The Indian Speaks

The Indian Speaks (1)

Castes of India

This other day a bunch of us sat talking about India. And one of the things I was asked about was the idea of ‘castes’.

I am not an expert on these matters. But I can tell you what I was taught. And what I have seen around me. And through The Indian Speaks, maybe I can tell you a bit about those aspects of India that you may not know about. I’ll tell you today, what I told my friends about castes in India.

Caste, to begin with, is not an Indian word or concept. It is a word derived from the Portuguese casta meaning “race, lineage, breed” (I sourced this from Wikipedia but there are other sources confirming this too). In the Indian culture, there are two words – varna and jati – that come closest to the idea of casta.

Varna (literally means colour but not in this context) is what is commonly assumed to be the ‘caste’. Varna is an order of classification of people according to their profession. There are 4 varna in the Hindu society – Brahmin (people involved in knowledge transfers – priests, teachers, etc), Vaishya (traders, merchants, businessmen, etc), Kshtriya (warriors, rulers, etc) and Shudra (labourers). Varna, according to me, has nothing to do with the idea of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ castes. However, over time, the idea of varna has been misinterpreted to suggest that Brahmin is the highest caste, followed by Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, in that order. And varna has an implicit 5th group of tribals and untouchables. I don’t have a clear understanding of whether this group of ‘untouchables’ is included in the Shudra varna or whether it is a completely separate group.

Jati, to me, is a bit confusing. But what everyone seems to agree on, is that jati is like a subcaste. There are only 4 varna but there are thousands of jati. And many texts and anthropologists will tell you that jati is perhaps an occupational segregation within a varna. For example, farmers, traders and carpenters would belong to three different jati within the Vaishya varna. A person’s birth decides what jati he/she belongs to.

While historically, varna and jati were merely a basis of social structure and classification, they have been misinterpreted to mean many awful things and unfortunately, this still is a nagging problem in the Indian society. However, I should add in the same breath that the modern Indian society is slowly moving away from these regressive ideas of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ castes, untouchables and resistance to inter-caste marriages. But it is still only a small fraction of the entire population, I am afraid.

But for anyone who thought caste was a system to brand people…you are partially correct but I hope you now appreciate that there is a little more to it.

Speaking of this…keep an eye out for my next post in this series about inter-caste marriages and why they are still not entirely accepted.


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