Acaste system is a social stratification structure in which the socialstatus is passed from one generation to another through inheritance.The Indian caste system is one of the most well-known caste socialstructures in the world. Although the social status is mainlyattained through inheritance, interaction with people of a particularsocial status or marriage can result into change in social status.While the Indian caste system is well defined, caste systems haveexisted in other societies and cultures where people of particularsocial classes are expected to have minimum contact and interactionswith other social classes. There are several characteristics of anIndian caste system. The main characteristic of the Indian castesystem is endogamy individuals tend to marry within the same caste.Mobility for one caste to another is also very rare, such than onlyin rare circumstances where an individual can move from one caste toanother. The higher castes form the elites in the society where theycontrol the political and economic power (Jaffrelot, 2006).
Criticshave viewed the Indian caste system as one of the most disgustingaspects of the Hindu culture. Some critics have argued that the castesystem in the Indian culture is worse than the “witch-hunting” inthe medieval Europe or slavery in the western civilization. It hasbeen viewed as an invention in the Vedic society which was aimed atperpetuating the political, economic and social advantage of aparticular group through social distinction (Jaffrelot, 2006).Although it is found in almost all the regions in the Indian society,the caste system has its roots in the Hindu scriptures. The Hinduscriptures break the society into different social classes known asVarnas (Singh, 2005). Although historian considers the Indian castesystem as remnant of the distinctive ancient Hindu traditions andculture, some scholars have argued that the system emerged as aresult of the British rule in India where a caste system wasintroduced as a means of administration. These historians have arguedthat while a loose caste system existed in the Hindu society, theBritish rules were very vigorous in enforcing the caste affiliationsand constructed a very strict social hierarchy. While some casteswere given preferential treatment by the colonial rulers, others werecriminalized. This led to the establishment of the modern Indiancaste system (Singh, 2005).
TheIndian caste system can be described as the ideal society describedby Plato where the people are categorized into “philosophers,warriors and commoners. The caste system in the Hindu society hasfour classes with a rigid code of conduct based on the law books thatemerged in the Vedic civilization. The first class in the caste isthe Brahmins. The Brahmins are considered the middle men betweenother human beings and god and are considered the class of priest. Inthe Hindu culture, were responsible for performing rites and ritualson their behalf and for others (Rosa, 2004). They are considered anexcellent human race and the lords of all humans and therefore areexpected to show exemplary behaviors. The second class is theKshatriyas, the warriors. According to the Hindu traditions, theKshatriyas have the responsibility of serving the Brahmins andprotecting the people. In addition to studying the Vedas, it was theresponsibility of the Kshatriyas to dispense justice and offersacrifices. They were also the kings who were expected to protect anddefend the caste system, lavish the priests and maintain social order(Rosa, 2004).
TheVaishyas and the Shudras forms the lower class in the Hindu castesystem. The Vaishyas includes the peasants and the merchants who wereresponsible to trading, cultivating and growing crops, tending tocattle and lending money. The Vaishyas are not allowed to marry fromthe higher social classes, although they were allowed to performspecific sacrifices and study the Vedas. The Shudras are consideredthe lowers social class, and includes the laborers. They Shudras havethe responsibility of serving the members of the other socialclasses. They are not allowed to study the Vades or perform anyrituals or sacrifices. Due to their status, they were not allowed tomarry, interact or eat with members of the other caste. Althoughthere are four main castes in the Indian system, there is a fifthcaste known as the chandalas, the lowest sudra. This is a group ofindividuals considered impure and untouchable due to their socialstatus and unclean habits (Rosa, 2004).
Thecaste system in the Indian society was strictly enforced and thekings had the responsibility of protecting the system. Theenforcement was based on strict cultural tradition, Hindus religiousbeliefs and superstitions. Some of the structures that ensured thesuccess of the system include the hereditary system, strict casterules, royal support and preferential treatment depending on thecaste. However, since the social unrest in the 1920s, there policychange has wiped out some of the preferential treatment of the highercaste. In the modern day Indian society, discrimination based on thecaste is considered a crime under the constitution (Jaffrelot, 2006).
Jaffrelot,C. (2006). "The Impact of Affirmative Action in India: MorePolitical than Socioeconomic". IndiaReview5 (2): 173–189.
Rosa,M. P. (2004). Kingsand untouchables: a study of the caste system in western India,New Delhi: Chronicle Books.
Singh,E. (2005). Castesystem in India: a historical perspective,New Delhi, Kalpaz Publ.