Caste is derived from the Portuguese word for "chaste," and originally used to refer to a social division in Hindu society. Anthropologists use the term more generally to refer to a social group that is endogamous and occupationally specialized; such groups are common in highly stratified societies with a very low degree of social mobility. Broadly understood, South Africa during the era of Apartheid, the practice of slavery in the southern colonies of the United States before the Civil Rights movement, and the British occupation of India before its independence were caste-based societies.

The caste system in India was based on four varnas (meaning "colors") -- Brahmins (white), Kshatriyas (red), Vaishyas (yellow), and Shudras (black) -- each of which corresponded to an occupational class -- priests, warriors, merchants/craftsmen, and workers. Indian texts also speak of jati, which are communities. Each varna is further subdivied into many jatis. Each varna has its appropriate rules of conduct, or "dharma," including rules regarding marriage, eating, and physical proximity. In the Manusmriti it is asserted that there are only four varnas, which leads one to the conclusion that the formation of the outcaste groups may have been a consequence of the Buddhist injunction against professions dealing with animal-killing. Support for this view comes from the fact that similar outcaste groups have existed in Japan, Korea, and China.

Much of what we know of the caste system in India was documented and codified during the period of British occupation and rule (e.g. Herbert Risley's The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1892). Some scholars suggest that the resulting depiction of the caste system was as much a product of European racist theories, and the interests of colonial rule, rather than Indian cultural realities. Certainly the color hierarchy from 'white' to 'black' was typically interpreted at this time in racial terms. Modern scholars further suggest that prior to the colonial era, castes were much more open and flexible. There are several passages in the Vedas which indicate that the four varnas were initially based on professions and not simply determined by birth. It was during a later period that the current rigid caste system came into place.

In any case, the Vedas are said to talk about only four castes. Contemporary India however, has numerous castes and sub-castes, many of which are officially documented (primarily to determine those deserving reservation, an affirmative action process similar to the US system) through the census, and these divisions have fragmented the Indian society. Caste-based politics have strong roots in many Indian states. Sometimes, converts to other religions like Christianity, or Islam, retain their caste identity, often due to the economic benefits it carries, and also to retain their ties with the community for social reasons.

Presently, India has tough laws against individual discrimination on the basis of caste. There is a policy for the socio-economic upliftment of the erstwhile lower castes, by the provision of free education till graduation, reservation of admission seats in institutions for higher education, a 50% quota in government jobs with faster promotions. In spite of these affirmative actions, identification and discrimination based on castes is quite common in the Indian society. Matrimony between members of different castes is still looked down upon and not very popular. Casteist atrocities are still fairly common in many economically backward states and isolated rural districts.

These affirmative actions have often been challenged in courts, and through mass protests. Anti-reservation activists allege that the divisions are artificially fostered by the process, which they suspect is fuelled by political gains. A few allege that in the process of categorizing people "who need reservation", casteist identities become firmly entrenched in the Indian psyche. Many also allege that the progress of the meritorius is cramped by the reservation system, which has not been set any deadline by the Constitution of India. Pro-reservation activists allege that the system helps in upliftment of the long-suppressed masses and needs to be in place until all sections achieve an equal status in the Indian society. There is a third viewpoint which suggests that reservations should be continued but based on the financial plight of an individual rather than on his/her caste. This debate has raged on for the last two decades in India.

Table of contents
1 Notable People
2 See Also
3 External Links

Notable People

See Also

External Links

In social insects such as ants, bees and termites, a caste is a specific sub-type of an insect species which is specialized in a certain task. A common example is the "queen" and the "worker", in which queens are specialized in reproduction and the workers are specialized in feeding and protecting the queens.