History of India’s Caste System
The caste system in India is one of the oldest forms of social structures. Its roots can be traced to nearly 2000 years ago. Manu Smriti a book regarded as an authority of Hindi law justifies this system as a need to maintain order and regularity in the society. Originally caste system was created for the division of labour but soon it began hereditary and rigid.
Origin and Structure of The Caste System
The four different groups are
- Brahmins: They consist of teachers and intellectuals.
- Kshatriyas: They are the warriors and rulers.
- Vaishyas: They are traders and businessmen.
- Shudras: They are the people who did menial jobs and served the other three castes.
The exact origin of the caste system is not known but in Hindu religion, it is believed that it originated from Brahma, Hindu God of creation. Accordingly, it is believed that Brahmins originated from the forehead, Kshatriyas from the hands, Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet of Brahma.
Later more castes and sub-castes developed. Outside the caste system were the Dalits or untouchables. They were considered impure and mere contact with them caused contamination. They could not eat with others or visit temples and pray with others. They could not draw water from the well used by higher castes. Even their shadow could not fall on any member of the upper caste.
Features of the caste system
Divisions of society and hierarchy
Each caste had its own social group and lived in segregated colonies. A strict hierarchy was maintained in places of interaction. Caste and occupation were hereditary. Members of each caste had a particular name which referred to their caste or profession.
Endogamy or marriage within members of the caste was strictly followed. Violations could lead to ostracism and loss of caste.
The Caste system had rigid rules when it came to food. Members of higher castes would not accept food or water from members of lower castes. Even vessels were separate. Food cooked by Brahmins could be eaten by all. Cleanliness and purity were given highest importance and wells were separate.
The caste system led to the exploitation of lower castes by the higher castes.
The caste system in India today
Despite the passage of time and rule by Muslim and British, caste system continues. Even people who convert to Islam or Christianity continue to hold their hierarchy. The Indian Constitution has banned caste discrimination. Quotas for the lower castes; and Scheduled Castes & Tribes in government jobs and educational institutions are being given to removing disparity.
Leaders like Gandhi worked hard to abolish untouchability. Leaders from lower castes have also been successful in abolishing this system. Dr Ambedkar a renowned social reformer and KR Narayan first Dalit President of India are few examples.
Urbanization has helped to remove social grouping. Inter-caste marriages and intermingling in schools and residential areas have increased.
However, the caste system has raised its ugly head politically. Electoral voting tends to be caste based. This is creating division in society and politicians should avoid fanning these flames.