India’s Caste System and Pluralism

MEDHA EDITOR’s NOTE: Keeping in mind the ‘hot’ topic of ‘Caste”, Medha Journal brings you a series of perspectives. This one by Prof M Lal Goel is the first in the series.



India’s Caste System and Pluralism

M. Lal Goel
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of West Florida; [email protected]

Caste is India’s badge.  When we think of Hindu India, we think of caste.  Caste has become the subject of national shame.  All have paid tribute to the caste system:  Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, James Mill, Abbe Dubois, and anthropologists G. S. Ghurye and M. N. Srinivas.  Caste is a specter that continues to haunt India.  Yet, India’s caste system preserves and values social and cultural diversity. The positive attributes of the caste system are highlighted here.  My description is based on life as I saw it in rural Punjab. The village social structure had not much changed for centuries.  Major changes occurred in the decades after Independence.  No claim is made here to apply my observations to all-India level or to other regions of the country.

Nicholas Dirks tells us that caste is not the basic expression of the Indian tradition.  Rather, caste is a modern phenomenon.  It is “the product of an historical encounter between India and the British colonial rule.”  (See Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, 2001, P. 5).  In pre-colonial society, Indians had multiple identities, consisting of temple communities, village communities, lineage and family groups, occupational guilds and devotional societies.  Caste identification was one among the several social groupings.  Under the British, caste became a single term to categorize and systematize complex Indian reality.

European travelers in the 16th and 17th centuries noted caste only in passing.  They did not emphasize its importance in understanding Hindu society.  Alexander Dow of the East India Company published The History of Hindustan in 1768.  He devotes only 1 page to caste.  Caste did not strike early European writers as something peculiar to India. They knew it in their own countries and saw it that way.  J. S. Mill in his essays on Political Economy said that occupational groups in Europe were “almost equivalent to an hereditary distinction of caste”.[1]

Abbe Dubois, a French missionary, was one of the most influential European travelers.  He learned Tamil and lived among ordinary people.  Dubois had difficulty in converting Hindus to Christianity.  He attributed this difficulty to the Hindu caste prejudices.  “Hindus are addicted to their superstitions and prejudices born of caste affiliation.  Nobody can change them.”  His book Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (1816) became the official gospel of the East India Company.  Christian missionaries in general were frustrated in getting Hindus to convert to Christianity.  All the abuse was heaped on the institution of caste and on “crafty Brahmins who kept the masses duped”.  After the 1857 rebellion, the British discouraged missionary activity. They feared that interference with peoples’ religious customs would foment rebellion.

Muslim Rule
Caste became rigid during extended foreign rule, especially under Muslim rule (1201-1707).  A number of the caste groups that fought against Muslim tyranny were pushed to the outer edges of the social system.  I have been told that among the sweeper untouchable castes in India, one finds many Rajput gotras, clan names.  Writes Ram Swarup:

With the advent of Islam the Hindu society came under great pressure; it faced the problem of survival. When the political power failed, castes took over; they became defence shields and provided resistance, passive and active. But in the process, the system also acquired undesirable traits like untouchability. Alberuni who came along with Mahmud Ghaznavi mentions the four castes but no untouchability. He reports that “much, however, as these classes differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings.”


. . .during the Muslim period, many Rajputs were degraded and they became scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Many of them still retain the Rajput gotra . . .

The same is true of bhangis (sweepers). William Crooke of Bengal Civil Service tells us that the “rise of the present Bhangi caste seems from the names applied to the castes and its subdivisions, to date from the early period of Mohammedan rule”. Old Hindu literature mentions no bhangis of present function. In traditional Hindu rural society, he was a corn-measurer, a village policeman, a custodian of village boundaries. But scavenging came along with the Muslim and British rule. Their numbers also multiplied. According to 1901 Census, the bhangis were most numerous in the Punjab and the United Provinces which were the heartland of Muslim domination.[2]

Ancient India had castes, but not casteism, the politicization of caste. Casteism is rampant in India today. “In its present form, casteism is a construct of colonial period, a product of imperial policies and colonial scholarship. It was strengthened by the breast-beating of our own ‘reformers.’ Today, it has acquired its own momentum and vested interests.”[3]

There are four varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras), and hundreds of jatis meaning birth groups or genus. Jatis are communities by birth which practice endogamy (marriage within their own group). The jati marriage circle may consist of some 500 families spread over 50 or 60 villages within a given region.  Members of a jati also follow common dietary rules and other social customs.

Each varna is divided into numerous jatis, birth groups. Some jatis are small, numbering a few thousand members (the Saraswat Brahmins of Konkan region numbered 20,000 according to a 1971 survey). Other jatis are large and number into several million. Theoretically, each jati belongs to a particular varna, but this is not always clear-cut.  Some jatis misperceive their varna.  Many lower castes identify themselves as Kshatriyas.

The four varnas are loose configurations with little organizational structure.  Jatis are better organized and jati associations are more common.  When Mohandas Gandhi decided to study in England in 1889, he was chastised by leaders of his Modh Bania jati in Bombay, not the Vaishya varna.  The jati rules prohibited crossing “the black waters.” Gandhi ignored the protest and booked his steamship passage.  Jatis vary by region and state. Chettiars are found in the Southern states and Marwaris in Rajasthan; both are mercantile communities.

The caste system has existed in India from very old times.  Several factors contributed to its birth.  I describe four such factors.

1.  Originally, the varna classification may have been based on Gunas, innate qualities, into the fourfold classification of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.  Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad Gita may be quoted: “The four varnas have been created by Me through a division according to guna-karma, qualities and work.” (4.13)  Even if once the varna system was a division of society based on gunas or innate qualities, further division led to numerous jatis according to occupation. It became fixed in birth and lineage.
2.  Like other ancient societies, India was once divided into a number of tribes or endogamous ethnic groups.  Each tribe or ethnic group followed its own particular customs and traditions.  The tribal or ethnic groups became castes.  Dr. Ambedkar writes on this continuity between caste and tribe: “The racial theory of Untouchability not only runs counter to the results of anthropometry, but it also finds very little support from such facts as we know about the ethnology of India.  That the people of India were once organized on tribal basis is well-known, and although the tribes have become castes, the tribal organization still remains intact.”  [4]
Ambedkar did not subscribe to the racial basis of caste: i.e., the conquering Aryans became the upper castes, and the conquered darker races became the lower castes.  The Aryan Invasion Theory on which the thesis is based is now discredited and is no longer a dogma.
3.  Migration of people leads to new caste formation. The cohesive Saraswat Brahmin community on the Konkan coast in western India migrated from Kashmir to evade Muslim persecution.  Jews and Parsees entered India to evade persecution at home. Jews and Parsees function as caste groups within the multiethnic Indian social mosaic. Overwhelmingly members marry within their own community and follow their own customs and rituals.  Jews disappeared in China because of intermarriage but survived in India because of separate caste identity.  Tibetan Buddhists who fled to India with Dalai Lama in 1959 adds to the caste diversity in India. Bangladeshi immigrants do the same.
4.  Religious conversion leads to new castes.  When Hindu weavers convert to Islam, a new caste group is born.  Religious minorities are treated as separate caste groups.

Christians and Muslims in India do not escape caste divisions.  Both communities are divided into a number of subgroups, similar to caste groups.  Christians include Syrian Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Goan Christians, Adivasi Christians and are also divided by state and region.  A Tamil Christian may have little in common with his compatriot in neighboring Karnataka, much less in far away Delhi or Calcutta.  Muslims are even more divided:  Sunnis, Shias, Bohras, Khojas, Ismailies, Ahmediyas,Wahabis and so on.  Christian and Muslim subgroups practice endogamy—Bohras marry among Bohras and Catholics among Catholics.  Admittedly, these practices are being eroded under urban and modern influences.  The following is taken from Imtiaz Ahmed’s book, Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India, South Asian Books, 1978, p. 142:

While there can be little doubt that the Koran recommends the egalitarian principle, actual practice among Muslim communities in different parts of the world falls short of the Koranic ideal.  Particularly in India and Pakistan the Muslim society is clearly stratified. First, there is a line which divides the Ashraf from the Ajlaf: the former are high and the latter low.  The Ashraf are further divided into four ranked subgroups: Sayyad, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan.  Some would regard Muslim Rajputs as a fifth subgroup of the Ashraf.  The Ajlaf are similarly sub-divided into a much larger number of groups.  All these groups, the Ashraf and the Ajlaf, are endogamous.  Furthermore, they are hierarchically arranged in relation to one another, the Sayyads occupying the highest and the Sweepers the lowest position.

The Ashraf-Ajlaf distinction is not limited to India or Pakistan.  One of my Moroccan Muslim students proudly told me once that he was an Ashraf and that other Moroccan students at the campus were not.  In Iran only Arab descent qualifies one to hold high Vilayat-e-Faqih religious office. Only Arab descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s Hashemite tribe qualifies one to wear the black turban.  Other Iranian clergy wear white.

Ethnic specialization by occupation is not unique to India. It is common around the world.  The Lou tribesmen of Kenya, who live next to Lake Victoria, are fish merchants.  Because of their reputation and skills, the Lou control the fish trading business in countries of East Africa, as far away as Mombasa. Even in the global business center of New York City, there are ethnic concentrations by occupation.  Hassidic Jews control the diamond trade in Manhattan.  The Vietnamese immigrants control and run most of the “nail salons,” and Koreans run the convenience stores.  Because some occupations are more lucrative than others (diamond business for example), ethnic or caste income inequality is inherent.

Even Untouchability is not peculiar to Hindu India.  It existed elsewhere. The Packchong in Korea, Eta or Buraku in Japan, and Ragyappa in Tibet all had in common the fact that these groups performed work that was considered polluting and impure. The work consisted usually of animal slaughter, tanning of animal hides and scavenging. These groups married within their own group (endogamy). The Eta in Japan lived separately from the rest of society.  Their work was associated with “death, dirt and blood,” considered morally impure and unclean.[5]  Gypsies or the Roma people may be considered European untouchables.

Just because untouchability existed in several countries does not excuse the discrimination associated with it.

I grew up in rural Punjab (Ladda village in Sangrur District) in 1950s.  My village contained some one dozen different Hindu and Sikh jatis or caste groups. Population count was taken by the number of family units, not individuals. Of the total 300 families in 1950, the approximate caste breakdown was as follows: Jat farmers 180, Baniya merchants 20, Brahmins 20, the service castes (blacksmith, barber, carpenter, oil pressure, etc) 30, and two untouchable groups of Chamars and Churahs (leather workers and sweepers) 25 each.  Some 20 Muslim families of potters and weavers left the village in 1947 to migrate to Pakistan or to majority Muslim towns within India. Each caste was traditionally associated with a particular occupation.  But all did not pursue it. None of the Brahmin families pursued the traditional priest-craft; some did farming, others did retailing or labor. The untouchables did share cropping.  For each jati, the marriage circle consisted of some 40-50 villages spread within a radius of about 50 miles. This was 60 years ago.  With the availability of modern transportation and communication, the marriage circle now encompasses a wider area.

The village consisted of four contiguous sections or neighborhoods, called behras. The untouchables occupied one of the four neighborhoods. All other castes were mingled in the remaining three sections. Untouchable separateness was not strictly adhered to. Members of the higher castes bought properties adjoining the untouchable quarter. The primary school I attended was located in the untouchable section of the village and nobody thought much about it. With the exception of the untouchables, all other caste groups were intermingled. They shared each other’s food and water. They attended each other’s weddings and special ceremonies. Even though food and water was not shared with the untouchable, they were an integral part of the village social and economic fabric.

My Vaishya family’s three immediate neighbors were a Brahmin, a Tailor and a Jat farmer.  The barely literate Brahmin neighbor pursued subsistence farming rather than the traditional priest-craft. No taboo about sharing food held sway. As a child I accepted water and food at the tailor’s home (technically a lower caste Shudra) and nobody in my family told me otherwise. Nobody in the village identified the tailor as a shudra. Only after reading books on caste did I know that the tailor belonged to the lower shudra caste.

The descriptions of caste system popular especially in the West are based more on certain ancient law books (for example, Manusmriti, the laws of Manu) than on ground reality.  Even sixty years ago in 1950, hereditary occupation was not much followed.  The principle of pollution and purity did not strictly hold sway. The status difference among different groups was minimal.  Only the practice of endogamy remained.  And, things have dramatically changed since my childhood.

Village identification was more important than caste or religious identification. When I left India in 1956 to travel to the United States for study, the entire village walked two miles to the railway station to send me off with their blessings. Many had teary eyes. When I returned three years later, a similar reception waited for me at the village gate. My emotional tie to the village is stronger than to my caste or religion. Even though I left the village some 50 years ago, I make periodic pilgrimages there.

Mine was a peaceful village, like all other villages in the vicinity that I knew.  Inter-caste tensions were rare.  Textbook accounts of inter-caste conflict are exaggerated or untrue. There was small scale thievery but little serious or violent crime.  There were no accounts of girls being raped in the remembered history of the village.  All lived in similar housing, one or two room clay-brick houses with front courtyards where animals might be tethered and cooking and washing were done.  Their possessions were few in number. Milk and honey did not flow, contrary to idealized versions of Punjabi rural life.  But all managed a healthful organic diet.  There was the close-knit family and the larger village community that gave one the sense of belonging.  Fairs, festivals and wedding feasts provided entertainment and gaiety.  We lived reasonably contented lives.

In post-Independence India, caste has been politicized and arenas of conflict have increased. Political parties now accentuate caste and religious divisions in order to garner votes.

Economic Disparity: The Untouchables were somewhat poorer than the rest in the village, but not by much.  All were poor. There was no correlation between upper caste and economic standing. Theoretically, Brahmins were supposed to occupy the top rank; in reality, they received no elevated status, economically or in prestige.  Jat farmers and Baniya merchants earned better than other jatis including Brahmins, individual cases excepted.  With land values skyrocketing in the recent decades, the gap between Jat and non-Jat is even sharper.  As 95 percent were illiterate, educational gaps were minimal.  One of my fond memories as a young student was to read and compose letters for the villagers.  Letters were exchanged only on special occasions–to announce births, deaths, and marriages.  Even though most adults were unlettered, they were not un-smart, unwise or ignorant. With all my education, I would not want to match my wits with them.

The untouchables were fully integrated into the economic and social life of the village.  All worked together on the farm and all bought and sold from one and another. The embroidered brocade shoes I wore at my wedding were made by the highly respected village cobbler, an untouchable by caste and a friend of my father.  I still own the flat-soled brocade pair. My village was typical of the ground reality in rural Punjab as I saw it. The village had not changed much in several centuries.  Major social and economic changes occurred in the subsequent decades.  In a 2010 visit to my native village, I was informed that Jat farmers and untouchables not only worked side by side on the farm but also now shared water, tea and food.

Brahmin poverty runs across North India. Ramakrishna Parmahansa was born into impoverished Brahmin family in Bengal.  Vivekananda wrote that Brahmins “are the poorest of all the classes in the country. . . Theirs is the poorest priesthood in the world.[6]  Prakash Tandon gives a similar picture of Brahmin poverty in West Punjab (Punjabi Century: 1857-1947, 1961). In South India in contrast, I have been told that Brahmins do hold land and property.  Temple entry was denied to the untouchables in the past.  On the other hand, Brahmins are systematically discriminated against in contemporary times, especially in Tamil Nadu, and reservation quotas are vigorously pursued.  The temple exclusions and discriminatory practices of course need to end.

Caste has too long been the bane of Indian society.  Negative aspects of the caste based hierarchy in status and economic differences have received much scholarly attention. Where these exist, they must go. Caste based discrimination where it remains must end.  But the positive aspects of the caste system need to be recognized.  Caste based society is a tolerant society.  It celebrates our cultural differences.  Different castes practice their own customs in marriage, worship, food and manner of living.  Minorities, whether religious, racial, language or ethnic, retain their cultural distinctiveness within the larger Hindu system.

The caste-based system is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic tolerant social system.  In contrast, societies that emphasize “universalism” (one set of laws and customs for all) often use force and coercion to achieve oneness.  Note the following negative consequences of universalism.

  • Stalin liquidated 30 to 40 million Russians in order to create a classless egalitarian communist society in the Soviet Union.  The same goes for Maoist China.
  • The Islamic conquest of the Middle East resulted in the exile and murder of non-Muslims.  Before the advent of Islam, the Middle Eastern countries were religiously and ethnically diverse.  Jews, Christians, and Pagans lived side by side in equal status.[7]
  • During the Church sanctioned Inquisition that lasted several hundred years in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal, dissenters were tortured, liquidated or exiled. Inquisition reached as far as Goa on the Indian coast.[8]

With emphasis on pluralism and cultural diversity, India escaped such blood baths. Hindu India illustrates its commitment to diversity in history.  Before Christianity became established in the West, it entered India with St. Thomas in the first century A.D. (more likely in the 4th century, see the footnote).[9]  Judaism came to India after the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Jews were expelled from their homeland.  Both Christians and Jews have flourished in a predominant Hindu India for centuries.   In a recent book titled Who Are the Jews of India? (University of California Press, 2000), author Nathan Katz observes that India is the only country where the Jews were not persecuted:  “The Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora.”  p. 4.  Also see the Emily Wax article in Washington Post at:

Zoroastrians known in India as Parsees (or Parsis) entered India to flee Islamic conquest of Persia (present Iran) in the 7th and 8th centuries.  The Parsees are an affluent community in the city of Bombay without a sense of having been persecuted.  The Parsee Tata family controls a huge industrial empire.  Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the powerful Prime Minister of India, was married to Feroze Gandhi, a Parsee (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi).  Tibetan Buddhists and Bangladeshi refugees are new entrants into India. Like the Jews and the Parsees before, they add to the caste diversity in India.

Here is a telling historical fact:  Jews also reached China after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in the first century.  As in India, Jews were not persecuted in China.  But they disappeared in China through intermarriage and assimilation. But Jews survived in India because their distinctiveness received societal approval.[10] India not only welcomed the oppressed groups, it allowed them to maintain their distinct cultural identity. Koenraad Elst observes:

It is one thing to say that Hindu society has received the persecuted Jewish, Syrian Christian and Parsi communities well, but another to devise a system that allowed them to retain their identity and yet integrate into Hindu society. [11]


With increase in immigration, the United States is becoming ethnically diverse and culturally and religiously pluralistic.  It begins to resemble India.  The American “melting-pot” is somewhat of a myth.  The melting pot theory combines people of different cultures and religions to yield a final product of uniform consistency and flavor.  The new mix is quite different from the original parts; hence the “Melting Pot”. This idea differs from other analogies, particularly the salad bowl analogy.  The ingredients retain their cultural identities, thus retaining their integrity and flavor as in a salad bowl.  The salad bowl analogy is more widely accepted as a description of American ethnic landscape.  A pecking order in social status also existed historically: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or the WASP at the top, then Catholics (Irish, Italian, Polish, Spanish, etc.), then Jews and then Blacks at the bottom.  President Kennedy broke the Catholic barrier in 1960, as Obama broke the Black barrier in 2008.

I spent six years as a graduate student in Buffalo, NY (1963-69).  Buffalo was a multi-ethnic city, similar to other large industrial cities in the North.  Different nationality groups concentrated in different parts of the city.  Buffalo was first settled primarily by New Englanders, mostly English.  Germans were the first wave of European immigrants. Then starting in the middle of 1800s came the Irish to escape famine, then the Italians, the Polish, the Greeks and a smaller number of Russian and East European Jews. Polish Americans occupied the East Side, while Italian Americans concentrated in the West Side. The South Buffalo and the neighborhood called “the First Ward” were inhabited primarily by the Irish, as the Kaisertown was by persons of German descent. The East Side is now a predominantly African American neighborhood. The West Side is now home to the city’s new Hispanic community, predominantly of Puerto Rican descent.

The definition of who is “White” has changed over time in America.  The book, How the Irish became White by Noel Ignatiev, 1995, describes the struggle the Irish had to mount to join “White” labor unions and clubs.  It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the Irish became White.  A similar struggle defined the experience of Italians, Greeks, Polish and the Slavic people. The Jews did not make into the White club till the middle of the 20th century. See “How Jews became White Folks and What that says about America” by Karen Bodkin, 1998.  See also Rajiv Malhotra on “Whiteness Studies” at:

The recent immigration is fueled by Asians and the Hispanics. The Asian community includes many distinct nationality groups: Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and others. The new immigrant communities keep their cultural and religious identity. The Hispanics are also divided by the country of origin, although to a lesser extent than the Asians. They marry overwhelmingly within their own community.  Certain older minority communities such as the Mormons, the Amish, the Jews and the Blacks also marry predominantly within their own kind. Native Americans now assert their cultural distinctiveness. All this adds to the multi-cultural, diverse American landscape.

Science and technology were supposed to eradicate primordial ties. This did not happen.  Instead, finding your “roots” became important.  People generally like to congregate with those who are similar in taste, culture and nationality.  This is easily observed on any American college cafeteria.  Asian students are more likely to eat with other Asian students, Blacks with Blacks and whites with whites.  Radical integration advocates would, I guess, find such natural affinities as loathsome.  Walt Whitman described America as “a nation of nations.” American nationalism is “civic, not ethnic or cultural.”  Immigrants do not give up their religion, language, customs, food or music.  America now is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-racial society. More and more it resembles a caste-like society, not in the sense of hierarchy but in the sense that it values and preserves cultural diversity and multiplicity. This is a good thing.



[1] Ram Swarup, “Logic behind perversion of caste,” The Indian Express, 13 September, 1996. Available at: . A must read piece.

[2] Ram Swarup, Ibid.

[3] Ram Swarup, Ibid.

[4] Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, V 1, p 303.

[5] Harold A. Gould, The Hindu Caste System, V. 1, Delhi: Chanakya Publishers, 1987, p 82-83.

[6] “My Master,” published in Inspired Talks, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, NY, 1987, p. 157.

[7] See Bat Ye’or: Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001

[8] Richard Zimler reports in his book Guardian of the Dawn that the Portuguese Inquisition in Goa was “the most merciless and cruel ever developed. It was a machinery of death.” Over the 250 years (1560 to about 1812), any man, woman or child could be arrested and tortured for simply saying a prayer, wearing a religious symbol or keeping an idol at home. The Portuguese are nostalgic about Goa and think of it as a glorious island, peaceful, multicultural and prosperous. Indians also are not aware of the horrors of the Inquisition in Goa. Visit: .

[9] There are different accounts as to when Christianity came to Kerala. It is now generally agreed that Christianity was not introduced by St Thomas in the first century but by Syrian merchant Thomas Cananeus in the 4th century. See

[10] Most Indian Jews have migrated to Israel for economic reasons, not because of persecution or discrimination.

[11] Koenraad Elst, Who is a Hindu?, Voice of India, 2001; Ch 1, at: .


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