Journey Of Inequality

By Nitin Kumar

(20/05/2020 20:00 IST)

Though the caste system is fading away slowly due to western exposure, industrialization, modernization etc. but still there are doubts in Indians’ mind that how it got originated and what is the solution to get rid of it. The caste system is a major issue even today in India (mainly in the states of U.P, Bihar, West Bengal, South Indian states etc.). So, I am trying to summarize the concept after studying all relevant books, Hindu texts and documents.

Introduction: Jana→Jati→Caste

The word caste derives from the Spanish and Portuguese word “Casta”, means “race, lineage or breed”. Portuguese employed casta in the modern sense when they applied it to hereditary Indian social groups called as ‘Jati’ in India. ‘Jati’ originates from the root word ‘Jana’ which implies taking birth. Thus, caste is concerned with birth.

Social Scientists have viewed and interpreted caste through many angles. Suragit Sinha, (1968) defined caste system as a hierarchy of endogamous groups, organized in a characteristically hereditary division of labor, wherein the functions of caste specialization and hierarchy were originally linked. Now we see how the caste system originate?

Origins of Caste system

In the earliest written evidences about the caste system appear in the Vedas Sanskrit language texts that date from as early as 1500BCE. The Vedas form the basis of Hindu scriptures. The Rig Veda, however, which dates from around 1700-1100BCE, rarely mentions caste distinctions and is taken as evidence that social mobility was common at that time.

The Bhagavad Gita, which dates from around 200BCE-200CE, emphasized the importance of caste. In addition, the laws of Manusmriti, from the same era, defines the rights and duties of four different castes or ‘Varnas’. Thus, it seems that the Hindu caste system began to solidify sometime between 1000 and 200BCE.

Under this system-which is associated with Hinduism, people were categorized by their occupations.

Originally the caste system depended of individuals’ occupations, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into an unalterable social class. In this sphere there are four primary castes as: Brahmins (the priests; activities done by a person with dominant ‘Satwa Guna’ called as Brahmin), Kshatriyas (warriors and nobility; with dominated ‘Rajo Guna’ mixed with ‘Satwa Guna’ called as Kshatriyas), Vaisyas (farmers and traders; with dominated ‘Rajo Guna’ called as Vaisyas) and Shudras (tenant farmers and servant) with dominated ‘Tamo Guna’ is called Shudra). Some people were born outside of the caste system; they were called “untouchables” or Dalits- “the crushed ones”. And they used to (and even today) reside on the outskirts of the villages.

An elaborated Varna system with insight and reasoning is found in the Manusmriti (an ancient legal text from the Vedic period) and later in various Dharmshastras. Varnas, in principal are not lineages considered as pure and indisputable but categories thus inferring the precedence of conduct in determining a varana instead of birth.

Theories of Caste system

It is difficult to estimate the exact period in which the practice of untouchability originated still it can be said that it existed in India even 2000 years ago. Thus untouchables have existed for more than 2000 years. These are different theories of origin of untouchability and it would be better to consider briefly some of these theories.

British Period (1757 to 1947)

Now, we see the caste system during the British period. What were changes in the caste system during the British period in India? Before the advent of British rule in India the caste had developed into an authoritative social institution with the dominance of Brahmins at the climax of the hierarchical ladder. The Hindu Kings were not at a distance from such an institution, they also upheld this institution with the help of the civil power. But with the establishment of the British as the political head of the society the traditional form of the caste started taking a different shape. The allegiance of the British to the policy of comparative non-interference made the lower castes revolt against the Brahmin supremacy. Industrial development and rapid spread of urbanization made flexibility possible in the traditional caste institution. This situation made it certain for the people of different castes, classes and religions live in close congregations in cities.

Declining hold of the Caste Panchayats

Before British rule in India every caste used to have its own caste Panchayat (Jatiya Panchayat) which used to perform a number of functions like: to make the members comply with caste rules and regulations, resolve caste disputes, gave punishment to those who violated caste rules and obligations etc. But after consolidating their power, the British avoided the non-uniformity of the caste Panchayats and introduced uniform legal, legislative and judicial system. The British developed its own mechanism of power management under which the judicial powers of the caste councils were transferred to the civil and criminal courts, which affected the authority which the Panchayats had held over the members. Questions of assault, adultery, rape and the like were taken before the British courts for decision. In civil matters such as marriage, divorce, caste based occupational disputes, disputes between husband and wife, parents and children etc., the intention of the British was to be guided by the caste customs. But in actual practice various decisions of the High Courts set aside the authority of the caste (Rao, 2004).

Caste based occupations declined during the British Raj. With the evolution of the industrial revolution the traditional socioeconomic relations get changed not at once but slowly. The age old economic system (where by high caste landowning families called ‘Jajmans’ were provided services and products by various lower castes such as carpenters, barbers, potters, blacksmith, washer man etc. the servicing people called ‘kamins’ were paid in cash or in kinds– grain, fodder, clothes, animal products like milk, butter etc., started declining (Ahuja,1999) & (Milner,1994).The British came up with modern machines, factory system of production, new occupations, salary based service system and said good bye to the traditional patterns of livelihood. People of all castes showed some positive response towards the modernity and started to make use of the new economic opportunities. With the result of industrialization the traditional occupational and geographical boundaries got diminished. People start thinking out of their hereditary occupation and from the ancestral village towards new occupations and work places (Rao, 2004).

In the same time period, many social movements attacked the caste system in India. In this regards, Pimpley Prakash and Sharma Satish (1985) writes that, socio-religious movements have declined the Caste System in India. The author mentions some important movements, like, 'The Arya Samaj' founded in 1875 by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and 'The Dev Samaj' founded in 1887 by Shiv Narayait Agnihotri, and also 'The Sanatam Dharm Sabha' founded in 1895, 'The Brahmo Samaj' founded in 1928 by 'Raja Ram Mohan Roy' and 80 'The Prarthana Samaj'(1849) and several other social-religious movements attacked the traditional caste system. These social movements generated social awareness in the Society. However, they did not succeed in removing the rigidity of the Caste System, though some structural features of Castes were definitely affected.

Post-Independence Period (After 1947 to till now)

After Independence in the process of 'Industrialization' and the process of 'Urbanization' continued more constructively in Independent India, which already had weakened the rigid nature of the caste system. Besides that, the Government of India introduced several laws, which controlled the social disabilities. For ex: some important Acts are, Article 14 of the constitution- 'Ensures equality -before the law', Article 15 of the constitution- 'Prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, sex, place of birth, race and caste', Article 16 - 'Prescribes equality of opportunity in public employment' and Article 17 - 'Abolition of untouchability'. As a whole, these legal provisions have reduced the rigidity of the caste system in India. There are some other factors which attacked the caste system in India are: spread of education, socio-religious reforms, 'Westernization', 'special mobility’, 'growth of the market economy' etc. The Constitution of India brought the concept of 'Liberty, Justice and Equality' to all persons irrespective of their different castes, class, race and religion. The caste system no longer functions on rigid lines in the contemporary India.

And to solve the problem of caste system education plays an important role because education makes people liberal, broad minded, democratic and open in nature. Educated person doesn't accept the caste norms and caste practices blindly. And the caste system, finally, it can be stated that the caste system has got a big blow in post-independence period and hence it has lost its rigid nature


Problems of the caste system

Caste is both a historical truth of the Indian subcontinent, and a reality of modern day of India some of us are still unaware of the extent to which caste remains an ordering principle in our society today. Caste is present in a massive way in most of India and caste based discrimination and violence takes place across the nation. In metropolitan cities too, caste has its ugly presence, even if not in obvious ways. If we want to deal caste discrimination, we need to understand it, but first will have to concede that it is a problem.

Some ancient references to ‘untouchable’ castes

The untouchable castes were called by different names such as chandals, panchamas suapachas, atishudras, during early days. Vedic literature also makes a mention of some ‘impure’ groups, which were there as early as 800 BC people born of the prohibited ‘pratiloma’ (marriage of higher varna women with the man of lower varna) marriage belonged to that category and were called ‘chandalas’ suapachas and so on. In simple words, the chandalas who were regarded as ‘untouchable’ were the children of the most hated union of a Brahmin female with a shudra male. The ‘pratiloma’ form of marriage was not approved by the scriptures.

Shastrakara Manu was of the opinion that the progeny of most hated, pratiloma union would become chandalas or untouchables. In the Vedic literature, we find the mention of chandalas as an ethnic group originating from interbreeding of the higher caste or Varna female (mostly Brahmin) and lower caste or Varna male (mostly shudra).

Patanjali, yet another dharmas-hastrakara, considered chandalas as a variety of Shudras.

Most of the dharmas-hastrakara considered the chandalas as forming a fifth category (that is outside the four varnas) and called them ‘panchamas’. The panchamas were outside the Varna system.

Alberuni has referred to these ‘untouchable’ as a social group called ‘antyaja’ constituting the last and the lowest position in the society their socio economic life was worse than that of Shudras (of the varna category) and hence they were called ‘Atishudras’.

Law of Manu

Integral to understanding caste is this Hindu scripture, which has shared the way the religion has been practiced in India. While the Vedas are more philosophical, the law of Manu detail now Hindu society must function and the traditions and rituals the people must abide by. It shows how deeply the fundamental text details the number of paces (steps) a person from a certain “unapproachable” caste must keep between themselves and a Brahmin, and the precise economic, social and physical punishments for any transgression of these mandates This disturbing passage is a direct quote: - “If a shudra mentions the name and class of a twice born contumely an iron nail ten figures long shall be thrust into his mouth.”

Some solutions to solve the problems of casteism

About Authors.

Nitin Kumar

Executive Editor


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