The caste system in India

April 2006 -

Originating more than 2,500 years ago as varnashrama dharma, a theory of social rank, the caste system in India entails that people are born into certain castes. A person's caste, known as jati, is not a matter of choice but is fixed on the basis of birth. This system of graded inequality has the sanction of religion formulated by brahmans, who assigned for themselves the top position in the caste system. This brahmanic religion is today known as Hinduism, a term that has come to be used only the last 300 years.

Though there are ideally four varnas – brahman (priests, men of learning), kshatriya (warriors), vaishya (traders) and shudra (slaves who serve the first three ranks) – over centuries, thousands of jatis have become part of these four varnas. Castes seem to multiply amoeba-like. The untouchables – historically known as antyajas and chandalas – are said to be a product of intermarriage between the four varna groups. Intermarriage is not sanctioned by the brahmanic religion and one theory holds it that the progeny from such marriages are designated as untouchable. 

Till date, India is the only country where we can find segregated settlements for so-called untouchable castes, who today prefer to call themselves Dalits (the oppressed, literally 'those who have been crushed'). Social apartheid can easily be witnessed in Indian villages, where 70 percent of the nation's population lives. Here, in most cases, the Dalits have no access to common properties of the village – temples, common lands, burial ground, common wells, etc. Every aspect of public life for dalits is separated, segregated. Casual everyday violence is inflicted on them. According to statistics released by the Government of India, every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, every day two dalits are murdered; every day two dalit houses are burnt.

In India, people are quick to know the other person's caste: the full name of the person, the accent of the local language, place of origin, profession, dress, caste markers worn on the body are some of the various ways in which it is deciphered. In the personal sphere, caste inflects marriage, food habits, the circle of friends, the use of language, etc. Invariably, the personal spills over into the public sphere. Caste, thus, remains visible yet invisible. The invisible is rendered visible socially, culturally, politically and economically. Sometimes, even when people convert to other religions, they carry with them the caste distinctions. For instance, people self-identify themselves as Brahmin Christians, Reddy Christians and Dalit Christians. However, in Islam, which has a significant presence in India, caste categories are more firmly obliterated.

S. Anand is editor of Navayana publishers