What is a Caste System?

By Joseph Kiprop on October 23 2017 in World Facts

Economic status, lifestyle, occupation and education levels are some of the factors used in the stratification of society into castes.

A caste system is the division of society into distinct social classes which usually feature a hierarchical arrangement. These social groups are known as castes. Economic status, lifestyle, occupation and education levels are some of the factors used in the stratification of society into castes. The caste system originated from India where it has been used for thousands of years. Many critics argue that the caste system has no place in modern society and term the system as a backward tradition which should be eliminated. Countries, where the system is still practiced, include India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan. These countries have instituted laws which have detrimental effects in the society which range from social exclusion and discrimination to rapes and murders.

The Caste System in India

The caste system traces its origins in India which had social groupings locally known as the “varnas.” The history of the varnas in India goes back to the 1st Millennium BCE where the system is found in ancient Hindu texts written more than 3,000 years ago. Varnas can be defined as the classification of persons based on their respective occupation. According to the varnas system, Indian society is categorized into four distinct social classes: the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras. The Brahmins are made up of the highly educated persons in society including priests, teachers, and scholars. Noble people in society and warriors are categorized under the Kashatriyas, while the Vaishyas include artisans, farmers, and traders. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Shudras, which consists of service providers and general laborers. Most scholars in India saw the varnas system as purely theoretical and it was never actively enforced at any period in India’s history, terming the system as a theory envisioned by the Brahmins. A more practical form of caste in India is the stratification of society based on birth groups, locally known as the “jatis.” The jatis are primarily based on the political, economic, and social standing of an individual in society, and have no fixed hierarchy. Since jatis lacked a universal threshold used to categorize members of society, India ended up having thousands of jatis which had no formal hierarchical ranks. In some instances, Indian kings were requested to settle arguments concerning the rank of particular jatis. During the period of British colonial rule in India, the British had to incorporate the jatis system into the ancient varnas system to be used when conducting the national census. The caste system in India was recognized by the government after independence, with the new constitution listing 1,108 castes around the country. The caste system has been heavily criticized in recent years, with critics stating that the system has no place in modern society. The caste system’s popularity in India has been slowly diminishing, caused by rapid urbanization of the country.

The Caste System in Nepal

Nepal also practices a caste system which borrows heavily from the caste system of India. However, the system is not universally practiced in Nepal, with the ethnic indigenous population in the country being a notable exception of the system. The Nepalese caste system segments society into hierarchical groups in a system known as jaat. Virtually the entire Hindu population practices the caste system. According to the jaat system, society is made up of four social classes which are the Sudra, the Vaishya, the Kshatriya, and the Brahmin. In some regions, the social classes are different and instead made up of twice-borns, other pure castes, and service castes, in order of superiority. The caste system in Nepal today is less rigid than it was in history, with laws outlawing the discrimination of persons based on caste. Nonetheless, the caste system is still influential in Nepal’s social, economic, and political landscape. Persons from higher castes usually have more opportunities in the civil service than persons from lower castes. For instance, Brahmins who make up only 13% of the country’s population make up about 41.3% of civil service participation. Newars make up 33.2% of Nepal’s civil service despite accounting for only 5% of the country’s population.

Caste System in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka also has a caste system which stratifies society into two main social groups, which are the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The caste system in Sri Lanka is based on India’s caste system, with the two sharing numerous characteristics. The system is popular in Sri Lanka with an estimated 90% of the population recognizing the country’s caste system. The caste system in Sri Lanka is made up of three parallel systems which are the Indian Tamil, the Sri Lankan Tamil, and the Sinhala. The influence of the caste system in Sri Lanka society is gradually declining as political power and economic status are becoming the new parameters used to classify society in modern Sri Lanka.

Caste Equivalents in the World

While the caste system in its true form is only practiced in South Asia, countries around the world have had a history of practicing a form of societal stratification equivalent to the caste system. One example is Medieval Europe which had a system similar to the caste system which featured four social groups; nobility, knights and clergy, artisans, and peasants. Several ancient kingdoms in Africa also practiced caste-equivalent systems. The Igbo tribe of Nigeria had a long history of social stratification which persists to this today.

Caste-related Violence

In modern times, the caste system has faced widespread criticism from all over the world due to its nature of dividing people into social classes, a characteristic which breeds discrimination and even violence across social groups. India has had a long history of caste-related violence which range from discrimination to rapes and murders. Majority of the 15 million child laborers in the country come from low castes. While the country has set up strict laws which forbid acts of violence propagated against members of a caste, these laws are not strictly implemented leading to the country having the highest number of caste-related violence cases in the world. In 2012, there were 1,576 rapes, 3,855 injuries, and 651 murders reported in India, all of which were caste-related. A recent incident was the 2015 Jat-Dalit violent clashes between the Jats and Dalits, two castes in Rajasthan where four people lost their lives, and 13 sustained serious injuries.

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