Casteism As A Social Concept Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Casteism is a social concept which creates an elaborate and complicated system combining elements of profession, endogamy, social class, culture, affiliation to groups and political power. It should not be mistaken with more fundamental features such as nobility, social class or race. Members of all castes in any society may belong to one race, while members of same class in same society may belong to different races of castes.

The word 'caste' was first used by the Portuguese in order to describe class status derived by inheritance in the European society. The word 'caste' is derived from Latin 'castus' which means "pure, segregated, cut off", and the participle 'carere' which means "to cut off". The earliest records of the word being applied to Indian social groups, date back to the 17th century, via Portuguese word 'casta' meaning "breed, caste, race".

The caste system in India is a system of social classification and restriction, in which communities have been defined by many endogamous groups called "jatis". The formalized Indian caste system which was postulated by the Brahmanical texts, comprises of four castes, also called as 'varnas', with few social groups like the foreigners, forest dwellers, nomads and the chandalas (people dealing with the disposal of the dead) excluded altogether.

Although the caste system is generally associated with 'Hinduism', the caste system has also been observed among the ancient Persian society and other religious communities including few groups of Muslims and Christians, most likely because of cultural assimilation over a number of centuries.

While the caste system is endorsed by the Hindu scriptures, the caste-based discrimination is not endorsed by any of them. Moreover, the Indian constitution treats caste-based discrimination as a violation of fundamental right and therefore outlawed. However, it continues to exist in modern India, because of a combination of political, demographic and social factors.

Literature Review

A lot of research has gone into the origins of the Indian caste system, however, so far there is no universally accepted theory about it. In many ways, the Indian classes and Iranian classes ('pistras') show some similarity, where priests are called 'Brahmins', the soldiers are called 'Kshatriya', the merchant class is called "Vastriya' and the craftsmen and artisans are called 'Huiti'

One of the scientific investigations published in 'Nature', a well-known science journal, concludes that one particular ancestral lineage, genetically very similar to Middle Eastern, European and Asian populations, comprised mostly of upper-caste individuals and they spoke Indo-European languages like Hindi. Such investigations do suggest that the origin of caste system is essentially connected to Indo-Aryan migration to the subcontinent.

Castes and their social status

Although the political power lay mostly with the Kshatriyas, 'Brahmins' have been portrayed by various historians as essentially the main custodians and keepers of 'Dharma', due to which they enjoyed a lot of prestige and several advantages.

A Buddhist pilgrim, called Fa Xian, from China had visited India around 4th century. He mentioned in his travel memoirs that except for 'Chandals', who were outcastes due to the nature of their work as disposers of the dead, no other caste or section of the society was disadvantaged in any manner. Around that period, the kings of both 'Sudra' as well as 'Brahmin' castes were as common as the ones of 'Kshatriya' caste. All in all, the caste system was not exercised as a prohibitive or a repressive system.

However, the advent of British led them to treat the Indian caste system like their own social class system. They noted caste as a symbol of occupation, social status and intellectual capability. That led to the caste system turning into a more rigid system during the British rule, since they had started enumerating castes during their ten-year census process and codified the entire caste system during their rule.

Among all the castes, the 'harijans' had the lowest status in the society, since they were considered to be the people outside the caste system. Also referred to as 'untouchables' by some, they worked in mostly unhealthy, unbecoming or polluting professions. Apart from their impoverished status, they also had to endure social segregation and several social restrictions. They were never allowed to worship in temples along with others, nor were they allowed to take water from common sources. No person from higher castes was supposed to interact with them. If anyone ever came into physical contact with an untouchable person, the person of the higher caste was considered to be defiled and had to take a thorough bath in order to purge himself. Even among the Harijans, there were a few sub-castes like 'dhobi' and 'nai', who would normally avoid any interaction with lower order 'Bhangis', who were treated as 'outcastes among the outcastes'.

Many sociologists have researched on the specific historical benefits that were offered by such a rigid social structure, while also commenting on its drawbacks. In its original form, caste system functioned as a tool to bring order to a society where people were ruled more by mutual consent rather than by compulsion, where people inherited merit, where equality was present only within the caste, but not between different castes. Such a division of labour created a strictly defined system of mutual interdependence, creating a feeling of security within a community. The division of labor, with its roots in ethnicity, allowed different immigrants and various foreigner tribes to integrate into the society creating their own caste niches.

Economically, the caste system played a crucial role, functioning very much like medieval European guilds, and creating a division of labor ensuring the training of apprentices and achieving some level of specialization. For example, in few regions, tailoring each type of cloth was a speciality for a specific sub-caste. Moreover, some philosophers have commented that the majority of people would have been acceptably comfortable in segregated endogamous classes, because they resided in ancient times.

It is generally believed that the comparative ranking of all castes was non-rigid or differed from one place to other before the advent of the British.[24] Sociologists like Bernard Buber and Marriott McKim comment how the understanding of the caste system as a rigid and textual classification has led to the perception of the caste system as a more process-oriented, fundamental and contextual segregation. Other sociologists like Y.B Damle have used theoretical models in order to explain mobility in the caste system of India.[25]

As per these scholars, sections of lower-caste population could attempt to improve the status of their caste by trying to copy the social customs of higher castes. The mobility in caste laws allowed very low-caste clerics like Valmiki to write the Ramayana, which later became a central body of Hindu religious scripture. There is another precedent of a few Shudra families in South India, within the temples of the Sri Vaishnava sect, elevating their caste.[25] The following lists a few changes in varnas that have been cited in Hindu texts:

Priyavrata, the eldest son of Manu, became king, a Kshatriya. Seven out of his ten sons became kings while three of them became Brahmans. They were Mahavira, Kavi and Savana. (Ref bhagwat puran chap.5)

Kavash -ailush, who was the son of a Sudra, achieved the varna of a Rishi. He later became mantra-drashta to a number of Vedic mantras contained in Rig-Veda 10th Mandal.

Satyakama, the son of Jabala, born from an unknown father, became a Rishi because of his qualities.

Some psychologists have found that the mobility across different caste lines may have been very low, although different sub-castes (or jatis) may have moved to a different social status over a few generations by the process of fission, re-location, or adoption of some new rituals.[26]

M. N. Srinivas, a sociologist, has also reviewed the key question of rigidity in Indian Caste system. During an ethnographic research of the Coorgs in Karnataka, he found considerable mobility among their caste hierarchies.[27][28] He concludes that the caste system is quite different from a rigid system wherein the status of each caste is fixed forever; instead, the movement in social status has always been possible, particularly in the middle levels of the hierarchy. According to him, it was always feasible for people born into a lower caste to move to a higher social position by simply adopting the practices of vegetarianism and teetotalism, the key customs of the higher castes. Although theoretically the mobility was forbidden, the process in practice was not uncommon. Such is the concept of 'sanskritization', or the acceptance of upper-caste rituals and norms by the people from lower castes, which demonstrates both the complexity and the fluidity of Indian caste relations.

This is further corroborated by the fact that many of the Indian dynasties were of obscure origins suggesting some social mobility. Many sources in this period mention a number of new castes, like the Kayasthas (the scribes) and Khatris (the traders). According to some Brahmanic literature, these new castes originated because of intercaste marriages, but this might be an attempt at positioning their rank in the hierarchy. Khatri, for example, appears more to be a Prakritised version of the Sanskrit word 'Kshatriya'.[29] 

Reforms and Revolutions against Caste system

Swami Vivekananda once said that caste system of India is 'pointedly diabolical', calling it a 'real curse'.

There have been a number of early challenges to the caste system from Buddha,[31]  Mahavira Jain and Makkhali Gosala. The opposition to the varna system is regularly noted in the Yoga Upaniá¹£ads and is a regular feature of CÄ«na-ācāra tantrism, a Chinese-inspired movement in Asom; both dating back to the medieval period. The system of Nātha , founded by Matsya-indra Nātha and Go-raká¹£a Nātha around the same time, had similarly been opposed to the system of varna stratification.

The caste discriminations were rejected by many saints belonging to the Bhakti period  which accepted all castes even untouchables, into their cult. This sentiment gathered force during the British Raj, and many reform movements like Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj condemned caste-based discrimination. The social inclusion of untouchables allowing them to join the mainstream was favored by many active social reformers.

The untouchability as a practice was officially and formally outlawed by the Constitution of India in 1950, and since then it has declined significantly, to this age when eminent people from lower castes have occupied high political offices, like former President K. R. Narayanan in 1997,[32] and former Chief Justice K. G. Balakrishnan.[33]

The caste system in modern India

In quite a few rural areas and towns, the caste system is still followed as a rigid system. Caste has also become a key factor in the politics of India.

The Indian Government has officially documented several castes and sub-castes, in order to determine those castes that deserve reservation (which is positive discrimination in education and jobs) through the population census. The Indian system of reservation, although limited in its scope, relies extensively on quotas. The official Government lists comprise of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes:

Scheduled castes (SC)

Scheduled castes mostly consist of "Dalit". The current population is 16% of the entire population of India (i.e. around 160 million).

Scheduled tribes (ST)

Scheduled tribes mostly consist of tribal groups. The current population is 7% of the entire population of India (i.e. around 70 million).

Other Backward Classes (OBC)

The Mandal Commission studied more than 3000 castes classified as OBC Category and claimed that OBCs number is around 52% of the Indian population. However, a similar study by the National Sample Survey pegs the figure at 32%.[42] There is considerable debate over the true number of OBCs in India; it is generally accepted to be sizable, but many are of the opinion that it is significantly lower than the figures quoted by the Mandal Commission and the National Sample Survey.[43]

The Caste system as practiced among non-Hindus


In few parts of India, Christians are classified by location, sect and the castes of their ancestors,[44] usually in relation to the upper class Syrian Malabar Nasranis. Christians of Kerala are generally divided into different communities, for example, Syrian Christians and the "Latin" or "New Rite" Christians.


Syrian Christians have a derived status within the caste system due to the tradition that they are believed to have converted themselves from High caste Hindus such as Namboodiris, Nairs and Jews (Israelites), due to evangelization by St. Thomas.[45] Several writers like Arundhati Roy and Anand Kurian have authored personal accounts of the entire caste system at work in their social community.[46][47][48][49][50] Syrian Christians, specifically Knanaya Christians, are generally endogamous and do not practice intermarriage with other Christian castes.[46]

The Latin Rite Christians were considered to be the scheduled castes around the coastal belt of Kerala, where fishing was the chief occupation. They were mostly evangelized by the missionaries of the 16th and 19th centuries. The government of India later recognized this group as OBC. The intermarriages between Syrian Christians and Latin Rite Christians are found to be very rare.


From 16th century onwards, in Goa, mass conversions were performed by Portuguese Latin missionaries. However, the Hindu converts still maintained their caste practices. The continued practice of the caste system among the Christian society in Goa is mostly due to the large-scale conversions of whole villages, due to which existing social stratification was hardly affected. The Portuguese, even during the Goan Inquisition, did not interfere much with the caste system. Therefore, the original Hindu Brahmins of Goa became Christian Bamons while the Kshatriya came to be known as the Christian noblemen called Chardos. The Christian clergy comprised almost exclusively of Bamon. Even Vaishyas who turned to Christianity later became Gauddos, and the Shudras became Sudirs. Most of all, the Dalits or the "Untouchables" who turned to Christianity came to be called Maharas and Chamars.


Studies show that several castes among Muslims originated because of their close contact with Hindu culture and instances of Hindu conversion to Islam.[52][53][54][55] The Sachar Committee's report, which was released in 2006, notes the continued segregation and classification in Muslim society. For example, among Muslims, there are those who are called Ashrafs and presumed to possess a higher status derived due to their foreign Arab ancestry,[56][57] while there are others called Ajlafs who are assumed to have converted from Hinduism, and therefore have a lower status. Moreover, another Muslim caste called Arzal was considered by anti-caste activists like Ambedkar as similar to untouchables.[58][59] In India's Bengal region, some Muslims classify their society as per 'Quoms'.[60] There is a difference in opinion regarding the severity of discrimination in Muslim societies versus that of Hindu societies. While many researchers have concluded that the Muslim castes are not as orthodox or severe in their discrimination as the Hindus,[55][61] there are others like Ambedkar who have commented that the social evils in Muslim society can be considered as worse than what is observed in the Hindu society".[58][59]


The Buddhists too had a caste system. In Sri Lanka, for example, the Rodis might have been ostracized by the Sri Lankan Buddhists because of the absence of ahimsa (non-violence), a key tenet of Buddhism, as one of their beliefs. When Ywan Chwang visited South India in the post-Chalukyan Empire era, he found that the caste system was prevalent even among the Buddhists and Jains.[63]


Jains also practiced caste system in places like Bihar. For example, in a village called Bundela, there were a few "jaats" (or groups) in the Jain society. A person belonging to one "jaat" could not intermingle with a Jain belonging to another "jaat". They also could not share food with the members belonging to other "jaats".[64]


The Sikh Gurus firmly denounced the social hierarchy of the caste system. They preached that all sections of society were equally important and laid particular emphasis on merit and hard-work as essential aspects of life. Out of 140 seats, 20 are reserved for low caste Sikhs in the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Nevertheless, the quota system has been criticized due to the lack of meritocracy.[65]


There has been severe criticism of the practice of caste system from noted scholars within and outside of India.[71] 

Historical criticism

Both Buddha and Mahavira severely criticized and opposed the caste system. They instructed their followers to break the shackles of caste system. Many bhakti period saints like Guru Nanak, Sant Kabir, Sant Chaitanya, Sant Dnyaneshwar, Sant Eknath, Tukaram and Ramanuj, disapproved of all caste-based discrimination and invited disciples from every caste. Several Hindu reformers like Swami Vivekananda believed that there could not be any place for caste system in Hindu society. A 15th century saint Ramananda invited people from all castes, including untouchables, to become his followers. Most of these saints belonged to the Bhakti movements in Hinduism which happened during the medieval period that rejected casteism. 

During 19th Century, the Brahmo Samaj under the leadership of Raja Ram Mohan Roy actively worked against the practice of untouchability and casteism. The Arya Samaj which was founded by Swami Dayanand also condemned discrimination against Dalits. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his follower Swami Vivekananda created the Ramakrishna Mission that campaigned for the emancipation of Dalits. Several upper-caste Hindus like Mannathu Padmanabhan took part in such movements to abolish the practice of untouchability against Dalits. Padmanabhan gave access to his family temple to Dalits for worship. Narayana Guru, a devout Hindu and a recognized authority on the Vedas, criticized casteism and worked for the social rights of lower-caste Hindus.

The first upper-caste temple to liberally welcome all Dalits into its fold was the Laxminarayan Temple of Wardha in the year 1928; spearheaded by a social reformer Jamnalal Bajaj.[citation needed]

The caste system has even been criticized by several Indian social reformers. Reformers, such as Jyotirao Phule and Iyothee Thass, claimed that the so-called lower caste people were the original natives of India, who had been conquered in battles in the ancient past by erstwhile "Brahmin invaders." Mahatma Gandhi coined the word Harijan, literally meaning Sons of God, to describe the untouchables. B. R. Ambedkar, born in a Hindu Dalit society, was a severe critic of the caste system. He promoted the Dalit Buddhist movement in India, and espoused his followers to desert Hinduism, and convert to Buddhism. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, due to his own relationship with Dalit social reformer Ambedkar, favored the eradication of untouchability as a social practice, for the upliftment of the Dalit community.

Contemporary criticism

Several modern organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have firmly criticized the caste system.[73]

Some notable activists consider the caste system to be a form of racial discrimination.[74] In 2001, at a United Nations Conference Against Racism which was held in Durban, South Africa , participants condemned caste discrimination and attempted to pass a general resolution denouncing caste as a basis for social segregation and oppression. However, no official resolution was finally passed.[75]

Some authors describe the alleged mistreatment of Dalits in India to be India's hidden apartheid. However, several critics of such accusations point out substantial improvements in the social status of Dalits, particularly in the post-independence phase of India, mainly due to strict implementation of the rights and privileges guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. They also highlight that India has had a Dalit President in K. R. Narayanan and several other political leaders like Chief Minister Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh.

In a study by William A. Haviland, although India's national constitution of 1950 clearly outlaws cast discrimination and the practice of untouchability, the caste system continues to remain firmly entrenched in the Hindu culture and is practiced widely throughout southern Asia, particularly in rural India.. Approximately 160 million people, or 15% of the population of India, the Dalits have to suffer near complete social segregation, humiliation, and general discrimination based only on their birth status.

A few studies done by sociologists like Kevin Reilly, Angela Bodino and Stephen Kaufman, while being critical of casteism, conclude with a note that the modern India cannot be accused of any apartheid because there is no state-sanctioned social discrimination.[81] They observe that casteism in India is currently not apartheid. In fact, several untouchables, as well as tribal sections of the society and members of the lowest castes of India continue to benefit from several affirmative action policies and programs and are now exercising greater political power.


Postmodernism is a movement away from the point of view of modernism. More categorically, it is a tendency in a contemporary culture which is characterized by the problem of objective truth and an intrinsic lack of confidence towards global cultural narrative. It involves a belief that many apparent realities are just social constructs, since they are liable to change across time and place. It stresses on the role of language, power relations and other motivations; more specifically, it attacks the use of distinct classifications like male versus female, gay versus straight, black versus white and colonial versus imperial. Instead, it holds realities to be plural and comparative and highly dependent on who the concerned parties are and what their specific interests lie in.

It strives to overturn modernist overconfidence, by noting the sharp distinction between how confident speakers normally are of their stated positions compared to how confident they need to be in order to serve their selfish objectives. Postmodernism has impacted many cultural avenues like sociology, linguistics, visual arts, music and architecture.

Postmodernist thinking is an objective deviation from modernist ways that had previously been considered to be dominant. The word 'postmodernism' derives from its criticism of the 'modernist' scientific temper of objectivity and development normally associated with the Enlightenment.

Both movements, namely modernism and postmodernism are mostly understood as cultural projects or as perspectives. "Postmodernism" is generally used in critical theory to specify a point of deviation in any work of literature, architecture, cinema, journalism, design or marketing and business in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As an academic movement, postmodernism can be understood as a response to modernism in the Humanities. While modernism was normally associated with principles like identity, unity, certainty and authority, postmodernism is generally concerned with plurality, difference, textuality and overall skepticism.

Frederic Jameson, a literary critic, explains postmodernism as a dominant cultural logic of late capitalism which refers to a phase of capitalism after the World War II. The economist Ernest Mandel, describes that the term refers to roughly the same period which is otherwise described as 'globalization', 'consumer capitalism' or 'multinational capitalism'.

History and emergence

The term postmodernism was originally used in the 1870s for several purposes. For example, John Watkins Chapman pledged for a 'post-modern painting' to go beyond French impressionism. In 1914, J. M. Thompson, wrote an article for The Hibbert Journal, to describe several changes in general attitudes and beliefs in the critiques of religion. In 1917, Rudolf Pannwitz used the word to explain a philosophically oriented culture. His idea of post-modernism