Caste & Ethnic based inequality


Caste

ANTHONIO GIDDENS: ‘A form of stratification in which an individual’s social position is fixed at birth and cannot be changed. There is virtually no intermarriage between the members of different caste groups’

H.H Risley defined caste as  ‘…a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, following the same hereditary calling, and regarded as forming a homogeneous community.’ (HH. Risley cited in Dwivedi 2012:111).

The varna consist of four categories, each ranked differently in terms of social honour. Below these four groupings are the ‘untouchables’, those in the lowest position of all. The jati are locally defined groups within which the caste ranks are organized… Those in the highest varna, the Brahmins, represent the most elevated condition of purity, the untouchables the lowest. (Giddens 1989: 213).

The term ‘caste’ is derived from the Portuguese word ‘casta’.  Portuguese explorers in the 15th century used the term casta to describe the social organization they encountered among the Hindus of South Asia. 



  1. H.H Risley defined caste as  ‘…a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, following the same hereditary calling, and regarded as forming a homogeneous community.’
  2. Anthony Giddens (1989: 735)  ‘an individual’s social position is fixed at birth and cannot be changed’.
  3. ‘The varna consist of four categories, each ranked differently in terms of social honour. Below these four groupings are the ‘untouchables’, those in the lowest position of all. The jati are locally defined groups within which the caste ranks are organized… Those in the highest varna, the Brahmins, represent the most elevated condition of purity, the untouchables the lowest. (Giddens 1989: 213).’

Major divisions in caste 

Brahmin: Only the children of Brahmin is a Brahmin. This is the caste of Hindu priests whose high status is based on their purity by birth which gives them exclusive religious right to perform Hindu rituals. They also enjoy special rights to arbitrate between what is religiously wrong and right.  Their caste also compels them to live in a strict discipline allowing them only vegetarian food, making it compulsory for them to learn Sanskrit language, and to learn Hindu rituals. ‘The Brahmin priesthood was originally a class only, which grew into a close hereditary caste on the strength, mainly of their special possession of ancient hymns and their knowledge of how these were to be employed with due effect in various offices of religion’(Whitney cited in The Vedas 2003:22)

Kshatriya:  is the second highest category in Hindu varna system. This is the caste belonging to warriors. Most of the Kshatriya believe that they are the descendants of Kshatriya warriors of the past. They believe that their duty is to protect not only the ethical values as defined by Hindu sacred scriptures but also the caste system based social order itself. 

Vaisya: This category is the third highest caste. The duty they are ascribed to are trade, agriculture and money lending. 

Shudra: Shudra are believed to impure caste whose sole duty is to serve the top three castes in Hindu society. 

Panchammas: The fifth caste in Hindu caste system are called by different names. Some called them Panchamas (the fifth varna), others call them  Asprushya (“untouchables”) but they prefer to define themselves as ‘Dalit’ which means “suppressed” in Sanskrit language. The word Dalit was first used by Indian social reformer Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule around mid-1800s. Many social rights activists from Shudra caste also define themselves as Dalits.

Further division 

Four Varna was categorized into two mainly two categories: (i) Savarna and (ii)Avarna (Dwivedi 2012:112). In the beginning the Shudra castes were included in the Savarna category along with Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaisya and differentiated them from Avarnas which included ‘conquered people, servants, and Yavans (non-Aryan invaders from the west, including Greeks, Persians and others)’ (Dwivedi 2012:112).  The Shudras were later dropped from the Sarvana category(Dwivedi 2012: 112).