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Caste or “jati” is the most characterstic and perhaps a unique concept of Indian society. It can be loosely defined as a hereditary and endogamous group having an actual or supposed relationship with a profession and occupying a particular position in local hierarchy of such groups. The concept of caste has been deeply embedded in the Indian society. Its hold on the society is so strong that people could not change their caste even if they changed their religion. Their caste identity carried itself into their new religions and lower caste converts  were usually treated with contempt.

Caste system: Origin and evolution

Concpets of varna and caste though inter-related are different from each other. The concept of varna originated in later part of Rigvedic period and divided the society in four varnas of the Brahamans (priests), Rajanya or Kshatriyas (warriors), Vis (the commoner) and Sudra (servant). The ‘varna’ system is based on a simplistic division of labour and took place in a tribal, pastoral and seni-agricultural society in which there was not much variety in economic activities. Its basis was Purushsukta hymn of Rigveda, which though postulating how the four varnas were created did not say anything about heredity, endogamy or any other charactestic associated with it later. 
Concept of caste is a result of evolution of thousands of years. Its origin can be traced to the increase in the number of professions in the later vedic age and the period thereafter. People following these professions tended to live together. Buddhist scriptures mention villages inhabited by smiths and carpenters. Some of these trades were organized into guilds. This could be the beginning of the castes. A 5th century inscription from Mandsor refers to a guild of silk weavers many of whose members were practicing other professions but were still members of guild. These members had retained their sense of being part of the guild despite giving up the profession. This characterstic resembles that of a caste and can explain the formation of castes on occupational basis. Some of the castes emerged from the tribes or foreigners who were assimilated in the Aryan fold.
In course of time, notions of purity and pollution were attached to the caste making the system more rigid. Manusmriti written somewhere between 200 BC to 200 AD exahustively codified the laws governing the society and the caste system. It presented a highly compartmentalized society highly discriminating against the lower and depressed classes.  The system continued to increase its hold on the society and had firmly entrecnhed itself by the middle ages.
During this period one more development took place. In middle ages, we do not hear of villages or settlements of exclusively of one profession or caste. Instead there are references of villages in which members of all castes are living together giving rise to jajmani system in which the Brahmans, artisans and other workers were given a part of harvest as per accepted tradition. This gave rise to the sell sufficient village economy in which the village community fulfilled all its needs from the village itself and there was no interaction with urban centre except for remitting the surplus. This pattern of village economy provided stability to the social structure and the caste system for thousands of years. The muslim rulers who ruled the country from the 12th century onwards did not or could not change the system because they did not have a better system to replace the existing one. However, all this changed with the advent of colonial rule who brought in new modes of production which altered the economic scenario which existed in the country for thousands of years. 

Characteristics of ‘caste’ system

  1. Caste is an all encompassing concept. A caste not only signified ritualistic status, it also had economic and politcal ramifications. Higher castes had easier access to economic resources and political power.
  2. Every caste considers itself different from others and rules have been provided for interaction with other castes. Each caste has placed certain taboos on its members.
  3. Idea of purity and pollution are basic to the caste system. Higher castes are considered more pure while the lower ones are considered impure and polluting due to which higher castes maintain distance between lower castes. The  distance to be maintained depended upon the difference between the levels of castes.
  4. Idea of pollution and purity was taken to extremeties resulting in the concept of untouchability and a group of society was considered so impure that even their touch or shadow was considered polluting. In later periods some of these castes like the chandals had to strike a clapper when going into the city so as to warn the people of their presence.
  5. Caste is hereditary and cannot be changed in the lifetime of an individual, not even if one changes his occupation. Hence the system did not have any hope for improvement of the lot of the lower caste in their present life.
  6. Although, system did not have any hope for individuals, whole castes as a group could improve their social status by adopting practices of higher castes. This is called ‘sanskritization’.
  7. Caste is also linked with food habits. Upper caste people particularly the brahamans were vegetarians. Categories of non vegetarian food were also different for different classes.
  8. Caste is an strictly endogamous group. Inter caste marriages are frowned upon and are even now and are the main reason for ‘ honour killings’.

Impacts of caste system

  1. The system is discriminatory and discriminates on the basis of birth which violates the concept of equality of all human beings. It adversely affected those belonging to the lower castes.
  2. The society also adversely affected as it lost oppurtunities to cash in on the potential of these people.
  3. Professionally,  it limited the options for individuals and professions. While individual did not have the option of following the profession of his liking, the profession also did not have a wide range of people to choose from. 
  4. Caste system degrades certain occupations particularly those involving manual labour. Even agriculture, which was surce of subsistence of everyone, was considered to be unsuitable for higher castes. This meant that those involved in actual production of goods and services could never get a dominant position in the society.
  5. The system adversely affected development of technology. Unlike the vedic period, when the chariot maker was an important part of the tribe, the artisans and craftsmen were placed at a lower level. Slowly, the system separated the intellectuals and teachers from actual workers and created a gap between the academic and practical aspect of technology.
  6. Concept of purity and pollution inclding a ban on crossing the sea restricted contacts with other cultures due to which the country could not keep pace with the developments outside the country.
  7. Loyalty to the caste adversely affects any prospects of national unity. This was evident in the freedom struggle when the lower castes under Dr.Amedkar formed a seperate pressure group and demanded seperate electorate.

Movements against caste system

At no point in the history, the caste system remained unchallenged. First important challenge came in the sixth century B.C. with the growth of Budhism, Jainism and some other heterodox groups. However these religions reflected the power struggle between the brahmans, kshatiryas and the trading community. The toiling peasant, the labourer and other poor communities were ignored. In fact , the concept of ahimsa  denigrates food gathering communities which depended on hunting and fishing. The concept was also applied to agriculture and later Buddhism forbade monks to take up agriculture as it involved killing of lives by ploughing and watering. Intrestingly, this view, was similar to that adopted by brahamanic tradition.
Next round of protest came up in form of bhakti movement which started from the middle of first millenium and continued well into the medieveal period.  Saints propagating this movement laid stress on devotion or bhakti as means of attaining salvation or reaching the God. These people believed in the equality of men and and rejected caste system. Alvars and Nayanar saints of South India, Surdas, Tulsi Das and Mirabai in the North and Namdev, Eknath and Tukaram in Maharashtra were some of e the important bhakti saints. However, these movements could not make a dent in the caste system mainly because the system, though originally religious and social was also linked to economic pattern of production and distribution and could not have been replaced in absence of a better system of production.
The situation changed with the advent of the British. New revenue settlements and commercialisation of agriculture disturbed the existing agrarian relations. The british legal system also  did not accept the discrimination on caste basis as a result of which a number of lower caste people got jobs in the government, particularly in the army. Missionaries also imparted education to these groups. This created a sense of class consciousness among a section of these people which translated into movements. Jyotiba Phule, Sree Narayan Guru and Dr.Bhim Rao Ambedakar were some of the important reformers during the British period who helped in raising consciousness among these people. Other leaders of national struggle like Mahatm Gandhi were also aware of the plight of these people and supported the cause of their upliftment.

Position after independence and current scenario

After independence, the Constitution provided for equality of all citizens. Untouchability and discrimination on basis of caste and creed were abolished. Consitution of India also provides for positive discrimination in favour of these categories which came up in the form of reservation in legislature and government jobs. Special schemes have been provided for upliftment for these cateogories and special legal provisions have been provided for protection of these people from the discrimination from the dominant categories.
Changes in economy have shattered the economic system which had supported the caste system for so long. In urban areas, the caste has lost its importance in public life and survives only as an ethnic group. In rural areas also, the commercialisation of agriculture has ended the self suffecient village economy with the farmer now producing for the market. In such a condition, there is no possibility of supporting non agricultural groups. These people have also got alternate sources of employment are not that much dependent upon the farming community.
However, this does not mean that the caste system has ended.  Lower castes are still discriminated against and time to time we hear incidents of harassment or violence against these categories. An adverse fallout of the system is that the people have started voting on caste lines, and at times caste solidarity takes precedence over the objective assessment of the electoral candidate. However, it can be hoped that economic development and presence of progressive elements would bring an end to the caste system.

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