Friday, May 7, 2010

Indian caste system

Indian caste system

The Indian caste system is the traditional hereditary social system of India, in which social classes are defined by a number of hierarchical endogamous groups. A caste is generally divided into exogamous groups based on the same gotras (गोत्र), and defined by the mutual interaction among its members. The two most common of these relationships are:
*"Roti" (bread): dining together.
*"Beti" (daughter): intermarrying together.
In the past, individuals faced excommunication from their caste (hence becoming an ‘outcaste') if they committed certain unpardonable offences; thus they were denied the privilege of socially interacting with members of their former caste.

There are presently several thousand castes, and tribes in India, for example Agarwal, Bhavsar, Chamar, Jat, Kapu Caste, Nair, Konkanasth, Mahar, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP), Reddy, Arora, Maratha, Saraswat Brahmins, Mudaliar, Barnwal, Iyer, Iyengar, Chettiar castes.

A tribe in India either exclusively populates a region or dominates all other groups. A caste however exists within a complex society interacting with many other castes with specialized functions. In many cases, a community can either be called a caste or a tribe.
Caste divisions
Some castes are based on occupation. For example, goldsmiths, carpenters, and barbers each form separate sub-castes. Often, a sub-caste with a significant number of members will be divided into further subcastes. This further division may be due to:
* Geographical separation: For example, there are purabia (eastern) and pachchaia (western) sections of some castes.
* Variation in standards of conduct: For example, disagreements over the permissibility of widow marriages have caused some castes to subdivide.
However, there have also been several recorded cases in which the merging of subcastes has occurred. At one time, there was considerable interest in the relative ranking of castes, with several views on how rankings could be achieved:
# Public reputation of castes in a region # Wealth and influence # Food relationship: For example, members of a sub-caste will accept water-based (kachcha) food prepared only by members of their own sub-caste or by a Brahmin. A consequence of this third rule was that Brahmins were often employed as cooks. The rule was often not applicable if the food items were dry (e.g., roasted grains) or fried in oil or ghee (pakka).
Varna and Caste

Varna, literally meaning "kind" or "type" although Encyclopedia Brittanica describes "Varna" as "colour" possible referance to skin pigmentation, is a term often used in connection with the caste system, with varnas often mistakenly referred to as "castes" in English. Classical Indian legal texts of the Dharmashastra, most notably that by Dharma Raja Manu, identified four varnas in Indian society. These were, as mentioned earlier, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, with the former untouchables (Dalit) being considered either a lower section of Shudra, or outside of the caste system altogether.
Theoretically, according to the Manusmriti, every caste belongs to one of the four varnas. However, the division of Indian society into four castes was a generalization rarely held in practice. Consequently, there have been many disputes about the varna of many castes, such as castes being considered Kshatriya by some scholars, while described as Shudra by others. While texts such as the Manusmriti attempted to rationalize ambiguous castes by placing them in varna-sankaras (i.e. mixed varna), the fact remains that Indian society was, and is, composed of numerous geographically diversified but endogamous groups. With many occupational groups practicing endogamy within a particular region, as well as numerous sub-divisions within the four main castes, a more complex system of subcastes and jatis becomes evident.
Unlike the varna system of Brahmins, which requires spiritual purity in order to ascend, a jati is able to move up or down the social hierarchy based on the aspirations of its members. Marriages are usually arranged within one's own sub-caste; however, they may occur between two affiliated sub-castes, or two sub-castes that are in the same region, and are as such termed intercaste marriages. Over time, this grew more and more rigid, until every aspect was determined by birth, with various "justifications" as described below.

To simplify the perspective, often people use the classification based on Four varnas, given in Manusmriti and other dharma-shastras: The Brahmins (Teachers, Scholars and Priests), The Khshatriyas (Kings and warriors), the Vaishyas (Traders, Landowners and some Artisan groups), and Shudras (Agriculturists, Service providers, and some Artisan groups). There was another group, which was excluded from the main society, for various reasons, which was called Parjanya or Antyaja; these were the people called untouchables. The varnas (rather than Jatis), was used after the 1902 Census by the British, for consolidation of demographical data into manageable proportions. However no commonly agreed approach for classifying the castes into the four varnas exists, sometimes a caste may claim to be a Brahmin, but others may regard it to be a Vaishya.
Caste System among Indian Christians
In India more than 70% of Christians are Dalits, but the higher caste Christians (30% by estimates) control 90% of the churches administrative jobs [1]. Out of the 156 bishops, only 6 are from lower castes. [2].
Caste System among Indian Muslims
The Muslims in South Asia are categorized into two distinct classes:

Ashrafs: have a superior status derived from their foreign ancestry. They are further divided into four castes, Sayyads, Shiekhs, Mughals and Pathans, in that order of rank. It is however believed that most of them, like the other group are also converts from Hinduism.

The non-Ashrafs: are assumed to be converts from Hinduism, and are therefore drawn from the indigenous population. According to the Web-site "Anti-caste", they, in turn, are divided into a number of occupational castes.[3]

Physical contact with individuals of untouchable Muslim castes is avoided not only by Ashrafs but also by non-Ashrafs. Marriage alliances between Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs generally are not considered. Ashrafs and non-Ashrafs generally do not eat together.

Modern status of the caste system
The caste system was first exposed to the modern Western world during the Portuguese occupation and rule of sections of India. Indeed, the word 'caste' in this context is derived from the Portuguese, casta. Later, other European empires, including the British, occupied parts of the subcontinent. The anthropologist Herbert Risley's The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1892, was one of the first works on the caste system in India written by a Western scholar.
Independent India officially documented castes and subcastes, primarily to determine those deserving reservation (positive discrimination in education) through the census. The Indian reservation system differs from American affirmative action in that it relies entirely on quotas, while the US does not.
The government lists consist of:
Scheduled castes (SC): Generally consisting of former "untouchables" (the term "Dalit" is now preferred by activists). Present population is 16% of total population of India i.e. around 160 million. For example, the Delhi state has 49 castes listed as SC (
Scheduled tribes (ST): Generally consisting of tribal people. Present population is 7% of total population of India i.e. around 70 million.

Other backward classes (OBC): Generally consisting of cultivators, pastoralists, artisans, etc. The Mandal Commission has covered more than 3000 castes under OBC Category. Present population is approximately 52% of total population of India i.e. around 520 million. For example, Delhi places 53 castes in this group (
Some Indian states are dominated by caste-based politics. Sometimes converts to other religions, such as Christianity or Islam, retain their caste identity, often due to the economic benefits it carries, and also to retain their ties with the community for social reasons. This practice, however, is often frowned upon by members of the same sub-caste.
Major Caste Groups
These are the major caste groups in India, listed in the order of population, based on 1891 census data. Caste-group Example Population %
Cultivators Kapu,Maratha, Maali, Jat, Lodha, Kurmi 20%
Village Menials Chamar, Dosadh, Mahar, Domba 13%
Military/Ruling Bhavsar, Jat, Khatri, Kurmi, Maratha, Rajput, Raju, Kamma/Naidu, Nair, Tarkhan 12%
Artisans Tarkhan,Lohar,shimpi, sali, Sunar, Julaha 12%
Pastoral Ahir, Gadaria, Dhangar 7%
Forest tribes Santhal, thakar, Gond, Bhil 7%
Professionals Nambudri, Bhat, Kayasth 16%
Services Nai, Dhobi, Kandoi 6%
Traders Agrawal, Arora, Balija, Barnwal 5%
Laborers Musahar, Bagdi, Bawari 3%
Fishers Kahar, Mallah 3%
Other professionals Vaidya, Mirasi, Bhand 2%
Vagrants Waddar, Nat, Beldar 1%

There have been many attempts to group castes by assigning them to one of the four varna; however, the assignments vary depending on who is making the assignments.
Megasthenes, an ancient Greek sent by Seleucus I as ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya's court in India classified people of India into seven classes: philosophers, peasants, herdsmen, craftsmen and traders, soldiers, government officials and councillors.
Theories about the origins of the system
The histories of many of the castes are available in form of an oral tradition. Many of these were recorded in the past few centuries. With the archaeological findings in the last one and half centuries, it is now possible to trace the emergence on several of the specific castes to 11-12th century or even a few centuries earlier. For example, Babb has attempted to trace the history of several castes in Rajasthan in his "Archemies of Violence", based largely on narratives recorded in the past few centuries. Prior to the avaialability of archaeological evidence, the histories of individual castes are often speculative.

According to 19th century theories, the caste system began with the arrival of the Aryans in India. Indo-Aryan culture arrived in India around 1500 BC, around the time of the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization. The Indo-Aryans arrived in India from Central Asia. European scholars first supposed that they came as invaders, and were contemptuous of their newly-conquered subjects. This was often romanticized as a struggle between the native dark skinned culture and the invading light skinned one. Before the arrival of the Indo-Aryans, the dominant cultural and linguistic group would have been the Dravidians, (see Indus Valley Civilization). The Dravidians were the largest community in India, and are by some scholars identified as the bearers of the Indus Valley Civilization. It was fully developed by 800 BC. It was at first assumed that the Indus Valley Civilization collapsed due to the apparent invasion of the Aryans, but it now seems more likely that the migration of Indo-Aryan culture came about as a result of the diminished power of the Indus Valley Civilization as it was collapsing due to internal pressures, much like the migrations period in Europe was brought on by the weakening of the Roman Empire.

The early Aryans organized among themselves in three groups, much like other Indo-European peoples. The different Jats (sub-castes) who professed different occupations were integrated in different Varnas according to their occupation. According to the invasion theory of caste origin, most of the communities that were in India before the arrival of the Aryans were integrated in the Sudra Varna or were made outcast depending on the professions of these communities. Communities who professed non-polluting jobs were integrated in Sudras Varna. And communities who professed polluting professions were made outcasts or untouchables. Untouchables were not only disallowed to touch the high caste people but they also had to stand at a certain distance from the high castes.

This Aryan Invasion theory is today often claimed to have been formulated to undermine the historical significance of India and its cultural and religious heritage by the British, and subsequently the west[4]. The British historians were writing under a Biblical timeframe where the world began only around 6000 BC. The theory was also exploited by the British to show that they had the right to invade India, as the Indians supposedly themselves were invaders. It indirectly also implied that the "indigenous" people were incapable of creating their religion or culture and that it was brought by outsiders [5]. Recent genetic studies have supported the idea that the invasion did not occur, showing that most north Indians today are primarily of Indian, not Central Asian, descent suggesting that the influx of Indo-Aryan culture was one primarily of language, not genes[6].
Criticism of the Caste System
There has been strong criticism India's caste system discriminates of the caste system existing in India. Some activists consider that the caste system is a form of racial discrimination.An Untouchable Subject? The participants of the United Nations Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in March 2001, condemned the discrimination due to the caste system, and stated that caste as a basis for the segregation and oppression of peoples in terms of their descent and occupation is a form of apartheid.Final Declaration of the Global Conference Against Racism and Caste-based Discrimination
The status of untouchables
The untouchable (or Dalit) in Hindu Society was a person who worked in what were seen as unhealthy, polluting work dealing with the dead bodies and animal carcasses, the collection and disposal of bodily waste, and other jobs that brought him/her into constant contact with what society considered disgusting and even dangerous. These occupations,although they were helpful to the society and improved sanitation, were considered unclean and polluted the individual, and such polluted individuals were considered unfit for physical or social contact with the non-polluted, "purer" sections of Society. Untouchables used to live separately within a subcultural context of their own, outside the inhabited limits of villages and townships, made pariahs in every sense of the word. No other castes could, or would, interfere with their social life since untouchables were lower in social ranking than even those of the shudra varna.
In the past, extreme poverty drove many untouchables to wear clothing off the bodies of the dead that they handled. In their home they ate from broken dishes discarded by others. Untouchables suffered from many social restrictions. They were not allowed temple worship with others, nor water from the same sources. Person of higher castes would not interact with them. Untouchables were not allowed to use the same wells as the other castes as that would "pollute" the water and indirectly the other castes who drank it. If somehow a member of a higher caste came into physical or social contact with an untouchable, the member of the higher caste was defiled, and had to bathe thoroughly to purge her/himself of the impurity. Such contact even included the shadow of an untouchable falling on the member of the higher caste. At the same time, the untouchables developed their own rich folk traditions with a lifestyle that was unhampered by the variety of restrictions on the rest of the society.
The inclusion of lower castes into the mainstream was argued for by Mahatma Gandhi who called them "Harijans" (people of God). The term Dalit (downtrodden) is used now as the term Harijan is largely felt patronising. Gandhi's contribution toward the emancipation of the untouchables is controversial. This is usually highlighted by the commentary of his contemporary Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, an untouchable himself. Ambedkar was deeply suspicious of Gandhi's motivations and frequently saw his activities as detrimental to the cause of upliftment of his people. For instance, Gandhi, a Vaishya, was not against the caste system, but tried hard to bring untouchables into the mainstream of society and get the other castes to discard the practice of untouchability. Gandhi coined the phrase "Harijan" (God's People) for the untouchables. Ambedkar, influenced by liberal thinkers like Voltaire, was interested in the elimination of the caste system and untouchability altogether. To him, Gandhi's efforts solved no problems of the untouchables as they would remain at the bottom of the hierarchy. Ambedkar suggested that the evils of the caste system would be eliminated if the upper castes (especially the Brahmins) would change their behaviour and eventually get rid of the caste system altogether.
See also
* The varna system
* Caste system
* Dharmashastra
* List of Indian castes
* Aryan
Notable people
* Bodhisattva Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Buddhist Revivalist and most prominent leader of the 20th century born in Hindu Untochable/Dalit Community.
* Savitri Devi saw Brahmins as the bearers of Aryan culture to India, and admired the separation they kept between themselves and the Dravidians.
* Mahatma Gandhi coined Harijan, a euphemistic word for untouchable , literally meaning Sons of God.
* Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, essential precursor of Dalit political activism; devised a theory that established lowcaste people as the original inhabitants of India having been conquered in the ancient past by barbaric Brahman invaders (an example of the creative inversion of classical Aryan invasion theory)
* Thanthai Periyar, famous Tamil rationalist fought against the caste practice of Brahmins and Hinduism
* K. R. Narayanan, India's first and only Dalit President (1997 - 2002)
* Bangaru Laxman, BJP president 2001-2002. A former Dalit himself, he helped prove the BJP was not all about Brahmins.
* Uma Bharati, fireband Hindutva politician. A former OBC.

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