Caste is a social stratification wherein people are grouped based on wealth, occupation or social status. It is characterized by endogamy (marriage within the same class), the inheritance of occupation and social status. The word ‘caste’ is derived from the Portuguese word ‘CASTA’ which translates to lineage. A caste is generally referred to as Jati (which means birth) and is defined as a stringently regulated social community into which one is born. We all know that the caste system does prevail in India. But this phenomenon is local to many other countries like China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, and Sri Lanka as well. In India, using names alone, around 2,000 castes can be identified. Most people’s last names reveal their caste.
“If a Shudra mentions the name and class of twice-born contumely (i.e., without proper respect), an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust into his mouth.” (Manusmriti)
Manusmriti, the ancient Hindu scripture that talks of Hindu laws, is believed to have mentioned caste for the first time. It talks of the stratification of the peoples into 4 castes- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. This hierarchy, people believe, has originated from Lord Brahma (the creator). Brahmins are believed to have been created from Brahma’s head, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs and Shudras, who are a majority, from his feet. The priestly class and the teachers make up Brahmins while the Kshatriyas are the rulers and warriors. The Vaishyas are the mercantile class and the remaining people are the Shudras. This classification of people played a vital role in determining the socio-economic position of a person. The Shudras were considered the most inferior while Brahmins the most pious. This hierarchy was found in the extremes in the rural areas. There, the wells and temples were not accessible to the lower castes; The lower castes had to live away from the upper castes. In there, exogamy was considered a taboo. None could change from one caste to another either. The upper castes led pompous lives while the lower castes were suppressed.
This four-fold classification is observed on a superficial level. In fact, there are a lot more castes. There are about 5,000 castes which are classified at the regional level. One surprising thing about the caste system is that the people believe this is all a consequence of one’s karma (deeds) in the previous birth. They also believe that if one doesn’t have good karma now, they will be subdued as lower castes in the next birth.
Another community present in India is the Dalits (meaning oppressed). Mahatma Gandhi used the term Harijan (children of God) to address them. These people were considered untouchables and had been downtrodden by the other castes for centuries. There still are places in rural India where this is practiced even today. For their upliftment, many measures of affirmative action were inculcated in the Indian Constitution by Dr. B.R.Ambedkar, one of the few Dalits to be as successful. He wrote the book ‘Annihilation of caste’ which had a huge lot of claims against Hinduism. In an attempt to right the historical wrong, he made sure discrimination on the basis of caste was banned by law. He also made sure these underprivileged people were given equal opportunities by introducing quotas in education and jobs. These quotas have been extended further to many other communities by the Government. One reason for this extension is vote-bank politics, i.e., the government gets votes from the communities that are given quotas. The caste system, at this point in time, is not really seen in urban areas. But there are traces of the practice in rural areas.
Caste in Islam:
The caste system in Muslims is a result of Hinduism in a way that the Muslims not only in India and Pakistan but also in other countries of South Asia were former Hindus who converted to Islam but wished to retain their Hindu culture and traditions as well despite the egalitarianism in Islam.
In South Asia, the Muslims were divided into Ashrafs (meaning ‘noblemen’ in Arabic) and Non-Ashrafs. The Ashrafs claim a superior status derived from their foreign ancestry and were further classified as Sayyids, Sheikhs, Pashtuns, and Mughals. Sayyids are believed to be the descendants of Mohammed through his daughter, Fathima, and son-in-law, Ali. The Sheikhs are mainly descendants of Persians and Arabs. The Sheikhs also included a few Rajputs who converted to Islam. Pashtuns are the Pashto-speaking peoples of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Mughals are the Turks who came to India along with the Mughal rulers. The non-Ashrafs are the people who converted from Hinduism to Islam. They had a hierarchy in which, at the top were the high Hindu caste converts who were majorly Rajputs (provided they were not classified as Sheikhs). The next were the artisan Hindus who got converted to Islam and included blacksmiths, weavers, carpenters, etc. The ones at the bottom of the hierarchy were the untouchables who endured their previous occupations. These people also followed endogamy just like the Hindus.
Commensality (the practice of eating together) is not accepted between Ashrafs and Non-Ashrafs,i.e., Hindus and Muslims. Also, it is not accepted between the various castes of Non-Ashrafs. Also, the practice of endogamy is not so evident in Islam due to the practice of Biyahdari. In this, marriages happen within the familial limits. For example, a man could get marry his father’s brother’s daughter.
Caste in Christianity:
Caste is prevalent in Christianity as well. This classification is based upon the caste membership of a person at the time of his conversion and if not, his ancestor’s conversion. The Christians in India, though divided by castes, can eat together and pray together. But there is a hard and fast rule that they don’t marry between castes. The caste system in Christians is due to two reasons 1. Influence of Hinduism and 2. Their own internal classification.
There was a problem with the change in religions of people as against the existing social situations that constructed the caste which is now seen in Christianity. The Syrian Christians ( upper castes) of Kerala claim they are the descendants of St. Thomas the Apostle (who belonged to 1st Century AD). They originally had a very high social status but this conversion into Muslims made them lose their initial status because of the Hindus around them. Later on, after Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India, Europeans came to India in the 16th Century and got many fishermen on the coast of Malabar converted to Christianity. These people were quite different from the Syrian converts and this made two castes to arise. Then, Robert de Nobili who was a Jesuit learned Tamil and Sanskrit and lived the life of an ascetic (a Sadhu). He got separated from the Portuguese missionaries that were trying to convert lower-class fishermen into Christians and was welcomed by the upper classes. This, though, made him a victim of blasphemy. Later, in the 19th century, Protestants came to India and spread like a wildfire. They cajoled people to take up Christianity and also accept the social changes that followed. Due to the caste system in Hinduism, which suppressed the lower castes, many who belonged to the lower castes converted to Christianity.
Just like in every other religion, caste systems are being eradicated due to education and many other factors. But there still incidences wherein the conservative Christians don’t sit with people of other castes for prayers in Catholic churches.
The Indian Constitution bans this discrimination through Article 15 (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste) and Article 17 (which declares the practice of untouchability to be illegal). Since the times when caste had almost been lethal, there has been a paradigmatic change in the mindset of the people. Though there is protective discrimination in place, not everyone is aware of the existence of these provisions. Even today, many villages forbid intercaste marriages, Dalits touching utensils belonging to other villagers, Dalit priests taking part in rituals taking place in Non-Dalit areas and Dalit Panchayat leaders drinking tea from cups that are reserved only for Dalits or not drinking tea at all. There has been a drastic fall in discrimination among castes though, and this is laudable. Hopefully, India can see even better days where everyone is equal and none feels insecure due to his social status soon.
Intermediate 1st year History Textbook (TSBIE)