The Caste System
Caste is a term applied to social groups in India which mark in a hierarchic order and within which there is a minimum of social mobility. The word ‘caste’ first appeared as a term ‘casta’ by which the Portugese travellers of the 15th century referred to the division of Indian society. The caste system may have its origins in the distant past when the Indo-Aryans invaded the country and instead of destroying the local inhabitants after the conquest, they absorbed them into their society by giving them a lower but definite place. This was the birth of the caste system which later on had four levels viz., the Brahmins or the priestly class, the Kshatriyas or warriors, the Vaishyas who followed commercial occupations and the Sudras who performed manual labour. In the beginning this division was based on performance but later it came to be determined by birth.
In course of time the ‘jatis’ or sects became more important than the castes. They were mainly occupational (like the goldsmith jati) and served the purpose of guilds which protected the interests of the members. Eventually these jatis or sects grouped themselves under the main classes. The sects were very rigid and did not permit fluidity of movement, even where old occupations had broken down and new ones come into being. This rigidity had a disadvantage as it prevented the interaction and absorption of new ideas in the various trades and occupations.
The ‘untouchables’ or ‘outcasts’: There is no religious sanction whatsoever in Hinduism to the concept of untouchability, although later additions on the subject were inserted IR the scriptures to justify its existence. It was a purely social practice introduced by the upper castes to provide themselves with menial labour to perform tasks repulsive to themselves, such as cemetery keeping, scavenging, etc. People breaking caste rules were sometimes made outcasts.
The upper castes tried to prevent inter-caste marriages as well to prevent the upward movement of the lower castes. Towards this end the Brahmins, for example, tried to make the knowledge of the scriptures their monopoly and the rituals more and more elaborate so that only they could interpret them, whereas the Vaishyas attempted to become the only custodians of the wealth of the land, and the Kshatriyas considered only themselves eligible for ruling and governance.
With the start of the foreign invasions in the 11th century, when life, property and the chastity of women were of little value to the invaders, the caste system became more rigid and protective and each community built a fortress of social norms around itself. For example, the guarding of the sanctum sanctorum in temples which only a few could enter, child marriages (before a girl could be of an age attractive enough to be abducted by the invaders) etc., became the norms during those unsettled times in Indian history.
With the spread of education the caste system is now dying out and any discrimination on the grounds of caste is punishable under the laws of the land.