Caste is perhaps the social institution so uniquely associated with South Asia for the past millennium and more. Caste is the English word, derived from the Portuguese, to denote social hierarchy in South Asia. It refers to both Varna and Jati, as these are known in local languages. The Varna system became universal in South Asia approximately 2,500 years ago, while the Jatis were given official sanction only with the legal code of Manu about a thousand and more years after the Varna system had become entrenched.
Varna (Sanskrit for colour) refers to the “four-fold plus” system of social division with Brahmin (priest), Kshatriya (warrior/ruler), Vaisya (trader) and Shudra (worker) making up the four main Varnas. The first three Varnas were considered the “twice-born” and “clean”. They wielded, respectively, ideological power, political/military power and money power. The Shudras were the vast numbers who produced the goods and provided the services on which society survived. They were the landed peasantry which worked its fields, made the pots, constructed the houses, carried the news, provided milk, etc. Even though the Shudras were discriminated by the top three Varnas, they were considered part of the caste system, as defined by the Varnas.
Those who fell outside this four-fold system were outcastes (literally) and therefore the caste Hindus were not even allowed to touch them. The largest number of the untouchables was workers who were forced to engage in “unclean” or “degrading” work. Apart from groups like leather workers, sewage workers and barbers, the untouchables also included landless agricultural labourers and temple workers. Those belonging to foreign religions like Islam and Christianity were also considered outside the caste system and therefore, untouchable. This was the “four-fold plus” Varna caste scheme.
A Jati was an endogamous group arranged around a particular profession or calling and was assigned its own Varna, but this assigned position varied from one region to the other. A particular work-group (Jati) would be classified as Shudra in one region while in another they would be considered untouchable. Also, in the course of time, there emerged some Jatis who could not be classified under any of the typical Varnas, like the Kayasths of North India and the Baidyas of Bengal. Both these Jati-conglomerates were considered a part of the “twice-born” part of the Varna order, but had a fuzzy location within.
While Varna remained the larger, theoretical, shell of the caste system, the Jati was the lived in experience of the people. Therefore it was possible for some confusion to persist regarding the Varna location of a Jati, but there was never any doubt as to the Jati identity of a person. Everybody had his Jati identity assigned at birth, according to birth. Once born in a particular Jati there was no possibility of individual mobility. Since the Jati was also an identity which was based on work or profession, the each man had to take up the profession ordained for him by the Jati identity.
The caste system, specifically the one defined with such legal finesse in the Manusmriti, has been the specific form in which the class system of feudal South Asia expressed itself. It was a hierarchical arrangement of people organised in clearly identifiable groups linked to specific work and occupation. It is clear that the Shudras and the untouchable Jatis were the direct producers, while the top three Varnas were the appropriators of this produce.
Now there is nothing unique about this. All class based societies have had a large group of people who were the direct producers, while a smaller group of ruling classes appropriated the maximum of the produce that they could given the relations of power. It was also common in pre-modern societies to have a division of labour organised along lines of craft or skill or work. These were often formed into guilds in Europe and their levels of insularity often matched those of the Jati groups in South Asia.
What made the caste system unique were three things. One, this social hierarchy was an integral part of the moral code of religious theory as it developed in South Asia; two, it was strictly endogamous and there was no space for individual mobility across caste groups even between Jatis parallel to each other in hierarchy; and three, all Jatis were linked in relations of hierarchy with each other and no Jati was ranked equal to another.
The embedding of caste into the very genetic code of the doctrines and practices of Hinduism resulted in a very different material grounding to the ideology of social hierarchy in South Asia. It gave social hierarchy a certain gravity and strength unlike other pre-modern cultures with social hierarchies. Religion provided the basic identity to man (and woman) in pre-modern cultures. If one looks at the social theory of Christianity and Islam, all human beings are conceptualised equal; at least all men are and the primary division of mankind is based on theological affiliation. Society’s primary division is between those who follow the particular brand of religious practices and those who do not. Social hierarchy is not an integral part of a person’s identity as conceptualised by Islam or Christianity. On the other hand, theological affiliation has nothing to do with identity within Hinduism. Identity is unambiguously affixed through caste affliation.
An important innovation of the Manusmriti was that all Jatis were ranked hierarchically. No two Jatis were, in theory, equal to each other. Either one was below or above the other Jatis. A Jati’s place in the scale was unique and not shared by any other Jati. So a Jati suffered disabilities and discrimination from those placed above, or exacted privileges and surplus from those placed below. Even the leather workers (chamars), often taken as symptomatic of the untouchable castes, had Jatis placed below them whom they treated in a manner eerily similar to what they themselves faced from the rest of society.
This deep hierarchy – based on religious identity as well as on viewing all other social groups as higher or lower to oneself – combined with the strict rules limiting inter-Jati interaction seem to have produced two results.
One result was that it resulted in a massive splintering of both the ruled, as well as the ruling, classes. The splintering of the direct producers, the ruled over classes, meant that they could never effectively combine into one force to challenge the social order. Therefore, the typical historical form of class protest in South Asia has been either Sufi and Bhakti religious movements or mass migration. While peasant rebellions did occur they were much fewer in numbers and intensity when compared to other civilisations. The caste form of class division also splintered the ruling class into seemingly exclusive groups, which also made it difficult to identify a common class enemy.
The second result of this unique caste based class division was that there was a water tight division between castes which nurtured theoretical knowledge (the twice born, upper castes) and castes which developed practical skills (the Shudras and untouchables). It was practically impossible for theoretical knowledge holders to test their ideas, while it was equally impossible for skilled practitioners of crafts and trades to raise their understanding of material world into theoretical knowledge. Therefore much of India’s contribution to world knowledge has been in areas like invention of zero, grammar or the deduction of planetary movements.
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A slightly modified version of this article was published in The Post on 20 June, 2007.