Caste and Class
Varna, Caste, and Other Divisions
Social inequality exists throughout the world, but perhaps nowhere has inequality been so elaborately constructed as in the Indian institution of caste. Caste has existed for many centuries, but in the modern period it has been severely criticized and is undergoing significant change.
Castes are ranked, named, endogamous (in-marrying) groups, membership in which is achieved by birth. There are thousands of castes and subcastes in India, involving hundreds of millions of people. These large kinship-based groups are fundamental to South Asian social structure. Caste membership provides a sense of belonging to a recognized group from whom support can be expected in a variety of situations.
The word caste derives from the Portuguese casta, meaning species, race, or kind. Among Indian terms sometimes translated as caste are varna, jati, jat, biradri, and samaj. Varna, or color, actually refers to four large categories that include numerous castes. The other terms refer to castes and subdivisions of castes often called subcastes.
Many castes are associated with traditional occupations, such as priests, potters, barbers, carpenters, leatherworkers, butchers, and launderers. Members of higher-ranking castes tend to be more prosperous than members of lower-ranking castes, who often endure poverty and social disadvantage. The so-called “Untouchables” were traditionally relegated to polluting tasks. Since 1935, “Untouchables” have been known as “Scheduled Castes,” and Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijans, or “Children of God.” Today, the politically correct term for these groups, who make up some 16% of the population, is Dalit, or “Oppressed.” Other groups, usually called tribes (often referred to as “Scheduled Tribes”) are also integrated into the caste system to varying degrees.
In past decades, Dalits in certain areas had to display extreme deference to high-status people and were barred from most temples and wells. Such degrading discrimination was outlawed under legislation passed during British rule and was repudiated by preindependence reform movements led by Mahatma Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji (B.R.) Ambedkar, a Dalit leader. After independence in 1947, Dr. Ambedkar almost single-handedly wrote India’s constitution, including provisions barring caste-based discrimination. However, Dalits as a group still suffer significant disadvantages, especially in rural areas.
Within castes, explicit standards are maintained. Rules of marriage, diet, dress, occupation, and other behaviors are enforced, often by a caste council (panchayat). Infringements can be punished by fines and temporary or permanent outcasting. Individuals and caste groups can hope to rise slowly on the hierarchy through economic success and adoption of high-caste behaviors. However, it is virtually impossible for an individual to raise his own status by falsely claiming to belong to a higher caste; a deception of this kind is easily discovered.
In rural areas, many low-caste people still suffer from landlessness, unemployment, and discriminatory practices. In the growing cities, however, caste affiliations are often unknown to casual associates, and traditional restrictions on intercaste interactions are fading fast. In some urbane circles, intercaste marriages linking mates of similar class status have become acceptable. Correlations between caste and occupations are declining rapidly.
In recent years, key changes have occurred in caste observances. It is now legally and socially unacceptable to openly advocate any caste’s superiority or inferiority, and lower caste groups are flexing their political muscle. Even as traditional hierarchies weaken, caste identities are being reinforced, especially among disadvantaged groups with rights to special educational benefits and substantial quotas reserved for them of electoral offices and government jobs. In protest against Hinduism’s rigid rankings, thousands of Dalits have embraced Buddhism, following the example of the revered B.R. Ambedkar. [iv]