Origin of Caste in India

The word "caste" was invented by Portuguese seafarers who traded mainly on the west coast of India in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was taken from the Portuguese word "casta" meaning "species" or "breeds" of animals or plants and "tribes, “races," "clans," or lineages" among men (Marriot, M. and Inden, R.B., 1977.).

Risley defines Caste as “a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name; claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine; professing to follow the same hereditary calling; and regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community” (Hutton, 1963). Caste name is generally associated with a specific occupation and, as mentioned before, is a closed stratification, which makes it endogamous (ibid). To maintain endogamy, the domination of women is an essential condition.

According to the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda, the primal man, Purush, destroyed himself to create a human society and the different parts of his body created the four different varnas. The Brahmins were from his head, the Kshatriyas from his hands, the Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet (Rig Veda). The varna hierarchy is determined by the descending order of the different organs from which the Varnas were created. Since the Brahmans originated from the head of Purush, they are considered the most intelligent and powerful Varna because of their wisdom. Kshatriyas, considered the warrior caste, were created from the arms, which represent strength. Next are the Vaishyas, or merchants who originated from the thighs. A Vaishya's duty was to ensure the community's prosperity through agriculture, cattle rearing and trade. Shudras were supposed to be derived from the feet, and are usually laborers, peasants, artisans, and servants. Shudras do not have any special skills and hence, can only serve as slaves to the upper three classes. Shudras were kept deprived of all rights and privileges. At the very bottom, known as fifth Varna, were “untouchables.” These individuals performed occupations that were considered unclean and polluting, such as scavenging and skinning dead animals and are considered outcastes. There is difference of opinion about whether there was a fifth Varna or not, according to ancient texts. Hindu law books insisted that there were only four varnas and never a fifth, which was used as a reason to not accept the tribal people of India (Velassery: 2005).

According to another theory for chatur Varna, the caste system began with the arrival of the Aryans in India. The Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BC. The fair skinned Aryans arrived in India from south Europe and north Asia. They began conquering and taking control over regions in north India and subjugated the original inhabitants. The Aryans organized themselves into three categories. The first group was of the priests and they were called Brahmans. The second group was of the warriors i.e., Rajayana or Kshatria. The third group was of the farmers and craftsmen and they were called Vaisya. The Aryans who conquered and took control over parts of north India forced the original inhabitants to work as their servants (Sudra). In order to maintain their hegemony over the original inhabitants Aryans made social and religious rules.

Initially, these Varna were based on occupation and helped in the division of labour that helped in the smooth functioning of society, but in the later Vedic period this system became rigid and became birth based i.e., Jati. Different families who professed the same profession developed social relations amongst them and organized themselves as a common community, called Jati. The two most important characteristics of the Indian caste system were endogamy and occupational restriction. Caste was maintained rigidly by following repulsion, hierarchy, and hereditary specialization. According to Velassery, “a society is characterized by such a system if it is divided into a large number of hereditarily specialized groups, which are hierarchically superposed and mutually opposed. It does not tolerate the principle of rising in the status of groups’ mixture and of changing occupation” (Velassery: 2005)

The Manusmriti played an important role in maintaining a rigid hierarchical socio-political order of society. It created a structure which justified caste and gender supremacy and laid down rules for domination of lower caste and women. This system was neither challenged by the Mughal Empire nor the British rulers. In it, the Aryan priest-lawmakers created the four great functional divisions of society placing their own priestly class at the head of this caste system with the title of earthly gods, or Brahman. Later the caste hegemony was followed by kshatriya and vaisyas. Sudras were at the lowest rung. In every realm, males were given privileges to dominate women and pro patriarchal practices were laid down and enforced. (Manusmriti) So women suffered under the double oppression of caste and patriarchy.

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