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

Robb Excerpt

Robb, Peter. A History of India. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 3 excerpts; 795 words total (c) Peter Robb.

go back to Recent Scholarly Perspectives on Caste


(pp. 16-18)


Commonly Indian civilization is identified by distinctive forms of social organization, in particular by ‘castes’: separate, closed and ranked groups each with defined social behaviors. Caste-like arrangements were once thought to have existed, essentially unchanged, from time immemorial. The famous study of Henri Dumont was entitled Homo Hierarchicus (1966), as if Indians, or at least ‘Hindus’, constituted a particular kind of humanity. In India, it was supposed, people were ranked permanently, acquiring an unchangeable status through birth and traditional occupation, and particularly in accordance with ideas of purity and pollution (according to work, conduct and inheritance). Caste was said to be India’s most distinctive institution in the sense that it determined social behavior — marriage, diet, meal-sharing, death-rituals, occupation, and so on. It explained economic and political alliances and the range of social control or dependence…

One problem is that the terms are treacherous. ‘Caste’ was a word of Portuguese origin (from casta, meaning type or birth), and reflected European attempts to understand what they observed and what was ‘explained’ to them. The informants were mostly Brahmans and Brahmanical texts. Particular accounts and treatises therefore came to be regarded as describing general and consistent conditions…. But ‘caste’ did not equate neatly with indigenous terms, such as varna (roughly meaning occupational and status-band, order or category) or jati (endogamous, notionally occupational group or birth-type). And those terms themselves have no had consistent meanings or applications….

This explains why it is sometimes argued that a rigid sense of caste, in which jati were definitively ranked in relation to varna, was not common until quite recently. In some senses this must be true, because modern means of labelling, enumerating, organizing and communicating were not available in India until the nineteenth century. But we should not take this too far. The European observers invented the term ‘caste’ and undoubtedly affected Indian practice and understanding; but they did not imagine case ab initio. They applied a misleading term, compounding at least two different concepts, but they did so to describe social behavior which they had generally encountered.

Thus over the millenia, social and political authority and behavior have been influenced by recurrent ‘caste-like’ ideas. The ‘civilization’ character of caste lies in the persistence of varna and jati over time and space within the Indian region. No one aspect defines their importance — not restrictions on marriage or occupation, not even ideas of pollution — for these may be found in many civilizations. Their role obviously is also much more than the mere existence of hierarchy. ‘Caste’ matters not because it is unchanging or in outline unique, but simply because of its persistence…. The texts were selectively and differently interpreted at different times. They nevertheless enabled the generalization of certain codes to each period, and some perpetuation of particular traditions over time….

(pp. 224-225)
Remarkable caste-based subdivisions (of labour, marriage and custom) were already noticed, by seventeenth- and eighteenth century European observers, among low-status servants and workers. Even so, most Shudras were still only vaguely identified by 1800. Among the agriculturist Jats, Kunbis and Vallalas, for example, caste and jati divisions often seem to have been localized and obscure to outsiders. By contrast, Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were commonly differentiated outside as well as within the localities, and hence some groups were widely accepted as belonging to a ‘high’ varna. Many achieved this, however, only after deliberate effort and changes in behaviour.

Broadly, in the early modern and modern periods, caste was being changed by the spreading of Brahman and Kshatriya norms among those who claimed that status, and among other aspirants for whom the norms had hitherto been unimportant or vague. There was a greater reliance on texts, increased religious piety, stricter barriers of pollution, and larger, more definite and organized caste and community identities. Similar processes of standardization and upward mobility occurred at different rates in different places. In the regions around, Delhi, for example, the Jats were already rising in status vis-à-vis the Brahmans in the time of the Mughals: they could express their increasing prosperity and military pretensions as claims to Kshatriya status.

Economic and political contexts — insecurities and privileges — help explain the changes. This undermines Hegel’s and Dumont’s opposition between caste and state or economy (see Chapter 1). Caste was instrumental to states, and states behaved differently because of caste. Caste was also responsive to economic power as well as, sometimes, a brake upon it. Hence Mughal, eighteenth-century, British-colonial and post-independence states all played a central part in changing caste, with their laws, policies and categorizations. Western scholars and ethnographers were important too (though varied in their interpretations, and more consistent on race than caste). Vital were Indian intellectuals, publicists, leaders, and everyday practices.

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