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The Hindu Caste System: Purely Ideological?

Updated on September 8, 2019
Jemma Hulbert profile image

I have an interest in social hierarchical systems, and did some research into Hinduism and society.

Beginnings

Traditional perspectives on caste view the system as an institution closely rooted in Hindu beliefs and practices. It would therefore be wrong to argue that caste is not at all a religious or ideological institution of the Hindus as the concepts of dharma and karma played a vital role in enforcing and maintaining the caste system for centuries. Surinder Jodhka mentions that ‘as an ancient institution, caste was embedded in the religious ideology of the Hindus’ (2015, p. 228). This explicitly highlights how important Hinduism was in enabling individuals to follow caste and perhaps one of the reason why caste still remains one of the world’s oldest surviving social stratification systems is due to the desire of individuals to believe in dharma to have the potential of a better rebirth in a higher caste. The notion of dharma is extremely important in Hinduism and relates to an individual’s obligation to respect caste and moral duty to ensure the possibility of a better transmigration in your next life (Mosse 2018). The Hindu belief of having an immortal soul forced individuals to accept their caste and endure it in the fear that they could have a rebirth out width the system as a Dalit. This is one of the reasons why caste was traditionally perceived to be a religious and ideological institution, albeit incorrect to argue - a purely ideological or religious establishment. This is in part due to the fear of being reincarnated into a lower caste and the possibility of living worse off which was ingrained into the minds of south Asian populations through the belief in Hinduism.

Effects on Society

Despite Hinduism playing a vital role in ensuring the importance and durability of the caste system in south Asia, it would be imprecise to argue that it is solely a religious institution, it can also be viewed as having strong ties to the effects of societal beliefs and pressures which have changed over time going beyond religion (Jodhka 2015, p.233). Jodhka further supports this argument stating that caste is ‘often identified with Hindu religion and is popularly believed to have emerged out of the ritual order of Hinduism’ and then goes on to mention ‘as a value system or ideological system, it belongs to (a) the superstructure of the social formation and (b) the pre-capitalist mode of production’ (ibid). Therefore, despite castes origins undoubtedly being closely intertwined with Hinduism, this statement illustrates the need to look beyond purely religion when viewing caste. It has become clear over the past decades that one of the reasons why caste has remained an aspect of Indian culture and life is due to the fact that it has been so strongly enforced and protected by society. As Gorringe and Rafanell (2007, p.103) state ‘caste is etched into the social fabric by codes of conduct governing modes of address, attire and physical positioning that carry most force in isolated villages’, so despite religion being a fundamental factor to consider when examining caste, it is also vital to view caste as a social fact. Caste has shaped human behaviour and social space across south Asia, highlighting why it would be incorrect to view caste as purely a religious institution of the Hindus as it is not just a form of religious stratification, but also a form of social relations which affects individuals’ life opportunities and the material space around them

Reinforcing the argument above, it would be wrong to view caste solely as a religious and purely ideological institution of the Hindus as the system can be interpreted as a social construct with material substance which has shaped the lives of an estimated 260 million individuals (BBC News 2017). Dumont (1970, p.34) argues that caste is ‘far more than a ‘group’ in the ordinary sense, that caste is a state of mind’ highlighting how the system transcends religion as it is viewed by individuals as every part of their day to day life. In addition to this Gorringe and Rafanell (2007, p.108) add to this view stating how ‘caste-based patterns of behaviour become the norm because they are lived and performed on a daily basis.’ Therefore, it would be wrong to view caste as exclusively a religious and purely ideological institution of the Hindus as it covers just one aspect of the ancient social structure. Not only can one also view the system in terms of material space with the stratification and segregation of towns and villages into caste streets, it can be viewed in terms of castes of the mind. The way individuals have been brought up in caste shapes how they engage with others, it forms the opportunities they have in life and what they make of those opportunities as it sediments how people relate to each other. Caste continues to mould social identities to this day as those born in lower castes do not receive the same level as education and standard of jobs as those in higher castes. Endless power mechanisms still dictate what ‘untouchables’ can and cannot do which ‘repeatedly conditions them to accept their status. From this perspective castes are neither set in stone nor nonnegotiable, but emerge in and through interaction’ (ibid, p.109). This is evident in statistics highlighting that over 95% female respondents are getting married to men within their own caste, which helps identify the extent to which the caste system remains essentially defined through interactions and by social closure (Desai and Dubey 2011, p.47). Therefore, one must also view caste as a form of social relations as every aspect of an individual’s life is in some way influenced by the system.

Evolution

In order to critically asses the argument that it is wrong to view caste as a religious
and purely ideological institution of the Hindus, it is important to also acknowledge the fact that traditionally the link between caste and religion was much greater than it is today. The way in which caste can be viewed has changed dramatically over time due to external factors including secularisation and urbanisation. Jodhka argued that ‘as an aspect of traditional culture and ideology, caste would inevitably decline and eventually disappear on its own’ (2015, p.229), however this has not happened. Caste is still important in south Asian society but in different ways than it previously was. For example, rural to urban migration has left the strong beliefs of caste in religious terms in villages and towns in the countryside.

Whereas the effects of globalisation and the rise in market based activity through capitalism has led to individuals of all castes working together to earn incomes and improve their standards of living in urban areas. Mosse illustrates this argument, stating that the ‘picture of caste in Indian rural society today is ambiguous. New freedoms and formerly-denied social honour acquired by Dalits exists alongside forms of discrimination which also drive inequality’ (2018, p.427). As a result of these changing times it would be wrong to argue that caste is solely a religious and purely ideological institution of the Hindus as it is also a product of the influences of modernity. In addition to this, Gorringe and Rafanell enhance this view by mentioning how ‘in the urban public sphere it is impossible to avoid integration with people from diverse backgrounds’ (2007, p.106). This too highlights another perspective in which to view caste and show how this has changed over time. This is due to the increasing interconnectedness of our world, eradicating former caste beliefs as the system no longer divides south Asian populations in the way it used to. Instead governments and business owners are looking beyond caste to employ whoever is most qualified for the job and look beyond caste discrimination. As a result, it is beginning to matter less and less what caste you belong to as to achieve development and economic growth, governments need to mobilise populations in order to achieve the greatest amount of output and common goal.

In recent years the traditional view of caste has moved away from being seen as a religious and purely ideological institution of the Hindus, towards a system allowing for the organisation of society through stronger political identities. Craig Jeffrey mentions that ‘while caste as a religiously sanctioned system of resource transfer is declining in importance in India, caste remains a powerful political identity and form of symbolic and social capital’ (2001, p.218). This explicitly highlights the argument that it would be wrong to solely view caste as a religious system of the Hindus as in south Asia today the system has much more significance in mobilising lower castes to help improve their livelihoods through politics. The increasing involvement of different castes in politics is linked to attempts to gain access to higher occupations, better educational opportunities and ‘positions of power in government bodies’ (Gupta 2005, p.413) to further gain more influence. This additionally backs up the above argument as it highlights how lower castes especially have gained more power by taking action to get involved in politics to lessen the impact of caste discrimination on their lives. In addition to this, ‘Dalits of the 21st century are far more politically active than the forward castes’ (Desai and Dubey 2011, p.43), as perhaps they have the most reason to having faced societal and economic oppression for centuries. This further consolidates the argument that caste should not only be viewed as a religious and ideological institution of the Hindus as this perspective does not incorporate the fact that caste is a constantly changing system that has evolved into having much more prominence in the political and social sphere. Individuals today are instead working towards gaining regional political power by using the competition created between castes to gain private connections and capital to create better opportunities (Mosse 2018, p.431). Thus, although castes origins are rooted in Hinduism, and its traditional view has had huge religious significance, by failing to notice how caste has evolved and changed over time through local level negotiations in politics, one overlooks the essential underpinnings of the caste structure as a whole.

Conclusions

In conclusion, this essay argues that it is wrong to view caste solely as a religious and ideological institution of the Hindus as caste transcends religious beliefs by evolving over time to gain more significance in social and political spheres. In order to critically analyse the question at stake, this article discusses how caste is deeply intertwined in the Hindu religion through the concept of dharma and how it is traditionally viewed as an institution of Hinduism. Yet to only view caste through this lens would in fact overlook how caste has changed overtime and therefore fail to thoroughly examine the system overall. In addition to this, this essay draws attention to the importance of also viewing caste as a form of social relations enforced through interactions which have enabled the system to last for so long. Furthermore, caste goes beyond religious and even social relations to an extent as it shapes and influences every aspect of an individual’s life. In addition to this, it is accurate to assert that caste must also be examined as a changing stricture which has evolved over time through urbanisation forcing individuals of all castes together to lessen caste discrimination as a result. Finally, this article argues that it would be wrong to view caste as solely a religious and purely ideological institution of the Hindus as today caste is much more prominent in politics than religion due to collective groups within castes wanting to better their lives and opportunities for the future in a more interconnected, modern world.

References

Chauhan, B. (1966). The Nature of Caste and Sub-Caste in India. Sociological Bulletin, 15(1), pp.40-51.

Desai, S. and Dubey, A. (2011). Caste in 21st Century India: Competing Narratives. Economic & Political Weekly, 46(11), pp.40-49.

Dumont, L. (1970). Homo hierarchicus ... Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Delhi, etc.: Vikas Publications, chapter 2.

Gorringe, H. and Rafanell, I. (2007). The Embodiment of Caste. Sociology, 41(1), pp.97-114.

Gupta, D. (2005). Caste and Politics: Identity Over System. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34(1), pp.409-427.

Jeffrey, C. (2001). 'A fist is stronger than five fingers': caste and dominance in rural north India. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 26(2), pp.217-236.

Jodhka, S. (2015). Ascriptive hierarchies: Caste and its reproduction in contemporary India. Current Sociology, 64(2), pp.228-243.

Karat, B. (2019). Driven by notions of Purity and Impurity. [online] thehindu.com. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/driven-by-notions-of-purity-andimpurity/article25325125.ece.

Mosse, D. (2018). Caste and development: Contemporary perspectives on a structure of discrimination and advantage. World Development, 110, pp.422-436.

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