Caste: A Living Legacy

Caste: A Living Legacy

Caste is a social system in India that has existed for over 2,000 years. It divides people into different groups based on their birth, occupation, and social status. Once born into a caste, it cannot be changed during one's lifetime. In Hinduism, it is known as Varna, meaning color.India has more than 3000 castes and 26000 subcastes at present.

Traditional Theory of origin of Caste

According to this belief, the caste system is considered to have divine origins. It is seen as an extension of the varna system, where the four varnas were believed to have originated from the body of Brahma.

The Varna System 

In the ancient system, society was divided into four varnas :-

  • The Brahmins constituted the priestly and knowledgeable caste, responsible for imparting wisdom, guiding religious practices, and educating the community and came from Brahma’s head.

  • The Kshatriyas were the warrior and ruling caste, entrusted with the duty of protecting and governing to ensure a secure and harmonious society and came from Brahma’s arms.

  • The Vaisyas engaged in agriculture and trade, providing sustenance and essential resources for the community and said to have come from Brahma’s Thighs

  • The Shudras, the lowest caste, consisted of laborers and servants who performed physically demanding tasks to serve the other castes. 

  • Over time, a fifth caste, known as the Panchamas or Untouchables, was added. They were considered outside the caste system, either due to perceived violations of societal norms or because of the perceived impurity of their occupations. Their responsibilities involved undertaking menial and polluting tasks and cleaning up after the other castes.

Varna Vs Caste



4 in number.

Can be as many as possible. 

Varna is concerned with one’s occupation.

Caste is concerned with one’s birth.

The hierarchical structure of Varna reflects the idea of purity and pollution as the foundation for dividing society and assigning groups to higher and lower classes. In other words, there is generally a positive correlation between Varna and class placement.

The correlation between caste and class is not always positive, as there can be variations in the placement of individuals based on their economic, political, and educational status within different groups.

Free from restrictions, political as well as Socio-economic.

Imposes many restrictions on the members.

Importance of Caste System 

The introduction of the caste system in 1,000 BCE transformed India's previously disorderly culture into a structured society. This system, which governed all aspects of individuals' lives, divided society into distinct groups with varying levels of status and respect. Each group had its own unique strengths and weaknesses based on their position within the caste system. Through its organization and regulation, the caste system played a crucial role in maintaining order within Indian society.

The caste system holds great importance in India and affects many aspects of social, cultural, and economic life. Here are some key points explaining why caste is important in India, simplified for students:

  1. Social Order: The caste system brings order to society by placing people into different groups based on their birth. This creates a social hierarchy and influences how people interact with each other.

  2. Identity and Community: Caste gives people a sense of who they are and helps them find a community to belong to. People with the same caste background can connect with each other and share a common identity.

  3. Jobs and Roles: Each caste traditionally had specific jobs and roles assigned to them. This system helped society function smoothly by ensuring that different tasks were performed by different groups of people.

  4. Support and Care: Castes often provide support and help to their members. They offer assistance in times of need, such as financial support, educational opportunities, or other forms of help.

  5. Culture and Traditions: Caste is closely linked to Indian culture and religious practices. Each caste has its own rituals, customs, and traditions for important life events like birth, marriage, and death.

  6. Politics and Representation: Caste plays a role in politics, influencing how people vote and who represents them. Political parties may consider caste factors to gain support and represent the interests of specific castes.

In addition to this, The caste system has played a crucial role in preserving culture and ensuring productivity by facilitating the transfer of knowledge and skills related to hereditary occupations across generations. It serves as a mechanism for socialization, imparting individuals with the cultural traditions, values, and norms of their society. 

Additionally, the caste system contributes to political stability by providing protection to the Kshatriya caste from political competition, conflicts, and violence. Endogamy within castes helps maintain racial purity, while specialization within castes promotes economic development through the production of high-quality goods. Notably, India's handicraft items have gained international recognition due to this specialization.

Demerits of Caste system

  1. The caste system perpetuates the exploitation of economically weaker and socially inferior castes, particularly the untouchables.
  2. It imposes significant hardships on women through practices like child marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage, and the seclusion of women.
  3. By granting political monopoly to Kshatriyas in the past and acting as a vote bank in present politics, it undermines true democracy. Certain political parties solely represent specific castes, such as the BSP representing SC, ST, and OBC communities.
  4. It obstructs national and collective consciousness, serving as a divisive rather than unifying force. Caste conflicts are prevalent in politics, job and education reservations, inter-caste marriages, etc. For instance, the demand for Jat reservations and agitations by the Patidar community.
  5. It contributes to religious conversions as lower caste individuals turn to Islam and Christianity to escape the oppression of upper castes.
  6. The caste system, with its strict adherence to caste norms, obstructs modernization by resisting change.

Relevance of Caste System today

The classification of castes is influenced to some extent by the economic hierarchy that exists today. Individuals with higher levels of education are more commonly associated with the General Category, whereas those with limited or no education are more inclined to identify themselves as OBC (Other Backward Class).

  • According to a report by Pew Research Centre - The Central region of India is distinct from other regions due to its higher proportion of individuals belonging to Other Backward Classes or Most Backward Classes, which accounts for 51% of the population, while the General Category comprises the lowest percentage at 17%. Specifically, within the Central region, the state of Uttar Pradesh stands out with a majority of its population (57%) identifying themselves as part of Other or Most Backward Classes.

  • Sanskritisation

Sanskritization is a phenomenon prominent in certain Indian societies where marginalized or lower caste groups adopt the customs, language, rituals, and social behaviors of higher castes or dominant groups. This process aims to enhance social status and upward mobility by imitating the traditions and practices associated with higher castes. It is driven by the desire for social recognition, improved economic prospects, and a higher position within the hierarchical caste system. Example - Lower-caste individuals may change their clothing and dressing style to resemble that of higher castes. This could include wearing traditional attire associated with the upper castes or avoiding certain clothing choices that are considered lower-caste.

  • Caste Politics

Caste politics involves the manipulation of caste identities in the realm of politics. It includes mobilizing caste groups, forming caste-based parties, and using caste considerations in electoral strategies. Caste-based politics influences voting patterns, resource allocation, and policies to address social inequalities. It can lead to conflicts and divisions, but also empower marginalized castes. Several political parties in India have emerged based on caste identities, representing the interests of specific castes or caste groups. Examples include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) representing Dalits, the Samajwadi Party (SP) representing Yadavs, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) representing Yadavs and Muslims.

  • Caste Violence and Conflicts

Caste politics in India has also led to instances of caste-related violence, clashes, and social tensions. Conflicts can arise when different caste groups compete for resources, political representation, or social status.

  • In Occupation

Relevance of Caste in occupation

Scheduled Caste 

Scheduled Castes refer to the castes or races in India that face severe social, educational, and economic disadvantages due to the historical practice of untouchability and other factors like lack of infrastructure and geographical isolation. These communities require special attention to protect their interests and promote their rapid socio-economic progress. They have been officially recognized as Scheduled Castes under Article 341 of the Constitution, which identifies their need for specific support and measures to ensure their development.The 2011 Census places the number of scheduled castes in India at 16.6 percent of the total population, or approximately 166,635,700 people.

Scheduled Tribes

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes defines scheduled tribes as communities characterized by primitiveness, geographical isolation, shyness, and social, educational, and economic disadvantages. These traits distinguish them from other communities in the country. Similar to the definition for Scheduled Castes, the definition for "Scheduled Tribes" has been preserved from the 1931 Census and reflects the historical legislation carried over from the British era.Tribal people constitute 8.6% of the nation’s total population, over 104 million people according to the 2011 census.There are over 700 Scheduled Tribes in India according to The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

Government Initiatives

The Constitution of India demonstrates a strong commitment to the upliftment of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes through various constitutional provisions and mechanisms. These include the abolition of untouchability, promotion of their educational and economic interests, reservation in employment and political representation, establishment of commissions to monitor their welfare, and provisions for their participation in local governance. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment play vital roles in safeguarding the rights and promoting the socio-economic development of these marginalized communities.

1. The Pradhan Mantri Anusuchit Jaati Abhyuday Yojana combines three centrally sponsored schemes: Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana (PMAGY), Special Central Assistance to Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCA to SCSP), and Babu Jagjivan Ram Chhatrawas (BJRCY). Its primary objective is to alleviate poverty among Scheduled Caste communities by creating employment opportunities through skill development, income-generating schemes, and other initiatives.

2. Under the Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana, which is part of the Pradhan Mantri Anusuchit Jaati Abhyuday Yojana, efforts are made to increase the income of the target population through income-generating schemes, skill development, and infrastructure development. The aim is to uplift the target population and lift them out of poverty.

3. "The Pradhan Mantri Anusuchit Jaati Abhyuday Yojana combines three central schemes: Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana (PMAGY), Special Central Assistance to Scheduled Castes Sub Plan (SCA to SCSP), and Babu Jagjivan Ram Chhatrawas (BJRCY). Its aim is to reduce poverty among Scheduled Caste communities through skill development, income-generating schemes, and other initiatives.

4. Under the Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana, efforts are made to increase the income of the target population through income-generating schemes, skill development, and infrastructure development to uplift them from poverty.

5. The Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, under the Ministry of Welfare, promotes Dr. Ambedkar's ideology and administers recommended schemes.The Babu Jagjivan Ram National Foundation propagates the ideals and vision of Babu Jagjivan Ram to create a casteless and classless society.

The government also provides coaching schemes, military training, merit upgradation programs, and credit flow initiatives for SC, ST, and OBC communities. Entrepreneurship development programs and training schemes are also conducted to support weaker sections of society, including SC and ST artisans in rural areas."

  1. Coaching Scheme for Banking/Secretarial Services: The government provides job-oriented coaching and allied services for banking/secretarial services to OBC, ST, and SC students.
  2. Military Training for SC/ST/OBCs:  Military training is provided for boys and girls at the Bhonsala Military School in Nasik.
  3. Upgradation of Merit of SC/ST: Special coaching is given to SC/ST students in residential schools to remove deficiencies and prepare them for competitive exams for entry into professional courses.
  4. Tribal Sub Plan (TSP): These plans are designed for the inclusive socio-economic development of STs as part of the annual plans of states or UTs.
  5. Flow of Credit to STs: Priority is given to ST and SC communities in credit planning at the block levels, and banks are encouraged to provide loans to these communities with sympathy and consideration.
  6. Entrepreneurship Development Programmes: Programs are conducted exclusively for weaker sections, including STs, to motivate and train them in setting up small-scale industries.
  7. Rural Artisans Programme: Promotional schemes and training programs are conducted for rural SC and ST artisans to enhance their skills, upgrade technology, and support their trades.
  8. Voluntary organizations across India are working to promote the welfare of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs).Some of the most important national organizations include the Harijan Sevak Sangh, the Hindu Sweepers Sevak Samaj, and the Bhartiya Adimjati Sevak Sangh.
  9. The government has also allocated significant resources to the welfare of SCs and STs in each Five Year Plan.
  10. The size of investment in these special programs has increased from the First Plan to the Ninth Plan.

Way Ahead

For centuries, India has been engaged in continuous endeavors to eradicate caste discrimination. The government of India has implemented numerous legislations and initiatives aimed at fostering equality and social justice. Additionally, civil society organizations and activists have actively campaigned for the rights of lower castes and the complete abolition of the caste system.

To effectively solve the caste issue, there needs to be a comprehensive approach that combines legal reforms, social awareness campaigns, and community engagement. By encouraging dialogue, fostering empathy, and promoting equality, India can gradually eliminate caste-based prejudices and create a society that values individuals based on their abilities, not their caste.

Education plays a crucial role in combating caste-based discrimination and promoting social equality. By promoting education and awareness, empowering marginalized communities, and fostering inclusive values from an early age, there is hope for a gradual transformation of societal attitudes.

Raising awareness about the detrimental effects of caste-based discrimination and promoting inter-caste marriages are crucial steps towards dismantling the caste system. It requires collective efforts from government, civil society, and individuals to actively challenge discriminatory attitudes and practices.

While the caste issue is deeply ingrained in Indian society, with affirmative actions, proactive measures, and a shared commitment to social justice, India can pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive future, where every individual is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their caste.

"Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. This is the only explanation I can give for the fact that public opinion in India is non-existent." - Dr B.R.Ambedkar