caste system in india

In a previous blog post, I wrote about my own experiences with India’s caste system, where I witnessed discrimination between castes in both life and death.

People of lower castes are often denied certain privileges, such as admission to certain restaurants, which can persist all throughout their life and even end in the act of being cremated at the bottom of temple stairs, while higher-caste individuals are cremated on higher steps. But what exactly is the caste system, and how does this affect the state of equality and poverty in India? And can social enterprises help the disadvantaged?

This ancient system consists of two different concepts: varna and jati. Varna refers to the four social classes (ordered from “highest” to “lowest”) of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, with the excluded untouchable (now called “Dalit”) groups on the bottom of society.

The four varnas of India’s caste system corresponded to groups of certain occupations. Generally, the Brahmins were the priests, preachers and teachers, while the Kshatriyas were kings, governors and warriors. The Vaishya class was made up of merchants, artisans, cattle herders and farmers; the Shudras were traditionally labourers and service providers. The Dalits were segregated from the wider community and confined to ritually impure occupations such as removal of human waste and butchering.

Jati refers to “birth” or “caste”, with names of jatis often being derived from occupations. For example, the now-famous name Gandhi means “perfume-seller”. Each person born into a jati in the caste system was traditionally meant to take on one, or one of several, prescribed occupations, and marry within their jati. The jati was also a source of community support, and often carried myths and legends that asserted its glory. However, social changes such as increased access to education have considerably loosened this system. While this all may sound foreign and restrictive, a similar system persisted in the West for many years until education was widely accessible, as children learnt their parents’ occupation from home and wealth was kept within families.

caste system in india

Despite caste being quite fluid, and sometimes only a social ideal, throughout much of India’s history, rigid caste system organisation was a key tool of administration under the British Raj. From 1860 to 1920, only members of upper castes were allowed into senior appointments and administrative roles, while some social groups were labelled as “unreliable” or even “criminal”. Some castes were even denied property rights.

Social unrest in the 1920s led to the current policy of affirmative action, reserving a percentage of government jobs for the lower castes, and directing aid towards improving educational attainment. Fortunately, there have been dramatic increases in educational attainment and the proportion of senior government positions occupied by members of the lowest castes. Intermarriage has also increased, indicating a shift in social attitudes. However, members of the lowest castes in India’s caste system still suffer from caste-related violence, lower literacy rates, higher poverty rates and a disproportionately low representation in the highest categories of government roles.

We are not powerless, despite all of the deep-seated issues stemming from the caste system. You can make a difference in the fight for equality by supporting social enterprises that provide education, economic empowerment and other basic needs to those living in poverty. You can support businesses that pay their workers a fair wage and give back to the global community. This is why every sale of Moeloco Flip-Flops donates one pair of school shoes to some of India’s most disadvantaged children, helping to improve their health, educational access and self-esteem. We must break this cycle soon, before future generations would otherwise be born and raised under oppression and poverty.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding India’s Caste System

  • June 29, 2016 at 9:26 am
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    Whilst the inequity and inequality in India is difficult to accept with our Western culture thinking, as a physiotherapist working with a group of like-minded professionals in India to improve health services to ALL, it has occurred to me that despite the massive discrepancy between the “haves and have nots” their is considerable harmony and surprisingly little conflict for a country of its population. This “peace” comes through acceptance which in turn is the result of their deep faith….their religion teaches them that in their next life they will be the next rung higher on the caste system ladder. Whilst projects (like yours and mine) seek to improve the basic lives of the lowest group are commendable and necessary, we must also be careful not to enforce our “democratic” belief system on our neighbour and respect that, whilst inherently uncomfortable to witness, the discrimination is part of their religion not necessarily their economy.

    Reply
    • October 29, 2016 at 6:20 am
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      Hi Natalie, really wise , beautiful words, thank you for such great insights x

      Reply

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