The Caste System in India

Varanasi_2

In modern India many social evils exist which have been responsible for crippling a social system that has roots in an age-old glorious civilization. One such social evil, which at times seems to have entrenched itself and become part and parcel of the Indian people’s psyche, is the abominable caste system.

I believe that anyone who has visited India or anyone who has any knowledge of Indian social practices must have encountered the concept of caste system. If not, then one can readily find a huge amount of material to read about the atrocities and injustices prevalent and perpetuated in the name of the caste system in India.

The caste system which one finds in contemporary India is a modern manifestation of the Varna system, which was prevalent in ancient Indian society. In ancient India, people were divided into four categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.

Such division was based on one’s occupation and was somewhat similar to the logic of division of labor. But this division has been viewed by most until now as hierarchical or might have been so in reality since the conception of this system.

The Brahmins were engaged in learning, and were responsible for imparting education and knowledge. The Kshatriyas were the warriors and were responsible for the administration and protection of the state or community. Kings and ministers belonged to the Kshatriya class in the Indian social structure. The Vaishyas took responsibility for arranging the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter, and thus they managed all kinds of production and trade for the functioning of the society. And finally, the Shudras were responsible for all other laboring work which had to be performed for the welfare of the community i.e. assisting or serving the other social classes.

Put simply, the most rational logic behind such divisions of a society might have been that different people in a community should take up different responsibilities or jobs for the smooth functioning of society and its welfare. But to most of us it seems that such an understanding is very naïve and cannot be the real motive behind a social system which has been used to perpetrate heinous atrocities since time immemorial.

However, it can also be opined that, over time, the rationale behind innovating the Varna system started to change to such an extent that it was readily misinterpreted to serve the ulterior motives of the people who belonged to higher social classes. And accordingly it has been misunderstood by each and every member of society until now.

The job and responsibilities of the Brahmins and Kshatriyas came to be seen in a positive light and were thus considered superior whereas the tasks of the Shudras started to be viewed as inferior, lowly and filthy notwithstanding the fact that it was extremely important that someone takes the responsibility for such laboring work or otherwise society’s functioning and welfare would come to a standstill.

In our contemporary understanding and practice, caste is decided by birth and no longer by occupation. And this is the root cause behind all the atrocities and irrational practices that are justified under the pretext of the caste system. Assigning caste by birth first of all leads to a concretization of the system in a very distorted form and then its entrenchment. It results in depriving those assigned a lower category in the hierarchical caste system of their right to choose any occupation, and forces them towards a life of destitution, exploitation and humiliation by the members of the upper castes.

In earlier times, a person born in a Shudra family was not allowed access to education and had to continue the family occupation. However, this changed gradually over time and in contemporary India everyone has the right to education. In fact, people belonging to so-called lower castes are nowadays given subsidies in the education system to enable them to compete with those from upper castes who have enjoyed benefits and opportunities for a long time. In fact, caste politics is a very important part of the Indian political scenario.

But centuries of exploitation and humiliation of those from lower castes has led to a serious distortion of the social structure in India. I would say in the minds of almost every Indian, caste occupies a place. Many abhor the caste system and try their best not to indulge in any activity that perpetrates the system or that which signifies a manifestation of caste system practices. However, there are also many who are proud of their caste and adhere to the norms of the caste system.

An important manifestation of the influence and power of the caste system can be found in marriage practices in India. It is a reality that in India marriage between different castes is usually not welcomed. Indians who are orthodox in their perspectives prefer to marry someone from their own caste. This situation is not universal but a majority of the population marry someone from their own castes. In fact, many societies strongly oppose inter-caste marriage and at times extreme steps are taken to prevent and punish those who choose to marry outside of their castes.

The various social practices clearly indicate that there is no mobility along the hierarchy of the caste system and this has led to an extreme form of hierarchy in Indian society. The modern manifestation of the ancient Varna system is an utterly unnecessary social practice which serves no purpose and has to be discarded. But it is a reality which cannot be ignored.

In fact, even after tremendous efforts and much legislation, the caste system is still in place in Indian society. Many practices that emanate from the system are now punishable offences in India and thus contained. But the caste system seems to have pervaded the psyche of many Indians who still discriminate on the basis of a person’s caste.

Credits

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Varanasi_2 Varanasi_2 TimBrighton CC BY-SA 2.0