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India

Caste System

The rigid caste system, in existence for more than 1,500 years, is a unique social institution. The caste system has religious elements and is interwoven with the Hindu faith. Each member of the Hindu community belongs to one of the more than 2,000 castes and subcastes (O'Malley 1975; Vohra 1997). This caste system puts people into endogamous groups and different social strata. The people belonging to the highest caste are the Brahmins (the priestly class), followed by the Kshatriyas (the warriors and farmers), then the Vaishyas (the merchants, traders, and businessmen), and the Shudras, (the servants, workers, and laborers), who are considered the lowest caste. Below the Shudras are those people commonly known as untouchables, who are considered inherently impure and unholy (Seymour 1999).

The social position of each individual is fixed by heredity, not by personal qualifications, accomplishments, or material acquisitions. Membership in a caste dictates one's occupation, religious beliefs, alliances, and friendships (Mullatti 1992). Consequently, the caste system divides people into groups, and its most salient feature is mutual exclusiveness, because each caste considers other castes as separate communities. The caste system bonds people of the same caste together but at the same time splits up a society into divisions in which people eat, drink, socialize, and expect to marry within their own caste. Although the caste system was officially abolished, it continues to play a crucial role and is unchangeable in most of its essential features (Mullatti 1995).

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