Caste Question Surfaces and History of Casteism in India —Dr. Ranjeet Kedarta



The word ‘caste’ is taken from the Spanish word, ‘Casta’. It means ‘breed, race and a host of hereditary qualities’. The English word ‘Caste’ is a variant from the original word. The Sanskrit word for caste is ‘Varna’ which means colour.

The caste system is a unique to Indian society. It seeks its origin in the ‘Chaturvarna System’, according to which Hindu society was divided into four main varnas namely, the Brahmans, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. This Varna system was mainly based on the division of labour and occupation. The present caste system may desig­nate from the earlier Varna model. However, Varnas and Castes are not one and the same thing.

Origin of the Caste System

The origin of caste system is obscure. It is, however, believed that caste system originated in India. A host of theories have been put forward to explain the origin of caste system in India. Unfortunately none explains it properly. Risely explains the origin of caste in racial differ­ences; Nesfield and Ibbestson locate its origin in occupational sector; Abbe Dubois refers to the role played by the Brahmins and Huttons searches in the belief of ‘mana’ to find out the origin of caste system.

Changes in Caste System in India

The caste system in India grew and developed through millennia. The course of evolution and develop­ment of this unique institution can be studied by dividing history into four periods :

  1. Ancient Period
  2. Medieval Period
  3. Modern Period
  4. Post Independence Period.


  1. Ancient Period : The ancient period includes Vedic Period, Brah- manic Period, Maurya Periods, Post- Maury a Period and Harsha-Vardhana Period.

We observe two distinct streams of thought regarding caste system that prevailed during the Vedic period. Rig Vedic society recognized the three caste divisions of Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The end of the Vedic period marks the outset of the later Vedic age known as the Brahmancal age. In this period, the hierarchy of four Varnas was for­mally established. The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas consolidated their positions in the society. The theory of four castes became clearly established and rigid. Brahmans described duties and codes of behaviour and social relationship of man. Division of labour became the basis of social specification.

During the Mauryan period the Vedic ritualism was completely ruled out. The caste system could not deve­lop as a rigid institution because social and political atmosphere was not favourable. Mauryan dynasty was ended by a Brahman Pushya- mitra Shunga. In this phase equality of law was completely destroyed and caste system developed on rigid lines and assumed a new structure.

The revival of Brahmins was further strengthened during the Gupta period. However, caste system was not so rigid in that period. The Shudras were permitted to become traders, artisans and agriculturists. But untouchability existed. The Harshavardhana period saw the similar caste structure. Brahmins dominated and the caste ruled the social structure.

  1. The Medieval Period : The

medieval period includes the Rajput period and the Muslim Period and it runs between 700-1750 A.D. The departure of the Harsha saw political
disintegration and rise of similar kingdoms under Rajput rulers with­out any external dangers for around five hundred years. The Indian social system did not change. Society became static and caste system became rigid. A large number of castes and sub-castes sprang up. Brahmins became more rigid. In due course, a large number of occupa­tional castes which originally started only as occupational guilds came to be regarded as distinct castes and sub-castes. Each of them had been driven by petty selfish motives. This had political and social represen­tations.

During the phase of the Islamic period consequent and consolidation on Indian soil caste system became still more rigid because Muslims were not absorbed in the elastic Hindu fold. Islam was monotheistic and could not compromise with Hindu polytheism. Hindu and Muslims could not mix together. In order to save people from the slaughter of Muslim crusade against Hinduism Brahmins made caste system even more rigid with their control over temples^which were then the centres of political, cultural, social, ritual and educational activities. Brahmins declared Muslims and all local asso­ciates of Muslims as ‘Mallechch’. Puranas were rewritten making caste system very rigid.

  1. The British Period : The British period includes the pre-industrial period and pre-independence indus­trial period. This period runs between 1757-1918 A.D. and 1919-1947 A.D. The administrative and socio-econo­mic policies of the British Govern­ment coupled with some legislative measures taken brought changes in the caste structure of the Indian society. The British transferred the judicial powers of the caste councils to the civil and the Criminal Courts. This affected and challenged the authority which panchayats held ever
    their members. Some legislative measures such as the caste Disability Removal Act (1850) also attacked the caste system. The British Government took some, social measures to remove disabilities of untouchables which further shook the integrity of the caste system.

During this period some social reforms also attacked the caste system. The Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj along with Ram Krishan Mission and Lingayat Movement in multiple ways attacked the rigidity of the caste system and helped the disintegrating forces to begin. In reality the British hardly did anything to modify India’s religious and social customs. They maintained a neutral position in this regard. However, the impact of industriali­sation was not uniform and absolute on all salient features of the caste system. For examples, it did not affect the customs pertaining to the marriage institution and belief in the caste norms. The authority of the Brahmins was also questioned. Inter­caste dining and intermingling weakened the rigidity of the caste system.

  1. Post Independence Period :

After the political independence the main factors which have affected the caste system, besides, industrialisa­tion and urbanisation are the merger of various states, enactment of laws, spread of education, rural-urban mig­ration, spatial mobility, the growth of market economy, socio-religious reforms westernisation and growth of modern profession. Prior to independence some states were strong bastions of the caste system. But in independent India the reorga­nisation of states and the framing of new Constitution for the whole coun­try on the basis of equality, justice and liberty to all persons irrespective of caste, colour, creed and abolishing the practising of untouchability led to the emergence of a new social order wherein caste system no longer functions on rigid lines. On the face of these modernising trends disinte­gration of caste is one of the main features of contemporary India. Below mentioned factors are responsible for these changes :

  1. Western Education;
  2. Importance of Wealth;.,-
  3. Industrialisation; i
  4. Transportation and Communica­tion;
  5. Social Reforms Movement;
  6. Origin of New Social Classes;
  7. Political Movements;
  8. Religious Movement.

Merits of Caste System

The very Survival of the caste system through ages despite the attack on it from various comers to cure the evils attached to it, exhibits the fact that the system has merits. The merits of caste system are as under:

  1. Social Security : Caste pro­vides every individual a fixed social environment. It acts as a permanent body of associations which controls almost all his behaviour and contacts. His caste determines his marital choices and acts as his trade union, his friendly society and his orphanage.
  2. Spirit of Cooperation : Caste develops the spirit of cooperation and ‘we-feeling’ among the members. It helps the poor and needy thereby reducing the rule of State in this regard. It minimises unhappiness.
  3. Economic Goals : Caste sets economic goals of the individual. Every caste is associated with an occupation and this ensures the future of the new members of the caste and develops a sense of pride for caste occupation as change of occupation is not thought of com­monly.
  4. Purity of Race : Caste has preserved the racial purity of higher castes through the practice of endo­gamy.
  5. Influences Mental Makeup :

Caste conditions the psycho of the individual. The caste dictates the customs pertaining to diet, marriage, rituals, occupation etc. to every individual and hence the caste customs and traditions influence his views pertaining to social and political matters.

  1. National Integration : Caste develops class consciousness without creating class struggle. It helped develop the social structure in such a way that within one society people of different cultures co-existed peace­fully thereby preventing the country from splitting up into fighting racial groups.
  2. Institutionalisation of Func­tions : Caste ensures various func­tions which are necessary for smooth functioning of social life ranging from scavenging to the government.
  3. Cultural Diffusion : Culture is transmitted from one generation to another. Thus, the caste custom, beliefs, skills, behaviour, the trade secrets are transmitted and carried on from one age to another.
  4. Separation of Social Life from Political Life : Caste has successfully maintained the independence of social life from the political life. A Hindu’s intimate life is independent of the political conditions. It has its own religious system and own caste gods.

Demerits of Caste System

The caste system is not without the following evils:

  1. Labour Mobility Denied ; Denied of labour mobility leads the stagnation as one has to follow the caste occupation.
  2. Untouchability : It develops untouchability whereby major section of the society is no better than slaves. It has created other social evils like child marriage, dowry system, veil system and casteism.
  3. Solidarity Retarded : The practice of social segregation between classes and rigid prohibition of social intercourse together retarded the growth of solidarity and brotherhood in the Hindu Society and finally weakened it.
  4. Talent Denied in Sections :

Under Caste system occupation is hereditary when son assumes the place of father in due course of time. But many a time it denies the choice, talent and skills of the individual in the matters of job selection. Some­times an uplift person assumes a position for which he has no requisite qualification of skills due to heredi­tary nature of occupation.

  1. Promotes Casteism : It has developed casteism. The caste followers exhibit blind faith in their castes and deny the healthy social standards of justice, equality and sense of brotherhood. Casteism creates social animosity and into­lerance of others’ existence. Casteism has become a tool in the hand of politicians who spread hatred and play caste politics.

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