Vast Literature On Caste System In India Sociology Essay


There is a vast literature on Caste system in India with a long and diverse background. This chapter aims to review some of the relevant literatures pertaining to the caste system prevailing in India. Different authors might have varied perceptions about this particular topic for discussion.

According to Louis Dumont (1980) in his book Homo Hierarchicus which has details about the caste system and its implication, demonstrates that Indian society was structured on a firm notion of hierarchy that was based on the relationship between the pure and the impure. It is more of a religious than a political or economic notion. He defines hierarchy as “the principle by which the elements of a whole are ranked in relation to the whole, it being understood that in the majority of societies it is religion which provides the view of the whole, and that the ranking will thus be religious in nature”(Dumont,L.1980). He also points out the prevalence of traditional hierarchy which was based on ‘varnas’ or colours whereby people were divided into four categories namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras and; untouchables are outside the classification.

M.N.Srinivas (1962) in his book Caste in Modern India and Other Essays, highlights the “part played by caste in democratic processes of modern India in administration and education”. The author came across certain conflicting attitudes among the people of the elite class whereby one group wanted legislation to eradicate the social evils pertaining to the caste system and on the other hand, there were people who were not only determined not to fight the evil but also tried to practise this system. In his work he tries to explain the concepts of two social processes namely ‘Sanskritization’ and Westernization. Sankritization is ‘the part of social mobility as well as the idiom in which mobility expresses itself’. This is said to occur within the framework of caste whereas Westernization happens outside the framework of caste. However, Sanskritisation may lead to caste’s becoming unpopular with their neighbours whereby the leaders of upper or dominant caste may show their bitterness by even torturing the members of the lower castes. In independent India, the reservations and safeguards granted to the backwards sections especially the Scheduled Caste and Tribes have helped in the upliftment of the lower caste. He also brings into notice the effects of British rule on the caste system which in a way helped in taking over the power previously exercised by the caste panchayats. A new principle of justice was introduced by the British which said “all men are equal before the law, and that the nature of a wrong is not affected by the caste of a person who is committing it, or by the caste of the person against whom it is committed” (M.N.Srinivas, 1962). This has not been fully followed in the rural areas where caste panchayats are still functioning strongly. The author argues that the ‘Varna’ system has certainly warped the caste but it has enabled ordinary folks to comprehend the caste system by providing them with a simple and candid system that is applicable to all parts of India. To the question of can castes exists in the India of tomorrow the author opines that only a minority considers caste as an evil to the whole nation and that this minority is gradually increasing every day. Moreover in rural areas it is possible to come across urbanized young people who consider caste detrimental to healthy relations between people. He concludes by saying that nothing else but the people themselves must understand that caste ‘necessarily means casteism and that benefits it offers are bought at a heavy price for the country as a whole’.

Taya.Zinkin (1962) in her book Caste Today describes the caste system in India. She considers its origin, the way it works, what democracy is doing to caste and vice versa. In her work she states that caste is not class and that every caste has educated and uneducated, rich and poor, well born and ordinary born. The author also says that caste is not dependent on colour because a Brahmin will not stop being a Brahmin if he is black skinned nor does an untouchable stop being one if he is fair skinned. She also argues that caste is not based on occupation, however various other literatures may not completely agree to what this author states. According to her “caste is a way of life which divides society into small groups, each of which lives in a rather different way from the rest”. Due to these differences, tiny groups and important aspects of life like marriage take place within them, these groups have immense control of power and thus a better survival. Before she goes into the details of castes, sub- castes and untouchability she tries to explain the concept of re- incarnation. It is said that the whole system is based upon a combination of status fixed by birth and rebirth. This means that a person’s birth in the existing life depends on the consequences of his deeds done in past life i.e. if one performs his duties well complying with what he is supposed to do then he may be reborn in a better situation or not be reborn at all. Marriage customs vary with castes and sub-castes. Untouchables usually make late marriages unlike the Brahmins who make early arranged child marriages. Finally Tan Zinkin(1962) talks about the beginnings of the breakdown and the loss of belief of the Hindu society. Change of attitudes among the castes and sub-castes were witnessed. “More recently, loss of belief has been the result, of the spread of education to the rural areas. With education came an arousing of new expectations, which through much of the Indian peninsula produced a new non-Brahmanical leadership, a leadership which was not only non- Brahmin but positively anti -Brahmin” (Tan Zinkin, 1962.pp38).

Tan Zinkin has been pretty much argumentative on the concept of caste. She strongly says what caste in not rather than what caste is. The theory about re incarnation has helped me to know more about the birth and rebirth cycle with regard to the caste system.

Marc Galanter (1963.pp 544-559) in his article Law and Caste in Modern India focuses on caste and laws pertaining to it during the British rule in India. He describes the way in which the legal rules and regulations affect the caste as an institution. The legal view of caste is explained under three headings namely personal law, caste autonomy and precedence and disabilities. First being legal rights and obligations of a person which is determined by the identity of the caste group to which he belongs. During the British period caste was little used for the occurrence of legal regulation and moreover all castes irrespective of their ranks had to follow the same rights and duties. However caste customs varied when it came to law of succession, law of adoption and law of marriage. Marriages between different castes or varnas were not allowed. Caste autonomy conferred some right to the caste groups to enforce certain rules which were not disturbed by the government. Precedence and disabilities dealt with the legal interventions with regard to the relations between castes. Courts imposed certain rules such as restriction on the entry of a particular caste into temples. This shows that even though the British did help in reducing the caste discrimination, on the other hand they ended up aggravating it to a certain extent. The author also talks about the independent India where the higher castes have lost their dominance over legal matters and moreover the lower ahs castes have acquired certain government benefits regarding equality and other preferential treatments. Marc Galanter (1963) concludes this essay by saying that “British period may be considered as a period of’Sanskritzation’ in legal notion of caste”. (1963.pp559)

“Caste- based oppression in India lives today in an environment seemingly hostile to its presence: a nation-state that has long been labelled the “world’s Largest democracy,” a progressive and protective constitution; a system of laws designed to proscribe and punish acts of a discrimination on the basis of caste; broad- based programmes of affirmative action that include constitutionally mandated reservations or quotas for Dalits or so- called Untouchables; and a aggressive economic liberalization campaign to fuel India’s economic growth.” Says Smitha Narula(2008) in her article Equal by Law, Unequal by Caste: The ‘Untouchable’ Condition in Critical Race Perspective. The author talks about the caste system and the discrimination attached to it and the inequality witnessed in India today focusing on the caste and gender- based discrimination and its impact on the Dalits of India.

Dr.Santosh Singh Anant(1972) in his work The Changing Concept of Caste in India enumerates the psychological aspects of caste, inter- caste relations and of untouchability. He comments on the theory of ‘status consistency’ and it is defined as “the extent to which an individual’s rank positions on a given hierarchies are at a comparable level (Rush, 1967). A Brahmin working as peon in an office and an untouchable or anyone from the lower caste working as a senior officer would be an apt example for status inconsistency. This is however happening due to the spread of education. He brings in one of the several views about the origin of caste system which dates back to 1500 B.C with the advent of Aryans from Central Asia. According to Nehru (1960) The Dravdians were the conquered race and Aryans the conquerors. Since the Dravidians were advanced in their civilization, Aryans considered them to be a potential threat to them. This is considered to be one of reasons why Aryans tried to push the Dravidians to an inferior position and thus created the theory of four- Varnas or the caste system. The author also points out that socio-economic factors such as education, industrialization, and increase in mobility have abated the rate of discrimination of caste system.

Sree Narayana Guru the Ascetic Who Changed the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ into God’s Own Country is a biography written by Murkot Ramunny about a saint who lived in Kerala state in the Southern part of India. Narayana Guru was a philosopher as well as reformer who immensely contributed to the upliftment of lower castes in Kerala. He helped in bringing about freedom of prayer and education to millions of under privileged in Kerala. It is due to his selfless service to the society that Kerala has attained 100 percent literacy rate compared to other states in India. The author in his article informs us that, even the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi paid him a visit and took inspiration from Guru for the social Upliftment of the lower casts or Harijans (Untouchables). One caste one religion one god for man was his motto. “It is years since I left caste and religion. Even then some people are working on presumption that I belong to their community. As a result, a wrong impression has been created in the minds of the people. I do not belong to any caste or religion. In order that only people who do not belong to any caste or religion should succeed me” (Narayana Guru, 1091). This piece of literature has helped me in this dissertation to know more about the caste system prevalent in the state of Kerala.

According to Harsh Mandir, in his article Burning Baskets of Shame (2010 August 9.pp3), he illustrates a real incident of manual scavenging which had happened in India couple of years back. The statistics shown by him in this article concerning the number of people doing manual scavenging was about 6.4 lacs according to the Planning Commission in 1995. He describes about a campaign named ‘Safai Karmchari Andolan’ (SKA) which was started as a non-violent mass resistance to end this hideous practice of Manual Scavenging. This campaign was started by an individual who himself was born into a scavenging family who witnessed this abhorring practice from his childhood. As reported by Harsh Mandir in this article SKA is the first movement to end Untouchability in India. But it should be right to say that this was one of the many movements which had taken place in different part of India during different period.

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In the article The Indian Caste System by Madhudvisa Dasa (August 9, 2010) he tries to explain the caste system in relation to what has been written in the ancient scriptures. He quotes certain ideas from the Holy Book of Hindus, The Bhagavad Gita. The author sheds some light on the’Vedas’, which says that the Varnas or castes are not differentiated on the basis of birth but my mere qualification (Guna) and work (karma). He assumes that the present caste system has degenerated to the extent that people consider men born in Brahmin families as a Brahmin even if he does not exhibit the qualities of a Brahmin. The author agrees to the fact that one takes rebirth according to his past deeds or ‘karma’ but at the same time he says that in order to become a Brahmin adequate training is required and that it is not conferred automatically by birth as seen in the present generation.

India’s “hidden apartheid” (UNESCO Courier, 2001.pp27-29); an article written by Gopal Guru and Shiraz Sidhva criticizes the abhorrent caste system in India. The article opens with a note which says “India’s ancient caste system persists, subjecting millions to degrading poverty and human rights abuses. Attitudes die hard, despite government legislations to usher in change.” They comment on the caste system as a means of deployment by the upper caste to suppress the lower caste and thus attain a monopoly over the wealth, knowledge, power and education. The extent of discrimination was immense that these so called untouchables were forced to use drums in order to announce their arrival so that the upper caste is not polluted even by their shadow falling on them. This article informs us that the term ‘untouchables’ was abolished in 1950 under the constitution of India but there still exists a glimpse of discrimination against them. India has however tried to reduce the discrimination by reserving quotas and reservations for the lower castes in education and for government jobs.

Caste in doubt: The Indian Census and Caste (2010.June 12, pp46), an article which had been recently published in ‘The Economist’ has details about the reservations and quotas being introduced for the lower castes. This article also brings into notice the issue relating to the inclusion of caste system in the census which is to be declared in the ten yearly plan in 2011. However this had been faced with criticisms because since 1931 India has not counted caste in the census. Moreover it is impossible for it be included in the census because India’s caste system has not only the four Varnas but also various other sub-castes which may not be evidently recognised by the authorities. In spite of certain obstacles, the economic growth of the country has contributed to the lessening of discrimination on the basis of caste because a number of individuals have moved from the rigid social surroundings to the urban towns and cities in search of jobs where family background is irrelevant. “Many Indians are becoming caste- blind and marrying across caste lines. Anidhrudda, a 20 year old software engineer in Calcutta, says his inter-caste marriage was no big deal. But even he concedes that there are limits. If he had married a dalit, he says, ‘my family would not have been able to face the society'” (The Economist, 2010.pp46).

Leaders: Untouchables and Unthinkable; Indian Business (The Economist.2007.pp17) is an article which highlights the point that says that Indian business does not discriminate against the Untouchables or lower castes. Moreover, it condemns the practice of reservation in private sector because it would damage the whole business system. “Responsibility for lower castes’ lack of advancement does not lie with the private sector. There is no evidence that companies discriminate against them. The real culprit is government and the rotten educational system it has created” (The Economist.2007.pp17).It is not possible to have reservations in Business like they have it educational systems. This article says that as people get richer their concern about the caste fades. Nowadays middle class Indian families are to be seen marrying outside their caste than the rural poor and less likely to wrinkle their nose at a Dalit.

Harold A. Gould in his work The Adaptive Functions of Caste in Contemporary India (1963.pg427) informs us that caste has not fully disappeared even with the advent of modern technology and other social structural changes. His research found out that in rural areas, the existence of caste in the form of ritual purity, occupation, and system of hierarchy still exists in its own way. In contemporary India, however caste system has not disappeared completely but has declined in the urban areas among the educated middle class families.

From the above review of Literature and from various other reliable sources it can be understood that it is not possible to witness an India without a small aspect of Caste system. This is because it has been deeply rooted in the minds of Indians since ages and it still continues in certain spheres of their life. Caste system has been a topic of great interest to the Westerners as it fascinates them about the two ideologies- of caste system being important and not being important, existing within the same country and people. Recent articles from The Economist which are mentioned above, mainly talks about the reservations and quotas based on caste rather than discriminating against them on the basis of ritual purity and occupation. However it is not completely true to say that caste system has vanished from the Indian society. “Educated Indians know that caste exists, but they are unclear and troubled about what it means for them as members of the society that is a part of the modern world. No one can say that it is easy to give a clear and consistent account of the meaning and significance of caste in India today” (Fuller.C.J, 1996.Caste Today.pp153)




Approximately 250 words