Casts system

The Casts system


Indian society is divided into casts, i.e. defined human groups registered in a more or less local hierarchy.

What is the definition of a cast ?

            Cast is defined by birth. One takes birth in one’s parents cast and stays in it for one’s whole life whatever one’s occupation or wealth status are. 

How did the system appear ?

            Ancient texts (Manu’s law) explain the birth of the system from the partake of the primordial man : from his head were alledgedly born the Brahmans (priest and scholars), from his arms the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), from his belly the Vaishyas (traders and money lenders) and from his thighs (or feet )were born the Shudras (peasants, servants). Thus we obtain four varna-s, « colours » or « categories » among which 3 are born above the belt. All this is very meaningful : the upper part of the body, where spirit, bravour etc stay, has much more value than the lower part, worthy of contempt. As a matter of fact, the three first varna-s are called « twice born » (dvija) because when they reach their teens, boys of these communities go through an initiation after which they can study the holy books. Shudra people, right down the ladder, are denied this right beacause they are not pure enough. Here we can see that social division is activated by social and economical criteria and we can see through it the old tripartite Indo-European classification of society : religion, war, people (1), but this is not all. The cast hierarchy contains also a system of symbolic purity / impurity. Thus the « purest » casts are on the top of the ladder : their activities are non polluting ones, they eat no animal and sometimes they refrain from eating some vegetable species as ognons or garlic. The more you climb down the ladder, the mors you find meat eaters (from smallest meats to biggest ones) and people with impure occupations : hair dressers, sweepers, musicians, shoe makers… If you have got the point up to here, some questions will inevitably arise in your mind, like : what is the logic beneath this purity system ? Why does a hair dresser have an impure occupation ? And why is a warrior, who kills living beings, purest than a trader, since killing makes you impure ? I let you wait a bit more. For the moment, just remember that the  four varna-s system has been spread by Aryan people, Indo-European tribes who entered the peninsula by the North-West. At their arrival there were already indigenous people (Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibetan-Birman) with which they assimilate to a certain extent, and whom they mostly tried to submit. These people were put into the fourth category, the one which didn’t exist according to the Indo-European tradition. Thus the more you progress toward South India, the less you come across people from the 3 first varna-s.

            Inside these varna-s, many distinctions appeared which gave birth to the different casts (called « jati-s », which litterally means « species »).

So what is this hierarchy of purity bases upon ? 

            Purity is foremost a matter of ritual and is not physical. As we have already seen, the consumption of some food makes you less pure. Certain occupations too make you impure, even if you take a good bath. This is the case of hair dressers / barbers, whose wives are often midwives, because they touch subtances which are excreted by somebody else (hair, blood…). Still now, because of this prejudice, very few upper cast candidates can be seen applying for a nursing job.

            Manipulating dirty things makes you impure : sweepers, as well as sewage-cleaners or washmen, are found at the bottom of the social ladder. The lowest casts work with dead bodies of animals or humans : butchers, shoemakers, scavengers, tomb-diggers.

            Between the trading casts and the lowest casts are found the peasants, workers and craftsmen (except those who work with leather) among whom the general hierarchy is variable and restricted to a small perimeter. Ironsmiths and goldsmith, for example, have a very varying status, sometimes high, sometimes low. Until the beginning of the 20th century there was a relative fluidity between these intermediate casts. Successive British population surveys have made this system far more rigid today.

Are casts determined by an occupation?

            In the old days, a cast used to have a particular occupation or at least a specific function. At that time the economical system was bases upon exchange of services and dominating casts used to reward the others with goods.

            Nowadays this economical organisation is disappearing. Lots of outcast people are daily wagers in the towns or in the fields. Ambedkar, the father of Indian constitution and an outcast himself, was a lawyer. Lots of brahmans are no more priests nor teachers. They have turned to trading or industry. Kshatriya people are not the most numerous in the army or the police (they would not be sufficient). However, some hindrances are still there. The most dirty works are still performed by lower casts, traditional occupation remaining the ultimate opportunity when there is no other job available. Management or team leading posts are still mostly occupied by upper cast people, and appointing a low cast person at such a post can be resented by upper cast employees. To break this system, a survey had been conducted for the government at the end of 1980’. The results had been published in a report known as “Mandal report” which directed a positive discrimination policy based on quotas (see here after). 

Is intercast marriage possible?

            Normally not. A cast is called an endogamic group. However it is accepted that a woman from a slightly inferior cast or sub-cast marries a man from a slightly upper group (hypergamy). The contrary is not well accepted and has been a theme for numerous popular songs and tales about the impossible wedding of the middle-cast hero with a princess who despises him from the beginning (see Lorik, Heer-Ranjha). A child takes his father’s cast. Unions between individuals from different casts can lead them to be excluded from their cast, even more if the social distance is big, or to become outcast people.

Who are the outcast people ?

            According to the cast hierarchy, they are the most impure people because of their occupation or their way of living. In this category fall also people who have not been assimilated by Hinduism : they were originally tribal or indigene (âdivâsî). It is politically non correct nowadays to use the term “outcast”. From the beginning of the 20th century, Gandhi launched the word “Harijan” (child of God) which has been subsequently found paternalistic by the concerned people. Then they chose a name for themselves : “dalit-s”, the oppressed. In the Indian administration, terms such as “scheduled casts” (SC) or “scheduled tribes” (ST) are used.

How does cast discrimination shows?

            The Indian constitution of 1950 didn’t abolish the cast system but the cast based discrimination. Before, across the country, dalits were left aside, their mere presence was considered polluting for the upper casts. In some treatises it is even said that their shadow can pollute and they should walk at good distance from the upper cast people to avoid this symbolic contact.

            Physically, low casts and dalits were confined to the periphery of the village or into remote quarters (this can be still seen in the cheri-s of Tamil Nadu). When they were in presence of upper cast people, they had to observe certain rules: no blouse for women wearing sari, lungi folded up for men, no shoe as a sign of humility. In restaurants and canteens special glasses, mostly broken, were kept aside for them, or they were served disposable thin clay cups. The list of do-s and don’ts is not over. Nowadays, some of these customs still exist, particularly in villages where people know each other and customs are hard to change. They way people address to each other according to their cast is still codified.

Are reservation quotas a solution? 

            In order to facilitate low casts access to governmental jobs and university seats, the Indian government has implemented since the 1990’s a policy of seat reservation for the casts qualified as “backward” according to their demographic weight. ST had a 7% quota, 15% for SC and 27% for OBC (other backward classes). If the access to public jobs has been facilitated in theory for low casts, practically the most powerful people of each category and their networks grabbed the opportunities first. Besides, this policy implies that some low cast people have been admitted to university’s entrance tests with lesser marks than upper cast students as low cast students need only 33 marks out of 100 to pass. Such a situation has created several problems: resentment from upper cast students who, despite of best results, have been denied the admission to the university, overall decrease of students level and competence problem of lower casts people who have been selected with less marks. This leads to a lack of acknowledgement of lower casts’ skills, always taunted of having received a “cheap” training. Another side effect of this policy has been the demand by all a series of casts which were on the edge of the quota system to be included into the scheme and recognised as “backward”.


And what about the women ?


            In this matter, there is nothing new. Women are always less pure than men. They are not ritually considered as “twice born” and before were denied the study of holy books precisely because they were not pure (always that stuff of monthly periods and delivery…). Of course, upper cast women kept theoretically there status of cast and a brahman woman could never be as low as a shudra woman, as we have seen for the matrimonial cases. It is interesting to see that the only women who could access education in the old time where the courtesans and the temple dancers (who often had similar occupations). They had to be educated as they should know how to satisfy men and gods by displaying a large and refined culture too.


Some good references (in French for the moment) : 

Quelques saines lectures :

- Viramma, une vie paria (récit recueilli par J.L. et J. Racine), éd. Plon, coll. Terre humaine, 1994.

- Homo Hierarchicus, Louis Dumont

- La Cour suprême de l’Inde et la discrimination positive, C. Jaffrelot, 2010 :


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