The Caste System In India


What is the caste system in India you may ask? The same question was asked by those who assigned the word 'caste' to explain this social system peculiar to India. The word 'caste' has been derived from the Portugese word 'casta', meaning 'breed or lineage.'

When the Portugese colonialists came to India in 1498, they found a perplexing social system and discrimination prevalent among the people of this new land. Try as they may, they were unable to explain this system to their rulers, and began calling it 'casta,' whose anglicized form is 'caste.'

This 'casta' or the Indian caste system, the social structure that the Portugese referred to, has been in vogue for over 3500 years, introduced by Aryan invaders.

The Aryans assimilated themselves into three stratas. The first was of the warriors called 'Kshatrya,' while the second was of the priests called 'Brahmans.'

These two groups struggled for leadership among the Aryans and, while the Kshatriyas were away conquering new territory or defending existing ones, the Brahmans edged them out of the top spot through learning and through introducing religious laws.

The third strata was of the traders, farmers and craftsmen called 'Vaisya.' The Aryans, who controlled parts of North India subjugated the locals, making Vaisyas landlords and the businessmen of society, while the locals became the peasants and the craftsmen of the society.

At the same time, the Aryans set about social and religious rules which permitted only these strata to be the priests, warriors, businesmen and any other positions of privelege and prominence.

Later, non-Aryan indigenes were added to the caste system according to their profession into a fourth tier namely the 'Sudra' consisting of two communities. One was of the locals subdued by the Aryans and the other were the descendants of the Aryans with locals.

(Other foreigners in ancient India - Greeks, Huns, Scythains and others were integrated in the Kshatriya strata, but history has it that the Aryan policy was not to integrate original Indian communities within them and, hence, many Indian aristocratic and warrior communities did not get Kshatriya status).

Most of the indegene communities became part of the Sudras, each given its sub-place according to profession.

Those who, according to the Aryan beliefs and systems, professed non-polluting or unclean jobs, were integrated in Sudra Varna, while those professing polluted professions ( tanners, cobblers, barbers et al) were made outcastes or untouchables, also known even then as now as 'chandalas.'

Over time, the four groupings were given religious justification and sanction by attributing the caste system to have divine origins emerging from a portion of the Creator: Brahmans from the mouth of God, Kshatriyas from His arms, Viaishyas from His thighs, and Shudras from His feet. Those who are outcastes or untouchables, had no place in the Aryan scheme of society and therefore considered sub-human.

The caste rules were later codified as law by 'Manu', who created 'Manusmriti' - the caste system Bible.

The caste system is hereditary. One cannot appropriate another caste during one's life. Even in contemporary Hindu society, birth into a particular caste predetermines a person's dignity which cannot be changed by talent, education, wealth or achievement.

Intrinsically, the caste system survives on religion as casteism is deeply enshrined in Hindu reiligous scriptures.

These four original castes have been further subdivided over time and now there are over 3000 different castes among the low castes which, scholars state is a Brahminical ploy to insure their hegemony by giving each caste a sense of dominion over another, and therefore a sense of superiority that they are compelled to stick to in order retain self-worth.

This social system is prevalent in every nook and corner of India and spawns every aspect of human life in the country, largely predetermining an individual's social status, education, employment and social mobility.

Although a degree of casteism is practised among other faiths in the country due to a spill-over from their previous position in the caste system, it is only those who are born into Hindu families that come into the world with a caste tag and all that is tied to it.



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