Topics: Caste, Hinduism, Caste system in India Pages: 13 (4615 words) Published: August 15, 2013
“So, you want to marry my daughter?” The Caste System: An Overview

A summary of the first lecture in the IK Foundation Lecture Series, ‘Indian Culture in the Modern World’. 23rd October 2002, London First speaker: Prof. M Narasimhachary, Senior Associate Fellow, Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies Preamble The phenomenon of Caste has aroused more controversy than any other aspect of Indian life and thought. Some see India’s caste system as the defining feature of Indian culture and some have dismissed it as a colonial artefact. Since the days of the British rule, both historians and anthropologists referred to India as a ‘caste society’. Obviously this is an overstatement of the importance of caste. But for many leading personalities, caste was, and is, a real force in Indian life. As explained by experts in the field such as Dr Susan Bayly, caste is not the essence of Indian culture and civilization. It is rather a contingent and variable response to the enormous changes that occurred in the subcontinent’s political landscape both before and after the colonial conquest1. Definition of Caste : the concepts of Jāti and VarŠa: The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines Caste as “a Hindu hereditary class of socially equal persons, united in religion and usually following similar occupations, distinguished from other castes in the hierarchy by its relative degree of purity or pollution.”2 The term Caste is commonly used to refer to two distinct concepts of corporate affiliation: the ‘Jāti’ (birth group) and the VarŠa (order, class or kind). The term Jāti is used for the units of thousands or sometimes millions of people with whom one may identify oneself for such purposes as marriage. There


Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press ,2001 2 Ed. Lesley Brown. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993

2 are thousands of titles associated with specific Jātis in different parts of the country: Rajput, Chamar and Jat – these terms have come to be widely recognised. But these terms are unfamiliar to people outside a limited geographical area. In contrast to this profusion of Jātis or birth-groups, the concept of VarŠa involves a scheme with only four divisions. Thus what would now be called Hindu society is conceived of as being divisible into four very large units which transcend specific regional associations. These are: BrāhmaŠa, Ktriya, Vaiya and ®™dra. They are commonly understood as a ranked order of precedence. Then there is another caste called the ‘fifth’ one (called Pañcama), the so-called ‘untouchable’ (the hill and forest population who are called tribals, inclusive). This group occupies a place below, outside this VarŠa scheme. The BrāhmaŠas are commonly identified with those who fulfil the calling of priests and spiritual preceptors. The Katriyas (etymologically, the ‘protectors’) are usually rulers and warriors. The Vaiyas are those who have commercial livelihood, and are associated with other producers and wealth-creators as well. The ®™dras are toilers and artisans. People belonging to the ‘fifth’ group perform ‘unclean’ services such as cremation, killing animals for food, etc. Caste in Theory and Practice: Those sharing a common caste identity may subscribe to at least a notional tradition of common descent, as well as a claim of common geographical origin and a particular occupational ideal. For instance, an individual claiming Brahman parentage is not obliged to follow a priestly or preceptoral livelihood. A man professing princely descent automatically is not expected to wield a sword. But those claiming Brahmin or Katriya origin do not expect others to think that their ancestors were humble labourers or providers of menial service, as would be the case for an individual identified by a low-caste Jāti designation such a Paraiyan or Chamar. In theory at

3 least, civilized ‘caste Hindus’ regard it as wrong and...
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