Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The caste system of India
Caste barriers have mostly broken down in large cities, though they persist in rural areas of the country. Nevertheless, the caste system, in various forms, continues to survive in modern India strengthened by a combination of social perceptions and divisive politics. 
The shastras mention four varnas:
the Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests),
Kshatriyas (kings and warriors),
Vaishyas (traders), and
Shudras (agriculturists, service providers, and some artisan groups).
The Dalits, or the people outside the varna system, had the lowest social status. The Dalits, earlier referred to as "untouchables" by some, worked in what were seen as unhealthy, unpleasant or polluting jobs. In the past, the Dalits suffered from social segregation and restrictions, in addition to extreme poverty. They were not allowed temple worship with others, nor water from the same sources. Persons of higher castes would not interact with them. If somehow a member of a higher caste came into physical or social contact with an untouchable, the member of the higher caste was defiled, and had to bathe thoroughly to purge him or herself of the impurity. Social discrimination developed even among the Dalits. Upper sub-castes among Dalits, like dhobi, nai etc., would not interact with lower-order Bhangis, who were described as "outcasts even among outcastes".
The caste system is far from a rigid system in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time. Movement has always been possible, and especially in the middle regions of the hierarchy. It was always possible for groups born into a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism" i.e adopt the customs of the higher castes. While theoretically "forbidden", the process was not uncommon in practice.