In most Indian languages, the term “caste” is translated literally as “jati.” The word “caste” is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese word “casta,” which denotes race, breed, or ancestry. In the 16th century, the Portuguese were the first to use the term “caste” concerning Indian civilization.
Caste is a more rigorous system of social stratification than class and has a different foundation for legitimacy. Caste membership is assigned rather than earned, and social interaction between castes is strictly regulated and ritualized.
According to Charles Horton Cooley, caste is “when a class is somewhat strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste.”
A.W. Green states that “caste is a system of stratification in which mobility up and down the status ladder, at least ideally, may not occur.”
According to Dhirendra Nath Majumdar and Triloki Nath Madan, caste is a ‘closed group.’
Robert Morrison MacIver states, “When the status is wholly predetermined so that men are born to their lot without any hope of changing it, then class takes the extreme form of caste.”
As defined by Anderson and Parker, “Caste is that extreme form of social class organization in which the position of individuals in the status hierarchy is determined by descent and birth.”
Within India’s social stratification system, caste is a social class. The stratification was initially based on an occupational categorization and four conventional groupings arranged in a hierarchy. Caste is currently decided at birth based on parents’ participation in the system, and it cannot be altered during a person’s lifetime. The four basic castes are diversified into thousands of “jati,” or subcastes, making the system complex. From top to bottom, the four major categories are:
Hundreds of subclasses exist within each caste, such as Iyer Brahmin and Nambudiri Brahmin. The laws of each caste vary depending on the location.
The Dalits are literally “out-castes” and have a societal position that makes them the target of significant discrimination and prejudice. Dalits are situated below the hierarchical caste system.
Individual social mobility is prohibited by caste, which is fixed by inheritance.
According to Indian sociologists Shridhar Venkatesh Ketkar, a caste is a group that has the following two qualities:
1. Only those born to group members are eligible to join, including all similarly born individuals.
2. The members are prohibited from getting married outside the group by an inescapable social edict.
The caste system’s characteristics
1. Society’s Hierarchical Division
The caste system’s primary characteristic is the division of its participants into several degrees. For instance, the Brahmins are given the highest grade in the Hindu caste system and are thus positioned at the top of the caste hierarchy. Likewise, the so-called “untouchables” are put on the lowest rung of the caste structure.
2. Social Relationship Restrictions
The concept of “pollution” exists in the established caste system. It implies that a man of a higher caste would become “polluted” by the touch of a lower caste man, especially an “untouchable.” Even his shadow is said to taint a guy of a higher rank.
A Nayar, for example, may approach a Nambudari Brahmin in Kerala but would not touch him. For a very long period, this was done. In Tamil Nadu, a Brahmin had to be approached from a distance of 24 paces away by a Shanar toddy tapper. All of this led to the “untouchability” practice.
3. Restriction of Eating Practices
The caste system places limitations on members’ eating habits. The regulations essentially relate to who should receive what food and from whom. For example, a Brahmin in North India would only eat ‘pacca’ food fried in ghee from castes lower than his own. However, he would only eat food made with water by Brahmins, known as “kachcha” cuisine.
All castes accept meals prepared by Brahmins since they are ranked first in the hierarchy of castes. Additionally, there are limitations on the usage of some vegetables, such as onion, garlic, cabbage, and carrot. Many Brahmin households still adhere to this ban today.
4. Limitations on Career Choice
While certain professions, like education, the priesthood, teaching, etc., were seen as high-caste vocations that Brahmins primarily followed, others, such as weaving, shoemaking, sweeping, and barbering, were regarded as lower or “impure” professions.
There is no occupational mobility, and there are limitations on “low-caste occupations” being taken up by high caste individuals and vice versa.
5. Marital Restrictions
Marriage is subject to numerous limitations due to the caste system. It enforces endogamy since it is an endogamous group. This marriage law stipulates that a person must marry someone from their own community.
6. Religious and civil disabilities
The unclean classes are often forced to dwell beyond the city limits. Particular castes are barred from certain areas of the town or hamlet in southern India. The Mahars and Mangs were reportedly forbidden from entering Poona’s gates after evening and before morning. The impure castes were not allowed to access the wells other castes utilized anywhere in India.