(Sample Material) IAS Mains Sociology (Optional) Study Kit "Caste System"

Sample Material of Our IAS Mains Sociology Study Kit

Subject: Sociology (Optional)

Topic: Caste System

(a) Perspectives on the Study of Caste Systems, G.S. Ghurye, M.N. Srinivas, Louis Dumont, Andre Beteille
(b) Features of Caste System
(c) Untouchability - Forms and Perspectives

In India we come across a special type of social stratification in the form of castes. Although evidence of caste are found in many parts of the world as among the present day Massy, the Polynesians, the Burmese and Americans, the most perfect instance is that which exists in India. Here we find a social organisation as elaborate in its heaped-up storeys as one of its own pagodas and vastly more intricate.


The word ‘caste’ owes its origin to the Spanish word ‘costa’ which means ‘breed, race, strain or a complex of hereditary qualities’. The Portuguese applied this term to the classes of people in India known by the name of ‘jati’. The English word ‘caste’ in an adjustment of the original term.


Various definitions have been given of the word ‘caste’.

  • Risely has defined caste as ‘a collection of families or group 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 regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community.

  • According to Lundberg, “A caste is merely a rigid social class into which members are born and from which they can withdraw or escape only with extreme difficulty. It is the type of stratification system which is most rigid in matters of mobility and distinctness of status”.

E.A.H. Blunt defines caste as an endogenous or a collection of en­dogenous groups, bearing a common name, membership of which is hereditary; imposing on its members certain restrictions in the matter of social intercourse; either following a common traditional occupation or claiming a common origin; and generally regarded as forming a single homogeneous community.

H. Cooley says, “When a class is somewhat strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste.”

According to Maclver, “When status is wholly predetermined, so that men are born to their lot without any hope of changing it, then class takes the extreme form of caste.”

N According to Henry Maine, “Castes started as natural division of occupational classes and eventually upon receiving the religious sanction, became solidified into the existing caste system. The caste system comes into being when it becomes an integral part of a religious dogma which divides the people into superior and inferior groups with different responsibilities, functions and standards of living.”

Ketkar say, “A caste is a group having two characteristics (i) membership is confined to those who are born members and include all persons so born, (ii) the membership is forbidden by all inexorable social law to men outside the group.”

Martindale and Monothesi define caste as an aggregate of persons whose share of obligations and privileges are fixed by birth, sanctioned and supported by religion and usage.
N According to E.A. Gait, “Caste is an endogenous group or collection of such groups bearing a common name, having the same traditional occupation claiming descent from the same source, and commonly regarded as forming a single homogeneous community.”

According to Green, “Caste is a system of stratification in which mobility, up and down the status ladder, at least ideally, may not occur.”

According to Anderson and Parker, “Caste is that extreme form of social class organization in which the position of individuals in the status hierarchy is determined by descent and birth.”

According to Williams, “Caste is a system in which an individual’s rank and its accompanying rights and obligations is ascribed on the basis of birth into a particular group.”

Thus thinkers have variously defined the term ‘caste’. But as Ghurye states, “With all the labours of these students, however, we do not possess a real general definition of caste.” The best way to understand the term ‘caste’ is to examine the various factors underlying the caste system.

Megasthenes, the Greek traveller in the third century B.C. to India, mentions two of the features characterizing the institution of caste. He says, it is not permitted to contract marriage with a person of another caste, nor to change from one or trade to another, nor for the same person to undertake more than one, except if he is of the caste of philosophers, when permission is given on account of dignity. Thus according to Megasthenes two elements of caste system are (i) there is no intermarriage, and (ii) there can be no change of profession. The statement of Megasthenes, though, draws attention to two important factors of caste system, yet it does not give us a complete idea of the system. To give a complete idea of what a caste is, the following features may be described.


The society is divided into various castes with a well-developed life of their own, the membership of which is determined by the consideration of birth. The status of a person does not depend on his wealth but on the traditional importance of the caste in which he had the fortune of being born. Caste is hereditary. No amount of wealth and no amount of penance or prayer can change his caste status. Status is determined not by vocation but by birth, Maclver says, “whereas in eastern civilization the chief determinant of a class and status was birth,” in the western civilization of today wealth is a class-determinant of equal or put up greater, importance, and wealth is a less rigid determinant than birth. There are regular caste councils to regulate and control the conduct of all caste members. This council rules over the whole caste and is the most powerful organization which keeps the members in their proper places. The government body of a caste is called Panchayat which literally means a body of five members, but infact there are many more who meet whenever decisions are taken. It takes cognizance of the offences against the caste taboos which prevent members of the caste from eating and drinking or smoking with members of other castes; against sex regulations which prohibit marriage outside the caste. It decides civil and criminal matters. The Panchayat was so powerful that during the British regime it retired cases which were once decided by the state in its judicial capacity. Its chief punishments were (i) the fines; (ii) feast to be given to the castemen; (iii) corporal punishment, (iv) religious expiation like taking bath in holy waters; and (v) outcasting. In short, caste is its own ruler. It is a small and complete social world in itself, a quasi-sovereign body, all inclusive and marked off from one another and yet subsisting within the larger and wider society. The citizens owe their moral allegiance to the caste first, rather than to the community as a whole. Though in recent times with the introduction and extention of the courts of law and the substitution of village panchayats for caste panchayats, the authority of the latter has been somewhat weakened yet the modern caste does control its members and influences their behaviour.


The second important feature of caste system is that it has got a definite scheme of social precedence. Each caste has a customary name that helps to set it apart. The whole society is divided into distinct classes with a concept of high and low. Thus Bra: mins in India stand at the apex of the social ladder. According to Manu, the Brahmin is the lord of this whole creations, because he is produced from the purest part of the Supreme Being, namely, the mouth. By his mere birth as a Brahmin, a person is the living embodiment of the enjoying religious merit. A Brahmin is entitled to whatever exists in the world. The whole world is his property and others live on his charity. Vishnu is more audacious than Manu. He observes: “The gods are invisible deities, the Brahmins pronounce when highly pleased the gods will ratify; when the visible gods are pleased the invisible gods are surely pleased as well”.
In contrast to the high position enjoyed by Brahmins, the Sudras were subjected to manifold disabilities. They could not use the public roads nor avail themselves of public wells, they were forbidden to enter Hindu temples, to attend public school. Servitude is proclaimed to be a permanent condition of Sudras. A member of the first three classes must not travel in the company of Sudras. They were considered to impart some sort of defilement to objects like bed and seat by their touch. Severe punishments were prescribed for a Sudra in case he committed certain types of offence. Thus according to Kautilya, a Sudra, if he violates a Brahmin female shall be burnt to death. If he intentionally reviles or criminally assaults a Brahmin the offending limbs shall be cut.


Another element of caste is the complex of taboos by which the superior castes try to preserve their ceremonial purity. Each caste develops its own sub-culture. Thus there are restrictions on feeding and social intercourse and minute rules are laid down with regard to the kind of food that can be acceptable by a person and from what castes. For example, a Brahmin will accept ‘pacca’ food, i.e., food prepared in ghee from any community, but he can accept ‘kachcha’ food at the hands of no other caste. The theory of pollution being communicated by some castes to members of the higher ones places severe restrictions on the extent of social intercourse. Thus there are restrictions with regard to distances. Among the people of Kerala, a Nayar may approach a Nambudiri Brahmin but must not touch him; while a Tiyan must keep himself at the distance of thirty-six steps from the Brahmin, and a Pullman may not approach him within ninety-six paces. A Pullman must not come near any of the Hindu castes. Even the wells are polluted if a low caste man draws water from them. So rigid are the rules about defilement that.

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