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Caste System in India and Its origin theory

June 18, 2013

Caste System in IndiaAn intricate caste system in India influences life to a great extent. Castes or jatis (as they are called in India) are actually the hereditary grouping of people defining their social status. Even after so many years of Independence, caste-based demarcation is still there; though with time, it is changing. In urban areas, this separation is not that obvious but the difference between various castes becomes obvious in rural areas. Sometimes the caste-based gap takes a violent turn and leads to clashes between various groups segregated on the basis of their castes. Moreover anti-social elements use the caste system to promote their vested interest.

Origin of Caste System in India

Earlier, the caste of a person in India used to define his or her occupation and till death the person had to stick to that occupation. People from upper caste were not allowed to mingle and marry a person from any other caste. Thereby, castes in India were exactly demarcating the society.

Generally, caste system is associated with Hindu religion. As per Rig Veda (early Hindu text) there were four categories known as ‘varnas’. Varnas consist of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Most of the historians still believe that today’s caste system is based on these varnas.

Also there was the fifth category that was even inferior to shudras and that was of “untouchables” or Dalits. These were the persons who used to perform tasks of removing faeces or dead animals. They were not allowed to enter into temples, drink from the same water source, etc. Untouchability is the most common form of discrimination that is based on the caste system in India.

But when and how so many castes originated in India is not clear. Many theories have been put forward regarding the origin of caste system but, so far, no solid proof has been collected in this regard.

Theories related to origin of caste system in India :

  • Traditional theory : According to this theory, Brahma, the creator the universe had created the caste system. Different castes were born out of various body parts of Brahma. Like, from his mouth came the Brahmins, from hands the Kshatriya, from stomach the Vaishyas and so on. People belonging to different castes then function as per the source of their origin. In ancient India, various sub-castes were born out of these castes and this has received a classical interpretation in the account of Manu. The theory has been criticized for its being a supernatural theory and for its base being just divine.
  • Political theory : According to this theory, the Brahmins wanted to have a full control over the society in order to curb and rule them. So, their political interest created a caste system in India. Nibey Dubais, a French scholar, originally put forward this theory that was also supported by Indian thinkers such as Dr. Ghurey.
  • Religious theory : It is believed that various religious customs had given a birth to the caste system in India. People connected to religion like Kings and Brahmins were given higher positions. Different people used to perform different tasks for the administration of the ruler that later on became the basis of caste system.Along with this, restriction on food habits had led to the development of caste system. Earlier there were no such restrictions on taking food with others as people used to believe their origin was from one ancestor. But as they started worshipping different Gods, their food habits changed. This laid the foundation of caste system in India.
  • Occupational theory : Nesfield originally gave the name  occupational theory, according to which castes in India developed as per the occupation of a person. Concept of superior and inferior caste also came with this as some persons were doing superior jobs and some were into lower kinds of jobs. All those people who were doing the task of purohits were superior and they were the ones who used to do specialization. Superior caste with time grouped into Brahmins. Similarly, other groups were also formed leading to different castes in India.
  • Evolutionary theory : Caste system is just like other social institution and developed through the process of evolution.
  • Many theory or theory of many : Professor Hutton propounded this theory. The caste system was there in India before Aryans but Aryans made caste system clearer by enforcing this on everybody. In India, there was a fear of touching or coming in contact with strangers as touching might lead to either good or bad. So people started restraining themselves from others and this gave rise to restrictions regarding eating habits.

It is believed that caste system in India is not a result of one individual theory or factor but this is the result of several factors.

Significance of caste system and its changing scenario in India

Though with time, many things have changed and so did the caste system. But still, it continues to play an important role in the major events of life like marriage and religious worship. In India, there are many places where shudras are still not allowed to enter the temple or do any kind of puja. Whereas Kshatrya and Vaishya castes enjoy full rights regarding this.

The caste system becomes problematic when it is used for ranking the society as well as when it leads to unequal access to natural as well as man-made resources.

In urban middle-class families, the caste system is not that significant but it plays a role during marriage. Even adjustments are made into this.

In pre- as well as post-Independence era, many movements and governmental actions took place to eradicate caste-based inequalities in India. In order to develop a positive attitude towards lower castes, Gandhiji had started using the word ‘harijan’ (God’s people) for lower-caste people. But this term was not universally accepted. He also encouraged incorporating lower caste persons into reforms rather than creating a separate groups for the same purpose. The British government also came up with a list of 400 groups that were regarded as untouchables. Later on these groups were known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In 1970s, the untouchables started to be called Dalits.

In mid-19th century, Jyotirao Phule started an Dalit movement to uplift the status of lower caste people. Contribution of Dr B. R. Ambedkar to support the lower caste people was very prominent. He initiated a significant Dalit movement between 1920s and 1930s. He also created a system of reservation in free India to improve the status of Dalits in India. Under his leadership, six million Dalits adopted Buddhism.

But in modern India, relationships between different people have become more relaxed though not completely. As everyone irrespective of caste can dine at one place, visit tourist places, etc but still people are against inter-caste marriage. Significant change in the occupation sector has taken place, as now it is not restricted to caste.

Though changes are there but India still needs to work on this issue so that caste-based inequalities can be uprooted from our society forever.


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I am researching on the traditional theory of the origin of the caste system and G.S. Ghurye’s contribution and theory. Can you help me? I would like to know anything you can tell me about these topics. I shall be extremely grateful for your help.

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