From the Archive 1932


The baffling perplexity of Indian problems is due to a tangle of conflicting interests, of which the most deepseated and obstinate are those of caste. The word is based on the Latin castus (pure); its present use comes from the Portuguese casta (a race or breed), and was probably intended to imply the purity and unity of origin of the caste. The general Indian word for caste is “varna”, which is now used for class, but originally meant colour.

Caste may be defined as the subdivision of society into grades, each of which, in a primitive community, is subject to restrictions upon marriage outside the grade; and in more developed communities each grade is also subject to restrictions as to work and occupation.

Caste is sometimes defined as limited to India; but the marriage groups of the Australian aborigines have been justly regarded as a variety of caste, and the Incas of Peru had castes which, according to Prescott, were as precise as those of Hindustan. India, however, is the chief land of caste, which there divides society to distinct strata, separated by rigid artificial boundaries.

Hindus may marry only members of their own caste except that men may to some extent take wives from a lower caste and they must not eat food cooked by a member of another caste, and they can eat only with members of their own caste. The caste rules impose various restrictions to avoid pollution, such as prohibition of travel over sea. I once asked a distinguished Indian educationalist whether he could not visit Britain to examine our educational methods.

He replied that if he went he could secure his own purification by various rites to whose unpleasant nature he did not refer but as nothing that could be done would prevent his descendants being lowered in caste for many generations, he had no right to inflict so heavy a penalty upon them.

The inconveniences of caste introduce tiresome complexities into Indian arrangements. Before a meeting of the Indian Association for the Advancement of Science a circular of inquiry has to be sent out to determine how many kitchens and dining rooms must be built and cooks provided for such castes as require a set of their own.

Caste dates from prehistoric times, and its origin is now probably lost for ever. The problem is so complex that it may prove insoluble. The theories advanced are deductions each of which agrees with some of the facts. Four chief explanations are advocated. The most generally and authoritatively supported hypothesis is that the origin of caste is racial.

India was occupied by a race of primitive people, who to use the terminology adopted by advocates of this view, are described as Turanian. The aborigines were driven into the jungles and hills by a second immigration of Taranians, who settled on the good land and kept aloof from the people whom they had dispossessed. India was subsequently conquered by Aryans, who treated the Turanian settlers as a caste of serfs, and successive Aryan invasions gave rise to higher castes among the conquerors.

The highest caste was that of the Brahman, or priests; second in rank was the military caste, the Kshatriays; the third lowest caste, the Sudras, consisted of labourers who were the descendants of the second Turanian invaders. The Turanian aborigines were left as the Pariahs or outcasts.

As time went on the castes increased indefinitely in number. Some of them were racial, being hybrids between groups that were intermarriageable; others were due to segregation in work and settlement.

The racial origin of caste has been widely accepted from the general plausibility and simplicity of the explanation, and it has been supported by some direct evidence. The nasal index is the ratio of the width of the nose to its length. In some of the dark people of southern India the width is equal to the length; in some of the light brown or “wheat – coloured” Aryans of northern India the width is less than seventy per cent of the length. Sir Herbert Risely claimed that in southern India the nasal index is certain indication of a man’s caste.

He remarked that in southern India “ a man’s social status varies in inverse ratio to the width of his nose.” He therefore concluded that the members of the different castes are of different racial origins.

A second theory is that castes are based on occupation. Many castes are certainly related to work, and, as a rule, all the members of one caste are engaged in the same occupation. This view has been especially advocated by J.C. Nesfield in his work (1885) on The Caste System of the North-Western Province and Oudh. “Function,” he says, “and function only, as I think, was the foundation upon which the whole caste system of India was built up.”

In primitive countries where transport is difficult, and may be possible only at certain seasons of the year, many trades are confined to localities where the raw material is available, and some villages are occupied only by potters, or iron smelters, or weavers, or dyers. Such segregations have been regarded as having given rise to special castes. The functional basis of caste has, however, been generally rejected as inconsistent with the main body of facts, for caste and occupation are often disconnected.

A particular industry may be open to members of all castes that can join without infringing their rules as to pollution. Various commercial groups, such as merchants, are united in the conduct and extension of their trade; but as many of them belong to different castes they cannot eat together or visit, except in their business premises, or intermarry.

A third hypothesis is that the Brahman priests deliberately invented caste to secure the privileges and benefits it gave them. The Brahmans explain caste as a divine ordinance imposed on Indian Society from above. According to their version the Brahmans were discharged out of the mouth of God to teach men; the Kshatriyas came from his arms to defend men; the Vaisyas or merchants out of his stomach to feed them; and the Sudras from his feet to serve the higher castes.

This tradition is taken by one school as a fable of the invention of caste by the wily Brahman priests to secure their own domination. M.A.Sherring, in his work, The Hindu Tribes and Castes, which began with the detailed study of those of Benares, declares (Vol. iii, p .231; 1881): “Caste, therefore, owes its origin to the Brahman. It is his invention.”

The fourth theory is more subtle and complex than the others. It regards caste as a modification of the social distinctions among the Aryan invaders of India. The primitive Aryans were members of small clans and tribes, in which there were marked social grades, such as the phratry and the phyle in Greece, the gens and the curia in Rome. In later times such divisions survived in the medieval trade guilds.

The main exponent of this theory is M.Emile Senart, of those work, Les Castes de l’Inde (1896), and English translation, editred by Sir E.D.Ross, was published in 1930. The author remarks that it has been issued unchanged, as despite all criticisms he regards his position as unshaken.

He declares that “ the caste is, to my mind, the normal continuation of ancient Aryan institutions taking their form according to the variations of conditions and environment which they encounter in India” (op. cit., p.213). Its foundation in primaeval India he rejects emphatically. “I cannot,” he says, “persuade myself that caste has sprung from the aboriginal tribe.”

These four theories are not so entirely opposed as has been represented in their discussion. Each theory when stated at length has many qualifications which admit the influence of the rival causes. The view  that caste is an Aryan institution attributes its development to Brahman influence, and thereby approximates to the conclusion of the “traditionalists” that the Brahman invented it. Race prejudice has no doubt played a part in the multiplication of castes.

Occupation has probably done the same, as with the growth of social distinctions in the Indian community trade jealousies have been fortified by the establishment of castes, each with a special occupation. The complexity and variety of influences that have been at work is indicated by the number of castes. The four assumed by the racial conquest theory have been indefinitely multiplied. The Census of India in 1901 (Table XIII) enumerated 2,378 main castes; the minor castes are numbered by the thousand.

The most obvious argument against the theory that caste is a modified survival of the once widespread Aryan social grades is the question, Why should an institution which has been outgrown in Europe have become so powerful and dominant in India? According to the definition previously given, Roman society began with firmly established castes for the patricians, while allowing their sons to marry plebeian women, refused to allow their daughters to marry plebeian men. Under the conditions of Rome, at first surrounded by hostile rivals and later burdened by the responsibilities of empire, the caste system collapsed.

The plebeian men, after a long determined struggle, secured the right of marriage with the patricians. Political necessities broke down the barriers between the castes. But in India the political and economic environment led to development on different lines. The interests of the people were philosophic rather than political. The caste system, which was outgrown in Europe, was indelibly stamped upon the whole social system. Local and theological interests were dominant over the national and political. This development suited the priests.

Their power would have been reduced by the growth of political interests; they so carefully nourished castedom that the “traditionalists” hold that it was a deliberate and crafty Brahman invention. According, however, to M.Senart’s view which seems to me the most probable caste had its origins in pre-Brahman institutions which the priests pruned and cultivated to their own ends.

The Aryan conquest of India was fundamentally different from the Norman Conquest of England. The Aryans did not like the Normans, seize the reins of a central government, modify its laws, establish a feudal aristocracy, and bring in with them their own women and families. The Aryan invaders of India found there a vast number of isolated tribes and communities, a population too overwhelming in numbers to be enslaved, and  a country too large and with internal communications too defective for the organization of a powerful imperial administration.

The Aryans were intellectually abler than the people among whom they settled, and their religion, with its vague and adaptable pantheism, was better suited to the Indian mind than the fetishism and animism of primitive India. The Aryan influence slowly filtered from immigrants to the Indian population, largely owing to the patience and ingenuity of an aggressive priesthood. The Aryan invaders were relatively so few that without their sexual separation they would have been swamped and absorbed.

They reinforced their own numbers by, as in Rome, allowing their men to marry native women; but to safeguard their race they prohibited, by absolute caste rules, the intermarriage of any of their women with the aborigines. How stringent that rule still is in parts of India is shown by the fate of the son of a Brahman woman by a Sudra; he is treated as the lowest of the low, is rejected from caste, excluded from the village, and denied any association with his blood relations.

Caste is claimed to benefit India by the discipline exercised by the caste committees, the panchayets, and by its clan-spirit promoting sympathy and co-operation. But the range of such sympathies is narrow, and the clannishness of caste may produce more discord than unity.

That caste under modern conditions is intensely mischievous seems to be generally agreed. It adds greatly to the difficulty of government and delays the social and economic progress of India. The bitterness of the feud between Islam and Hinduism is largely due to it. The two religions are at the very antitheses of thought; but the practical quarrel is intensified by the danger to Hinduism of the democratic spirit of Islam, which has no priesthood and proclaims the equality before God of all believers.

Admission to Hinduism, and status in it, is determined by birth; no one can become a Hindu by conversion. A man born into a low caste or out of caste can secure no relief from this handicap except by escape into another religion. A Brahman scoundrel retains his sanctity, and the noblest of sweepers remains throughout life hampered by the bonds placed on him at birth.

Islam, with its rejection of all caste, offers an asylum to the outcaste Hindus which has been accepted by many millions of them. That refuge is being entered by increasing numbers of the outcaste people of India. In Eastern Bengal the majority of the population is now Moslem. As Hinduism cannot proselytize, it is condemned to stand permanently on the defensive, and it watches with growing apprehension the progress of its energetic rival. Hence arises the bitter conflict between the two creeds, which is becoming fiercer owing to the belief that the British administration may be withdrawn and the two communities left to fight out their own quarrel.

Efforts to free India from caste evils have been repeatedly made by indigenous movements from Buddha to Gandhi. Buddhism, after more than twelve hundred years of conflict, was finally defeated and ousted from India. A band of reformers, the Brahma Samaj, reject caste, and secured in 1872, thanks to the agitation of Keshab Chandra Sen, the passing of the Native Marriage Act, which legalized intercaste marriage;  but this organization has few members, most of whom are intellectual Bengali.

The Arya Samaj, which accepts caste, has, on the contrary, secured a much larger number of adherents. Gandhi, despite his immense personal influence, has failed to improve materially the lot of the untouchable, whose cause he has persistently and nobly pleaded.

The two most serious mutinies in India were both due to caste troubles. The mutiny at Vellore, eighty miles west of Madras, in 1806 was due to the prohibition among the soldiers of the use of caste signs, and the great revolt of 1857 was due to the sepoys’ objection to handling cartridge grease containing cow’s fat. The evils of caste have been repeatedly proclaimed. M.A.Sherring, in his great work on the subject (op.cit.pp. 274- 6), declares that “caste is sworn enemy to human happiness…..

It seeks to sever natural ties, to alieante friends, to harden the heart, to stifle sympathy, to increase pride and self – esteem, to generate misanthropy, to repress the kindly affections, and to destroy mutual confidence and trust without which society is beset with stings, and becomes a stranger to genuine comfort and peace. Caste is opposed to intellectual freedom. It stereotypes thought……. Caste sets its face sternly against progress. Caste abhors change…….

Caste makes no compromises. The most ignorant Hindu is able to compel to obedience of the most intelligent. Caste is intensely selfish.”

Caste rules and regulations no doubt change with time. Some highly-placed Indians openly defy its restrictions, and their disobedience is overlooked as their expulsion from the caste would be too dangerous. Even as regards the low castes former restrictions have been modified. At one time no low-caste Indian was allowed in the streets of Poona between dawn and 9 a.m. or between 3 p.m. and sunset, less his long shadow might overlap that of a Brahman. That rule is obsolete; but I have seen the crowd rush off a bridge at Poona on the approach of a holy Brahman so as to avoid defiling him.

I have seen an Indian on a railway platform throw his bowl of food on to the track because the shadow of a man not in his caste had passed across it. The spirit of caste is still supreme in large parts of India, despite the spread of education through the Universities and recognition of its handicap on economic, industrial, and political progress. “That the thoughtful and educated men of India should so patiently endure its tyranny – a tyranny the most relentless, and at the same time the most senile and unreasonable, ever conceived by the human mind in its greatest corruptness is a phenomenon unparalleled in the history of our race” declared Sherring (op. cit., vol. iii, p. 275).

India still moans under the caste burden fastened on it millenniums ago by an aggressive and selfish priesthood, and accepted by a people whose instincts induced them to submit to the ascendancy of a sacerdotal order and a tyrannous theocracy. As the Indian people number 330 millions, or between a fifth and a sixth of mankind, the castedom that embarasses them is a serious obstacle to the peaceful progress and welfare of the world.


“Caste System has not spared even the dead; the practice has percolated into Christianity too”

The Madras High Court has expressed deep concern over the caste system, not having spared even the dead from its fold and lamented that the practice had percolated into Christianity too by making the followers of the religion fight among themselves over the right to maintain separate burial grounds for different denominations.

Disposing of a public interest litigation(PIL) petition related to a dispute between Roman Catholics and Pentecosts over a burial ground at
A Vellodu village in Dindugal Taluk, Tamil Nadu, a Division Bench of  Justices S.Manikumar and G. Chokkalingam said: “Christianity has no caste system. What is prevalent and practised in Hinduism appears to have percolated to above said religion.”

Wondering whether the holy Bible allows such a practice, the Judges said that it was a question best left to be answered by the conscience of the practitioners “who see pride in having their caste tags”. Further Mr. Justice Manikumar said : “During their lifetime, people fight for rights – customary, personal property and so on. We are pained to see that even after death, the fight continues for burial…. Graveyard is a place to rest. We wish the dead ‘Rest in Peace’ but on the facts and circumstance of this case, we could see that there is no peace for the living as well as the dead.”

The Judges accepted the submission of Revenue Divisional Officer that he had settled the issue by allocating a separate site to be used as burial ground for Pentecosts and said that it should be treated as an interim arrangement until the collector resolves the issues by keeping in the mind the constitution goal of achieving equality and fraternity.

Source: The Hindu

Comments are closed.