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India - Caste

Although many other nations are characterized by social inequality, perhaps nowhere else in the world has inequality been so elaborately constructed as in the Indian institution of caste. Caste has long existed in India, but in the modern period it has been severely criticized by both Indian and foreign observers. Although some educated Indians tell non-Indians that caste has been abolished or that "no one pays attention to caste anymore," such statements do not reflect reality.

Caste has undergone significant change since independence, but it still involves hundreds of millions of people. In its preamble, India's constitution forbids negative public discrimination on the basis of caste. However, caste ranking and caste-based interaction have occurred for centuries and will continue to do so well into the foreseeable future, more in the countryside than in urban settings and more in the realms of kinship and marriage than in less personal interactions.

Castes are ranked, named, endogamous (in-marrying) groups, membership in which is achieved by birth. There are thousands of castes and subcastes in India, and these large kinship-based groups are fundamental to South Asian social structure. Each caste is part of a locally based system of interde-pendence with other groups, involving occupational specialization, and is linked in complex ways with networks that stretch across regions and throughout the nation.

According to the Rig Veda, sacred texts that date back to oral traditions of more than 3,000 years ago, progenitors of the four ranked varna groups sprang from various parts of the body of the primordial man, which Brahma created from clay. Each group had a function in sustaining the life of society -- the social body.

  • Brahmans, or priests, were created from the mouth. They were to provide for the intellectual and spiritual needs of the community.
  • Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers, were derived from the arms. Their role was to rule and to protect others.
  • Vaishyas -- landowners and merchants -- sprang from the thighs, and were entrusted with the care of commerce and agriculture.
  • Shudras -- artisans and servants -- came from the feet. Their task was to perform all manual labor.

Lord Krishna mentioned in the Bhagabat Geeta that castes were created taking into consideration one's guna (nature), karma (work) and brutti (occupation). With the help of such guna, karma and brutti, Lord Krushna achieved the fame of being the greatest Kshatriya in his contemporary society. But by virtue of his birth he was a cowherd boy belonging to Jadu dynasty. Similarly with the same guna, karma and brutti Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa was treated as the greatest brahmin of his time.

Quoting from Hindu scriptures Mullah has written in Principles of Hindu Law, "The Hindu Law lays down certain rules for determining the caste of offsprings from parents belonging to different castes and gives separate names to the mixed castes to which such offsprings belong. When inter marriages were permitted by ancient Hindu Law, children born of mixed marriages were termed Anulomajah, that is, offsprings of Anuloma marriages, and their caste was neither that of their father nor that of their mother. They belonged to an intermediate caste higher than that of their mother, and lower than that of their father. Thus a son begotten by a Brahman upon a Kshatriya wife is a Murdhavasikta, upon a Vaishya wife is an Ambashta, and upon a Sudra wife is Nishada or Parasara. A son begotten by a Kshatriya on a Vaishya wife is a Mahishya and upon a Sudra wife an Ugra. A son born of a Vaishya by a Sudra wife is a Karana. It has accordingly been held that the illegitimate son of a Kshatriya by a Sudra woman is not a Sudra, but of a higher caste called Ugra".

Members of a caste are typically spread out over a region, with representatives living in hundreds of settlements. In any small village, there may be representatives of a few or even a score or more castes.

Each caste is believed by devout Hindus to have its own dharma, or divinely ordained code of proper conduct. Accordingly, there is often a high degree of tolerance for divergent lifestyles among different castes. Brahmans are usually expected to be nonviolent and spiritual, according with their traditional roles as vegetarian teetotaler priests. Kshatriyas are supposed to be strong, as fighters and rulers should be, with a taste for aggression, eating meat, and drinking alcohol. Vaishyas are stereotyped as adept businessmen, in accord with their traditional activities in commerce. Shudras are often described by others as tolerably pleasant but expectably somewhat base in behavior, whereas Dalits--especially Sweepers--are often regarded by others as followers of vulgar life-styles.

Activities such as farming or trading can be carried out by anyone, but usually only members of the appropriate castes act as priests, barbers, potters, weavers, and other skilled artisans, whose occupational skills are handed down in families from one generation to another. As with other key features of Indian social structure, occupational specialization is believed to be in accord with the divinely ordained order of the universe.

So-called honor killings continue to be a problem, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana. These states also had low female birth ratios due to gender-selective abortions. In some cases the killings resulted from extrajudicial decisions by traditional community elders, such as khap panchayats, unelected caste-based village assemblies that have no legal standing. Statistics for honor killings were difficult to verify, since many killings were unreported or reported as suicide or natural deaths by family members. In 2013 NGOs estimated that at least 900 such killings occurred annually in Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh alone. The most common justification for the killings cited by the accused or by their relatives was that the victim married against her familys wishes.

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