Sociologists have defined caste or (as locally referred to) ‘jati’ as a “hereditary, endogamous, group which is usually localised. It has a traditional association with an occupation, and a particular position in the local hierarchy of castes. Relations between castes are governed, among other things by the concepts of pollution and purity, and generally maximum commensality i.e. interdining
occurs within the caste” (Srinivas 1962:3).
Varna and Caste
In theory, the caste system is interlinked with the ‘Varna’ model which divides the Hindu society into four orders, viz., Brahmana, (Brahman, traditionally, priest and scholar), Kshatriya (ruler and soldier), Vaishya (merchant) and Shudra (peasant, labourer and servant). The first three castes are ‘twice-born’ or ‘dvija’ since the men from these castes are entitled to don the sacred thread at the
Vedic rite of upanayana, which the Shudras were not allowed to perform.The untouchable castes are outside the varna scheme.
The term ‘varna’ literally means colour and it was originally used to refer to the distinction between Arya and Dasa, in ancient India. According to the Rig-Veda, it was not applied to any classes, such as Brahman, Kshatriya, etc. However, the classes which existed at that time later came to be described as varna and the original distinction between Arya and Dasa gave place to the distinction between Arya and Shudra (Ghurye 1950: 52).
(a) Perspectives on the study of caste systems:
Features of the Caste System
The main features of caste system are
iii) association with a hereditary occupation,
iv) restrictions on food and social intercourse,
v) distinction in custom, dress and speech, and
vi) civil and religious disabilities and privileges enjoyed by different sections
of the society (Ghurye 1950: 50).
The Hindu society is divided into segmental divisions of caste. Caste is an ascribed status since caste membership is acquired by birth. The hereditary caste groups are arranged into a social and ritual hierarchy, with Brahmans at the top, next the Kshatriyas, then Vaishyas followed by the Shudras. In the social hierarchy the lowest rung of the caste society is of the untouchables who are ritually the most impure. Thus, the concept of hierarchy forms the crux of the caste society. Each caste is considered to be more pure or impure than the other in the ritual sense of the term. The very shadow of some castes was once considered polluting. For example, in Tamil Nadu, the Shanar or
toddy tappers were to keep 24 paces away from a Brahman. In Kerala, a Nayar could approach a Nambudiri Brahman but could not touch him, and a member of Tiyyan caste was supposed to keep himself at a distance of 36 steps from a Brahman (Ghurye 1950). Therefore traditionally the castes
considered to be untouchable were forbidden entry into the upper-caste houses. In South India, even till the British period, certain parts of the town and cities were inaccessible to the untouchable castes.
Endogamy or marriage within one’s own caste or sub-caste group is an essential feature of caste system. It is one of the main reasons for the persistence of caste system. People generally married within one’s own caste group.
Each caste was also ranked higher or lower on the basis of the ritual purity or pollution of their associated occupations. Thus, the Chamar castes of north India were considered untouchables since their occupation involved use of leather.
Each caste had its own caste council or panchayat where the grievances of its caste members were heard. These caste-councils headed, generally by the elder members of that caste, had the power to excommunicate a member from his or her caste if they did not accept caste restrictions. Caste restrictions operate in marriage, commensality or inter-dining and general social intercourse, as
Caste Structure and Kinship
Caste structure is intimately related to the kinship system amongst the Hindus in India. The sole reason for this relationship lies in the endogamous nature of caste system. Caste is basically a closed system of stratification, since members are recruited on the criteria of ascribed status. In other words, an individual becomes a member of a caste in which he or she is born. Thus it is an ascribed
status. Even if there is social mobility in the caste system through the process of Sanskritisation, urbanisation, etc., it is only a positional change rather than a structural change.
A person remains the member of his/her caste irrespective of his/her individual status. Any movement in the structure occurs in the social mobility of the caste group in the local hierarchy of the society, which is only a shifting of its position from one level to another.
Kinship is a method or a system by which individuals as members of society relate themselves with other individuals of that society. There are two types of kinship bonds. One is consanguinal and the other is affinal. Consanguinal ties are ties of blood such as, between mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter, etc. Affinal ties are ties through marriage, such as, between husband and wife,
man and his wife’s brother, etc.
Kinship system found in various parts of India differs from each other in many respects. However, generally speaking, we can distinguish between the kinship system in the Northern region, the Central region and the Southern region.
North India is in itself a very large region, having innumerable types of kinship systems. This region includes the region between the Himalayas in the North and the Vindhyas in the South. In this region a person marries outside the village since all the members of one’s caste in a village are considered to be brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts. Marriage with a person inside the
village is forbidden. In fact, an exogamous circle with a radius of four miles can be drawn around a man’s village (Srinivas 1955: 12).
Hypergamy is practised in this region according to which a man takes a wife from a clan which is lower in status to his own clan. That is, a girl goes in marriage from a lower status group to a higher status group within a subcaste. The effect of this hypergamy and village exogamy is that it spatially widens the range of ties. Several villages become linked to each other through affinal and matrilateral links.
In his study of the Ramkheri village in Madhya Pradesh, Adrian Mayer (1960) not only described the Rajput caste and other sub-castes of the village but also the region around it as well.
The clans, lineages, and kutumbs are all part of the internal structure of the caste at the same time being part of the kinship organisation. These groups are all the time increasing and branching off with time.
The organisation of family in the northern region is mainly patriarchal and patrilocal. The lineage is traced through the male, i.e. patrilineal system is followed in this region. It is patriarchal because authority lies with the male head of the family and it is patrilocal because after marriage the bride is brought to reside in the house of the bridegroom’s father.
Generally, in most of the castes in the north such as the Jats, an agricultural caste of South Punjab, Delhi and Haryana the “four-clan” rule of marriage is followed. According to this rule,
i) a man cannot marry in the clan to which his father (and he himself) belongs;
ii) to which his mother belongs;
iii) to which his father’s mother belongs; and
iv) to which his mother’s mother belongs (Karve 1953).
In the northern region, therefore, marriage with cousins, removed even by two or three degrees is viewed as an incestuous union. In most parts of this region, as mentioned earlier, village exogamy is practised by most of the castes, especially the Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes. This rule is known in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab, as the rule of Sassan.
In Central India which includes Rajputana, the Vindhyas, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Orissa we find the general practice of caste endogamy. Hypergamy is most characteristic of the Rajputs of this region and village exogamy is also found in this region. However, in this region especially in Gujarat and Maharashtra amongst some caste communities we find cross-cousin marriages
being practised. Here there is a tendency for a man to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter. But marriage with the father’s sister’s daughter is taboo. The preference for a single type of cross-cousin marriage seems to move away from the taboo of marrying cousins of any class in the northern region. Thus, in many ways this preference suggests a closer contact with the practices of
the southern region.
The Southern region comprises the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where the Dravidian languages are spoken. This region is distinct from the northern and central regions of India in the sense that here we find basically preferential rules of marriage. Here a man knows whom he has to marry while in most areas in the north a man knows whom he cannot
Most of the parts of the Southern region except some, like the Malabar, follow the patrilineal family system. Here also we find exogamous social groups called gotras. The difference between the exogamous clans in the north is that a caste in a village is held to be of one patrician and therefore, no marriage is allowed within a village. Sometimes even a group of villages are supposed to be settled by one patrilineage and marriage between them is prohibited. In the South, there is no identification of a gotra with one village or territory. More than one inter-marrying clans may live in one village territory and practise inter-marriage for generations. Thus, the social groups, which are formed due to this kind of marriage pattern in the South shows a centripetal tendency (of
moving towards a centre) as against the centrifugal (of moving away from the centre) tendency of social groups found in north Indian villages. In the South, a caste is divided into a number of gotras. The first marriage creates obligations about giving and receiving daughters. Hence, within exogamous clans, small endogamous circles are found to meet inter-family obligations and a number
of reciprocal alliances are found in South Indian villages.
Apart from castes, which are patrilineal in the southern region, we also find some castes, such as the Nayars of Malabar district who follow matrilineal system of kinship. A typical Nayar household is made up of a woman, her sisters and brothers, her daughters and sons and her daughter’s daughters and sons. Amongst the Nayars, property passes from the mother to the daughter. But the authority even in this system lies with the brother, who manages the property and takes care of his sister’s children. Husbands only visit their wives in this system. The Nayar matrilineal house is called a Tharavad (see figure 20.2). Nayar is a broad category of castes of which not all of them follow the same kinship system (Dube 1974: 26)
Caste Structure and Occupation
All over India today we find that caste restrictions are not as meticulously observed as they were some decades ago. The hereditary association of caste with an occupation used to be a very striking feature of the caste system. It was so much a part of the caste system that some sociologists even argued that “caste is nothing more than a systematisation of occupational differentiation” (Srinivas 1965: 1-77). In fact, it can be said that caste was a system, which ensured an occupation to everyone, and therefore it was a method to control competition between social groups in the economic sphere. However, as Srinivas says, the occupational aspect of the caste system would have broken down completely in the context of a growing population, if not for the surplus population in all occupational categories like artisans, traders, servicing castes falling back on agriculture. Traditionally agriculture was a common occupation for all castes and Brahmans, Kshatriyas and even Vaishyas have been dependent on agriculture.
A caste is considered to be high if its characteristic way of life is high and pure and it is considered to be low if its way of life is low and polluting. By the term ‘way of life’ we mean whether its traditional occupation is ritually pure or polluting. For example, the occupation of the Brahman Priest is ritually pure while the traditional occupation of a leather working caste like the Chamar of U.P. is considered to be ritually polluting. But the remarkable aspect of caste system is that the presumed hierarchy of ‘way of life’, which includes diet, occupation, etc. does not often correlate with the observed order of caste ranking found in several regions of India. For example, in spite of the trader castes being vegetarian (which is considered to be ritually higher) in Rampura, a village of Mysore, they are ranked ritually lower than the non-vegetarian peasant castes of the same village (Srinivas: 1955).
Another discrepancy between caste occupation and ritual ranking is that washing, sweeping and such other activities are done by everyone but when the members of the caste whose traditional occupation is to perform those activities do it, then it is considered to be polluting. Thus, it is the traditional association of a caste with an occupation, which determines its rank in the
local caste hierarchy (Mckim Marriot 1959).
Caste Structure and Power
Central to caste system are caste panchayats and leadership. These power structures are highly formalised in certain caste groups and informal in others. The panchayat literally means a group or council of five. In a village it refers to a group that presides over, and resolves conflict, punishes people transgressing customs and launches group enterprises.
According to Srinivas (1966), a caste is said to be dominant when it is numerically the strongest in the village or local area and economically and politically exercises a preponderating influence. The status of a dominant caste appears to rest on such criteria as
i) the control of land and economic resources;
ii) numerical strength;
iii) a relatively high ritual status in the caste hierarchy; and
iv) educational status of its members.
The above factors combine to place a particular caste group in a position of political dominance.
CASTE AND CONTINUITY
Caste and Social Mobility
Caste mobility as a process of social and cultural change has been explained by Srinivas in his concept of Sanskritisation. The widespread social and cultural process called Sanskritisation is a process where a low Hindu caste changes its customs, rites, rituals ideology and way of life in the direction of high and frequently twice-born castes. This has paved the way for mobility to occur within the caste system. With the advent of the British, the opening up of frontiers by means of roads, and railways and economic opportunities cutting across caste barriers increased the process of caste mobility.
Besides Sanskritisation, another major agent of social change was Westernisation. Westernisation includes the influences, which swept over India during the British rule bringing in the ideologies of secularism, egalitarianism and democracy. The new opportunities in education, economy and polity were in theory caste free and open to all. No one could be denied access to them by reason of birth in a particular caste, sect or religion. However, no social change can bring about total change of a society. Therefore, we find that the traditional social organisation exemplified by the caste system has undergone several changes yet continues to exist in Indian society performing some old and some new functions. Now let us examine caste and the ritual sphere.
Caste and the Ritual Sphere
During the last few decades, as a result of the forces of modernisation, the ideology of caste has become less pervasive in an individual’s day to day life. Caste rituals have become increasingly a personal affair, rather than public due to changed circumstances of living, forces of industrialisation, and urbanisation. Place of residence and food habits are influenced more by an individual’s workplace and occupation than by his or her caste or religion. In a city a person generally does not ask the caste of a cook who serves in a restaurant. A person who might be a Brahman by caste may work in a shoe factory, and so on.
Caste change: From closed system to open system (Andre Beteille).
In his study of Caste, Class and Power Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village, Andre Beteille (1966) wrote that earlier (i.e. in pre-British period) education was a virtual monopoly of the Brahmans who dominated this area. But at the time of his study, the educational system had become far more open, both in principle and in practice. Many non-Brahman and even untouchable boys attended the schools at Sripuram (the village stuied by Beteille) and the adjacent town of
Thiruvaiyur. Because of this education the non-Brahmans and the Adi-Dravidas (the lowest castes) could compete on more equal terms with the Brahmans for white-collar jobs. It helped them to participate in the political affairs more equally with the Brahmans.
According to Beteille in the towns and cities white-collar jobs were relatively caste-free. Non-Brahmans from Sripuram could work as clerks or accountants in offices at Thiruvaiyur and Tanjore along with the Brahmans. Within the village land had come into the market since, due to several factors, some of the Brahmans had to sell their land. This enabled the, non-Brahmans and even a few Adi-Dravidas to buy it. Thus, as land came into the market, the productive organisation of the village tended to become free from the structure of caste (Beteille 1966: 3). Beteille had come to the conclusion that in a way changes in the distribution of power was the most radical change in the traditional social structure. He said that the traditional elites of Sripuram, Comprising the Brahman landowners, had lost its grip over the village and the new leaders of the village depend for power on many factors in addition to caste. There had come into being new organisations and institutions, which provided new bases of power. These organisations and institutions were at least formally free of caste. All these changes in effect altered, if not weakened, the role of caste in
the political arena (Beteille 1966: 16).
Caste in Modern Polity
The relationship that caste bears to politics can be best understood in terms of three types of political mobilisation discussed by Rudolph and Rudolph (1967) which exemplify different phases of political development in India. These three types of political mobilisation are i) vertical, ii) horizontal and iii) differential.
i) Vertical mobilisation: This is a process in which political support is acquired by the traditional notables, such as the erstwhile Rajas, feudatory landlords, locally dominant caste elites and so on. This is possible in a society organised and integrated along caste lines having mutual dependence and where legitimacy of traditional authority still survives. Due to their traditional authority the notables are able to get the support of their dependents, socially inferior groups in the traditional manner where the local Raja or landlord used to protect and promote the interests of his ‘praja’ i.e., the subjects and in return gained their loyalty and deference. Rudolph and Rudolph (1967: 24) maintain that vertical mobilisation remains a viable strategy for dominant classes and castes until dependents, tenants, and clients become politicised enough to be mobilised by ideological appeals to class or community interests and sentiments.
ii) Horizontal mobilisation: This is a process in which popular political support is marshalled by class or community leaders and their specialised organisations. As the term horizontal indicates, the solidarity among classes and caste groups such as provided by the caste federations introduces a
new pattern of cleavage by challenging the vertical solidarities and structures of traditional societies.
The major difference between this form of mobilisation and vertical mobilisation is that here the agent of mobilisation is the political party rather than the local notable. Here political parties appeal to voters directly as individuals or indirectly through the organised groups to which they
belong. Direct appeals to individual voters may emphasise ideology or issues, on the one hand, or community identification through caste, on the other. This mobilisation is possible only as long as internal differentiation has not developed and caste communities are by and large homogeneous,
cohesive and their interests are still diffuse and varied.
iii) Differential mobilisation: This process takes place when the changes that caste has and is undergoing carries it beyond the traditional ascriptive definition. These changes include internal differentiation or fission, and integration of several caste groups in caste federations and associations i.e. fusion which express the shared interests, symbols and norms of these
castes. It also brings out the caste from its village home that it does not remain rooted to the village social structure alone. We can explain the differential mobilisation through the example of the
Rajputs of Rajasthan. The Rajputs were the rulers, feudal lords, court retainers of princely states before Independence. At that time they formed an association called the Kshatriya Mahasabha which initially represented all ranks within the community.
In 1954 a new caste association was formed called the Bhooswami Sangh. This new association brought into open the conflict between the “small” Rajputs whose modest landholdings had to be supplemented by income from service under the princes and jagirdars. These princes and jagirdars,
however, had in most cases dismissed them from service with the advent of the land reforms after Independence. Thus, when the rich and powerful Rajputs refused to protect the interests of the “small” Rajputs, they formed the Bhooswami Sangh. This sangh took up the task of protecting the
interests of the “small” Rajputs. Political parties, at this time, were quick to capitalise on these class and ideological differences within the Rajput community. This example illustrates the process of differentiation that occurs within the caste community and is used by the political parties.
Caste associations are defined as “paracommunities which enable members of castes to pursue social mobility, political power, and economic advantage” (Rudolph and Rudolph 1967: 29). Caste associations resemble in many ways the voluntary associations or interest groups found in industrially advanced societies. However, caste associations or paracommunities are distinct in many
respects from voluntary associations; as well as from natural associations like caste out of which they have developed.
The caste associations are more like the voluntary associations at the organisational level than the traditional caste structures. It has offices, membership, incipient bureaucratisation and legislative process that can be seen through conferences, delegates, and resolutions. But, unlike the voluntary
associations, caste associations are characterised by a shared sense of culture, character and status, which gives it solidarity not found in voluntary associations.
Nadars of Tamil Nadu, a low caste of toddy tappers, who through the efforts of their association, the Nadar Mahajana Sangam formed in 1910, acquired not only higher status but a modern organisation to serve their needs.
According to Kothari (1970: 115), some of the objectives of this association are
i) To promote the social, material and general welfare of the Nadars
ii) To take practical measures for the social, moral, and intellectual advancement of the Nadars
iii) To start schools and colleges for imparting western education to Nadar children and to help poor but deserving pupils belonging to the community with scholarships, books, fees, etc.
iv) To encourage and promote commercial and industrial enterprise among the members of the community
These and several other objectives of this caste association and caste associations in general, reveal the significant contribution that these organisations provided to their communities.
Can Caste Exist in the India of Tomorrow?
A small section of Indian population, comprising the educated elites, probably powerful but numerically insignificant, desires that caste system ought to go. For a vast majority of the Indian population, especially the Hindus envisaging a social system without caste is impossible. Caste is part of their social identity and existence.
The joint family and caste system provide the individual in our society some of the benefits, which a welfare state provides in the industrially advanced countries. Caste stands for a certain amount of cultural homogeneity. However, it has its evil and exploitative side which has not been perceived by the majority of the people, especially the upper castes. It is essential to remember that nothing effective can be achieved unless and until the people themselves are made to realise the unjust nature of caste system. The principle of caste is so firmly entrenched in our political and social life
that everyone including the political leader appears to have accepted tacitly these very principles.
The coming of modern means of communication has increased the ‘horizontal stretch of caste’. Far-flung caste groups are able to interact and communicate with each other and find commonalties and shared interests to form clusters and this has resulted in the increase of caste solidarity within a region. One effect of universal adult franchise is the strengthening of caste consciousness.
Political parties are at pains to select candidates who have a social base, usually drawn from the locally dominant caste groups. It is obvious that the eradication of caste is a distant reality, despite the indications to the contrary.
As long as caste performs the functions of a welfare state in India and provides for the common bonds of kinship ties, political groups and alliances, it can be assured of a continued existence in modern India.