Castes in India: Book Summary

“Castes in India –Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” is a paper presented by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar at an Anthropology seminar at Columbia University on 9th May 1916. After forewarning the consequences of the caste system as ‘It is a local problem, but one capable of much wider mischief, for as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem’, Dr. Ambedkar enters into the subject in hand. 

The Indian peninsular with the geographical unity also has an indubitable cultural unity. This cultural homogeneity makes it difficult to explain the problem of caste. Then Dr. Ambedkar drew upon the works of the British scholars and ethnographers such as Mr. Senart, Mr. Nesfield, Sir. H. Risley, and Dr. Ketkar to define castes on their terms. After examining all of them he accepts Dr. Ketkar’s definition of caste as a functioning system sustaining through ‘Prohibition of intermarriage and Membership by Autogeny’ as the characteristics of Caste. However, prohibiting intermarriage will limit membership to those who are born within the group. Thus endogamy forms the essence of the caste system. Hence, explaining the maintenance of endogamy proves to us the genesis and mechanism of caste. 

Indian society’s one of the primitive custom is exogamy. To Indian people, exogamy is still a positive injunction. Though there are no clans, Indian society still favours the clan system. The Law of matrimony in India centers around the principles of exogamy. There are more rigorous punishments in India for violating exogamy. Indian castes are the superposition of endogamy on exogamy. However, it is not an easy affair as it requires circumscribing a circle outside which people should not contract marriage. Maintaining numerical equality between marriageable units of the two sexes from within the caste is required for endogamy. Thus the problem of caste resolves into one of repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of two sexes. Hence surplus man and surplus within a caste if not disposed of properly form the menace to it.

Surplus women in a caste can be disposed of in two ways. One way is by burning her in the pyre of her deceased husband. However, every surplus woman (widow) cannot be disposed of by burning. If left not disposed she becomes a menace to the caste as she may marry outside the caste or within the caste thereby encroaching upon the chances of another potential bride in the caste. So another way of disposing of her is by enforcing compulsory widowhood on her. Although it is not a foolproof way, it is more practicable than burning her alive. In compulsory widowhood, she is degraded to a condition in which is she is no longer a source of allurement. 

Man always holds the upper hand as he is considered an asset to the caste. The surplus man problem can also be resolved using two ways. One is letting him remain a widower for the rest of his life. Some are disposed of through self-imposed celibacy. However, this method fails both theoretically and practicably. Though it did not affect endogamy, it affects the material condition of the caste. So to keep him a Grahasta and maintain endogamy without disturbing the numerical equality between the marriageable units, another way in hand is recruiting a bride from the ranks of those who have not yet attained the marriageable age. All the above four ways stated serve as means to create an end. And the end is the maintenance of endogamy. The customs of Sati, enforced Widowhood, Girl marriage, and the great hankering of Sannyasa in Hindu society are eulogized and honored. But origins of these customs are not explained. Dr. Ambedkar interprets that these customs were honored because they were practiced and require eulogy for their prevalence. 

Dr. Ambedkar says that the caste genesis question is always annoying. But he explains it intriguingly. Society is always composed of classes. Be it economical, intellectual, or social an individual belongs to a class. Early Hindu society could not have been an exception to it. As caste and class are next-door neighbors, knowing what was the class which made itself into a caste serves the purpose. Dr. Ambedkar stresses as ‘Caste is an enclosed class’. The genesis of the caste question can be answered only indirectly. All customs of the Hindu society are strictly followed by only Brahmins, the caste which has the highest place in the social hierarchy. Observance of these customs among non-brahmins is neither strict nor complete. Initially, Hindu society classes namely Brahmins (priestly class), Kshatriyas (military class), Vaisyas (merchant class), and Shudras (artisan/menial class) were open and did change their personnel. But at some point in time, the priestly class detached itself from the rest of the people; through a closed door, the policy became a caste. This was followed by sub-divisions of the remaining three varnas. Dr. Ambedkar puts it this way ‘Some closed the door and others found it closed against them’.

Dr. Ambedkar says that infection by imitation resulted in endogamous castes among Non-brahmins. As Brahmin is considered as a semi-God/ demi-God and a fountainhead of bliss and good, it is natural that the remaining three classes imitated him and sub-divided and enclosed them into castes. Thus the whole process of caste formation is the process of imitation of the higher by the lower. Dr. Ambedkar further states that ‘caste in the singular is unreality. Caste exists only in the plural number. There is no such thing as a caste, there are always castes’. Thus Dr. Ambedkar concludes his paper by pointing out four main points regarding the caste problem as listed below:

  1. Prevalence of a deep cultural unity despite composite Hindu population
  2. Caste is the parcelling of already existing larger cultural unit
  3. One class initially enclosed itself into a caste
  4. Remaining classes became castes by the process of imitation and ex-communication. 

Published by Egalitarians India

Egalitarians is a leaderless, voluntary, and not-for-profit group deeply committed to the principle of equality. We are a group of volunteers working with a common understanding for a common goal of creating a casteless egalitarian society.

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