What is the nature of caste system?

The social stratification (division of society) in India is peculiar in its nature. Unlike many other civilizations in the world where the society was divided in to race, ethnicity or clans Indian society is broadly divided into a hierarchy of caste. The word caste has come from the Portuguese word ‘Casta’ which means breed and intended to use for classification based on purity of blood.

As defined by E.A.G. Blunt “Caste is an endogamous group, bearing a common name, membership of which is hereditary, imposing on its members certain restrictions in the matter of social intercourse”.

Caste is unique to India and especially to Hindu traditional society and its customs. It is imposed as a divine and had an extensive sanction in the society. The Sanskrit word for caste is ‘varna’ which means colour. The caste stratification of the Indian society has its origin in the chaturvarna system. During the Vedic period (about 1500 B.C. to 100 B.C.) there were four Varna or castes namely Brahmins, kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. This division was based on division of labour and occupation. Along with occupation it was also denoting the endogamy (marriage within one’s own caste) and the notion of purity and pollution related to food restrictions, clothing and language. Further these groups were subdivided in to number of jatis or sub castes based on diversity of occupation. Each group was like a water tight compartment moving out from which was impossible for any member of the society.

The notion of purity and pollution resulted in several atrocities in the hierarchy against the lowest strata. The shudra and atishudras (untouchables) faced tremendous injustice and atrocities at the hands of the higher castes especially Brahmins. It was termed as the black period of Indian history where several inhuman and heinous practices were prevalent in the society denying the basic human rights of these suppressed classes. However after independence, under the great leadership of Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar they got a special status in the Constitution of India as Scheduled castes. The term used for them was dalit (the depressed) or harijan (as coined by Mahatma Gandhi). Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar was a pioneer to initiate the Dalit movement in India to bring up the status of untouchables by converting to Buddhism which does not believe in caste hierarchy.

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