Seven Facts About The Caste System That You Must Know

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255px-Pyramid_of_Caste_system_in_IndiaThe caste system is a social arrangement associated mainly with India, which historically structured the society into thousands of hereditary groups or sub-castes known as jatis in most Indian languages. When the Portuguese sailors who arrived in India in the 16th-century witnessed this race-based social hierarchy, they used the Iberian term ‘casta’ – meaning ‘race’, ‘lineage’, or ‘breed’ – to describe what they noticed.

Fact 1: The Four Varnas In The Caste System

In the caste system, the Hindu society was historically divided along occupational lines into four broad categories called varnas (the Sanskrit word to denote the four social classes of the Indian society). Accordingly, spiritual or philosophical practitioners and teachers were called Brahmins, warriors were called Kshatriyas, merchants or tradesmen and producers were called Vaishyas, and laborers were classified as Sudras.

Apart from these four varnas, there were the Dalits who were engaged in menial work and were usually considered ‘untouchables’ by people from higher castes.

Fact 2: Origins Of The Caste System

The earliest references to the caste system are found in the Sanskrit scriptures called Vedas, dating to 1500 BCE. The system was not rigid for most part of the Indian history. In fact, the Rigveda (c. 1700-1100 BCE) barely refers to caste-based distinctions. On the contrary, it suggests that social mobility was common. Moreover, the Gupta Dynasty, which reigned over India from 320 to 550 CE, drew their lineage from the Vaishyas rather than the Kshatriyas. The same applied to many later rulers.

Fact 3: The Caste System In Indian History

During the six centuries of Islamic rule in India (1150 to 1750 CE), the caste system evolved significantly. For instance, many Brahmins took to farming for their livelihood as most of the Muslim rulers did not offer riches or gifts to Hindu temples. In the subsequent period ruled by the British, the caste system was exploited to advance the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British Raj. However, during the 1930s and 40s, the British government enacted laws to protect the ‘Scheduled castes’ – who were earlier considered ‘untouchables’ and lower-caste people.

Upper Caste Indians protesting against fair representation to the lower castes in Education.

Fact 4: Influence Of The Caste System in Daily Life

The three main aspects of social life where the caste system had its dominant roots were religious worship, marriage, and meals. Only the Brahmins, the priestly class, were the privileged ones to conduct religious rituals and services. The Kshatriyas and Vaisyas enjoyed the privileges to worship. However, in specific places the Sudras were barred from offering sacrifices to the gods. It was forbidden for the ‘untouchables’ to enter temples or even the temple grounds.

Inter-caste marriage was forbidden. In fact, most marriages took place within one’s own sub-caste or jati. At meal times, anyone could receive foodstuff from a Brahmin, but a Brahmin was not supposed to accept certain types of food from a person belonging to a lower caste. On the other hand, if an ‘untouchable’ drew water from a public well, the entire well was considered polluted and nobody from a higher caste could use it anymore.

Fact 5: The Caste System Today

The Government of India monitors violence committed against Dalits or the lower-caste people. According to Article 15 of the Constitution of India, any type of discrimination in the lines of caste is illegal in the country. Article 17 of the Constitution declared the practice of ‘untouchability’ as illegal.

Fact 6: Laws And Initiatives For the Protection of Backward Classes

Since 1950, the government has made several laws and taken many social initiatives to protect and develop the socio-economic state of the lower-caste population. In 1955, the Parliament of India enacted the Untouchability (Offences) Act, which stretched the reach of law, from intent to mandatory enforcement. Moreover, the country follows a caste-based reservation system for admission into government institutions for higher education as well as for filling up vacant posts in government offices and organizations. In the course of time, such initiatives have enabled many lower-caste members to improve their economic conditions and assume prestigious offices in both government and private organizations.

Fact 7: Who Monitors The Government Policies for Backward Classes

At present, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is the central body that supervises the interests of the Scheduled Castes. Although the prime responsibility for the advancement of interests of the Scheduled Castes rests with the various Central Ministries and the State Governments, the Ministry supplements their efforts and initiatives via interventions in key sectors through tailored programmes.

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