What makes Indian society unique is the phenomenon of caste. Economic, religious, and linguistic differentiations, even race-based discrimination, are known elsewhere, but nowhere else does one see caste but in India (and, by extension, the subcontinent). This entry reviews the history of caste and discusses its impact on individuals and society.
Caste is unique because it ordains a hierarchy that is based on the extent of purity, or lack of it, that supposedly characterizes the bodily substances of every person. Accordingly, the earliest Hindu text, the Rg Veda (c.1500 BC) puts the Brahmans, as the purest, on top, followed by warriors (Kshatriyas), commoners (Vaisyas), and helots (Sudras) at the bottom. This schematization is known as the Varna system. There is also a fifth category, the Untouchables, but this cluster of castes came to be designated as such much later, perhaps around the 1st or 2nd century AD.
In addition, as time went on, the fourfold Varna category in the Rg Veda yielded to hundreds of endogamous units, or jatis. Technically speaking, only the latter are called castes. These units prescribe the frontiers of marriage alliances, and each jati has specific rituals peculiar to itself and, in a large number of cases, a traditional occupation attached to its members. All jatis are regional in character; none of them have an all-India spread. In fact, most jatis are relevant and recognized only within a radius of about 200 to 300 miles.
There are clear differences between race and caste. Unlike in race, the physical markers are not visible in caste. The bodily substances that are meant to distinguish between castes are intangible and culturally coded, but the belief is that they can be easily transferred through touch and proximity. This is why the caste order includes strict rules of social intercourse and of sexual/marital relations to ensure that bodily substances of different provenances do not commingle. Further, caste ideology holds that such commingling of substances pollutes both parties, not just members of the so-called superior caste, though the latter are more seriously affected. Each caste has its domain, and it is the duty of everybody in that community to strictly maintain norms regarding pollution.
Again, unlike with race, in the caste system, a child whose parents belong to different castes is not considered to carry equal amounts of both substances from the parents, but is characterized by a third. In this sense, all children born of intercaste sexual liaisons are anomalous in that they are actually outcastes. This is why many of the ancient Hindu texts warned against alliances between members of different castes. The same sources also legitimize the abhorrence of low-caste Untouchables, as they are deemed to be offspring of illicit, intercaste sexual unions. As a result, it is reasoned, low-caste people are polluting in the extreme.
This official textual view is held in most intellectual circles and also among specialists; there is only one hierarchy that Hindus accept as proper and morally just. Thus, they believe that a person who is low in the purity hierarchy would accept this subordinate status willingly because the markers of differentiation are universally accepted. Louis Dumont, the most renowned proponent of this position, said that caste is an immutable state of mind for all Hindus. Modernity may come to India but only in regions that this state of mind allows. This state of mind prevails right down the caste hierarchy, according to proponents of this view, and that is why low castes willingly participate in their own subjugation.
This idea, that even those at the bottom of the hierarchy will accept these values, is what renders caste so incomprehensible to outsiders. Around the world, no community thinks it is essentially base or degrading, no matter how wretched its actual conditions might be. Kalahari bushmen, Native Americans in the Pueblo, the Kachins in Burma, the Chinese, the English, the French, and so on—whatever others might think about them, no group thinks poorly of itself or exalts another group above it in essentialist terms. Some may get a better deal out of life, but no one sees themselves as inherently less worthy. As it turns out, this is true in the caste order, as well. The elitist view that the lower groups accepted their status was so strong that few paid attention to what the so-called lower castes were actually saying about themselves.
The low castes have no origin myth that actually accepts that the bodily substances of members are wanting in terms of purity. They explain their current fall from grace in a number of ways: lost wars, chicanery, and deceit of people who were brothers once, as well as the mercurial disposition of gods who should have known better. All these origin tales suggest that a day will come when these low castes will reclaim their rightful positions in society.
This does not mean that those who are considered polluting by orthodox standards do not believe in pollution. They do—but they don’t believe the stigma should adhere to them. Other castes may be polluting, but not their caste. In this sense, one might say that people believe in the purity and pollution of bodily substances, but there is no unanimity on caste hierarchy. A phenomenologist view of caste would probably recognize as many hierarchies as there are castes simply because each caste overvalues itself. This is true for other primordial community identities, so why should it be different for castes?
In the past, the caste hierarchy was more or less undisturbed primarily because of the closed nature of the rural agrarian economy, which did not allow any mobility. As McKim Marriot argued, caste positions were kept more or less immobile by the unchanging nature of social interactions in the villages of India. This fixity led to the illusion that everybody was content with where he or she belonged. Scholars usually took the Brahmanical view on this matter and came away with the conclusion that caste was an immutable state of mind for all Hindus, and, as if this were a contaminating virus, it had also affected Muslims, Christians, and other religious denominations in the subcontinent.
Against the background of a stagnant rural economy, where little mobility took place, it was relatively easy to pin occupational roles to specific castes. This led to the widespread assumption that caste and the kind of work one did had an umbilical bond. Even in the past, however, not all members of a particular caste stuck to their supposedly ordained positions. How many cobblers or potters can a village afford, after all? The excess was absorbed in other jobs, primarily in the commodious field of agriculture. This was not unnoticed by scholars, but the belief that caste was ultimately a state of mind did not allow them to draw more realistic conclusions, but led them instead to an essentialist and somewhat caricatured view of Hindus. The popular myth of Hindus being “otherworldly” came in handy again to explain the relative rigidity of the Indian social structure.
Many of these positions have now come under greater scrutiny primarily because of the way castes have been politically mobilized in India’s democratic polity. Caste competition for power belies the long-held belief that there is an unswerving loyalty to the hierarchy that framed the much-studied caste system. Castes that were considered and dismissed as “low” have now come out openly with origin myths that give them a higher status, often that of the Brahman or warrior category. In some parts of India where the merchants are looked up to, as in Gujarat, the reference group for emulation is the Vaishya, or business castes. Such contestations also put the Varna hierarchy into question. Many castes prefer to call themselves Kshatriyas (warriors) or Vaishyas (merchants) and valorize these Varna categories above the Brahman.
It has not only been in recent years that caste and politics have come together. History is replete with instances in which castes held in low esteem waded their way through slaughter to a throne. The story of Shivaji, the 17th-century warrior prince of Maharashtra, is illustrative in this context. Before this, there were other cases too, such as that of the Marathas and the Jats, who fought their way up to Kshatriya nobility from lowly Sudra status in the 7th and 14th centuries, respectively. But because these were medieval instances of mobility, such philippics happened rarely, quite unlike the daily mobilizations that characterize a modern democratic polity. It is not that contemporary political freedoms put ideas in the heads of the lower castes. Those ideas were always there but could not be expressed easily in the past without episodic upheavals.
An appreciation of these realities certainly “de-exoticizes” the caste order. In fact, it can also be said that the caste system, as it was known to be, is more or less on its way out. It is now being replaced by caste identities. The caste system famously ordained a position to every jati that was fixed and covered all aspects of one’s life, from birth to death. Now, jati is no longer connected with occupation. Even the rules of inter-dining that preempted the transfer of incompatible body substances are practically nonexistent outside one’s village home. Migration and the opening up of jobs that have urban linkages have broken down traditional jati-based occupational structures. The only thing that remains of tradition is endogamy. In India, people overwhelmingly still marry within their jatis and abhor alliances that contravene this rule.
It is necessary to underscore that no caste ever accepted its degraded status, howsoever low it may have once been considered to be. Only then can we understand the symbolic energy that powers caste mobilizations, as well as political and economic rivalry, so common in India today. In a closed village economy, there was no scope for these ambitions to be realized. But once the doors opened, tentatively around the early 20th century, castes began wriggling out of the so-called system and began to assert their identities. This may appear counterfactual, but in the first round of urbanization, caste identities are the most strident among those who have only recently shaken off the burden of disprivileges that characterized them and their rural forebears for centuries in the past.
Castes, therefore, function more like discrete ethnic groups and not as constituents of a continuous hierarchy of purity to which every Hindu acquiesces. This realization will certainly take away the exotic aura that surrounds the phenomenon of caste. Now, it is possible to say that caste as a system is dying but that identities are alive and well. It will, however, take many generations of urban depth for caste identities to wither away.
Discrimination; India; Indian Americans; Labeling; Privilege; Segregation
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