AskDefine | Define caste

Dictionary Definition



1 social status or position conferred by a system based on class; "lose caste by doing work beneath one's station"
2 (Hinduism) a hereditary social class among Hindus; stratified according to ritual purity
3 a social class separated from others by distinctions of hereditary rank or profession or wealth

User Contributed Dictionary



Via Spanish or Portuguese casta for “lineage”, “breed” or “race”, from Latin casta, the feminine form of casto, “pure”.



  1. Any of the hereditary social classes and subclasses of South Asian societies.


hereditary social class



  1. Feminine plural form of casto


  1. Plural of casta

Extensive Definition

expert-subject India
Castes are hereditary systems of social occupation, endogamy, social culture, economic class, social group and cultural heritage. The system is difficult to define through western structures because it incorporates ancient social traditions and Dharmic laws.


Caste can be defined as a hereditary system of social grouping distinguished by degrees of purity, social status,and exclusiveness. The term caste was first used by the Portuguese during their 16th century voyages to India. The term caste comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word "casta" which is derived from the Latin word meaning "Chaste" or "Pure." However, many have stated due to Portuguese ignorance of Indian culture and religious tradition they asserted their own 14th century prejudices when defining the social structures found in India. The system is difficult to define through western structures because it incorporates ancient social traditions and Dharmic laws.

Castes in Africa

Countries in Africa who have societies with caste systems within their borders include Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia and Somalia.
The Osu caste system in Nigeria and southern Cameroon are derived from indigenous religious beliefs and discriminate against the "Osus" people as "owned by deities" and outcasts.
Similarly, the Mande societies in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana have caste systems that divide society by occupation and ethnic ties. The Mande caste system regards the "Jonow" slave castes as inferior. Similarly, the Wolof caste system in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the Geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendents) and the outcasted neeno (people of caste). In various parts of West Africa, Fulani societies also have caste divisions.
Other caste systems in Africa include the Borana caste system of NE Kenya with the Watta as the lowest caste, the Tuareg caste system, the "Ubuhake" castes in Rwanda and Burundi, and the Hutu undercastes in Rwanda who committed genocide on the Tutsi overlords in the now infamous Rwandan Genocide.
Sahrawi-Moorish society in Northwest Africa was traditionally (and still is, to some extent) stratified into several tribal castes, with the Hassane warrior tribes ruling and extracting tribute - horma - from the subservient znaga tribes. Although lines were blurred by intermarriage and tribal re-affiliation, the Hassane were considered descendants of the Arab Maqil tribe Beni Hassan, and held power over Sanhadja Berber-descended zawiya (religious) and znaga (servant) tribes. The so-called Haratin lower class, largely sedentary oasis-dwelling black people, have been considered natural slaves in Sahrawi-Moorish society.
The Somali clans are divided into "noble clans", the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the lower castes such as Somali Bantus and Midgan, sometimes treated as outcasts.

Castes in China

The Southern and Northern Dynasties showed such a high level of polarization between North and South that northerners and southerners referred to each other as barbarians; the Mongol Yuan Dynasty also made use of the concept: Yuan subjects were divided into four castes, with northern Han Chinese occupying the second-lowest caste and southern Han Chinese occupying the lowest one.
Traditional Yi society in Yunnan was caste based. People were split into the Black Yi (nobles, 5% of the population), White Yi (commoners), Ajia (33% of the Yi population) and the Xiaxi (10%). Ajia and Xiaxi were slave castes. The White Yi were not slaves but had no freedom of movement. The Black Yi were famous for their slave-raids on Han Chinese communities. After the 1959 some 700,000 slaves were freed.

Castes in Hawaii

Ancient Hawaii was a caste society. People were born into specific social classes; social mobility was not unknown, but it was extremely rare. The main classes were:
  • Alii, the royal class. This class consisted of the high and lesser chiefs of the realms. They governed with divine power called mana.
  • Kahuna, the priestly and professional class. Priests conducted religious ceremonies, at the heiau and elsewhere. Professionals included master carpenters and boatbuilders, chanters, dancers, genealogists, and physicians and healers.
  • Makaāinana, the commoner class. Commoners farmed, fished, and exercised the simpler crafts. They labored not only for themselves and their families, but to support the chiefs and kahuna.
  • Kauwa, the outcast or slave class. They are believed to have been war captives, or the descendents of war captives. Marriage between higher castes and the kauwa was strictly forbidden. The kauwa worked for the chiefs and were often used as human sacrifices at the luakini heiau. (They were not the only sacrifices; law-breakers of all castes or defeated political opponents were also acceptable as victims.)

Balinese caste system

The caste system in Bali is similar to the Indian caste system; however, India's caste system is far more complicated than Bali's, and there are only four Balinese castes:
  • Shudras - peasants making up more than 90% of Bali's population
  • Vaishyas - the caste of merchants
  • Kshatrias - the warrior caste, it also included some nobility and kings
  • Brahmans - holy men and priests
Different dialects of the Balinese language are used to address members of a different caste. The Balinese caste system does not have untouchables.

Castes in India

Caste system among Hindus

Indian scriptures speak of 'varna,' which means category, type or order (of things), and view the human society in general as one based on personality traits.
The four main types of occupations (varna) stated in the Rigveda were as follows.
  1. Brahmins (intelligentsia)
  2. Kshatriyas (soldier warriors)
  3. Vaishyas (merchants, artisans, and cultivators)
  4. Shudras (workers)
A caste system is one in which members of a particular caste cannot adopt new occupations, traditions or social heritage.
In "A New History of India," by Stanley Wolpert, "[such] a process of expansion, settled agricultural production, and pluralistic integration of new people led to the development of India's uniquely complex system of social organization by occupation..."
There are countless sub-castes (organized by occupations) in India throughout history. Before universal education, job skills were often transferred within families - with prohibitions on training in the skills of other castes. The Brahmins conceptualised a hypothetical system to describe this reality, by categorizing occupation or related job into one of the four broad occupations varnas.
The Brahmins' primary responsibility was to learn the scriptures, teach others and pray for peace, harmony and well being of the people and even the whole society. They typically had few possessions and relied on others to maintain them. The Kshastriyas'(warriors') responsibility was to provide security and risk their lives on the battlefield to protect the society. The Vaishyas' and Shudras' responsibility was to build the economy and perform economic activity so the society could grow and prosper.
Hindu society is divided into several thousands of clans and sub-castes called Jatis. To say "caste in India" subsumes two categories - the varna (class/group), the theoretical system of categorization found in Brahminical traditions and the Jati - clan or (tribe) system actually prevalent in the society, where a person is born into a jati with ascribed social roles, which under normal circumstances can not be changed. The jati provided identity and status and was arguably open to change based on economic and political influences, except for the Brahmins, a group whose culture was difficult to emulate and in all likelihood, not even attractive to others, because of its life of poverty, strict if not stifling personal discipline, piety, learning and teaching.
On the other hand, Varna as enunciated in the Hindu texts eg Manusmriti, categorised the people in the Indian society based on qualities and occupation into just 4 categories and is popularly referred to as the caste system. Broadly speaking, the varnas are Brahmins (priests, scholars and teachers), Kshatriya (warriors and rulers), Vaisya (traders and agriculturists), and Sudra ( workers and service providers). Brahmins have usually been described by the western orientalists as the priestly class, but this is not entirely accurate. Indeed, a temple priest need not be a Brahmin, but a Yajna or fire sacrifice priest always was. The Greeks and the Muslims, eg Albiruni showed a better understanding when they described Brahmins as the philosophers.
All others, including foreigners, tribals and nomads, who did not subscribe to the norms of the Indian society were untouchables and called 'Mlechhas'. The people who fell outside the four varnas included the group of outcastes now referred as Dalits or the 'downtrodden', by some. Thus, an untouchable, or an outcaste, is a person who does not have any "varnas."
Over time though, economic, political and social factors led to the consolidation of the existing social ranks which became a traditional, hereditary system of social stratification. It operated through thousands of endogamous groups, termed jāti. Though there were several kinds of variations across the breadth of India, the jati was the effective community within which one married and spent most of one's personal life. Often it was the community (jati) which one turned to for support and also the community (jati) which one sought to promote. People of different jatis across the spectrum, have historically tended to avoid intermarriage or even close social interaction with each other. But now, with rapid urbanization and large scale migration, the ensuing crowded living arrangements and public transport, and the broad-based mix of workplace colleagues, has resulted in a significant churn in social attitudes and an unprecedented commingling. Associations of occupations to caste are changing as new castes are developing within castes when new areas are developed in the workforce. The Indian society has traditionally followed different kinds of community (jati) stratification that has nothing to do with religion. With the 1901 population Census, the British colonial administration force-fitted the Hindu jatis throughout India into the Brahmins' 4 varna categories, ostensibly for administrative ease in understanding the ethnic distribution and classification of the population. With the assertion of "caste" identities under the British empire, communities (jatis) sought to place themselves within varna and mobility in reference to it was not uncommon. Sanskritization is an example of this.
While community (jati) endogamy and food restrictions remains quite strong throughout India, even in the lower caste groups, and though a diverse and rich range of communities is healthy and valuable, the British enforced linking of communities to a particular social Varna status, that has continued to be reinforced by post-independence India for purposes of reverse discrimination, is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the process of dissolution of inherited social status and caste.
The Brahmins were enjoined by their scriptures and texts, including the Manusmriti, to live in poverty and to shun possessions and temporal power and to instead devote themselves to the study and teaching of scriptures and other knowledge, to pure conduct, and to spiritual growth. In fact, they usually subsisted on alms from the rest of the society, including from those in the Shudra varna. This is an important point in understanding the difference between caste and class, which are usually equated in the westernized mind, with concepts of economic hierarchies and dominating power structures deeply embedded in its world-view and belief systems
Some activists consider that the caste (tribes and jatis) is a form of racial discrimination. This allegation has been disputed by many sociologists such as Andre Béteille, who writes that treating caste as a form of racism is "politically mischievous" and worse, "scientifically nonsense" since there is no discernible difference in the racial characteristics between Brahmins and Scheduled Castes such as the jatav. He writes that "Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination".
The Indian government denies the claims of equivalence between Caste and Racial discrimination, pointing out that the issues of social status is essentially intra-racial and intra-cultural. The view of the caste system as "static and unchanging" has also been disputed. The Indian government has been working towards creating equality between castes with guaranteed seats in educational institutions, government jobs (and promotions) and even in the parliament for those of the Scheduled Untouchable castes and tribes. Scholarships have also been available to all of these groups, so that they can go on to further education more easily and this has raised their social status.Sociologists describe how the perception of the caste system as a static and textual stratification has given way to the perception of the caste system as a more processual, empirical and contextual stratification. Others have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India. According to these scholars, groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes.
Sociologist M. N. Srinivas has also debated the question of rigidity in Caste. For details see sanskritization.

Modern status of the caste system

In rural areas and small towns, the caste system is part of the rural cultural values. Many argue rural cultural values and history should be respected, just like rural society respects city culture. The caste system is part of the multicultural heritage of South Asia, and everyone should show respect to each and every caste. Much like multiculturalism is practiced in the rest of the world. Caste system mutual respect seems distant, if ever possible, due to caste politics.
The Government of India has officially documented castes and subcastes, primarily to determine those deserving reservation (positive discrimination in education and jobs) through the census. The Indian reservation system, though limited in scope, relies entirely on quotas. The Government lists consist of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes:
Scheduled castes generally consist of former "untouchables" (the term "Dalit" is now preferred). Present population is 16% of total population of India i.e. around 160 million. For example, the Delhi state has 49 castes listed as SC.
Scheduled tribes generally consist of tribal groups. Present population is 7% of total population of India i.e. around 70 million.
The Mandal Commission covered more than 3000 castes under Other Backward Classes Category and stated that OBCs form around 52% of the Indian population. However, the National Sample Survey puts the figure at 32%.. There is substantial debate over the exact number of OBCs in India. It is generally estimated to be sizable, but many believe that it is lower than the figures quoted by either the Mandal Commission or the National Sample Survey
The Supreme Court of India on Apr 10 , 2008 upheld the law for 27% OBC quota the law enacted by the Centre in 2006 providing a quota of 27 per cent for candidates belonging to the Other Backward Classes in Central higher educational institutions .

Caste politics

Mahatma Gandhi, B. R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru had radically different approaches to caste especially over constitutional politics and the status of "untouchables." Till the mid-1970s, the politics of independent India was largely dominated by economic issues and questions of corruption. But since the 1980s, caste has emerged as a major issue in the Politics of India.
The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to "identify the socially or educationally backward," and to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination. In 1980, the commission's report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of lower castes were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government jobs and slots in public universities. When V. P. Singh Government tried to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests were held throughout the country. Many alleged that the politicians were trying to benefit personally from caste-based reservations for purely pragmatic electoral purposes.
Many political parties in India have openly indulged in caste-based votebank politics. Parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal claim that they are representing the backward castes, and rely primarily on OBC support, often in alliance with Dalit and Muslim support to win the elections.

Caste bias

As with all societies in the world some prejudices do exist by some sections in societies. UNICEF estimates that discrimination based on caste affects 250 million people worldwide.

Castes in Japan

Japan historically subscribed to a feudal caste system. While modern law has officially abolished the caste hierarchy, there are reports of discrimination against the Buraku or Burakumin undercastes, historically referred to by the insulting term "Eta." Studies comparing the caste systems in India and Japan have been performed, with similar discriminations against the Burakumin as the Dalits. The Burakumin are regarded as "ostracized." The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and residents of Korean and Chinese descent.

Castes in Korea

The baekjeong were an "untouchable" outcaste group of Korea, often compared with the burakumin of Japan and the dalits of India and Nepal. The term baekjeong itself means "a butcher," but later changed into "common citizens" to change the caste system so that the system would be without untouchables. In the early part of the Goryeo period (918 - 1392), the outcaste groups were largely settled in fixed communities. However, the Mongol invasion left Korea in disarray and anomie, and these groups began to become nomadic. Other subgroups of the baekjeong are the chaein and the hwachae. During the Joseon dynasty, they were specific professions like basket weaving and performing executions. They were also considered in moral violation of Buddhist principles, which lead Koreans to see work involving meat as polluting and sinful, even if they saw the consumption as acceptable.
The opening of Korea to foreign Christian missionary activity in the late 19th century saw some improvement in the status of the baekjeong; However, everyone was not equal under the Christian congregation, and protests erupted when missionaries attempted to integrate them into worship services, with non-baekjeong finding such an attempt insensitive to traditional notions of hierarchical advantage. Also around the same time, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them. hey focused on social and economic injustices affecting the baekjeong, hoping to create an egalitarian Korean society. Their efforts included attacking social discrimination by the upper class, authorities, and "commoners" and the use of degrading language against children in public schools.
With the unification of the three kingdoms in the seventh century and the foundation of the Goryeo dynasty in the Middle Ages, Koreans systemized its own native caste system. At the top was the two official classes, the Yangban. Yangban means "two classes." It was composed of scholars (Munban) and warriors (Muban). Within the Yangban class, the Scholars (Munban) enjoyed a significant social advantage over the warrior (Muban) class, until the Muban Rebellion in 1170. Muban ruled Korea under successive Warrior Leaders until the Mongol Conquest in 1253. Sambyeolcho, the private Army of the ruling Choe dynasty, carried on the struggle against the Mongols until 1273, when they were finally wiped out to the last man in Chejudo. With the destruction of the warrior class, the Munban gained ascendancy. In 1392, with the foundation of Joseon dynasty, the full ascendancy of munban over muban was final. With the establishment of Confucianism as the state philosophy of Joseon, the Muban would never again gain its former social standing in Korean society.
Beneath the Yangban class were the Jung-in. They were the technicians. They served in lower level government bureaucracy. They were literate, yet were unable to rise into full bureaucratic positions despite passing the gwageo (central government entrance) exam. This class was small and specialized.
Beneath the Jung-in were the Chun min. They were the landless peasants. These people composed the majority of Korean society until the 1600s. They were illiterate, and forbidden from marrying into the Yangban class. During the Japanese invasion of 1592, as many government genealogical record was burnt, many of them fabricated their social origin and moved into the Yangban class. With the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 1627 and 1637 and numerous peasant rebellions that followed, the ranks of Yangban families swelled up to more than 60% of the whole country by the late 1800s.
Beneath the Cheonmin were the Sangmin, also called Ssangnom in the vernacular. These were the servant class.
Underneath them all were the Baekjeong. The meaning today is that of butcher. They originate from the Khitan invasion of Korea in the 1000s. As they were defeated, instead of sending them back to Manchuria, The Goryeo government retianed them as warriors, spread out throughout Korea. As they were nomads skilled in hunting and tanning of leather, their skill was initially valued by Koreans. Over the centuries, their foreign origins were forgotten, and were only remembered as butchers and tanners.
Korea had a very large slave population, nobi, ranging from a third to half of the entire population for most of the millennium between the Silla period and the Joseon Dynasty. Slavery was legally abolished in Korea in 1894 but remained extant in reality until 1930.
With Gabo reform of 1896, the caste system of Korea was officially abolished. However, the Yangban families carried on traditional education and formal mannerisms into the 20th century. With the democratization of 1990s in South Korea, remnant of such mannerisms and classism is now heavily frowned upon in the South Korean society, replaced by the myth of egalitarianism. However, with rampant capitalism, a new aristocracy is slowly developing, caused by a major gap in income among the people of Korea, with the resulting differences in education and mannerism.

Nepalese caste system

The Nepalese caste system resembles that of the Indian Jāti system with numerous Jāti divisions with a Varna system superimposed.

Caste system in Pakistan

A caste system similar to that in India is practiced in Pakistan. In the absence of "classical" castes, typically the proxies used are ethnic background (Sindhi, Punjabi, Pusthun, Balochi, Mohajir etc.), tribal affiliations and religious denominations or sects (Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, Ismaili, Christian, Hindu etc.).
While caste/social stratification information can be found relating to specific areas in Pakistan, it is not known if any studies have compared how relatively prevalent such attitudes are amongst the various ethnic groups, religious sects and geographies. Also, it is not known if any tracking studies have documented changes in these social attitudes.
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that there are quite significant differences in how social stratification is practised within, and between, the various ethnic/religious groups in Pakistan.
The social stratification among Muslims in the "Swat" area of North Pakistan has been meaningfully compared to the Caste system in India. The society is rigidly divided into subgroups where each Quom (meaning tribe or nation) is assigned a profession. Different Quoms are not permitted to intermarry or live in the same community. These tribes practice a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest..
The Caste system in Pakistan creates sectarian divide and strong issues. Lower castes (or classes) are often severely persecuted by the upper castes (or classes). Lower castes are denied privileges in many communities and violence is committed against them. A particularly infamous example of such incidents is that of Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan, a low caste woman who was gang raped by upper caste men. In addition, educated Pakistani women from the lower castes maybe at risk to be persecuted by the higher castes for attempting to break the shackles of the local, restrictive system (that traditionally denied education to the lower castes, particularly the women).
A recent example of this is the case of Ghazala Shaheen, a low caste Muslim woman in Pakistan who, in addition to getting a higher education, had an uncle who eloped with a woman of a high caste family. She was accosted and gang-raped by the upper-caste family. The chances of any legal action are low due to the Pakistani Government's inability to repeal the Hudood ordinance against women in Pakistan, though, in 2006, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf proposed laws against Hudood making rape a punishable offense, which were ratified by the Pakistani senate. The law is meeting considerable opposition from the Islamist parties in Pakistan, who insist that amending the laws to make them more civilized towards women is against the mandate of Islamic religious law.. Despite these difficulties, the law passed and is now expected to help the situation in regards to women.
The late Nawab Akbar Bugti, the leader of his tribe and fighting for the Balochistan Liberation Army , criticised Punjabi attitudes to women when he said, "What respect we give to a woman, irrespective of her caste, religion or ethnicity, no Punjabi can understand."
Recently, the surge in Pakistani media industry has made the public more aware of such crimes against those economically disadvantaged, living under caste system in rural areas and for abused women. Almost everyday, channels such as GEO air accounts of individuals who have been abused. This has led to increased pressure on the Government of Pakistan to deal with these issues. The biggest beneficiery of this have been women who now have greater access to NGOs working for women.

Sri Lankan caste system

Castes in Yemen

In Yemen there exists a caste like system that keeps Al-Akhdam social group as the perennial manual workers for the society through practices that mirror untouchability. Al-Akhdam (literally "servants" with Khadem as plural) is the lowest rung in the Yemeni caste system and by far the poorest. According to official estimates in Yemen, the total number of Khadem countywide is in the neighbourhood of 500,000, some 100,000 of which live in the outskirts of the capital Sana'a. While according to the New York Times article (By ROBERT F. WORTH Published: February 27, 2008) there are more than a million. The remainder are dispersed mainly in and around the cities of Aden, Taiz, Lahj, Abyan, Hodeidah and Mukalla.


The Khadem are not members of the three castes--Bedouin (nomads), fellahin (villagers), and hadarrin (townspeople)--that comprise mainstream Arab society. A traditional Arabic saying in the region goes: "Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it's touched by a Khadem".

See also



  • Spectres of Agrarian Territory by David Ludden December 11, 2001
  • "Early Evidence for Caste in South India," p. 467-492 in Dimensions of Social Life: Essays in honor of David G. Mandelbaum, Edited by Paul Hockings and Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, 1987.
caste in Bulgarian: Каста
caste in Czech: Kastovní systém
caste in German: Kaste
caste in Esperanto: Kasto
caste in Spanish: Casta (hinduismo)
caste in Persian: کاست
caste in Finnish: Kastilaitos
caste in French: Caste
caste in Hebrew: קאסטה
caste in Croatian: Kaste
caste in Indonesian: Kasta
caste in Italian: Casta
caste in Japanese: カースト
caste in Korean: 카스트제
caste in Lithuanian: Varna (luomas)
caste in Malay (macrolanguage): Sistem kasta
caste in Dutch: Kaste
caste in Norwegian Nynorsk: Kaste
caste in Norwegian: Kaste
caste in Polish: System kastowy
caste in Portuguese: Casta
caste in Russian: Каста
caste in Serbo-Croatian: Kaste
caste in Serbian: Каста
caste in Swedish: Kast
caste in Tamil: சாதி
caste in Turkish: Kast sistemi
caste in Chinese: 种姓制度

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