Caste system in India

Caste system in India

Caste (Sanskrit: Gyati ज्ञाति , Hindi: Biradari बिरादरी, samaj समाज, jati जाति etc , Urdu Zat ज़ात ) is an endogamous group. Generally a sub-caste is divided into Exogamous groups based on same gotras गोत्र.

The Indian caste system describes the social stratification and social restrictions in the Indian subcontinent, in which social classes are defined by thousands of endogamous hereditary groups, often termed as "jātis" or castes. Within a jāti, there exist exogamous groups known as gotras, the lineage or clan of a person, although in a handful of sub-castes like Shakadvipi, endogamy within a gotra is permitted and alternative mechanisms of restricting endogamy are used (e.g. banning endogamy within a surname).

Although generally identified with Hinduism, the caste system was also observed among followers of other religions in the Indian subcontinent, including some groups of Muslims and Christians. [Francis Buchanan, Indian Census Record, 1883] The Indian Constitution has outlawed caste-based discrimination, in keeping with the socialist, secular, democratic principles that founded the nation. [ [ BBC profile] , India] Caste barriers have mostly broken down in large cities, [ [ BBC, Religion and ethics, Hinduism] ] though they persist in rural areas of the country. Nevertheless, the caste system, in various forms, continues to survive in modern India strengthened by a combination of social perceptions and divisive politics. [cite book
title=Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age
publisher=Cambridge University Press
id=ISBN-13: 9780521264341
] [cite web
title=Caste-Based Parties


There is no universally accepted theory about the origin of the Indian caste system.cite web
title = Early Evidence for Caste in South India
author = George L. Hart
url =
accessdate = 2007-04-24

Genetic analysis

A 2002-03 study by T. Kivisild et al. concluded that the "Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene." [cite journal
last = Kivisild
first = T.
coauthors = S. Rootsi, M. Metspalu, S. Mastana, K. Kaldma, J. Parik, E. Metspalu, M. Adojaan, H.-V. Tolk, V. Stepanov, M. Gölge, E. Usanga, S. S. Papiha, C. Cinnioglu, R. King, L. Cavalli-Sforza, P. A. Underhill, and R. Villems
month = February
year = 2003
title = The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations
journal = American Journal of Human Genetics
volume = 72
issue = 2
pages = 313–332
issn = 0002-9297
pmid = 12536373
doi =
url =
accessdate = 2007-09-09
] . Studies point to the various Indian caste groups having similar genetic origins [] and having negligible genetic input from outside south Asia [] . However, a 2001 genetic study, led by Michael Bamshad of the University of Utah, found that the affinity of Indians to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank, the upper castes being most similar to Europeans. The researchers believe that the Indo-Aryans entered India from the Northwest and may have established a caste system, in which they placed themselves primarily in higher castes." [cite journal
last = Bamshad
first = Michael
coauthors = Kivisild T, Watkins WS, Dixon ME, Ricker CE, Rao BB, Naidu JM, Prasad BV, Reddy PG, Rasanayagam A, Papiha SS, Villems R, Redd AJ, Hammer MF, Nguyen SV, Carroll ML, Batzer MA, Jorde LB
year = 2001
month = June
title = Genetic Evidence on the Origins of Indian Caste Populations
journal = Gnome Research
volume = 11
issue = 6
pages = 994–1004
issn = 1088-9051/03
pmid = 11381027
doi = 10.1101/gr.GR-1733RR
url =
accessdate = 2007-09-09
] Because the Indian samples for this study were taken from a single geographical area, it remains to be investigated whether its findings can be safely generalized. [cite journal
last = Basu
first = Analabha
coauthors = Namita Mukherjee, Sangita Roy, Sanghamitra Sengupta, Sanat Banerjee, Madan Chakraborty, Badal Dey, Monami Roy, Bidyut Roy, Nitai P. Bhattacharyya, Susanta Roychoudhury and Partha P. Majumder
year = 2003
title = Ethnic India: A Genomic View, With Special Reference to Peopling and Structure
journal = Gnome Research
volume = 13
issue = 10
pages = 2277–2290
issn = 1088-9051/03
pmid = 14525929
doi = 10.1101/gr.1413403
url =
accessdate = 2007-09-09
] An earlier 1995 study by Joanna L. Mountain et al. of Stanford University had concluded that there was "no clear separation into three genetically distinct groups along caste lines", although "an inferred tree revealed some clustering according to caste affiliation". [cite journal
last = Mountain
first = Joanna L.
coauthors = J M Hebert, S Bhattacharyya, P A Underhill, C Ottolenghi, M Gadgil, and L L Cavalli-Sforza
month = April
year = 1995
title = Demographic history of India and mtDNA-sequence diversity
journal = American Journal of Human Genetics
volume = 56
issue = 4
pages = 979–992
issn = 0002-9297
pmid = 7717409
url =
accessdate = 2007-09-09
] A 2006 study by Ismail Thanseem et al. of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (India) concluded that the "lower caste groups might have originated with the hierarchical divisions that arose within the tribal groups with the spread of Neolithic agriculturalists, much earlier than the arrival of Aryan speakers", and "the Indo-Europeans established themselves as upper castes among this already developed caste-like class structure within the tribes." [cite journal
last = Thanseem
first = Ismail
coauthors = Kumarasamy Thangaraj, Gyaneshwer Chaubey, Vijay Kumar Singh, Lakkakula VKS Bhaskar, B Mohan Reddy, Alla G Reddy, and Lalji Singh
month = August
year = 2006
title = Genetic affinities among the lower castes and tribal groups of India: inference from Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA
journal = BMC Genetics
volume = 7
pages = 42
doi = 10.1186/1471-2156-7-42
url =
accessdate = 2007-09-09
] The study indicated that the Indian caste system may have its roots much before the arrival of the Indo-Aryans; a rudimentary version of the caste system may have emerged with the shift towards cultivation and settlements, and the divisions may have become more well-defined and intensified with the arrival of Indo-Aryans. [cite web
url =
title = Caste in the genes
author = G.S. Mudur
publisher = The Telegraph, Calcutta
accessdate = 2007-08-31
date = 2007-01-01

The Indian classes are similar to the Iranian classes ("pistras"), [ P. 651 "The Cambridge History of Iran" By Ilya Gershevitch ] wherein the priests are Athravans, the warriors are Rathaestha, the merchants are Vastriya, and the artisans are Huiti. [ P. 226 "The World Year Book of Education" By Columbia University. Teachers College, University of London Institute of Education ] [ P. 39 "Origin and Growth of Caste in India" By Nripendra Kumar Dutt ]

A 2006 genetic study by the National Institute of Biologicals in India, testing a sample of men from 32 tribal and 45 caste groups, concluded that the Indians have acquired very few genes from Indo-European speakers. [cite web
title=India Acquired Language, Not Genes, From West, Study Says
author=Brian Handwerk
publisher=National Geographic News

Varna and jati (Class and caste)

According to the ancient Hindu scriptures, there are four "varnas." The Bhagavad Gita says varnas are decided based on Guna and Karma. Manusmriti and some other shastras mention four varnas: the Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests), the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors), the Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (agriculturists, service providers, and some artisan groups). Offspring of different varnas belong to different "Jāti"s. Another group excluded from the main society was called Parjanya or Antyaja. This group of former "untouchables" (now called Dalits) was considered either the lower section of Shudras or outside the caste system altogether. Passages from scriptures such as Manusmriti indicate that the varna system was originally non-hereditary. ["ManuSmriti X:65": "As the son of Shudra can attain the rank of a Brahmin, the son of Brahmin can attain rank of a shudra. Even so with him who is born of a Vaishya or a Kshatriya"]

Several critics of Hinduism state that the caste system is rooted in the varna system mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures. [cite web
title=Face to faith
author=David Haslam
publisher=The Guardian
] However, many groups, such as ISKCON, consider the modern Indian caste system and the varna system as two distinct concepts. [cite web
title=Varnashrama-dharma and Caste
] [cite web
title=The Varnasrama Social System
publisher=Hare Krishna News Network
] Many European scholars from the colonial era regarded the Manusmriti as the "law book" of the Hindus, and thus concluded that the caste system is a part of Hinduism, an assertion that is rejected by many Hindu scholars, who state that it is an anachronistic social practice, not a religious one. [Axel Michaels, "Hinduism: Past and Present" 188-97 (Princeton 2004) ISBN 0-691-08953-1] [cite web
title=Hindu Wisdom: The Caste System
] [cite web
title=Caste prejudice has nothing to do with the Hindu scriptures
author=Nitin Mehta
publisher=The Guardian
] [cite web
title=Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism? Demolishing a Myth
author=M V Nadkarni
publisher=Economic and Political Weekly

Although many Hindu scriptures contain passages that can be interpreted to sanction the caste system, they also contain indications that the caste system is not an essential part of Hinduism. The Vedas place very little importance on the caste system, mentioning caste only rarely and in a cursory manner. In the Vedic period, there was no prohibition against the Shudras (which later on became the low-castes) listening to the Vedas or participating in any religious rite. [White Yajurveda 26.2]

In "Early Evidence for Caste in South India", George L. Hart stated that "the earliest Tamil texts show the existence of what seems definitely to be caste, but which antedates the Brahmins and the Hindu orthodoxy". He believes that the origins of the caste system can be seen in the "belief system that developed with the agricultural civilization", and was later profoundly influenced by "the Brahmins and the Brahmanical religion". These early Tamil texts also outline the concept of equality. Saint Valluvarhas stated "pirapokkum ella uyirkkum", which means "all are equal at birth". Likewise, Saint Auvaiyaar has statedthat there are only two castes in the world: those who contribute positively and those who contribute negatively.From these, it can be inferred that the caste system is more of a socio-economic class system.

Caste and social status

Traditionally, although the political power lay with the Kshatriyas, historians portrayed that the Brahmins as keepers and interpreters of religion enjoyed much prestige and many advantages. [cite web
publisher=Encyclopædia Britannica
] .

Fa Hien a Buddhist pilgrim from China visited India around 400 AD. "Only the lot of the Chandals he found unenviable; outcastes by reason of their degrading work as disposers of dead, they were universally shunned... But no other section of the population were notably disadvantaged, no other caste distinctions attracted comment from the Chinese pilgrim, and no oppressive caste 'system' drew forth his surprised censure." [Keay, J. India a History, HarperCollinsPublishers London,2000. pg. 145 ] Yet another Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang's accounts (around 600 AD) indicate that the king of Sind region was of Sudra caste. In this period kings of Sudra and Brahmin origin were as common as those of Kshatriya "varna" and caste system was not wholly prohibitive and repressive. [Keay, J. India a History, HarperCollinsPublishers London,2000. pg. 189] The castes did not constitute a rigid description of the occupation or the social status of a group. Since British society was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the Indian caste system to their own social class system. They saw caste as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. [cite web
title=The Indian Caste System and The British: Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India
author=Kevin Hobson
] Intentionally or unintentionally, the caste system became more rigid during the British Raj, when the British started to enumerate castes during the ten year census and codified the system under their rule.

The Dalits, or the people outside the varna system, had the lowest social status. The Dalits, earlier referred to as "untouchables" by some, worked in what were seen as unhealthy, unpleasant or polluting jobs. In the past, the Dalits suffered from social segregation and restrictions, in addition to extreme poverty. They were not allowed temple worship with others, nor water from the same sources. Persons of higher castes would not interact with them. If somehow a member of a higher caste came into physical or social contact with an untouchable, the member of the higher caste was defiled, and had to bathe thoroughly to purge him or herself of the impurity. Social discrimination developed even among the Dalits. Upper sub-castes among Dalits, like "dhobi", "nai" etc., would not interact with lower-order Bhangis, who were described as "outcasts even among outcastes".

Sociologists have commented on the historical advantages offered by a rigid social structure, such as the caste system and its lack of usefulness in the modern world. Historically, the caste system offered several advantages to the population of the Indian subcontinent. While Caste is nowadays seen by instances that render it anachronistic, in its original form, the caste system served as an important instrument of order in a society where mutual consent rather than compulsion ruled;W. Klatt, Caste, class and communism in Kerala, Asian Affairs, Volume 3, Issue 3 October 1972 , pages 275 - 287, DOI: 10.1080/03068377208729634] wherethe ritual rights as well as the economic obligations of members of one caste or sub-caste were strictly circumscribed in relation to those of anyother caste or sub-caste; where one was born into one's caste and retained one's station in society for life; where merit was inherited, where equalityexisted within the caste, but inter-caste relations were unequal and hierarchical. A well-defined system of mutual interdependence through a division of labour created security within a community.. [ [ The Varna and Jati Systems] by Terence Callaham and Roxanna Pavich] In addition, the division of labour on the basis of ethnicity allowed immigrants and foreigners to quickly integrate into their own caste niches. [Nehru, J "Discovery of India", Oxford India Paperbacks] The caste system played an influential role in shaping economic activities.cite book | author=Sankaran, S | title=Indian Economy: Problems, Policies and Development | publisher=Margham Publications | year=1994 | id=ISBN | pages = 50 | chapter = 3] The caste system functioned much like medieval European guilds, ensuring the division of labour, providing for the training of apprentices and, in some cases, allowing manufacturers to achieve narrow specialisation. For instance, in certain regions, producing each variety of cloth was the speciality of a particular sub-caste. Also, philosophers argue that the majority of people would be comfortable in stratified endogamous groups, and have been in ancient times. [ [ Oriental Philosophy] ,""] Membership in a particular caste, with its associated narrative, history and genealogy, would instill in its members a sense of group accomplishment and cultural pride. Such sentiments are routinely expressed by the Marathas, Rajputs, Iyers and Jats for instance.

Caste mobility

Some scholars believe that the relative ranking of other castes was fluid or differed from one place to another prior to the arrival of the British. [cite web |url=
title=Govind Sadashiv Ghurye: Ghurye's Views about Indian Society
] Sociologists such as Bernard Buber and Marriott McKim describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification. Other sociologists such as Y.B Damle have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India.cite journal
author = James Silverberg
month= November | year= 1969
year = 1969
month = Nov
title = Social Mobility in the Caste System in India: An Interdisciplinary Symposium
journal = The American Journal of Sociology
volume = 75
issue = 3
pages = 443–444
] . According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes.

Flexibility in caste laws permitted very low-caste religious clerics such as Valmiki to compose the Ramayana, which became a central work of Hindu scripture.

According to some psychologists, mobility across broad caste lines may have been "minimal", though sub-castes (jatis) may change their social status over the generations by fission, re-location, and adoption of new rituals. ["Social Structure & Mobility in Economic Development", By Neil J. Smelser, Seymour Martin Lipset, Published 2005] .

Sociologist M. N. Srinivas has also debated the question of rigidity in Caste. In an ethnographic study of the Coorgs of Karnataka, he observed considerable flexibility and mobility in their caste hierarchies. [Srinivas, M.N, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India by MN Srinivas, Page 32 (Oxford, 1952)] [Caste in Modern India; And other essays: Page 48. (Media Promoters & Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Bombay; First Published: 1962, 11th Reprint: 1994)] He asserts that the caste system is far from a rigid system in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time. Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. It was always possible for groups born into a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism" i.e adopt the customs of the higher castes. While theoretically "forbidden", the process was not uncommon in practice. The concept of sanskritization, or the adoption of upper-caste norms by the lower castes, addressed the actual complexity and fluidity of caste relations.

Historical examples of mobility in the Indian Caste System among Hindus have been researched. There is also precedent of certain Shudra families within the temples of the Sri Vaishnava sect in South India elevating their caste.

The distinctions, particularly between the Brahmins and the other castes, were in theory sharper, but in practice it now appears that social restrictions were not so rigid. Brahmins often lived off the land and founded dynasties. Most of the groups claiming Kshatriya status had only recently acquired it. The conscious reference to being Kshatriya, a characteristic among Rajputs, is a noticeable feature in post-Gupta politics. The fact that many of these dynasties were of obscure origin suggests some social mobility: a person of any caste, having once acquired political power, could also acquire a genealogy connecting him with the traditional lineages and conferring Kshatriya status. A number of new castes, such as the Kayasthas (scribes) and Khatris (traders), are mentioned in the sources of this period. According to the Brahmanic sources, they originated from intercaste marriages, but this is clearly an attempt at rationalizing their rank in the hierarchy. Many of these new castes played a major role in society. The hierarchy of castes did not have a uniform distribution throughout the country. [ "India." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 6 June 2008]


There have been challenges to the caste system from the time of Buddha [ [ The Buddha - Caste Problem ] ] , and from the time of Mahavira (Jaina founder) and (still earlier) of Gosāla Maskarin (Ājīvika founder).

Opposition to the system of varṇa ('caste') is regularly asserted already in the Yoga Upaniṣad-s (of early mediaeval date); and is a constant feature of Cīna-ācāra tantrism (Chinese-derived movement in Asom, and also of mediaeval date). The Nātha system (likewise mediaeval) founded by Matsya-indra Nātha and by Go-rakṣa Nātha, and spread throughout India, has likewise been in consistent opposition to the system of varṇa.

Many Bhakti period saints rejected the caste discriminations and accepted all castes, including untouchables, into their fold. During the British Raj, this sentiment gathered steam, and many Hindu reform movements such as Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj renounced caste-based discrimination. The inclusion of so-called untouchables into the mainstream was argued for by many social reformers ("see Historical criticism, below"). Mahatma Gandhi called them "Harijans" (children of God) although that term is now considered patronizing and the term Dalit ("downtrodden") is the more commonly used. Gandhi's contribution toward the emancipation of the untouchables is still debated, especially in the commentary of his contemporary Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, an untouchable himself, who frequently saw Gandhi's activities as detrimental to the cause of upliftment of his people.Fact|70|date=October 2007

The practice of untouchability was formally outlawed by the Constitution of India in 1950, and has declined significantly since then. K. R. Narayanan, who became the President of India in 1997, and K. G. Balakrishnan (the present Chief Justice of India) have belonged to castes formerly considered untouchable.

British Rule

The fluidity of the caste system was affected by the arrival of the British. Prior to that, the relative ranking of castes differed from one place to another. [cite web
title=Govind Sadashiv Ghurye: Ghurye's Views about Indian Society
] The castes did not constitute a rigid description of the occupation or the social status of a group. Since the British society was divided by class, the British attempted to equate the Indian caste system to the class system. They saw caste as an indicator of occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. [cite web
title=The Indian Caste System and The British: Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India
author=Kevin Hobson
] During the initial days of the British East India Company's rule, caste privileges and customs were encouraged, [cite book
last = Alavi
first = Seema
title = Sepoys And The Company Tradition and transition in Northern India 1770-1830
year = 1998
publisher = Oxford University Press India
id = ISBN 0-195-63484-5
] but the British law courts disagreed with the discrimination against the lower castes. However, British policies of divide and rule as well as enumeration of the population into rigid categories during the 10 year census contributed towards the hardening of caste identities. [cite book |last=Corbridge |first=Staurt |coauthors=Harriss, John |title= Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy|year=2000 |publisher= Polity press |pages=8]

During the period of British rule, India saw the rebellions of several lower castes, mainly tribals that revolted against British rule. These were: [ [ "Tribal Protests and Rebellions'] ] .
#Halba rebellion (1774-79)
#Bhopalpatnam Struggle (1795)
#Bhil rebellion (1822–1857) [ P. 111 "The Freedom Struggle in Hyderabad: A Connected Account" By Hyderabad (India : State) ]
#Paralkot rebellion (1825)
#Tarapur rebellion (1842-54)
#Maria rebellion (1842-63)
#First Freedom Struggle (1856-57)
#Bhil rebellion, begun by Tantya Tope in Banswara (1858) [ P. 32 "Social and Political Awakening Among the Tribals of Rajasthan" By Gopi Nath Sharma ]
#Koi revolt (1859)
#Gond rebellion, begun by Ramji Gond in Adilabad (1860) [ P. 420 "Who's who of Freedom Struggle in Andhra Pradesh" By Sarojini Regani ]
#Muria rebellion (1876)
#Rani rebellion (1878-82)
#Bhumkal (1910)

Modern status of the caste system

Though inter-caste marriages are now relatively common in India, caste remains a criterion for matrimonial choices for some. Many Indian matrimonial websites and matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers contain caste-based categories and matrimonial advertisements frequently state the caste as a criterion of choice. [cite web
title=India's Arranged Marriages
author=Vikas Kamat
] .

In some rural areas and small towns, the caste system is still very rigid. Caste is also a factor in the politics of India (see Caste politics in India).

The Government of India has officially documented castes and subcastes, primarily to determine those deserving reservation (positive discrimination in education and jobs) through the census. The Indian reservation system, though limited in scope, relies entirely on quotas. The Government lists consist of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes:

;Scheduled castes (SC):Scheduled castes generally consist of former "untouchables" (the term "Dalit" is now preferred). The present population is 16% of the total population of India (around 160 million). For example, the Delhi state has 49 castes listed as SC. [ List of Scheduled Castes] Delhi Govt.]

;Scheduled tribes (ST):Scheduled tribes generally consist of tribal groups. The present population is 7% of the total population of India i.e. around 70 million.

;Other Backward Classes (OBC):The Mandal Commission covered more than 3000 castes under OBC Category and stated that OBCs form around 52% of the Indian population. However, the National Sample Survey puts the figure at 32%. [ [ Reply to SC daunting task for government] , "Tribune India"] . There is substantial debate over the exact number of OBCs in India. It is generally estimated to be sizable, but many believe that it is lower than the figures quoted by either the Mandal Commission or the National Sample Survey [ [ What is India's population of other backward classes?] ,"Yahoo News"]

The caste-based reservations in India have led to wide-spread protests, with many complaining of reverse discrimination against the forward castes (the castes that do not qualify for the reservation). The 2006 Indian anti-reservation protests are one major example. Many view negative treatment (or hatred) of forward castes as socially divisive and just as wrong. The modern view is caste-based reservations should be based on the individual's personal economic status, as there are now many Dalits who are more wealthy and more educated than forward castes but still benefit from caste-based reservations and other government advantages, which is seen as unfair & discriminatory against forward castes. Many view the only realistic solution to these problems of unfairness is caste-based reservations should being based on the individual's personal economic status not on their caste, social background or cultural heritage.

Caste system among non-Hindus

In some parts of India, the Christians are stratified by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors, [ Christian Castes] Encyclopedia Britannica] usually this refers only to the Catholic churches, not the Protestant, and could be in reference to nasrani who were bestowed caste-like status. Presently in India, more than 70% of Christians are Dalits, but the higher caste Christians (30% by estimates) control 90% of the Catholic church's administrative jobs [] . Out of the 156 Catholic bishops, only 6 are from lower castes. [ [ Problems and Struggles]] [ [ Encyclopedia Britannica] ] Many Dalit Catholics have spoken out against discrimination against them by the Catholic Church. [ [ A palmyra leaf that sears us] , "The Hindu"] Christians in Goa are certainly likely to mention their caste in matrimonial ads [] . However, things are different in Kerala where the non-catholic population tend to be higher in the caste ladder.

Units of social stratification, termed as "castes" by many, have developed among Muslims in some parts of South Asia. [ "Islamic caste."] Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Oct. 2006] Burton-Page, J. [ "Hindū."] Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzeland W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2006. Brill Online.] Sources indicate that the castes among Muslims developed as the result of close contact with Hindu culture and Hindu converts to Islam. [Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh (A Study of Culture Contact), Ghaus Ansari, Lucknow, 1960, Page 66] cite web|last = Singh Sikand|first = Yoginder|title = Caste in Indian Muslim Society|publisher = Hamdard University|url =|accessdate = 2006-10-18 ] The Sachar Committee's report commissioned by the government of India and released in 2006, documents the continued stratification in Muslim society.

The Muslims too have sections of washermen, tailors, smiths, and other backward castes [ Madani, Mohsen Saeidi, P. 93, "Impact of Hindu Culture on Muslims" ] In modern India there have been brutal clashes amongst Muslims belonging to rival castes. [ [ Muslim caste clash: One killed in exchange of fire] , Monday, September 22, 2003, Chandigarh, India ]

Among Muslims, those who are referred to as Ashrafs are presumed to have a superior status derived from their foreign Arab ancestry,cite book| last = Aggarwal|first = Patrap|authorlink = Patrap C. Aggarwal|title = Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India|publisher = Manohar|year=1978 ] [ Social Stratification Among Muslims in India] by Zarina Bhatty] while the Ajlafs are assumed to be converts from Hinduism, and have a lower status. In addition, there is also the "Arzal" caste among Muslims, who were regarded by anti-caste activists like Babasaheb Ambedkar as the equivalent of untouchables.cite book |last = Ambedkar |first = Bhimrao |authorlink = B.R. Ambedkar |title = Pakistan or the Partition of India |publisher = Thackers Publishers ] [ Web resource for "Pakistan or the Partition of India"] ] In the Bengal region of India, some Muslims also stratify their society according to 'Quoms'. [cite book |last = Leach |first = Edmund Ronald|authorlink = E.R. Leach |title = Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-West Pakistan (Pg 113)|publisher = Cambridge University Press|date=1971-11-24 ] While some scholars have asserted that the Muslim Castes are not as acute in their discrimination as that among Hindus, ["Muslim Communities of South Asia: Culture and Society" Edited by T.N. Madan. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1976 pp. 114] Ambedkar argued otherwise, writing that the social evils in Muslim society were "worse than those seen in Hindu society".

The nastik Buddhists too have a caste system. In Sri Lanka, the Rodis have always been despised and they might have been out-casted by the Lankan Buddhists due the absence of "ahimsa" ("non-violence"), which Buddhism heavily depends on. The writer Raghavan notes: "That a form of worship in which human offerings formed the essential ritual would have been anathema to the Buddhist way of life goes without saying; and it needs no stretch of imagination that any class of people in whom the cult prevailed or survived even in an attenuated form would have been pronounced by the sangha (i.e. the Buddhist clergy) as exiles from the social order." Savarkar too believed that the status of the backward castes (e.g. Chamar) that performed non-violence only worsened. [ [ "Are neo-Buddhists- Hindus?"] By Koenraad Elst ] When Ywan Chwang traveled to South India after the period of the Chalukyan Empire, he noticed that the caste system had existed among the Buddhists and Jains. [ Durga Prasad, P. 115, "History of the Andhras upto 1565 A. D." ]

The Jains too have castes in places such as Bihar. For example, in the village of Bundela, there are several "jaats" ("groups") amongst the Jains. A person of one "jaat" cannot intermingle with a Jain or another "jaat". They also cannot eat with the members of other "jaats". [ Martin, Robert Montgomery, P. 216, "The History, Antiquities, Topography, and Statistics of Eastern India" ]

Although the Sikh Gurus rejected the caste system, caste is still observed in some areas of the Sikh society such as marriage, and establishment and functioning of gurdwaras. [cite web
title=Sikhism: The rejection of caste
publisher=Encyclopædia Britannica
accessdate = 2007-04-24
] [cite web
title=Dalits' battle in a Punjab village
author=Praveen Swami
accessdate = 2007-04-24
] The castes among Sikhs include Khatris, the Kambohs, the Sikh Rajput, the Ramgharhias, the Aroras, the Jatts, the Ahluwalias, and the Mazhabis (Punjabi Dalit castes including Churas and the Ramdasias). In Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, out of 140 seats, twenty are reserved for low caste Sikhs. [cite web
title=Problems of Defining Authority in Sikhism
author=Dr. Sewa Singh Kalsi
publisher=DISKUS Vol.3 No.2 (1995) pp.43-58
accessdate = 2007-04-24

Caste-related violence

Independent India has witnessed considerable amount of violence and hate crimes motivated by caste. Ranvir Sena, a caste-supremacist fringe paramilitary group based in Bihar, has committed violent acts against Dalits and other members of the scheduled caste community. Phoolan Devi, who belonged to "Mallah" lower-caste, was mistreated and raped by upper-caste Thakurs at a young age. She then became a bandit and carried out violent robberies against upper-caste people. In 1981, her gang massacred twenty-two Thakurs, most of whom were not involved in her kidnapping or rape. Phoolan Devi went on to become a politician and Member of Parliament.

Over the years, various incidents of violence against Dalits, such as Kherlanji Massacre have been reported from many parts of India. At the same time, many violent protests by Dalits, such as the 2006 Dalit protests in Maharashtra, have been reported as well.

Caste politics

Mahatma Gandhi, B. R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru had radically different approaches to caste especially over constitutional politics and the status of "untouchables".cite web
title=Book review of Caste, Society and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age
author=Danny Yee
] Until the mid-1970s, the politics of independent India was largely dominated by economic issues and questions of corruption. But since 1980s, caste has emerged as a major issue in the Politics of India.cite web
title=Caste Politics in India
author=Aditya Nigam

The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to "identify the socially or educationally backward", Bhattacharya, Amit. cite web|url=|title="Who are the OBCs?"|accessdate=2006-04-19 "Times of India", April 8, 2006.] and to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination. In 1980, the commission's report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of lower castes were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government jobs and slots in public universities. When V. P. Singh Government tried to implement the recommendations of Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests were held in the country. Many alleged that the politicians were trying to cash in on caste-based reservations for purely pragmatic electoral purposes.

Many political parties in India have openly indulged in caste-based votebank politics. Parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal claim that they are representing the backward castes, and rely primarily on OBC support, often in alliance with Dalit and Muslim support to win the elections.cite web
title=Caste-Based Parties
publisher= Country Studies US
] . Remarkably, what is called a landmark election in the history of India's biggest state of Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party was able to garner majority in the State assembly Elections with the support of the brahmin community.


There have been many criticisms [ [ India's caste system discriminates] ] of the caste system, both within and outside India. Criticism of the Caste system in Hindu society came both from the Hindu fold and from without.

Historical criticism

Gautama Buddha and Mahavira, the founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively, were perhaps against any kind of caste structure. Further, rejection of caste may have developed before these religions within Hinduism.Fact|date=September 2007 Many bhakti period saints such as Nanak, Kabir, Caitanya, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath, Ramanuja and Tukaram rejected all caste-based discrimination and accepted disciples from all the castes. Many Hindu reformers such as Swami Vivekananda and Sathya Sai Baba believe that there is no place for the caste system in Hinduism. The 15th century saint Ramananda also accepted all castes, including untouchables, into his fold. Most of these saints subscribed to the Bhakti movements in Hinduism during the medieval period that rejected casteism. Nandanar, a low-caste Hindu cleric, also rejected casteism and accepted Dalits. [ [] ]

Some other movements in Hinduism have also welcomed lower-castes into their fold, the earliest being the Bhakti movements of the medieval period. Early Dalit politics involved many Hindu reform movements which arose primarily as a reaction to the advent of Christian Missionaries in India and their attempts to convert Dalits to Christianity, who were attracted to the prospect of escaping the caste system.

In the 19th Century, the Brahmo Samaj under Raja Ram Mohan Roy, actively campaigned against untouchability and Casteism. The Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand also renounced discrimination against Dalits.Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa founded the Ramakrishna Mission that participated in the emancipation of Dalits. Upper caste Hindus, such as Mannathu Padmanabhan also participated in movements to abolish Untouchability against Dalits, opening his family temple for Dalits to worship.Narayana Guru, a pious Hindu and an authority on the Vedas, also criticized casteism and campaigned for the rights of lower-caste Hindus within the context of Hinduism.

The first "upper-caste" temple to openly welcome Dalits into their fold was the Laxminarayan Temple in Wardha in the year 1928 (the move was spearheaded by reformer Jamnalal Bajaj). Also, the Satnami movement was founded by Guru Ghasidas, a Dalit himself.

The caste system has also been criticized by many Indian social reformers. Some reformers, such as Jyotirao Phule and Iyothee Thass argued that the lower caste people were the original inhabitants of India, and were conquered in the ancient past by "Brahman invaders." Mahatma Gandhi coined the term "Harijan", a euphemistic word for "untouchable", literally meaning "Sons of God". B. R. Ambedkar, born in Hindu Dalit community, was a heavy critic of the caste system. He pioneered the Dalit Buddhist movement in India, and asked his followers to leave Hinduism, and convert to Buddhism.India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, based on his own relationship with Dalit reformer Ambedkar, also spread information about the dire need to eradicate untouchability for the benefit of the Dalit community. Another example was the Temple Entry Proclamation issued by the last Maharaja of Travancore in the Indian state of Kerala in the year 1936. The Maharaja proclaimed that "outcastes should not be denied the consolations and the solace of the Hindu faith". Even today, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple that first welcomed Dalits in the state of Kerala is revered by the Dalit Hindu community.

Contemporary Criticism

Kancha Ilaiah, a Buddhist and professor at Osmania University is known for his polemical attacks on Hindus and the caste system and is considered an anti-Hindu by his critics. Similarly, radicals such as Udit Raj, also a Buddhist, who have attacked Hindus in polemical speeches, have achieved some popularity among evangelical Christian groups such as the Dalit Freedom Network in their criticism of Hindism. The website Dalitstan (presently taken down), once banned by the Indian government, is an example of anti-Brahmin and anti-Hindu rhetoric by Dalit extremists, allegedly supported by Christian missions.

Many Hindus point out that the caste system is related to the Indian society, and not Hinduism (as is evident by presence of caste among Indian Christians and Muslims)Or|date=September 2007. Hindu Nationalist organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have actively criticized the caste system.

Some activists consider that the caste system is a form of racial discrimination. [ An Untouchable Subject?] ] The participants of the United Nations Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in March 2001, condemned discrimination due to the caste system, and tried to pass a resolution declaring that caste as a basis for the segregation and oppression of peoples in terms of their descent and occupation is a form of apartheid. However, no formal resolution was passed to that effect. [ [ Final Declaration of the Global Conference Against Racism and Caste-based Discrimination] ]

India's treatment of Dalits has been described by some authors as as "India's hidden apartheid". [Gopal Guru, with Shiraz Sidhva. [ India’s "hidden apartheid"] ] [Rajeev Dhavan. [ India's apartheid] ] Critics of the accusations point out the substantial improvements in the rights of Dalits (former "Untouchables") enshrined in the Constitution of India (primarily written by a Dalit, Ambedkar), which is the principal object of article 17 in the Constitution as implemented by the Protection of Civil rights Act, 1955 [The Constitution of India by P.M. Bakshi, Universal Law Publishing Co, ISBN 8175345004] and the fact that India has had a Dalit, K.R. Narayanan, for a president, as well as the disappearance of the practise in urban public life.Mendelsohn, Oliver & Vicziany, Maria, "The Untouchables, Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India", Cambridge University Press, 1998] page number

According to William A. Haviland, however:

Although India's national constitution of 1950 sought to abolish cast discrimination and the practice of untouchability, the caste system remains deeply entrenched in Hindu culture and is still widespread throughout southern Asia, especially in rural India. In what has been called India's "hidden apartheid", entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. Representing about 15 percent of India's population—or some 160 million people—the widely scatter Dalits endure near complete social isolation, humiliation, and discrimination based exclusively on their birth status. Even a Dalit's shadow is believed to pollute the upper classes. They may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes, drink water from public wells, or visit the same temples as the higher castes. Dalit children are still often made to sit in the back of classrooms. [William A. Haviland, "Anthropology: The Human Challenge", 10th edition, Thomson Wadsworth, 2005, ISBN 0534623611, p. 575.]

However, such allegations of apartheid are regarded by academic sociologists as a political epithet, since apartheid implies state sponsored discrimination, and no such thing exists in India. The Constitution of India places special emphasis on outlawing caste discrimination, especially the practice of untouchability. [ [ Excerpts from The Constitution of India ] ] In addition, the Indian penal code inflicts severe punishments on those who discriminate on the basis of caste. Anti-dalit prejudice and discrimination is a social malaise that exists primarily in rural areas, where small societies can track the caste lineage of individuals and discriminate accordingly. Sociologists Kevin Reilly, Stephen Kaufman, Angela Bodino, while being critical of casteism, conclude that modern India does not practice any "apartheid" since there is no state sanctioned discrimination.Kevin Reilly, Stephen Kaufman, Angela Bodino, Racism: A Global Reader P21, M.E. Sharpe, 2003 ISBN 0765610604.] They write that Casteism in India is presently "not apartheid. In fact, untouchables, as well as tribal people and members of the lowest castes in India benefit from broad affirmative action programmes and are enjoying greater political power."

Such allegations have also been rejected by many sociologists such as Andre Béteille, who writes that treating caste as a form of racism is "politically mischievous" and worse, "scientifically nonsense" since there is no discernible difference in the racial characteristics between Brahmins and Scheduled Castes. He writes that "Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination". [ [ Race and caste] by Andre Beteille]

The Indian government also rejects the claims of equivalency between Caste and Racial discrimination, pointing out that the caste issues as essentially intra-racial and intra-cultural. Indian Attorney General Soli Sorabjee insisted that " [t] he only reason India wants caste discrimination kept off the agenda is that it will distract participants from the main topic: racism. Caste discrimination in India is undeniable but caste and race are entirely distinct". Many scholars dispute the claim that casteism is akin to racism. The view of the caste system as "static and unchanging" has been disputed. Sociologists describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification. Others have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India.cite journal
author = James Silverberg
month=November | year=1969
year = 1969
month = Nov
title = Social Mobility in the Caste System in India: An Interdisciplinary Symposium
journal = The American Journal of Sociology
volume = 75
issue = 3
pages = 443–444
] According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes.

Sociologist M. N. Srinivas has also debated the question of rigidity in Caste. [Srinivas, M.N, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India by MN Srinivas, Page 32 (Oxford, 1952)] [Caste in Modern India; And other essays: Page 48. (Media Promoters & Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Bombay; First Published: 1962, 11th Reprint: 1994)] For details see sanskritization.

Pakistani-American sociologist Ayesha Jalal also rejects these allegations. In her book, "Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia", she writes that "As for Hinduism, the hierarchical principles of the Brahmanical social order have always been contested from within Hindu society, suggesting that equality has been and continues to be both valued and practiced." [A. Jalal,Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective (Contemporary South Asia), Cambridge University Press (May 26, 1995), ISBN 0521478626]

In India, [ [ India - A Country Study, USA Library of Congress, 1995, Chapter 5] ] some observers felt that the caste system must be viewed as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups. In many parts of India, land is largely held by high-ranking property owners of the dominant castes that economically exploit low-ranking landless labourers and poor artisans, all the while degrading them with ritual emphases on their so-called god-given inferior status.

Matt Cherry, [ [ Matt Cherry, "Humanism In India", Free Inquiry magazine, Vol 16 Num 4] ] claims that karma underpins the caste system, and the caste system traditionally determines the position and role of every member of Hindu society. Caste determines an individual's place in society, the work he or she may carry out, and who he or she may marry and meet. According to him, Hindus believe that the karma of previous life will determine the caste an individual will be (re)born into.

On 29 March 2007, the Supreme Court of India, as an interim measure, stayed the law providing for 27 percent reservation for Other Backward Classes in educational institutions like IITs and IIMs. This was done in response to a public interest litigation — Ashoka Kumar Thakur vs. Union of India . The Court held that the 1931 census could not be a determinative factor for identifying the OBCs for the purpose of providing reservation. The court also observed, "Reservation cannot be permanent and appear to perpetuate backwardness".cite news
title = Supreme Court stays OBC quota in IITs, IIMs
url =
format =
work =
publisher = India Limited
date = 2007-03-29
accessdate = 2007-04-01
language =
quote =

ee also

* The varna system
* Caste
* List of Indian castes
* Reservations in India



*Aggarwal, Patrap. "Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India". Manohar. 1978.
*Ambedkar, Bhimrao. "Pakistan or the Partition of India". Thackers Publishers.
*Ansari, Ghaus. "Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact". Lucknow, 1960.
*Bayly, Susan. "Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age". Cambridge University Press. 1999. DOI:10.2277/0521264340. ISBN-13: 9780521264341.
*Michaels, Axel, Hinduism: Past and Present 188-97 (Princeton 2004) ISBN 0-691-08953-1
*Srinivas, M. N. "Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India". Oxford, 1952.

Further reading

*Ambedkar, B.R. (1946). [ "The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?"] as reprinted in Volume 7 of "Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches", published by Government of Maharashtra 1990; Complete Writings
*Ambedkar, B.R. (1946) "Who were the Shudras" ( [ Read online] )
* Atal, Yogesh (1968) "The Changing Frontiers of Caste" Delhi, National Publishing House
* Atal, Yogesh (2006) "Changing Indian Society" Chapter on Varna and Jati. Jaipur, Rawat Publications.
*Baines, Jervoise Athelstane (1893). "General report on the Census of India, 1891", London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office
*Blunt, E.A.H. (1931). "The Caste System of Northern India", republished 1964, S. Chand, Delhi.
*Crooke, William (1896). "Tribes and Castes of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh", 4 vols.
*Duiker/Spielvogel. "The Essential World History Vol I: to 1800". 2nd Edition 2005
*Dumont, Louis. "". Complete English edition, revised. 540 p. 1970, 1980 Series: (Nature of Human Society)
*Ghurye, G. S. (1961). "Caste, Class and Occupation". Popular Book Depot, Bombay.
*Ghurye, G. S. (1969). Caste and Race in India, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai 1969 (1932)
*Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). "India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes", C. Hurst & Co
*Kane, Pandurang Vaman: "History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law)" — Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962-1975
*Lal, K. S. Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India (1995)
*Murray Milner, Jr. (1994). "Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture", New York: Oxford University Press
*Raj, Papia & Aditya Raj (2004) "Caste Variation in Reproductive Health of Women in Eastern Region of India: A Study Based on NFHS Data" Sociological Bulletin 53 (3): 326-346
*Ranganayakamma (2001). "For the solution of the "Caste" question, Buddha is not enough, Ambedkar is not enough either, Marx is a must", Hyderabad : Sweet Home Publications
*Russell, R.V. and R.B. Hira Lal (1916). "The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India", 4 vols., London.

External links

* [ The Caste System in India]
*"Annihilation of Caste with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi" [ Part I] & [ Part II] by "Dr.B.R.Ambedkar"
* [ Varna Ashram and Hindu Scriptures (pdf)]
* "Articles on Caste by Koenraad Elst:" [ Caste in India] , [ Buddhism and Caste] , [ Indian tribals and Caste] , [ Physical anthropology and Caste] , [ Etymology of Varna]
* [ India's Caste System] at Kamat's Potpourri
* [ Hidden Apartheid Caste Discrimination against India's "Untouchables"]
* [ Flood victims face caste discrimination] retrieved Sep 12, 2008

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