Center for South Asian Studies | University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Bayly Excerpt

Bayly, Susan. Caste, Society, and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 3 excerpts; 394 words. (c) Cambridge University Press.

go back to Recent Scholarly Perspectives on Caste


(pp. 8-9)
The English word caste has come to be widely used in South Asia, even by speakers of vernacular languages, though many equivalent terms for human orders or ‘communities’ exist in the subcontinent’s regional languages…. Today, as in past centuries, most Indians who would classify themselves as Hindus (and also many non-Hindus) are likely to be at least broadly familiar with two distinct concepts of corporate affiliation: the jati (birth group) and the varna (order, class or kind).1

The term caste is commonly used to refer to both of these. Both may be used of non-Hindus; they sometimes designate distinctions of species or kind amongst gods, animals and even inanimate objects and substances.2 Nevertheless, both now and in past centuries, the term jati has most often been used for the units of thousands or sometimes millions of people with whom one may identify for such purposes as marriage. There are thousands of titles associated with specific jatis in different parts of the country. A few such titles — most notably Rajput, Chamar and Jat — have come to be quite widely recognised; most will be unfamiliar to people outside a limited geographical area.

In contrast to this profusion of jatis or birth groups, the concept of varna involves a scheme with only four divisions. Thus what would now be called Hindu society is conceived of as being divisible into four very large units which transcend specific regional associations. This scheme is propounded in a variety of widely revered Hindu sacred scriptures (see below, pp. 13-14). It has been most commonly understood as a ranked order of precedence.

So-called untouchables (and also the hill and forest populations who are now commonly called ‘tribals’) occupy an ambivalent place below, outside or parallel to this varna scheme. The titles of these four archetypes or orders, and the hierarchy of ranked callings and moral endowments which characterise them, are defined in ancient religious scriptures which became increasingly well known both before and after the British conquest. It is important to note too, however, that there are many widely revered sacred texts and doctrines which devalue or condemn caste principles. (See Chapter 1, below.)

For all this fluidity, it is still the case that certain basic ideas subsuming both jati and varna were shared by at least some people in the subcontinent well before the colonial period.

1 These usages include such regional vernacular terms as qaum, sampraday, samudi, and jati. Like other English terms made familiar through colonial administrative practice, ‘community’ is still widely employed in both English and the vernaculars. It is often a reference to ethno-religious origin, as when newspapers refer euphemistically to Hindu-Muslim riots as ‘clashes of two particular communities’. It is also a term for caste origin, often with an implication that such a ‘community’ shares an inherited moral mandate to promote common interests by coercive means. (See Chapters 8 and 9 below.)
2 Sharma 1975; Marriott and Inden 1977.

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