EnglishsocialCaste system in India – Meaning, Origin, Provisions, Acts

Caste system in India – Meaning, Origin, Provisions, Acts

Caste System in India

Caste system is a phenomenon related to Hinduism in particular. Its origin, evolution and existence are peculiar to India. Caste system is a system much like western concept of racism where people are discriminated against due to their skin colour; similarly, in caste system, discrimination is done on the basis of birth i.e. a person’s social status is defined on the basis of his/her caste in which he/she took birth and that is the sole criterion of establishing his/her social status. In other words, on the basis of caste, it is fixed at the time of a person’s birth that whether she/he would have higher or lower status in social hierarchy.

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    It’s a big shame that even in a 21st century and in this age and time when human society has so progressed scientifically that people are planning to buy lands on planet Mars, Indian society believes in a system as archaic as the caste system.

    There have been various social movements and notable social reformers who have all through their lives worked to abolish this discriminatory system solely based on birth. However, not much has happened on the ground. Indian Constitution also provides several provisions to secure rights of socially backward persons and there are laws too in this regard but there is lot to be done still.

    In this article, we would try to understand and explore caste system in its different dimensions such as its meaning; meaning of caste; origin of Varna system; it’s bad effects; constitutional safeguards and present scenario.

    Meaning of Caste

    Caste which is also known as Varna or Jati can be understood as an identification on the basis of birth. It’s like a designation given to you without your asking for it. It is a hereditary system; thus, a child gets the caste of his father on its birth. According to Hindu shastras, there are mainly four hereditary castes or Varnas into which the Hindu society is divided viz. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra.

    What is Caste System

    Caste or Varna System is a purely Indian phenomenon and especially it is practiced among Hindus, though with time, as far as India is considered, other religions such as Islam, Sikhism, Christianity etc. also adopted some trappings of it.

    As already been explained it is much like the western concept of racism, it can also be compared with the Class System of European continent. Class system is also a discriminatory system. Class system is based on many different factors such as wealth, power, prestige, ancestry or birth, religion, and occupation. Generally, class is not hereditary while caste is. But similar to the caste system, class system also differentiates or stratifies different social groups on the basis of their standing in the society.

    Caste system is a unique type of class system in which the social ordering is done on the basis of birth. This type of system exists in Indian subcontinent only. Unlike class system, cast system does not allow any person to move from one caste to another. There is strict restriction on inter-dining and inter-marriage among people belonging to different castes. One of the main characteristics of caste system is Endogamy i.e. marrying into their own caste. It is very formal, rigid and well defined system.

    That is why Varnas or castes are known as closed classes. It is a closed system of stratification in which almost all children end up in the same section of society as their fathers.

    Origin of Caste System in India

    There is no certain date when the caste system came into existence in India. But according to the Manusmriti, the caste system in India was, in the beginning, a system of prescribing codes of conduct for people to suit the requirements of their occupation. Thus, it was based on their occupation. But gradually the occupation of people became hereditary and the caste system also changed from occupation to birth and heredity. Now caste of a person got fixed at the time of his/her birth and so was his/her social status.

    As far as theory of origin of caste system is concerned, the religious theory explains that according the Rig Veda, which is one of the most sacred religious texts of Hindus, different Varnas were created from different parts of the primal Purusha’s (the First Person) body; the Brahmans were created from his head, the Kshatrias from his hands, the Vaishias from his thighs and the Sudras from his feet. Some theories also believe that the primal Purusha was nothing but the God Brahma himself. So according to them, different Varnas originated from lord Brahma.

    Classification of Castes in Caste System

    Castes were first classified according to their occupation. But due to access to wealth, power, and privilege, two of the upper castes viz Brahmins and Kshatriyas started to use religious sanctions to monopolize their position. History tells us the same that the dominant position in society was monopolized by two main upper castes.

    More or less, the situation is still the same. These two upper castes are considered as superior to the lower castes. And the sanction or validity to this superiority was provided by various religious writings so that no one should question this position. Such people in position of power like to perpetuate their strategic position by means of force or ritualistic customs.

    As far as social stratification is concerned, the Brahmins, generally priests and scholars, are at the top. Next strata consist of the Kshatriyas, the ruling class and soldiers. Usually, the Kshatriyas collaborated with the Brahmins as they governed over their empire. A Kshatriya is branded by physical and martial strength.

    Next in the hierarchy are the Vaishyas, or merchant class. It was the duty of the Vaishyas to ensure the community’s prosperity through agriculture, cattle rearing, trade and business. The Vaishyas were considered to be weak in comparison. And they were exploited for by their rulers. The luxurious lifestyle of the ruling class and wars etc were maintained on the cost of Vaishyas.

    Then there were Shudras, the lowest in four Varnas. They are labourers, peasants, artisans, and servants. Shudras were believed to not have any special abilities and were considered only capable of serving as slaves to the upper three classes. They were having no rights or privileges, and were not permitted to perform any sacrifices or homa, read or learn the Vedas or recite the mantras. They were also not allowed even to enter into the temples and to participate in any religious rituals.

    These discriminatory practices against so-called Sudras are still prevalent in our society in large measure.

    Apart from these four Varnas, another section was there which was considered lowest of them all. They were ‘untouchables’, the outcastes; because they were not considered part of any of the said four Varnas. These ‘untouchables’ were there to perform such occupations that were considered unclean and polluting, such as scavenging and skinning dead animals. These were the most discriminated and exploited ones; all the four Varnas maintained distance from them. And it was considered as sin even if a shadow of an outcaste lied on anyone.

    Ills of Caste System and Constitutional Provisions

    Social stratification on the basis of caste is the main reason behind various types of exploitation against so-called lower castes, especially those described as Sudras and Untouchables.

    From the beginning of this system, sudras and untouchables were treated as slaves by so-called upper castes. They were allowed only to do menial works and all the lowly works but they were given no powers or privileges. All the privileges were for Brahmanas and Kshatriyas. All the leadership position in religion, polity, economy or society was assumed and taken hold off by two of the so-called upper castes; their political or social influence was always minimal.

    However there were various social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy who devoted their lives for the upliftment of these downtrodden people, various reform movements were there to abolish the caste system. But it was so ingrained in our social fabric that it was next to impossible to change the situation on ground.

    Thus, when India got independence and the Constitution was being framed, our founding fathers were of the opinion that such provisions should be added in the text which would lessen the ills of caste system and bring about equality in social field. Social justice was one of the main objectives of our Constitution.

    Constitutional Provisions

    First of all the Preamble to the Constitution envisions India as a nation where socio-economic and political justice is there; where there will be equality of status and opportunity and where dignity of the individual is secured.

    The Constitution guarantees equality before law (Art. 14), and enjoins upon the State not to discriminate against any citizen on grounds of caste (Art. 15 (1)).

    Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden (Art. 17). The Constitution mandates that no citizen shall, on grounds only of caste or race, be subjected to any disability and restriction (Art. 15 (2)).

    It empowers the State to make provisions for reservation in educational institutions (Art. 15 (4) and (5)), and in appointments for posts in favour of SCs (Art. 16 (4), 16(4A), 16(4B) and Art. 335). Reservation of seats for SCs in the Lok Sabha is provided under Article 330, in the State Assemblies under Article 332 and in the Local Self-Governments bodies under Articles 243D and 340T.

    Further, the Constitution guarantees protection from social injustice and all forms of exploitation (Art.46).

    Acts to Prohibit Caste Discrimination

    To fulfil the Constitutional mandate several other Acts were also passed the Parliament to end the exploitative and discriminatory practices against so-called lower castes. A few of those legislations are as follows:

    • The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, renamed as Protection of Civil Rights Act, in 1976.
    • To check and deter atrocities against SCs, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 has also been enacted.
    • Recently the Government has introduced a Bill in the Lok Sabha in the name of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill, 2013 which aims to prohibit the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines. The Bill seeks to rehabilitate manual scavengers and provide for their alternative employment.

    It is another social welfare legislation whose objective is to bring manual scavengers or caste Valmikis or Bhangis in social mainstream and to protect them from various socio-cultural and economic discrimination.


    Caste system in India is so rigidly deep-rooted in its socio-cultural and religious life that it now almost has God-given approval behind it. And anything against or in opposition of this system is considered to be a sin or disrespectful to God.

    But in reality it is no God-send virtue to be followed by the people. It has had several exploitative and discriminatory effects on our social order throughout the ages. As a by-product, caste system has given several other social ills to the society such as Untouchability.

    The system is still continuing in India as a well-established and sacred customary rule and is followed by almost everyone regardless of their economic or social status. Though the younger generation is discarding such social norms but still the system is well-entrenched in our socio-religious beliefs. India cannot become a truly modern country in the 21st century, if it fails to abolish this discriminatory practice based on caste.

    The biggest problem in abolishing and removing this menace from the society is the in general social acceptability of the same. Until and unless this changes no hope is there. Because law can provide protection from exploitation but it cannot bring attitudinal change in so-called upper castes. The young and modern generation is perhaps the only hope in bringing about the real meaning of social justice in our country.

    ——— Namit K Srivastava (LLB, LLM, University of Delhi)

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