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Caste System of India

The Caste System of India

Jose Colaco

The caste system of India is probably one of the most ill-understood entities known. It is also the source for differing emotions, actions, reactions and behaviourisms among different people for a plethora of reasons and even non reasons.

The word 'caste' is the English language translation of the Portuguese word 'casta' which literally means 'breed or lineage'. When the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, they found what was to them, a perplexing system of stratification and discrimination prevailing amongst the people of India . Unable to explain this system to their rulers in Portugal, the first Portuguese sea-farers to India called it 'casta'.

In order to have a better picture of the 'casta' or the caste system of India, it is important to review the events occurring in the northwest corner of the Indian subcontinent about 3000 years prior to the arrival in India of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama.

The original inhabitants of India are described as being mainly negroid people. ( They continue to live in the hills as well as villages and cities of India as 'scheduled tribes' ). There also were Alpine, Mongoloid and Paleo-Mediterranean people.

In the northwest corner of the Indian subcontinent, in what today is Sind-Pakistan and the Indian State of Saurashtra, existed a very highly developed and sophisticated civilization - the (Sindhus) Indus Valley civilization of Harrapa and MohenjoDaro. The people who lived in these cities were Dravidians, the highly intelligent but smaller and dark brown descendants of Mediterranean origin. Recent excavations reveal the high level of sophistication of these Dravidian cities which eventually succumbed to a variety of factors including drought, famine . These set of events were probably the initial catalysts for the Dravidian move to their present 'home' in South India.

Around 1500 BC, there was another development occurring several hundred thousand miles west and north-west of the Indus valley. The nomadic, caucasian, well built but rustic, cattle rearing people from the region around the Caspian Sea were restless. They were looking for newer and greener pastures. They began migrating to different parts of what is now Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

The Sanskrit speaking people, the Aryans traveled towards the Indus Valley. Initial migration appears to have been in the form of a few 'scout' or pioneer groups. A full scale migration occurred within the following decades. The Aryans with their superior physique and their horse driven chariots established unquestionable superiority over the Dravidian and tribal population of the Indus Valley.

The origins of the caste delineation are at THIS point in history, when the fair skinned Aryans finally defeat the darker skinned Dravidians and other non Aryans. The word used to describe this classification is 'varna' , Sanskrit for 'colour'. In effect, this was a system of colour based differentiation . Prior to that, it was just a social-class-based structure.

The original classification was as follows:

1. Kshatriya - This was the highest 'caste' to which all the tribal chiefs and warriors belonged.
2. Brahmin - This comprised of the priests and other religious needed for the 'sacrifices' which were pivotal to the warrior way of life.
3. Vaishya - the tradesmen who were needed to provide the various services.

The Aryans were quite contemptuous of the darker, non Sanskrit speaking Dravidians who worshipped different gods. They considered them as 'pannis' ( cattle thieves ) and 'dasas' ( slaves ). They formed the fourth 'caste' or the Shudra. Aryans who were mixed with Dasas also fell into the Shudra caste. The tribals were to be the Untouchables.

With time however, a few re-alignments took place. The most important being the move made by the Brahmins to displace the Kshatriyas from the top spot. The Kshatriyas or the warriors were busy either fighting or getting killed. There was no time or perhaps inclination to learn. This was quite convenient for the Brahmins who did not have to fight or get killed. They became powerhouses of knowledge, especially in the fields of medicine and astrology. With extraordinary skill, the Brahmins organized their superior position in the 'varna' through religion and the religious mandates. This almost assured the total and near-perpetual subjugation of the poor, weak, down-trodden and their descendants. The Law of Manu gave the religious sanction to this discrimination.

One example of the Brahmin skill is the manner in which they organized the accordance of 'solar and lunar lineage' for the strong and powerful Rajputs who were actually the invading Huns!. It was a case of 'please the powerful in order to stay in a powerful position.

There was dissent to the Brahmin authority and this developed around the 8th century BC with the development of Buddhism and Jainism.

Women had a special place in this society........in the background !. They were denied the opportunity to learn Sanskrit and had to be satisfied with the dialect Prakrit. Sanskrit was the domain of the Brahmin men. The women were hence relegated to subservient positions. They were there, as it were, to cook, clean, sing, dance and for the sexual pleasure of the men folk until it was time to jump into the funeral pyre in order to become a 'sati'. In this regard, the Kamasutra texts make interesting reading.

Much has changed in India since the early days of the Aryan supremacy. India became a major haunt for a string of invaders and other settlers of foreign origin. Among them were the Greeks, Huns, Arabs, Chinese, Turks, Pathans, Mughals, Siddhis, Persians, Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British. India today, is a pot-pourri of different peoples.

The caste discrimination has been officially outlawed. The caste system itself, is slowly beginning to dismantle. Education is taking care of that albeit at snail pace. People of all religions and all castes live and work side by side often oblivious and without regard for the other persons religious beliefs or caste. There are pockets of religious bigotry and intolerance but they are almost always politically driven. And while they are painful and get widespread press attention, they are an aberration from the present norm of Indian life.

The central government in Delhi has organized a reservation of seats in colleges and positions in the employement sector for individuals from the hitherto-discriminated-against Untouchables and Scheduled Tribes. This issue has sparked off widespread discontent and needs to be looked at again. The reservation policy is a form of reverse discrimination and will eventually backfire on the country's development. Judging by the fact that it is a 'hot' political issue, the likelihood of any changes in this reverse discrimination are highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future.

The ugly head of 'caste' rears itself ever so often at the time of marriage. This will continue not only in the system of arranged marriages but also in the non-arranged ones.

A curious oxymoron is the presence and practice of the caste system among the Roman Catholics of Goa and Mangalore. For centuries after conversion to Catholicism, caste discrimination was practiced even within the precincts of the Church !. This is slowly dissipating.

The bias against women remains but to a lesser extent than hitherto. Women are now occupying their rightful place as 'equals' in industry, in society and in many homes. But much work needs to be done in this area. The situations which subjugate individuals because of poverty, lack of education and lack of employment opportunities remain as the major barriers.

PS: I owe my information on the above subject to a long list of sources. In particular, I wish to acknowledge the help, advice, criticism from and reference to the work and writings of the following :

Alfredo de Mello, Romila Thapar, Dr. Teotonio de Souza, Percival Spear, Vivek Menezes, Eddie Fernandes, Ben Antao, Ashok Chowgule, Edgar Martins, Paulo Colaco Dias and Francisco Alves.


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