The caste system in India is a system of social stratification, which is now also used as a basis for affirmative action. Historically, it separated communities into thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called Jātis, which is synonymous with caste in contemporary usage. The Jātis were grouped by the Brahminical texts into four categories or varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Certain groups, now known as “Dalits”, were excluded from the varna system altogether, ostracised by all other castes and treated as untouchables. Strongly identified with Hinduism, the caste system has been carried over to other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism.
Caste is commonly thought of as an ancient fact of Indian life, but some contemporary scholars have argued that the caste system was significantly reconfigured by British colonial regime.
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The colonial administration began a policy of affirmative action by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes. After India achieved independence, this policy of caste-based reservation of jobs and positive discrimination was formalised with lists of Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi).
These caste classifications for college admission quotas, job reservations and other affirmative action initiatives, according to the Supreme Court of India, are based on heredity and are not changeable. These initiatives by India, over time, have led to many lower caste members being elected to the highest political offices including the election of K.R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as President of the nation from 1997 to 2002.
The caste system in India can be described as an elaborately stratified social hierarchy distinguishing India’s social structure from any other nation. Its history is multifaceted and complex.
Caste is a term, which is used to specify a group of people having a specific social rank and dates back to 1200 BCE. The Indian term for caste is jati, and generally designates a group that can vary in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of jatis each with its own rules and customs. The various jatis are traditionally arranged in hierarchical order and fit into one of the four basic varnas the (Sanskrit word for “colors”).
- The varna of Brahmans, commonly identified with priests and the learned class
- The varna of Kshatriyas, associated with rulers and warriors including property owners.
- The varna of Vaishyas, associated with commercial livelihoods (i.e. traders)
- The varna of Shudras, the servile labourers
The Untouchables occupy a place that is not clearly defined by boundaries and is outside of the varna scheme. Their jobs (such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal) cause them to be considered impure and thus “untouchable.” Historically the untouchables were not allowed in temples and many other public places. In 1950 legislation was passed to prevent any form of discrimination towards the untouchables. Although legislation has affected the status of the people, they are yet very much a visible part of Indian society.
The varna system is inter-linked with creation, lending itself a great deal of reverence and validity. If space, time the congregation of the gods and goddesses, the natural world, scripture and ritual, and the human body itself-if all these realms bear classification according to varna, how could an organization of society be regarded as anything other than the way things should be?
There are several theories regarding the origins of the Indian caste system. One posits that the Indian and Aryan classes (“pistras”) show similarity, wherein the priests are Brahmins, the warriors are Kshatriya, the merchants are Vaishya, and the artisans are Shudras. Another theory is that of Georges Dumézil, who formulated the trifunctional hypothesis of social class.
According to the Dumézil theory, ancient societies had three main classes, each with distinct functions: the first judicial and priestly, the second connected with the military and war, and the third class focused on production, agriculture, craft and commerce. Dumézil proposed that Rex-Flamen of the Roman Empire is etymologically similar to Raj-Brahman of ancient India and that they made offerings to deus and deva respectively, each with statutes of conduct, dress and behaviour that were similar.
From the Bhakti school, the view is that the four divisions were originally created by Krishna. “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society were created.”