Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Caste System and the Way Forward

Caste has been the most intriguing aspect of Indian Civilization.  In a society where every living being is perceived as some kind of manifestation of God, how come a person belonging to a low caste would get branded as untouchable? We worship cows, we worship monkeys, we worship birds, we worship trees and yet we condemn a man just because he belongs to a caste which is perceived to be unclean.

Through my observations at various sites across various forms of social media, I have realized that despite so much scientific and economic progress there are people who have a high degree of caste consciousness. People from the higher castes enjoy a sense of superiority whereas those from the lower castes blame their caste status for all the problems being faced by them. Further, the print media and audio-visual media is also filled with stories of caste based prejudices. In politics also caste has become a very significant factor.

My Personal Experience                         
From my personal association with a village in UP, I have a firsthand experience of the caste based society. I must admit that the caste divisions do exist. But the whole picture is a great deal different from what is painted by the media. Though my experience is dated as I did not have many opportunities to observe the village life after nineteen-eighties, yet I believe the situation is unlikely to be much different even now. From whatever I have observed, I can say that inter-caste relations in villages are much more harmonious than what we get to read in newspapers. There are not many incidents relating to caste based conflicts. Mostly conflicts occur due to the disputes relating to property. Castes in villages are interdependent. As the village economy is largely dependent on the goods and services produced locally, every caste has some vital role in the whole scheme. Though there are no inter-caste marriages, yet people of various castes are tied in informal relationships. From my childhood I can recall that every child had to address the elders with a specific respectable relationship oriented word like Chacha, Tau, Dada, Mama etc., irrespective of the caste to which he belonged. These relationships were carried forward from one generation to the next.

Thus the situation as presented in various types of media is much different than what I have experienced in my childhood. May be the situation has changed for the worse or may be with so much politicization, the institution of caste has become much more prone to exploitation. I get concerned with stories of caste based violence and discrimination and often wonder what we can do to alleviate such tensions. To comprehend the whole picture, it is necessary to analyse the theory and practice of the caste system. To enlighten myself in this regard, I have tried to study the institution of caste from various web based resources.

The Findings

The findings are as under: 
  •  Caste is neither unique to Hindu religion nor to India; caste systems have been observed in other parts of the world, for example, in the Muslim community of Yemen, Christian colonies of Spain, and Japan. 
  • Many scholars believe that the modern Jatis represent ancient tribal and occupational affiliations that have evolved and specialised over time.
  • The most ancient scriptures—the Shruti texts, or Vedas, place very little importance on the caste system, mentioning caste only sparingly and descriptively (i.e., not prescriptive).
  •  The only verse in the Rigveda which mentions all four varnas is 10.90, the Purushasūkta.
  • A hymn from the Rig Veda seems to indicate that one's caste is not necessarily determined by that of one's family.
  •  In the Vedic period, there also seems to have been no discrimination against the Shudras on the issue of hearing the sacred words of the Vedas and fully participating in all religious rituals, something which became progressively restricted in the later times.
  • The Gita says that one's varna is to be understood from one's personal qualities and one's karma (work), not one's birth. 
  •  The Indian society honoured people for their achievements irrespective of their caste. For instance, Valmiki, once a low-caste robber, became a great sage and author of the epic Ramayana. Veda Vyasa, another respected sage and author of the monumental epic, the Mahabharata, was the son of a fisher-woman.
  • The Manu Smriti, which codified the caste system, belongs to a class of books that are geared towards ethics, morals, and social conduct - not spirituality or religion.
  • The view of the caste system as "static and unchanging" has been disputed by many scholars.
  • Some scholars believe that the relative ranking of other castes was fluid or differed from one place to another prior to the arrival of the British.
  • The distinctions, particularly between the Brahmans and the other castes, were in theory sharper, but in practice it now appears that social restrictions were not so rigid.
  • Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. It was always possible for groups born into a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism" i.e. adopt the customs of the higher castes.
  • There is also precedent of certain Shudra families within the temples of the Shrivaishava sect in South India elevating their caste.·There have been cases of upper caste Hindus warming to the Dalits and Hindu priests, demoted to outcaste ranks.
  • Many movements in Hinduism have welcomed Dalits into their fold, the foremost being the Bhakti movements of the medieval period.
  • The first mention of the formal varna Indian caste system is in the famous Purush Sukta of the Rigveda, although it is the only mention in the entire body of the Vedas and has been decried as a much later, non-Vedic insertion by numerous Indologists like Max Muller and also by Ambedkar.
  • In the Mahabharata, Bhrigu tells Bharadvaja that caste divisions relate to differences in physical attributes of different human beings, reflected in skin colour. Bharadvaja responds not only by pointing to the considerable variations in skin colour within every caste (if different colours indicate different castes, then all castes are mixed castes), but also by the more profound question: ‘We all seem to be affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry, hunger, and labour; how do we have caste differences then.
  • The Bhavishya Purana, (dated to be between 1500 to 2500 years old), decries the caste system- Since members of all the four castes are children of God, they all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father, and children of the same father cannot have different castes.
  •  Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya's court in India classified people of India into seven classes: philosophers, peasants, herdsmen, craftsmen and traders, soldiers, government officials and councilors.
  • Fa Xian, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, visited India around 400 AD. Only the lot of the Chandals he found unenviable as outcastes by reason of their degrading work as disposers of dead. But no other section of the population were notably disadvantaged, no other caste distinctions attracted comment from the Chinese pilgrim, and no oppressive caste system drew forth his censure. In this period kings of Shudra and Brahmin origin were as common as those of Kshatriya varna and caste system was not wholly rigid. 
  •  Caste, claimed Gandhi, had nothing to do with religion. The discrimination and trauma of castes, argued Gandhi, was the result of custom, the origin of which is unknown.
  •  Some sources suggest that the caste system became formally rigid during the British Raj, when the British started to enumerate castes during the ten-year census and meticulously codified the system under their rule.
  • The rapid growth of train travel, with coaches packed with passengers from all caste segments of Indian society, suggests that the nature of British stereotypes about caste system in India, prior to 1860s and thereafter through the 1940s, were flawed.
  • According to the 1901 Census Report on India, only 8 to 17 percent of Brahmins were involved in a religious occupation, only 8 percent of one Shudra sub-caste commonly assumed to be dedicated to leather work was actually involved in leather work, and less than 50 percent of several sub-castes were involved in their traditional occupations. Rest were involved in occupations such as farming or labour.
  • Several reports published between 1995 and 2005 propose that Indian tribal and caste population samples they studied, have similar genetic origins and have received limited gene input from outside India. These studies imply that racial differences may not have influenced caste system in India.
  • Numerous other countries have minorities which have been ostracized, discriminated again, denied civil rights, considered impure or shunned due to low social standing in recent human history. Examples include Burakumin in Japan, Jews in certain parts of Europe, Afro-Americans in the United States, Oriental Jews in Israel, Al-Akhdam of Yemen, Baekjeong of Korea, Midgan of Somalia and Osu in Nigeria.
To sum up, caste is a social institution and not a religious one. It has been found to exist also in countries other than India, societies other than the Hindu society. It has roots in unknown social traditions and has evolved over time. Various castes do not have significant racial/genetic differences. In the beginning, caste was flexible and a basis for division of labour. Over the period, the divisions became rigid, may be, owing to the tendency to preserve knowledge and skills by passing these to the next generation in the family and the practice of endogamy. The caste system was not so static and rigid as many think it to be. People have been adopting occupations which may not have been traditionally meant for their caste. Many persons of lower castes were given due recognition and respect for their spiritual and literary achievements. Men and women of different castes travelled together in packed coaches of trains during the British period, implying thereby that the caste system did not prohibit intermingling of castes at the social level. From time to time various social reformers endeavoured to eliminate caste based discrimination.

Chanakya explains the Varna Vyavastha from the Great Vedas

The Positive Contribution
            Is it that the caste system has only negatives associated with it? Or, did it have some positive side also? Indian civilization is the oldest civilization on earth. How did this civilization survive so long? Possibly, because its social structure was much robust than any other civilization.  Also, may be because it could preserve and expand its knowledge-base in a manner, no other civilization could. Thus a stable caste structure helped in passing on the knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. The knowledge was preserved by tradition of ‘Shruti’ (receiving the oral knowledge from the Guru) and ‘Smriti’ (storing the knowledge in memory), which became possible because of the caste structure.  The skills required for making various kinds of handicrafts and other products could be preserved and refined due to the caste based skill specialization and skill inheritance. No wonder, Indian handicrafts and textiles were exported across the seven seas and the Indian economy was the world’s most prosperous economy throughout a major period in the recorded history. 

The Tripod Framework and the Caste System
In my earlier post (The Tripod Framework: A Compass We Need While Sailing On High Seas), I had proposed a ‘Tripod Framework’ for prioritizing life goals. The quality of life is dependent on our achievements in three distinct spheres. The economic sphere deals with production of goods and services which are required for a comfortable physical existence. The spiritual sphere deals with life enriching activities like literature, arts, music, religion etc. The third sphere, namely the socio-political sphere, is about all social and political structures and institutions which are necessary to maintain a peaceful and harmonious environment to facilitate unhindered pursuit of activities in the first two spheres. It is necessary that the society excels in all three spheres for being a vibrant and sustainable civilization.
       The caste system addressed the needs of all the three spheres for the society. Thus, Brahmins were required to deal with issues in the spiritual sphere by nurturing a religious, spiritual and philosophical environment to facilitate enrichment of lives through spiritual endeavours. The Kshatriyas were required to focus on the socio-political sphere to devise ways and means for providing internal and external security so that law and order could be maintained.  The other two varnas, namely Vaishyas and Shudras, were required to look after the economic sphere. Shudras were the producers (artisans, farmers etc.) and the service providers (barbers, washer-men, masons and labourers etc). Vaishyas were the financiers and marketers of the goods so produced. Thus the caste system provided a very stable framework for addressing every need of the society.

The Caste based Discrimination as Sunk Costs
            In management and economics there is a concept of ‘Sunk Costs’.  Sunk costs are those costs which were incurred in the past and which cannot be recovered in the present. Thus these costs are irrecoverable and hence sunk. The theory says that the sunk costs, being irrelevant for the present, should not influence the decision making. Though, psychologically it is difficult to ignore the sunk costs. Similarly, conflicts, discrimination or humiliation the Indian society had to undergo due to rigid caste system, is a sunk cost to the society. This sunk cost should not influence our decisions about the kind of future we want to build for ourselves.

The Way Forward
            It is clear that with development of modern means for preservation of knowledge and skills, the caste system has lost its relevance. The caste based divisions are prone to exploitation by forces inimical to the welfare of the society. The opportunistic elements like the politicians have been exploiting the caste divisions for their vested interests. Caste has become an easy tool for segmentation and positioning by the political marketers but with dangerous consequences. However, caste identities are so well entrenched in the society that they cannot be obliterated overnight.  In a society where arranged marriage is the norm, the practice of endogamy cannot be changed so easily. But as society opens up due to migration and education, the caste-boundaries will surely diminish if not vanish altogether.

            It is imperative that we have to transcend the caste boundaries to become one people and one nation. We cannot let the future be the captive of the past. We must forget whatever happened in the past and focus on what we can do now for making our future bright. At various forums on social media, I find people bragging about their caste identities. There is no problem about being proud of what you are as long as it is not intended to denigrate others. When we think of India, it is sum total of all caste/religious groups. When we feel proud of what India has achieved in the past, we must remember that it is a collective achievement of all the castes and groups. Every caste had some special quality and played a special role in enriching this civilization. Some cultivated knowledge, some excelled in bravery and martial arts, some produced world class goods and many others enriched the society by their endeavour to serve quietly. Every caste contributed its bit in helping the civilization survive and flourish. Let’s be proud of each other.



  1. Dear Sunil,
    Congratulations for writing such a vivid description of caste system, its origin, chronological functioning, degradation, opportunistic exploitation, effect of british raj and most importantly the benefits.
    I wonder that no body is realising the advantage of preserving knowledge at minimal cost which was so naturally available in the country through caste system. It is again to realise that this system remains even now with changed nomenclature of "group" or "class" in govt. service. The old kshatriyas are known as politicians now. The rising cost of education is another ill effect of deviating fron the original culture where the education was free for the deserving candidate. There was discrimation based on natural talent only. Even lord krishna drew the chariot of Arjuna which was considered to be a so called low profession. The importance of this act of lord is known to all. I totality a wonderful writing. Keep it up.


  2. Good post. Agree that the way forward is a sort of 'back to the Vedas' fundamental re-examination of Vedic memes such as Purushasookta. We are all Purusha, and therefore all 4 varnas are within each of us. The varna-jaati mapping is outdated.

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