SALIENT FEATURES OF INDIAN SOCIETY –CASTE SYSTEM
The term caste has been derived from the Portuguese word “casta”. It implies race, lineage or pure stock, which is in turn derived from the Latin word “castus”, meaning clean, pure or pious. It has been coined to refer to the traditional Hindu-based system of social organization in and around India. Thus ‘caste’ refers to the basic idea or notion of social stratification in Indian society. In Indian context, caste may be described as a form of social stratification which involves a system of hierarchically ranked, closed endogamous strata, the membership of which is ascribed and between which contact is restricted and mobility is theoretically impossible. In its purest form, the caste principle is religious. Castes are ranked in accordance with the degree of ‘ritual purity’ ascribed to its members and to their activities.
M. N. Srinivas has defined caste as a hereditary, endogamous and usually localized group, having a traditional association with an occupation and occupying a particular position in the local hierarchy of castes. Relations between castes are determined by the rules of purity and pollution and hence there are restrictions on commensality (inter-dining) and social intercourse among castes. Louis Dumont in his famous work, Homo Hierarchicus says that the hierarchy of purity and pollution is the governing principle of the caste system. The hierarchical caste system is distinguished by Dumont from the stratification systems of western societies. He considers egalitarianism to be the value of the western societies; and hierarchy to be the governing principle of the caste. He further argues that hierarchy in the context of Hindu caste is something ritualistic and is supported by religion. It is the principle through which the different groups are ranked in relation to whole. The Brahman’s position by itself has no meaning. It is in relationship and opposition to the Ksahtriya that the Brahman has ritual superiority. The basic principle of the hierarchical system of caste is the opposition of the pure and the impure.
Caste system in India may be properly understood through two models viz. Varna Model and Jati Model. Varna model is more of a book-view of Indian society propagated by Indologists like B.K. Sarkar, G.S. Ghurye, R.K. Mukherjee and Irawati Karve. They claimed that Indian society could be understood through the concepts, theories and frameworks of Indian civilization. They believed that an examination of the classical texts, manuscripts, archaeological artefacts etc should be the starting point for the study of the present. Hence Purus sukta hymn of Rig Veda tells us of the emergence of four varnas after the Purusha (Brahma) resorted to self-destruction so that a proper social order could come into existence. Thus, the Brahmans came out of the mouth, the Kshatriya from the arms, the Vaishyas from the thighs and the Shudras from the feet.
Significantly, these groupings did not enjoy any ascribed status and as the Vishnu Puran tell us, everyone is born as a Shudra and it is only one’s Karma (merit/ achievement) that entitles one to be a Brahman or Vaishya or Shudra. It further implies that the Varna model of social organization was not a closed model and inter-varna mobility was possible.
M. N. Srinivas was critical of the book-view of Indian society. He argued that the book-view gave distorted picture of society by dwelling on the ideals of the past from which the present reality departed considerably. The book-view of Indian society presented an idealized picture of its institutions marriage, family, kinship, caste and religion – dwelling more on what they were supposed to be than on how they actually worked. For example, the book-view had represented caste in terms of the invariant and immutable scheme of the four varnas to the operative units of the system which were the innumerable jatis. In India, it was M. N. Srinivas who strongly advocated for the fieldview in place of the book-view. It is important to note that the Jati-Model represented the watertight compartmentalization of society with little or no mobility in the caste system.