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Characteristics of Caste System in India – 6 Major Characteristics | Social Stratification

Characteristics of Caste System in India

In India, caste is a hotly debated subject. Caste is derived from the Spanish word ‘Casta’, which means ‘breed’. A caste system and its associated social practices are represented by it in the context of Indian culture. There are many ways in which the caste system influences Indian social life, since it assigns ascribed status to its members. There are four Varnas according to the Rig Veda, the oldest and most important of all the four Vedas – Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. It is the profession of priests and teachers that is associated with Brahmans. Warriors and rulers are the Kshatriyas. Traders and other common people make up the Vaishyas. As the lowest ranking members of society, the Shudras perform menial tasks.

Historically, there was a fifth Varna called the untouchables, who were not considered members of society. The Varna system does not include tribes or people of other religions. Caste membership is determined by birth and individuals are born into a caste. It is impossible for an individual to change his or her caste. In some instances, castes as a whole have claimed a higher status in society after improving their economic status and changing their lifestyles. There is no guarantee that such claims will be accepted.It is possible that the dominant castes will react negatively to the claim. Nevertheless, the caste system would remain intact even if the claim was accepted. Caste systems in India have become less rigid thanks to Sanskritization, inter-caste marriage, and advances in education.

1) Hierarchy:


Individuals and groups form hierarchies in a superior-subordinate relationship. All societies have hierarchies of one kind or another, but the method of determining the hierarchy varies from one society to another. Social hierarchy in India is based on caste. An individual caste’s rank is determined by the degree of ritual purity and impurity associated with it. Power and wealth are not the determining factors.

Despite his lower economic status, a Brahmin with a higher ritual status is accorded a superior position. Realistically, however, castes are primarily determined by political and economic factors. There is no direct correlation between a high ritual status and a higher social status, according to sociologists. It is unlikely that a Rajput will give a higher status to a Brahmin in other matters, even if he may not have the same role in ritual matters.

The dominant caste in a community is determined by its ritual status, numerical strength, and materials, like land, wealth, and power, according to MN Srinivasan. A caste’s position in the hierarchy is determined by the combination of these factors. It is common for dominant castes to play a major role in village politics and social life.

2) Segmented Division of Society:

Segmented Division of Society

The caste system is one of the most developed social systems where a person is born into a group and not selected for membership. Each caste has a caste council that governs the rights and duties of its members. It is these councils that have extensive power to regulate the social lives of their members. A variety of offences can be punished by them in order to enforce order.

As punishments, fines, corporal punishment, or even death may be imposed for crimes such as adultery, causing injury to others, and murder. It is common for castes to have their own gods and goddesses that are not included in the broader religious tradition. As a result, caste is able to deal with the issues related to its members independently of government controls.

3) Restrictions on feeding and social intercourse:

Restrictions on feeding and social intercourse

There are certain rules and conditions that govern the exchange of cooked food between castes. There are certain types of foods that certain castes accept only from members of other castes. Pakka and kucha foods are divided into categories. Kucha food is cooked in water and is considered inferior to pakka food which is cooked in ghee.

It is only permissible for a Brahmin to take pakka food from Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, but not from Shudras and untouchables. While Kshatriyas accept kucha food from a Brahmin, they only accept pakka food from Vaishyas who are lower than them. Based on the position of the caste involved, food is offered and taken differently. Different castes maintain social distances due to such differences.

Caste positions are reflected in the physical distance between castes. Kerala society, for instance, allows Nayyars to approach Nambudris, but cannot touch them, while members of the Tiya caste (lower than Nayyars) must keep 36 steps away.

4) Civil and religious disabilities and privileges of different castes:

Civil and religious disabilities and privileges of different castes

There are different rights and privileges for different castes in the hierarchy. Caste segregation results in social segregation. There is a separation between impure and pure castes in north Indian villages. All castes tend to be segregated in South India. The Hindu inhabited areas in Tamil Nadu are called Ur, while the Hindu inhabited areas are called Cheri. There is a distance between the Cheri and the village.

To demonstrate how these disabilities were enforced, Ghurye uses examples from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shudras were not permitted to walk on temple streets in Viakomom, a town in Travancore’s princely state. In response to these discriminatory practices, prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Periyar launched a nationwide agitation. The long shadows of Shudras polluted the high caste members in Pune’s morning and evening. Similar crimes are also punished differently.

As an example, Brahmins were only fined for stealing, while Shudras were punished corporally for the same offense. Shudras are not allowed to pray in temples in several parts of India even today. Shudras had caste-related liabilities due to their religious practices and religious practices reinforced this hierarchy. It was forbidden for them to enter the most intimate part of the temple, the sanctum sanctorum. This privilege was reserved for Brahmins only. There is still discrimination against lower caste members in rural areas. It is not uncommon for caste violence to occur after a lower caste member is denied the right to take out a marriage or funeral procession on the main street by a higher caste member.

5) Lack of unrestricted choice of occupation:

Lack of unrestricted choice of occupation

Each caste has a traditionally assigned occupation and membership is hereditary. The individual had no choice but to adopt the occupation of his caste, regardless of his aptitudes and skills. Each occupation was also associated with a specific caste. There is only one occupation per caste, and that occupation was its only characteristic. The birth of a Brahmin into a Brahmin family, for instance, allowed him to become a priest. Caste was used as a basis for imparting education.

In order to learn the occupational skills of the caste, young members would be paired with older members. Education was not universal and common. While castes were restricted from certain occupations, sociologists have pointed out that some occupations were open to all, such as weaving and agriculture. There was a jajmani system of economic relations between the various castes in pre-modern times. It was the responsibility of each service caste to perform a particular function for the landlords. It was common for them to receive payment in kind every year. Client-patron relationships existed between the service castes and the higher castes. Modern times have seen a change in their relationship.

6) Endogamy:


Endogamy describes the practice of members of a group marrying members of their own group. Caste systems are characterized by endogamy. It is common for castes to have endogamy at the subcaste level. Despite being Tamil Brahmins, Iyers and Iyengars may not marry each other. The caste system is characterized by endogamy as its most fundamental characteristic.

The chief characteristic of caste, according to all thinkers, is endogamy, which means that members of a caste or sub-caste should marry within it. In the event of a violation of endogamy, a person would be ostracized and lose their caste. It is common for castes to practice endogamy, but Anomie and Pratiloma marriages, i.e. hypergamy and hypogamy, also occurred.

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