What is Caste System?
The caste system has been taken as an important unit under Hindu social organization. It has been also taken as an extremely strange system, where society is stratified through segmental division of society, Where Brahmins and Chhetriyas remain at the top of the social ladder, Vaishyas at the middle, and Shudras at the lowest ladder.
Occupation, social relationship, status, and the role of each caste under this system have been fixed by birth as per their caste. This kind of social system is found only in the Hindu caste system. Caste within this system has the feeling of superiority and inferiority. The entire social system of Hindu society has been controlled by the caste system.
The caste system, the joint family system, and village life are still the three basic pillars of Indian and Nepalese life. Caste is a predetermined social category based on birth i.e. ascribed status. Once born in a caste he has to remain the same. Status, position, and prestige are fixed according to his caste. The castes are divided into sub-caste. E.g. the caste system in Hindu society in Nepal and India. Hence, caste is closely connected with Hindu philosophy and religion.
The caste system is a barrier to social mobility. The caste system in which people are confined to the occupations and the statuses of their ancestors is the most extreme example of a closed-class society.
Open vs. Closed Systems
A Closed System of social stratification is one in which status is ascribed from birth. In a closed system, there is little or no social mobility. E.g. caste-based society is a closed system.
An Open System of social stratification is one in which status is achieved through merit or effort. In this system, social mobility is more likely. E.g. class-based society is an open system.
- C.H. Cooley defines caste as, “when a class is somewhat strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste.”
- Anderson and Parker, “Caste is that extreme form of social class organization in which the position of individuals in the status hierarchy is determined by descent and birth.”
- Collins dictionary of sociology, “caste system is 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 theoretically impossible.”
The Origin of the Term ‘Caste’ and ‘Caste System’
The term ‘Caste’ is derived from the Spanish word ‘casta‘ meaning breed or ‘lineage’. The Portuguese used the term caste first to denote the divisions in the Indian caste system. The Sanskrit word for caste is ‘Varna‘ which means ‘color’. Color in the original form of caste signifies the basis of divisions along with occupation.
The origin of this caste system in Nepalese and Indian society relates to the ‘Chaturvarna‘ system of Hindu philosophy. Chaturvarna doctrine explains the Hindu society was divided into four main varnas, namely, Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras. The Varna system which was prevalent during the Vedic period was mainly based on the division of occupation and labor. The caste system, therefore, has its origin in the Varna system.
The Portuguese applied the term caste to the classes of people, in Nepal and India, or Hindu society, it is known by the name of “Jaat” or “Jaati“.
Characteristics of Caste
Caste as a traditional system has the following characteristics:
Caste as a hierarchal division of society: The Hindu society is a traditional one. It is divided into several small groups called caste and sub-castes. A sense of highness and lowness or superiority or inferiority is associated with this gradation or ranking. The Brahmins are placed at the top of the hierarchy and regarded as pure, supreme, or superior. The degraded caste and so-called untouchables have occupied the other end of the hierarchy.
Caste as a segmental division of society: Hindu society is divided into many social segments called caste. Castes are groups with a defined boundary of their own. The status of an individual is determined by his birth and not by his selection or accomplishments. Each caste has its way of life, customs, traditions, practices, rituals, informal rules, and regulations and procedures.
Restrictions on food habits: The caste system has imposed certain restrictions on the food habits of the member, they differ from caste to caste. We should accept what kind of food and form is often decided by the caste. Generally in Nepali society, any kind of food prepared by Brahmins is acceptable to all castes of people. Further restrictions are also there on the use of certain vegetables like onions, garlic, etc. today most of the brahmins do not eat beef but other lower castes do.
Restrictions on social relations: The caste system puts restrictions on the range of social relations. The practice of pollution separates the touchable and untouchables which also determines the relationship between them.
Social and religious disabilities of certain castes: So-called untouchables are forced to live on the outskirts of the village. Even today many places, are not allowed in entering sacred places, in touching the wells, in participating in public ceremonies, and somewhere in entering school.
Civil and religious privileges of certain castes: In many ways, upper caste people, in general, enjoy social, political, legal, and religious privileges. E.g. Brahmins never salute others but they always had the privilege of being saluted by others.
Restriction on occupational choice: In a caste-ridden society, there is a gradation of occupations also. Some occupations are considered superior and sacred e.g. learning priesthood, teaching, etc. while certain occupations are considered degrading and inferior like shoe-making, sweeping, hide tanning, washing clothes, barbering, etc. so each caste has its specific occupation and are expected to continue some occupation.
Restriction on marriage: The caste system imposes restrictions on marriage also. A caste is an endogamous group. Endogamy is a rule of marriage according to which an individual has to marry within his or her group i.e. caste. Brahmins marry Brahmins, Chhetris with Chhetri, etc.
How is Caste a Basis for Stratification?
The ‘caste system’ is one form of social stratification. The caste system in traditional India and Nepal, and slavery in the southern states of the US in the 19th century are all types of stratification. Caste is popularly understood as a “closed system” of social stratification in which social groups, often divided based on their occupations, strictly follow a code of behavior prescribed by tradition regarding marriage and kinship alliances. Caste groups are unequal, ranked on a scale of hierarchy based on their ritual status, purity, and impurity.
Castes also explain why some societies offer little social mobility. E.g. if a person belongs to a lower caste, then it is difficult or impossible for that person to achieve a higher status because one cannot change one’s caste. Interaction between people of different castes is restricted. For e.g, people must practice endogamy (marriage within their caste).
Based on caste, there are high caste (touchable) and low caste (untouchables). E.g. in Japan, low castes are called Buraku. They are discriminated against in all activities of society. In Nepal and India, there is a caste system consisting of four broad social classes (or varna): Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. The caste system defines social categories by many hierarchical endogamous groups often termed “jaat” in Nepali. Because of the caste system, there is different social, economic, and political status. E.g. Brahmins and Chhetris are dominant while Dalits (Kami, Damai, Sarki, etc.) are suppressed.