Caste System

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'Caste' is a Portuguese-derived English word; its early use is described in the famous British colonial Hobson-Jobson dictionary. The Imperial Gazetteer finds it a difficult task to explain the theory of caste. And it could be even more complex in practice: notice how the Imperial Gazetteer struggles to describe the caste situation in the Gangetic plains. Here's the Imperial Gazetteer's list of the most important castes throughout British India. Here we are concerned chiefly with Dr. Ambedkar's own views. Dr. Ambedkar makes it clear in the AOC that he takes the Laws of Manu to be the single most authoritative source of information about the religious origin of caste, and about the rules governing it.

The Laws of Manu explains that in the beginning of the universe the great abstract principle of Brahman created all things, including the four Varnas: "for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds, he caused the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, and the Shudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet....But in order to protect this universe He, the most resplendent one, assigned separate (duties and) occupations to those who sprang from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet" (I,31; I,87). At the top of this fourfold system is the Brahmin: "As the Brahmin sprang from (Brahman's) mouth, as he was the first-born, and as he possesses the Veda, he is by right the lord of this whole creation" (I,93). At the bottom is the Shudra: "One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Shudra: to serve meekly even these (other) three castes [varnas]" (I,91). Above all, the contrast between the two extremes of the hierarchy is made clear: "But a Shudra, whether bought or unbought, he [a Brahmin] may compel to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent (Svayambhu) to be the slave of a Brahmin" (VIII,413).

Outside the system entirely were the 'slaves' [dasyus]: "All those tribes in this world, which are excluded from (the community of) those born from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, and the feet (of Brahman), are called Dasyus, whether they speak the language of the Mlechchhas (barbarians) or that of the Aryans" (X,45). Among those outside the system are groups produced by illicit unions among the different varnas, who "shall subsist by occupations reprehended by the twice-born [the three upper varnas]" (X,46). Among these occupations are "catching and killing (animals) living in holes," "working in leather," (X,49) "carry[ing] out the corpses (of persons) who have no relatives," (X,55) and "execut[ing] criminals" (X,56). These impure groups are to live in remote, wild areas or "near well-known trees and burial grounds" (X,50). "Their dress (shall be) the garments of the dead, (they shall eat) their food from broken dishes, black iron (shall be) their ornaments, and they must always wander from place to place" (X,52). "A man who fulfils a religious duty, shall not seek intercourse with them; their transactions (shall be) among themselves, and their marriages with their equals" (X,53). "Their food shall be given to them by others (than an Aryan giver) in a broken dish; at night they shall not walk about in villages and in towns" (X,54).

To what extent were these ancient scriptural injunctions actually carried out? Dr. Ambedkar provides in the AOC a great deal of information about his view of the system as he saw it in operation, and about the hundreds of smaller castes and sub-castes that existed within the four large Varna groups—and about the role of the untouchables, who occupied the despised, ritually impure sub-basement of the system.

Professor Rachel McDermott discusses the role of the Rig Veda in constructing the caste system.

Professor Rachel McDermott discusses the relationship between race and caste.

Professor Rachel McDermott explores the ways in which the Shastras represent and have influenced the caste system.

Professor Anu Rao discusses the political and historical context for Ambedkar's activism against the caste system.

Professor Anu Rao discusses how opinions about Ambedkar have changed in tune with evolving caste politics.