History of the Indian caste system

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Indian society has consisted of thousands of endogamous clans and groups called jatis. The Brahminical scriptures and texts tried to bring this diversity under a comprehensible scheme which hypothesised four idealised meta groups called varna. The first mention of the formal varna Indian caste system is in the famous Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda, although it is the only mention in the entire body of the Vedas and has been decried as a much later, non-Vedic insertion by numerous Indologists like Max Müller and also by India's first law minister and principal architect of the Constitution of India, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.[1]

Historically, caste system is also founded among Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains.

Hindu scriptures[edit]

In the Vedic period, there also seems to have been no discrimination against the Shudras on the issue of hearing the sacred words of the Vedas and fully participating in all religious rituals, something which became progressively restricted in the later times.[2][full citation needed]

Manusmriti, contains some laws that codified the professions. The Manu Smriti belongs to a class of books that are geared towards ethics, morals, and social conduct - not spirituality or religion.

Emergence of rigid caste structures[edit]

In its later stages, the caste system is said to have become rigid, and caste began to be inherited rather than acquired by merit. In the past, members of different castes would not partake in various activities, such as dining and religious gatherings, together. In addition, the performance of religious rites and rituals were restricted to Brahmins, who were the designated priesthood.

Mobility across the castes[edit]

The view of the caste system as "static and unchanging" has been disputed by many scholars. For instance, sociologists such as Bernard Buber and Marriott McKim describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification[citation needed]. Other sociologists such as Y.B Damle have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India.[3] According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes.

Some scholars believe that the relative ranking of other castes was fluid or differed from one place to another prior to the arrival of the British.[4]

According to some psychologists, mobility across broad caste lines may have been "minimal", though sub-castes (jatis) may change their social status over the generations by fission, re-location, and adoption of new rituals.[5]

Sociologist M. N. Srinivas has also debated the question of rigidity in Caste. In an ethnographic study of the Coorgs (Kodavas) of Karnataka, he observed considerable flexibility and mobility in their caste hierarchies.[6][7] He asserts that the caste system is far from a rigid system in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time. Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. It was always possible for groups born into a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism" i.e. adopt the customs of the higher castes. While theoretically "forbidden", the process was not uncommon in practice. The concept of sanskritization, or the adoption of upper-caste norms by the lower castes, addressed the actual complexity and fluidity of caste relations.

Historical examples of mobility in the Indian Caste System among Hindus have been researched. There is also precedent of certain Shudra families within the temples of the Shrivaishava sect in South India elevating their caste.[3]

Reform movements[edit]

There have been cases of upper caste Hindus warming to the Dalits and Hindu priests, demoted to outcaste ranks, who continued practising the religion. An example of the latter was Dnyaneshwar, who was excommunicated from society in the 13th century, but continued to compose the Dnyaneshwari, a Dharmic commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Other excommunicated Brahmins, such as Eknath, fought for the rights of untouchables during the Bhakti period. Historical examples of lower caste priests include Chokhamela in the 14th century, who was India's first recorded lower caste poet, Raidas, born into Dalit cobblers, and others. The 15th-century saint Ramananda also accepted all castes, including untouchables, into his fold. Most of these saints subscribed to the Bhakti movements in Hinduism during the medieval period that rejected casteism. Nandanar, a low-caste Hindu cleric, also rejected castes and supported lower caste.[8]

In the 19th century, the Brahmo Samaj under Raja Ram Mohan Roy, actively campaigned against untouchability. The Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand also renounced discrimination against Dalits. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa founded the Ramakrishna Mission that participated in the emancipation of Dalits. Upper caste Hindus, such as Mannathu Padmanabhan also participated in movements to abolish Untouchability against Dalits, opening his family temple for Dalits to worship. While there always have been places for Dalits to worship, the first "upper-caste" temple to openly welcome Dalits into their fold was the Laxminarayan Temple in Wardha in the year 1928 (the move was spearheaded by reformer Jamnalal Bajaj). Also, the Satnami movement was founded by Guru Ghasidas, a Dalit himself. Other reformers, such as Mahatma Jyotirao Phule also worked for the emancipation of Dalits. Another example of Dalit emancipation was the Temple Entry Proclamation issued by the last Maharaja of Travancore in the Indian state of Kerala in the year 1936. The Maharaja proclaimed that "outcastes should not be denied the consolations and the solace of the Hindu faith". Even today, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple that first welcomed Dalits in the state of Kerala is revered by the Dalit Hindu community. The 1930s saw key struggles between Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, most notably over whether Dalits would have separate electorates or joint electorates with reserved seats. The Indian National Congress was the only national organisation with a large Dalit following, but Gandhi failed to gain their commitment. Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, developed a deeper analysis of Untouchability, but lacked a workable political strategy: his conversion to Buddhism in 1956, along with millions of followers, highlighted the failure of his political endeavours.[9]


  1. ^ http://www.ambedkar.org/ambcd/38B1.%20Who%20were%20the%20Shudras%20PART%20I.htm
  2. ^ White Yajurveda 26.2
  3. ^ a b James Silverberg (November 1969). "Social Mobility in the Caste System in India: An Interdisciplinary Symposium". The American Journal of Sociology 75 (3): 443–444. JSTOR 2775721. 
  4. ^ "Govind Sadashiv Ghurye: Ghurye's Views about Indian Society" (PDF). Archived from the original on 26 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-04. 
  5. ^ Social Structure & Mobility in Economic Development, By Neil J. Smelser, Seymour Martin Lipset, Published 2005
  6. ^ Srinivas, M.N, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India by MN Srinivas, Page 32 (Oxford, 1952)
  7. ^ Caste in Modern India; And other essays: Page 48. (Media Promoters & Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Bombay; First Published: 1962, 11th Reprint: 1994)
  8. ^ Shaivam.org
  9. ^ Mendelsohn, Oliver & Vicziany, Maria, "The Untouchables,Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India", Cambridge University Press, 1998

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