In India, a caste system organizes division of labour and money in human society. It is a system of social stratification,[1] and a basis for affirmative action.[2][3] Historically, it defined communities into thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called Jātis.[4]

The Jātis were grouped by the Brahminical texts under four categories, known as varnas: viz Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Certain people were excluded altogether, ostracized by all other castes and treated as untouchables.[5][6]

Although strongly identified with Hinduism, the caste systems has been carried over to other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including small groups of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.[7][8][9]

Caste is commonly thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but various contemporary scholars have argued that the caste system was constructed by the British colonial regime.[2] Caste is neither unique to Hindu religion nor to India; caste systems have been observed in other parts of the world, for example, in the Muslim community of Yemen, Christian colonies of Spain, and Japan.[1][10][11]

The Indian government officially recognizes historically discriminated communities of India such as Untouchables and Shudras under the designation of Scheduled Castes, and certain economically backward castes as Other Backward Castes. The Scheduled Castes are sometimes referred to as Dalit in contemporary literature.

Since 1950, India has enacted and implemented many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socio-economic conditions of its Dalit population. In 1997, India elected K.R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as the nation's President.

A 2003 report claims inter-caste marriage is on the rise in urban India. Indian societal relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanization, need for two-income families, and influences from the media.[12]


In a review published in 1944, Kosambi noted that "Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted."[13] The term caste has no universally accepted definition. To some, the term caste traditionally corresponds to endogamous varnas of the ancient Indian scripts, and its meaning corresponds in the sense of estates of feudal Japan or Europe. To others, endogamous jātis — rather than varnas — are castes, such as the 2378 occupation-classified jātis list created by colonial ethnographers in early 20th century. To others such as Risley, castes in India means endogamous groups that resulted from interactions between what once were different races.[14] Endogamy, the common element in these three definitions, is itself disputed. Ambedkar, who was born in India in a social strata considered untouchable, disagreed that the term castes in India can be defined as endogamous groups of India. According to Ambedkar, India during and before the British colonial rule, was a strictly exogamous society because marriage within blood-relatives and class-relations was culturally forbidden. The term caste, according to Ambedkar, should be defined as a social group that tries to impose endogamy, in an exogamous population.[15]

The use of occupation to define castes is confusing as well. Brahmins have been listed as priests and sometimes rulers or other professions, Kshatriyas include warriors and sometimes rulers or other professions, Vaishyas are listed to include traders and sometimes agriculturists and other professions, while Shudras are listed to include labourers and sometimes agriculturists and other professions. Drekmeier, for example, after his study of Indian castes includes agriculturists as Vaishyas, while Goodrich includes them as Shudras. Drekmeier further notes that official positions of power were not exclusive privilege of the traditionally upper castes; for example, Shudras were sought and included in official administrative appointments in India's history.[16][17]

Varnas, jātis, castes and race are poorly defined, confusing concepts. According to William Pinch, the confusion is in part, because the very idea of hierarchical status and relative social identity has been a matter of disagreement in India.[18][page needed]

Sociologists such as Anne Waldrop observe that while outsiders view the term caste as a static phenomena of stereotypical tradition-bound India, empirical facts suggest caste has been a radically changing feature of India. The term caste means different thing to different Indians. In the context of politically active modern India, where job and school quotas are reserved for affirmative action based on castes, the term has become a sensitive and controversial subject.[19][20]

G. S. Ghurye wrote in 1932 that, despite much study by many people,
... we do not possess a real general definition of caste. It appears to me that any attempt at definition is bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon. On the other hand, much literature on the subject is marred by lack of precision about the use of the term.[21]

Ghurye did attempt to find a middle-ground between the complexity and the loose usage. He defined six characteristics of the Hindu caste system as a "social philosophy", being its state prior to the relatively modern corruption of this by theories of "rights and duties". He thought that these could be applied across the country, although he acknowledged that there were regional variations on the general theme.[22]

  • Strict segmentation of society, with the various groups being rigidly defined and membership of them determined by birth.
  • A hierarchical system that defines a ranking place for all of the castes
  • Limited choice of occupation, which is enforced within a caste as well as by other castes. A caste might follow more than one traditional occupation but its members would nonetheless be constrained to that range
  • The general practice of endogamy, although in some situations hypergamy is acceptable. Endogamy applies to the various sub-groups within a caste itself, preventing marriage between the sub-groups and sometimes imposing an additional geographical constraint, that one can only marry a person from the same gotra and the same place
  • Restrictions on dietary and social interactions that defines who could consume what and accept from whom. As with marriage arrangements, these restrictions apply at sub-caste level, not merely at the caste level
  • Physical segregation in, for example, villages. This is accompanied by limitations on movement and access, including to religious and educational areas and to basic facilities such as supplies of water. Again, this segregation applies at sub-caste level as well as at the higher level

Not everyone has agreed with the definition proposed by Ghurye, which in any event was intended as an exercise to reduce the gap between lax terminological usage and the realities of an immensely complex system, More recently, Graham Chapman is among those who have reiterated the complexity, and he notes that there are differences between theoretical constructs and the practical reality.[23]


There are several theories regarding the origins of the Indian caste system. One posits that the Indian and Aryan classes ("pistras") show similarity,[24][full citation needed] wherein the priests are Brahmins, the warriors are Kshatriya, the merchants are Vaishya, and the artisans are Shudras.[25][full citation needed][26][full citation needed] Another theory is that of Georges Dumézil, who formulated[27][page needed] the trifunctional hypothesis of social class. According to the Dumézil theory, ancient societies had three main classes, each with distinct functions: the first judicial and priestly, the second connected with the military and war, and the third class focused on production, agriculture, craft and commerce. Dumézil proposed that Rex-Flamen of the Roman Empire is etymologically similar to Raj-Brahman of ancient India and that they made offerings to deus and deva respectively, each with statutes of conduct, dress and behavior that were similar. This theory became controversial, but drew support from many including Sophus Bugge in 1879.

From the Bhakti school, the view is that the four divisions were originally created by Krishna. "According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society were created."[28]

Caste can be considered as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but various contemporary scholars have argued that the caste system as it exists today is the result of the British colonial regime, which made caste organisation a central mechanism of administration. According to scholars such as the anthropologist Nicholas Dirks, before colonialism caste affiliation was quite loose and fluent, but the British regime enforced caste affiliation rigorously, and constructed a much more strict hierarchy than existed previously, with some castes being criminalised and others being given preferential treatment.[29] From a sociological point of view Matthew Ward explains that the caste system is inherently embedded in Hindu Religious practices particularly the teachings of samsara, dharma and karma. Samsara views death as a moment of transition and not an end in any person’s life. Dharma encourages the belief that our destiny (caste) is fixed and it cannot be changed. Ward says that the Hindu hyper-good has provided a faithful acceptance of ones worldly fate in order to improve one’s lot in the next life cycle. “Religion provides such rigorous sanctions for social life and impose such a great fear of falling down that people through their patterned daily activity, find it impossible and abhorrent not to follow religious guidelines”(Ward). Karma is responsible for punishment and reward. This force is influenced by the extent they follow their dharma. [30]

Caste and social status

Doctrinally, caste was defined as a system of segregation of people, each with a traditional hereditary occupation. The Jātis were grouped by the Brahminical texts under the four well-known caste categories (the varnas): viz Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Certain people were excluded altogether, ostracised by all other castes and treated as untouchables.[5][page needed][6]

This ideological scheme was theoretically composed of 3000 sub-castes, which in turn was claimed to be composed of 90,000 local sub-groups, with people marrying only within their sub-group. This theory of caste was applied to what was then British India in the early 20th century, when the population comprised about 200 million people, across five major religions, and over 500,000 agrarian villages, each with a population between 100 to 1000 people of various age groups, variously divided into numerous rigid castes (British India included what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar (formerly Burma)).[29][2][31][32][33]

Views of Ambedkar and Gandhi

Ambedkar, who was born in India, in a caste that was traditionally classified as untouchable, became a leader of human rights in India, a prolific writer, and a key person in drafting modern India's constitution in the 1940s. Ambedkar wrote extensively on discrimination, trauma and tragic effects of the caste system in India.[34]

Ambedkar described the Untouchables as belonging to the same religion and culture, yet shunned and ostracised by the community they lived in. The Untouchables, observed Ambedkar, recognised the sacred as well as the secular laws of India, but they derived no benefit from this. They lived on the outskirts of a village. Segregated from the rest, bound down to a code of behaviour, they lived a life appropriate to a servile state. According to this code, an Untouchable could not do anything that raised him or her above his or her appointed station in life. The caste system stamped an individual as untouchable from birth. Thereafter, observed Ambedkar, his social status was fixed, and his economic condition was permanently set. The tragic part was that the Mahomedans, Parsis and Christians shunned and avoided the Untouchables, as well as the Hindus. Ambedkar acknowledged that the caste system wasn't universally absolute in his time; it was true, he wrote, that some Untouchables had risen in Indian society above their usually low status, but the majority had limited mobility, or none, during Britain's colonial rule. According to Ambedkar, the caste system was irrational. Ambedkar listed these evils of the caste system: it isolated people, infused a sense of inferiority into lower-caste individuals, and divided humanity. The caste system was not merely a social problem, he argued: it traumatised India's people, its economy, and the discourse between its people, preventing India from developing and sharing knowledge, and wrecking its ability to create and enjoy the fruits of freedom. The philosophy supporting the social stratification system in India had discouraged critical thinking and cooperative effort, encouraging instead treatises that were full of absurd conceits, quaint fancies, and chaotic speculations. The lack of social mobility, notes Ambedkar, had prevented India from developing technology which can aid man in his effort to make a bare living, and a life better than that of the brute. Ambedkar stated that the resultant absence of scientific and technical progress, combined with all the transcendentalism and submission to one's fate, perpetrated famines, desolated the land, and degraded the consciousness from respecting the civic rights of every fellow human being.[34][36][37]

According to Ambedkar, castes divided people, only to disintegrate and cause myriad divisions which isolated people and caused confusion. Even the upper caste, the Brahmin, divided itself and disintegrated. The curse of caste, according to Ambedkar, split the Brahmin priest class into well over 1400 sub-castes. This is supported by census data collected by colonial ethnographers in British India (now South Asia).[36]

Gandhi, an admirer of Ambedkar, and who worked together to non-violently protest British colonial rule in India, disagreed with some of Ambedkar's observations, rationale and interpretations about the caste system in India. Caste, claimed Gandhi, had nothing to do with religion. The discrimination and trauma of castes, argued Gandhi, was the result of custom, the origin of which is unknown. Gandhi said that the customs' origin was a moot point, because one could spiritually sense that these customs were wrong, and that any caste system is harmful to the spiritual well-being of man and economic well-being of a nation. The reality of colonial India was, Gandhi noted, that there was no significant disparity between the economic condition and earnings of members of different castes, whether it was a Brahmin or an artisan or a farmer of low caste. India was poor, and Indians of all castes were poor. Thus, he argued that the cause of trauma was not in the caste system, but elsewhere. Judged by the standards being applied to India, Gandhi claimed, every human society would fail. He acknowledged that the caste system in India spiritually blinded some Indians, then added that this did not mean that every Indian or even most Indians blindly followed the caste system, or everything from ancient Indian scriptures of doubtful authenticity and value. India, like any other society, cannot be judged by a caricature of its worst specimens. Gandhi stated that one must consider the best it produced as well, along with the vast majority in impoverished Indian villages struggling to make ends meet, with woes of which there was little knowledge.[36][38]

The untouchables traditionally had the lowest social status. The untouchables lived on the periphery of society, and handled what were seen as unpleasant or polluting jobs. They suffered from social segregation and restrictions, in addition to being poor generally. They were not allowed to worship in temples with others, nor draw water from the same wells as others. Persons of other castes would not interact with them. If somehow a member of another caste came into physical or social contact with an untouchable, he was defiled and had to bathe thoroughly to purge himself of the contagion.

Debate on caste rigidity

Ancient Indian texts suggest caste system was not rigid. This flexibility permitted lower caste Valmiki to compose the Ramayana, which was widely adopted and became a major Hindu scripture. Other ancient texts cite numerous examples of individuals moving from one caste to another within their lifetimes.[42]

Fa Xian, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, visited India around 400 AD. "Only the lot of the Chandals he found unenviable; outcastes by reason of their degrading work as disposers of dead, they were universally shunned ... But no other section of the population were notably disadvantaged, no other caste distinctions attracted comment from the Chinese pilgrim, and no oppressive caste 'system' drew forth his surprised censure."[43] In this period kings of Shudra and Brahmin origin were as common as those of Kshatriya Varna and caste system was not wholly rigid.[44]

Smelser and Lipset in their review of Hutton's study of caste system in colonial India propose the theory that individual mobility across caste lines may have been minimal in British India because it was ritualistic. They theorise that the sub-castes may have changed their social status over the generations by fission, re-location, and adoption of new external ritual symbols. Some of these evolutionary changes in social stratifications, claim Smelser and Lipset, were seen in Europe, Japan, Africa and other regions as well; however, the difference between them may be the relative levels of ritualistic and secular referents. Smelser and Lipset further propose that the colonial system may have affected the caste system social stratification. They note that British colonial power controlled economic enterprises and the political administration of India by selectively cooperating with upper caste princes, priests and landlords. This was colonial India's highest level caste strata, followed by second strata that included favoured officials who controlled trade, supplies to the colonial power and Indian administrative services. The bottom layer of colonial Indian society was tenant farmers, servants, wage labourers, indentured coolies and others. The colonial social strata acted in combination with the traditional caste system. The colonial strata shut off economic opportunity, entrepreneurial activity by natives, or availability of schools, thereby worsening the limitations placed on mobility by the traditional caste system. In America and Europe, they argue individual mobility was better than in India or other colonies around the world, because colonial stratification was missing and the system could evolve to become more secular and tolerant of individual mobility.[45]

Sociologists such as Srinivas and Damle have debated the question of rigidity in caste. In their independent studies, they claim considerable flexibility and mobility in their caste hierarchies.[42][46][47] They assert that the caste system is far from rigid — in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time; instead, significant mobility across caste has been empirically observed in India.

During British rule

The role of the British on the caste system in India is controversial.[49] Some sources suggest that the caste system became formally rigid during the British Raj, when the British started to enumerate castes during the ten-year census and meticulously codified the system under their rule.[29][32] Zwart, for example, notes in his review article that the caste system used to be thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but contemporary scholars argue that the system was constructed by the British colonial regime ex hypothesi.[2] Other sources suggest that the caste system existed in India prior to the arrival of the British, and enumerating classes and castes do not constitute the act of constructing it. Bouglé, for example, used 17th to 19th century historical reports by Christian missionaries and some Europeans on Indian society to suggest that a rigid caste system existed in India during and before British ruled India, quite similar in many respects to the social stratification found in 17th to 19th century Europe.[50]

Assumptions about the caste system in Indian society, along with its nature, evolved during British rule.[49] For example, some British believed Indians would shun train travel because tradition-bound South Asians were too caught up in caste and religion, and that they would not sit or stand in the same coaches out of concern for close proximity to a member of higher or lower or shunned caste. After the launch of train services, Indians of all castes, classes and gender enthusiastically adopted train travel without any concern for so-called caste stereotypes. The first trains of the 1860s in north India saw mass adoption. By 1902, 87 per cent of passengers carried by the then Indian Railways were in third class coach; these passengers represented all segments of Indian society without the expected concern of caste stereotypes. The number of passengers weren't a small segment of Indian society; by 1905, over 200 million passengers travelled together in shared train coaches of India every year, and about the time of India's independence from Britain's colonial rule, people of India were using trains many times within the same year, and one billion passengers a year travelled in Indian trains. The rapid growth of train travel, with coaches packed with passengers from all caste segments of Indian society, suggests that the nature of British stereotypes about caste system in India, prior to 1860s and thereafter through the 1940s, were flawed.[51][52]

Célestin Bouglé, in his essay on the caste system in India, published in 1908, observed the British frequently asserting they had no interest in modifying the caste system in India. The Englishman's motto, claimed Bouglé, was to administer its Indian colony by preserving its customs, caste system, and with a minimum of security or justice or governance. Bouglé acknowledged in his essay the empirical evidence of intermingling between Indians as observed on Indian Railways and the mass adoption of te-rain (Bouglé's colourful emphasis for train as pronounced in India). Bouglé used the empirical census facts noted by Risley and the direct observation of mutual acceptance of Indians for Indians on its te-rains to conclude that the historical caste system within 20th century Indian society was fundamentally changing, and that this change was irreversible. British rule, without wanting to, was triggering fundamental social changes in India. The lower castes were becoming officials, the Brahmins were leaving religious occupations and becoming policemen and farmers, and the three pillars of the caste system according to Bouglé—hereditary occupation, social hierarchy and exclusionary repulsion—were crumbling. Bouglé identified the cause for these changes to be economic progress, industrialisation and career mobility inside India between 1880 and 1905. He believed that British rule, without intending to, had accelerated the natural demise of the caste system in India.[50]

During the British East India Company's rule, caste differences and customs were accepted, if not encouraged, the British law courts disagreed with discrimination against the lower castes. Corbridge concludes that British policies of divide and rule of India's numerous princely sovereign states, as well as enumeration of the population into rigid categories during the 10 year census, contributed towards the hardening of caste identities.[53]

In August 1932, the then Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsay Macdonald gave his 'award' known as the Communal Award. According to it, separate representation was to be provided for the Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans, Dalit. The depressed classes were assigned a number of seats to be filled by election from special constituencies in which voters belonging to the depressed classes only could vote.

Modern status

The Indian government officially recognises historically discriminated communities of India such as Untouchables and Shudras under the designation of Scheduled Castes, and certain economically backward castes as Other Backward Castes.[5][54] The Scheduled Castes are sometimes referred to as Dalit in contemporary literature. In 2001, the proportion of Dalit population was 16.2 percent of India's total population.[55]

Since 1950, India has enacted and implemented many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socio-economic conditions of its Dalit population.[56] By 1995, of all jobs in the Central Government service, 17.2 percent of the jobs were held by Dalits. Of the highest paying, senior most jobs in government agencies and government controlled enterprises, over 10 percent were held by members of the Dalit community, a tenfold increase in 40 years but yet to fill up the 15 percent reserved quota for them. In 1997, India elected K.R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as the nation's President. In the last 15 years, Indians born in historically discriminated minority castes have been elected to its highest judicial and political offices.[57][58] While the quality of life of Dalit population in India, in terms of metrics such as poverty, literacy rate, access to health care, life expectancy, education attainability, access to drinking water, housing, etc. have seen faster growth amongst the Dalit population between 1986 and 2006, for some metrics, it remains lower than overall non-Dalit population, and for some it is better than poor non-Dalit population.[59][60][61][62]

A 2004 report, compiled by a society of Dalits and people against caste-based discrimination, summarised the developments over previous 60 years, and status of the caste system in modern India, as follows:* Article 15 of Indian Constitution, as enacted in 1950, prohibits any discrimination based on caste. Article 17 of Indian Constitution declared any practice of untouchability as illegal.[56] In 1955, India enacted the Untouchability (Offences) Act (renamed in 1976, as the Protection of Civil Rights Act). It extended the reach of law, from intent to mandatory enforcement. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, similar to the Hate Crime Laws in the United States, was passed in India in 1989.[63]

  • India created National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to investigate, monitor, advise, and evaluate the socio-economic progress of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.[64]
  • India implemented a reservation system for its citizens from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; this program has been in use in India for over 50 years. This program is similar to Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunities statutes in the United States.
  • In India, where the presence of private free market corporations is limited, government jobs have dominated the percentage of jobs in its economy. A 2000 report estimated that most jobs in India were in companies owned by the government or agencies of the government. The reservation system implemented by India over 50 years, has been partly successful, because of all jobs, nationwide, in 1995, 17.2 percent of the jobs were held by those in the lowest castes. In 1995, about 16.1 percent of India's population were the lowest castes.
  • The Indian government classifies government jobs in four groups. The Group A jobs are senior most, high paying positions in the government, while Group D are junior most, lowest paying positions. In Group D jobs, the percentage of positions held by lowest caste classified people is 30% greater than their demographic percentage. In all jobs classified as Group C positions, the percentage of jobs held by lowest caste people is about the same as their demographic population distribution. In Group A and B jobs, the percentage of positions held by lowest caste classified people is 30% lower than their demographic percentage.
  • The presence of lowest caste people in highest paying, senior most position jobs in India has increased by ten-fold, from 1.18 percent of all jobs in 1959 to 10.12 percent of all jobs in 1995.
  • In 2007, India elected K. G. Balakrishnan, a Dalit, to the office of Chief Justice.[65]
  • In 2007, Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, elected Mayawati as the Chief Minister, the highest elected office of the state. BBC claims, "Mayawati Kumari is an icon for millions of India's Dalits, or untouchables as they used to be known."[57]
  • In 2009. Indian parliament unanimously elected Meira Kumar, as the first woman speaker. She is from Dalit community.[58]

In addition to taking affirmative action for people of schedule castes and schedules tribes, India has expanded its effort to include people from poor, backward castes in its economic and social mainstream. In 1990, the Government of India introduced reservation of 27% for Backward Classes on the basis of the Mandal Commission's recommendations. This became the law with the issuance of Gazette notice 36012/31/90-Estt. (SCT) dated 13 August 1990. Since then, India has reserved 27 percent of job opportunities in government-owned enterprises and agencies for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs). The 27 percent reservation is in addition to 22.5 percent set aside for India's lowest castes for last 50 years.[66]

In a 2008 study, Desai et al. focussed on education attainments of children and young adults aged 6–29, from lowest caste and tribal populations of India. They completed a national survey of over 100,000 households for each of the four survey years between 1983 and 2000.[62] They found a significant increase in lower caste children in their odds of completing primary school. The number of dalit children who completed either middle-, high- or college-level education increased three times faster than the national average, and the total number were statistically same for both lower and upper castes. The number of dalit girls in India who attended school doubled in the same period, but still few percent less than national average. Other poor caste groups as well as ethnic groups such as Muslims in India have also made improvements over the 16 year period, but their improvement lagged behind that of dalits and adivasis. The net percentage school attainment for Dalits and Muslims, were statistically same in 1999.

A 2007 nationwide survey of India by the World Bank found that over 80 percent of children of historically discriminated castes were attending schools. The fastest increase in school attendance by Dalit community children occurred during the recent periods of India's economic growth.[59] The quality and quantity of schools are now major issues in India.[67]

A study by Singh presents data on health and other indicators of socio-economic change in India's historically discriminated castes. He claims:[61]

  • In 2001, the literacy rates in India's lowest castes was 55 percent, compared to a national average of 63 percent.
  • The childhood vaccination levels in India's lowest castes was 40 percent in 2001, compared to a national average of 44 percent.
  • Access to drinking water within household or near the household in India's lowest castes was 80 percent in 2001, compared to a national average of 83 percent.
  • The poverty level in India's lowest castes dropped from 49 percent to 39 percent between 1995 and 2005, compared to a national average change from 35 to 27 percent.

Table below presents this data for various caste groups in modern India. Both 1998 and 2005 data is included to ascertain the general trend. The Mohanty and Ram report suggests that poverty, not caste, is the bigger differentiator in life expectancy in modern India.[60]

Life expectancy statistics for Indian caste groups
Life expectancy at birth (in years)
Castes group 1998–1999 2005–2006
Lowest castes 61.5 64.6
Other backward castes 63.5 65.7
Poor, tribal populations 57.5 56.9
Poor, upper castes 61.9 62.7
National average 63.8 65.5

Leonard and Weller have surveyed marriage and genealogical records to empirically study patterns of exogamous inter-caste and endogamous intra-caste marriages in a regional population of India, between 1900 to 1975. They report a striking presence of exogamous marriages across caste lines over time, particularly since the 1970s. They propose education, economic development, mobility and more interaction between youth as possible reasons for these exogamous marriages.[68]

A 2003 article in The Telegraph claimed that inter-caste marriage and dating are common in urban India. Indian societal and family relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanisation, need for two-income families, and global influences through the television. Female role models in politics, academia, journalism, business, and India's feminist movement have accelerated the change.[12]

Scheduled castes (SC)

Scheduled castes generally consist of Dalit. The present population is 16% of the total population of India (around 165 million).[69]

Scheduled tribes (ST)

Scheduled tribes generally consist of tribal groups. The present population is 7% of the total population of India i.e. around 70 million.

Other Backward Classes (OBC)

The Mandal Commission covered more than 3000 castes under Other Backward Class (OBC) category, regardless of their affluence or economic status and stated that OBCs form around 52% of the Indian population. However, the National Sample Survey puts the figure at 32%.[70][71] There is substantial debate over the exact number of OBCs in India; it is generally estimated to be sizable, but many believe that it is lower than the figures quoted by either the Mandal Commission or the National Sample Survey.[72]

The caste-based reservations in India have led to widespread protests, such as the 2006 Indian anti-reservation protests, with many complaining of reverse discrimination against the forward castes (the castes that do not qualify for the reservation).

In May 2011, the government approved a caste census[73] with the intention of verifying the claims and counterclaims by various sections of the society about their actual numbers. The census would also help the government to re-examine and possibly undo some of the policies which were formed in haste like Mandal commission and bring more objectivity to the policies with respect to contemporary realities.[74] Critics of the reservation system believe that there is actually no social stigma at all associated with belonging to a backward caste and that because of the huge constitutional incentives in the form of educational and job reservations, a large number of people will falsely identify with a backward caste to receive the benefits. This would not only result in a marked inflation of the backward castes' numbers, but also lead to enormous administrative and judicial resources being devoted to social unrest and litigation when such dubious caste declarations are challenged.[75]

Among non-Hindus

Although strongly identified with Hinduism, the caste systems has been carried over to other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including small groups of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.[7][8][9]


In some parts of India, Christians are stratified by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors.[76] In many ways this presence of social strata system has been witnessed elsewhere, such as the society structured by Christian Spaniards who, according to Cahill, established a caste system in their colonial possessions: the West Indies, East Indies, New Spain and the Viceroyalty of Peru, within the last 500 years.[77][78][79]

The earliest reference to caste among Indian Christians comes from Kerala. Duncan Forrester observes that "... Nowhere else in India is there a large and ancient Christian community which has in time immemorial been accorded a high status in the caste hierarchy. ... Syrian Christian community operates very much as a caste and is properly regarded as a caste or at least a very caste-like group."[80] Amidst the Hindu society, the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala had inserted themselves within the Indian caste society by the observance of caste-rules and were regarded by the Hindus as a caste occupying a high place within their caste hierarchy.[81][82] Their traditional belief that their ancestors were high-caste Hindus such as Namboodiris and Nairs, who were evangelised by St. Thomas, has also supported their upper-caste status.[83] With the arrival European missionaries and their evangelistic mission among the so called lower castes in Kerala, two new groups of Christians, called Latin Rite Christians and New Protestant Christians, were formed but they continued to be considered as lower castes by higher ranked communities, including the Saint Thomas Christians.[84]


Contrary to the Qur'anic worldview, Muslims in India have a caste system. Ashrafs are presumed to have a superior status,[85][86] while the Ajlafs have a lower status. The Arzal caste among Muslims was regarded as the equivalent of untouchables, by anti-caste activists like Ambedkar, and by the colonial British ethnographer Herbert Risley who claimed more than 60 percent of Muslims in British India were of a caste equivalent in status as the Hindu Shudras and Untouchables,[87][88][89] While other sources state a estimate between 75 and 80 percent.[90][91] In the Bengal region of India, some Muslims stratify their society according to 'Quoms.'[92] Some scholars have asserted that the Muslim "castes" are not as acute in their discrimination as those of the Hindus,[93] while other scholars argue that the social evils in South Asian Muslim society were worse than those seen in Hindu society.[87][89]


While the Sikh Gurus criticised the hierarchy of the caste system, a caste system has historically existed amidst the Sikhs. In the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, out of 140 seats, 20 are reserved for low-caste Sikhs.[94][95]


When Ywan Chwang traveled to South India after the period of the Chalukyan Empire, he noticed that the caste system had existed among the Buddhists and Jains.[96]

Buddhism in India, like other religions, has attempted to reform and create a society without classes.[97] Nevertheless, in some parts of India such as Ladakh, with significant historical presence of Buddhists, a caste system existed in a manner similar to caste structure in Tibet.[98] The upper castes belonged to sger gzhis, and were called sgar pa. The priestly caste belonged to monastery, and were called chos-gzhis. Miser[99] were the serf caste. Serfs, the majority of the people, farmed and paid taxes. An individual's social status and lifelong occupation was destined by birth, closed, and depending on the family one was born into, the individual inherited a tenure document known as khral-rten. Buddhist castes had sub-castes, such as nang gzan,[100] khral pa and dud chung. Buddhist also had castes that were shunned by their community and ostracised, such as hereditary fishermen, butchers and undertakers. The untouchables in Buddhist regions, as in Tibet, were known as Ragyappa, who lived in isolated ghettos, and their occupation was to remove corpses (human or animal) and dispose of sewage.[101][102]


Jains also had castes in places such as Bihar. For example, in the village of Bundela, there were several exclusionary jaats amongst the Jains. Martin claims these castes avoided eating with each other.[103] Walter Hamilton in his trip to the Tulava region of South India noticed that the Jains there do not accept Shudras into their sect.[104]

Caste-related violence

Independent India has witnessed caste-related violence. According to a UN report, approximately 110,000 cases of violent acts committed against Dalits were reported in 2005.[69][105] The report claimed 6.7 cases of violent acts per 10000 Dalit people. For context, the UN reported between 40 and 55 cases of violent acts per 10000 people in developed countries in 2005.;[106][107] and the total number of cases pending in various courts of India, on Dalit related and non-Dalit related matters were 31.28 million as of 2010.[108] One example of such violence is the Kherlanji Massacre of 2006.

Caste politics

B. R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru had radically different approaches to caste, especially concerning constitutional politics and the status of untouchables.[109] Since the 1980s, caste has become a major issue in the politics of India.[109]

The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to "identify the socially or educationally backward" and to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination.[110] In 1980, the commission's report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law, whereby additional members of lower castes—the other backward classes—were given exclusive access to another 27 percent of government jobs and slots in public universities, in addition to the 23 percent already reserved for the Dalits and Tribals. When V. P. Singh's administration tried to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests were held in the country. Many alleged that the politicians were trying to cash in on caste-based reservations for purely pragmatic electoral purposes.

Many political parties in India have indulged in caste-based votebank politics. Parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal claim that they are representing the backward castes, and rely on OBC support, often in alliance with Dalit and Muslim support, to win elections.[111] Remarkably, in what is called a landmark election in the history of India's most populated state of Uttar Pradesh,[by whom?] the Bahujan Samaj Party was able to garner a majority in the state assembly elections with the support of the high caste Brahmin community.


There has been criticism of the caste system from both within and outside of India.[112] Criticism of the Caste system in Hindu society came both from the Hindu fold and without.

Historical criticism

The caste system has been criticised by many Indian social reformers over India's history.

For example, Jyotirao Phule vehemently criticised any explanations that caste system was natural and ordained by the Creator in Hindu texts. If Brahma wanted castes, argued Phule, he would have ordained the same for other creatures. There are no castes in species of animals or birds, why should there be one among human animals. In his criticism Phule added, "Brahmins cannot claim superior status because of caste, because they hardly bothered with these when wining and dining with Europeans." Professions did not make castes, and castes did not decide one's profession. If someone does a job that is dirty, it does not make them inferior; in the same way that no mother is inferior because she cleans the excreta of her baby. Ritual occupation or tasks, argued Phule, do not make any human being superior or inferior.[113]

Vivekananda similarly criticised caste as one of the many human institutions that bars the power of free thought and action of an individual. Caste or no caste, creed or no create, any man, or class, or caste, or nation, or institution that bars the power of free thought and bars action of an individual is devilish, and must go down. Liberty of thought and action, asserted Vivekananda, is the only condition of life, of growth and of well-being.[114]

Contemporary criticism

As discrimination

The maltreatment of Dalits in India has been described by some authors as "India's hidden apartheid".[115][116] Critics of the accusations point to substantial improvements in the position of Dalits in post-independence India, consequent to the strict implementation of the rights and privileges enshrined in the Constitution of India, as implemented by the Protection of Civil rights Act, 1955.[117] They also argue that the practise had disappeared in urban public life.[118]

Sociologists Kevin Reilly, Stephen Kaufman and Angela Bodino, while critical of caste system, conclude that modern India does not practice apartheid since there is no state-sanctioned discrimination.[119] They write that casteism in India is presently "not apartheid. In fact, untouchables, as well as tribal people and members of the lowest castes in India benefit from broad affirmative action programmes and are enjoying greater political power."[120]

Allegations that caste amounts to race has been rejected by prominent[121] scholars.[122][123][124] Ambedkar, for example, wrote that "The Brahmin of Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar of Punjab. The Caste system does not demarcate racial division. The Caste system is a social division of people of the same race." Prominent sociologists, anthropologists and historians have rejected the racial origins and racial emphasis of caste and consider the idea to be one that has purely political and economical undertones. Beteille writes that "the Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination", and that the 2001 Durban conference on racism hosted by the U.N. is "turning its back on established scientific opinion".[124]

Other scholars propose that caste and race based discrimination may be related.[1] Cahill, for example, suggests that the social structure engineered by colonial Spaniards, with limpieza de sangre, in South America, one based on race, ethnicity and economic condition was a caste system.[10] The Spanish colonial rule posited, according to Cahill, that the character and quality of people varied according to their colour, race and origin of ethnic types. Caste system and racism have empirically been the two faces of the same coin in recent human history, in a colonial migrant society outside of India. Martínez calls the discriminatory social structure in New Spain as a caste system that was race based colonial order, inspired in part by degrees of racial impurity.[125][126][127] Haviland suggests that race and caste systems are related and each a type of social stratification. Both create social classes determined by birth and fixed for life. Both are opposite of the principle that all humans are born equal, both tend to be endogamous, and offsprings are automatically members of parent's social strata. As examples, Haviland describes castelike situations in Central and South America where wealthy, upper class European-descent population rarely intermarried with people of non-European descent; the social strata in current practice by the royal families and nobility in modern Europe; racial segregation and castelike separation of people by their ethnicity in townships of modern South Africa.[116]

Caste and economics

A 1995 study suggests that the caste system in India must be viewed as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups.[128] Such qualitative theories have been questioned though by other studies. Haque reports that over 90 percent of both scheduled castes (low-ranking groups) and all other castes (high-ranking groups) either do not own land or own very small land area only capable of producing less than $1000 per year of food and income per household. Over 99 percent of India's farms are less than 10 hectares, and 99.9 percent of the farms are less than 20 hectares, regardless of the farmer or landowner's caste. Indian government has, in addition, vigorously pursued agricultural land ceiling laws which prohibit anyone from owning land greater than mandated limits. India has used this law to forcibly acquire land from some, then redistribute tens of millions of acres to the landless and poor of the low-caste. However, but for some short term exceptions in some states, these laws have not met the expectations.[129][130] In a 2011 study, Aiyar too notes that such qualitative theories of economic exploitation and consequent land redistribution within India between 1950 and 1990 had no effect on the quality of life and poverty reduction. Instead, economic reforms since 1990s and resultant opportunities for non-agricultural jobs have reduced poverty and increased per capita income for all segments of Indian society.[131] For specific evidence, Aiyar mentions the following
Critics believe that the economic liberalisation has benefited just a small elite and left behind the poor, especially the lowest Hindu caste of dalits. But a recent authoritative survey revealed striking improvements in living standards of dalits in the last two decades. Television ownership was up from zero to 45 percent; cellphone ownership up from zero to 36 percent; two-wheeler ownership (of motorcycles, scooters, mopeds) up from zero to 12.3 percent; children eating yesterday's leftovers down from 95.9 percent to 16.2 percent ... Dalits running their own businesses up from 6 percent to 37 percent; and proportion working as agricultural labourers down from 46.1 percent to 20.5 percent.

Cassan has studied the differential effect within two segments of India's Dalit community. He finds India's overall economic growth has produced the fastest and more significant socio-economic changes. Cassan further concludes that legal and social program initiatives are no longer India's primary constraint in further advancement of India's historically discriminated castes; further advancement are likely to come from improvements in the supply of quality schools in rural and urban India, along with India's economic growth.[19]

In popular culture

Mulk Raj Anand's debut novel, Untouchable (1935) based on the theme of untouchability. Hindi film, Achhoot Kanya (Untouchable Maiden, 1936) starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani was an early reformist film. The debut novel of Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997) also has themes surrounding the caste system. A lawyer named Sabu Thomas filed a petition to have the book published without the last chapter, which had graphic description of sexual acts between members of different castes.[132] Sabu Thomas, a member of Syrian Christian community of Kerala, claimed the obscenity in the last chapter deeply hurts the Syrian Christian community, the basis of the novel.[133]

The 2011 Hindi cinema (Bollywood) movie Aarakshan deals with caste-based educational reservations.

See also

  • Caste system in Sri Lanka
  • Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes
  • Social class



  • Aggarwal, Patrap. Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India. Manohar. 1978.
  • Ambedkar, Bhimrao. Pakistan or the Partition of India. Thackers Publishers.
  • Ansari, Ghaus. Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact. Lucknow, 1960.
  • Michaels, Axel, Hinduism: Past and Present 188-97 (Princeton 2004) ISBN 0-691-08953-1.

Further reading

  • Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Rachnawali (Selected works of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati), Prakashan Sansthan, Delhi, 2003.
  • Baldev Upadhyaya, Kashi Ki Panditya Parampara, Sharda Sansthan, Varanasi, 1985.
  • Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, first edition 1896, new edition 1995.
  • E.A.H.Blunt, The Caste System of North India, first edition in 1931 by Oxford University Press, new edition by S.Chand Publishers, 1969.
  • Christopher Alan Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Anand A. Yang, Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Bihar, University of California Press, 1999.
  • Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi Rachnawali, Rajkamal Prakashan, Delhi.
  • Bibha Jha's Ph.D thesis Bhumihar Brahmins: A Sociological Study submitted to the Patna University.
  • Arvind Narayan Das, Agrarian movements in India : studies on 20th century Bihar (Library of Peasant Studies), Routledge, London, 1982.
  • M. N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India, Orient Longman, Delhi, 1995.
  • Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi essays.
  • Ambedkar, B.R. (1946). as reprinted in Volume 7 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, published by Government of Maharashtra 1990; Complete Writings.
  • Ambedkar, B.R. (1946) Read online).
  • Atal, Yogesh (1968) "The Changing Frontiers of Caste" Delhi, National Publishing House.
  • Atal, Yogesh (2006) "Changing Indian Society" Chapter on Varna and Jati. Jaipur, Rawat Publications.
  • Duiker/Spielvogel. The Essential World History Vol I: to 1800. 2nd Edition 2005.
  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Complete English edition, revised. 540 p. 1970, 1980 Series: (Nature of Human Society).
  • Forrester, Duncan B., 'Indian Christians' Attitudes to Caste in the Nineteenth Century,' in Indian Church History Review 8, no. 2 (1974): 131–147.
  • Forrester, Duncan B., 'Christian Theology in a Hindu Context,' in South Asian Review 8, no. 4 (1975): 343–358.
  • Forrester, Duncan B., 'Indian Christians' Attitudes to Caste in the Twentieth Century,' in Indian Church History Review 9, no. 1 (1975): 3–22.
  • Forrester, Duncan B., Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India (London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Curzon Press and Humanities Press, 1980).
  • Ghurye, G. S. (1961). Caste, Class and Occupation. Popular Book Depot, Bombay.
  • Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes, C. Hurst & Co.
  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman: History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law) — Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962–1975.
  • Lal, K. S. Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India (1995).
  • Murray Milner, Jr. (1994). Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Raj, Papia & Aditya Raj (2004) "Caste Variation in Reproductive Health of Women in Eastern Region of India: A Study Based on NFHS Data" Sociological Bulletin 53 (3): 326–346.
  • Ranganayakamma (2001). For the solution of the "Caste" question, Buddha is not enough, Ambedkar is not enough either, Marx is a must, Hyderabad : Sweet Home Publications.
  • Rosas, Paul, "Caste and Class in India," Science and Society, vol. 7, no. 2 (Spring 1943), pp. 141–167. In JSTOR.
  • Liz Stuart, in the Guardian Weekly, 10 January 2002

External links

  • Articles on Caste by Religious
  • Hidden Apartheid Caste Discrimination against India's "Untouchables"
  • The International Dalit Solidarity Network: Dalits in India

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