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Caste (Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change)

Caste (Origin, Function and Dimensions of Change)
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Item Code: NAM488
Author: Suvira Jaiswal
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788173043345
Pages: 290
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 365 gms
About the Book

The work provides a critique of the current theories of the caste system which locate its essence in endogamy and argues that present morphology of caste is the result of the changes the institution has undergone over centuries of its existence, but the origins are embedded in the ecology of the Vedic cattle-keepers. Processes of patriarchy and state formation have played a crucial role in its evolution and its ideology has made significant conceptual adjustments in the course of its long history without however, abandoning its basis principles.

The work subjects the applicability of the avante-garde concepts of 'lineage mode of production' and 'Homo Hierarchius' to a critical scrutiny. Finally, it points to the role of caste in providing 'unity in diversity' and limiting the impact of social movements such as the Arya Samaj.

About the Author

Suvira Jaiswal retired as Professor of Ancient History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she taught for a long time. She obtained her M.A. from Allahabad University in 1953 and Ph. D. from Patna University.

Professor Jaiswal's main research interests lie in the field of religion and society in India. Among her publications, the monograph entitled Origin and Development of Vaisnavism, first published in 1967 and second edition in 1981, has been widely acclaimed for its originality and meticulous research. IT has been translated into several vernacular languages. In Hindi too it has two editions, the second published in 1996 contains an additional chapter on the historicity of the Rama legend.


He pertinacity of the institution of caste continues to pose serious problems in the restricting of Indian society into a more egalitarian system by eliminating the traditional practice of discrimination on account of birth and gender. To understand the reasons of its continued stranglehold, it is necessary to unfold the contextual nature of its dynamics, which has regulated social relations and shaped consciousness of its constituents. The present work is an attempt in that direction. It has grown out of some of articles I had written over the years on the theme of social stratification and these have been incorporated here some additions. Chapter I and much of chapter 4 have been especially written for the monograph.

The work begins with a critique of the current theories of caste system, which locate its essence in endogamy, and argues that the present morphology of cast is the result of transitions and transformations the institution had to undergo in specific social contexts through centuries of its existence; but its origins are embedded in the processes of patriarchy and state formation from which it cannot be delinked. Endogamy is seem not as a borrowing or survival of pre-Aryan or tribal practices but as intrinsic to the process of stratification and establishment of a patriarchal society. It is argued that Vedic rituals provide enough evidence to justify this assertion.

I have tried to delineate the origins of the varna caste structure from its early Vedic beginning to its development into a pan-Indian phenomenon and argued that the separation of the brahma and the ksatra elite categories and ascription of higher statue to the former, which feature forms the bedrock of Louis Dumount's Homo Hierarchicus and is crucial for his ideological interpretation of caste, has its roots in the ecology of the early Vedic cattle-keepers. India has had an unbroken history from the early Vedic times, and hence religious and cultural symbols may suggest continuity but their real significance has undergone fundamental changes.

The work examines the historical specificities which led to the emergence of the varnas and their crystallization into castes. The process of the construction of segmented identities within each varna category, which accommodated regional divergences and allowed sufficient flexibility to suit politico-economic requirements, is also indicated. It is pointed out that in many areas the role of the agent in spreading the varna system was played not so much by the members of the brahmana caste as by the dominant non-brahmana community or the ruling elite, which benefited from the notions of hierarchy. This circumstance is, in my opinion, largely responsible for 6the phenomenon of 'unity in diversity'. These developments had important implications at the level of social relations as well as theory. Caste ideology has undergone significant conceptual modifications over the centuries without, however, abandoning its basic principkes. Thus, for example, the meaning of the term 'sudra' shows considerable variation both in time and space.

Chapter 2 of the monograph is devoted to a re-evaluation of historical writings of the post-Independence period on caste; and among other things, it seriously contests certain ideological interpretations of the roots of untouchability.

Chapter 3 along with its appendix examines the evidence and paradigms used for the study of stratification in Rgvedic society and subjects the avant-garde concepts of 'lineage society' and 'linage mode of production' to a critical analysis. It is pointed out that the exploitation of biologically cletermined 'junior' age and sex groups by the elders of the same lineage is qualitatively very different from the exploitation of junion lineages by senior lineages in a stratified society, where kinship is merely a metaphor for class. The importance a picture of Rgvedic society. The chapter also discusses the question of ethnicity of the Aryans.

The fourth chapter deals with the social stratification in early Buddhist sources and highlights the changing concept of grbapati/gabapati category. It is shown that the early Vedic grbapati was not an ordinary householder but a leader of the extended kin-group which constituted a unit of production as well as consumption, and as such he, along with his wife grbapatni, was responsible for its ritual and material needs. But in the early Buddhist sources the grbapati emerges as an important entrepreneur who organizes the cultivation of large tracts of land with slaves and hired labour and is an important tax payer. He is not an ordinary householder or peasant and the category is not to be confused with that of grbastba. There is a gradual degradation of the grbapati class in the subsequent epoch, which may be connected with the processes leading to the emergence of segmented identities within the broad category of the Vaisya varna. The paradigm of varna/jati is well established by the early centuries of the Christian era.

The final chapter argues that it was the brahmanical paradigm of social integration formalized as caste which came to define the Hindu identity as it emerged in confrontation with the 'other' in medieval times. Hence, not only the religious and the social are closely intertwined in Hinduism but caste continues to be its constitutive element and its identification mark. Failure to confront directly the social reality of multiple fragmented identities and attempts to unify them only through religious-cultural symbolisms ultimately defeat the lofty aims of social movements, as in the case of the Arya Samaj, which despite its theoretical denial of caste could no succeed in establishing an egalitarian, universal Arya brotherhood.

Substantial portion of Chapters 2 and 3 were published in the Indian Historical Review, Vols. VI, XVI and XX. Much of the Chapter 5 had appeared in the Social Scientist, Vol. XIX, No. 12 (Dec. 1991). Permission to reprint these with additions, wherever necessary, is duly acknowledged.

I hope the work would be of interest to students of history and sociology as well as to general readers.

I wish to thank Shri P.N. Sahay, Librarian, Indian Council of Historical Research for prompt assistance in locating the books and journals. The staff of the JUN Library and CHS DSA Library also deserve my thanks. I am particularly thankful to my student Ranjan Anand for preparing the bibliography and to my publishers for bringing out the book expeditiously.


Caste identities have surfaces as a powerful force in contemporary Indian politics and demands for redressal of the inequalities and exploitation engendered by this old institution have stimulated much fresh thinking in academic circles on the question of the essence and dynamics of caste. It is often assumed that a caste mentality is embedded in 'the Indian psyche'. Hence even as traditional notions of its integration with religion, morality and law are being increasingly challenged (and even repudiated in modern circumstances), the caste structure continues to survive as a salient feature of Indian society.' This inference is further strengthened by the studies- of the Indian Diaspora where despite the absence of notions of hierarchy and hereditary occupational specialization-features intrinsic to the traditional caste system-the morphology of caste is seen to prevail owing to the 'separation', 'repulsion' or recognition of' difference' of one caste from another. Castes retain separate identities but are related to each other as constituent units of a wider Hindu community. Thus, it is claimed," empirical studies have demonstrated the inadequacies of earlier Indological-sociological formulations of caste as a hierarchical social system rooted in a religious principle that imputed inherently pure or polluting status to social groups, legitimized by the doctrine of karma. Theories which looked upon the institution as a system devised to ensure harmonious functioning of a non-competitive, interdependent process of production, which obviated economic, class-conflicts in a pre-capitalist social formation are also found to be inadequate. The concept of caste has been reformulated and Dipankar Gupta defines it as a 'form of differentiation wherein the constituent units of system justify endogamy on the basis of putative biological differences which are semaphored by the ritualization of multiple social practices'." This definition according to him gives the 'essence' of a system composed of discrete categories and not a continuous hierarchy.

Thus recent changes in the caste system have led sociologists to revive what Dumont had termed the 'atomistic" view of caste, with the rider that although discrete, castes do not exist in isolation but form part of a system which gives them meaning and sustains their existence. Legitimation and perpetuation of endogamy become the basic characteristics, the 'essence' of caste, in this perception. Celestine Bougle's'' precise definition of caste epitomizing its major features into three saliences, occupational specialization on a hereditary basis, hierarchical status gradation, and' repulsion' , that is, separation of each social group from the others through commensal and connubial restrictions, was reduced by Louis Dumont' to one: 'hierarchy' deriving from the opposition of the pure and the impure. For, according to Dumont other features of caste were subsumed within this basic principle. The trend is now to regard the feature of 'repulsion' or 'difference' or 'division' as the key concept, supposedly maintained through' hyper-syrnbolisrn', a cluster of characteristics differentiating each caste from the other in social and ritual matters but not occupation, the criterion laid down in the Indological works.

However, the history of the caste system shows that belief in 'putative biological differences', which are expressed through a ritualization of divergent social practices, has not acted as an impediment in transcending the rules of endogamy and the formation of new castes when material conditions bring together families of diverse caste origin but similar socio-economic background. The formation of the Kayastha caste in early medieval times is a case in point, as literate professionals drawn from different varnas/castes crystallized into a caste of scribes. For a correct understanding of the dynamics of the caste system we must pay attention not only to 'repulsion' or 'fragmentation' of castes but also to the processes of fusion which allow this institution to continue and even strengthen itself as social, political and economic circumstances change. For example, in the overseas context, in Trinidad varna categories have come to replace caste as the endogamous unit and status referrent. No doubt endogamy is basic to the morphology of caste but for its origin and sustenance one has to look beyond hypersymbolic manifestations and other ideational explanations which merely beg the question by making it an attribute of the Indian mentality. As we shall try to show, endogamy evolved gradually and acquired rigidity with the growth of patriarchy in a varna-based class society.

A major problem is that even Marxist historians who regard caste as class on a primitive level of production 10 have ignored the role of patriarchy and subjugation of women in its ideology and rules of endogamy. Endogamy is looked upon as a borrowing or survival of pre-Aryan or non-Aryan tribal practices. D.D. Kosambi writes that the fusion of tribal elements into society at large lies at the very foundation of the caste system; "Irfan Habib concurs," suggestingthat when tribes were absorbed they brought with them their endogamous customs and this happened 'only after the division of labour had reached a particular level of development within the "general society'". B Perhaps this means that after stratification had emerged in the form of varna divisions, assimilation of tribal groups led to the institution of an endogamous caste structure. Kosambi is more specific with regards to the time frame and he traces the origin of endogamy to the incorporation of Aryans and pre-Aryan Harappans in one civil society.

I have shown elsewhere" that the views of D.D. Kosambi on the origins of the caste system are more in the nature of tentative probings. They are contradictory and difficult to sustain in the face of rigorous analysis. The fact that in later times incorporation of tribal groups in to the 'general society' meant the transformation of tribes into endogamous castes merely shows that assimilation could take place only on the terms and patterns of caste society. The assumption that the social structure as a whole became stratified into endogamous units owing to the entry of tribal groups is perilously close to the racial explanation of caste so vigorously propounded by Herbert Risley." Kosambi's perception of the unchanging nature of Indus valley civilization has been rightly criticized" by Morton Klass, whose own hypothesis regarding the origin of caste explains endogamy as fossilization of a prehistoric South Asian aboriginal practice. The work of Morton Klass has been acclaimed? as a major study providing a materialist explanation of the origin of caste and hence deserves a detailed scrutiny.

Klass raises a pertinent point in his debate with sociologists ('the apostles of synchrony or even achrony'), asking whether it is possible to know what the caste system is without first asking how it came to be. He emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of the problem. His own search, however, leads him beyond all documented evidence to four or more millennia ago, to 'totemic', 'equalitarian' clan groups. Klass suggests that in prehistoric times South Asian regions were inhabited by a galaxy of equalitarian endogamous social groups, each internally characterized by full and undifferentiated membership and constituting a single .'marriage-circle', in which prosperity and misfortune were shared by all. Many of these endogamous societies were composed of equalitarian exogamous segments or clans. Initially, all were at the gathering and hunting stage, with no significant economic specialization or exchange of goods and services. In the following millennium food production began in the favourable ecological zones, with the cultivation of rice or hard grain, and plants and animals were domesticated. The new technology provided these areas with 'absolute surplus', that is, the ability to produce continually more than what was required for subsistence. This development placed those corporate groups, who were in possession of cultivable land in an advantageous position vis-a-vis those who did not have such land. The latter began to exchange their labour and services for access to cultivable land and crops. Since both the possessors and non-possessors were structured in egalitarian clans, the network of exchange had a corporate character. Labour and services were provided not on individual but corporate basis with prosperity and misfortune being shared equally by all members of the clan. Thus a hierarchy of corporate groups developed owing to unequal access and control of economic resources. This led to a transition from 'clan to caste' or from 'Bear to Barber', borrowing the language of Levi Strauss. Klass traces not only caste endogamy but even jajrnani relations to prehistoric times. According to him the system emerged not in anyone specific region but over the entire subcontinent almost simultaneously. For, while wheat and other hard grains were being cultivated in the north-western part of the subcontinent, rice was cultivated in the eastern and southern regions. 'The caste system came into existence not in Bengal or the Malabar Coast or the Indus Valley, but over the entire subcontinent' about the same time.

No doubt Klass is right in emphasizing the important role of differential access to basic resources and economic inequality of corporate groups in the emergence of the caste system; but his assumption that the system originated in prehistoric times when tribes living in 'unfavourable' zones migrated in search of fertile land and crops and almost voluntarily entered into subordinate or 'service' relations with the communities in possession of the basic resources and practising new technology, is not only conjectural but goes against the well-documented pattern of agricultural expansion in ancient as well as more recent times. The introduction of agriculture by neolithic-chalcolithic peoples on the subcontinent also involved clearing the primeval vegetation and forests, which would destroy the habitats of hunters and gatherers. The latter had to come to terms with the new way of life by either adopting the new technology or becoming marginalized as menial labourers or predators sticking to their earlier way of life. The process accelerated with the advent of iron technology. For instance, in the Mewar region of Rajasthan a section of Bhils has adopted agriculture and become the peasant caste of Gamits, which no longer has any social interaction with the Bhils of the hills and forests. This is a classic example of the disintegration or fission of a tribal community with one of its segments transforming itself into an endogamous caste, not because the segment had been earlier an endogamous marriage-circle, but because it integrated with a stratified, fragmented caste society which practised endogamy and as such provided it a separate niche.

Moreover, it may be pointed out that agricultural surplus became available in several tribal regions of the subcontinent without their developing a caste system, untill the introduction of brahmanical culture and ideology. To give one example, recent studies suggest 20 that the Assam plains had a tribal peasantry consisting of the Mikirs, Kukis, Khasis.and Kochch-Kacharis who practised cultivation on a permanent basis in the pre-Ahorn period; but their assimilation in the caste system apparently took place with the 'creation of a dominant class of brahmin landholders' and penetration of brahmanic ideology.

Further, Klass' hypothesis of 'clan to caste' does not explain the emergence of the priestly caste of brahrnanas from the' clan' stage. They could hardly have constituted a separate 'marriage-circle' in prehistoric societies, unless we attribute to them sufficient advance in the specialization of services and exchange of goods to maintain a non-food producing 'marriage-circle'. To sustain a specialized endogamous 'clan' or 'marriage-circle' of priests, and not just one or two priestly lineages of a tribal community, there has to be sufficient 'absolute surplus' available. On the other hand, if the formation of the brahmana caste is explained as coming together of the' exogamous segments' of prehistoric endogamous communities and their crystallization into a sacred caste, this would imply fission and fusion connected with occupational specialization and stratification. Such a development would hardly be confined to priestcraft alone, particularly as stratification was not just a matter of 'difference' but the consequence of growing control and manipulation of the sacred and temporal domains by a few tribal lineages. Klass is certainly correct in endorsing the view of Barth that the value system or 'the cognitive changes follow upon the social and interactional changes' , but this does not explain the existence of a large caste of brahrnanas from the very beginning; the caste system can hardly antedate the caste of brahrnanas!

In fact the evolution of the caste system cannot bedel inked from the emergence of patriarchy, class divisions, and state; and as this did not happen at the same time all over the subcontinent, one cannot speak of its simultaneous appearance in different regions of the country. I have argued that regional variations in the system may be partly explained by the time lag. The argument which locates its essence in endogamy overlooks the fact that occupational specialization and hierarchical gradation along with the suppression of women as a class have played a no less crucial role in the formation of caste society and in regulating its internal intercommunal relationships." If endogamy alon out of its three defining characteristics" endures in contemporary times, the phenomenon needs to be explained with reference to changing relations of production in a changed material milieu.

Recently the theory of the Dravidian origin of caste has been revived on two grounds: First, it is assumed" that the scheme of tinais mentioned in the Sangam literature represents a caste-like or 'proto-caste' stage as it speaks of five different types of environmental zones peopled by divergent communities practising different modes of production, depending on the nature of their basic resources. Thus, the inhabitants of kurunji-tinaiwere Kanavar, Kunuvar and Vetar subsisting on hunting and gathering, those of the palai or desert-land lived by plunder and cattle raids, and were known as Kalavar, Eyinar and Maravar. The Ayar and Idiayar occupied the mullai-tinai or pastoral tract and practised shifting agriculture and animal husbandry, whereas plough cultivation was the technology used by the Ulavar and Toluvar in the marutam-tinai or fertile wetland. The fifth type of tinaiwas the neitalor coastal tracts peopled by Paratavar, Valayar and Minavar, who depended on fishing and salt extraction. Increasing interaction and interdependence among these socio-cultural groups with 'fundamentally different systems of settlement and subsistence' is seen as tesulting in the caste system in which each community remained encapsulated, retaining its separate identity even as it entered into intercommunity relationships.


On defining the institution of caste
Evidence of Vedic texts on patriarchy and social hierarchy
Caste character of later Vedic varna
Proliferation of jatis, the emergence of segmented identities in the varna structure
The class role of caste and the elite
2Cast and Gender: Historiography32
Some sociological theories on the origin of caste
Historical writings of the post-independence period
The brahmana, ksatriya and brahma-ksatra categories
The vaisya and the sudra
Roots of untouchability
Women, kinship and caste
3Stratification in Rgvedic Society: Evidence and Paradigms132
Appendix: Mystifying the Aryans188
4Social stratification in Early Buddhism and The Changing Concept of Grhapati/Gahapati205
5Caste and Hinduism: The Changing Paradigms of Brahmanical Integration224
Index of Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil Words265
Index of Original sources and Authorities268
Author Index270
Subject Index275

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