(ii) MacIver and Page: “When status is wholly predetermined so that men are born to their lot without any hope of changing it, then the class takes the extreme form of caste.” (iii) C.H. Cooley: “When a class is somewhat strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste.” (iv) A.
W. Green: “Caste is a system of stratification in which mobility up and down the status ladder, at least ideally may not occur”. (v) Ketkar: “A caste is a group having two characteristics; (i) membership is confined to those who are born of members and includes all persons so born, (ii) the members are forbidden by an inexorable social law to marry outside the group.” (vi) D.N. Majumdar and T.N.
Madan have said that caste is a ‘closed group’. Characteristics of Caste: The caste system is highly complex in nature. As Dr. G.S. Ghurye says, any attempt to define caste is ‘bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon.’ He describes the characteristics of caste in his ‘ Caste and Class in India ‘-1950-56 [also in his Caste, Class and Occuption-1961 and Caste and Race in India-1970]. The following have been the main traditional features of the caste system.
1. Caste—As a Hierachical Division of Society: The Hindu society is gradational one. It is divided into several small groups called castes and subcastes. A sense of ‘highness’ and ‘lowness’ or ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’ is associated with this gradation or ranking. The Brahmins are placed at the top of the hierarchy and are regarded as ‘pure’, supreme or superior. The degraded caste or the so called ‘untouchables’ [Harijans] have occupied the other end of the hierarchy. All over India neither the supremacy of the Brahmins nor the degraded position of the Harijans or ‘outcastes’ has been questioned.
It is taken for granted, but regarding the exact position of the intermediary castes there are disputes on the part of the members. 2. Caste-As a Segmental Division of Society: The Hindu society is a caste-ridden society. It is divided into a number of segments called ‘castes’. It is not a homogeneous society. Castes are groups with defined boundary of their own. The status of an individual is determined by his birth and not by selection nor by accomplishments. No amount of power, prestige and pelf can change the position of man.
The membership of the caste is hence unchangeable, unacquirable, inalienable, unattainable and nontransferable. Further, each caste in a way has its own way of life. Each caste has its own customs, traditions, practices and rituals. It has its own informal rules, regulations and procedures. There were caste councils or ‘caste panchayats’ to regulate the conduct of members also. The caste used to help its members when they were found in distress. Indeed, ‘the caste was its own ruler’. Caste Panchayat: During the early days in every village every caste used to have its own caste Panchayat.
It consisted of five chosen members who enjoyed much social privilege and respect. The caste panchayat used to perform a number of functions. It used to make the members comply with caste rules and regulations.
Settling caste disputes and giving its final verdict on the issues referred to it, were also its other functions. It was giving punishments to those who violated caste rules and obligations. Matters such as – breaking the marriage promise, refusal on the part of the husband to take the wife to his house, cruelty to wife, adultery on the part of wife, killing the cows, insulting the Brahmins, having illicit sex relations with other caste people, etc., were dealt with by the panchayat. It was giving punishments such as-arranging dinner party for the fellow caste-men, imposing fine, purification, pilgrimage, out casting etc., for the offenders. The caste panchayat was also striving to promote the welfare of the caste members.
Safeguarding the interests of the caste members was yet another function of the panchayat. These caste panchayats have become weak and ineffective nowadays. The castes and subcastes together make up the Hindu social system. Still in some respects each is isolated from the other. It is in a way semi sovereign. The castes are a ‘complete world’ in themselves for their members. The members are expected to be loyal to the caste. Caste feeling is hence very strong.
It is very much stronger in rural areas than in the urban area. It is because of this the amount of community-feeling is restricted. 3. Restrictions on Food Habits: The caste system has imposed certain restrictions on the food habits of the members; they differ from caste to caste. Who should accept what kind of food and from whom? is often decided by the caste. For example, in North India, a Brahmin would accept ‘pakka’ food [cooked in ghee] only from some castes lower than his own. But he would accept ‘kachcha’ food [prepared with the use of water] at the hands of no other caste except his own.
As a matter of rule and practice, no individual would accept ‘kachcha’ food prepared by an inferior caste man. Generally, any kind of food that is prepared by the Brahmins is acceptable to all the caste people. This factor explains as to why the Brahmins dominated the hotel industry for a long time. Further, restrictions are also there still on the use of certain vegetables for certain castes. Even today, some traditional Brahmins do not consume onions, garlic, cabbage, carrot, beatroot, etc. Eating beef is not allowed except for the Harijans. 4.
Restrictions on social Relations: The caste system puts restrictions on the range of social relations also. The idea of ‘pollution’ makes this point clear. It means a touch of a lower caste man (particularly Harijan) would pollute or defile a man of higher caste. Even his shadow is considered enough to pollute a higher caste man. In Kerala for a long time, a Nayar could approach a Nambudari Brahamin but would not touch him.
Further, a Tiyan was expected to keep himself at a distance of 36 steps from the Brahmin and apulaya at a distance of 96 paces. In Tamilnadu the Shanar toddy tapper was expected to keep a distance of 24 paces while approaching a Brahmin. This has resulted in the practice of untouchability. This practice has made the lower caste people to be segregated completely from the higher caste. 5. Social and Religious Disabilities of Certain Castes: In the traditional caste society some lower caste people [particularly, the Harijans] suffered from certain civil or social and religious disabilities. Generally, the impure castes are made to live on the outskirts of the city or the village. In south India, certain parts of the towns or the villages are not accessible to the Harijans.
It is recorded that during the Peshwa rule in Maharashtra the Mahars and Mangs were not allowed within the gates of Poona before 9.00 A.M. and after 3.00 P.M. The reason was during that time their bodies would cast too long shadows which, if they were to fall on the Brahmins, would defile them.
Socially, Harijans or the so called ‘untouchables’ are separated from other members. Even today, in many places they are not allowed to draw water from the public wells. During the early days, public places like hotels, hostels, public lecture halls, schools, temples, theatres were not kept open for the lower caste people.
Entrance to temples and other places of religious importance was forbidden for them. Educational facilities, legal rights and political representation were denied to them for a long time. In South India, restrictions were placed on the mode of constructing houses of the lower caste people, and their types of dresses and patterns of ornamentation. The toddy-tappers of Malabar were not allowed to carry umbrellas, to wear shoes or golden ornaments and to milk cows. They were forbidden to cover the upper part of their body. 6. The Civil and Religious Privileges of Certain Castes: If the lower caste people suffer from certain disabilities, some higher caste people like the Brahmins enjoy certain privileges. Nowhere the Brahmins suffered from the disabilities cited above.
They are given more liberty, because they are believed to be born ‘pure’ and ‘superior’. The Brahmins never saluted others, but they always had the privilege of being saluted by others. They never even bowed to the idols of the lower caste people. Education and teaching were almost the monopoly of the higher caste people. Chanting the Vedic Mantras was great privilege of the Brahmins. The upper caste people in general, enjoyed social, political, legal and religious privileges. 7. Restrictions on Occupational Choice: In the caste-ridden society there is a gradation of occupations also.
Some occupations are considered to be superior and sacred while certain others degrading and inferior. For a long time, occupations were very much associated with the caste system. Each caste had its own specific occupation. The caste members were expected to continue the same occupations. Occupations were almost hereditary. Weaving, shoe-making, oil-grinding, sweeping, scavenging, curing, hides tanning, washing clothes, barbering, pottery, etc., were considered to be somewhat ‘degrading’. Learning, priesthood, teaching were the prestigious professions which mostly the Brahmins pursued.
Individual talents, aptitudes, interests, enterprise, abilities, and achievements were neglected. But agriculture, trade and labouring in the field were thrown open to all the castes. At the same time, no caste would allow its members to take up to any profession which was either degrading or impure. 8. Restrictions on Marriage: The caste system imposes restrictions on marriage also. Caste is an endogamous group.
Endogamy is a rule of marriage according to which an individual has to marry within his or her group. Each caste is subdivided into several subcastes, which are again endogamous. For example, Iyers, Iyengars, Smarthas, Madhvas, Having Brahmins, Kota, Shivalli, Kandavara Brahmins, etc., are all Brahmin subcastes which are endogamous. Similarly, the Vokkaliga caste consists of Morasu, Hallikar, Nonaba, Gangadiga and other subcastes. According to the rule of endogamy a Shivalli Brahmin, for example, has to marry a Shivalli girl, an Iyengar, an Iyengar girl and so on. Intercaste marriages were strictly forbidden then.
Even at present, intercaste marriages have not become popular. Violation of the rule of endogamy was strictly dealt with during the early days. This rule of endogamy has resulted in close in-breeding. Some writers like Hutton have regarded endogamy as the very essence of the caste system. Exception to this rule of endogamy is seen in places like the hill parts of Punjab and also in Malabar. The Caste provides for some kind of exogamous marriages also.
They can be briefly examined here. Sapinda and Sagotra Exogamy: Sapinda and Sagotra marriages have been generally forbidden by the upper castes and Sapinda and Sagotra exogamous marriages have been insisted upon. Sapinda Exogamy: In Hindu society marriage within the ‘Pinda’ is prohibited. Pinda means common parentage. According to Brahaspathi, offsprings from five maternal generations and seven paternal generations are ‘Sapinda’ and they cannot intermarry. This opinion, however, is not universally accepted.
Though certain exceptions are there in South India, in North India, generally, Sapinda marriages do not take place. But Sapinda exogamy, that is, marrying outside one’s pinda is commonly found. Sagotra Exogamy: Sagotra exogamy that is, marrying outside one’s own ‘gotra’ is very much prevalent among the upper caste such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Marriage within the gotra is prohibited. This restriction has been imposed since people of one gotra are believed to have similar blood.
Similarly, Sapravara marriages are also forbidden especially for the Brahmins. Persons belonging to the same pravara cannot intermarry. People who utter the name of a common saint at religious functions are believed to belong to the same pravara. The pravara is a kind of religious and spiritual bond. Sapravara exogamy that is, marrying outside one’s own pravara has been imposed as a rule for the upper castes, especially for the Brahmins.