The caste system in India has been affecting the life of Indians for the last 4000 years although there was a little weakening of the system as long as Mahatma Gandhi’s spell lasted in India.
But after independence, more than 60 years have been passed with the Indian politics revolving round the caste. The strength of caste system varies from state to state. It is the strongest in the Hindi belt and the southern states, while it is weakest in the north0east across the Brahmaputra.
Caste system is no longer a mere Hindu practice. Indian Christians and Muslims also practice the system though in much less rigid from than the Hindus. What made the caste system rigid was the religious sanctity given to it in the later scriptures. It was said that Brahmins were born out of the mouth of Brahma, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his stomach and the Sudras from his feet.
According to Prof. Rapson the caste system grew because of the distinction between fair-skinned Aryans and the dark-skinned aboriginals. He based his theory on ‘Varna’ which meant colour and caste in Sanskrit. On this basis, he said, the fair people were further sub-divided into 3 classes – (a) Brahmins, (b) Kshatriyas and (c) Vaishyas while the dark-skinned people become Shudras, as in Rigvedic period the main division were Aryans and Non-Aryans.
Rejecting this theory, Dr. Vincent Smith said that ‘Varna’ means class or order and therefore the four Varnas represent the four classes of people and not their castes. These four classes are common in any human society as professional specialization is a common feature of society everywhere in the world.
(a) The intellectuals – Literature was mainly religious in nature, even in Christianity and Islam. Therefore, intellectuals became the sole repository of religion; that means they beacuse the priestly class also.
(b) The fighting and ruling class – Till the middle Ages those who were good at fighting also rules the country. This was nothing peculiar to India.
(c) Business class – There had to be a class which produced wealth.
(d) Servant class – In an age when there was no electricity and other modern gadgets, comfort depended up the retinue of servants. So the Shudras were there to look after the three higher classes.
The theories of both Prof. Rapson and Dr. Smith have their strong and weak points and reality is that human institutions are not based only on logic and their growth is due to several factors. Thus, the caste system gradually evolved as a result of differences in complexion, occupation, learning and wealth etc.
It is not possible to say when the caste-system achieved its full growth. But a few indications are as follows.
(i) In the Rigvedic period the superiority of the Brahmins was evident but the other castes were not fully differentiated.
(ii) In the late Vedic period and the Ramayana age caste system had become quite rigid. In the Mahabharata age the caste system was fully developed but it was not so rigid.
(iii) Even the evils of the caste system had become prominent in the period before Buddhism and it became one of the causes of spread of Buddhism.
(iv) The geographical isolation of India helped to solidify the caste system. Problems arose later when tribes started pouring in from the north-west. As their numbers were not large, the Hindus absorbed them and many warrior classes were assigned to the Kshatriya caste.
(v) A different situation arose when the Muslims started coming in large numbers from the 11th Century AD in order to protect itself against the inroads of Islam the Hindu society became more rigid and the caste-system became strengthened.
Once the caste-system became fully evolved it became a unique institution not seen anywhere in the world and the following special features strengthened its practice.
(i) Diet and Marriage – All members of a particular caste are restricted to marry inside the group and are not allowed to eat food cooked by the members of other caste or any member of the lower caste. However, the food cooked by higher castes are allowed.
(ii) Birth and Rituals – Birth and rituals were secondary to the main feature of diet and marriage.
(iii) Common ancestor – Each caste or sub-caste usually has a common ancestor, genuine or mythical. Most of these ancestors were either the kings or the Rishis (saints) who were universally respected for their qualities.
(iv) Occupation – Generally all members of the same caste had the same occupation but this was not so rigid.
(v) Sub-divisions and increasing number of castes – As economic life became more and more complicated the existing castes were sub-dived and thus new castes arose.
The worst aspect of the caste system was ill-treatment of the Shudras and denial to them of the right to utilize their talents. This is quite clear from the story of Eklavya.
though unsociability is banned in India through constitution, the evil of unsociability has been considerably existed in India’s villages where the lower castes are still isolated from the society and have separate wells for drawing water.
The plus point of the caste system was that it led to internal cohesion within the same caste. This had the benefit for weaker members of the caste. The sick, the poor and the needy were well looked after and it saved India from evils like vagrancy, prostitution etc. The individual learnt to subordinate his own selfish interest to the interest of the group. However, this internal cohesion became a defend when it also meant exclusiveness in relation to other sections of the population.
The preservation of Hindu culture for a period of about 4000 years is due to the caste system. It presented Hindu society from being swamped by foreign cultures or being absorbed them. A foreign conquest usually means destruction of the soul of the invaded nation. But centuries of foreign rule could not destroy India and its culture because of caste system.