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The People of India, Castes

Vaisyas, Harijans, Sudras, Kshatriyas, varnas

The caste system is pervasive in India. Although it is entwined in Hindu beliefs, it encompasses non-Hindus as well. A caste (jati in Sanskrit) is a social class to which a person belongs at birth and which is ranked against other castes, typically on a continuum of perceived purity and pollution. People generally marry within their own caste. In rural areas, caste may also govern where people live or what occupations they engage in. The particular features of the caste system vary considerably from community to community and across regions. Small geographical areas have their own group-specific caste hierarchies. There are thus thousands of castes in India. In traditional Hindu law texts, all castes are loosely grouped into four varnas, or classes. In order of hierarchy, these varnas are the Brahmans (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), the Vaisyas (merchants, farmers, and traders), and the Sudras (laborers, including artisans, servants, and serfs). The varnas no longer strictly correspond to traditional professions. For example, most Brahmans today are not priests, but farmers, cooks, or other professionals.

Ranked below the lowest caste were the people of no caste, the Untouchables or Harijans (“People of God,” a term first used by Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi). Untouchables traditionally performed tasks considered “polluting,” such as slaughtering animals or leatherworking. Physical contact with these people was viewed as defiling. The practice of labeling people Untouchable was outlawed by India’s constitution, although Harijans continue to face discrimination in getting work and housing. Today many former Untouchables prefer to be called dalits (Hindi for “oppressed ones”).

Since independence the importance of caste has declined somewhat in India. Modern travel has brought people of every caste in contact with one another, since it is impossible to avoid physical contact with a former Untouchable in a crowded bus or train. Although caste is intimately linked with the giving and taking of food, no one can be certain of the caste of a person who cooks food in the restaurants and food stalls of towns and cities. There are no particular castes linked to the modern professions of bank clerk, postal worker, teacher, and lawyer. Many people have also been influenced by the nationalist movement’s ideological commitment to the equality of men and women, and lower castes have increasingly used the power of their numbers and their right to vote to gain social status in their local community. Yet castes have shown no sign of disappearing altogether, mainly because of the system of marriage. Almost all Hindu marriages in India are arranged, and almost all arranged marriages occur between people of the same caste. Only a handful of young people make “love marriages” across caste lines, and many suffer socially when they do so.

Muslims are often treated as just another caste, particularly in India’s villages. There are castelike categories among the Muslims as well. These are called brotherhoods in northern India, and they identify Muslims with their traditional occupations, such as butchers or leatherworkers. As with Hindus, Muslims marry within their brotherhood. Among Christians as well, in the 19th century and to a much less significant extent more recently, converts and their descendants continued to be identified by their Hindu caste of origin.

Article key phrases:

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