Caste system

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 01:01, 13 January 2023 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs)

Caste systems are any ranked, hereditary, endogamous occupational groups that constitute traditional societies in certain regions of the world, particularly among Hindus in India. There, caste is rooted in antiquity and specifies the rules and restrictions governing social intercourse and activity for each group based on their occupation and social status. The different castes practiced mutual exclusion in many social activities, including eating, as well as marriage. In addition to the major castes, there also existed another group, the "outcastes," who were relegated to the worst occupations if any employment at all. Ranked below the castes, they were treated as sub-human—"unseeable" and "untouchable."

While the Indian caste system is the most well-known, other cultures have had similar structures. While most are no longer in force, one common attribute, and one that persists despite official rulings against it, is the existence of an "outcaste" group. Those classified in this way, whether they be Dalit in India, Burakumin in Japan, or Baekjeong in Korea, have suffered discrimination throughout their history. While the caste system in general is no longer considered acceptable as it denies people many opportunities now considered human rights based on their lineage, it is those that suffer the greatest loss of rights and opportunity, the outcastes, for whom the caste system remains most strongly a reality.


Caste is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "an endogamous and hereditary social group limited to persons of the same rank, occupation, and economic position." The word caste is derived from the Romance word casta (seen in Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian), which (in addition to representing the same concept as English caste) can mean "lineage" or "race." It comes from Romance casto, which can mean "pure" or "chaste." Casto in Latin means "chaste," which is derived from castus, meaning "pure, cut off, separated."[1]

As a religious concept relating to Hinduism, the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes caste as "each of the hereditary classes of Hindu society, distinguished by relative degrees of ritual purity and of social status" and as "any exclusive social class".[2] Anthropologists use the term more generally, to refer to a social group that is endogamous and occupationally specialized. Such groups are common in societies with a low degree of social mobility. In its broadest sense, examples of caste-based societies include colonial Latin America under Spanish and Portuguese rule, Japan, Korea, some parts of Africa, as well as across the Indian subcontinent.

Many of these cultures show only the remnants of a caste system that divided the population into what might today be regarded as different social classes, based on lineage and on the role they performed in society. What remains, however, and is common to many cultures is the "outcaste," the people considered below the level of common humanity of all the others, "untouchable." They and their descendants, the dalit in India, the burakumin in Japan, the baekjeong in Korea, all have faced discrimination, and some continue to do so today.

Castes in India

The traditional hereditary system of social stratification of India, in which all social classes exist in thousands of endogamous groups is termed as Jāti. The jāti system, usually with politically and economically derived hierarchies, has been followed across the Indian subcontinent with regional variations across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Different religious denominations have traditionally followed different kinds of jāti stratification. While the prevalence of the jāti system has reduced significantly over the course of the twentieth century, remote and rural areas of the subcontinent continue to adhere to the system of jāti segregation.

"Caste," on the other hand is a theoretical construct of the Brahmin scholars to describe and categorize (Varna) the complex social arrangement of which they were themselves a part. In the absence of any other better word, Varna was translated as "Caste" by the Europeans, with its connotations of racial purity. Contrary to popular belief, historically there was a great deal of mobility and intermingling within Indian castes, other than Brahmins, largely based on economic or political status of the concerned group.

The Brahmins were enjoined by their scriptures and texts (including the Manusmriti) to live in poverty and to shun possessions and temporal power, and instead devote themselves to study the teachings of scriptures, pure conduct and spiritual growth. They subsisted mainly on alms from the rest society.

Caste became an important element of Indian politics after the British used the entirely theoretical construct of Varna (literally meaning "color") as the basis of classifying the Indian population, especially the Hindus, in the Population Censuses of late nineteenth century. This became more specific in the 1901 Census, because the Indian population did not understand what was meant by "Caste" and gave their occupation, religion and education as their "Caste." In the 1901 Census, the people were asked to classify themselves, or were classified by enumerators, as members of the specific castes of Brahmin, Khshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra. This was ostensibly done to simplify an otherwise difficult to categorize society, with subtle hierarchies, for the purposes of better statistical manipulation.

Outside the caste system (literally "outcastes") is the fifth and lowest class called the Dalit or "Untouchables," seen as untouchable because of the job functions they performed. Some of the untouchables were so polluted that they were called "unseeables" and therefore were supposed to keep out of sight, being able to do their jobs only at night.[3]

Thus, a purely theoretical construct of "Varna" or "Caste" now became a living entity and became embedded in the minds of intellectuals and common people alike as an "ancient" system of social segregation.

Hindu caste system

The Indian caste system, prevalent also among local Muslims and Christians, exhibits some differences from those of other countries. Elsewhere, the separation between one group and the other is usually along racial lines. Within India, that is not so. Nor is there any discernable dichotomy (white/black or high/low) because the caste system forms a continuum that defies such ready definition. Lower-caste people live in conditions of great poverty and social disadvantage, though efforts by the Indian government to emancipate the lower castes with affirmative action have achieved some success in recent years.

The concept of 'upper' and 'lower' caste is simply a matter of social standing and assimilation. Some castes do not allow other caste members (whom they consider to be "lower") to touch them, and in such case would wash themselves or their possessions. In some parts of India, there was the practice of defining the physical distance one should keep from persons of another caste. As a result of this, children who attended a school where children of lower castes were present had to bathe before returning home. In some parts of the world, as well as in India, such discrimination still exists, though it is punishable by law and unconstitutional in India. The Indian constitution was drafted by B.R. Ambedkar, himself of low-caste origins, who is regarded as an emancipator of the Dalits.

Mythical origin of castes

In the Puranas, it is said that the creator of the universe Lord Brahma created some humans from his mouth—they became reciters of the Veda and became the Brahmins. Then he created other humans from his arms, they became the Kshatriyas, bearers of arms, the warrior and ruling class. Brahma then created some from his abdomen, who became the Vaishyas or merchants. Finally, Brahma created humans from his feet. They served the other castes even as the feet serve the man; they came to become the Sudras (manual laborers and artisans). Thus, the whole universe is held to be one organic entity, the body of the almighty. [4]


Major castes were subdivided into hundreds of sub-castes or Jātis. Each jāti typically has an association with a traditional job function in Hindu society, although religious beliefs or linguistic groupings define some jātis. A person's surname typically reflects a jāti association: asari meaning carpenter, thattar meaning goldsmith, muusaari coppersmith, karuvar ironsmith, ambattar clothes-washer, parayar cobbler.

In any given location in India five-hundred or more jātis may co-exist, although the exact composition could differ from district to district. Endogamous marriages (including polyandry) and other associations within caste were strongly enforced. Since most marriages were arranged, based on the existing networks of kinship and caste, it was very unusual to marry someone of different status. People were born into their jāti, and that defined their occupation and lifestyle.

Modern developments

With rapid urbanization and education of India's largely rural, agrarian population, the significance of caste has diminished, except in government mediated interventions in the form of quotas and reservations in education, jobs, and promotions for the socially "lower," but numerous and thus politically important, castes.

The caste system and its attendant practices have been outlawed and declared punishable offenses, but these laws are difficult to implement. There are occasional violations of human rights of Dalits (outcastes - also called untouchables) by the higher castes, including forcing Dalits into their traditional professions. Dalits in rural areas have often been victimized by other castes. The government of India provides freeships, scholarships, reservations for government jobs and of university seats in programs of higher education for people hailing from Scheduled castes, Scheduled tribes, and Other Backward Castes. Upper caste Hindus and several secular elements counter-argue that unmeritorious Dalits are exploiting this constitutionally obligatory discrimination to their unfair advantage and meritorious candidates are being sidelined.

Caste system among Indian Muslims

There is also several caste systems among some Muslims in India. They are broadly divided into two castes, Ashraf and Ajlaf, or oonchi zaat (high caste) and niichi zaat (low caste). The Muslim Caste system in India was analyzed by Ambedkar, who had a very dim view of the rampant discrimination against the Ajlaf castes by the Ashraf caste, who base their superiority on lineage.[5] In addition to the Ashraf and Ajlaf castes exists the Arzal (under-caste) or the Dalit. They are Muslims who are regarded by the Ashraf and the Ajlaf as ritually impure and are relegated to professions regarded as "menial" such as scavenging and the carrying of night soil. They are not allowed to enter the Mosque, and their dead are buried apart from the public Muslim cemetery.

In addition, Muslims in Bengal organize their society according to social strata called "Quoms," where division of labor is granted by birth, rather than by economic status.[6] Professions perceived as "lowly" are provided to people of certain ostracized Quoms; higher Quoms get professions perceived as superior. The Quoms are rigidly segregated with little or no intermarriage or cohabitation.

Caste system among Indian Christians

Converts to Christianity have retained the old caste practices. In particular, Dalit Christians are regarded as an undercaste by upper caste Christian clergy and nuns and are discriminated against in society.

Caste systems similar to India

Balinese caste system

The Balinese caste system resembles the Indian system with a four-fold division of society. Shudras make up approximately 97 percent of the society.

Nepalese caste system

The Nepalese caste system, like the Indian caste system, is highly complex and continues the traditional system of social stratification of Nepal. The caste system defines social classes by a number of hierarchical endogamous groups often termed as Jāti. This custom is found in both the Hindu and Buddhist communities of Nepal.

In ancient times, Muslims attacked Aryans in India causing them to move east into Nepal. Over the years they slowly moved west to east. Thus, the Aryans came in contact with native tribes (most of Mongolian descent) of modern Nepal. There were 36 tribes at that time, classified as 36 Varnas. Aryans treated the people of the 36 Varnas as Baishyas of their society. [7]

Pakistani caste system

The same caste system practiced by Indian Muslims is practiced in Pakistan, with divisions into tribes such as the Pushtun, Pathan, as well as divisions by religious denomination such as Ahmadiyya, Mojahir, and so forth. Pogroms against Ahmadiyya Muslims and Mojahir Muslims in Pakistan have occurred. Gang-rapes of lower caste women such as Mukhtaran Mai by upper caste men have also occurred in Pakistan. The ethnic Balochi in Pakistan are often discriminated against by the Punjabi and Sindhi people in Pakistan, leading to an armed separatist insurgency in Balochistan formerly led by the late Nawab Akbar Bugti.

Educated Pakistani women from the lower castes are often persecuted by the higher castes for attempting to break the shackles of the restrictive system (that traditionally denied education to the lower castes, particularly the women). An example is the case of Ghazala Shaheen, a low caste Muslim woman in Pakistan who, in addition to getting a higher education, had an uncle who eloped with a woman of a high caste family. She was accosted and gang-raped by the upper-caste family. The chances of any legal action are low due to the Pakistani government's inability to repeal the Huddood ordinance. [8]

The social stratification among Muslims in the "Swat" area of North Pakistan has been compared to the caste system in India. The society is rigidly divided into subgroups where each Quom is assigned a profession. Different Quoms are not permitted to intermarry or live in the same community.[9] These Muslims practice a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest.[9]

Sri Lankan caste system

The Sri Lankan system resembles the South Indian Jāti system with numerous Jāti divisions without a Varna system superimposition. Furthermore, the Sri Lankan Tamils see themselves as superior to Tamils of Indian background.

Castes in Japan

Burakumin (buraku community or hamlet + min people), or hisabetsu buraku "discriminated communities/discriminated hamlets") are a Japanese social minority group. The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaido and residents of Korean and Chinese descent.

Japan has historically subscribed to a feudal caste system. While modern law has officially abolished the caste hierarchy, there are reports of discrimination against the Burakumin undercastes, historically referred to by the insulting term Eta.[10] Studies comparing the caste systems in India and Japan have been performed, with similar discriminations against the Burakumin as the Dalits, with the Burakumin regarded as "ostracized".[11]

As early as 1922, leaders of the hisabetsu buraku organized a movement, the "Levelers Association of Japan" (Suiheisha), to advance their rights. The Declaration of the Suiheisha encouraged the Burakumin to unite in resistance to discrimination, and sought to frame a positive identity for the victims of discrimination, insisting that the time had come to be "proud of being eta." The Levelers Association remained active until the late 1930s.

After World War II, the National Committee for Burakumin Liberation was founded, changing its name to the Buraku Liberation League (Buraku Kaihou Doumei) in the 1950s. The league, with the support of the socialist and communist parties, pressured the government into making important concessions in the late 1960s and 1970s. One concession was the passing of the Special Measures Law for Assimilation Projects, which provided financial aid for the discriminated communities.

Even into the early 1990s, however, discussion of the 'liberation' of these discriminated communities, or even their existence, was taboo in public discussion. In the 1960s, the Sayama incident, which involved a murder conviction of a member of the discriminated communities based on circumstantial evidence, focused public attention on the problems of the group. In the 1980s, some educators and local governments, particularly in areas with relatively large hisabetsu buraku populations, began special education programs, which they hoped would encourage greater educational and economic success for young members of the group and decrease the discrimination they faced.

Korean caste system

The baekjeong were an “untouchable” outcaste group of Korea, often compared with the burakumin of Japan and the dalits of India and Nepal. The term baekjeong itself means “common people.” In the early part of the Goryeo period (918 - 1392), the outcaste groups were largely settled in fixed communities. However the Mongolian invasion left Korea in disarray and anomie, and these groups saw the beginning of a nomadic period.

Before the Mongol invasions in mid-thirteenth century the outcastes in Korea, called the kolisuchae, were divided very lightly into two camps; the hwachae or suchae, who hunted and butchered, and were seen as crude; and the chaein, who were principally actors, entertainers, kisaeng, minstrels, prostitutes, and so on, and were sometimes described as “frivolous.” Near the end of the Goryeo era the term hwachae-suchae replaced kolisuchae to refer to the outcastes, before the groups were divided into separate classes altogether, the hwachae and the chaein, who were then seen as distinct groups. Initial attempts by King Sejong to assimilate the outcastes of Korea were a failure, and they were forced to live in ghettos outside mainstream habitations.

In 1392, with the foundation of Confucian Joseon Dynasty, Koreans systematized its own native class system. At the top were the two official classes, the Yangban, literally "two classes." It was composed of scholars (Munban) and warriors (Muban). Within the Yangban class, the Scholars (Munban) enjoyed a significant social advantage over the warrior (Muban) class. Beneath the Yangban class were the Jung-in (중인-中人: literally "middle people"). They were the technicians. This class was small and specialized in fields such as medicine, accounting, translators, regional bureaucrats, etc. Beneath the Jung-in were the Sangmin (상민-常民: literally 'commoner'). These were independent farmers working their own fields.

Throughout the history of the Joseon] Empire, the baekjeong were forced into specific professions like dog catching, killing feral dogs, and performing executions. They were also considered in moral violation of Buddhist principles, which lead Koreans to see work involving meat as polluting and sinful, even if they saw the consumption as acceptable. By the end of the Joseon dynasty, legal reforms were underway to emancipate the status of the baekjeong. However, this legal equality did not equate to social equality. Many remain segregated from larger society, and conditions have worsened in some respects.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was an increasing impetus on human dignity and liberalization. Of particular importance was the growth of certain religions supportive of change. However, the baekjeong had benefited much less from these changes than other groups, such as the slaves. The other major religious influence on human rights came through Christianity. Some missionaries had success converting baekjeong to Christianity, emphasizing that everyone has equal rights under God. However, everyone was not equal for the Christian congregation, and protests erupted when missionaries attempted to integrate them into worship services, with non-baekjeong finding such an attempt insensitive to traditional notions of hierarchical advantage.

Beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them. The Hyŏngp'yŏngsa was launched in Chinju on April 23, 1923 through the alliance of wealthy or educated baekjeong and non-baekjeong proponents of change, advocating for “the abolition of classes and of contemptuous appellations, the enlightenment of members, and the promotion of mutual friendship among members.” [12] It advocated both for individual civil rights as well as communal fellowship. Thus, the Hyŏngp'yŏngsa pursued both an equality of human rights and the right to assimilate into the broader public, even as it worked to forge a common identity. The Hyeongpyeongsa finally disbanded in 1935, claiming the movement's aims had successfully been met. Although today the traditional occupations of the group are considered acceptable, the caste continues to be seen and treated as polluted by larger society.

Yemeni caste system

In Yemen there exists a caste-like system that keeps Al-Akhdam social group as the perennial manual workers for the society through practices that mirror untouchability.[13] Al-Akhdam (literally "servants"; Khadem being plural) is the lowest rung in the Yemeni caste system and by far the poorest.

The Khadem are not members of the three tribes (Bedouin, Berber, and Rif) that comprise mainstream Arab society. They are believed to be of Ethiopian ancestry. Some sociologists theorize that the Khadem are descendants of Ethiopian soldiers who had occupied Yemen in the fifth century but were driven out in the sixth century. According to this theory the al-Akhdham are descended from the soldiers who stayed behind and were forced into menial labor as a punitive measure.

The Khadem live in small shanty towns and are marginalized and shunned by mainstream society in Yemen. The Khadem slums exist mostly in big cities, including the capital, Sana’a. Their segregated communities have poor housing conditions. As a result of their low position in society, very few children in the Khadem community are enrolled in school and often have little choice but to beg for money and intoxicate themselves with crushed glass.[14]. A traditional Arabic saying in the region goes: “Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it’s touched by a Khadem. Though conditions have improved somewhat, the Khadem are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemenese society, considering them lowly, dirty, ill-mannered and immoral[14].

African caste system

Countries in Africa that have societies with caste systems within their borders include Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Osu caste system practiced by the Igbo in Nigeria is derived from indigenous religious beliefs that discriminate against the "Osus" people as "owned by deities" and outcastes.[15]

Caste systems in Somalia mandate non-Arab descended "outcastes" such as Midgan-Madhiban, Yibir, Tumal and other groups deemed to be impure and are ostracized from society. Similarly, the Mande societies in Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana have caste systems that divide society by occupation and ethnic ties. The Mande caste system regards the "Jonow" slave castes as inferior. Similarly, the Wolof caste system in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the Geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendants) and the outcasted neeno (people of caste).

Other caste systems in Africa include the Borana-speaking caste system of North East Kenya with the Watta as the lowest caste. The highest class is Borana Gutu (Pure), followed by Gabra, then Sakuye, with wealth and prestige being measured in cattle and livestock. To understand the nature of "Ubuhake" caste in Rwanda and Burundi, one must know the structure of society in pre-Colonial Rwanda, where caste was largely an economic division between landed gentry living a sedentary lifestyle, and less-wealthy who did not own land. The "Hutu" were largely a service-based class (the underclass) in Rwanda who later, as the majority population, committed genocide against the "Tutsi" overlords in the now infamous Rwandan Genocide.

Castes in Latin America

The word "Caste" is Portuguese in origin, from the word Casta. Many Latin American countries have caste systems based on classification by race and inter-ethnic marriages. The caste system was imposed during colonial rule by the Spanish. Under Spanish rule, a detailed caste system was instituted in Mexico at one time, classifying individuals according to the race of each parent. For example, Mestizo had a Spanish father and Indian mother, Castizo had a Spanish father and Mestizo mother, Espomolo a Spanish mother and Castizo father, Mulatto a Spanish father and black African mother, and so forth.

Many Latin American countries in the present time have rendered the system officially illegal through legislation, but that does not mean societal prejudices and economic exploitation are not present. Even though overt racial oppression is no longer permissible by law, people may still hold personal opinions about members of other races based upon preconceived notions.[16]


  1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
  2. "Caste" Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved March 17, 2007.
  3. Caste System in Retrieved March 6, 2007.
  4. The Vishnu Purana. Retrieved March 6, 2007.
  5. Bhimrao Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India. (Thackers Publishers). Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  6. Frerik Barth and E. R. Leach (Ed.). Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan, Ch. 4: The System Of Social Stratification In Swat, North Pakistan. (Cambridge University Press, 1962).
  7. Rich Rotto, Caste System. The Country. Retrieved March 6, 2007.
  8. Pakistani graduate raped to punish her low-caste family The Sunday Times. (September 24, 2006). Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Edmund Ronald Leach. Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-West Pakistan'.' (Cambridge University Press, 1971).
  10. Caste, Ethnicity and Nationality:Japan Finds Plenty of Space for Discrimination Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  11. William H. Newell, "The Comparative Study of Caste in India and Japan" Asian Survey 1 (10) (December, 1961).
  12. Joong-Seop Kim, Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson, (Eds.), "In Search of Human Rights: The Paekchŏng Movement in Colonial Korea" in Colonial Modernity in Korea, new ed. (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001. ISBN 0674005945).
  13. Yemen: Akhdam people suffer history of discrimination IRIN, November 1, 2005.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Marguerite Abadjian, Caste In Yemen Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  15. Victor E. Dike, Osu caste system in Igboland. internationaldalitsolidarity. Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  16. Racial Classifications in Latin America.zonalatina. Retrieved March 6, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Abadjian, Marguerite. Caste In Yemen. Retrieved August 3, 2007
  • Barth, Frerik and E. R. Leach (Ed.) Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan, new ed. (Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology) Cambridge Univ. Press, [1962] 1971. ISBN 0521096642
  • Bayly, Susan. 2001. Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521798426
  • Dirks, Nicholas B. 2001. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691088950
  • Hockings, Paul (ed.) 1987. "Early Evidence for Caste in South India" in Dimensions of Social Life: Essays in honor of David G. Mandelbaum. Berlin, New York; Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter ISBN 0899252923
  • Leach, Edmund Ronald. 1971. Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-West Pakistan. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521096642
  • Ludden, David. 2001. Spectres of Agrarian Territory Retrieved August 3, 2007.
  • Shin, Gi-Wook, Michael Robinson (Eds) Colonial Modernity in Korea, new ed. Harvard Univ. Press, 2001. ISBN 0674005945
  • Srinivas, M. N. 1997. Village, Caste, Gender and Method. OUP India. ISBN 0195638034
  • Caste Retrieved November 29, 2006.
  • Caste System in India Indian History. Retrieved March 6, 2007.

External links

All links retrieved January 17, 2017.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.