What is Caste?

 An Introduction

In India, caste is a hotly disputed topic. The word 'cast' is derived from the Spanish word 'Casta,' which means' breed.' In India, it refers to caste and the social practices that go with it. The caste system has a lot of effects on Indian social life since it assigns ascribed rank to its members.

According to the Rig Veda, the oldest and most important of all four Vedas, there are four Varnas: Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, who are arranged in a hierarchical order. Priests and teachers are the professions of brahmans. Warriors and rulers, the Kshatriyas. Traders and other common folk make up the Visayas (Vis). Shudras are the lowest-ranking members of society, performing menial chores. Some historians believe that there is a fifth Varna, the untouchables, who are not considered members of society. Tribes and adherents of other religions are likewise excluded from the Varna system.

People are born into a caste, and their caste membership is defined by their birth. An individual's caste cannot be changed. However, there have been times where castes as a whole have claimed a greater rank in society as a result of improved economic status and lifestyle changes. Such accusations may not be recognized by the mayor. The ruling castes may be offended by the claim. Even if the allegation is approved, the caste system will continue to exist. However, the degree of rigidity of the caste system in India has changed as a result of Sanskritization, intercaste marriage, and educational growth.

According to G.S. Ghurye, a noted anthropologist, caste has six characteristics:
  1. Hierarchy: The superior-subordinate connection between distinct persons and groups is known as a hierarchy. Every culture has a hierarchy in some form or another, but the principles used to determine the hierarchy change from one society to the next. In India, caste is the most important factor in determining social status. A caste's position in the hierarchy is determined by the degree of ceremonial purity and impurity associated with it. The factors that determine success are neither wealth or power. Because of his higher ceremonial rank, a Brahmin with a lower economic status than a Rajput is given a superior position. 

    However, while political and economic variables certainly play a role in establishing the caste's position, sociologists have pointed up that high ceremonial rank does not always equate to higher social status. As an example. While a Rajput may not play as significant a role in ritual as a Brahamin, he is unlikely to grant the Brahmin a higher position in other areas. 

    A dominating caste, according to sociologist M. N. Srinivasan, is a caste in a community with a sufficiently high ceremonial rank, numerical strength, and material resources such as land, riches, and power. A caste's position in the hierarchy is maintained by a mixture of these elements. The ruling caste frequently plays a significant role in village politics and social life.
  2. Segmented Division of Society: Castes are well-developed social groups in which membership is determined by birth rather than selection. Individual rights and responsibilities are governed by caste councils, which exist in every caste. These councils have extensive authority over their members' social lives. They can maintain order by enforcing penalties for a range of offences. Adultery, causing bodily harm to others, and murder are examples of crimes that can result in fines, physical punishment, or even the death penalty. Many castes have their own gods and goddesses who aren't associated with the wider religious tradition. As a result, caste enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy in dealing with issues affecting its members, and is free of government constraints.
  3. Restrictions on Feeding and Social Intercourse: The exchange of prepared food between castes is governed by a set of laws and regulations. Particular castes will only eat certain foods prepared by members of other castes. Food is separated into two categories: pakka and kacha. Pakka, which is made with ghee, is regarded superior to kacha, which is made with water. A Brahmin can only eat pakka meal from Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, not Shudras or untouchables. Kshatriyas, on the other hand, will accept kacha food from Brahmins but only pakka food from Vaishyas who are lower than them. The differences in food offering and taking are based on the caste ranks involved.

    The maintaining of social isolation between different castes exemplifies such distinctions. Caste statuses are reflected in the physical gap between castes. In traditional Kerala society, for example, a Nayar may approach but not touch a Nambudri, however a member of the Tiya caste (lower than the Nayar caste) must maintain a 36-step distance from the Nambudri.
  4. Civil and Religious Disabilities and Privileges of Different Castes: In the hierarchy, different castes have different rights and benefits. As a result, social life is segregated along caste lines. Impure castes are separated in north Indian villages, while pure castes coexist. All castes are divided in South India. In Tamil Nadu, for example, areas where caste Hindus live are referred to as Ur, while areas where dalits live are referred to as Cheri. The village is a long way away from the Cheri.

    Ghurye uses examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to demonstrate how these impairments were imposed. Shudras, for example, were forbidden from wandering on temple streets in Viakom, a town in the princely kingdom of Travancore. The situation was transformed by a nationwide protest led by notable figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Periyar against these discriminatory practises. Similarly, a Shudra could not enter Pune in the morning or sunset since their lengthy shadows would taint individuals of the upper caste. We also see disparities in the treatment of people who commit identical offences. For example, if a Brahmin was caught stealing, he was just fined, whereas a Shudra was subjected to physical punishment for the identical offence.

    Shudras had liabilities associated with his caste status, which were reinforced by religious activities. They were unable to enter the sanctum sanctorum, the most sacred area of the temple. This privilege was only given to Brahmins. Even today, discrimination against lower caste individuals exists in rural regions. We frequently hear of caste violence as a result of higher caste people refusing to allow lower caste individuals to participate in a wedding or funeral procession on the main thoroughfare.
  5. Lack of Unrestricted Choice of Occupation: Each caste had a traditionally given occupation, and membership in the caste was hereditary. Regardless of an individual's abilities and capabilities, he was forced to work in the caste's occupation. Similarly, each occupation was associated with a certain caste. As a result, each caste has only one vocation, which was based solely on the presence of that caste. Because he was born into a Brahmin household, only a Brahmin could become a priest. Caste was used to determine who received an education. Young members would be paired with senior members to learn the caste's occupation skills. There was no such thing as universal or common education. Despite such limits on employment, sociologists have pointed out that certain occupations, including as weaving, agriculture, and military service, were open to all castes.

    The jajmani system governed economic interactions between the various castes in pre-modern periods. For the landlords, each service caste performed a certain job. They used to be compensated in kind, usually on an annual basis. There was a client-patron connection between the lower castes and the higher ones. Their relationship has evolved in modern times.
  6. Endogamy: Endogamy is a marital practice in which members of a group marry from within their own ranks. Endogamy is a significant feature of the caste system. Endogamy exists at the subcaste level in several castes. Even though they are both Tamil Brahmins, Iyers and Iyengars may not marry one other. 

    However, there are a few exceptions to the norm. Hypergamy and hypogamy are the two exceptions. Hypergamy occurs when a higher caste man marries a lower caste woman, while hypogamy occurs when a lower caste man marries a higher caste woman. Hypergamy is permitted, but hypogamy is strictly prohibited. If a lower caste family's daughter is accepted by a higher caste man and family, it is a matter of status. Marriage between a male Nambudri and a Nair woman is an example of this custom.


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