Caste System Categories

The caste system may be divided into five broad categories:

1. Brahmans: the priests and teachers

2. Kshatriyas: the rulers and warriors

3. Vaishyas: merchants

4. Sudras: farmers, laborers, craftsmen

5. Untouchables: Also known as Dalits or Harijans, technically this group is outcaste and doesn’t exist within the realm of the socially acceptable groupings. Historically, this group has been responsible for all of the unclean and polluting work, like sweeping streets and removing human wastes or dead bodies.

Over time, the first four categories splintered into virtually innumerable subcastes, or jatis. And although the Indian constitution abolished untouchability and gave members of that group full constitutional rights, old habits die hard.

The Plague that Keeps Plaguing

Despite modern (and historical) attempts to eradicate the cruelties of caste, it still exists in modern India, for all intents and purposes. Matters of such importance as marriage and job are still heavily influenced by caste considerations.

Within the caste system, women ostensibly have more mobility than men, in that they can marry slightly up or down the ladder. There are, in fact, certain groups in which it is customary for women to marry into the next higher subgrouping.

However, far from indicating the potential for upward social mobility for these women, it serves instead to fix them in a permanently inferior position to their husbands and in-laws and cements their authority over her.

That said, there has historically been some fluidity between jatis, or subcastes, particularly in the case of jatis that changed their customs to those of higher caste groupings. This process, referred to as sanskritization, often involves adoption of new habits, such as vegetarianism or giving up alcoholic drink.

Resistance Via Religion in India

Many religions in India have sought to either reform or eradicate the caste system.

Buddhists claimed that lower-caste individuals could accumulate enough good karma to enable them to move upward within the system. Even so, there are Buddhist sects, such as the Rodis, who, due to religious practices contrary to the vital doctrine of ahimsa, are kept outside the sphere of normal social interaction. This would seem to indicate that it is also possible to accumulate enough bad karma to move down within the system.

Jainism denied the validity of the caste system outright. However, many modern Jains within India belong to relatively rigid jatis within their larger Jain grouping, refusing even to eat with Jains of other jatis.

Indian Muslims may divide into a modified caste system of their own: Ashrafs (who consider themselves superior based on their Arab ancestry) and Ajlafs (Hindu converts to Islam). This, however, is an Islamic division not limited solely to the sphere of Muslim religion in India.

Among Hindus —who admittedly have a broad range of views on all topics—there have been modern reform movements, like the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj, which both repudiated caste discrimination. Mohandas K. Ghandhi also voiced support for Dalits, calling them Harijan, or Children of God.

Dalit Christians

Roughly 70% of Indian Dalits are Christians . And although the older, frequently Protestant sects around Kerala have much less issue with caste, remnants of the old caste divisions seem to have crept in, most particularly among Catholics.

Within the Indian Catholic church, for example, only 30% of their membership is made up of higher caste individuals, yet 150 of their 156 bishops are upper caste. The upper caste Catholics also hold an overwhelming majority of the church’s administrative positions.

This is particularly saddening. Many Dalits were drawn to Christianity because of its teachings of brotherly love and the equal value of all souls.

This pride of place and of caste is very much contrary to the teachings of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus Christ , who created the ideal of a servant leader—one who leads by giving of himself with humility and sacrifice. He demonstrated this ideal in His own life and made a point of interacting with and blessing those considered contemptible by society. As the Bible shows:

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. ~1 Samuel 16:7

Caste and Politics

The Constitution of India outlawed untouchability in 1950, and K. R. Narayanan, who was elected President in 1997, was himself from an untouchable Dalit caste.

Even so, caste is still at issue both in politics and within the customary village structure, where more of the old rules and scenarios still apply. There is, however, progress. As more and more Dalits stand together to attain positions of high leadership and political significance, old mindsets begin to change. A new age begins.

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