What Is A Caste System?
The term caste is described as a hereditary and endogamous community restricted to people of the same economic or occupational, spiritual, and social class. The concept stemmed from the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese words casta and casto, which hold the meaning of “race and lineage” and “pure or chaste”, respectively. In Latin, casto also holds the meaning “chaste”, which originated from the term castus, suggesting “clean, pure and separated”.
The caste system is an archaic practice which stipulates the customs and limitations dictating social interactions, economic positions, and religious privileges solely based on lineage. It is commonly exercised by traditional cultures in specific regions worldwide. In today’s society, we only see remnants of what the caste system used to be. However, certain prohibitions like inter-caste marriage still remains a reality.
Many of us are familiar with the Indian/Hindu caste system as it is seen as an ongoing practice but unaware of other civilisations with similar beliefs and traditions. The constant variable between these different cultures is the actuality of the outcast society, which still remains active despite sanctioned verdicts against it. People of this rank and their descendants are regarded as the ‘untouchable’ or ‘unseeable’ and they are seen as beneath all humankind or as sub-humans. Those classified under this caste rank have endured mistreatment and discrimination throughout history, some even to this day. They are the Dalits in India, the Al-Akhdam in Yemen, the Baekjeong in Korea, and the Burakumin in Japan, to name a few.
Indian Caste System: Jāti
The caste system in India is called Jāti. The Jāti system is a politically and economically driven hierarchy that has spread across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Different religious sects have obeyed different types of Jāti. In India, there are over 500 Jātis that co-exist, but significant castes have been partitioned into other sub-castes. While the current practice of the Jāti system has declined throughout the 20th and 21st century, certain rural and provincial districts proceed to exercise the segregation system. In the Hindu society, each Jāti is associated with a specific career, spiritual views and semantic groups, so a person’s surname usually reflects a Jāti association. Examples would be, Thattar meaning goldsmith, Muusaari; coppersmith, Karuvar; ironsmith, Asari meaning carpenter, Parayar; cobbler, and Ambattar; clothes-washer.
The most well-known Jāti consists of 4 ranks with the Brahmins (the priests and educators) with the highest status, the Kshatriyas (the warriors and leaders) coming in second, and then the Vaishyas (the merchants), and finally the Sudras (the labourers). Separated from the caste system are the outcastes. They are regarded as the lowest class of the community also known as Dalits or Untouchable. They were viewed as ‘untouchable’ because of their assigned jobs and duties which were considered dirty and unclean. As people had no choice in the matter of their Jāti, Dalits were born unfortunate, and had their paths in life predetermined.
According to the Purusha Suktam verse of the ancient Sanskrit Rig Veda, Purusha, an androgynous divine being who existed before time began, sacrificed itself to create the universe and Gods. Purusha was the amalgamation of humanity, with Brahmins as its mouth, Kshatriyas as its arms, Vaishyas as its thighs and Sudras as its feet. However, according to other Vedas and the Vishnu Purana, Brahma is the inventor of humans and the universe. They claim that Brahmins were made from his mouth as their purpose was to recite the Vedas, and The Kshatriyas were created from his arms as they were designed to be warriors and leaders. The Vaishyas, who were created from his abdomen and his body were meant to be merchants. Last but not least, those who were built from his feet, the Sudras, were to be labourers and artisans, hence, uniting the entire universe as one natural being or entity as the body of the all-powerful and divine.
Some scholars argue that the caste system was made to instil an efficient and effective economic operation for a period where education and practical skills were not as accessible. Because informal home education was common at the time, children acquired talents from their parents which they later passed onto their children. This kept society structured as everyone had a role to fulfil and all necessary tasks were being executed. That was until a sense of superiority and entitlement overcame certain people who considered their benefaction to society more vital as opposed to their counterparts.
This, however, may be deciphered as contradicting the earlier-mentioned notion of God as an amalgamation of humanity. As it discusses what each ‘caste’ were designed for and from, it did not mention the preponderance of one over another. Instead, it clarifies that “the whole universe is held to be one organic entity, the body of the almighty” through that process. It issues no ‘parts’ more preferred than others as they are most powerful when united. Without his ‘mouth’ or in other words the Brahmins, education and spiritual studies would be lacking. Without his arms, the Kshatriyas, there would be no means to defend and protect. If without the Vaishyas, the economy would come to a standstill. And without the Sudras, there would be no architectural evolution, let alone of the arts and culture.
Lower caste communities like Sudras and Dalits live in horrid conditions, enduring poverty and social deprivation such as endogamy. They are usually exiled to cruel living circumstances, such as undesirable occupations, denied interactions with people of other caste ranks, and religious restrictions forbidding them from worshipping certain gods or even entering temples. Some of them were deemed so ‘polluted’ that they were called ‘unseeable’, forcing them to stay out of society’s sight and only perform their tasks at night. Although the caste system is not as prevalent and acceptable as it used to be in virtue of human rights movements reigning more effectively as centuries past, those chained by their outcast bloodline still feel the weight of the caste system the hardest.
From a political perspective, the caste system became a significant component of Indian politics in the early 1900s as the population could not comprehend the term “caste”. They provided their religion, education qualifications and occupation as their “caste” when asked, which later helped classify themselves into distinct castes. This was a purportedly organised manipulation scheme with embedded hierarchies arranged to simplify the process of categorising a complex and vulnerable community.
The Indian government’s endeavours to emancipate the lower castes have realised some success in recent years with accelerated urbanisation and education of rural and remote communities. The caste system is now banned and illegal in India, based on the Indian Constitution outlined by B.R Ambedkar, India’s former Minister of Law and Justice, and author of the book, ‘Annihilation of Caste‘. As a member of the Dalit community, he was perceived as a liberator of the Dalits. However, these regulations remain a challenge to enforce and execute in society as it goes against centuries of practices and traditions. With the constant human rights infringements of the Dalits by the other castes, including harassing and assaulting the Dalits and extorting them into their traditional roles, it’s difficult to say when exactly this will all come to an end.
It’s also ironic that despite the importance of the caste system depreciating due to the government’s efforts, it is in the political and governmental landscapes where the practice is most active now, in the forms of quotas in educational and occupational opportunities. Aside from that, some people, originally from the upper castes, still feel the right to express discontent and disapproval towards the government’s attempts at providing aids and scholarships for those of lower castes, under the pretence of unworthy Dalits exploiting this newfound ‘advantage’, thus, sidelining more meritorious aspirants.
By: Shay Azman