The relative ranking of castes can vary across regions and localities and depends on a number of factors including control over land, wealth, and political power.
Castes have often tried to 'upgrade' themselves (a process sociologists refer to as Sanskritization), and sometimes get 'downgraded'.
A revealing excerpt from Upinder Singh's Ancient India: Culture Of Contradictions.
The English word 'caste' comes from the Portuguese castas, which refers to animal and plant species or breeds, as well as to tribes, clans, races, or lineages. Castas was first used by Portuguese traders to describe Indian society on the western coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Indian word that best corresponds to caste is jati.
Like castas, it has a broad range of meanings, including birth and type. The characteristics of the Indian caste system include hierarchy, endogamy (marriage within the group), commensality (rules about inter-dining and the giving and accepting of food and drink), and hereditary occupation.
People often confuse varna and jati
There are four varnas, but the jatis (including castes and sub-castes) are so numerous that they cannot be counted.
The ranking among the four varnas is fixed, while there is some fluidity and ambiguity in the ranking of the jatis within certain ranges.
The relative ranking of castes can vary across regions and localities and depends on a number of factors including control over land, wealth, and political power. Castes have often tried to 'upgrade' themselves (a process sociologists refer to as Sanskritization), and sometimes get 'downgraded'.
Upgrading usually involves adopting practices associated with higher castes -- vegetarianism, restrictions on women, and change in occupation.
While social interaction and the acceptance of certain kinds of food by higher varnas from lower ones may have been discouraged, the rules of commensality are more clearly defined and established with reference to the jati
The varnas are not endogamous units, since a number of inter-varnaanulomajatis, on the other hand, are generally supposed to be endogamous.
The varnas are associated with a range of functions, while the jatis (at least initially) were associated with specific occupations. The jati system anchored itself to the varna system in order to give itself legitimacy.
Members of a caste often claim to belong to a particular varna, but varna and jati are not the same thing.
Caste is not just a simple division of labour. It is a complex system involving control over material resources, value systems, and knowledge production.
Ideas of purity and pollution help justify hierarchy, separation, and the position of the upper castes. Because endogamy is so important, the perpetuation of the caste system depends on controlling women's sexuality and reproduction.
Sociologists and historians have interpreted caste in various ways -- as a product of religious and cultural ideas related to purity and pollution; as a powerful ideological justification for economic inequalities; as a part of the process of agrarian expansion; and as a system that rationalised and camouflaged material inequalities through an idiom of purity and pollution.
There is also a connection between caste and the political sphere, specifically with the emergence of kingship and proliferation of kingdoms. Some historians have argued that caste was 'invented' by British colonial rulers.
What this means is that the nature of the caste system changed significantly during the colonial period. For instance, the censuses conducted by the British from 1871 onwards, where people were asked to state their caste, gave it a new kind of fixity. But when did something caste-like originate? And what did it look like in ancient times?
The answers should be sought in evidence of social units marked by hereditary occupation, endogamy, and commensality. These are usually traced to North India in the sixth/fifth centuries BCE, although there is uncertainty about the extent to which endogamy and commensality were firmly established at the time.
In the early Buddhist canon, the Pali Tipitaka (supposedly written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE), the varna order is still an important reference point. However, while many people in the Tipitaka are identified as Brahmanas and Kshatriyas, very few are identified as Vaishyas or Shudras.
Those who would theoretically have belonged to the latter two categories are generally described with reference to their specific occupation, which was in turn tied up with kula (family/lineage) and jati (caste).
This suggests that by this time, the four-fold varna system was largely a theoretical construct tied to the upper classes and that an ordinary person's social identity was based on occupation, caste, and family.
The Dharmasutras (these are early Dharmashastra texts composed from the third century BCE onwards) explain the origins of jatis through the ingenious but fictitious theory of the mixture of varnas (varnasankara).
According to this, castes were the outcome of various kinds of inter-varna marriages. In this way, Dharmashastra was able to stand by the varna theory, but acknowledge and explain the existence of jatis.
In actual fact, the emergence of jatis may have been the result of a combination of several factors such as the hereditary nature of crafts and occupations, the assimilation of tribal groups into the Brahmanical fold, and a social system that attached importance to birth and a strict regulation of social hierarchy, separation, and interaction.
Social inequalities are not only visible in normative texts; they are vividly portrayed in literature. The main characters of Sanskrit drama are high-born men and women, but there is a supporting cast of servants, slaves, and lower class and lower caste people.
Distinctions between high and low are reflected not only through content, but also through language. Sanskrit drama is actually bilingual -- men and upperclass characters speak Sanskrit. Women (even queens) and lower-class characters speak Prakrit.
Varna and jati are not features of Sangam society, that is, the time when the Sangam poems were composed. Some historians trace the beginnings of caste in South India to lineage-based descent groups known as kutis.
It is possible that when Brahmanas became landholders, the old kin-based system of agrarian organisation broke down and a new kind of social order emerged, based, among other things, on caste. However, the early history of caste in South India remains imperfectly understood.
It becomes easier to track down the history of caste during the early medieval period (c. 600-1300 CE). During this period, caste spread along with the expansion of kingdoms and Brahmanical influence to many new areas, including those inhabited by tribal communities.
An interesting fact is that although 'Brahmana' appears very often in inscriptions, references to other varnas and to jatis vary considerably from region to region.
Inscriptions from Karnataka mention various terms that could be names of agricultural, artisanal, and trading castes. The inscriptions of Orissa, on the other hand, hardly mention any specific occupational groups that can be identified as caste groups. Neither do Andhra inscriptions.
In fact, the Andhra inscriptions turn varna on its head -- several inscriptions of the Kakatiya kings proudly claim that they were Shudras. This suggests that the spread of ideas and practices related to varna and jati were uneven and different across the regions of the subcontinent.
Large-scale deforestation in India took place during the colonial period, when the extension of the railways, increase in population, and the commercialisation of agriculture led to a dramatic reduction in forest cover.
Until then, large tracts of land were inhabited by forest people who had their own distinctive modes of subsistence, social structure, and cultural traditions.
We do not get a picture of these communities from within; we only get glimpses from the outside, from extremely biased sources. The pejorative word 'mlechchha' appears in later Vedic texts and was used thereafter to refer to forest tribes and foreigners, who were considered as culturally inferior barbarians.
One of the accounts of the origins of kingship in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata mentions the Nishada (a forest tribal) as unfit to rule; but the fact that he is mentioned at all is an acknowledgement of the political importance of the forest tribes in ancient times.
The gradual expansion of the caste system over the centuries involved, among other things, the incorporation of tribal communities into its fold, by giving them a place on the lower rungs. The details of this process are not documented and are difficult to reconstruct, but it must have involved a great deal of conflict and violence.
The idea and practice of untouchability
The earliest occurrence of the word 'asprishya' ('untouchable') occurs in the Vishnu Smriti, but the practice of untouchability, an extreme form of social subordination, marginalisation, segregation, and oppression, existed from earlier times.
Texts mention many groups considered 'untouchable' by others, but the one mentioned most frequently is the Chandala.
In Vedic texts, groups such as the Chandalas were clearly looked on with contempt by the elites, but there is no clear evidence of the practice of untouchability. This appears in the Dharmasutras, which describe any kind of physical contact, even accidental, with a Chandala as polluting and to be remedied by expiation.
According to the Apastamba Dharmasutra, if one touches a Chandala, one should immediately bathe; if one talks to a Chandala, one should immediately talk to a Brahmana; if one sees him, one should immediately look at luminous bodies in the heavens (the sun, moon, or stars).
The Manu Smriti refers to Chandalas as hunters, butchers, executioners, and corpse carriers. In one place, it explains them as the offspring of Shudra men and Brahmana women. Elsewhere, it describes birth as a Chandala as the result of evil deeds in an earlier life.
Chandalas are associated with pollution and any contact with them requires purification. Unless he is starving, a Brahmana must not eat food given by a Chandala, nor should he have sexual relations with a Chandala woman.
'Chandalas...must live outside the village.... Their property consists of dogs and donkeys. Their garments are the clothes of the dead; they eat in broken vessels; their ornaments are of iron; and they constantly roam about. A man who follows dharma should never seek any dealings with them.
'All their transactions shall be among themselves, and they must marry their own kind. They depend on others for their food, and it should be given in a broken vessel. They must not go about in villages and towns at night; they may go around during the day to perform some task at the command of the king, wearing distinguishing marks. They should carry away the corpses of those without relatives -- that is the settled rule.'
Dharmashastra texts of later centuries (for instance, the Vishnu, Yajnavalkya and Narada Smritis) indicate hardening attitudes towards 'untouchables'.
Kautilya refers to Chandalas having separate wells, and states that they live outside settlements near cremation grounds.
In the Arthashastra, Chandalas are one of many categories of people (including women, the physically handicapped, and outcastes) who cannot bear witness for anyone other than members of their own group. They are given a role in public punishments, no doubt to emphasise the reprehensible nature of certain crimes.
For instance, in the case of a woman talking with a man in a suspicious place, Kautilya suggests that a Chandala should give her five lashes between her shoulders, in the middle of the village.
Kautilya also makes an 'untouchable's' touching a higher up person a criminal offence and recommends a hefty fine of 100 panas (these were silver coins) for a Chandala who touches an arya woman.
But he also suggests that Chandalas could be put to good use by the State -- along with forest dwellers, tribals, trappers, and mountain-dwellers, they should be employed as guards in the areas between frontier forts.
In the Ramayana, there is the legend of Trishanku, a king of Ayodhya, who was cursed to become a Chandala due to a curse pronounced by the sons of the sage Vasishtha. He is described as ugly, dressed in rags, wearing wreaths from the cremation ground, and shunned by townsmen and officials. Brahmanas are horrified at being invited for a yajna by him.
There is also the story of the sage Vishvamitra cursing Vasishtha's sons to be born as 'untouchables' known as Mushtikas for 700 births.
Sangam poems do not indicate the existence of a caste system in the far south in early historic times. There were ideas of impurity, and of high and low social status, but these did not amount to the practice of untouchability. Nor are taboos on inter-marriage and inter-dining visible.
In fact, some of the groups who were considered 'untouchable' in later times (the Paraiya, Panan, Tutiyan, and Katampan) have a fairly respectable status in Sangam poems.
But caste and untouchability did take root in South India sometime between the third and sixth centuries. The earliest evidence comes from a post-Sangam work called the Acharakkovai. This states that glancing at a Pulaiya is polluting and that water that has been touched by him is polluted and unfit for drinking by others.
The ideas of caste and untouchability are even more visible in South India during the Pallava period (sixth to ninth centuries). The hymns of the bhakti saints suggest that 'untouchables' were not allowed to enter temples.
Pallava kings, who claimed to be Brahmanas of the Bharadvaja gotra, patronised Brahmanas by giving them land grants and announced themselves as upholders of the order of varnas and ashramas in their inscriptions.
The spread of caste and untouchability in South India seems to be directly connected with royal patronage of Brahmanas. This not only led to an increasing Brahmana influence in royal courts but also to the emergence of Brahmanas as authoritative mediators of social and religious values and practices at the village level.
Excerpted from Ancient India: Culture Of Contradictions by Upinder Singh, with the kind permission of the publishers, Aleph Book Company.
Feature Presentation: Mahipal Soni/Rediff.com