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Indian Caste System Essay Research Paper Caste

Indian Caste System Essay, Research Paper Caste is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as one of the hereditary social classes in Hinduidm, which is also a division in society based on wealth, inherited rank, or occupation, and allows little mobility out of the position to which a person is born. The word caste was first used by 16th century Portuguese traders; it is taken from the Portuguese word casta.

Indian Caste System Essay, Research Paper

Caste is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as one of the hereditary social classes in Hinduidm, which is also a division in society based on wealth, inherited rank, or occupation, and allows little mobility out of the position to which a person is born. The word caste was first used by 16th century Portuguese traders; it is taken from the Portuguese word casta. Varna, the word for caste, means color and referring to the old racial differences between conquerors and conquered. The basis of the caste divisions was social and economic rather than racial.

The origin of the caste system can be traced back to the Later Vedic Phase in Indian history (1000-600B.C.) when society came to be broadly divided into four Varnas. This was a division based on the main professions that were followed then. At the top most rung of the Varna system were brahmins, followed in decreasing order by kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. The brahmins, who worked as teachers and priests, were the educated lot. They conducted rituals and offered prayers for their clients and officiated at the different festivals. The members of this elite rank were considered the “blessed group” who were closest to the gods. The kshatriyas were the warrior group, while the vaishyas constituted the common people, engaged in agriculture, cattle breeding, craftsmanship and trading. The most submissive group were those of the shudras, who were considered “polluted” and unfit even to be touched by the upper caste people. This group consisted of those who did all the dirty work for others, such as removing animal carcasses, cleaning human and animal xcreta, and generally serving the people of higher castes. Since the different professions were taken up generation after generation, gradually the castes came to be “thrust” upon people by birth rather than by the occupation. One of the main characteristics of the caste system is that one is born into a particular caste and cannot adopt a caste. Thus, now a person born into a chamar (shoemaker) caste remains a chamar though he might be a shopkeeper or clerk. Also, some jobs are still done, even in urban households, by people belonging to a certain caste. Another important characteristic of the caste system is caste endogamy. Endogamy is when people strictly marry into the same caste. The Indian caste had hereditary membership, and marriage was only permitted within the same caste. There were restrictions on the choice of occupation and on personal contact with members of other castes. Finally, the caste system was broken up greatly during the period of British rule in India. Many things have changed over the years. Long before the arrival of the British, new religions and reform movements within India attacked the caste system. Buddhism was the first to do so in the 6th century B.C.. It is not known how much of an effect Buddhism had on the caste system as a whole. The caste system was next challenged by the Muslims. As a result of Muslim rule, the system divided into more groups. Next came the British. The first effect that the British had on the caste system was to strengthen it, for the British gave the Brahmans back special privileges the Muslim rulers had taken away. On the other hand, the British law courts did not agree that the lower-caste persons should receive greater punishment than the upper-caste persons for committing the same offense. In the cities that came about during British rule, it became possible for untouchables or low-caste persons to “pass” as members of higher castes from some distant area. It became difficult for the members of different castes not to come in contact at factories and in buses.iv Other situations occurred in which castes did not matter. The educated in the cities mingled socially with people who were of other castes but of their own financial position and class. When the British first came to India, their main contacts were with the Brahmans. They, with a few other upper castes, were the first to profit from British education and to enter government service under the East India Company.iv The “Scheduled castes” were at the bottom of the social ladder. When India was under British rule they were carried on a specific list, or “schedule”, and got special government protection and scholarship aid. They have suffered from religious and civil disabilities. Some of their degrading jobs included sweeping the streets, and they could not do many things, go many places, and were all abused. The Sepoy Mutiny was an important event that took place under the British, and was an unsuccessful rebellion against British rule in India. The sepoys felt that the British did not respect their traditions of religion and caste, which gave them the desire to rebel in the first place, but also gave reason to change in India. There are three important things said about the caste system. First, India is trying to create social equality, while habits work against it. Second, competition for improvement on status is increasing. Third, the caste plays a unique role in India and it contrasts sharply with the situation in a more fluid society.iii

The present caste system of India is in a state of great flux, as a result of various reform movements for the emancipation of the lower castes. Buddha and Mahavira were probably the earliest of reformers, who founded two new religions that had no place for social discrimination. Many other reformers tried to uplift the illiterate oppressed classes, who were made to do all the inhuman work for little or no wages, and punished severely for minor mistakes. However, the most profound impact on the equality of castes was made by Mahatma Gandhi. He gave a new term for the achhoot (untouchable) classes – Harijan (Hari = god, jan = people), meaning, “people of the God”. Gandhi was a strong opponent of any discrimination done in the name of caste. He broke all taboos and invited much social wrath by eating food cooked by so-called untouchables and advocating equal opportunities in all fields for them. Though now the restrictions on sharing food, visiting households and attending household ceremonies with those of a different caste no longer exist, the roots of the caste system still lie deep in society. Traces of the orthodox beliefs lie scattered, if only as far as marriages between higher and lower castes are concerned. The leaders of independent India decided that India will be democratic, socialist and secular country. According to this policy there is a separation between religion and state. Practicing untouchability or discriminating a person based on his caste is legally forbidden. The Indians have also become more flexible in their caste system customs. In general, the urban people in India are less strict about the caste system than the rural. In cities one can see different caste people mingling with each other, while in some rural areas there is still discrimination based on castes and sometimes also on untouchability. Sometimes in villages or in the cities there are violent clashes which, are connected to caste tensions. Sometimes the high castes strike the lower castes who dare to uplift their status. Sometimes the lower caste get back on the higher castes. The term, caste was used by the British who ruled India until 1947. The British who wanted to rule India efficiently made lists of Indian communities. They used two terms to describe Indian communities, Castes and Tribes. The term caste was used for Jats and also for Varnas. Tribes were those communities who lived deep in jungles, forests and mountains far away from the main population and also communities who were hard to be defined as castes for example communities who made a living from stealing or robbery. These lists, which the British made, were used later on by the Indian governments to create lists of communities who were entitled for positive discrimination. The castes, which were the elite of the Indian society, were classified as high castes. The other communities were classified as lower castes or lower classes. The lower classes were listed in three categories. The first category is called Scheduled Castes. This category includes in it communities who were untouchables. In modern India, untouchability exists at a very low extent. The untouchables call themselves Dalit, meaning depressed. The second category is Scheduled Tribes. This category includes in it those communities who did not accept the caste system and preferred to reside deep in the jungles, forests and mountains of India, away from the main population. The Scheduled Tribes are also called Adivasi, meaning aboriginals. The third category is called sometimes Backward Classes. This category includes in it castes who belong to Sudra, Varna, and also former untouchables who converted from Hinduism to other religions. This category also includes in it nomads and tribes who made a living from criminal acts.iii According to the central government policy these three categories are entitled for positive discrimination. Along with the central government, the state governments of India also follow a positive discrimination policy. Different states have different figures of communities entitled for positive discrimination based on the population of each state. Sometimes a specific community is entitled for rights in a particular state but not in another state of India. In modern India new tensions were created because of these positive discrimination policies. The high caste communities feel discriminated by the government policy to reserve positions for the Backward Classes. In many cases a large number of high caste members compete for a few places reserved for them. While the Backward Classes members do not have to compete at all because of the large number of reserved places for them compared to the candidates. Between the lower castes there are also tensions over reservation. In the order of priority for a reserved place of the Backward Classes, candidate from the Scheduled castes is preferred over a candidate from the Scheduled Tribes who is preferred over a candidate from the other Backward Classes, and still continues to remain in this way.v The caste identity has become a subject of political, social and legal interpretation. Communities who get listed as entitled for positive discrimination do not get out of this list even if their social and political conditions get better. In many cases the legal system is involved to decide if a certain person is entitled for positive discrimination. But with all this positive discrimination policy, most of the communities who were low in the caste hierarchy remain low in the social order even today. And communities who were high in the social hierarchy remain even today high in the social hierarchy. Most of the degrading jobs are even today done by the Dalits, while the Brahmans remain at the top of the hierarchy by being the doctors, engineers and lawyers of India. The ancient division of Hindu society into numerous castes, some of which deemed higher than others, is still prevalent today – though in a much dynamic and confused form.

There are many differences between the caste system in the beginning and modern India. One such prevelant difference is the actual division of the caste system. In the beginning there were only four main divisions including the brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and the shudras. Many things have changed in the caste system due to the British and a man named Mohandas Gandhi. Everything he has done for India has been for the improvement of the nation in a non-violent way. For example, there has been a decrease in the Brahman domination (6%) and a rise in the untouchables (20%). Due to the British, there has become more equality and unity between members of different castes. Though initially society was divided into these four groups, slowly numerous smaller groups formed out of them, based on the specific occupations. The division resulted into the hundreds of castes that are found today among Hindus. Although, the Scheduled castes are now prohibited by law but have not totally vanished in practice, and still do most of the dirty work today.v Also, the Sepoy Mutiny played a part in having major effects on the people of India. The mutiny resented the British introduction of social change, so the traditional society began to break down into a westernized class system. As a result of this, a strong middle class with a heightened sense of nationalism arose, which is definitely considered a positive aspect. Another difference today is the social regulation dealing with marrying between castes. It was stringently followed until a few decades back. However, with growing cosmopolitan lifestyle, inter-caste marriages have become a common occurrence in cities now, but in rural areas, such marriages are still looked down upon, if not socially objected to. One main problem today is the that although the Indian government forbids any kind of discrimination among people in the name of caste, one often hears of atrocities against people belonging to lower castes. However, the society has come a long way from the times when some castes (called jatis) were considered so inferior that people born in it were treated as untouchables. The remnants of the practice continue to this day, in milder forms though. For the most part, India has come a very long way in means of nationalism due to the British. They were a very cohesive group during this time period, and they did have a strong sense of nationalism, which made them seem more appealing to the people of India. The British basically set up India for great improvement economically, politically, and socially in ways that all deal with the caste system.

Endnotes

1. Bougle, Essays on the Caste System, 62-63.

2. Carstairs, The Twice Born: A Study of a Community of High Caste Hindus,

23-24.

3. Cox, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, 175.

4. Mehta, The New India, 140.

5. Spear, The Oxford History Of Modern India: 1740-1947, 183.

Works Cited

Bougle, Celestin. Essays on the Caste System. Cambridge: University Press, 1971.

Carstairs, G. Morris. The Twice Born: A Study of a Community of High-Caste Hindus.

Indiana University Press, 1987.

Cox, Oliver Cromwell. Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New

York: Doubleday and Company, 1988.

Hazari. Untouchable: The Autobiography of an Indian Outcaste. New York: Praeger

Publishers, 1989.

Mehta, Ved. The New India. New York: The Viking Press, 1992.

Mish, Frederick, C. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Massachusetts: Merriam-

Webster Incorporated, 1997.

Schwartz, M. Barton. Caste In Overseas Indian Communities. San Fransisco: Chandler

Publishing Company, 1965.

Spear, Percival. The Oxford History of Modern India: 1740-1947. Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1987.

698

Bougle, Celestin. Essays on the Caste System. Cambridge: University Press, 1971.

Carstairs, G. Morris. The Twice Born: A Study of a Community of High-Caste Hindus.

Indiana University Press, 1987.

Cox, Oliver Cromwell. Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New

York: Doubleday and Company, 1988.

Hazari. Untouchable: The Autobiography of an Indian Outcaste. New York: Praeger

Publishers, 1989.

Mehta, Ved. The New India. New York: The Viking Press, 1992.

Mish, Frederick, C. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Massachusetts: Merriam-

Webster Incorporated, 1997.

Schwartz, M. Barton. Caste In Overseas Indian Communities. San Fransisco: Chandler

Publishing Company, 1965.

Spear, Percival. The Oxford History of Modern India: 1740-1947. Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1987.

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