The caste system is a form of hierarchical, kin-based social organization of great antiquity found in South Asian societies. The term, from the Portuguese casta, is frequently contrasted with such other social categories as race, class, tribe, and Ethnic group. In India, caste—together with the village Community and the extended family—forms the main element of Social structure. This system consists of hierarchically arranged, in-marrying groups that were traditionally associated with a specific occupational specialization. Interrelations between castes arose out of the need of one caste for the goods or Services of another. These relations are governed by codes of purity and pollution.
The word caste itself is homologous with any of three different indigenous terms. Varna, which was an ancient, all-India classification system consisting of a fourfold division of society, perhaps arose out of a blending of the nomadic Warrior culture of Aryans with the settled urban, agrarian culture of the Indus Valley. The religious text Rig Veda spells out and justifies this stratification system, putting the Brahman or priest at the top, followed by the Kshatriya or warrior, Vaisya or landowner and trader, and Shudra or artisan and servant, in that order. Later a fifth varna of Untouchables developed, called Panchama, to accommodate intercaste offspring. The word caste may also be coterminous with the word jati, which is a hereditary occupational unit. Hindu texts say that jatis, of which there are several thousand, emerged out of Intermarriages between varnas. Modern theory holds that jatis developed as other social groups like tribes or those practicing a new craft or occupational skill became integrated into the classic varna system. This process continues today as groups on the fringes of Hindu society become part of it by claiming a jati designation. Lastly, caste may refer to gotra, which is an exogamous descent group within a jati. It may be anchored territorially, and its members may hold property in common.
The caste system rests on the following principles. (1) Endogamy. The strictest rule of caste is marriage within the jati. Arranged marriage at adolescence ensures this. (2) commensality. Caste members are restricted to eating and drinking only with their own kind. (3) Hereditary membership. One is born into the caste of one's parents. (4) Occupational specialization. Each caste has a fixed and traditional occupation. This makes it an economic as well as a social system. This aspect of caste is the one that has been affected most by modernization and Westernization. (5) Hierarchy. Castes are arranged in some kind of order, each caste being superior or inferior to another. Since not all castes are found in every Village or every part of South Asia, and which one is superior to which others varies from region to region, hierarchy is the dynamic element of caste.
Underpinning the entire system are notions of purity and pollution. Words for these two ideas occur in every Indian language. Each term has a certain amount of semantic fluidity. Pure means "clean, spiritually meritorious, holy"; impure means "unclean, defiled," and even "sinful." The structural distance between castes is measured in terms of purity and pollution; higher castes are pure in their occupation, diet, and life-style. Caste rules govern intercaste relations, determining the social and physical distance that people of different castes have to maintain from each other and their rights and obligations toward others. An equally important feature of caste rank is the notion of serving and being served, of giving and receiving. Castes may be ranked by the balance between the intercaste transactions in which one caste is a giver and those in which it is a receiver of goods, services, gifts, or purely Spiritual merit. The seeming contradiction between the power and position of the Brahman versus that of the king or the Politically and economically dominant caste can be resolved in light of the transactional aspect of caste, which creates varied realms of differentiation and ranking.
Individuals accept their position in the caste system Because of the dual concepts of karma and dharma. It is one's karma or actions in a previous life that determine one's caste position in this lifetime. The only way to ensure a better position in society next time is to follow one's dharma or caste duty. So closely are notions of salvation in Hinduism tied to caste duty that a Hindu without a caste is a contradiction in terms.
Although an individual's caste is fixed by his or her birth, the position of a caste within the system is changeable. A caste as a whole may accumulate wealth that would allow it to give up manual labor and adopt a "cleaner profession," thereby raising their comparative purity. Today the process of "Sanskritization," in which a lower caste or a tribal Community imitates high-caste behavior, is an attempt to move up the caste hierarchy. The most common changes are switching to a vegetarian diet and holding public prayers using highcaste forms and Brahman priests. In daily life secularization and Western education lead to an undervaluing of caste identity on the one hand and a compartmentalization of the self on the other. The latter phenomenon occurs when an Individual varies his behavior according to the context (e.g., at work he adopts a secular self without observing caste taboos, but at home he is a caste Hindu).
Caste becomes a potent force in a modern democratic political system when it becomes a caste block whose Members can affect the outcome of elections. At local levels this can lead to a monopoly of power by one caste, but no caste is large enough or united enough to do so at a national level. Another modern trend is to be found among migrants from rural parts who tend to settle close to each other in the city, forming a caste neighborhood. Often they form caste associations for civic and religious purposes (e.g., celebrating Independence Day or performing religious recitals). In addition they may petition for government benefits, set up student hostels, commission the writing of a caste history, or in other ways promote the welfare of their group. In recent times some high castes have resented the privileges now flowing to low castes and have even taken the matter into their own hands in intercommunal strife.
See also Bengali; Brahman; Kshatriya; Sudra; Untouchables; Vaisya
Berreman, Gerald D. (1979). Caste and Other Inequities: Essays on Inequality. New Delhi: Manohar Book Service.
Kolenda, Pauline M. (1978). Caste in Contemporary India: Beyond Organic Solidarity. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.
Raheja, Gloria G. (1988). "India: Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered." Annual Review of Anthropology 17: 497-522.
W. D. MERCHANT