What is a “caste”?"Caste" is the term used todescribe the complex system ofsocial divisions that pervades lifein India. Caste is an ancienthereditary system that developedalongside and becameintertwined with Hinduism. Castedetermines whom a person canmarry, specifies what kind of work Social and economic divideshe can do, and even controls still exist across Indiawhat he can eat or touch.Since the great majority of Indians are Hindu, the caste systemhas played an enormous role in the history of India, and itcontinues to exert tremendous influence on modern Indianculture and politics.
Where does this system come from?The most widely acceptedtheory is that the fourbasic divisions of theHindu caste system—thevarna—developed in theperiod 1500-1000 B.C. asa result of the Aryanconquest of India.
Where does this system come from?The earliest known mention of caste isfound in the Aryan’s Vedic hymns,perhaps dating from about 1000 B.C.E. Ina famous passage, the metaphor of thehuman body was used to describe Indiansociety. The brahman, or priestly, casterepresents societys head; the kshatriya,or warrior, caste are its arms; the vaishyacaste—traders and landowners—are thelegs; and the sudra caste—the servants ofthe other three—are the feet.This metaphor stresses the idea ofhierarchy as well as that ofinterdependence.
The Four VarnaThese four castes—brahman, kshatriya,vaishya, and sudra—are the classical fourdivisions of Hindusociety. In practice,however, there havealways been manysubdivisions (Jatis)of these castes.
Caste and DharmaIn Hindu religious texts, the dharma—the law, or duty—ofeach varna is described. It was thought that this dharmawas an inherited, or inborn, quality. Consequently, peoplethought that if intermarriages took place, there would bemuch confusion as to the dharma of the next generation ofchildren. As a result of such concerns, marriage betweendifferent castes was strictly prohibited. The practice ofmarrying only a person of "ones own kind" is calledendogamy and is still a central rule in many Hinducommunities.
Inevitably, there were certain peoplewho failed to live up to their castedharma. Such people and their Untouchableschildren were considered outcastsfrom Hindu society. They had to liveapart from other castes and weregiven the jobs that no one elsewanted to perform. Because of theircontact with things consideredunclean or polluted, the outcasts werebelieved to be deeply tainted. Theycame to be thought of as"untouchable" because peoplebelieved that their touch—or even thesight of them—would compromise abrahmans purity. The untouchableswere not admitted into Hindu templesand instead formed religious sects oftheir own.
Harijans or “Scheduled Castes”Over the centuries, they alsoorganized into sub-castes muchlike those of orthodox Hindusociety. In the 20th century,Mahatma Gandhi made it one ofhis lifes goals to bring theuntouchables back into Hindusociety. He renamed them theharijans, or "children of God,"and tried to convince orthodoxHindus to admit them into theirtemples and their everyday lives.
Harijans or “Scheduled Castes”However, other leaders doubted thatupper-caste Hindus would ever treatthe harijans as equals. Dr. B. R.Ambedkar, a distinguished scholarwho had been born an "untouchable,"was a leading spokesman for this view.He used the term scheduled casteswhen referring to this group, for hebelieved that the term harijans wasdemeaning. The scheduled castes, hesaid, should withdraw from Hinduismaltogether and join another religion,such as Buddhism, which does notrecognize caste distinctions.
Independence and UntouchablesAfter India became an independentnation in 1947, its new constitutionoutlawed the practice of"untouchability." The constitutionalso established affirmative actionprograms to ensure that thescheduled castes would haveaccess to higher education andbetter jobs. Because of theseprograms, there has been a markedimprovement in the status of thescheduled castes.
Why does the system persist?Today, the caste system continues to bethe main form of government in villagesthroughout India. In large part, itscontinuity depends on two central Hinduconcepts: caste dharma and karma. InHindu society, caste dharma isconsidered to be a divine law. In thewords of Mahatma Gandhi, caste dharmais "the duty one has to perform" and "thelaw of ones being." Many Hindus believethat this obligation tends to enhance thespiritual development of the individual.Because of it, each person learns from anearly age to overcome selfish desires andinstead focus on group goals and ideals.
Why does the system persist?The concept of karma helps toexplain differences in status thatmight otherwise be consideredunfair. Because ones castemembership is thought to be aresult of actions in a previous life, aperson tends to accept this statusrather than complain about it. By thesame token, a successfulperformance of caste duty willimprove ones karma and perhapslead to improved status in the nextlife.
Why does the system persist?The caste system also returnscertain practical benefits to theindividual. Being a member of a jatigives each person a sense ofidentity and of belonging to a well-defined group within society. Themembers of a jati have much incommon. They share a job specialtyand abide by the same rulesconcerning diet and religion.Because of the rules of endogamy,each jati is also an extended family,for most members are related byblood.
In 1950, the writers of Theindependent Indias Constitutionadopted a policy of reserving jobs Reservationin the government and seats instate-funded educational Systeminstitutes for the "scheduledcastes and tribes," as the peoplemarginalized by the caste systemwere then known.India sets aside 22.5% of itsgovernment jobs for the lowestcastes, and an additional 27% forwhat are called the other"backward" castes, the next stepup in the caste system.
The Reservation SystemSparks flew in spring 2006 when theIndian government pushed to extend thesame quotas to university admissions.Students took to the streets of New Delhito protest the plan. Medical students at a top university protesting the new proposal(Currently, out of the 36,000undergraduate seats at Delhi University,nearly 8,000 are reserved for lower-caste students. Today an estimated 36percent of the population falls under theOther Backward Classes (OBCs)category, the group receiving the newreservations.)
Is it Fair?India’s constitution guarantees “equal rights.” • Article 14 says that the state gives to every person “equality before the law” and “equal protection of the laws.” • Article 15 prohibits discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, etc. • Article 16 guarantees equality of opportunity in matters of public employment, etc.
Is it Fair?At the same time, the constitution provides for a“reservation system.” Article 46 says “The state shall promote with special care the education and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular of the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”Respond: Does India’s reservation system contradict (goagainst) her constitution’s promise of “equal rights”?