What is the Caste system?
Traditionally, Indian society is organised by caste (or varna), a system thought to have been introduced some 3,000 years ago by Aryan invaders. You are born into a particular caste. Caste determines your position and function in society – in other words your occupation, your social class and your political power (or powerlessness). So a particular job is done by people from a particular caste. The caste system is very hierarchical. No-one can change their caste. Marriage is often restricted within a caste, so it is frowned upon to marry outside your caste. Within each caste there are many subcastes (or jatis) – even more tightly defined social groups defined by birth, marriage and occupation. The higher your caste, the more privileges and benefits; the lower your caste, the more menial your work and status. If you fall outside the caste system you are considered less than human.
The four main castes traditionally are believed to have emerged from the body of the god Brahma:
- Brahmins – the priests, believed to have emerged from Brahma’s mouth
- Kshatriyas – the warrior or ruling class who were made from Brahma’s arms
- Vaishyas – merchants or artisans who sprang from Brahma’s thighs
- Shudras – the unskilled labourers and servants who emerged from Brahma’s feet
The people groups – such as Dalits and the tribal people - who did not emerge from Brahma are viewed as subhuman, and are often treated as such.
The caste system came from the belief that there is an order in society, and that hierarchy is part of the natural order of things. But it is also rooted in the idea of ritual purity. Hence those who fall outside the caste system are considered impure or unclean, and unable to change their status. Dalits fall outside the caste system.
Although caste is strongly linked to the Hindu religion, it impacts the whole of society irrespective of religion. In India, caste pervades Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Christianity. It is a socio-religious phenomenon which is embedded in Indian culture, and although caste tends to have broken down to an extent in the cities, it is particularly strong in the rural areas where most of the population live.
[basis of discrimination]
The Indian constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of caste, but it does not outlaw the caste system itself. As the basis for discrimination is still in place, it is little surprise that discrimination persists despite the law.
Those who suffer most are the Dalits – the ‘untouchables’ - who fall outside or below the caste system and as such are 'outcastes'. [Read more...]