An institution of considerable internal complexity, the caste system as a form of social stratification is unique to the Indian subcontinent.
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Possibly the clearest definition of caste is provided by Indian sociologist André Béteille in his work, Caste, Class and Power (1965).
Béteille describes a caste as a small and named group of persons characterized by endogamy, hereditary membership and a specific style of life which sometimes includes the pursuit by tradition of a particular occupation and is usually associated with a more or less distinct ritual status in a hierarchical system, based on concepts of purity and pollution.
The caste stratification has its origin in the Varna System which was prevalent during the Vedic period and was mainly based on the principle of division of labor and occupation.
According to the Chaturvarna doctrine, the Hindu society was divided into four main varnas, namely, the Brahmins (the priestly class), the Kshatriyas (the warrior class), the Vaishyas (the trader class) and the Shudras (the servant or the laborer class).
Varna is not something necessarily hereditary. If the son of a Brahmin is not fit to function as one, then he is to be assigned to a varna that is more suited to him. The same applies to people belonging to any other varna.
Within each varna, there are myriad jatis or caste groups.
For example, sarasvata is a jati which is traditionally identified with the Brahmin varna and hence the name Sarasvasta Brahmin. Similarly, groups like Rajputs are traditionally identified with the Kshatriya varna. Thus, although varnas are just four in number, caste groups number in hundreds and thousands. Jatis, unlike varnas, are closed groups.
Author: Stuti Das, India
Click to access the other articles in the “Society & Us” series:
- Scott, John, and Gordon Marshall. A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
- “Back to the Basics: Understanding Jati, Varna, Gotra and Kula.” Hindu Human Rights. Hindu Human Rights – Serving Hindus Worldwide, 9 May 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
- “Difference Between Jati and Varna.” DifferenceBetween.com. Difference Between., 22 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.