered as the representatives of supreme power and they were given utmost importance in the society. All other categories, including the railing group were paying respect to the Brahmins. But, now the situation has been changed. Even in rural India, the dominant caste is getting high respect and if a dominant caste is from a lower caste group, it has power to command over Brahmins.

Thirdly, there is growing dissociation between caste and hereditary occupation. No longer one can deduce a person’s caste by looking at his occupation. A person who is working in a salon may not be a barber. It is because of decline in the institute of caste panchayat. Caste panchayat was regulating the behavior of the caste people with regard to their occupation. But now it has lost its power.

Fourthly, there is improvement in the socio-economic conditions of lower caste people. They are protected by the different policies of the government. They have given importance in the political field as well. They get equal power with other caste categories in expressing their decision in nation building.

Fifthly, there is a change in the caste identity. People are no more identified according to their caste identity or ascriptive status; rather they are identified according to achieved status. Educational qualification, occupational position, income etc. are the bases of identification of the individual.

Sixthly, now Indian society is more tolerant of inter-caste marriage. The number of inter-caste marriages is increasing day by day. Now a days, caste barriers are being crossed, particularly by the urbanised and educated group of each caste. Different Acts, such as the Special Marriage Act, the Hindu Marriage Act removed caste restrictions on inter-caste marriage.

Seventhly, significant changes are found in the ideas of purity and pollution. Purity and pollution expressed themselves in various ways in inter-caste relations such as accepting cooked food, drinking water, coming into close contact etc. Such attitudinal changes are observed more among the educated and urban people.

Finally, in the traditional caste system, there was no possibility of an individual moving up or going down in the hierarchy. Any social mobility was only, possible in terms of the group as a whole. But now mobility of individual member is possible as achieved status is given importance in the society.


Caste and class

In Max Weber’s phraseology, caste and class are both status groups. While castes are perceived as hereditary groups with a fixed ritual status, social classes are defined in terms of the relations of production.

A social class is a category of people who have a similar socio-economic status in relation to other classes in the society. The individuals and families which are classified as part of the same social class have similar life chances, prestige, style of life, attitudes etc.

In the caste system, status of a caste is determined not by the economic and the political privileges but by the ritualistic legitimation of authority. In the class system, ritual norms have no importance at all but power and wealth alone determine one’s status (Dumont, 1958).

Class system differs in many respects from other forms of strati­fication—slavery, estate and caste system. In earlier textbooks such as written by Maclver, Davis and Bottomore, it was observed that caste and class are polar opposites. They are antithetical to each other. While ‘class’ represents a ‘democratic society’ having equality of opportunity, ‘caste’ is obverse of it.

Following are the main differences between class and caste systems:

1. Castes are found in Indian sub-continent only, especially in India, while classes are found almost everywhere. Classes are especially the characteristic of industrial societies of Europe and America. According to Dumont and Leach, caste is a unique phenomenon found only in India.

2. Classes depend mainly on economic differences between groupings of individuals—inequalities in possession and control of material resources—whereas in caste system non-economic factors such as influence of religion [theory of karma, rebirth and ritual (purity-pollution)] are most important.

3. Unlike castes or other types of strata, classes are not established by legal or religious provisions; membership is not based on inherited position as specified either legally or by custom. On the other hand, the membership is inherited in the caste system.

4. Class system is typically more fluid than the caste system or the other types of stratification and the boundaries between classes are never clear-cut. Caste system is static whereas the class system is dynamic.

5. In the class system, there are no formal restrictions on inter-dining and inter-marriage between people from different classes as is found in the caste system. Endogamy is the essence of caste system which is perpetuating it.

6. Social classes are based on the principle of achievement, i.e., on one’s own efforts, not simply given at birth as is common in the caste system and other types of stratification system. As such social mobility (movement upwards and downwards) is much more common in the class structure than in the caste system or in other types. In the caste system, individual mobility from one caste to another is impossible.

This is why, castes are known as closed classes (D.N. Majumdar). The system of stratification in which there is high rate of upward mobility, such as that in the Britain and United States is known as open class system. The view that castes are closed classes is not accepted by M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille (1965).