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  Caste, in theory, is a rank in society combined with a specific occupation and ritual associations. It is a position that one is normally born into and broadly defines the group within which one can marry, although the reality may be a lot more complex.

Caste has usually been regarded as a Hindu phenomenon. The English word comes from the Portuguese casta, a term used to describe the people of India after the Portuguese settled there in the 16th century. (The Portuguese derived it from Latin castus, ‘race’, ‘breed’ or ‘clan’.) Some anthropologists have questioned how far caste institutions are unique to Hindu societies. Communities, for instance, in West Africa, also appear to be ranked in ways similar to caste organizations. However, most attention has been directed to the nature of the caste system in India.

Several Hindu myths relate the origins of castes in a fourfold varna (literally ‘colour’) system. The most famous is the one about the bodily dismemberment of the god Purusha: his mouth gave rise to the Brahmins (priests and people of learning), his arms to the Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), his thighs to the Vaisyas (traders), and his feet to the Sudras (cultivators, occupational and serving castes).

Conventional Hindu ideology considers the three higher castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas—as spiritually twice born. Outside of this varna system are the ‘Untouchables’. These are the people conceived as ritually polluting and engaging in polluting occupations, such as the barber, sweeper and leather-worker. While ‘Untouchables’ are marginalized within the varna system, both are mutually dependent on each other for it is the ‘Untouchables’ that maintain the purity of the higher castes by removing polluting substances from the social system.

In practice, each varna is composed of a group of castes and sub-castes which show variation in different localities. Hindu ideas about castes also broadly define the castes who can dine, exchange food, water and services with each other. For instance, it is expected that a high-caste Brahmin does not receive cooked food or water in an earthenware pot from someone who is of a lower caste if ritual pollution and social disapproval are to be avoided.

A prominent scholar of the Hindu caste system, Louis Dumont, argued in his book Homo Hierarchicus (1966), that Hindu religious ideas about caste dominated all other aspects of society. A hierarchy of castes was therefore legitimate in traditional Hindu thought, contrary to Western ideas about equality. Later anthropologists have reappraised Dumont\'s views. Some argue that he has confused Hindu theory with practice, while others hold that he has given the dominant view of the Brahmins to the neglect of the lower castes. They accuse him of distorting and over-mystifying Hindu society to present a picture of a totally different and timeless place, thereby confirming Orientalist assumptions. Historical perspectives reveal that Hindu caste organizations were largely systematized by colonial administrative practices under British rule. Such analysts argue that colonialists ‘imagined’ caste as a system of racial typology which they could use as a label to categorize and govern the Indian people.

M.N. Srinivas (see below) has suggested some helpful caste-related concepts. He proposed the term ‘dominant caste’ for a caste group considered superior in a particular locality, and ‘sanskritisation’ to describe the aspirations of caste groups to raise their status in the eyes of society. ‘Sanskritisation’ could be effected by such measures as refraining from impure practices like alcohol and meat consumption.

It is evident that even in the case of Hindu society, ideas about caste are not agreed upon by all. In India, religious and political attempts have been made to eradicate it for the inequalities it demonstrates, both historically and in modern times. Industrialization and democratization have had considerable impact on the caste system, particularly this century. The mobility of class divisions based on economic achievements has cut across traditional caste occupations and hierarchies. Yet caste considerations continue to have great influence in Indian daily life, especially in the selection of marriage partners, allocation of temple priests, and in the political arena where, despite efforts to promote equality, positive discrimination favouring the position of ‘Untouchables’ in society has inadvertently led to a reinforcement of caste system allegiances. RK

See also colonialism and neocolonialism; ethnicity; race; structuralism.Further reading B.S. Cohn, Structure and Change in Indian Society; , Ron Inden, Imagining India; , M.N. Srinivas, Caste in Modern India and Other Essays.



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