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A Social History of Hindustan : The Indian Caste System and non-Hindu Influences


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Yeonhwa
Term Paper, AP European History Class, September 2008



Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. The Indian Caste System
II.1 Definition
II.2 Origin and Development
II.3 Misconceptions Regarding the Caste System
III. Influences of non-Hindu elements on the Caste System
III.1 Buddhism
III.2 Islam and the Mughal Empire
III.2.1 Caste System Reinforced and Strengthened
III.2.2 Caste System Uninfluenced
III.3 The Imperial British
III.3.1 Caste System Reinforced and Strengthened
III.3.2 Caste System Weakened
III.3.3 The British Rule as a Tool for Ascendancy in Caste
III.3.4 British Motive, Interpretation, and Modification of the Caste System
IV. Conclusion
V. Notes
VI. Bibliography



I. Introduction
            India is one of the countries with the longest history. Priding its position as one of the four great civilizations alongside the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and the Chinese civilizations, India has had a consistent development of civilization since 2500 B.C (1), the ancient Indian civilization which was centered in the Indus Valley expanding throughout the Ganges Valley around 1000 B.C. With a distinct culture, religion, races, and a myriad of languages that have sprung from its long history, India is well-known for its traditional practices and deeply rooted social systems, a major example being the caste system.
            Although the old age of the Indian civilization provides India with a special native culture, India was not left alone throughout its course of history. It was affected by numerous outside forces: the Muslim Mughals and the British, to name a few. This paper, on a quest to investigate the various influences the Indian caste system endured, began with a couple of hypotheses that focused on the teachings of various religions that impacted the Indian society. First was that Buddhism, which emphasized actions not birth, would have undermined the caste system. Second was that Islam, with its accentuation of brotherhood and equality of all before Allah, would have also weakened the caste system. Third was that Christianity, introduced by early missionaries and the Imperial British, which highlighted fellowship and the worthiness of all men loved by God, would have resulted in a similar manner as the former two religions.
            However, sources indicated that the caste system was fundamentally different from that which was commonly conceived, and therefore, the influence of various non-Hindu elements resulted in a quite unexpected manner.


II. The Indian Caste System

II.1 Definition

            The Oxford History of India defines a caste as, "a group of families internally united by peculiar rules for the observance of ceremonial purity, especially in the manners of diet and marriage." It must be noted that criteria for occupations, religious or philosophical beliefs, or descent from a certain ancestor, are not included in the basic definition of a caste, a point to be addressed later when discussing misconceptions regarding the caste system. The primary concern for the distinction of a caste is the observance of dharma, "practical duty of members belonging to the group." Dharma differs from caste to caste, varying in the degrees of reverence to Brahmans, respect for the holiness of animals, especially the cow, etc. Each caste is to follow its dharma, not offending the other castes by doing otherwise. The consequence for the violation of dharma involves "costly social expiation" which may include shameful expulsion (2). The word caste has its roots in the Portuguese word 'casta', which means lineage (3), and was first used by the Portuguese traders (4).

II.2 Origin and Development

            The caste system existed before 300 B.C. as records describing the system written by Greek authors of this time have been found. It is estimated that caste system came into being centuries earlier (5). Some even assert that the original caste system, Varna, was introduced around 1500 B.C., when the Aryan-speaking nomadic groups migrated southward to India. The Indo-Aryan priest-lawmakers framed four hereditary divisions of society, in order of hierarchy: the Brahmans, teachers and priests; the Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers; the Vaishyas, merchants and traders; and the Shudras, workers and peasants, who were virtually servants of other castes. The castes originated from symbolic parts of the Creator, the Brahmans the mouth of God, Kshatriyas His arms, Vaishyas His thighs, and Shudras His feet. Harijans are the so-called Untouchables (6).
            The aforementioned Indo-Aryan priest-lawmakers were themselves Brahmans who brought about the caste system by establishing rules to shield their "own ceremonial purity against defilement through unholy food or undesirable marriages." The Indo-Aryans, being educated and holy, won even more acclaim by other less priestly classes, as they enforced self-restraints on themselves for sanctity. Non-Brahman, worldly classes tried to emulate the Brahman caste, but obviously, it was impossible for ordinary soldiers, merchants, peasants, and servants to be as conscientious as the Brahmans. Naturally, different dharma arose for different occupational groups of society. This dharma of each caste and varying degrees of ¡°scrupulosity concerning both diet and marriage,¡± along with general rules of morality, became the distinguishing factors in the caste system (7).
            As time passed, such distinctions called for hereditary membership. Only members of the same caste could marry each other. Members of different castes had different choices for vocations and different range of personal contacts. Core Hindu beliefs, Samsara - reincarnation - and Karma - quality of action - played a significant part, as though interactions were fixed within the boundaries of the same caste, Indians lived with the hope of reincarnating in to a higher caste, depending on this life¡¯s deeds. It must be noted that provisions for women were different, being only able to reincarnate into an animal at best (8).

II.3 Misconceptions Regarding the Caste System

            Due to the antiquity and the complexity of the Indian caste system, various accounts that suggest different interpretations exist, from the very definition of the caste system to its current role in India today. In midst of such contradictions and discord among numerous sources, common misconceptions regarding the caste system have dominated the minds of people. Here are some whose comprehension will be vital for the understanding of the rest of this paper.
            One common misconception is that the caste system is extremely rigid with no mobility. Sociologists including M. N. Srinivas conclude that caste hierarchies were accompanied by flexibility and mobility. Movement was possible, especially among the middle rungs of the ladder. Scholars assert that it was possible for members of a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism," which can basically be understood as, emulating the practices of the higher castes (9). In addition, an entire caste could rise through conquest or service to rulers or members of high castes (10).
            Another misconception is that the caste system is intimately related to the various races of people in India. However, as aforementioned, castes have to do with dharma, their caste rules that arise from their occupation and socioeconomic status, not lineage. Though the Sanskrit and vernacular term for caste, "jati," means "species," the term is not meant in the literal, biological sense. Ancestral history is relatively irrelevant in determining castes (11); such only matters to the degree that castes are hereditary. However, it does not mean that race or line of descent is where caste starts. Later in history, as well as in this paper, we witness the Imperial British equating caste with race; it was an erroneous interpretation, springing from the British¡¯ mindset.
            One final note: the caste system is not divided solely into four castes. The four Sanskrit terms are the most well known, but over 3,000 castes have developed over the centuries, as sources including the Oxford History of India assert.

III. Influences of non-Hindu elements on the Caste System

            III.1 Buddhism

            One source estimates that the introduction of Buddhism during the 6th century B.C. undermined the Indian caste system, though the extent of it is unclear (12). Nevertheless, another point of view offered with ample explanation seems more credible, and that is the effect of ahimsa on the caste system. The ahimsa doctrine is a Buddhist sentiment that respects animal life. It is believed to have originated earlier than 500 B.C. The argument that this source asserts is that as the ahimsa doctrine was introduced to the people of India, a natural division between the adherents of the doctrine and "the old-fashioned people who clung to bloody sacrifices, cow-killing, and meat eating" emerged, the former separating themselves from the latter, calling the others self-indulgent, revolting, and inferior. Simultaneously with this division, the code of ethics regarding diet developed for the upper caste, so did that of the lower castes, but in a different degree and manner.
            In other words, the Buddhist doctrine provided an additional distinguishing factor of castes: diet. To observe how influential the ahimsa was in the Indian society, one can turn to the first Rock Edict of Asoka, published in roughly around 256 B.C.:
     "Formerly, in the kitchen of His Sacred and Gracious Majesty the King each day many [hundred] thousands of living creatures were slaughtered to make curries. But now, when this pious edict is being written, only three living creatures are slaughtered daily for curry, to wit, two peacocks and one antelope - the antelope, however, not invariably. Even those three living creatures henceforth shall not be slaughtered " (13).
            With this Buddhist doctrine upheld, the habit of flesh or fish eating separated other castes from the vegetarian one. Thus, rather than undermining the caste system, the introduction of Buddhism further clarified the lines between castes, thereby strengthening it in a sense.

III.2 Islam and the Mughal Empire

            The Mughal Empire ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1858. The Mughals spoke Persian and were Muslims of Turkic origin (14). The impact the Mughals left on the Indian caste system can be interpreted in different aspects; when interpreting the influence, it is vital to consider the fact that the Indian caste system held out pretty well, due to its inherent characteristics

III.2.1 Caste System Reinforced and Strengthened

            Scholars, based on several pieces of evidence, argue that the four normative hierarchic categories introduced previously in this paper - the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Shudra - originally had little influence on the social organization of India. In practice, people had placed more importance on "occupational identities and individual mobility." However, the Mughal dynasts were the ones who realized the benefits of reinforcing the Sanskrit categories. As "parvenu kshatriyas" in the Indian society when they first conquered, they found it comfortable and beneficial to establishing their authority, to label native peasants, merchants, and soldiers as the Sanskrit groups, as castes in relation to their own caste. The Mughals had revived titles that had lost much but regional or occupational meaning (15). In effect, they had strengthened the caste system, not for conceptual reasons, but for ease of dominance.
            Also, the Mughal period strengthened the caste system, not only in the process of establishing the Mughal newcomers¡¯ authority, but in having natives of high castes rule parts of the Mughal Empire. During the Mughal period, local aristocratic caste elites performed key roles in governing parganas - small, named and bounded, rural administrative areas - organizing and leading peasants (16). In particular, the Indo-Muslim state relied heavily on the local fiscal officers, the qanungos, who kept record of villages, production, and revenues. Qanungos were mostly recruited from natives of higher castes, including the [Brahmans] and the Kayasths (17).
            Another assertion is that the Muslim conquest of Mughals tightened the bonds of castes. In an effort to protect their culture and religion, but unable to defeat the Muslim invaders, the Hindus defended themselves by sticking to the rigidity of the caste systems, in passive resistance (18). In other words, the Hindus benefited from the brotherhood within each caste, strengthening internally, while rejecting their foreign Muslim rulers.

III.2.2 Caste System Uninfluenced

            Leading up to now, many historians had insisted that Hindus of lower castes converted massively to Islam during the rule of Mughals, attracted by the Sufi preaching of equality, in order to "escape the hierarchic discriminations of a Brahman-dominated 'caste' society." However, the caste system was fairly uninfluenced by the introduction of Mughals, and thus, the assertions are incorrect, on two grounds: first, the Hindu society was not dominated by the power of Brahmans, and second, the Sufi Muslims did not preach equality.
            As for the first ground, the dominance of Brahmans in the Hindu society has long been debated, and many scholars no longer support the claim. Furthermore, the areas of relative brahmanical dominance and the areas of relatively significant conversion to Islam show no correlation. As for the second ground, Islamic conquest focused mainly on the expansion of Muslim power, not conversion. Thus, there was not much effort put in to winning converts, by means of alluring Hindus with sweet-talks of equality. Other castes were not notably oppressed, as Brahmans did not have extreme power in society; also, Sufis did not preach social equality, perhaps equality before Allah. Muslims themselves have abided by social hierarchies within their own societies (19).
            To further elaborate, Hindus who expected to find themselves out of the caste hierarchies by converting to Islam found themselves in another ladder of hierarchy, roughly as the same status. Among the Indian Muslims, a "two-tier hierarchy" developed. The upper class, Sharif Jat, consisted of Muslim converts who were of high Hindu castes and immigrant Muslims. The lower class, Ajlaf Jat, consisted of Muslim converts of lower castes (20). As such, conversion to Islam did not offer much of an alternative to the existing caste system.
            To summarize, Denzil Ibbetson wrote in his introduction to the 1881 census of the Punjab that the Indian caste system was ¡°more of a social than a religious institution, and that conversion from Hinduism to Islam had not necessarily the slightest effect upon caste¡± (21).

III.3 The Imperial British

            The British Raj was present in the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947 (22). The Imperial British influenced the Indian caste system in many different ways.

III.3.1 Caste System Reinforced and Strengthened

            The British¡¯ main interactions with the Indian natives were with the Brahmans. The British strengthened the caste system by offering Brahmans British education and positions in government services under the East India Company (23). The British educated were mainly representatives of the old professional elites in each region. The privileges of Brahmans were explicit, and non-Brahmans, the non-elites of the west and south, could easily observe the "disproportionate opportunities afforded to the tiny percentage of Brahmans who had secured a Western education" (24). Also, caste privileges and customs were granted in the Bengal Army, as well (25).
            Not only through endowing Brahmans with privileges and opportunities, but also through outlining the "Scheduled Castes" (26) in documents such as the Government of India Act 1935, the British Raj further made known the presence of the caste system and its distinctions (27).

III.3.2 Caste System Weakened

            Although as aforementioned, the British re-outlined divisions in the caste system, the British law courts disagreed to the former method of legal punishment, that those of lower castes would be punished more severely for the same offense. They were largely against institutional, legal discrimination of lower castes.
            The modernization of India that accompanied the British rule of India also undermined the presence of caste system in the Indians¡¯ daily lives. As cities developed, it became impossible for members of different castes not to come in contact with each other in factories, buses, etc. In daily business, castes seemed not to matter, as the educated - not necessarily, only the Brahmans - with similar financial and acquired social positions mingled (28). New markets, communications, and networks that connected individuals with larger spheres of activity developed concurrently with new cities, and the changed public life with new social interactions "provided routes to community, to status, and to new conceptions of self-worth" (29).

III.3.3 The British Rule as a Tool for Ascendancy in Caste

            The British in India carried out decennial censuses which were to help British in ruling India. Regardless of the purpose of the British, the Indians of castes sought to gain or maintain status through these censuses. When responding to the censuses, members of certain castes asserted that they should be listed as higher castes for various reasons.
            For example, the Mahtons claimed that they should be listed as Rajputs (a higher caste) in the 1901 and 1911 censuses because they followed Rajput customs. However, due to the fact that the Mahtons were an offshoot of the Mahtams who were hunters and scavengers, their requests were denied both times. Nonetheless, after further debate, the Mahtons were re-categorized as Mahton Rajputs, the reason being that the Mahtons had distinguished themselves from the Mahtams and now emulated the behavior and practices of the Rajputs. The reason for the Mahtons' insistence was this: "some of the Mahtons wanted to join an army regiment and this would only be possible if they had Rajput status." The rural agricultural group, Mahtons, who knew well the advantages of acquiring a higher status, pursued this goal (30).
            As in the case of the Mahtons, it became a frequent incidence that many castes formed associations called sabhas as they aspired to higher status in censuses. Members of sabhas agreed to a selection of "socially preferred behavior," mainly that of the higher castes, involving vegetarianism, abstinence from liquor, control of womenfolk, and Brahman ritual services. "Obscure and humble" groups of lower castes took advantage of the British census system to rise into higher castes (31).
            Also, the Brahmans were not that dominant a force in pre-colonial times. True, they were leaders in spiritual matters, but in terms of control of the material world, their influence was limited and insignificant. Thus, Brahmans, seeing the British rule in India and the privileges they were willing to offer to the Brahmans, allied themselves with the new ruling class and attempted to reap benefits and power through the new alliance. And they did, through Western education and positions in the government.
            All of these examples illustrate how the British¡¯ actions of classifying and detailing castes within the census had "heightened indigenous awareness of the caste system and had added an economic aspect that the Indian people were willing and anxious to exploit" (32).

III.3.4 The British Motive, Interpretation and Modification of the Caste System

            The British had a motive for understanding the Indian caste system. Simply put, the British saw the caste system as "the key to understanding the people of India." The British regarded the caste system as the one system that could classify all groups of indigenous people by their ability, occupation, social standing, and intellectual ability. This one system, once fully comprehended, was to help British use the natives for the service to their rule. Therefore, the British embarked on decennial censuses, so that the British Raj could obtain the necessary information for "optimum use of the people under [the] administration." The British¡¯ understanding of the Indian caste system allowed the British to have a much more significant impact on the Indian society than it would have had without the full knowledge.
            However, though the British may have succeeded in specifying and categorizing the different castes through its censuses, an attempt which had never been carried out before, it often times mistook the caste system to stand for irrelevant characteristics. For example, The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 wrote that there was such a caste that was predisposed to committing crimes because the ancestors had been criminals and the members of the caste were destined to criminal activities. This act virtually asserted that criminals did not come into being due to socio-economic causes but because they were born into a certain caste. The British¡¯ misconception did not end here. It was furthered into a race sentiment. The British began to equate race with caste and to view the caste system as a vital tool of Indians to preserve racial purity. The British, according to measurements of heads, noses, and heights and the corresponding 51 racial groups of Indians, reaffirmed that the caste system preserved pure races. This view was probably brought about by the British notions of the importance of anthropology and race (33).
            With the British, the caste system adopted a far more material characteristic. By equating race with caste - without regard for the origin of each caste - and by offering privileges of opportunities based on caste, the caste system evolved into a physical and material system which had close ties with economic gain. The British diminished the relevance of the religious rationale for caste and made caste and status something to be coveted, hence the rise of sabhas. The Indians¡¯ response to the British regime - formation of sabhas, alliance of Brahmans with the British, etc - that were quite contrary to the original concepts of the caste system could only be attributed to the fact that the British made all to be intimately related to material survival. Higher caste was the way to opportunity, and opportunity was to bring economic well-being (34).

IV. Conclusion
            The Indian caste system is a highly complex system which is very difficult for an outsider to fully comprehend. Because the caste system touches upon so many aspects of a society, there is no definition of "caste" that can be agreed upon unanimously. Thus, there are varying explanations for the workings of the caste system in the Indian society, categories that the caste system encompasses, and the degree to which the caste system has influenced the lives of the Indian people. Throughout the course of the research, there were numerous credible sources that suggested different facts for the same questions, often mildly contradicting each other. However, this incongruity can only be attributed to the abstruseness and vagueness of the system itself, albeit tangible, and the long history it has endured, during the course of which it was influenced in countless ways.
            However, in midst of all the complexity, the focal point is that the caste system survived centuries of foreign influence. This paper examined the minor changes the caste system embraced throughout the influence of Buddhism, Islam during the Mughal Empire period, and the Imperial British. There were little adjustments such as the strengthening and weakening of the caste system. However, on no occasion was the caste system in its entirety ever threatened. Even today, the caste system continues to be a part of the Indian society. Therefore, the three hypotheses, with which this paper started, have been proven false. The caste system¡¯s roots were far deeper and its role in the preservation of social order far more crucial than that as commonly perceived.
            The caste system, however minimized its role in today's society, will remain as a notable social system in history, even in the onslaught of modernity.


V. Notes

(1)      "History of India." Indian Child
(2)      "Definition of a caste." The Oxford History of India. (pg. 61 ? 62)
(3)      "Casta." Reverso Dictionary.
(4)      "History of the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(5)      "Antiquity of the institution." The Oxford History of India. (pg. 64)
(6)      "History of the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(7)      "Antiquity of the institution." The Oxford History of India. (pg. 64)
(8)      "History of the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(9)      Srinivas, M.N, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Page 32 (Oxford, 1952), quoted after "History of the Indian caste system." Wikipedia.
(10)      "Britain and the Indian Caste System." British Empire
(11)      "Definition of a caste." The Oxford History of India. (pg. 62)
(12)      "British Influence on the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(13)      "Effect of ahimsa on caste." The Oxford History of India. (pg. 65)
(14)      "Mughal Empire." Wikipedia
(15)      A Concise History of India. (pg. 24)
(16)      The New Cambridge History of India: The Mughal Empire. (pg. 79)
(17)      The New Cambridge History of India: The Mughal Empire. (pg. 82)
(18)      "Effect of the Muslim conquest." The Oxford History of India. (pg. 66)
(19)      A Concise History of India. (pg. 6)
(20)      "Christians, Muslims, Jews, Europeans in the caste system of India."
(21)      Ibbetson, 1881, quoted after "History of the Indian caste system." Wikipedia.
(22)      "British Raj." Wikipedia
(23)      "British Influence on the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(24)      A Concise History of India
. (pg. 118)
(25)      "History of the Indian caste system." Wikipedia.
(26)      "British Influence on the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(27)      "Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes." Wikipedia
(28)      "British Influence on the Caste System." Bogard, 1997
(29)      A Concise History of India. (pg. 137-138)
(30)      "Britain and the Indian Caste System." British Empire .<
(31)      A Concise History of India. (pg. 138)
(32)      "Britain and the Indian Caste System." British Empire .<
(33)      "Britain and the Indian Caste System." British Empire.<
(34)      "Britain and the Indian Caste System." British Empire .


VI. Bibliography

Note : Websites listed below were visited in October and early November 2007.
1.      "History of India." Indian Child, .
2.      Smith, Vincent A. The Oxford History of India. Fourth Edition. 2001..
3.      "Casta." Reverso Dictionary: Collins Portuguese Dictionary. Second Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 2001.
4.      "History of the Caste System," "British Influence on the Caste System." Bogard, Medina et al. 1 May 1997. Bogard, 1997.
5.      "History of the Indian caste system." Wikipedia.
6.      Hobson, Kevin. British Empire : "Britain and the Indian Caste System."
7.      "Mughal Empire." Wikipedia.
8.      Metcalf, Barbary D. and Thomas R. A Concise History of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
9.      Richards, John F. The New Cambridge History of India: The Mughal Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
10.      "Christians, Muslims, Jews, Europeans in the caste system of India." Adaniel's info site.
11.      "British Raj." Wikipedia.
12.      "Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes." Wikipedia.


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