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The Caste System of India

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4997 words Published: 1st Jun 2017

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The album of the modern world is portrayed by class and caste systems, the mere reflections of social inequality in human society. Class and caste are the form of the social stratification. The division of society into classes or strata, which form a hierarchy of prestige and power, is an universal feature of social structure. In this paper mainly focus on the basic concept of caste and class of society and in Indian context the changing trend of the caste system.

What is Caste:

'Caste' is the name of an ancient social institution that has been part of Indian history and culture for thousands of years. Wikipedia states that, "A caste is a combined social system of, endogamy, culture, social class, and political power."

"Any of the hereditary, endogamous social classes or subclasses of traditional Hindu society, stratified according to Hindu ritual purity, especially the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra castes".

The nature and function of the caste system:

The statutory commission report in 1930 stated about the nature and function of the caste in India as,

"Every Hindu necessarily belongs to the caste of his parents and in that caste he inevitably remains. No accumulation of wealth and no exercise of talents can alter his caste status and marriage outside his caste is prohibited or severely discouraged".

Renowned scholar Paul H. Landis has remarked as,

"No ambitious young Indian of a lower class can ever hope to be a Brahmin. Here the class differences are strong that the lowest class, the untouchables are not allowed even to touch the garments of the highest or Brahmin class. They (untouchables) die in the hope that they will be reborn into a better class".

From the various statements it becomes clear that caste continue to be an overpowering influence in the social, economical and political life of the country. The Indian village system is tied up with caste hierarchy.

Origin of caste: some views

Caste or more precisely 'varna' for which the former a Portuguese synonyms, has come into wide use in comparative literature in recent years. It has been an invariable dimension of the social evolution in india during the last 3500years. During the Rigvedic period the Aryan community had started splitting into classes - Brahma, Kashata and visa. It is only in one of the later hymns 'purushasuktha' that a reference has been made to the four classes of Indian society. The names of the four classes were given in the sukta as Brahma, Rajanya, vaisya and sudra. The earlier division into these groups or section or varnas represented division of labour and division of social product. The original in habitants, portrayed as blackish people were called as 'Dasas' by the Aryans, the invaders. These Dasas were over powered by the Aryans and when the conquered class were transformed into a service class, new relations of production came into being. The Dasas were known as the 'Sudras' the fifth caste in the Aryan fold of the Indian society.

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Phule's theory of the caste system was that it was created by the Aryans or Iranis Bhats or Brahmins. Before the coming of Irani Brahmins, Indian society was a casteless or classless agricultural community. The Grammarian Patanjali (Bc.200) commenting on panninis rule classified the countries of his times as 'Abrahmaniko Desah'(non-Brahmin countries) and 'vrshalak desah'(Brahmin countries). Dr. B.R. Ambedkar attempted to prove that the sudras originally constituted the solar Kshatriya caste of the vedic Aryan society, but that since the Brahmins refused to perform 'upanayana' for them they were pushed down to the fourth caste.

Definitions of caste:

The word caste is derived from the Spanish word "caste", meaning breed, race, strain or heredity. The Portuguese, when they came to India used the term to identify the caste divisions.

In the words of Madan and Majumdar, "caste is a closed group".

To C.H Cooley, "When a class is some what strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste".

The most commonly cited defining features of caste are the following:

Caste is determined by birth - a child is "born into" the caste of its parents. Caste is never a matter of choice. One can never change one's caste, leave it, or choose not to join it, although there are instances where a person may be expelled from their caste.

Membership in a caste involves strict rules about marriage. Caste groups are "endogamous", i.e. marriage is restricted to members of the group.

Caste membership also involves rules about food and food-sharing. What kinds of food may or may not be eaten is prescribed and who one may share food with is also specified.

Caste involves a system consisting of many castes arranged in a hierarchy of rank and status. In theory, every person has a caste, and every caste has a specified place in the hierarchy of all castes. While the hierarchical position of many castes, particularly in the middle ranks, may vary from region to region, there is always a hierarchy.

Castes also involve sub-divisions within themselves, i.e., castes almost always have sub-castes and sometimes sub-castes may also have sub-sub-castes. This is referred to as a segmental organisation.

Castes were traditionally linked to occupations. A person born into a caste could only practice the occupation associated with that caste, so that occupations were hereditary, i.e. passed on from generation to generation. On the other hand, a particular occupation could only be pursued by the caste associated with it -members of other castes could not enter the occupation.

Social structure and cultural aspects of the caste system:

The nature of caste system in India can be studied as a social structural system and as a cultural system representing the unique feature of Indian cultures:

Social Structural Aspects:

The caste system is a hierarchy of values in terms of the concept of purity and impurity.

It is organized as a characteristic hereditary division of labour.

It is committed to organic coordination with the larger communities.

Dumont, the French sociologist used the term 'homo-hierarchy' meant for the minority opposition and mutual repulsion in the inter-caste relationship.

There is a lot of cooperation especially in the socio-religious lines between various castes.

Cultural Aspects :

The cultural or symbolic system of caste has the following important things:

A hierarchy of values in terms of the concept of purity and impurity.

Hereditary transmission of psychological traits with in caste groups.

The concepts of karma and punarjanma giving one's attitudes and ways of life.

Commitment to caste occupation of caste style.

Tolerance of different styles of life of other castes.

What is Social Class?

A social class may be defined as a stratum of people of similar position in the social status continuum. The social position of the George is not the same as that of the college president; a student will not greet them in exactly the same manner. Most of us are deferential towards those whose social position we believe to be above our and are condescending to those whom we consider socially below us. The members of a social class view one another as social equals, while holding themselves to be socially superior to some and socially inferior to others. The members of a particular social class often have about the same amount of money, but what is more important is that they have much the same attitudes, values and ways of life. Social class is a very important from a social stratification. Class system is universal phenomena. Nowadays classes are in increasing and new classes are coming into being in various parts of the world. Class system in a society in determined by economic conditions, occupational conditions, abilities, hereditary factors, educational factors etc. Every society is gradated into various social classes and each class has its status in society. To understand more about social class one has to depend on some definitions given by social scientists.

Definition of Social Class:

T.H. Marshal defined by stating that "A system or structure of social class involves first, a hierarchy of status groups and secondly the recognition of the superior-inferior stratification and finally some degree of permanency of the structure".

In the word of Ogburn and Nimcoff, "By a social class we mean one or two or more broad groups of individuals who are ranked by the members of the community in socially superior and inferior positions".

To Lapiere, "a social class is a culturally defined group that is accorded a particular position or status within the population as a whole".

Characteristics of the Class:

Social class is a very important from of social stratification in the modern times. Following are the main features of class:

Hierarchy of status groups:

In the class system , everyone has its own status. In other words social class is a status group. Based on their features and resources, some people occupy high status, some middle status and yet some others rest at the lowest position. In modern complex society each class feels that they belong to a specific group.

Class- Consciousness:

In the class system every social class develops class consciousness and the status consciousness results in psychological separation.

Open system:

Social class system is an open one in society. The social position of one individual is based up on the factors like his profession, personal merits, dignity and wealth. The more an individual develops his abilities so as to be useful to society better he is placed in the social hierarchy. In the class system a person can move upward or downward, depending upon his personal attainments, merits and demerits, abilities and disabilities.

Objective Factors:

Economic condition, profession position, education, health, race etc are objectives factors of the social class system. Class consciousness resulting from the feeling of superiority and inferiority are to the called as subjective factors. When these subjective factors integrated into the objective ones, class organization occurs.

Class is not only an economic division:

Karl Max and Engels have the opinion that class division and economic inequalities alone lead to class difference. According to them social classes originate only from economic conditions. But our sociologists like Mac Iver mention that economic factor is only one of the factors for the origin of class system.

Class is not only an occupational division:

It is wrong to consider social class is an occupational division. It is restricting the scope of the social class. The criteria of high and low, superior and inferior cannot be specifically applied to professions.

Social mobility:

Class system involves greater scope for social mobility. According to A. Sorokin, social mobility is of two kinds; Horizontal and Vertical. Horizontal social mobility is movement from one social status to another social status of the same level. E.g. An engineer who is working in the Ford motor company goes to general motors co. as an engineers of the same grade. Vertical social mobility is the movement upward or downward e.g. A Director moves down to the position of an Assistant Director.

Social Class: Marxian View

The basic frame work for the dynamic of social change was laid down by Karl Marx through his materialistic interpretation of history and theory of class struggle. Opening the first chapter of their communist manifesto, Karl Marx and Engels stated:

"The history of all hitherto existing society(i.e. all written history) is the history of class struggle".

Marxian theory, materialistic and economically oriented, views class attitudes and class consciousness as fundamentally a reflection of economic conditions. Under the Marxian concept there are only two classes namely petty Bourgeois capitalists and the proletariats or the working class. Marx's distribution of the classes was mainly on economic basis that had comes as a subject of criticisms to sociologist like Mac Iver. Karl Marx conceived the relation between these two classes essentially based on the means of production, followed by the exploitation of the Bourgeoisie class up on the working class. Regarding classes and their relation with each other Marx has set three assumption in 'selected correspondence'.

Classes are bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production.

Classes are bound to lead a struggle between two classes namely Petty Bourgeois capitalists and the working class.

The class struggle between those two classes necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariats by over throwing the ruling capitalist from power.

Marx and Engles have described classes as economic conflict groups that are divided on the basis of the possession of the various instruments of production. Thus it is believed that an industrial society is connected with two classes- petty Bourgeoisie capitalist and proletarate workers. Before the industrial revolution there were only two classes, 'Landlords' and the 'Agriculturists'.

Class system in India:

In village India, where nearly 74 percent of the population resides, caste and class affiliations overlap. According to anthropologist Miriam Sharma, "Large landholders who employ hired labour are overwhelmingly from the upper castes, while the agricultural workers themselves come from the ranks of the lowest--predominantly Untouchable--castes." She also points out that household-labor-using proprietors come from the ranks of the middle agricultural castes. Distribution of other resources and access to political control follow the same pattern of caste-cum-class distinctions. Although this congruence is strong, there is a tendency for class formation to occur despite the importance of caste, especially in the cities, but also in rural areas.

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In an analysis of class formation in India, anthropologist Harold A. Gould points out that a three-level system of stratification is taking shape across rural India. He calls the three levels Forward Classes (higher castes), Backward Classes (middle and lower castes), and Harijans (very low castes). Members of these groups share common concerns because they stand in approximately the same relationship to land and production--that is, they are large-scale farmers, small-scale farmers, and landless laborers. Some of these groups are drawing together within regions across caste lines in order to work for political power and access to desirable resources. For example, since the late 1960s, some of the middle-ranking cultivating castes of northern India have increasingly cooperated in the political arena in order to advance their common agrarian and market-oriented interests. Their efforts have been spurred by competition with higher-caste landed elites.

In cities other groups have vested interests that crosscut caste boundaries, suggesting the possibility of forming classes in the future. These groups include prosperous industrialists and entrepreneurs, who have made successful efforts to push the central government toward a pro-business stance; bureaucrats, who depend upon higher education rather than land to preserve their positions as civil servants; political officeholders, who enjoy good salaries and perquisites of all kinds; and the military, who constitute one of the most powerful armed forces in the developing world.

Economically far below such groups are members of the menial underclass, which is taking shape in both villages and urban areas. As the privileged elites move ahead, low-ranking menial workers remain economically insecure. Were they to join together to mobilize politically across lines of class and religion in recognition of their common interests, Gould observes, they might find power in their sheer numbers.

India's rapidly expanding economy has provided the basis for a fundamental change--the emergence of what eminent journalist Suman Dubey calls a "new vanguard" increasingly dictating India's political and economic direction. This group is India's new middle class--mobile, driven, consumer-oriented, and, to some extent, forward-looking. Hard to define precisely, it is not a single stratum of society, but straddles town and countryside, making its voice heard everywhere. It encompasses prosperous farmers, white-collar workers, business people, military personnel, and myriad others, all actively working toward a prosperous life. Ownership of cars, televisions, and other consumer goods, reasonable earnings, substantial savings, and educated children (often fluent in English) typify this diverse group. Many have ties to kinsmen living abroad who have done very well.

The new middle class is booming, at least partially in response to a doubling of the salaries of some 4 million central government employees in 1986, followed by similar increases for state and district officers. Unprecedented liberalization and opening up of the economy in the 1980s and 1990s have been part of the picture.

There is no single set of criteria defining the middle class, and estimates of its numbers vary widely. The mid-range of figures presented in a 1992 survey article by analyst Suman Dubey is approximately 150 to 175 million--some 20 percent of the population--although other observers suggest alternative figures. The middle class appears to be increasing rapidly. Once primarily urban and largely Hindu, the phenomenon of the consuming middle class is burgeoning among Muslims and prosperous villagers as well. According to V.A. Pai Panandikar, director of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, cited by Dubey, by the end of the twentieth century 30 percent--some 300 million--of India's population will be middle class.

The middle class is bracketed on either side by the upper and lower echelons. Members of the upper class--around 1 percent of the population--are owners of large properties, members of exclusive clubs, and vacationers in foreign lands, and include industrialists, former maharajas, and top executives. Below the middle class is perhaps a third of the population--ordinary farmers, tradespeople, artisans, and workers. At the bottom of the economic scale are the poor--estimated at 320 million, some 45 percent of the population in 1988--who live in inadequate homes without adequate food, work for pittances, have undereducated and often sickly children, and are the victims of numerous social inequities.

Changing Pattern of Caste system in India:

Despite many problems, the caste system has operated successfully for centuries, providing goods and services to India's many millions of citizens. The system continues to operate, but changes are occurring. India's constitution guarantees basic rights to all its citizens, including the right to equality and equal protection before the law. The practice of untouchability, as well as discrimination on the basis of caste, race, sex, or religion, has been legally abolished. All citizens have the right to vote, and political competition is lively. Voters from every stratum of society have formed interest groups, overlapping and crosscutting castes, creating an evolving new style of integrating Indian society.

Castes themselves, however, far from being abolished, have certain rights under Indian law. As described by anthropologist Owen M. Lynch and other scholars, in the expanding political arena caste groups are becoming more politicized and forced to compete with other interest groups for social and economic benefits. In the growing cities, traditional intercaste interdependencies are negligible.

Independent India has built on earlier British efforts to remedy problems suffered by Dalits by granting them some benefits of protective discrimination. Scheduled Castes are entitled to reserved electoral offices, reserved jobs in central and state governments, and special educational benefits. The constitution mandates that one-seventh of state and national legislative seats be reserved for members of Scheduled Castes in order to guarantee their voice in government. Reserving seats has proven useful because few, if any, Scheduled Caste candidates have ever been elected in non-reserved constituencies.

Educationally, Dalit students have benefited from scholarships, and Scheduled Caste literacy increased (from 10.3 percent in 1961 to 21.4 percent in 1981, the last year for which such figures are available), although not as rapidly as among the general population. Improved access to education has resulted in the emergence of a substantial group of educated Dalits able to take up white-collar occupations and fight for their rights.

There has been tremendous resistance among non-Dalits to this protective discrimination for the Scheduled Castes, who constitute some 16 percent of the total population, and efforts have been made to provide similar advantages to the so-called Backward Classes (see Glossary), who constitute an estimated 52 percent of the population. In August 1990, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh announced his intention to enforce the recommendations of the Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission--see Glossary), issued in December 1980 and largely ignored for a decade. The report, which urged special advantages for obtaining civil service positions and admission to higher education for the Backward Classes, resulted in riots and self-immolations and contributed to the fall of the prime minister. The upper castes have been particularly adamant against these policies because unemployment is a major problem in India, and many feel that they are being unjustly excluded from posts for which they are better qualified than lower-caste applicants.

As an act of protest, many Dalits have rejected Hinduism with its rigid ranking system. Following the example of their revered leader, Dr. Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism four years before his death in 1956, millions of Dalits have embraced the faith of the Buddha. Over the past few centuries, many Dalits have also converted to Christianity and have often by this means raised their socioeconomic status. However, Christians of Dalit origin still often suffer from discrimination by Christians--and others--of higher caste backgrounds.

Despite improvements in some aspects of Dalit status, 90 percent of them live in rural areas in the mid-1990s, where an increasing proportion--more than 50 percent--work as landless agricultural laborers. State and national governments have attempted to secure more just distribution of land by creating land ceilings and abolishing absentee landlordism, but evasive tactics by landowners have successfully prevented more than minimal redistribution of land to tenant farmers and laborers. In contemporary India, field hands face increased competition from tractors and harvesting machines. Similarly, artisans are being challenged by expanding commercial markets in mass-produced factory goods, undercutting traditional mutual obligations between patrons and clients. The spread of the Green Revolution has tended to increase the gap between the prosperous and the poor--most of whom are low-caste.

The growth of urbanization (an estimated 26 percent of the population now lives in cities) is having a far-reaching effect on caste practices, not only in cities but in villages. Among anonymous crowds in urban public spaces and on public transportation, caste affiliations are unknown, and observance of purity and pollution rules is negligible. Distinctive caste costumes have all but vanished, and low-caste names have been modified, although castes remain endogamous, and access to employment often occurs through intracaste connections. Restrictions on interactions with other castes are becoming more relaxed, and, at the same time, observance of other pollution rules is declining--especially those concerning birth, death, and menstruation. Several growing Hindu sects draw members from many castes and regions, and communication between cities and villages is expanding dramatically. Kin in town and country visit one another frequently, and television programs available to huge numbers of villagers vividly portray new lifestyles. As new occupations open up in urban areas, the correlation of caste with occupation is declining.

Caste associations have expanded their areas of concern beyond traditional elite emulation and local politics into the wider political arenas of state and national politics. Finding power in numbers within India's democratic system, caste groups are pulling together closely allied subcastes in their quest for political influence. In efforts to solidify caste bonds, some caste associations have organized marriage fairs where families can make matches for their children. Traditional hierarchical concerns are being minimized in favor of strengthening horizontal unity. Thus, while pollution observances are declining, caste consciousness is not.

Education and election to political office have advanced the status of many Dalits, but the overall picture remains one of great inequity. In recent decades, Dalit anger has been expressed in writings, demonstrations, strikes, and the activities of such groups as the Dalit Panthers, a radical political party demanding revolutionary change. A wider Dalit movement, including political parties, educational activities, self-help centers, and labor organizations, has spread to many areas of the country.

In a 1982 Dalit publication, Dilip Hiro wrote, "It is one of the great modern Indian tragedies and dangers that even well meaning Indians still find it so difficult to accept Untouchable mobility as being legitimate in fact as well as in theory. . . ." Still, against all odds, a small intelligentsia has worked for many years toward the goal of freeing India of caste consciousness.

Factor contributing to caste change:

The main factors responsible for the changes of caste system are:

Modern education:

Modern education is one of the major factors for weakening of the caste. It has gone to make negative impacts upon casteism. As modern education is deeply ingrained into the values such as liberty, equality and fraternity, it gives no place for hoary social evils and practices like casteism. Education also encouraged inter-caste marriage. The feeling of untouchability and prejudices are being gradually eliminated from the mind of the children of all caste.


With the advent of industrialization people of all castes were forced to find out employment in factories in big cities. In the industrial centers members of different castes came into mutual contact, made harmonious relationship with other and forgot the caste barriers.


Industrialization, transportation and widened communication are the main facors responsible to decrease the sentiment of the caste from the people to a greater extent. Higher caste members who moved to urban areas for pursuing employment found it difficult to retain their caste ideas and practice.

Significance of wealth:

In the past power of money was not much dominating factor in the society. Today wealth is replacing caste as the basis of social prestige. In other words money has become a deciding factor for influencing human life at present.

Rise of Nationalism:

Nationalism bound up with the concept of 'universal brotherhood' has opened up new volumes in inter-caste relations. It seems to have helped to a considerable extent in shortening the prejudices of casteism from the mind of people in rural areas.

Effect of social reforms:

Social reform movement had also gone to a wider extent in diminishing caste prejudices from the upper caste minds. Social reformer like Babasaheb, Ambedkar, Balgangadhar Tilak, Ranade had done a lot for removing caste distinction and prejudice from the mind of Indians.


The strength of caste themselves, of the individual's attachment to his own caste, it may be claimed that the traditional caste system has been profoundly altered. In that system each individual caste had its ascribed place and co-operated with each other castes in a traditional economy and in ritual. No doubt there was always some competition between castes and there were changes in position in the hierarchy of prestige; but there was no generalized competition. It is quit otherwise with the modern caste associations, which exist in order to compete for wealth, educational opportunities and social prestige in a much more open society. The class interests and demands of the toiling people, the poor and the oppressed, has largely been expressed in the form of caste politics. Articulated within the structures of India's democracy, this caste based politics has succeeded in providing significant relief to the lower castes, who form the overwhelming majority of India's toiling masses. Next week, this column will look at the consequences of lower caste politics in contemporary India.


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