Some systems resembling caste are found at present in Burma, Polynesia, Massai and Somali of East Horn. But the caste system which we understand today with all its peculiarities is found in India alone.
Caste is embedded in the Indian Social Structure:
Caste is closely connected with the Hindu philosophy and religion, custom and tradition, marriage and family, morals and manners, food and dress habits, occupations and hobbies. The caste system is believed to have had a divine origin and sanction. It is endlessly supported by rituals and ceremonies. It is a deep-rooted and a long-lasting social institution of India.
India is a classical land of the caste. It is here, in India, we find more than 2800 castes and sub-castes with all their peculiarities. Of these, the major caste (previously known as varnas) such as Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras (or depressed caste) are found in almost all the states. But none of these castes is numerically dominant in any of the states of India.
The term ‘caste’ is derived from the Spanish (also Portuguese) word ‘caste’ meaning ‘breed’ or ‘lineage’. The Protuguese used the term ‘caste’ first to denote the divisions in the Indian caste system. The word ‘caste’ also signifies ‘race’ or ‘kind’. The Sanskrit word for caste is ‘Varna’ which means ‘colour’. Races and colour seem to be the bases of Indian caste in addition to the division of labour and occupation. The popular equivalent of caste is ‘Jati’.
The Origin of the Caste System:
The caste stratification of the Indian Society has had its origin in the ‘Chaturvarna’ system. According to the Chaturvarna doctrine, the Hindu society was divided into four main varnas namely: the Brahmins, the Kashtriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras. The Varna system which was prevalent during the Vedic period was mainly based on the division of labour and occupation.
The Caste system owes its origin to the Varna system. The present caste system can be said to be the degenerated form of the origional Varna system. Varnas which were four in number and castes which are found in hundreds and thousands are not one and the same. Factors which Facilitated the Growth of Caste System in India
Among the factors that have facilitated the continued existence and growth of the caste system, the following are the most important:
1. The geographic isolation of the Indian Peninsula for a long time made the people to foster old customs, mores, traditions and superstitious beliefs which in turn encouraged the caste system to grow.
2. The influence of religion is one of the main factors that caused the continuation of the caste system. The Hindu Caste system is looked upon as a divine ordained institution. Beliefs in reincarnation and the doctrine of Karma also further strengthened the caste system.
3. The existence of many races in the country led to the formulation of many strict laws concerning discrimination since each race endeavoured to maintain its purity.
4. The rural social structure has its own impact on the caste. The unchanging, static rural social structure of India favoured the growth of caste system.
5. The unwillingness of rulers to enforce a uniform standard of law and custom and their readiness to recongnise the varying customs of different groups as valid, also facilitated the growth of caste system.
6. Lack of education has contributed in no small measure to the growth of caste system. Illiteracy and ignorance have made the people to become orthodox and to implicitly accept the caste rules and restrictions.
7. Further, factors such as the hereditary occupations: the desire of the Brahmins to keep themselves pure: ideas of exclusive family, ancestor worship, the sacramental meal, the deliberate economic and administrative policies followed by the various conquerors, particularly the British, clash of races, colour prejudices and conquest, etc., also have contributed to the growth of caste system in India.