10 July 2006

A short note on the caste system

If anything has endured in India, sadly, it’s the caste system. Today, caste-related discriminations abound, with no possible solutions in sight. Though it may appear to be a backward philosophy or principle of social structuring, from what I know, it was not meant to be that way. Its origins define it as a system based on ‘occupational specialisation’, with specific tasks allocated to specific groups of people according to their skills and knowledge. And, it must have benefited society at one time.

The caste system in India was probably the first socio-economic concept defining, what we would call today, the service sector. People were grouped into four basic categories (i.e. castes) according to the service they provided to (or in) the society. The Brahmins provided knowledge, especially knowledge leading to God; the Kshatriyas were skilled in the art of war, and provided defence against attackers or invasion; the Vaisyas were skilled in commerce, crafts and management; and the Shudras provided labour for all the menial day-to-day tasks.

No premium was assigned to any particular type of work or skill or knowledge. Each caste had its privileges, with the Brahmins (the priests) and the Kshatriyas (the warriors) given a greater share than the rest, as was the practice of all ancient societies across the world. If a person repeatedly failed to perform his or her tasks in society, the privileges for that person were withdrawn, no matter which caste the person belonged to. The caste system was a means of better socio-economic functioning of a society. In essence, it was a symbol of democracy. Contrary to popular belief, it was never an instrument of racial discrimination.

Somewhere along the line, people began to adopt the socio-occupational structure of the caste system as permanent – assuming it to be their birthright. They protected their social positions as if they were endowed with it, propagating hereditary guarantees to their children and grandchildren. Trouble followed thereafter. According to an article on ‘Caste and Gender Equations in Indian History’ (Tripod, South Asian History) from which I’ve quoted before, “In India, caste and gender discrimination appear to become more pronounced with the advent of hereditary and authoritarian ruling dynasties, a powerful state bureaucracy, the growth of selective property rights, and the domination of Brahmins over the rural poor in agrahara villages.”

Over the years, what may have been an excellent instrument of democracy was defeated.

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