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caste [Port., casta=basket], ranked groups based on heredity within rigid systems of social stratification, especially those that constitute Hindu India. Some scholars, in fact, deny that true caste systems are found outside India. The caste is a closed group whose members are severely restricted in their choice of occupation and degree of social participation. Marriage outside the caste is prohibited. Social status is determined by the caste of one's birth and may only rarely be transcended. Certain religious minorities may voluntarily constitute a quasi-caste within a society, but they are less apt to be characterized by cultural distinctiveness than by their self-imposed social segregation. A specialized labor group may operate as a caste within a society otherwise free of such distinctions (e.g., the ironsmiths in parts of Africa). In general, caste functions to maintain the status quo in a society.

Castes in India

Nowhere is caste better exemplified by degree of complexity and systematic operation than in India. The Indian term for caste is jati, which generally designates a group varying in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of such jatis, and each has its distinctive rules, customs, and modes of government. The term varna (literally meaning “color”) refers to the ancient and somewhat ideal fourfold division of Hindu society: (1) the Brahmans, the priestly and learned class; (2) the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; (3) the Vaisyas, farmers and merchants; and (4) the Sudras, peasants and laborers. These divisions may have corresponded to what were formerly large, broad, undifferentiated social classes. Below the category of Sudras were the untouchables, or Panchamas (literally “fifth division”), who performed the most menial tasks.

Although there has been much confusion between the two, jati and varna are different in origin as well as function. The various castes in any given region of India are hierarchically organized, with each caste corresponding roughly to one or the other of the varna categories. Traditionally, caste mobility has taken the form of movement up or down the varna scale. Indian castes are rigidly differentiated by rituals and beliefs that pervade all thought and conduct (see dharma). Extreme upper and lower castes differ so widely in habits of everyday life and worship that only the close intergrading of intervening castes and the intercaste language communities serve to hold them together within the single framework of Indian society.

The explanation that Indian castes were originally based on color lines to preserve the racial and cultural purity of conquering groups is inadequate historically to account for the physical and cultural variety of such groups. Castes may reflect distinctiveness of religious practice, occupation, locale, culture status, or tribal affiliation, either exclusively or in part. Divergence within a caste on any of these lines will tend to produce fission that may, in time, result in the formation of new castes. Every type of social group as it appears may be fitted into this system of organizing society.

The occupational barriers among Indian castes have been breaking down slowly under economic pressures since the 19th cent., but social distinctions have been more persistent. Attitudes toward the untouchables only began to change in the 1930s under the influence of Mohandas Gandhi's teachings, who called the group Harijans. Although untouchability was declared illegal in 1949, resistance to change has remained strong, especially in rural areas. As increased industrialization produced new occupations and new social and political functions evolved, the caste system adapted and thus far has not been destroyed.


See M. Marriott, ed., Village India (1955); M. N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India (1966); A. de Reuck and J. Knight, ed., Caste and Race (1967); L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1970); D. B. McGilvray, ed., Caste Ideology and Interaction (1982); A. R. Gupta, Caste Hierarchy and Social Change (1985).

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A form of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION which involves a system of hierarchically ranked, closed, endogamous strata, the membership of which is ascribed, and between which contact is restricted and mobility theoretically impossible. Although it reflects economic inequalities, by virtue of the occupations typically followed by, or permitted to, members, caste stratification is ultimately rooted in noneconomic criteria. In its purest form, in Hindu India, the caste principle is religious: castes are ranked in accordance with the degree of ‘ritual purity’ ascribed to members and to their activities. Some commentators, however, extend the term to cover situations in which divisions are underpinned by racial antipathies, supported perhaps by legal sanctions, as in the cases of South Africa (see APARTHEID) and, until recently, the segregated southern United States (e.g. see Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 1937). The etymology of the term caste is also disputed. ‘Caste’ derives from the Portuguese casta, but whether this was originally simply a general term for class or category, or more specifically associated with conceptions of cleanliness and purity, remains unclear.

Historically, the most developed form, and some would argue the only true form, of caste stratification has occurred in India in association with HINDUISM. More than 3000 years old, the origins of this system are obscure. They probably lie in the twin bases of ethnicity and occupational specialization. India's vast subcontinental area was settled by a variety of ethnic groups, and relations between them were often shaped by conquest and by the fact that they carried specialized occupational skills. The caste system, therefore, appears to have developed out of patterns of military, political and social subordination, occupational specialization and ethnic antipathies involving ritual and taboo barriers to contact. From these, the development of the system was guaranteed by two facts: firstly, the groupings provided suitable units for collectivizing the rulers’ arrangements for gathering taxes and tributes; secondly, there existed a powerful priesthood (the Brahmans) which was capable of elaborating the taboos into a consistent body of ritual regulations which could be enforced in alliance with the secular rulers.

The system which the Brahmans perfected was founded on five main divisions, four caste groups (Varna) and an outcaste group, the untouchables. These were, and are, ranked in a hierarchy of ritual purity derived from the lifestyle and occupations permitted to, and monopolized by, their members; the highest castes are those of the Brahmans and the Khasatriyas, the latter being the secular and military ruler and landlord caste. Beneath these come the castes of the entrepreneurial middle classes (the Vaishyas) and the workers, servants and slaves (the Shudras). Finally, and in strict terms, outside the hierarchy stand the outcastes or untouchables (Harijans) who, performing only the most degrading occupational tasks, are considered to be ritually impure. The varna, however, constitute only the broadest divisions within the system. More significant in determining everyday social practices is the subdivision of the varna into several thousand, usually regionally-based, individual castes and subcastes, the Jati (strictly translated, separate ‘breeds’ and 'S pecies’). Each of these jati has its own social rank and body of caste regulations, designed, firstly, to maintain the ritual exclusiveness of the group by restricting or prohibiting marriage, COMMENSALITY, and social and physical contact across caste boundaries. Secondly, they ritually regulate the occupations, and the techniques associated with them, which members are allowed to follow. These regulations are supported by temporal as well as spiritual sanctions derived from the punitive powers of the caste authorities, public opinion and Hindu theodicy.

Hindu theodicy is associated with a belief in reincarnation. Individuals’ caste positions are held to be either a reward or a punishment for their fidelity, or lack of it, in observing the rules of the castes of their previous incarnations. Since caste rank was congenital and fixed during any one incarnation, the only hope of upward mobility lay in individuals securing a higher rebirth through the faithful discharge of caste obligations. This provided a powerful incentive for adherence to caste rules, especially since violations were punished in the present incarnation and brought the certainty of a degraded rebirth in the next. In Hindu thinking, two general sets of doctrines underpin this framework of spiritual and social control: dharma, the overall order of all things natural and social, including social behaviour and social relations proper to a member of a particular caste, and karma, the general doctrine of reincarnation.

WEBER traced the overwhelming traditionalism of the Hindu peoples to these sources. He also argued that the caste system hindered the development of CAPITALISM in India for at least three reasons: firstly, because the divisions of the caste system prevented the urban ‘middle classes’ from combining to establish the rights of freedom of persons and property on which capitalism is based; secondly, because the multiplicity of special caste laws, framed in the religious interest, prevented the emergence of a uniform and ‘universalistic’ legal system suitable to capitalist development; thirdly, because the ritual stereotyping of occupations and techniques associated with caste hindered the mobility of labour and the application of new technologies.

The reality of caste, however, is different from its theoretical injunctions. One difference of importance is the existence of the process known as sanskritization, in which particular jati may succeed in raising their location in the status hierarchy by gradually assuming the behaviour and beliefs appropriate to members of a higher caste. In practice, somewhat at odds with Weber's view, the industrial development that has taken place in India since the 1900s has meant that patterns of work behaviour have sometimes adjusted to new economic requirements rather than remaining constrained by caste. As a consequence, the relationship between the caste system and economic development must be regarded as more flexible than sometimes assumed. Officially, since independence in 1947, caste divisions no longer receive state backing. In practice, their social significance remains considerable. Among the standard general works on caste are: V. Bougle, Essays on the Caste System (1970) and L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, the Caste System and its Implications (1970). See also CLASS, SOCIAL CLOSURE; compare ESTATES, SLAVERY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Portuguese casta, “clan,” “generation,” “descent”; Sanskrit equivalent jati), an endogamous hereditary group of people that occupies a fixed place in the social hierarchy that is connected with a traditional occupation. A caste is limited in its social intercourse with other castes.

In one form or another there were elements of caste division in the social structures of many ancient and medieval states (for example, the privileged caste of priests in ancient Egypt and Iran and the samurai caste in Japan), but only in India did the caste system become an all-encompassing social system. Here it originated in ancient and early medieval society, primarily within the framework of four classes or varnas, in the process of forming a feudal class structure and ethnic communities from clan-tribal groups. The formation of new castes (mostly centered on crafts and trades) was linked to the further social division of labor. “The crude form in which the division of labor appears with the

Indians and Egyptians calls forth the caste system in their State and religion” wrote K. Marx and F. Engels (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 38). The caste system is an important element of the entire religious system of Hinduism. The latter facilitated the development of a universal caste structure. Once it had been established, a caste could include any kind of group)—class, occupational, ethnic, or religious. Therefore, along with the basic group of castes, which expressed the class and occupational division of Indian feudal society, castes based on religious sects came into being (Gosain, Jogi, and Lingayats), as well as castes based on assimilated large ethnic communities of tribes. Hindus regard all non-Hindus as “extra-caste,” but groups of “nonbelievers” living in a Hindu environment (for example, Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims) are accorded the de facto status of castes. Remnants of the caste system have also been preserved within the Christian, Sikh, and especially Muslim communities in India; they retain the division into hierarchically arranged, endogamous groups.

Within the boundaries of settlement of each Indian nationality, the castes form a hierarchical structure. Already in early medieval society, the upper stratum of the caste hierarchy was composed of the Brahman and warrior-landowner castes (the “twice-born”). These were the castes from which the class of feudal lords was created, as well as the class of village community members with complete rights (the Rajputs, Kunbi, Na-yars, Reddi, Vellala, and Jats). A high place in the hierarchy was also occupied by the urban trading and moneylending castes, such as the Baniya and Chetty. Standing somewhat lower were the lessees and craftsmen in certain specialties (weavers, jewelers, potters, carpenters, blacksmiths, and so forth). The lowest level of the class-caste hierarchy was occupied by castes whose members did not enjoy the rights of communal possession and use of lands. Most of them belonged to a stratum of semislaves, semiserfs who were exploited by the feudal upper classes of the community. This group included castes that performed jobs that, according to Hindu tradition, were considered “unclean,” such as sweepers, leatherworkers, and laundrywomen. Widespread and numerous social restrictions were imposed on these castes; contact with them was considered defiling for persons belonging to higher castes. Hence they acquired the term “untouchables” (achju in Hindi).

In modern times such untouchables became one of the principal bases for India’s agricultural proletariat, forming within it a layer of enslaved farm laborers; in the exploitation of these workers the vestiges of precapitalist relations are still strong.

Castes function within fixed territorial boundaries (a village, groups of villages, an urban quarter, or an entire city). Councils, or panchayats, control the economic and social activity of caste members, supervise the execution of caste regulations, and carry out legal actions. In traditional Indian society, which was represented by a system of communities based on a caste hierarchy, membership in a particular caste in principle assured a person of corresponding conditions of existence, and at the same time predestined him forever to the type of life that he had inherited by birth. Over the course of a long period the socioeconomic status of certain castes changed, and there was a corresponding change in their position within the caste hierarchy.

The development of capitalism led to a disruption of the traditional connections of caste members with particular occupations and particular permanent regions of settlement. The restrictions on social intercourse between the members of different castes weakened, mainly in cities, which were outside the traditional way of life. The most persistent features of the caste system have been endogamy and the hereditary transfer of caste membership.

Castes were influential in the formation of classes in modern Indian society. Thus, most members of the Indian bourgeoisie derive from the tradesman and moneylender caste, and most of the upper strata of farmers, officials, and intellectuals derive from the warrior-landowner and Brahman castes. During the period of British colonial domination (from the middle of the 18th century to 1947) the British authorities retained the caste system, using it to break up the national liberation movement. M. K. Gandhi, the leader of the national liberation movement, opposed caste discrimination and favored the unification of all castes and religious groups in the liberation struggle.

In accordance with the 1950 Indian constitution, all castes have equal rights. Caste discrimination has been prohibited by law (1955), and special measures have been undertaken to improve the economic and social status of the untouchables and “backward tribes.” Nevertheless, caste differences are still used, primarily in villages, to intensify the exploitation of laborers, especially those who belong to the lowest castes. Caste restrictions have been preserved to the greatest degree in southern India. They are used in the political struggle because modern India’s political structure has adapted itself to castes as the most universal form of traditional social organization in the country. In elections to local and the central legislative organs, all political parties take into consideration the caste composition of the voters. In the Indian republic, changes in the socioeconomic position of castes led to sharp caste conflicts during the 1950’s and 1960’s and to the efforts of a number of castes to raise their status in the caste hierarchy. At the same time, there was massive attempts to eliminate the category of untouchability. The Communist Party of India and other progressive forces are fighting for de facto caste equality and against caste discrimination.


Kasty v Indii. Moscow, 1965.
Kudriavtsev, M. K. Obshchina in hasta v Khindustane. Moscow, 1971.
Senart, E. Les Castes dans rinde. Paris, 1927.
Hutton, J. H. Caste in India, 3rd ed. London, 1961.
Ghurye, G. S. Caste, Class, and Occupation, 4th ed. Bombay, 1961.
Karve, I. Hindu Society—An Interpretation. Poona, 1961.
Srinivas, M. N. Caste in Modern India. Bombay, 1962.
Dumont, L. Homo hierarchicus. Paris, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(invertebrate zoology)
One of the levels of mature social insects in a colony that carry out a specific function; examples are workers and soldiers.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


a. any of the four major hereditary classes, namely the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra into which Hindu society is divided
b. the system or basis of such classes
c. the social position or rank conferred by this system
2. Entomol any of various types of specialized individual, such as the worker, in social insects (hive bees, ants, etc.)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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