The Caste System of India
Trinicenter Special

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India’s caste system is perhaps the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy. A defining feature of Hinduism, caste encompasses a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity.

A person is considered a member of the caste into which he or she is born and remains within that caste until death, although the particular ranking of that caste may vary among regions and over time. Differences in status are traditionally justified by the religious doctrine of karma, a belief that one’s place in life is determined by one’s deeds in previous lifetimes. Traditionalscholarship has described this more than 2,000-year-old system within the context of the four principal varnas, or large caste categories. In order of precedence these are the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Ksyatriyas (rulers and soldiers), the Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and the Shudras (laborers and artisans). A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system.

Within the four principal castes, there are thousands of sub-castes, also called jatis, endogamous groups that are further divided along occupational, sectarian, regional and linguistic lines. Collectively all of these are sometimes referred to as “caste Hindus” or those falling within the caste system. The Dalits are described as varna-sankara: they are “outside the system”—so inferior to other castes that they are deemed polluting and therefore “untouchable.” Even as outcasts, they themselves are divided into further sub-castes. Although “untouchability” was abolished under Article 17 of the Indian constitution, the practice continues to determine the socio-economic and religious standing of those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Whereas the first four varnas are free to choose and change their occupation, Dalits have generally been confined to the occupational structures into which they are born.

The constitution has merely prescribed, but has not given any description of the ground reality. We can make a dent only if we recognise the fact that the caste system is a major source, indeed an obnoxious one, of human rights violations.

With little land of their own to cultivate, Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural laborers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day. Most live on the brink of destitution, barely able to feed their families and unable to send their children to school or break away from cycles of debt bondage that are passed on from generation to generation. At the end of day they return to a hut in their Dalit colony with no electricity, kilometers away from the nearest water source, and segregated from all non-Dalits, known as caste Hindus. They are forbidden by caste Hindus to enter places of worship, to draw water from public wells, or to wear shoes in caste Hindu presence. They are made to dig the village graves, dispose of dead animals, clean human waste with their bare hands, and to wash and use separate tea tumblers at neighborhood tea stalls, all because—due to their caste status—they are deemed polluting and therefore “untouchable.” Any attempt to defy the social order is met with violence or economic retaliation.

As documented throughout this report, the perpetuation of human rights abuses against India’s Dalit population is intimately connected to police abuse. Local police officials routinely refuse to register cases against caste Hindus or enforce relevant legislation that protects Dalits. Prejudiced by their own caste and gender biases, or under the thumb of influential landlords and upper-caste politicians, police not only allow caste Hindus to act with impunity but in many cases operate as agents of powerful upper-caste groups to detain Dalits who organize in protest against discrimination and violence, and to punish Dalit villagers because of their suspected support for militant groups.

History of Ancient Indian Conquest
Told in Modern Genes, Experts Say

By Robert Cooke, Newsday
San Francisco Chronicle, 26 May, 1999

Like an indelible signature enduring through a hundred generations, genes that entered India when conquering hordes swooped down from the north thousands of years ago are still there, and remain entrenched at the top of the caste system, scientists report. Analyses of the male Y chromosome, plus genes hidden in small cellular bodies called mitochondria, show that today's genetic patterns agree with accounts of ancient Indo-European warriors' conquering the Indian subcontinent.

The invaders apparently shoved the local men aside, took their women and set up the rigid caste system that exists today. Their descendants are still the elite within Hindu society.


Thus today's genetic patterns, the researchers explained, vividly reflect a historic event, or events, that occurred 3,000 or 4,000 years ago. The gene patterns "are consistent with a historical scenario in which invading Caucasoids -- primarily males -- established the caste system and occupied the highest positions, placing the indigenous population, who were more similar to Asians, in lower caste positions.''

The researchers, from the University of Utah and Andhra Pradesh University in India, used two sets of genes in their analyses.

One set, from the mitochondria, are only passed maternally and can be used to track female inheritance. The other, on the male-determining Y chromosome, can only be passed along paternally and thus track male inheritance.

The data imply, then, "that there was a group of males with European affinities who were largely responsible for this invasion 3,000 or 4,000 years ago,'' said geneticist Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah.

If women had accompanied the invaders, he said, the evidence should be seen in the mitochondrial genes, but it is not evident.

According to geneticist Douglas Wallace of Emory University in Atlanta, the work reported by Jorde and his colleagues "is very interesting, and is certainly worth further study.''

Along with Jorde, the research team included Michael Bamshad, W.S. Watkins and M.E. Dixon from Utah and B.B. Rao, B.V.R. Prasad and J.M. Naidu, from Andhra Pradesh University.


By studying both sets of genetic markers, the research team found clear evidence echoing what is still seen socially, that women can be upwardly mobile, in terms of caste, if they marry higher-caste men. In contrast, men generally do not move higher, because women rarely marry men from lower castes, the researchers said.

"Our expectations in this natural experiment are borne out when we look at the genes," said Jorde. "It's one of the few cases where we know the mating situation in a population for 150 generations. So it's kind of a test for how well the genes reflect a population's history."

The ancient story holds that invaders known as Indo-Europeans, or true Aryans, came from Eastern Europe or western Asia and conquered the Indian subcontinent. The people they subdued descended from the original inhabitants who had arrived far earlier from Africa and from other parts of Asia.

During the genetic studies, in 1996 and 1997, researchers took blood samples from hundreds of people in southern India. The analyses compared the genes from 316 caste members and 330 members of tribal populations, looking for signs of Asian, European and African ancestry.

In the mitochondrial genes passed along by females, Jorde said, they could see the clear background of Asian genes. "All of the caste groups were similar to Asians, the underlying population" that had originally been subdued.

But, he added, "when we look at the Y chromosome DNA, we see a very different pattern. The lower castes are most similar to Asians, and the upper castes are more European than Asian."

Further, "when we look at the different components within the upper caste, the group with the greatest European similarity of all is the warrior class, the Kshatriya, who are still at the top of the Hindu castes, with the Brahmins," Jorde said.

"But the Brahmins, in terms of their Y chromosomes, are a little bit more Asian."

So the genetic results are "consistent with historical accounts that women sometimes marry into higher caste, resulting in female gene flow between adjacent castes. In contrast, males seldom change castes, so Y chromosome" variation occurs only as a result of natural mutations, Jorde said.


He added that even though India's ancient caste system was abolished legally in the 1960s, it is still entrenched socially.

"People are very well aware of their caste membership," he said, noting that in some cities the housing is still arranged along caste lines. So "one might argue, unfortunately so, that it (the caste system) does exist in people's minds."

In terms of who marries whom, the researchers described the Hindu caste system as "governing the mating practices of nearly one-sixth of the world's population."

The blood samples taken from tribal people in southern India are still being analyzed, Jorde added.

But so far, "the tribal populations are more similar to the lower castes than to anyone else, similar to the original residents of India," he said.

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Dramatic land shift may explain rapid change in creatures

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