- BBC World News
The caste system of India is among the oldest forms of social stratification that has survived throughout the years.
This system that divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups is said to based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, although here it means duty) is over 3000 years old and very complex.
How did the castes arise?
Manusmriti, considered the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law and dating back at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, “recognizes and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and trust in society “.
The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories: brahmanes, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras.
Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
At the top of the hierarchical order were brahmins, who were primarily teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from the head of Brahma.
Then they came los Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms.
Third place went to los vaishyas, or merchants, who were created from your thighs.
At the bottom of the pile were los shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all menial work.
The main castes were divided into some 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on specific occupation.
Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots, the dalits or the untouchables.
How does the caste system work?
For centuries the caste has dictated almost every aspect of the Hindu religious and social life, and each group occupies a specific place in this complex hierarchy.
The rural communities have organized for a long time based on castes.
The upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, the Brahmins did not accept any drink from the shudras, and one could only marry within his own caste.
The system awarded many privileges to the upper castes, while allowing the repression of the lower castes by privileged groups.
It is a system that has often been criticized for being unfair and regressive.
And yet it remained virtually unchanged for centuries, trapping people in fixed social orders from which it was impossible to escape.
However, despite the obstacles, some Dalits and other lower-caste Indians, such as BR Ambedkar, author of the Indian Constitution, and KR Narayanan, who became the nation’s first dalit president, have come to occupy prestigious positions in the country.
This was possible because, according to historians, until the eighteenth century formal caste distinctions were of limited importance, social identities were much more flexible and people could easily switch from one caste to another.
A new study revealed that British colonial rulers they established strict boundaries that made castes the defining social feature of India when they used censuses to simplify the system.
The goal was to create a single society with a common law that could be easily governed.
The Constitution of independent India prohibited discrimination on the grounds of caste.
And in a attempt to correct historical injustices and offering a level playing field to those who had been traditionally disadvantaged, in 1950 the authorities announced quotas in government positions and educational institutions for castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy.
In 1989, the quotas were expanded to include a grouping called OBC (Other Backward Classes) that ranks between the traditional upper castes and the lower.
In recent decades, with the expansion of secular education and increasing urbanization, the influence of the castes has diminished a bit, especially in cities where different castes coexist.
Inter-caste marriages are also becoming more common.
In certain southern states and in the northern state of Bihar, many people began using a single name after social reform movements.
But despite the changes, caste identities remain strong and surnames are almost always indications what caste does a person belong to.
What about work fees?
In recent years, there have been demands from various communities to be recognized as OBC.
In 2016 there were violent protests by the Jat community in Haryana and the Patel community led large protests in Gujarat in 2015 demanding access to quotas for castes.
Both are prosperous and politically dominant communities, but they argue that large numbers of their communities are poor and suffering.
Some say that the caste system I would have already disappeared if the politicians hadn’t regularly fanned the system.
In elections, many caste groups continue to vote en bloc and are courted by politicians what electoral revenues.
As a result, what was originally intended to be a temporary affirmative action plan to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups it has now become a vote-gathering exercise for many politicians.
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