Transformation of Caste System in India

Read this article to learn about the Transformation of Caste System in India – from Early to Medieval and British Periods!

The caste system, as it exists today, has developed through many centu­ries. Its structure and functioning in ancient period (from 4000 B.C to 700 A.D., i.e., Vedic, Brahmanical, Maurya and post-Maurya (or Sanga, Kushan and Gupta) periods was much different from the medieval (Ra­jput and Muslim, i.e., 700 A.D. to 1757 A.D.) and the British periods (i e 1757-1947A.D.).

In the Vedic Period (1500-322 B.C.), there are two views pertaining to the prevalence of the caste system. One school (Haug, 1863; Kern, Duti and Apte, 1940; Kamble, 1979) holds that the caste system had existed and Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas were the three caste divisions that the society of Rig Veda period clearly recognised. However, Sudra caste did not exist. The other school (Weber, 1882; Ghurye, 1932) maintains that these three were not castes but varnas which were not hereditary but flex­ible.

In the Brahmanical period that followed the Brahmanas and Upnishads, the hierarchical system of four varnas had firmly established Itself and remained enduring for all times to come. The privileges enjoyed by the Brahmins through the instrumentality of religion enabled them to impose several restrictions. Though Brahmins and Kshatriyas remained in conflict with each other trying to assert their superiority over the other, but Kshatriyas increased their power over Vaisyas and Sudras.

On the is­sue of social relations among various social groups, caste distinctions became clearer in Samhitas and the Brahmanas. In the latter part of the Epic period, priesthood became hereditary and inevitably the Brahmins began to pay attention to the purity of the blood and attaining a position of superiority over others. They prescribed codes of social behaviour and relationships through Grihsutras (700-300 B.C.) and Dharmasutras (600- 300 B.C.).

It may, therefore, be said that the starting point of the caste system was the later Vedic Age (800-500 B.C.) and the Epic Age (500-200 B.C.). Since the basis of social stratification was division of labour, in its original form, it was a class system rather than a caste system. The racial factor, the occupational bias, the philosophy of action, and the religious concept of purity and pollution–all contributed to the formation of the caste system.

In the Maurya period (i.e., from 322-184 B.C.), whole of India was politically united for the first time under one head and rule. Political unity- led to cultural unity of the country. Kautilya’s writings give some idea about the social organisation and the functioning of the caste system in this period. Kautilya (a Brahmin minister of a Sudra ruler Chandragupta Maurya) tried to remove various restrictions imposed by the Brahmins on the Sudras by declaring that the royal law would supersede the dharma law.

The rights and the privileges of Brahmins received a further blow in the days of Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. Ashoka’s relig­ious policy was broadly based on toleration and universal brotherhood which did not recognise the caste barriers. The caste system, because of all these measures could not develop as a rigid institution in this period.

In post-Maurya period, a fresh stimulus was provided to the revival of the Brahmanical religion and the development of the caste system. Brah­mins gave themselves special privileges in Manu Smriti (185 B.C.) and imposed various restrictions on the Sudras. The Smriti prescribed severe punishment to Sudras for insulting Brahmins (cutting out tongue, thrust­ing iron-nail in mouth, pouring hot oil into ears).

Thus, equality in law was completely destroyed by such prescriptions and the caste system de­veloped on rigid lines and assumed a new structure. The Gupta period (that followed the Sanga period from 300-500 A.D) was the period of Hindu renaissance. Brahminism became the ethnic religion of India in this period and caste system got a further incentive. However, it did not become very rigid. Marriage rules were elastic and examples of inter-marriages and inter-dining were not unknown.

Sudras were permitted to become traders, artisans and agriculturists. But untouchability existed in this period more or less in its present form. The untouchables lived out­side the main settlements. In post-Gupta period (Harsh Vardhana and others: 606-700 A.D.) also, the caste system continued to have the same structure as it had in the Gupta period.

An elaborate account of social, re­ligious and economic conditions of India of this period is available in Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang’s writings who visited India in 630 A.D. and remained here for 13 years. He writes that caste ruled the social struc­ture, Brahminism dominated, and persons following unclean occupations (scavengers, butchers, etc.) had to live outside the four walls of the city.

The Medieval period includes the Rajput period (700-1200 A.D.) and the Muslim period (1200-1757 A.D.). In the Rajput period, the cultural life of the Hindus was not very different from the one found in earlier peri­ods. The Indian social system did not change due to political security. Brahmins gave themselves more privileges. The mathas, established by Shankaracharya, became the centres of luxurious life. The system of devdasi fostered the growth of temple prostitution which led to the growth of the loosening of moral codes.

Rajput’s loyalty to their own clans made them indifferent to the larger patriotism of the whole coun­try. New castes and sub-castes came into being which were so circumscribed by vested interests that they had evil repercussions on the social and political life of the country. Consequently, foreign Muslims started attacking India.

The foundation of the Muslim empire in India was laid down by Mohamood Ghori in 1175 A.D. which was followed by Mughal attacks. The caste system in the Muslim period (1206-1857 A.D.) became still more rigid because Muslims were not absorbed in the elastic Hindu-fold. Their religion (Islam), being fiercely monotheistic, could not allow any compromise with polytheism.

Since Muslims led a religious crusade against India and tried to convert people to Islam, Brahmins as­suming upon themselves the responsibility of protecting the Hindus from being proselytised, imposed severe restrictions on Hindus, making caste system a very rigid system. Though some Bhaktas (saints) like Ramanuj, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya, Tukaram, Tulsidas, Namdev, etc. preached Bhakti cult in this period which denounced idolatory and cast and preached equality of all people, protested against excessive ritualism and domination of the priestly class, yet this cult could not disintegrate the caste system.

Brahmins could retain their leadership of Hindus be­cause temples were used not only for religious purposes but also for social, political and cultural activities. Brahmins made caste distinctions more rigorous by declaring that all those Hindus who worked with or for Muslims would be treated as Malechha, like Muslims. Thus, castes like Sunar (goldsmiths), Luhar (blacksmiths), Nai (barbers), Dhobi (washer men), Khati (carpenters) and the like came to be treated as castes of low status. Puranas were rewritten and new commandments were prescribed, mak­ing the caste system very rigid.

In early British (or pre-industrial) period, the material development of the country, contact with the outer world, socio-economic policies of the government, and some legislative measures taken, brought about a change in our religious doctrines, social practices, and also in the caste structure of the society. The judicial powers of the caste councils were transferred to the civil and the criminal courts.

The Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850, the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, and the Special Marriage Act of 1872 also attacked the caste system. The integrity of the caste system got a further blow when through some social measures, some of the dis­abilities of untouchables were removed. However, the British government had taken these measures purely for administrative reasons and not because it wanted to abolish the caste system.

Ghurye (1961:190) also has expressed a similar opinion. Some social movements of social re­formers also attacked the caste system. The Brahmo Samaj movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy rejected the barriers of caste divisions and stood for universalisation and brotherhood of man. The Prarthana Sabha move­ment supported by Justice Ranade also devoted its attention to social reform such as inter-caste marriage, inter-dining and remarriage of wid­ows, etc.

The Arya Samaj movement founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Ramakrishna Mission movement raised voice against caste and preached its abolition. The Lingayat movement in South India also preached the giving up of the caste system. However, all these attacks did not remove the rigidity of the caste system in this period (i.e., in the first quarter of the twentieth century) though some structural features of caste were definitely affected.

The industrial phase in the British period started from 1920-25 on­wards after the First World War. The processes of industrialisation and urbanisation (migration of people from villages to cities) affected caste structure to a great extent. Industrial growth provided new sources of livelihood to people and made occupational mobility possible. New trans­portation facilities also made frequent communication possible, which threw together millions of people of all castes. Taboos against food-shar­ing started weakening when industrial workers belonging to different castes started living together in the same house, leaving their families be­hind in villages.

Urbanisation and growth of cities also considerably changed the functioning of the caste system. Not only were commensally inhibitions re­laxed but the authority of the Brahmins also came to be questioned. Kingsley Davis (1951) has held that the anonymity, congestion, mobility, secularism and changeability of the city make the operation of the caste virtually impossible.

Ghurye (1961:202) also holds that changes in the ri­gidities of the caste system were due to the growth of city life. M.N. Srinivas too (1962:85-86) holds that due to the migration of Brahmins to the towns, the non-Brahmins refused to show same respect to them which they showed before, and inter-caste eating and drinking taboos were also weakened. It may, thus, be said that the structure and the functioning of the caste system and its ritual economic and social aspects were greatly changed in the industrial phase of the British period.

Submitted by : Dr. Annapurna, Category : Social Stratification, Tag : Caste System