The term caste comes from the Portugese casta (breed, lineage) and was coined by Portuguese travelers to India in reference to the social, economic, and religious system they witnessed. The traditional Hindu term is varna, and its earliest meanings include color, covering, tribe, and species. The caste system is easily the most controversial aspect of the Hindu tradition. It is defended as a religious expression of one’s progression toward liberation or as a formalized division of labor. Alternatively, it is condemned as a form of systematized oppression and racism. Either way, it generates emotional and rhetorical assertions on both sides of the discussion.
The first mention of the fourfold division of society that serves as the basis of the system is found in the Rig Veda, one of the most ancient and sacred of the Hindu holy writings. The earliest elucidation of the system appears in the Laws of Manu, the authoritative law book (3rd century BCE-3rd century CE) that sets forth the duties and restrictions for members of each varna. For orthodox Hindus, this text remains the ultimate authority in most caste matters. In addition to varna, there are several additional sub-categories in the system, especially jati and gotra. Each category influences aspects of the lives of its members. Taken together, they have traditionally predetermined, to a large extent, almost every facet of the lives of Hindus in India.
It is uncertain as to when one’s varna became determined by birth rather than occupation and role in the society. However, in early writings claiming to contain the words and teaching of the Buddha, already there are criticisms of the system and of deciding one’s worth based on birth rather than actions. Nevertheless, once birth became the primary, or even sole, determinant, and caste became a closed group, it also came to determine, for the most part, one’s occupation and possibilities for economic advancement, one’s sphere of association and access to social involvement, one’s marriage choices, and finally one’s place in the developing religious hierarchy and access to religious activities and rituals.
The ancient system divided society into four varnas. The Brahmin was the priestly and learned caste. The duty of its members was to teach the others knowledge and wisdom and to oversee and lead the religious life of the community. The warrior and rule caste was called Kshatriya. The duties of its members were to protect and rule, in order to maintain a safe and stable society. The Vaisya were the agriculturalists and merchants. They grew and provided food and other necessities to the community. The lowest caste was the Shudra, which consisted of the laborers and servants. Their duty was to serve the other castes by doing all the menial and difficult physical tasks. Eventually, a fifth caste was added, the Panchama, or Antyaja, the “Untouchable.” Members of this caste were actually placed outside the system (avarna), either because of alleged transgressions made against established rules of conduct or because of the defiling nature of their occupations. Their duties involved cleaning up after all the other castes and undertaking those tasks that were too impure and polluting for the others castes to perform.
Thus, of the five castes, only members of the upper four are considered varna Hindu. Of the four, only the upper three are called “twice-born.” This term comes from a rite of passage ritual available to their male members, which qualifies them to learn Sanskrit, study the sacred scriptures, and participate in Vedic rituals. The mark of this status is the donning of the sacred thread, known as yagyapavitra or janeu. Of the three twice-born castes, the upper two are called “high caste,” and some religious rituals and institutions have been limited to their male members only.
The religious justification for varna is closely tied to the concept of transmigration of the soul. It is based in the belief that the individual soul experiences countless lifetimes in its path to enlightenment and that one’s birth in the present life is a direct consequence of knowledge gained and karma accrued from previous lives. Thus, one who has lived many lifetimes and has advanced on the path toward wisdom and enlightenment will be born into a higher caste, while a soul that is not as far along the path or that has accrued appreciable negative karma from past bad actions will be born into a lower caste. Therefore, the varna into which one is born reflects the dominant qualities of the individual, with those born into the higher castes having more positive and refined qualitites and characteristics, while those born into the lower castes have more base, negative, and unrefined characteristics.
The true functional unit of the caste system for everyday life in India is the jati, or subcaste, of which there are literally thousands. The development of individual jatis over the millennia is the result of many factors, including the assimilation of foreign groups who migrated to India in sufficient numbers to create their own communities, as well as the development of new religious sects that would also form their own endogamous communities. Primarily, however, jati formation seems to have been occupational. When a particular craft was developed, those families whose members focused on performing the skill would typically come to be identified with it, and eventually a new subcaste would form within the larger caste structure. In many ways, this development mimicked that of the European guild system, in which artisans and craftsman formed associations based on their specific skills and specializations. Because each craftsman tended to teach his skill to his offspring, one’s craft was often the result of birth. In a similar fashion, jati, like varna, apparently began as a division of artisan professions but ended up a birth determined category. The elaboration of jatis brought with it the development of reciprocal relationships between the various subcastes, both within a particular varna as well as between them. The common Indian term used to refer to the system of occupational and reciprocal interrelationships is the jajmani system. Although there was a great proliferation of jatis, mostly within the merchant and servant castes, there was very little change in their status within the overall caste hierarchy. With exceptions, jatis within a caste have generally existed on a horizontal relationship with each other, as opposed to a vertical one.
Although many no longer pursue their traditional crafts, jatis continue to exist with their own distinctive customs, rules, and internal structural hierarchy. While there has always been, for various reasons, some degree of intermarriage between jatis in the same varna, they have tended to remain endogamous, which keeps the relationships of the members close-knit. Jatis are typically controlled by local and regional caste organizations and boards, or panchayats, and leaders tend to have a great deal of influence in the internal functioning of the group and the activities of its members. For example, when Mahatma Gandhi wished to travel to England to get a law degree, his local subcaste leaders forbade him to do so. In his day, there was a religious restriction against crossing the ocean, since it was believed that one would not be able to adhere to purity rules on the journey. Gandhi went against the prohibition and was ostracized from his jati.
Each jati is made up of multiple gotras. A gotra (literally, cowshed) is a patrilineal clan group that claims ancestral lineage to famous ancient figures. Brahmin gotras, for example, trace their ancestry to one of eight sages believed to have been connected to portions of the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures. Initially, the only varna that had gotra was Brahmin, but eventually all castes, nearly all jatis, and even Jains, adopted the tradition. Today, gotras number in the thousands, and some jatis have up to 100 or more.
Gotras are also important aspects of identity. In some, male members would wear distinctive garb or hairstyle to distinguish themselves from other gotras. Various orthodox rituals, especially rites of passage, require both name and gotra identification of the beneficiary as a part of the preparatory rites. When a jati panchayat meets, a member or leader of each gotra is supposed to be represented. When one has a dispute with another member of the same jati in a village, it is often the gotra heads who will be called upon to mediate. In some jatis, decisions by gotra heads carry the weight of law and are rarely disputed.
Because gotras are viewed as extended families, they are exogamous. Marriage, then, occurs within one’s jati, but outside one’s gotra. Like last name, a female adopts the gotra of her husband. Most jatis strictly prohibit marriage within one’s gotra but allow marriage to a member of any other gotra within the jati. One of the only added limitations for most jatis is between offspring of a brother and sister, even though the children are of different gotra.
Caste as Indian, Caste as Hindu
There has been an ongoing debate for several decades on the role of caste in India, as opposed to caste in Hinduism. This is because caste can be found in non-Hindu religious traditions in the country as well. Although many will not admit it, caste plays a role in Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity in India. It is true that it is a holdover from caste consciousness among Hindus, but it has clearly become a reality in those traditions. At the same time, Hinduism outside of India is essentially caste free. Thus, caste as a social hierarchy and ranking has become more endemic to the land than to the religious tradition. For those who are against caste, this is both positive and negative. It is positive in that it shows that Hinduism can exist without caste, but it is negative in that it suggests that India may not be able to exist without it, at least rural India.
Caste in Modern India
The varna system continues to have its supporters, especially in the rural areas, especially those at the top of the hierarchy. They see it as necessary for social stability and for the maintenance of traditional values and institutions. At the same time, those who defend the system generally acknowledge that the long-standing and inherent prejudice against avarna Hindus should be removed. They envision a system that returns to one based strictly on a division of labor. The problem here is that occupational exclusivity of subcastes has been dying away since the 19th century. Some of the only professions that remain primarily caste or subcaste restricted include the work of priests at the top and most avarna occupations at the bottom. Those at the bottom of the system, on the other hand, see nothing positive in it at all. While the occupational elements of the system are ending, the inherent social prejudices connected with it are more resistant to change.
Diaspora Hinduism and Caste
In the early 1800s, the British government began the system of indentured servitude, whereby it sent more than one million impoverished, primarily rural, Indians to work British plantations in the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa, creating the Hindu Diaspora. The vast majority of Hindus who participated were from Shudra or Untouchable families and did so both for economic as well as social reasons. They sought to craft a new life for themselves in their new lands, and they left caste identity behind in the process. Consequently, Diaspora Hinduism is essentially caste free. Not only has this not hurt the practice of Hinduism in Diaspora lands, but it has benefited it in many ways. The intercaste tension and discrimination that seems natural and commonplace does not exist, and this allows Hindus in those lands to more freely interact, intermarry, and work together toward common goals.
Challenges to Caste
Ever since the early days of the development of Buddhism, more than two millennia ago, there has been criticism or the caste system. Buddha himself is said to have rejected the system for his followers. Nearly all the founders of new religious movements since that time, especially devotional movements, have echoed the Buddha’s call for rejection of caste. Yet it persists. However, as Indian society is becoming more urban, adopting Western-style education and social values, the caste system is becoming less and less relevant. In the larger cities, socioeconomic class has become the basis for the hierarchy, and it appears that a similar pattern will eventually occur in villages as well. Nevertheless, the varna system still has a great deal of influence in India even though the original purpose of the system has been lost. For the most part, all that remains is a purposeless hierarchical structure that continues to keep those on top in power and those at the bottom relatively powerless.
- Kolenda, P. (1981). Caste, cult, and hierarchy. Merrut, India: Folklore Institute.
- Sharma, K. L. (1986). Caste, class, and social movements. Jaipur, India: Rawat.
- Zinkin, T. (1962). Caste today. London: Oxford University Press.