Caste or Varna is a social class in a society: It divides people into groups on the basis of their birth, family, rank, wealth, social matters etc. According to Dr. Sham Shastri, “Organisation of some people into a a group for the purpose of several social matters like marriage and diet is called a caste.”
In the ancient days, the Hindu society was divided into four Varnas or castes namely, the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Sudras. These castes were formed on the basis of occupations which the people followed and not on the basis of birth. Those who studied the Vedas and took charge of the religious ceremonies were called the Brahmans. Those who were warriors and protected the people were called the Kshatriyas. Those whose occupation was trade and commerce were know as the
Vaishyas. The cultivators, artisans and craftsmen were known as the Sudras. Outside the above four castes, were the untouchables. Any person could change his occupation and enter another caste.
Gradually, the Hindu caste system became complex and rigid. The Hindu society was divided into many castes and sub-castes. Each caste developed PC its own customs and ceremonies. The members of a caste could marry only among themselves. Some castes were considered as high and others as low. Gradually, the castes became hereditary. Change from one caste to another became difficult. The caste was closely allied with religion. The caste system believes in the theory of Karma. It means that a person is born in a caste due to his actions in his previous birth. One can improve his caste status in his next life (Janama), if he strictly obeys the caste rules in his present life.
Advantages of Caste System
The caste system had a number of advantages.
1.The caste system was based on the principle of division of labour. It promoted efficiency in professions and functions. The son knew from the early childhood that he was to take up the occupation of his father. The system preserved skilled labour because the vocational skill was passed on from one generation to the next. It led to specialization and added to economic prosperity of the society.
2. The caste system solved the problem of unemployment. It solved the problem of livelihood in a satisfactory way.
3. The division of society into castes contributed to the preservation of the purity of blood as inter- caste marriiges were lrbidden.
4. It enabled Hinduism to preserve its vital elements, its spirit and its ideals for thousands of years.
Harmful Effects of Casteism on Society
It cannot be denied that many evils resulted from the caste system. It struck at the very roots of human dignity. It caused havoc in every sphere of Indian life.
Firstly, the caste system has been a source of political weakness of India. By dividing the society into thousands of castes and sub-castes, it made impossible for the Hindus to be united into a strong nation. Secondly, the caste system weakened the defence of the country The defence of the country was the’ duty of the Kshatriyas alone. The rest of the population did not come forward to fight against the foreign invaders. Thirdly, it is against the principle of equality It harms the higher as well as the lower castes. It breeds in the former a false sense of pride and superiority and in the latter a feeling of inferiority. Fourthly, the most unfortunate result of the caste system was the practice of untouchability. Till recently, the untouchables could not use the same wells, bathe in the same tanks and offer prayers in the same temples as the higher castes. It thus created hatred between the people of different castes. It sapped the strength of the national life. As the untouchables were regarded as out-castes, a large number of them left the Hindu-fold and embraced other religions like Christianity and Islam. Fifthly, the caste system practised in India is against the spirit of brotherhood of mankind. In the ‘modern times, the division of the society into castes and creeds is undesirable.
Causes of Decline of Caste System
The caste system has lost its rigidity due to the following factors:
1. Work of Socio-religious reformers. Socio-religious reformers like Chaitanya, Ramananda, Kabir, Guru Nanak Dev, Baja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayananci strongly condemned the caste system. They started powerful movements against it. Mahatma Gandhi also tried to remove caste barriers in the society. He spread the spirit of brotherhood of mankind and brought all the sections of the society in the national movement.
2. Impact of West thought and scientific development. The Western thought and the growth of science and technology have created liberal outlook among the people. Inventions of different means of mass media like the newspapers, radio, television have also brought social awakening among the people. The growth of literacy has also helped in the eradication of the caste system.
3. Means of Transport. The development of means of transport like the railways, buses and aeroplanes have contributed much to the break down of caste barriers. The people belonging to all castes sit together and partake the same food while travelling. It has developed a feeling of oneness. This naturally gives a setback to the rigidity of caste system.
4. Large scale industrialisatlon. The growth of large scale industries has led to the growth of big cities. The people belonging to different classes have migrated to these towns to earn their livelihood. They live together in the same buildings or areas. They become neighbors and break their caste barriers. They combine together and fight shoulder to shoulder for their common cause.
Government Efforts for the Eradication of Caste System after Independence
The Constitution of India has made India a secular and democratic country. The government has passed laws about the inheritance of property and legitimacy of the children born out of inter-caste marriages. The Constitution has abolished the practice of untouchability. To practice untouchability in any form is a criminal offence.
Future of Caste System
Today, the political, social and economic conditions are no longer favourable for maintaining caste distinctions. The spread of education, the development of scientific outlook, the growing spirit of equality among the people, the advance of industrialisation etc. are slowly but certainly helping in the disappearance of caste system from India. The vocation is no longer, a sure index of caste. For instance, many Brahmans are setting up as traders, shopkeepers and industrialists. The other castes are adopting the professions of teaching. Inter-dining and mixing at social functions have given a severe blow to the caste system. The great social and political leaders and educationally advanced Hindus are making
efforts to purge the Hindu society of the evils of caste system.