Caste is one of the most complicated and misunderstood concepts encountered when attempting to understand India and Hinduism. Part of the challenge is that there is no universally accepted definition nor is there a uniformly held understanding of it.

Yet caste and a caste system have become the primary markers of the Western understanding of Indian and Hindu society and culture. According to Professor Arvind Sharma, more than nine thousand books have been written about caste and the caste system with theories ranging from origins to its evolution to its (im)morality.

The various definitions of caste used by sociologists, anthropologists, historians, Indologists, and even in common parlance may include but are not limited to concepts such as birth, occupation, rituals, endogamy, or race.  All depend upon presumptions such as castes being homogenous entities with discreet boundaries that are identifiable in Indian society. The definitions or idea of a caste system presumes its pan-Indian existence, a static hierarchy, and that communities belonging to particular castes in one part of India share something in common with similar castes in other parts of India, including perceived and actual social standing. Attempts over the past two hundred plus years to empiricize these definitions created by Europeans about Indians have failed because the structure of Indian society has never corresponded with the colonial theories about it.

Today, caste exists as an administrative designation under Indian law in spite of no coherent or reliable definition or understanding of caste.

Two indigenous concepts that are frequently associated with caste are jāti and varna.

Jati and Varna

Jati

Jāti encompasses a variety of social markers including clan, class, language, lineage, region of origin, religion, traditional occupation, and other only locally recognizable markers. Some jāti identify as belonging to a traditional occupational community, but adhere to different religions (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) and/or their members engage in a variety of  occupations. Some jāti share rituals, common ancestry, or adherence to a particular lineage, but are otherwise diverse in terms of traditional and current occupation, region, language, etc.Some jāti of practice endogamy acrossing varying social markers and perceived social standing. Others do not. Boundaries between and amongst jāti are also not always apparent nor discreet.

Indeed, members of one  jāti may hold perceptions of difference and hierarchy, and mistreat members of other jāti in ways that are inhumane or unethical. Such perceptions, however, were and are highly localized, and could be informed by a variety of factors ranging from social, economic, political, historical, even religious. That said, members of poorer or deprived jāti also do not simply concede an attributed inferior status claim by others nor simply accept the claimed superiority of others over them. The social standing of a jāti in one region may be very different from a similar or even the same jāti living in another region, and social standing can change if an entire jāti moves from one area to another. Essentially, actual standing in any local hierarchy, even rivalries and frictions, have been complex, nebulous at best, and mobile over time.

Norms within and between various jāti are not tied to sacred texts or written social codes — they have historically been passed down through oral traditions and customs. Some of the Europeans’ understanding of caste emerged from observing the norms and traditions within and amongst different jāti, as well as other local forms of social organization and identity such as kula (clan), gotra (patrilineage), or biradari (kinship), that they encountered.

There are thousands of jāti (and kula, gotra, and biradari and other social groupings) on the Indian subcontinent across all religions.

Varna

The Vedas make reference to four varna or functional personality types found in most human societies. Various Hindu texts have come to use the term, which has a variety of meanings (including form, figure, character, and hue) to describe a way of understanding human diversity and purpose.

In most societies, this typology contends, there are some individuals who are more strongly adept in intellectual pursuits and sharing knowledge and wisdom (brahmana/brahmin); some who are more capable in governance and exercising power (kshatriya); others who gravitate towards wealth creation (vaishya); and those who are skilled to work with their hands, or otherwise contribute to society as artisans, farmers, and laborers (shudra). At the same time, personality or temperament may change over time and the social functions one takes up are not mutually exclusive to any one individual or group.

As explained through countless sacred texts, stories, and poetry, and the interpretations and teachings of widely respected Hindu spiritual teachers, both past and present, varna is based on guna (qualities/virtues) and karma (thoughts, words, actions). Varna is not hereditary nor is it a determinant of any established social hierarchy.  Instead, they and other sources of sacred wisdom associate one’s varna with the individual’s predominant personality type.

Indian society was never organized nor functioned as only four varna.

Both concepts, varna and jāti, have been aspects of social identity throughout history as have other forms such as kula, gotra, or biradari. None, however, fully fit the earliest notionis of caste or align into a caste system as imagined by Europeans.

The term ‘caste’ is derived from casta, the Portuguese word for lineage, breed, or race. There is no equivalent concept to caste as such in Indian languages.

Caste as an administrative category

While there is no universal definition or understanding of caste, it does exist as an administrative designation under Indian law.

The Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of caste, religion, race, sex, or place of birth. It also provides the state power to make special provisions for positive discrimination. As such, groups listed or designated at the national or state level as Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), or Other Backward Classes (OBC) are guaranteed certain legal protections and eligible for special provisions. The special provisions make up a system of affirmative action that is intended to increase access to opportunity and representation in education, employment, and government at both the state and union levels.

Most of today’s designations were largely adopted from British census operations from the late 19th century and early 20th century. Working with their understandings of  jāti and varna, British administrators struggled unsuccessfully through numerous decennial censuses to devise a pan-Indian list of communities defined as castes and ordered ostensibly by social status.  In addition to severe difficulties British administrators encountered in simply identifying communities by what they believed caste to be, on the task of assigning social rank, some districts avoided ordering; others ordered but did not offer evidence; and some assigned orders with the assistance of native informants. British records demonstrate knowing that social identities and status were continually changing, yet their idea of a pan-Indian caste system, in spite of it being non-existent in reality, has endured not only in public imagination, but in Indian policies as census data became the basis for SC, ST, and OBC designations from the British category of “depressed classes.”

The idea of depressed classes was intended to identify communities, not on the basis of only economic or educational disadvantages, but the basis of particular social disadvantages. But even the standards by which thousands of communities within and across different regions of India were counted and categorized as such were not only peculiar, but were not the same across regions (administrators would change the standards if not relevant to their jurisdiction). Nor were the differing standards applied with any consistency within even the same region because of the difficulty of knowing where to draw lines and the malleability of social perceptions.

Regardless, the census exercises continued and resulted in an internally inconsistent class of communities, which outside of an administrative designation, shared very little in common socially, economically, educationally, or politically. Each community designated SC, OBC, or ST had their own identity, culture and traditions, and problems.  And while there might have been overlaps in any of these factors, often communities sharing the same administrative designation were in conflict with one another. This remains the case today. Since India’s independence, few changes to the caste schedules have been made, though communities have been both listed and delisted.

Not during British rule nor today are all communities in India that face social or economic disadvantages necessarily designated as SC, OBC, or ST.  Over the past several decades, there have also been well-documented efforts of certain communities lobbying state governments throughout India to get designated as SC or OBC, in large part for the benefits associated with caste-based provisions, including quotas in public education and public employment. There have also been demands to get benefits based purely on economic need by communities that have thus far been considered dominant castes.

Sources

Charsley, Simon, “‘Untouchable’: What is in a Name?” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 2, No.1, pp. 1-23, (March 1996).

Dirks, Nicholas B. “Castes of Mind.” Representations, no. 37, 1992, pp. 56–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2928654. Accessed 11 Sept. 2020.

Dushkin, Lelah. Scheduled Caste Policy in India: History, Problems, Prospects, Asian Survey (1967) 7 (9): 626–636

Fuller, C.J.. Ethnographic inquiry in colonial India: Herbert Risley, William Crooke, and the study of tribes and castes. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 23(3). P. 603-621

Samarendra, Padmanabh. “Census in Colonial India and the Birth of Caste.” Economic and Political Weekly, xlvi:33, August 13, 2011, pp. 51-58.

Samarendra, Padmanabh. (2016). Concept of Caste and Practices of Jati: Exploring Roots of Incomparability. In Kumar, Ravi, et al. Contemporary Readings in Marxism – A Critical Introduction. Aakar Books, Delhi, India. Retrieved from academia.edu

Roover, J. D. (2017). Scheduled Castes vs. Caste Hindus: About a Colonial Distinction and Its Legal Impact. In Socio-Legal Review (1st ed., Vol. 13, pp. 23-50). Lucknow, India: Eastern Book Company. Retrieved from academia.edu