Caste System

caste

caste [Port., casta=basket], ranked groups based on heredity within rigid systems of social stratification, especially those that constitute Hindu India. Some scholars, in fact, deny that true caste systems are found outside India. The caste is a closed group whose members are severely restricted in their choice of occupation and degree of social participation. Marriage outside the caste is prohibited. Social status is determined by the caste of one's birth and may only rarely be transcended. Certain religious minorities may voluntarily constitute a quasi-caste within a society, but they are less apt to be characterized by cultural distinctiveness than by their self-imposed social segregation. A specialized labor group may operate as a caste within a society otherwise free of such distinctions (e.g., the ironsmiths in parts of Africa). In general, caste functions to maintain the status quo in a society.

Castes in India

Nowhere is caste better exemplified by degree of complexity and systematic operation than in India. The Indian term for caste is jati, which generally designates a group varying in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of such jatis, and each has its distinctive rules, customs, and modes of government. The term varna (literally meaning "color" ) refers to the ancient and somewhat ideal fourfold division of Hindu society: (1) the Brahmans, the priestly and learned class; (2) the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; (3) the Vaisyas, farmers and merchants; and (4) the Sudras, peasants and laborers. These divisions may have corresponded to what were formerly large, broad, undifferentiated social classes. Below the category of Sudras were the untouchables, or Panchamas (literally "fifth division" ), who performed the most menial tasks.

Although there has been much confusion between the two, jati and varna are different in origin as well as function. The various castes in any given region of India are hierarchically organized, with each caste corresponding roughly to one or the other of the varna categories. Traditionally, caste mobility has taken the form of movement up or down the varna scale. Indian castes are rigidly differentiated by rituals and beliefs that pervade all thought and conduct (see dharma). Extreme upper and lower castes differ so widely in habits of everyday life and worship that only the close intergrading of intervening castes and the intercaste language communities serve to hold them together within the single framework of Indian society.

The explanation that Indian castes were originally based on color lines to preserve the racial and cultural purity of conquering groups is inadequate historically to account for the physical and cultural variety of such groups. Castes may reflect distinctiveness of religious practice, occupation, locale, culture status, or tribal affiliation, either exclusively or in part. Divergence within a caste on any of these lines will tend to produce fission that may, in time, result in the formation of new castes. Every type of social group as it appears may be fitted into this system of organizing society.

The occupational barriers among Indian castes have been breaking down slowly under economic pressures since the 19th cent., but social distinctions have been more persistent. Attitudes toward the untouchables only began to change in the 1930s under the influence of Mohandas Gandhi's teachings, who called the group Harijans. Although untouchability was declared illegal in 1949, resistance to change has remained strong, especially in rural areas. As increased industrialization produced new occupations and new social and political functions evolved, the caste system adapted and thus far has not been destroyed.

Bibliography

See M. Marriott, ed., Village India (1955); M. N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India (1966); A. de Reuck and J. Knight, ed., Caste and Race (1967); L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1970); D. B. McGilvray, ed., Caste Ideology and Interaction (1982); A. R. Gupta, Caste Hierarchy and Social Change (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Caste Today
Taya Zinkin.
Oxford University Press, 1962
Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste
Brian K. Smith.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Caste, Class, and Occupation
G. S. Ghurye.
Popular Book Depot, 1961 (4th edition)
Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India
V. T. Rajshekar.
Clarity Press, 1987 (2nd edition)
Siva and Her Sisters: Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural South India
Karin Kapadia.
Westview Press, 1995
Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India
Eliza F. Kent.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Caste, Christianity, and Conversion"
Christians and Public Life in Colonial South India, 1863-1937: Contending with Marginality
Chandra Mallampalli.
RoutledgeCurzon, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part III "Caste and Communal Identity"
Identity and Identification in India: Defining the Disadvantaged
Laura Dudley Jenkins.
RoutledgeCurzon, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Caste Certificates and Lists" and Chap. 6 "'Backward' Muslims and 'Scheduled Caste' Christians"
Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India
Marc Galanter.
University of California Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Designation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes"
The Disintegration of Caste and Changing Concepts of Indian Ethnic Identity in Mauritius
Hollup, Oddvar.
Ethnology, Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall 1994
Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India
Gail Omvedt.
M.E. Sharpe, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Anticaste Movement"
Boundaries of Clan and Colour: Transnational Comparisons of Inter-Group Disparity
William Darity Jr.; Ashwini Deshpande.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Recasting Economic Inequality"
India Working: Essays on Society and Economy
Barbara Harriss-White.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Caste and Corporatist Capitalism"
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