A Caste system is a way of dividing a society into differently ranks tiers of the people. The division was based on hierarchy and labour. Although much of the caste system defined by early Hindu scriptures the system became what we know it as today under colonial role. Both the British Portuguese and British regime segmented groups by caste and gave senior administrative jobs to higher castes. Lower castes were denied access to basic healthcare and education and often shunned entirely from society, left to do jobs considered ‘unclean’ sunch as waste disposal, toilet cleaning and cremation. Dalits, also known as ‘untouchables’ who were considered to be outside of the caste system, suffered particularly badly under this system – stories abound of ‘untouchable’ children being spot on and forced to bath in the same water as animals.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of pioneering social campainers like BR Ambedkar, Caste Inequality was forced onto the agenda. After India achieved Independence, quotas on employment known as ‘reservations’ were introduced into the constitution, and discriminating against the lower castes was made illegal. By 1990, the quota rose to about 49% and it applied to groups that were classified as “other backward classes”, scheduled castes, and scheduled tribe.
Caste system divided Indian society
History of Caste
Vedic period (1500-1000 BCE)
Dining the time of Rigveda, there were two varnas: arya varna and dasa varna. The distinction originally arose from tribal divisions. The vedic tribes regarded themselves as arya (the noble ones) and the rival tribes were called dassa, dasyu and Pani. The dasas were frequent allies of the aryan tribes, and they were probably assimilated into the aryan society, giving rise to a class distinction. The Rigvedic society was not distinguised by occupations. Many husband Men and artisans practised a number of crafts. The Chariot maker (rathakara) and metal worker (karmara) enjoyed positions of importance and no stigma was attached to them. Similar observations hold for carpenters, tanners weavers and others.
Towards the end of the Atharvaveda period, new class distinction emerged, The erstwhile dasas are renamed Shudras, probably to distinguish them from the new meaning of dasa are slave. The aryans are renamed vis or vaishya (members of the tribe) and the new elite classes of Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriya (warriors) are designated dasas but also included the aboriginal tribes that were assimilated into the aryan society as it explained into the Gangetic settlement.
Later Vedic Period (1000-600BCE)
In the early upanishad, shudras is referred to as “Pusan” or nourisher, suggesting that shudras were the tillers of the soil, but soon afterwards, shudras are not counted among the tax payers and they are said to be given away along with the lands when it is gifted. The majority of the artisans were also reduced to the position of Shudras, but there is no contempt indicated of their work. The Brahmins and Kshatriyas are given special position in the rituals, distinguishing them from both the vaishyas and the Shudras. The Vaishya is said to be “oppressed at will” and the shudra “beaten at will”.
Second urbanisation (500-200 BCE)
Knowledge of this period is supplemented by Pali Buddhist texts. Whereas the Brahmanical texts speak of the four fold Varna system, the Buddhist texts present an alternative picture of the society, stratified along the lines of Jati, Kula and occupation. In the Buddhist texts, Brahmin and Kshatriyas are described as Jatis rather than varnas. They were in fact Jatis of Higher rank.
The Jatis of low rank were mentioned as chandala and occupational classes like Bamboo weavers, hunters, chariot-makers and sweepers.
The concept of Kulas was broadly similar. Along with Brahmins and Kshatriyas, a class called gahapatis (literally householders, but effectively properties class) was also included among high Kulak.
The contestattions of the period are evident from the texts describing dialogue of Buddha Brahmins. The Brahmins maintain the divinely ordained superiority and assert their right to draw service from the lower orders. Buddha responds by pointing out the basic facts of biological birth common to all men and asserts that the ability to draw service is obtained economically, but not divine right. Using the example of the northwest of the subcontinent, Buddha points out that aryas could become dasas and vice versa.
This form of mobility was endorsed by Buddha.
Buddha propagated equality of Humans by birth
Classical period (320-650 CE
The Mahabharata, whose final version is estimated to have been completed by the end of the fourth century, discusses the Varna system in Section 12.181, presenting two models. The model describes varna as as color based system, through a character named Bhrigu, “Brahmins varna was white, Kshatriyas were red, vaishyas was yellow, and the shudra’s black. This description is questioned by Bhardvaja who says that colours are seen among all the varnas, that desire, anger, fear, greed, grief, anxiety, hunger and toil prevails over all human beings, that bile and blood flow from all human bodies, so what distinguishes the varnas, He asks, The Mahabharata then declares, “ There is no distinction of Varnas, This whole universe is Brahman, it was created by Brahma, came to be classified by acts.
Adi Purana, an 8th- century text of Jainism by Jinasena, is the first mention of Varna and Jati in Jaininsm literature. Jinasensa does not trace the origin of Varna system to Rigveda or to Purusha, but the Bharata legend. According to this legend, Bharata performed an ahimsa test (test of non violence), and during that test all those who refused to harm and living beings called as the priestly Varna in ancient India, and Bharata called them dvija, twice born, Jinasena states that those who are committed to the principle of non-harming and non –violence to all living beings are deva-Brahmans, divine Brahmins.
Late classical and early medieval period (650 to 1400CE)
Many scholars have tried to lacate historical evidence for the existence and nature of varna and jati in documents and inscriptions of medieval India. Supporting evidence for the existence of varna and jati system in medieval India has been elusive, and contradicting evidence has emerged.
Varna is rarely mentioned in the extensive medieval era records of Andhra Pradesh, for example This had lead Cynthia talbot, a professor of History and asian studies, to question whether varna was socially significant in the daily lives of this region. The mention of Jati is even rarer, through the 13th century. Two rare temples donor records from the warrrior families of the 14th century claim to be shudras. One states that the Shudras are the bravest, the other states that Shudras are the poorest.
Richard easton, a Professor of History writes, “anyone could become warrior regardless of social origins, nor do the Jati- another piller of alleged traditional Indian society-appear as a features of People’s identity, occupations were fluid.
In Tamil nadu, studied by Leslie Orr, a professor of religion, “chola period inscriptions challenge our ideas about the structuring of (south Indian) society in general. In contrast to what Brahmanical legal texts may lead us to expect, we do not find the caste is the organising principle of society or that boudaries between different social groups is sharply demarcated. In Tamil nadu the vellalar were during ancient and medieval period the elite caste who were major patrors of literature. They ranked higher in the social hierarchy than the Brahmins.
For Northern region, Susan Bayly writes, “until well into the colonial period, much of the subcontinent was still populated by people for whom the formal distinctions of caste were of only limited importance; Even in the parts of so-called Hindu heartland of Gangetic upper India, the institutions and beliefs which are now often described as the elements of traditional caste were only just taking shape as recently as the early eighteenth century- that is the period of collapse of mughal period and the expansion of western power in the subcontinent.
For Western India, Dirk kofff, a professor of Humanities, suggests open status social groups dominated Rajput history during the medieval period. He states; “The omnipresence of cognatic kinship and caste in North India is a relatively new phenomenon that only became dominant in the early mughal and British periods respectively. Historically speaking, the alliance and the open states group, whether war band or religious sect, dominated medieval and early modern Indian history in a way descent and caste did not.
Medieval era, Islamic Sultanates and Mughal empire period 1000 to 1750
fEarly and mid 20th century Muslim historians, such as Hashimi in 1927 and Qureshi in 1962, proposed that “castes system was established before the arrival of Islam”.
Derryl Maclein, a professor of social history and Islamic studies, states that historical evidence does not support this theory; whatever evidence is available suggests that muslim institutions in north west India legitimised and continued any inequalites that existed, and that neither Buddhists nor “Lower caste” Hindus converted to Islam because they viewed islam to lack a caste system. Conversions attested by historical evidence confirm that the few who did convert were Brahmin Hindus.
Peter Jackson a professor of Medieval History and Muslim India, writes that the speculative hypotheses about the caste system in Hindu states during the medieval Delhi Sultanate period (1200 to 1500) and the existence of a caste system as being responsible for Hindu weakness in resisting the plunder by Islamic armies is appearing at first sight, but “they do not withstand closer scrutiny and historical evidence”. Jackson states that, contrary to the theorational model of caste where Kshatriyas only could be warriors and soldiers during the medieval era included other castes such as vaishyas and Shudras.
Jamal Malik states that caste is a social stratification is a well-studied Indian system, yet evidence also suggests that hierarchical concepts, class consciousness and social stratification had already occurred in Islam before Islam arrived in India.
Post Mughal Period (1700 to 1850)
Susan Bayly, an anthropologist, notes that “caste is not and never has been a fixed fact of Indian life “and the caste system as we know it today, as a ritualised scheme of social stratification.” Developed in two stages during the post -mughal period, in 18th and early 19th Century. Three sets of value played an important role in this development: Priestly Hierarchy, Kinship and Armed ascetics.
With the fall of Mughal Empire, regional post mughal ruling elites associated themselves with kings, Priests and ascetics deploying the symbol of caste and kingship to divide their power.
During British Period (1857-1947)
Although the varnas and jatis have pre-modern origins, the caste system as it exists today is the result of development during the post mughal period and the British colonial regime, which made caste organisation a central mechanism of administration. Jati were the basis of caste ethnology during the British colonial era. In the 1881 census and there after, colonial ethnographers used caste (Jati) headings to count and classify people in what was then British India (now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar). The 1891 census included 60 sub groups each subdivided into six occupational and racial categories. The British colonial era census caste tables, state Susan Bayley, “ranked standardised and cross-referenced Jati listings for Indians on Principles similar to zoology and Botanical classifications, aiming to establish who was superior to whom by virtue of their supposed purity.
Gloria Raheja, a professor of Anthropology, were also used by the British officials over the late 19th century and early 20th century target some social groups as ‘criminal’ castes and castes prone to ‘rebellion’.
B.R. Ambedkar and caste system
On 12 December 1935, Bhimrao Ambedkar has been asked by the Jat-pal Todak Mandal (society for the abolition of caste system), a Hindu reformist group, to address their annual conference and speak about the ill-effects of caste in Hindu society.
However, when Ambedkar sent his speech, “Annihilation of caste”, to the committee, they found the some of the contents controversial. Ambedkar was asked to delete the offending paragraphs.
He replied by saying that he “would not change even a comma”.
When the committee withdrew its invitation, Ambedkar self-published the essay. It is regarded as one of the most nuanced yet brutal takedowns of the caste system.
Below are the excerpts from the undelivered speech.
“It is a pity that caste even today has its defenders”.
The path of social reform in India is strewn with many difficulties; social reform in India has few friends and many critics. It was at one time recognised that without social efficiency no permanent that without social efficiency no permanent progress in the other fields of activity was possible, that owing to mischief wrought by the evil customs. Hindu society was not in a state of efficiency and the ceaseless efforts must be made to eradicate these evils.
Ambedkar talked about Annihilation of caste.
How to get rid of caste?
Caste is a very complicated issue and it needs to be tackled by many different ways. We need a holistic approach. One way could be practicing inter caste marriages, which will take away individual from the caste consciousness. This will leads to blurring the boundaries of caste to some extent they are taking place, there are hardly cases of getting married with lower caste man or woman with upper castes. Inter caste marriage taking i.e. a backward getting married with upper caste girl not lower of Dalit girl. According to a report by government of India it states that 96% marriage taking place within the same caste; whereas only 4% of population has practised inter caste marriages. The problem in our society is that those who are willing to have inter caste marriages, they are not socially accepted and often boycotted.
Another way of annihilation of caste is the removing of titles or surname, because in our country people ask about surname because they want to know about their caste. If we look at the surnames carefully then it’s easy to find out that most of the professors who are head of the department are from upper caste.
The third way to annihilate the caste is training of children from the childhood, like in our society small children are told, they are from this caste. A family plays an important role in the society and it is the responsibility of every family to teach their kids about this.
If you have any other way to get rid of caste then do let us know in the comment section.