Social stratification is a universal social phenomena. Hence some form of stratification is found in every society. The form and proportions of stratifications may vary but it’s essence is permanent. Accordingly in India we find a unique system of social stratification based on birth the like of which is not found elsewhere in the world. Thus the caste system is one of the most important pillars of the Indian social system. The caste system in India is in vogue from time immemorial. The term caste has been derived from the Portuguese world ‘casta’ which means breed, race or kind. The Hindi equivalent of the term caste is ‘Jati’ or Jat which connotes birth or descent. Caste is a distinctive category in the Indian social system. Thus basically caste refers to people belonging to the same breed. Castes are inscriptive groups. In India we found numerous castes. In caste system there is prominence of ideas of party and pollution and notions of hierarch.
Definition of Caste System
According to Sir Herbert Risley caste is “a collection of families to groups of families bearing a common name claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine professing to follow the same hereditary calling and is regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community.”
According to Prof. G.S. Ghurye, - “Caste are small and complete social words in themselves marked off definitely from one another though subsisting within the large society.
According to Kethkar caste is a social group having two characteristics (1) membership is confined to those who are born of members and includes all persons so born (2) the members are forbidden by an inexorable social how to marry outside the caste.”
10 Characteristics of Caste System
Prof. Ghurye opines that the main characteristics of the caste system are the following:
1. Segmental division of Society
In a caste system the society is divided into different segments called castes. Each of these small segments or groups or castes is a well developed social group, the membership of which is based on birth. As membership is based on birth, mobility from one caste to another is impossible. Each caste group has its own traditional, social status, occupation, customs, rules and regulations. Every caste has its own administrative body called Caste Council or Jati Panchayat which enforces the caste rules. It cares more for their own caste than for the community as a whole. Members of a caste group are bound together by mutual obligations and cooperation in their everyday activities. Hence, each caste is a mini social world by itself.
Hierarchy is another important characteristic of a caste society. Hierarchy refers to a system of arrangements from top to bottom. Prof. Ghurye opined that in every area there are about 200 castes which can be graded and arranged into a hierarchy on the basis of social superiority and inferiority. While the Brahmin caste remains at the top of hierarchy the untouchables remain at the bottom. In between these two there are large number of intermediate castes the relative position of which are not always clear. Thus, membership in the caste hierarchy is based on birth and is more or less fixed.
3. Restriction on Commensality
Commensality refers to restrictions on eating and drinking. Every caste imposes restrictions on its members with regard to food and drink. Each caste group has its own laws which govern the food habit of the members. There are ‘pacca’ and ‘Kachcha’ food. This division is based on the use of ghee with or without water. If food is prepared with ghee we call it ‘Pacca’ food. If the food is prepared with water we call it Kachcha food. A Brahmin can accept only ‘Pacca’ food from the Sudras. But the Kachcha food can be accepted only from a person of one’s own caste or of a higher caste.
4. Restriction on social intercourse
Under the caste system every caste imposes restriction on its members with regard to social intercourse. There are social restrictions on one caste to mix with the members of the other castes. Restrictions are more rigid while it is the question of mixing of a superior caste with an inferior caste. Hence, under a caste system every caste abides by well established customs and well defined norms of interactions.
5. Differential civil religious privileges and disabilities
In a caste based society there is an unequal distribution of privileges and disabilities among its members. Here the higher caste people enjoy all the privileges while the lower caste people suffer from all kinds of disabilities. In Hindu society the Brahmins are the most privileged caste while the Sudras are the least privileged. A Sudra can’t draw water from the public well, can’t enter into temples, can’t touch a Brahmin, can’t walk on the street in morning and evening and punishment varies according to caste.
6. Lack of unrestricted choice of occupation
Under the caste system the choice of occupations is not free; every caste is associated with a particular kind of occupation to which its members are bound to follow. Particular caste members have to follow their traditional caste occupation without fail. Accordingly, a Brahmin must be a priest and a Chamar must make chappals.
7. Restrictions on Marriage
Endogamy is the main principle of caste system or in other words caste is an endogamous group. Every caste or sub-caste compels its members to marry within its own group. By this it wants to maintain purity of blood. Any violation on this rate is followed by excommunication from the caste.
8. The idea of purity and pollution
The idea of purity and pollution is attached with the caste system since its inception. The graduation of a caste on the caste hierarchy is based on the notion ritual purity. The higher castes are believed to be more pure and less polluted. While the lower castes are regarded as less pure and more polluted.
9. Hereditary status
Caste system is based one the inscriptive pattern which implies that the birth of a person in a particular caste divides his caste. It is impossible to change one’s own caste within his life time. Once enjoys his caste status hereditarily.
10. Caste Council or Jati Parishad
Every Caste has a caste Council or Jati Parishad which is the administrative body of a caste. It decides the controversy in the caste. These are the characteristics of caste system.