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Nearly all societies have had some form of social stratification, whether ascriptive or achieved, based on race, class, religion, ethnicity, language, education, or occupation. The Hindu ascriptive caste system in India is perhaps the most complex and rigid. It is based on birth, which determines one’s occupation (especially in contemporary rural India), and is maintained by endogamy, commensality, rituals, dietary practices, and norms of purity and pollution. The English term caste is derived from the Portuguese word casta, which refers to lineage, breed, or race.
The Hindu Caste System
The Hindu caste system is interpreted in two ways. First is the standard varna description of the caste system as a fourfold division of Hindu society. Its origins are noted in the Rig Veda, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, which dates back some 3,000 years. The term varna, which literally means color, does not reference the actual racial features of those who fall into the four varnas, as many scholars have established. Brahmins constitute the sacerdotal order, which has priestly duties including the interpretation of numerous complex religious texts in Sanskrit, a language that traditionally only they mastered. Below them are the Kshatriyas, the caste of warriors and rulers. They are followed by the Vaisya, who typically engage in trade and commerce. The bottom is the Shudra, or peasant and laborer caste, a large and diverse group that comprises artisans ranging from goldsmiths to washermen and peasants who may own sizeable tracts of land. Outside the fourfold system are the “untouchables,” now commonly referred to as Dalits (“the oppressed”), who perform the most menial tasks. Normally, women in the top three varnas do not pursue the hereditary occupations, whereas Shudra and Dalit caste women do. The vast majority of India, which is rural, is caste-based as far as inheritance of occupations is concerned.
The hierarchy among various castes is further based on the notions of ritual purity and pollution. The higher the caste, the greater the purity of the group, while lower caste status is associated with pollution. Moreover, the nature of the occupation that one is born into also confers purity or pollution. For example those who dig graves, clean latrines, sweep streets, or work with leather are more polluting than those in “clean” occupations such as trade or priesthood. Those usually engaged in polluting occupations must maintain a prescribed distance from the castes deemed pure to avoid polluting them through contact. For this reason, it is not uncommon for lower caste groups to live in segregated colonies on the outskirts of Indian villages even today.
- N. Srinivas (1962) and André Béteille (1996), among others, consider the varna description simplistic because it does not represent the empirical reality of caste in either ancient or modern India. Their interpretation of the caste system as a constellation of more than 3,500 jatis with internal and regional variations has gained validity among scholars. Whenever ordinary Indians refer to caste, they are referring to jati, not to varna. In the words of Béteille, “whereas varna refers primarily to order and classification, the primary reference of jati is to birth and the social identity ascribed by birth” (p. 22). In most sociological analyses (and here) the term caste is used to represent its jati dimension.
Caste in Modern India
Although the caste system has eroded to some extent, it still has a hold in contemporary Indian society. One factor in this has been the Indian constitution, which empowers the state to make special provisions for the advancement of low-caste citizens, including the more than 160 million Dalits (who are listed in a schedule attached to the constitution and thus called “Scheduled Castes”), the nearly 50 million tribals (also listed in a schedule and hence called the “Scheduled Tribes”), and the 500 million “Other Backward Classes.” Under these provisions 15 percent of government jobs and university places have been reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes, 7 percent for Scheduled Tribes, and 27 percent for the Other Backward Classes. Initially, this affirmative action was to remain in place only until these marginalized castes caught up with the more privileged upper castes, but this has not yet happened, and there are strong pressures not only to extend indefinitely these policies but also to include caste groups that traditionally belong to Shudra status. The constitution also provides for the reservation of electoral seats for Scheduled Castes in the parliament of India and all the state legislatures. Similar rules govern elections for village and district councils. Although these measures are necessary to create a level playing field for historically deprived caste groups, they also go against another constitutional objective—the elimination of discrimination based on caste.
The affirmative action measures have empowered Dalits to some extent. In 1997, a Dalit, K. R. Narayanan, became the president of India, and by 2001 more than 13 percent of senior bureaucrats in the government of India were Dalits (Gupta 2001, p. 13). However, such gains are overshadowed by the stubborn continuation of inequalities. Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, particularly women, are at the bottom of the economic ladder (Deshpande 2002). Dalits in rural India are still forced into indentured farm labor. In some parts of the country there is still strong opposition to them owning land and sharing public facilities such as temples and wells.
A second factor that has enabled the caste system to flourish is its function as a “vote bank.” More often than not, elections are fought not so much over political ideologies and programs but on the caste identity of the contestants. Virtually all castes have well-organized and well-funded associations that mobilize voters for their caste’s candidates. Although such mobilization enhances political awareness and participation by various castes, at the same time it also undermines efforts to create a casteless society.
A third factor is that at the individual level, caste identity is still hereditary. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism does not approve proselytization, and it has no ecclesiastical order. Effectively, then, caste functions as the church of Hinduism, operating with centuries-old customs, norms, and values. Given these conditions, there are no recognized means by which, for example, a Dalit can move up the ritual hierarchy, or a Brahmin move down. However, following India’s independence in 1947 and adoption of a constitution that stipulated creation of a secular society, various mechanisms have evolved that have enabled members of lower castes, as a group, to claim superior social status when they emulate the customs, rituals, and way of life of upper castes (Srinivas 1962; Shah 2005). This process is called Sanskritization. For example, an individual (or a group) belonging to Shudra jati may become vegetarian, worship the gods that upper castes worship, and even recite Sanskritic hymns as part of its regular prayers, thus claiming status mobility (but not mobility in the ritual hierarchy). Sanskritization is an informal and voluntary process that does not involve participants’ merging their identities with the caste whose way of life they imitate, nor will the higher jati welcome them to its fold just because they adopted their ways. Sanskritization is most effective when it occurs at the group level. However, the basic nature of ascription continues. For example, an African American can earn high status in terms of his accomplishments, but his ascriptive status remains unchanged—he is not white. Likewise, an untouchable in India can rise to the position of president of India, but he is still characterized in the media as first untouchable to become president: his caste identity precedes his accomplishment.
A fourth factor that facilitates the continuity of caste is endogamy. The vast majority of marriages in India are still arranged by elders who ensure that their children marry from their own caste. However, a recent report in a south Indian newspaper titled “An Arranged Love Marriage” refers to the flexibility that is emerging in arranged marriages (Deccan Herald ). Such marriages are becoming common among the urban middle class when future partners who belong to same caste (and perhaps, class too) meet at work and go on “dates.” When they find they are mutually suitable, the couple seek the consent of their parents who are more than willing to bless the union since it liberates them from the hassle of dowry negotiations, etc. And yet, this is still an urban phenomenon occurring only among a minority of those who are in the marriage market.
Some Visible Changes in Caste Relations
Some aspects of the traditional caste system are changing, especially in urban areas. First, the inheritance of occupations by birth is no longer common except among the Dalits, especially in rural areas. More urban Dalits have succeeded in availing themselves of affirmative action measures. Furthermore, those of lower castes who live in urban areas have greater access to higher education, which makes them more competitive in the job market, especially in the private sector, where reservation policies are not applicable. At the time of this writing, the government of India has proposed to increase quotas for Old Backward Classes in all centrally funded institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management, Indian Institutes of Technology, and others. This move has resulted in a public debate about the continuing centrality of caste in admission policies which in the end works against value of merit (for details see India Today).
Second, although restrictions based on purity and pollution continue to shape social distance and interactions between high and low castes in villages of India, where roughly 70 percent of India’s population resides, they are becoming increasingly hard to observe or enforce in large towns and cities. Although it is easy to identify a Dalit in a small village, it is not that easy to identify a Brahmin or a Dalit among, for example, public-transit passengers in a large city. As Indian society becomes increasingly modern, the norms of purity and pollution that are central to the traditional caste system are weakening.
Finally, traditionally caste-based dietary practices are eroding, especially in urban areas, due in part to the way in which nonvegetarian meals are packaged, especially in Western fast-food outlets. Many upper-caste Hindus may not cook meat in their homes, but they have few qualms about breaking dietary taboos in McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, or similar fast-food outlets, which are becoming fashionable dining places for urban upwardly mobile Indians.
Other Religions and Caste
Many of the religions that entered India during the last five to ten centuries targeted poor and marginalized castes for conversion, but becoming a Christian or Muslim did not accord converts a status free of caste. Instead, for the vast majority, their caste identities stayed with them, and their children and grandchildren have been unable to shed them. At the same time, the converts have been denied by many legal jurisdictions the constitutional benefits of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe status. Recent attempts by those who converted to Christianity from the lowest castes of Hinduism (Scheduled Castes) to claim Scheduled Caste status and thus eligibility for constitutionally guaranteed benefits have not been successful. The same failure has greeted attempts by individuals in some regions of the country whose status is in proximity to Scheduled Castes, such as dhobis (washermen) and chamars (leather workers). In fact, conversion of a Dalit, who is Hindu by definition, to Christianity has not been advantageous to many. It might have given them a sense of hope and status but it also deprived them of some privileges that their old status as oppressed Hindus, entitled by the constitution to certain privileges, afforded.
Features of caste continue even in those religions such as Sikhism that emerged in protest against the rigidity of Hindu rites and rituals and, more importantly, against the ascriptive caste system. Over time, social divisions resembling caste hierarchy became part of Sikh society as Sikhs strongly protected and promoted their identities as Jat, Mazabi, and Ramgarhia Sikhs, with claims to superiority over each other and norms of endogamy.
Buddhism arose around the sixth century, partly in protest against the Hindu caste system. Although its founder was a Kshatriya, the most likely candidates for conversion have come from lower castes. While Buddhism extended its influence beyond the shores of India, it was not a great success in India until the 1950s, when Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, a Dalit who gave independent India its constitution, encouraged fellow Dalits to convert to Buddhism; millions did, and some still continue to do so. However, conversion to Buddhism (just as in the case of Christianity) did not amount to renunciation of one’s caste identity. Although changing one’s religion may be an act of protest against the caste system, Buddhist converts are reluctant to renounce their caste identity because they still want to obtain the benefits that the Dalit status entitles them to under the Indian constitution—a situation which is contradictory because converts to Christianity are not entitled to similar privileges.
Caste Outside India
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Britain, the colonial ruler of India, encouraged Indians to migrate to its other colonies in the Caribbean and Africa as indentured laborers in its bid to maintain its economic success. Most of the Indians who chose to migrate were members of lower castes who saw migration as an opportunity for upward mobility. Although the first generation of immigrants tended to retain their caste identities, particularly in matters of marriage and religious rites (Schwartz 1967), subsequent generations did not, because of the assimilative nature of economic, political, and juridical forces (Motwani, Gosine, and Barot-Motwani 1993; Gosine and Narine 1999). Caste cannot be easily transplanted to an environment where Hinduism is not the operative religion.
Systems of stratification comparable to the Indian caste system have been identified in other parts of the world. For example, in Nigeria the relations between the Ibo and Osu groups are similar to those of upper and lower castes. In Somalia a social group called Midgam or Madibhan suffers from all the impediments that Dalits experience: impurity, pollution, and social distance. The Burakumin of Japan have been compared with the Dalits, as they have faced similar restrictions. These restrictions were outlawed in 1871, but, as in the case of Dalits, discrimination continues, especially in matters of employment and marriage (Henshall 1999). These dichotomous divisions, however, do not come close to the intricate caste system. At best, they compare two opposite ends of caste system with another system similar to it, ignoring the middle, wherein lies the heart of caste system.
Even though there have been stout rejections of the claim that caste can be equated with race (see, among others, Gupta 2001) purely on the grounds of universal practices of discrimination based on ascription, scholars such as Gerald Berreman (1960; 1972) have attempted to compare American blacks to untouchable castes in India. However, the black-white dichotomous system in the United States differs from the fourfold caste system in India in that it is ordained not by religious considerations, but by economic and social ones (Cox 1948).
Nearly all societies are stratified in one way or another, and some groups will always be relegated to the margins. However, the Indian caste system is unique because of its complexity, its religious foundation, its hereditary occupational system, and its norms of endogamy. More important, caste has served to energize Indian polity because it has been a primary means of motivating and mobilizing citizens to take part in electoral politics. Perhaps that has been a positive aspect of caste in Indian society, but the time may come to look for other means of motivating the electorate in India.
- Berreman, Gerald. 1960. Caste in India and the United States. American Journal of Sociology 66 (2): 120–127.
- Berreman, Gerald. 1972. Race, Caste, and Other Invidious Distinctions in Social Stratification. Race 13 (4): 385–414.
- Béteille, André. 1996. Varna and Jati. Sociological Bulletin 45 (1): 15–28.
- Cox, Oliver C. 1948. Caste, Class, and Race. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Deccan Herald. 2006. An Arranged Love Marriage. June 26.
- Deshpande, Ashwini. 2002. Assets versus Autonomy? The Changing Face of the Gender-Caste Overlap in India. Feminist Economist 8 (2): 19–35.
- Gosine, Mahin, and Dhanpaul Narine, eds. 1999. Sojourners to Settlers: Indian Migrants in the Caribbean and the Americas. Windsor, NJ: Windsor Press.
- Gupta, Dipankar. 2001. Caste, Race, Politics. http://www. india-seminar.com.
- Henshall, Kenneth G. 1999. Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins, and Mainstream. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- India Today. 2006. Casting for Votes. May 15.
- Motwani, Jagat K., Mahin Gosine, and Jyoti Barot-Motwani, eds. 1993. Global Indian Diaspora: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. New York: Global Organization of People of Indian Origin.
- Schwartz, Barton. 1967. Caste in Overseas Indian Communities. Chicago: Chandler Publishing.
- Shah, A. M. 2005. Sanskritization Revisited. Sociological Bulletin 54 (2): 31–39.
- Srinivas, M. N. 1962. Varna and Caste. In Caste in Modern India and Other Essays, 63–69. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.
- Srinivas, M. N. 1966. Sanskritization. In Social Change in Modern India, 1–45. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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