caste system pyramid in India

The caste system is a method of dividing up society into a hierarchy according to professions and trades. Individuals are assigned a caste at birth based on the caste of their parents. Castes and property are handed down from generation to generation and marriages usually occur within castes. Indians can often quickly size up the caste of a stranger by their skin color, manner of dress, surname, occupation and village or neighborhood. The principals of the caste system were outlined in the Laws of Manu.

Because Hinduism and the caste system are both predominately found in India there is a common misconception that caste system is part of Hinduism. This is not necessarily the case. The caste system is related to Indian culture and not directly linked to the teachings and practices of Hinduism. The Hindu term “varna’ describes a social order as a framework of moral duties. The Indian caste system reflects a person’s group assigned at birth. Although the two systems have become intertwined, Hinduism does not feature the same system of castes outside of India. [Source: Jonathan H. Kantor, Listverse, July 31, 2016]

The caste system is seen as way of breaking down society into categories that are different from race, class, tribe, and ethnic group, although individual castes often are made of members of a particular race, class, tribe, and ethnic group. In some cases, castes become almost become separate groups that have many characteristics of an ethnic group or minority. There are four main castes with thousands of subdivisions and individuals castes. (See Different Castes in Separate article).

Although many other nations are characterized by social inequality, perhaps nowhere else in the world has inequality been so elaborately constructed as in the Indian institution of caste. Caste has long existed in India, but in the modern period it has been severely criticized by both Indian and foreign observers. Although some educated Indians tell non-Indians that caste has been abolished or that "no one pays attention to caste anymore," such statements do not reflect reality. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

caste system in the Indus Valley

The caste system is technically illegal but widely practiced (generally more in rural areas). The Hindu social division system comprises four major categories (varnas) that are found India-wide but are often subdivided into hundreds of sub-categories (jatis), many of which are often found only in specific areas. Similar hereditary and occupational social hierarchies exist within Sikh and Muslim communities but are generally far less pervasive and institutionalized. About 16 percent of the total population is “untouchable” (Scheduled Castes is the more formal, legal term; Dalit is the term preferred by “untouchables” and roughly translates to downtrodden); around 8 percent of the population belongs to one of 461 indigenous groups (often called Scheduled Tribes for legal purposes, although the term adivasi is commonly used). [Source: Library of Congress, 2005]

Five major principals define the caste system: 1) marriage within one’s caste; 2) restrictions on eating and drinking within caste; 3) hereditary membership to a caste; 4) the association of specific castes with specific occupations; and 5) the ranking of castes into a hierarchy. The caste system seems to contradict the idea that all men are created equal---an important concept in Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

Castes also found in India among Muslim, Christians, Jews and Buddhists who descended from Hindus. Castes have also been reported in Tibet, Japan, Korea, Burundi and the American South. The caste system is not strong in tribal societies. Urban people are moving towards a system of social classes.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Varna (the Four Hindu Classes)

Brahmin worshipping

The ancient Vedic texts describe a hierarchical division of society into four varna or classes. Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “An important idea that developed in classical Hinduism is that dharma refers especially to a person's responsibility regarding class (varna) and stage of life (ashrama). This is called varnashrama-dharma. In Hindu history the highest class, the Brahmins, adhered to this doctrine. The class system is a model or ideal of social order that first occurs in the oldest Hindu text, the Rig Veda and the present-day caste (jati) system may be rooted in this. [Source: Prof. Gavin Flood, BBC |::|]

The four classes are: 1) Brahmans or Brahmins - the intellectuals and the priestly class who perform religious rituals; 2) Kshatriya (nobles or warriors) - who traditionally had power; 3) Vaishyas (commoners or merchants) - ordinary people who produce, farm, trade and earn a living; and 4) Shudras (workers) - who traditionally served the higher classes, including labourers, artists, musicians, and clerks. |::|

“People in the top three classes are known as 'twice born' because they have been born from the womb and secondly through initiation in which boys receive a sacred thread as a symbol of their high status. Although usually considered an initiation for males it must be noted that there are examples of exceptions to this rule, where females receive this initiation.” |::|


Kshatriya Rajput

The word caste comes from the Portuguese word "casta," meaning breed, race, or kind. It was used by Europeans to describe the system they witnessed when they came to South Asia and covers both the indigenous terms: varna and jati. Indian use the word varna, which describes the ancient classification system with four major divisions. It is closely related to the word jati, which describes hereditary groups usually linked with occupations.

Castes are ranked, named, endogamous (in-marrying) groups, membership in which is achieved by birth. There are thousands of castes and subcastes in India, and these large kinship-based groups are fundamental to South Asian social structure. Each caste is part of a locally based system of inter-dependence with other groups, involving occupational specialization, and is linked in complex ways with networks that stretch across regions and throughout the nation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Among the Indian terms that are sometimes translated as caste are varna, jati, jat , biradri , and samaj . All of these terms refer to ranked groups of various sizes and breadth. Varna , or color, actually refers to large divisions that include various castes; the other terms include castes and subdivisions of castes sometimes called subcastes. Jati (Hindu and Sanskrit for “race, people, caste, tribe, kind") is a regional, kin-based social unit. Its members share a common language, subculture and traditional occupation. Jati fit into a well-established position in the local caste hierarchy. Over time a jati may improve its position but traditionally individuals could not improve their position very much.

Many castes are traditionally associated with an occupation, such as high-ranking Brahmans; middle-ranking farmer and artisan groups, such as potters, barbers, and carpenters; and very low-ranking "Untouchable" leatherworkers, butchers, launderers, and latrine cleaners. There is some correlation between ritual rank on the caste hierarchy and economic prosperity. Members of higher-ranking castes tend, on the whole, to be more prosperous than members of lower-ranking castes. Many lower-caste people live in conditions of great poverty and social disadvantage.*

Sudra caste members in southern India

Wealth and educational opportunities are often determined by caste. In many places castes hold festivals in which they worship the tools of their trade. Women sometimes wear caste markers on their forehead.

History of the Caste System

The caste system has been around for at least 1,500 years. It exists throughout South Asia and is particularly strong in rural areas. It is very much in evidence in Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Buddhist Sri Lanka as well as Hindu Nepal.

It has been argued that the caste system developed in manner similar to European guilds. Workers were protected from competitions and skills were handed down from generation to generation by keeping job skills within families and communities. Some have also suggested that the lower caste jobs and segregation were created for health reason: the people who handled dead animals, for example, would not pass on diseases to people of others castes if they didn’t have contact with them.

Caste has undergone significant change since independence, but it still involves hundreds of millions of people. In its preamble, India's constitution forbids negative public discrimination on the basis of caste. However, caste ranking and caste-based interaction have occurred for centuries and will continue to do so well into the foreseeable future, more in the countryside than in urban settings and more in the realms of kinship and marriage than in less personal interactions. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Origin of the Caste System

passage from the Vedas

According to the Rig Veda, sacred texts that date back to oral traditions of more than 3,000 years ago, progenitors of the four ranked varna groups sprang from various parts of the body of the primordial man, which Brahma created from clay. Each group had a function in sustaining the life of society — the social body. Brahmans, or priests, were created from the mouth. They were to provide for the intellectual and spiritual needs of the community. Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers, were derived from the arms. Their role was to rule and to protect others. Vaishyas — landowners and merchants — sprang from the thighs, and were entrusted with the care of commerce and agriculture. Shudras — artisans and servants — came from the feet. Their task was to perform all manual labor. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Early descriptions of the caste system are found in the Vedas, which describe Aryan society as being divided into the four major castes: the Brahmins (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). The distinction is made primarily to define Brahmas as priests and ceremonial leaders.

The “Vedas “ or “Vedic “ Verses, were written in Sanskrit between 1500 to 900 B.C. They are associated with the founding of Hinduism and consist of four texts: 1) the “Rig Veda “ , a collection of 1,028 hymns and prayers; 2) the “Soma Veda “ , a collection of verses taken mostly from the “Rig Veda “ that have been rearranged for chanting at sacrifices; 3) the “Yajur Veda “ , prose with instructions on how the prose is to be used in ceremonies; and 4) the “Antharva Veda “ , comprised primarily of formulas and spells

The principals of the caste system were outlined in the Laws of Manu. The “Laws of Manu “ were written around 250 B.C. These texts established Hindu law based on a large number of wise sayings a and prohibitions in everyday life. The “Hymn of the Primeval Man “ tells how the four main castes were created before the heavens:

Rig Veda passage

When they divided the Man
into many part did they divide him?
What was his mouth, what were his arms.
what were his feet and feet called?
The Brahma was his mouth
of his arms was made the warrior
His thighs became the Vaisya.
of his feet the Sudra was born

The moon arose from his mind
from his eye was born the sun
from his mouth Indra and Agni
from his breath the wind was born.

From his navel came the air.
from his head there came the sky
from his feet the earth, the 4 quarters from his ear.
thus they fashioned the worlds.

With sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice—
these were the first of the sacred laws.
These mighty beings reached the sky.
where the eternal spirits, the gods.

Later conceptualized was a fifth category, "Untouchable" menials, relegated to carrying out very menial and polluting work related to bodily decay and dirt. Since 1935 "Untouchables" have been known as Scheduled Castes, referring to their listing on government rosters, or schedules. They are also often called by Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi's term Harijans, or "Children of God." Although the term Untouchable appears in literature produced by these low-ranking castes, in the 1990s, many politically conscious members of these groups prefer to refer to themselves as Dalit , a Hindi word meaning oppressed or downtrodden. According to the 1991 census, there were 138 million Scheduled Caste members in India, approximately 16 percent of the total population.*

Aryans, Dravidians and Caste

The origin of the caste system is unknown but it may have evolved from differences between the conquering Aryans and subject Dravidians—which happened to be different in color. Aryans were relatively light skinned while Dravidians were darker. Varna, the Hindu word for caste, means "color."

one view of caste system evolution

The caste system is believed to have been introduced in its preliminary form around 1500 B.C. as a way for light-skinned Aryan invaders to keep the indigenous Dravidian people in their place. Higher castes are usually associated with whiter skin and purer Aryan descent because, it has been argued, the first light-skinned Aryan conquerors gave the conquered dark-skin Dravidians dirtier, lower status tasks. Not all scholars agree with is assessment. “Color” could be a reference to something other than skin color.

The Vedas describe Aryan society divided into the four major castes: the Brahmins (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). Early in Aryan history the Brahmins gained political and religious superiority over the Kshatriyas. The caste system described in the Rig-Veda may have grown out of the enslavement of people from the Indus Valley by the Aryans. The Vedas refer to conquered “Dasas” or “Dasyi” (names meaning “slaves” and probably referring to the early Dravidian-speaking Indus people).

A settled lifestyle for the Aryans brought in its wake more complex forms of government and social patterns. This period saw the evolution of the caste system, and the emergence of kingdoms and republics. The Aryans were divided into tribes which had settled in different regions of northwestern India. Tribal chiefmanship gradually became hereditary, though the chief usually operated with the help of advice from either a committee or the entire tribe. With work specialisation, the internal division of the Aryan society developed along caste lines. Their social framework was composed mainly of the following groups : the Brahmana (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (agriculturists) and Shudra (workers). It was, in the beginning, a division of occupations; as such it was open and flexible. Much later, caste status and the corresponding occupation came to depend on birth, and change from one caste or occupation to another became far more difficult. [Source: Glorious India

DNA studies of Indians have found that highest caste members have more genetic similarities with Europeans while lower caste members have more genetic similarities with Asians. This is consistent with the historical record of the Aryan invasions and links between the Aryans and members of higher castes. Some have suggested that caste may have originally been a Dravidian concept rather than an Aryan one. One argument for this is the lack of a caste system in other areas conquered by the Aryans such as Greece.

Reasons the Caste System Exists and Endures

The caste system helps maintain social harmony by discouraging competition and helping everyone be satisfied with their place in life. It is a completely different way of looking at life than that of Westerners, who see life as an opportunity to improve oneself and one’s family.

It has been argued that the caste system has endured more for economic reasons than religious ones. One observer called the caste system "the most thoroughgoing attempt in human history to introduce absolute inequality as the guiding principle in social relations.” One of the rationales for the system is that a father is the one who is best trained to teach his son a profession. Among the reasons that sociologists believe the caste system endures are: 1) religious endorsement; 2) the maintenance of the social order by an oligarchy in order or meet their political an social interests; and 3) the existence of legal, social and economic rules that keep the caste system is place. Some socialists believe that if the lower classes had more access to land they could gain more freedom and break from the hold of the caste system. Some say the caste system endures because the texts that justify it were written by upper caste Brahmins and continue to be interpreted today by Brahmins.

The BJP is committed to maintaining the caste system status quo and preserve the privileges of the upper classes. One BJP politician told the Financial Times, "Why should it be abolished...With cast each level of society is preserved and those who have extraordinary minds and intelligence can get a life...Caste, the feeling that each one performs his duty, has kept the country and society together. The same politician said, The for orders of the caste system are "similar to a blood group; if a certain blood group us added to another, it might create problems and complications."

Caste System and Hinduism

Because Hinduism and the caste system are both predominately found in India there is a common misconception that caste system is part of Hinduism. This is not necessarily the case. The caste system is related to Indian culture and not directly linked to the teachings and practices of Hinduism. The Hindu term “varna’ describes a social order as a framework of moral duties. The Indian caste system reflects a person’s group assigned at birth. Although the two systems have become intertwined, Hinduism does not feature the same system of castes outside of India. [Source: Jonathan H. Kantor, Listverse, July 31, 2016]

The caste system is sanctioned by Hinduism. It is regarded as divine in origin and has been perceived that way for centuries. The religion text the Rig Veda (thought to date back as far as 1500 B.C.) defines and justifies the stratification system. According to a sacred Rig Veda hymn, the stratification of human beings came about during creation when the cosmic giant Purisha sacrificed parts of his body to create mankind: "His mouth became the Brahmin, his arms were made into the warrior (Kshatriya), his thighs the People (Vaishiya) and from his feet the Servants (Shudra) were born." In the Rig Veda the lowest castes are referred to as two-foot cattle.

The existence of rigid ranking is supernaturally validated through the idea of rebirth according to a person's karma, the sum of an individual's deeds in this life and in past lives. After death, a person's life is judged by divine forces, and rebirth is assigned in a high or a low place, depending upon what is deserved. This supernatural sanction can never be neglected, because it brings a person to his or her position in the caste hierarchy, relevant to every transaction involving food or drink, speaking, or touching. [Source: Library of Congress]

The dual concepts of karma and dharma lie at the heart of Hinduism and the caste system. The Hindu belief in reincarnation ties in with the caste system in that if an individual behaves himself within the confines of his caste he will return in the next life in a higher caste. It is one’s karma, or actions in life, that determine one’s caste in the next life. The only way to ensure a better position in the next life is follow one’s caste or dharma and perform good deeds to gain karma. It has been said that Hinduism without caste is a contradiction in terms.

Caste punishments and expectations in many ways are set up in accordance with the requirements of dharma. In the old days the punishments for certain crimes were many times higher for upper caste members than for lower caste members because more was expected of them. Inherent in this construct was the notion that lower castes could enjoy more freedom because less was required of them and they had fewer duties to perform. (in practice it often didn’t work out like that because lower case members spent so much time doing menial work).

Caste, Identity and Women

emergence of the caste system in India

The caste system creates a very stratified society. Indians are keenly aware of where they stand in society and who ranks above them and who they outrank. Family names, village addresses, gestures all offer clues to one’s caste. Sukhadeo Thorat, a professor at Jawaharwak University in New Delhi and one of the first Untouchables to obtain a Ph.D. told National Geographic, “You cannot hide your caste. You can try to disguise it, but there are so many ways to slip up. A Hindu will not feel confident developing a social relationship without knowing your background. Within a couple of months, your caste will be revealed.

One Untouchable told National Geographic, “I am clean. I don’t smoke or drink or eat meat. I work hard. I do everything right, Why am I Untouchable.” It is because he was born one and has been one since he drew his first breath and remains one until his life sentence on earth is finished.

The chastity of women is strongly related to caste status. Generally, the higher ranking the caste, the more sexual control its women are expected to exhibit. Brahman brides should be virginal, faithful to one husband, and celibate in widowhood. By contrast, a Sweeper bride may or may not be a virgin, extramarital affairs may be tolerated, and, if widowed or divorced, the woman is encouraged to remarry. For the higher castes, such control of female sexuality helps ensure purity of lineage — of crucial importance to maintenance of high status. Among Muslims, too, high status is strongly correlated with female chastity. [Source: Library of Congress]

Within the caste system it is impossible to change your caste. All one can do is try to win merit to improve one’s station in the next life. This partly explains why so much energy is put into rituals and festivals and pilgrimages, which are designed to win merit.

Muslim Society and the Caste System

Even though Islam is regarded as egalitarian and Islam forbids hereditary distinction based on social rank, hierarchies exits. The traditional South Asian Muslim system of social rank distinguishes between nobles (“ashraf”) and lower ranks (“ajlaf” or “atraf”, some of which are based on occupations). The four-part varna categories of the Hindu social division system has Muslim equivalents. The highest category includes four caste of Near Eastern origin: Sayyid (descendants of the Prophet), Sheiks, Moguls (descendants of the Mogul rulers) and Pathan.

Tiyya woman from Kerala. in 1909 when the women from such castes didnt have the right to cover their breasts

Below them are “Ashraf” (of foreign origin). These include the Muslim Rajputs, who do not marry above or below their caste. The third group is made up of members of lower-ranking castes. At the bottom are Muslim sweepers, who are the equivalent of Hindu untouchables and are believed to be descendants of untouchables. Some traditionally Hindu castes are occupied exclusively by Muslims. Muslims have traditionally been weavers, tailors and butchers.

In many Muslim communities, most of the residents are farmers and caste-like distinctions are not strong. When stratification occurs it based more on wealth than anything else. The social system as a whole is more fluid and provides more opportunities for social mobility. Rather than having caste councils, Muslims have traditional councils called “smaj” that fill a similar function. They are composed of village elders. Unlike Hinduism ,where only some men can become priests by their birthright, any Muslim can be a iman if he undergoes the training, religious study and requires knowledge of Arabic and the Koran.

Muslims have traditionally worked as butchers because Hindus and Buddhists consider butchering as dirty, distasteful and cosmically and religiously uncool. Many Muslim butchers are forced to lie about their profession if they want to get their children into a good school. If the lie is found out the kid risks getting kicked out of school.

How Tribals and Muslim Fit Into the Caste System

Numerous groups usually called tribes (often referred to as Scheduled Tribes) are also integrated into the caste system to varying degrees. Some tribes live separately from others — particularly in the far northeast and in the forested center of the country, where tribes are more like ethnic groups than castes. Some tribes are themselves divided into groups similar to subcastes. In regions where members of tribes live in peasant villages with nontribal peoples, they are usually considered members of separate castes ranking low on the hierarchical scale. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

Among Muslims, although status differences prevail, brotherhood may be stressed. A Muslim feast usually includes a cloth laid either on clean ground or on a table, with all Muslims, rich and poor, dining from plates placed on the same cloth. Muslims who wish to provide hospitality to observant Hindus, however, must make separate arrangements for a high-caste Hindu cook and ritually pure foods and dining area.*

Extreme Subservience Between Castes

Kshatriya Rajputs were Muslims

In past decades, Dalits in certain areas (especially in parts of the south) had to display extreme deference to high-status people, physically keeping their distance — lest their touch or even their shadow pollute others — wearing neither shoes nor any upper body covering (even for women) in the presence of the upper castes. The lowest-ranking had to jingle a little bell in warning of their polluting approach. In much of India, Dalits were prohibited from entering temples, using wells from which the "clean" castes drew their water, or even attending schools. In past centuries, dire punishments were prescribed for Dalits who read or even heard sacred texts. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

Such degrading discrimination was made illegal under legislation passed during British rule and was protested against by preindependence reform movements led by Mahatma Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji (B.R.) Ambedkar, a Dalit leader. Dalits agitated for the right to enter Hindu temples and to use village wells and effectively pressed for the enactment of stronger laws opposing disabilities imposed on them. After independence, Ambedkar almost singlehandedly wrote India's constitution, including key provisions barring caste-based discrimination. Nonetheless, discriminatory treatment of Dalits remains a factor in daily life, especially in villages, as the end of the twentieth century approaches.*

In modern times, as in the past, it is virtually impossible for an individual to raise his own status by falsely claiming to be a member of a higher-ranked caste. Such a ruse might work for a time in a place where the person is unknown, but no one would dine with or intermarry with such a person or his offspring until the claim was validated through kinship networks. Rising on the ritual hierarchy can only be achieved by a caste as a group, over a long period of time, principally by adopting behavior patterns of higher-ranked groups. This process, known as Sanskritization, has been described by M.N. Srinivas and others. An example of such behavior is that of some Leatherworker castes adopting a policy of not eating beef, in the hope that abstaining from the defiling practice of consuming the flesh of sacred bovines would enhance their castes' status. Increased economic prosperity for much of a caste greatly aids in the process of improving rank.

Intercaste Relations

In a village, members of different castes are often linked in what has been called the jajmani system, after the word jajman , which in some regions means patron. Members of various service castes perform tasks for their patrons, usually members of the dominant, that is, most powerful landowning caste of the village (commonly castes of the Kshatriya varna ). Households of service castes are linked through hereditary bonds to a household of patrons, with the lower-caste members providing services according to traditional occupational specializations. Thus, client families of launderers, barbers, shoemakers, carpenters, potters, tailors, and priests provide customary services to their patrons, in return for which they receive customary seasonal payments of grain, clothing, and money. Ideally, from generation to generation, clients owe their patrons political allegiance in addition to their labors, while patrons owe their clients protection and security. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

The harmonious qualities of the jajmani system have been overidealized and variations of the system overlooked by many observers. Further, the economic interdependence of the system has weakened since the 1960s. Nevertheless, it is clear that members of different castes customarily perform a number of functions for one another in rural India that emphasize cooperation rather than competition. This cooperation is revealed in economic arrangements, in visits to farmers' threshing floors by service caste members to claim traditional payments, and in rituals emphasizing interdependence at life crises and calendrical festivals all over South Asia. For example, in rural Karnataka, in an event described by anthropologist Suzanne Hanchett, the annual procession of the village temple cart bearing images of the deities responsible for the welfare of the village cannot go forward without the combined efforts of representatives of all castes. It is believed that the sacred cart will literally not move unless all work together to move it, some pushing and some pulling.*

Some observers feel that the caste system must be viewed as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups. In many parts of India, land is largely held by dominant castes — high-ranking owners of property — that economically exploit low-ranking landless laborers and poor artisans, all the while degrading them with ritual emphases on their so-called god-given inferior status. In the early 1990s, blatant subjugation of low-caste laborers in the northern state of Bihar and in eastern Uttar Pradesh was the subject of many news reports. In this region, scores of Dalits who have attempted to unite to protest low wages have been the victims of lynchings and mass killings by high-caste landowners and their hired assassins.*

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

In 1991 the news magazine India Today reported that in an ostensibly prosperous village about 160 kilometers southeast of Delhi, when it became known that a rural Dalit laborer dared to have a love affair with the daughter of a high-caste landlord, the lovers and their Dalit go-between were tortured, publicly hanged, and burnt by agents of the girl's family in the presence of some 500 villagers. A similar incident occurred in 1994, when a Dalit musician who had secretly married a woman of the Kurmi cultivating caste was beaten to death by outraged Kurmis, possibly instigated by the young woman's family. The terrified bride was stripped and branded as punishment for her transgression. Dalit women also have been the victims of gang rapes by the police. Many other atrocities, as well as urban riots resulting in the deaths of Dalits, have occurred in recent years. Such extreme injustices are infrequent enough to be reported in outraged articles in the Indian press, while much more common daily discrimination and exploitation are considered virtually routine.

Caste and Modern World

Caste is technically illegal. However In modern white collar offices Brahmins and other upper caste members often hold the supervisory positions and Untouchables still clean the toilets. Many foreign companies operate under a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it come to caste.

Despite many problems, the caste system has operated successfully for centuries, providing goods and services to India's many millions of citizens. The system continues to operate, but changes are occurring. India's constitution guarantees basic rights to all its citizens, including the right to equality and equal protection before the law. The practice of untouchability, as well as discrimination on the basis of caste, race, sex, or religion, has been legally abolished. All citizens have the right to vote, and political competition is lively. Voters from every stratum of society have formed interest groups, overlapping and crosscutting castes, creating an evolving new style of integrating Indian society. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

There are many Indians, particularly among the educated urban elite, who do not follow traditional purity and pollution practices. Dining in each others' homes and in restaurants is common among well-educated people of diverse backgrounds, particularly when they belong to the same economic class. For these people, guarding the family's earthen water pot from inadvertent touch by a low-ranking servant is not the concern it is for a more traditional villager. However, even among those people whose words and actions denigrate traditional purity rules, there is often a reluctance to completely abolish consciousness of purity and pollution from their thinking. It is surely rare for a Sweeper, however well-educated, to invite a Brahman to dinner in his home and have his invitation unself-consciously accepted. It is less rare, however, for educated urban colleagues of vastly different caste and religious heritage to enjoy a cup of tea together. Some high-caste liberals pride themselves on being free of "casteism" and seek to accept food from the hands of very low-caste people, or even deliberately set out to marry someone from a significantly lower caste or a different religion. Thus, even as they deny it, these progressives affirm the continuing significance of traditional rules of purity, pollution, and hierarchy in Indian society.*

Castes themselves, however, far from being abolished, have certain rights under Indian law. As described by anthropologist Owen M. Lynch and other scholars, in the expanding political arena caste groups are becoming more politicized and forced to compete with other interest groups for social and economic benefits. In the growing cities, traditional intercaste interdependencies are negligible.*

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

Changes in the Caste System

Independent India has built on earlier British efforts to remedy problems suffered by Dalits by granting them some benefits of protective discrimination. Scheduled Castes are entitled to reserved electoral offices, reserved jobs in central and state governments, and special educational benefits. The constitution mandates that one-seventh of state and national legislative seats be reserved for members of Scheduled Castes in order to guarantee their voice in government. Reserving seats has proven useful because few, if any, Scheduled Caste candidates have ever been elected in nonreserved constituencies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Educationally, Dalit students have benefited from scholarships, and Scheduled Caste literacy increased (from 10.3 percent in 1961 to 21.4 percent in 1981, the last year for which such figures are available), although not as rapidly as among the general population. Improved access to education has resulted in the emergence of a substantial group of educated Dalits able to take up white-collar occupations and fight for their rights.*

There has been tremendous resistance among non-Dalits to this protective discrimination for the Scheduled Castes, who constitute some 16 percent of the total population, and efforts have been made to provide similar advantages to the so-called Backward Classes, who constitute an estimated 52 percent of the population. In August 1990, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh announced his intention to enforce the recommendations of the Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission), issued in December 1980 and largely ignored for a decade. The report, which urged special advantages for obtaining civil service positions and admission to higher education for the Backward Classes, resulted in riots and self-immolations and contributed to the fall of the prime minister. The upper castes have been particularly adamant against these policies because unemployment is a major problem in India, and many feel that they are being unjustly excluded from posts for which they are better qualified than lower-caste applicants.*

The growth of urbanization (an estimated 26 percent of the population now lives in cities) is having a far-reaching effect on caste practices, not only in cities but in villages. Among anonymous crowds in urban public spaces and on public transportation, caste affiliations are unknown, and observance of purity and pollution rules is negligible. Distinctive caste costumes have all but vanished, and low-caste names have been modified, although castes remain endogamous, and access to employment often occurs through intracaste connections. Restrictions on interactions with other castes are becoming more relaxed, and, at the same time, observance of other pollution rules is declining — especially those concerning birth, death, and menstruation. Several growing Hindu sects draw members from many castes and regions, and communication between cities and villages is expanding dramatically. Kin in town and country visit one another frequently, and television programs available to huge numbers of villagers vividly portray new lifestyles. As new occupations open up in urban areas, the correlation of caste with occupation is declining.*

Caste associations have expanded their areas of concern beyond traditional elite emulation and local politics into the wider political arenas of state and national politics. Finding power in numbers within India's democratic system, caste groups are pulling together closely allied subcastes in their quest for political influence. In efforts to solidify caste bonds, some caste associations have organized marriage fairs where families can make matches for their children. Traditional hierarchical concerns are being minimized in favor of strengthening horizontal unity. Thus, while pollution observances are declining, caste consciousness is not.*

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and the 19th century book Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India

Text Sources: “World Religions “ edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions “ edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators“ by Daniel Boorstin; National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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