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information on India - Caste System

The Confusing Caste System

The confusion in the caste system begins by the use of the word caste. The Indians in their different languages use the word 'Jat' for any community who have something common like religion, language, origin, similar geographical background and so on. The Indians also use the word 'Jat' for Varna. The Portuguese who were the first European power to arrive in India distorted the word 'Jat' into caste. The British who arrived to India much later after the Portuguese also used the word caste. The British used the word Caste instead of Jat and Varna. And so sometimes in English the caste system is explained in a confusing way according to which, the caste system consists of four castes which are divided into many castes. Sometimes in English the word caste is used for Varna and the word sub-caste for Jat. In this section to prevent confusion we will use the words Varna and Jat.

And now we will see the complication in the caste system itself.

Each Varna consists of many communities called Jats. Each Varna does consist of different Jats but many of these Jats break up into more communities and each such community refers to itself as different or unique Jat. There are different reasons for these different communities within each Jat. One reason can be the different occupations each community within the Jat professes. Other reasons can be inter-Jat political reasons. Many Jats consists of millions of people and it also causes break up of the larger community into smaller communities. There are also Jats which originate from different parts of India and profess the same profession and therefore get a common name, even though they are not one single community. For example the Jats that profess cloth washing are called collectively as Dhobi. For non- Dhobis the Dhobis are one Jat but within them they are not one community.

The hierarchy between the Varnas. All the Jats accept that the Brahman Varna is the highest Varna in the hierarchy and the untouchables are outcast and lowest in the hierarchy. But most of the Jats in different Varnas claim to be superior and higher than other Jats. Some of the Jats as stated earlier break up into smaller communities or Jats. In these Jats that break up into different communities, there are communities that look at themselves as superior or higher in hierarchy than other communities. Among the Brahman Varna, there are Jats that consider themselves as superior than other Brahman Jats. Some of the Brahman Jats break up into smaller communities, and between these communities within the Jat there also exist a hierarchy.

Among the other Varnas there also exists hierarchy phenomenon. Different Jats claim to be superior than the other Jats in their Varna. Some Jats in the Vaisia and Sudra Varnas also claim to be closer or equal in hierarchy to the Brahman Varna. These Jats that claim this status adopted Brahman customs like vegetarian diet and strict observance of purity and cleanliness. Some Jats claim to be closer to Kshatria, which is the warrior class of the Indian society. The Marathas in west India and Reddys in south India were among the Jats which claimed Kshatria status.

Among the outcast there was also the superior status phenomenon in which one outcast Jat considered itself as superior and did not have physically contact with other outcast Jats which it considered as inferior. For example the Mahars in west India considered themselves superior than Dhed and they did not mingle with the Dheds.

Each Jat professes an occupation worthy of its Varna status. In most of the cases there was a connection between a persons profession and his Varna. Among the different Varnas there also developed guilds based on Jat lines, professing specific professions. In west India the Jat that professed oil pressing were called Somwar Teli. Another Jat members were the shepherds of the society and they were called Dhangar. Another Jat members were the cowherds of the society and they were called Gaoli. The Kunbis were the peasants of the society.

But some of the professions had different status in different parts of India and they were located at different levels in the caste hierarchy. For example Dhobis (washers) in north India were seen as untouchables. While in west India they had Sudra status. The oil pressers in east India were seen as untouchables, in central India they had a high status while in west India they had Sudra status.

There were also many cases where the Jat members did not profess occupation worthy of their Varna. Many Brahmans, who are supposed to be the priest and learned of the society, did not find jobs as priests or did not manage to feed their families as priests and therefore worked as simple farmers. On the other hand there were many Brahmans who were landlords and businessmen, professions supposed to belong to the Vaisia Varna.

Also among the other Varnas not all professed the occupations worthy of their Varna. In west India the Maratha were the warriors and the aristocracy. Originally the Marathas belonged to the different Jats in west India. Most of these Jats were in Sudra level. But the Marathas who became the aristocracy of west India claimed and acquired the Kshatria status. In the 17th and the 18th century the Marathas even established an empire which ruled large parts of India. During the Maratha reign members of a Brahman Jat, Kokanastha Brahman, were ministers. From 1750 these Brahmans became the rulers of the Maratha Empire.

Like the Marathas there were other communities which, religiously did not belong to the Kshatria status but acquired this status. The Reddy in Andra Pradesh and Nayar in Kerala are such two examples.

Religiously marriage occurs within the Jat. The different Jats members almost always respected this rule and people who dared break this rule were outcasted. But this rule also had exceptions. Usually the higher Varnas were very strict about this custom. But in some of the higher level Jats of the society, they used to have polygamy. In these cases, because of scarcity of women, men use to marry women from the lower levels of the society.

In some Indian societies between-jat marriage was even an acceptable feature. One such example of marriages existed in Kerala, in south India. In Kerala, Nayar women (aristocracy community) married men from Numbodiri Brahman community.

Another problem considering the Jat marriage was the internal structure of the Jats. As stated earlier some Jats break up into smaller communities. In most of the cases each such community members marry only with members of their own community and not with other community members within the Jat. In some cases there is a hierarchy between the different communities of the same Jat. In such cases a daughter from the lower community could marry a son from the higher community but not vice versa.

Each Varna had different diet. Hinduism has many strict dietary rules. In general the higher Jats are more strict about their dietary customs than the lower Jats. The Brahman Jats have the most strict dietary customs. They will not eat in lower Jats homes or even with lower Jats (because of this reason many restaurants hired Brahman cooks). The Brahman diet is supposed to include only vegetarian food. Jats who claimed Brahman status also adopted vegetarian diet of the Brahmans. But there are some Brahman Jats who traditionally eat meat, fish, chicken and egg (which is considered non-vegetarian). Some Brahman Jats in Kashmir, Orissa, Bengal and Maharashtra traditionally eat meat. But this meat was never cattle meat.

Jat is determined by birth and it cannot be changed. In the beginning the caste system was not a strict system and people could move from one Varna to another. Indologists give different dates to this period of change. Some claim the change occurred around 500 B. C. and other claim 500 A. D. Until then, communities and even singular person moved from one Varna to another Varna, because of their desire to adopt different occupations. There were some kings who belonged the Kshatria (warrior castes) and changed their status to become religious Brahmans. There were also who changed their status to become warriors. And even after the caste system was organized in a strict manner there were many communities who did not always follow their status occupations. There was a case of a Jat that lost its high status because they did not profess the profession worthy of their Varna. The Kayastha of east and north east India originally belonged to the Kshatria Varna (warrior caste). Some time in the past among warriors communities, there developed a bureaucratic unit whose job was writing and listing war events and they were called Kayasthas. Because these unit members were not warriors, they were excluded from the Kshatria status and were given a lower status. But the Kayasthas even today claim Kshatria status.

The Jat status. Jats like Kayastha, Reddy, Maratha, Nayar and others changed the basic four-fold hierarchy caste system. These Jats had high status but their exact status is not clear and different communities give different interpretations to their status of different Jats. As stated earlier different Jats claim theirs to be the superior than the other Jats and therefore the caste system even today is not always interpreted objectively by Indians but subjectively. For example the Kayastha claim themselves to be Kshatria while others do not always agree with this claim. Among the Marathas the confusion is even greater. In the narrow sense the Jat of Maratha applies to 96 clans who ruled and governed the parts of west India. Originally the Maratha clans belonged to different levels of Indian hierarchy. They mostly belonged to different Jats of Sudra. But many Jats of west Maharashtra claim that they are Marathas too. Sometimes the Kokanastha Brahmans (who were ministers of Maratha empire in 18th century and later on continued the Maratha Empire and their reign) are also introduced as Marathas causing a greater confusion in Maratha definition.

The reasons stated above are among the few reasons that causes confusion in caste system.

Book-In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India

Aharon Daniel


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