B2 Caste System

Table of contents


Features of caste

Ghurye studied caste from a historical, comparative, and integrative perspective. He identified six basic features of caste system:

  • Segmental division.
  • Lack of choice of occupations in those divisions.
  • Purity and pollution based on occupation.
  • Hierarchy of those divisions based on purity.
  • Commensal and conjugal relations. (Civil/religious disabilities/privileges of groups)
  • Restrictions on marriage. (Caste endogamy and Gotra/Pinda exogamy)

Isabel Wilkerson added terror and violence as a means of enforcement to the above 6 in her book Caste. Drew parallels between racism in the USA and caste system in India.
Ghurye laid emphasis on endogamy being the critical feature of the caste system. The rules of endogamy and commensality marked off castes from each other. These rules acted as integrative instruments which organised segmented castes into a totality or collectivity.
He was interested in the process of integration and the national unity in India. Ghurye held that while groups play an integrational role in society that is true only up to a certain extent. He felt that in modern Indian society there were five sources of danger to national unity due to their excessive attachment to their groups:

  • Scheduled castes.
  • Scheduled tribes.
  • Backward classes.
  • Muslims and minority groups.
  • Linguistic minorities. (Greatest source of danger)

Ghurye viewed the Brahminical endeavour as the cause of national unity in India and thus what he calls the process of acculturation, is basically a one-way flow in which Brahminical ideas and institutions gained prevalence among non-Brahmins.
Ghurye’s concept of cultural unity is not secular in nature. He is concerned with the India of Hindu culture and uses Indian and Hindu culture interchangeably. He viewed regional language as possessing a symbolic integrational value for the region i.e. dysfunctional for the whole.


  • MNS called it the Book view of Indian society. Not representative of ground realities.
  • Marxists said that GSG ignored the inherently exploitative nature of caste and class.
  • AB said that caste as status group formed the basis of organised social action. Further, he said that stratification was dispersed rather than cumulative.
  • Criticised for creating a Hindu sociology rather than providing objective analysis.


Also known as the structuralist view of caste.
Dumont was a follower of Claude Levi-Strauss and adopted his structuralist approach in the study of caste. In this approach we understand social structure by analysing structure of ideas in terms of binary oppositions, and build models in terms of which empirically observable phenomena can be explained.
Dumont’s approach can be called indological as he argued that Indian society cannot be understood in terms of the ideology and concepts related to modern western society. This is in keeping with the structuralist approach as LD holds that western & Indian ideological orientations are fundamentally incompatible as they are binary opposites. Thus, Dumont holds that we cannot make sense of one in terms of the other.
Traditional societies like India are holistic while modern western societies are individualistic. Westerners perceive hierarchy as inequality, and it is generally perceived as unjust, exploitative, and morally indefensible. This perceived injustice provides the motivation to explain inequality wherever found. Unlike this, a traditional society like India perceives hierarchy in terms of holism. The principle of hierarchy is the attribution of a rank to each element in relation to the whole. Thus, to understand traditional society we must transcend our individualistic ideology and embrace a holistic vision.
Looking at the caste system as iniquitous and unjust is inappropriate because it introduces the concept of individualism which is foreign to the traditional Indian world view. The orientation of caste ideology is to the whole and not to the individual. Traditional societies like India are not only hierarchical but they make a virtue out of hierarchy. Dumont concludes that to understand Indian society one should look at it from the perspective of a member of such a society. The important thing to keep in mind here is that traditional societies place the highest moral value on social existence and not the individual.
Dumont begins his analysis by saying that the principle of hierarchy in the caste system is the opposition of pure and impure. This is religiously expressed through rituals.

Dumont takes Celeste Bougle's three fundamental features of the caste system:

  • Separation
  • Interdependence (lower castes absorb the pollution of the upper castes)
  • HierarchyAnd says that all three are fundamentally the mutual opposition of pure and impure.

He also mentions that there is a hierarchical disjunction between status and power in the caste system. The status of a caste is determined by purity level and not power. Historically, in most societies, temporal power also acquired spiritual power over time. In India, the monarchy became secular at a very early stage with the king holding temporal power, which was subordinated to the spiritual power wielded by the Brahmins.
Thus, according to Dumont the entirety of Indian society is a system of binary opposition where the impure defile the pure. He gives examples as:

  • Savarna vs. avarna
  • Dwija vs. ikajati
  • Brahmin & Kshatriya vs. Vaishya
  • Brahmin vs. Kshatriya


  • His book Homo Hierarchicus has almost wholly been discredited.
  • Gerald Berreman says that Dumont totally fails to understand caste at an empirical level, a system of institutional inequality which guaranteed differential access to things valued in life.
  • Ritual status as conceived by Dumont is no longer valid today, the protests by Jats & Patidars to get lower caste status is proof enough.
  • The reality of caste right now is a fission and fusion of caste (Yogendra Singh, sub castes no longer matter).
  • MNS - advocated village studies to find the empirical reality of caste which was not addressed by the book view.
  • AB - caste as a status group based on shared lifestyle rather than purity levels.
  • Marxist - exploitative relation between landlords and peasants.


He used the Structural Functionalist approach to study caste. MNS held that due to the large number of castes in India, more than 20,000, it was close to impossible to empirically study all of them in their innumerable variations. He thus advocated that to better understand caste system, it would be better to look into the structure of caste itself. His model is a field model of caste.
Srinivas identified two distinct hierarchies of caste: a ritual and a secular hierarchy. Position of a caste in ritual hierarchy is defined by commensal relations, access to rituals, values, deities one prayed to, and speech. Secular criteria were defined by wealth, power, access to education and jobs, etc. Using these he formulated the theories of Sanskritization, Westernisation (as avenues for social mobility in the ritual dimension) and Dominant Caste (in order to explain what happens when a jati dominates the secular hierarchy).


Sanskritization is a process of mobility in the ritual hierarchy, usually preceded by change in secular hierarchy of a group. The group undergoing Sanskritization changes their ritual patterns (adopting habits of dwija castes, like their commensal relations, teetotalism, vegetarianism, etc.) to reflect those of the target group over time in order to improve their ritual status. He also observed that mobility had always been possible especially in the middle of the caste hierarchy. However due to the advent of rule of law which codified caste hierarchies they came to be seen as much more immutable.He called this process Sanskritization instead of brahmanisation as some places also exhibited the tendency to move towards other dvija castes. This concept was developed by Srinivas in his Study of Coorgs. He cited examples of how the Kayasthas of Bengal had taken up administrative functions during the Mughal rule and thus, improved their ritual hierarchy greatly through advance in secular hierarchy.


Westernisation refers to the changes brought about in the Indian society and culture as a result of over 150 years of British rule and the term subsumes changes occurring at different levels: technology, institutions, ideology and values. Westernisation was the process by which a group (Predominant in upper castes and the lowest castes, places with limited mobility in the traditional system) adopted western habits, traditions, education etc. to gain mobility in status. They abandoned efforts to upgrade their status in the ritual hierarchy and focused solely on the secular hierarchy.

Dominant Caste

According to Srinivas, the concept of dominant caste is important to understand the rural social life in any part of India.

Typical features of a dominant caste in a village are:

  • numerical strength,
  • economic and political power, and
  • access to western education and occupations

That is to say they dominate secular hierarchy but not necessarily ritual hierarchy. When a caste enjoys all these at the same time it may be said to enjoy decisive dominance. He was quick to point that decisive dominance is rare, with the different elements being usually dispersed among various groups. A caste which is dominant in a number of villages in an area may be said to have regional dominance. This concept was developed in his Study of Rampura village (The remembered village).
Srinivas considers caste as a stratification system and caste positions and relations as dynamic in nature. So, he concludes that this understanding of caste can be applied to both micro and macro levels:

Caste as Economic System

  • Each jati has an occupational speciality.
  • Offer their services to other castes in exchange for good, goods, or other services.
  • Exchange of services also served as a ritual system in which a ritually inferior caste absorbed the pollution of the ritually superior caste preserving ritual hierarchy.
  • William Wiser named this dimension of caste as the Jajmani system. Also this function of caste as an economic system provided vertical solidarity to the village.In this framework, caste system also works as a tool for vertical solidarity within the village.

Caste as Political System

  • At the village level the locally dominant caste was represented in the village council and presided over decisions relating to inter-caste interactions and conflicts.
  • At the same time each jati had its own council which also extended beyond the village and addressed the intra-caste issues.

Persistence & Change

  • Significance of ritual dimension of caste has declined drastically with education, industrialisation, urbanisation, etc. No significant change in secular hierarchy though.
  • High castes still dominant, but middle castes have gained at the expense of dwija.
  • The most numerous Middle castes have gained mobility by accessing political power.
  • Middle castes compete with each other at the village levels but come together to grab power at the state level. An increasing convergence between caste and class behaviour. Ex AJGaR communities have taken power from the Thakurs and Brahmins.
  • Caste as an economic system has broken down with commercialisation and industrialisation of the economy. Jajmani system has broken down. Relations are more contractual now.
  • Caste as a political system has broken down with panchayat elections regulating power structure. Charismatic leaders from non-dominant castes as well as middle level castes have gained power at the expense of dominant and upper castes.
  • Caste based reservation and vote bank politics have led to the rise of casteism as the modern form of the caste system.
  • Caste associations have sprung up to counter the lack of solidarity in urban life.
  • Instrumental role of caste in terms of schools, hospitals, hostels for caste members. This shows that caste consciousness still persists. Ex. yadav hostels, etc.
  • Caste endogamy still survives. Only 5% of all marriages in India are inter caste marriages. However, sub-jati categorizations are no longer observed in marriages.


  • Yogendra Singh said that MNS created a social framework that could only envision change within the system and not change to the system itself.
  • Marxists said that sanskritisation and westernisation were just ways to maintain ruling class hegemony by allowing change within the system.
  • Gayatri Spivak said that village studies having a clear bias towards dominant caste values was the reason why subaltern perspectives could not be taken into account earlier.


  • Tried to understand stratification from Weberian perspective, i.e. class, status, and power. He explored the inter-relations between them and trends of change. He conducted fieldwork in Sripuram village, TN and divided the people into three classes in terms of Marxian perspectives:
  • Landlords
  • Tenants
  • Agricultural labourers

Beteille says that class in Indian context is a category. It isn't the basis for organised political action and also not the main social cleavage due to a large degrees of overlap.
Whereas status groups (caste) are communities. Caste hierarchy is based on shared lifestyle, food habits, etc. which form the basis of status and status based rankings. Status groups constitute the communities around which social cleavages were based and community action was organised.
Beteille found that in colonial times there was a high degree of overlap in terms of class, caste, and power hierarchies but the overlap was not perfect. He termed this as cumulative stratification. Power was usually monopolised by the land owners, who practiced patronage and gift giving to maintain dominance. However, he found that in the 1920s rapid changes began occurring in Sripuram:

  • Commercialisation of agriculture
  • Land became a commodity
  • Education began spreading to non-Brahmins
  • Justice party & the anti-Brahmin movement
  • DK & DMK political movements

Spread of education meant that more and more brahmins now sold off their land and moved to cities. This led to a rise in non-brahmin ownership and thus, over time a change in the dominant status of the brahmins. As brahmins were no longer able to maintain their patronage, and a number of rising middle castes became land owners, the overlap between caste and class began changing. The shift in power was more conspicuous as power now depended on skills in political organisation, networking, and personal resourcefulness. Beteille called this dispersed stratification.
Beteille finally concluded that this is a general trend in India. Traditional dominant castes have witnessed significant decline in power while erstwhile mid and low classes have gained power. Beteille also mentioned that Indian society went from harmonic to disharmonic with increasingly rapid changes in the traditional social structure. Harmonic is where the system justifies the existing hierarchy, ex. old hierarchies with Brahmins as biggest landowners and caste norms which placed Brahmins on top.


  • Tried to generalise for the entire country from the study of a single village. MNS says that this is problematic due to the multiple variations in caste.
  • Marxists said that AB was only focused on changes within the system.
  • Utsa Patnaik. Despite land reforms and GR caste and class overlap still exists as Maliks, Kisans, and Mazdoors came from upper, middle, and lower castes resp.
  • MNS said that middle castes increasingly coming together as a class to grab power. He gave the example of AJGaR.
  • Caste can also be seen with the perspective of binary opposition of pure and impure as done by LD. Another perspective.


In his book, the Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar gave examples of how untouchables were deprived of education and freedom of occupation and were subjected to stigmatised manual labour, all resulting in their virtual economic slavery. He further focused on how they were segregated and deprived of basic rights such as drinking water even from public wells, and above all how they were made victims of social persecutions.
Ambedkar said that the Hindu Dharmashastras gave legitimacy to the doctrine of Chatur varna and the caste system. Manusmriti de-humanised the Sudras and untouchables and created the greatest obstacle to any serious attempt at eradicating the caste system.
Ambedkar's issues with caste:

  • He rejected the defence of caste on the basis of DoL and argued that it wasn't a DoL but a division of labourers. The former was voluntary, depended upon one's choice and aptitude, and rewarded efficiency. The latter was involuntary and forced, killed initiative, and resulted in job aversion and inefficiency.
  • Argued that caste could not be defended on the basis of purity of blood.
  • He said that Hindu society is a collection of castes, fixed in watertight compartments with a graded hierarchy that makes an associated corporate life impossible.
  • Caste destroys the concepts of ethics and morality. He said that:
  • Caste has killed public spirit.
  • Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity.
  • Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu's public life is his caste. His responsibility is to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste.
  • Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound.
  • Ambedkar suggested inter-caste marriage as the only remedy to destroy caste.
  • Ambedkar's critique of the Hindu social order was so strong that Gandhi described Ambedkar as a challenge to Hinduism.
  • He critiqued the communists for their doctrinaire approach to caste in treating caste as the superstructure and argued that unless they dealt with caste as a basic structural problem, no worthwhile social change was possible.
    Ambedkar was convinced that political empowerment was key to the socio-economic development of the untouchables. Therefore, he demanded a separate electorate for untouchables in the Second Round Table Conference in 1932. When the British conceded his demand, Gandhi started a fast unto death in the Yerawada jail. Pressure from all corners mounted on Ambedkar to forgo the demand for a separate electorate as the Mahatma's life was at stake. Reluctantly Ambedkar agreed to the formula of a Joint Electorate with reserved seats in legislatures for untouchables which came to be known as the Poona Pact.


Structure of caste.

  1. system of hierarchy - ritual and secular
  2. system of balancing purity and pollution in society
  3. occupational restrictions
  4. Caste endogamy
  5. means of horizontal and vertical solidarity.
    Functions of caste:
  6. Division of labour in society.
  7. Means to absorb ritual pollution of higher castes.
  8. Occupational specialisation.

Caste derives its origin from the Portuguese word casta. Presently it is most frequently used to refer to the system of stratification and inequality that has survived in India since ancient times. Though, it must be noted that nature of caste has been undergoing change due to the various forces at work in modern India. Japanese society also has a sort of caste system with the Burakumin being the equivalent of Dalits in India.
Origin of caste has been linked to the over emphasis of cleanliness in the IVC. IVC structures provide evidence for the existence of inequality and structures such as the great bath and well laid out drains and sewage systems point to an obsession with cleanliness.
Rig Veda is the next source that mentions a caste like social setup. RV talks about two types of inequality aryavarna and krishnavarna where varna was the colour of skin. RV also talks about dark skinned dasas a possible reference to the indigenous population of India.

Aryan society had three sections:

  • Brahmin, those who were good at composing hymns (called brahms).
  • Rajanya, those who ruled.
  • Vis, those who did trading and everything else.

These sections were in no way rigid. They were rather a way to determine merit of the person. This is what most people who say we should go back to the Varna system want.
With time and adaptation of RV the Purushasukta hymn in the 10th mandala came up. With this the highly fluid system suddenly became rigid as it was religiously backed. Access to rituals was now strictly controlled by the priestly class and a fourth class which was subordinated to the above three came up as the shudras. With access to rituals being increasingly regulated, an occupational DoL developed and the four categories were further cemented into rigid groups based on occupation.
Dipankar Gupta says that the Magadha Empire in the Iron Age was the peak of what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production. (Megasthenes & Fa Xian reported guilds of specialists in their works) With the decline of the Mauryan Empire the Indian society shifted from the Asiatic mode of production to a feudal structure as the central authority weakened.As new regional kingdoms came up they patronised Brahmins in order to legitimise their own claims, thereby giving legitimacy to the Brahminical hold over social conduct. Those with land grants suddenly became pivot points in society and others offered their services to them, thus leading to the rise of multi-jati villages revolving around landholders.These new groups were ordered in hierarchy according to the Varna vyavastha but with increasing localisation in the absence of a pan India empire, each localised endogamous group became a jati with no pan India presence, this lead to gradual shift from the Varna system to the jati system.
Caste loyalties gain in commitment the more localized and particularized they get. It is not enough to be a brahman but to be a brahman of a certain endogamous jati, such as the kanyakubja brahman or chitpavan brahman or barendra brahman.


Untouchability is the social practice of ostracising a minority group by segregating and excluding them from the mainstream social life. In India it is a practice by which the Dalits are excluded from social life as their touch is considered polluting for the higher castes.

Dumont admits that in south India untouchables are required in village ceremonies if only to absorb the pollution of the Brahmin and thereby help them maintain purity and therefore social stability.

D.N. Majumdar said that the untouchables are those who suffer from various social and political disabilities many of which are traditionally prescribed and socially enforced by higher castes.

Ghurye believed that, prior to 800 B.C., the idea of ceremonial purity existed full-fledged and was operative in relation to both the chandals (avarna) and the shudras (ikajati). He admits that ideas of purity, whether occupational or ceremonial, are a factor in the genesis of caste and are also the source of the idea/practice of untouchability.

B.R. Ambedkar said that while the impure as a class came into existence at the time of the Dharmasutras, the untouchables came into being much later than 400 A.D. He, however, said that the untouchables do not belong to a race different from the Aryan and the Dravidian (blood purity thesis).

MK Gandhi held views similar to those of Dayanand Saraswati (Arya Samaj). He called the untouchables as Harijan and implored Hindus to include them in the Varna hierarchy with the shudras. He also advocated for temple entry and commensalism to be practiced by Brahmins in order to vitiate the injustices heaped on the Harijans in the past.

Andre Beteille says that people of India are more driven by the Dharmashastras than the constitution. In this context, the rise of Dalit consciousness is bound to irk many as disharmonic because the majority glorifies equality but wants to practice inequality privately.

Gopal Garu says that Dalits are not a caste, they are not a class, rather they form a homogenous identity that integrates all the oppressed & culturally suppressed communities to forget their differences and band together. A shift from untouchable to Dalit identity is not an automatic shift. Rather, it explains the conflict and contradictions experienced by Indian society because of the Dalit self-assertion.

Previous Post

Next Post