Caste System13th February 2020
The Indian social system rests on three pillars: the caste system, the joint family system, and the village community. Among these, the caste system appears to be the most significant feature of the Hindu Society due to its interdependence upon the social, economic and political systems. In fact, the Hindu Society has been described as the caste society par excellence. The caste system in India is in vogue from time immemorial.
As a traditional basis of stratification, caste is a distinctive category in the Indian social system. Though it had its beginning in the Hindu philosophy of four varnas corresponding to four functional divisions, it has resulted in the perpetuation of several caste groups among the Hindus.
Of course, every society is caste-ridden and the caste system exists even among the most advanced societies of the world, in one form or the other. But the irony is that the caste system became so rigid in this peninsular sub-continent of India that its impact was felt even by other religious communities, such as the Muslims and the Christians, and its regeneration became a subject of criticism throughout the world.
The division of people into various caste also existed among the Egyptians. With them, as with the Hindus, the law assigned an occupation to each individual, which was handed down from father to the son. Apart from this, from the available records one can come to the conclusion that the caste system also existed among the Mexicans, the Persians, the Peruvians, the Medes, the Iberians and many other societies.
Before we discuss the caste system in the Indian society in detail, we should look into some of the basic principles underlying the system of stratification. Social stratification stands for the placement of individuals and groups on the basis of social differences in income, occupation, status etc. The term denotes an arrangement of people in a society into various layers on the basis of social status.
Social status may either be ascribed (given at birth) or achieved. Caste in India is an ascriptive group. It is a hereditary group. Caste is a community as it is based on kinship and primordial affinity. As an institution, “caste illustrates the spirit of comprehensive synthesis-characteristic of the Hindu mind with its faith in the collaboration of races and the cooperation of cultures.”
The term ‘caste’ is derived from a Portuguese word ‘caste’ meaning breed, race or group. The castes are ascriptive groups. Thus basically caste refers to people belonging to the same breed. An individual is born into a caste, and this status is usually permanent. Though the elements of castes are found outside India, it is only in India that numerous castes are found. Apart from general features like endogamy, castes also have specific features which are the outcome of regional, linguistic or other variables.
The term ‘caste’ has been defined differently by different people. According to G.S. Ghurye “Castes are small and complete social worlds in themselves marked off definitely from one another though subsisting within the larger society.” According to MacIver “when status is wholly predetermined so that men are born to their lot without any hope of change in it, then the class takes the extreme form of caste.”
The caste system in India can be viewed from two angles: first, from the structural point of view and secondly, from the cultural angle. As regards the structural aspect of caste it is explained by accepting it as a general principle of stratification and caste, as a cultural system, is understood in terms of prominence of ideas of pollution-purity and notions of hierarchy, segregation, and corporations. The structural view explains the stratification as a universal reality and caste is, therefore, an aspect of this reality.
A.W. Green, while defining caste says: “caste is a system of stratification in which mobility, movement up and down in the status ladder, at least ideally, may not occur.” Sociologists have given so many broad and varying definitions of caste that it is more or less impossible to arrive at a common definition. It has also become still more difficult because caste is a very old institution-an institution that has always added something to it.