Caste Essay

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To categorize different forms of stratification systems sociologists most frequently examine the way resources such as wealth, power, and prestige are acquired in society. In some societies, such valued resources are acquired on the basis of achievement or merit. In others, these resources are accorded to individuals on the basis of ascribed, not achieved, characteristics. The idea of ascribed and achieved status is used to contrast caste systems with class systems. In class systems one’s opportunities in life, at least in theory, are determined by one’s actions, allowing a degree of individual mobility that is not possible in caste systems. In caste systems a person’s social position is determined by birth, and social intercourse outside one’s caste is prohibited. Caste systems are to be found among the Hindus in India. Examples of caste-like systems can also be found in other non-Hindu societies such as Japan, during the Tokugawa period, and South Africa, during the era of apartheid.

The term ”caste” itself is often used to denote large-scale kinship groups that are hierarchically organized within a rigid system of stratification. Early Hindu literary classics describe a society divided into four varnas: Brahman (poet-priest), Kshatriya (warrior-chief), Vaishya (trader), and Shudra (menial, servant). The varnas formed ranked categories characterized by differential access to spiritual and material privileges. They excluded the Untouchables, who were despised because they engaged in occupations that were considered unclean and polluting.

This hierarchical system persisted throughout the Hindu subcontinent for millennia. The basis of caste ranking was the sacred concept of purity and pollution. Brahmans were considered ritually pure because they were engaged in priestly duties. Untouchables were regarded as impure since they were employed in manual labor and with ritually polluting objects. Usually those who had high ritual status also had economic and political power. Relations between castes were generally regulated by beliefs about pollution. Thus, there were restrictions on interdining and intermarriage between castes was not allowed. Violations of these rules entailed purification rites and sometimes expulsion from the caste. Traditional Hindu religious beliefs about samsara (reincarnation) and karma (quality of actions) provided the justification for the operation of this hierarchical society. A person’s actions in previous lives determined his or her social ranking in this life.

British colonialism had a significant impact on the Indian social structure – from western ideas, the legal system, to English educational institutions. After the country became independent in 1947, the movement from a traditional to a modern economy, together with India’s democratic electoral system, further eroded the institution of caste. The Indian leaders enacted legislative and legal measures to create a more egalitarian society. A new constitution was adopted, which abolished untouchability and prohibited discrimination in public places. In addition, special benefits were provided for those who had suffered most from the caste system.

What progress has the country made toward improving the lives of the Untouchables, who now form 16 percent of the population? Has the traditional caste system disintegrated? In urban areas, divisions based on income, education, and occupations have become more important than caste cleavages for social and economic purposes. In rural areas, the dominant castes are no longer from the higher castes but belong to the middle and lower peasant castes. Yet for most Indians who live in rural areas (nearly 72 percent) caste factors remain an integral part of their daily lives.

With the support of government scholarships and job reservations, a small proportion of the Untouchable community has managed to gain entry into the middle class – as schoolteachers, clerks, bank tellers, typists, and government officials. Reservation of seats in the legislature has made the political arena somewhat more accessible. The majority of Dalits, however, remain landless agricultural laborers, powerless, desperately poor, and illiterate, and continue to face discrimination. As in the past, rural and urban areas in India will continue to witness inter-caste conflicts. Yet, more significantly, like ethnic conflicts elsewhere between groups, these conflicts have more to do with control over political and economic resources and less over caste beliefs and values.


  1. Dumont, L. (1970) Homo Hierarchicus. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  2. Jaffrelot, C. (2003) India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. Hurst, London.
  3. Jalali, R. (1993) Preferential policies and the movement of the disadvantaged: the case of the scheduled castes in India. Ethnic and Racial Studies 16 (1): 95—120.

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