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Castes are systems of occupation, endogamy, social culture, social class, and political power, the assignment of individuals to places in the social hierarchy is determined by social group and cultural heritage. Although India is often now associated with the word "caste", it was first used by the Portuguese to describe inherited class status in their own European society.

Discrimination based on caste is prevalent mainly in parts of Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan) and Africa. UNICEF estimates that discrimination based on caste affects 250 million people worldwide.[1]

English caste is from Latin castus "pure, cut off, segregated", the participle of carere "to cut off" (whence also castration). Application to Hindu social groups originates in the 17th century, via Portuguese casta "breed, race, caste".


Caste in Europe

Classical Antiquity

Ancient Greek society was divided into free people and slaves. Only free, land owning, native-born men could be citizens entitled to the full protection of the law in a Greek city-state (later Pericles introduced exceptions to the native-born restriction).[citation needed] In most city-states, unlike Rome, social prominence did not allow special rights. In Athens, the population was divided into four social classes based on wealth. People could change classes if they made more money.[citation needed]

In Sparta, all male citizens were given the title of equal if they finished their education. Slaves had no power or status. Sparta had a special type of serf-like helots. Their masters treated them harshly and helots often resorted to rebellions.[2] According to Herodotus (IX, 28–29), helots were seven times as numerous as Spartans. Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of blood or guilt (crypteia).

Social class in ancient Rome played a major role in the lives of Romans. Ancient Roman society was hierarchical.[3] Free-born Roman citizens were divided into several classes, both by ancestry and by property. The broadest division was by ancestry, between patricians, those who could trace their ancestry to the first Senate established by Romulus,[4] and plebeians, all other citizens. Originally, all public offices were open only to patricians, and the classes could not intermarry. There were also several classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, along with slaves who had none.

Middle Ages

According to an English cleric of the late 10th century, society was composed of the three orders: bellatores (in Medieval Latin), or "those who fight" (nobles and knights); oratores, or "those who pray" (priests and monks); and laboratores, or "those who work" (peasants and serfs).

In medieval Europe, the estates of the realm were a caste system. The population was divided into nobility, clergy, and the commoners. In some regions, the commoners were divided into burghers, peasants or serfs, and the estateless. Although originally based on occupation, one's estate was eventually inherited, because of low social mobility.[5][6] Poland's nobility were more numerous than those of all other European countries, forming some 8% of the total population in 1791, and almost 16% among ethnic Poles. By contrast, the nobilities of other European countries, except for Spain and Hungary, amounted to a mere 1-3%.[7] In France, serfdom lasted legally until 1789. It persisted in Austria-Hungary till 1848 and was abolished in Russia only in 1861.[8]

Caste in Africa

Countries in Africa who have societies with caste systems within their borders include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Somalia.

The Osu caste systems 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 Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone 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 descendants) and the outcast 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 northeast Kenya with the Watta as the lowest caste, the Tuareg caste system, and the ubuhake castes in Rwanda and Burundi. 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.[9][10]

The Somali people are divided into clans, wherein the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the lower castes such as the Midgan are sometimes treated as outcasts.[11]

Caste in Spanish and Portuguese America

The Spanish and Portuguese colonists of the Americas instituted a relatively loose system of racial and social stratification and segregation based on a person's heritage. The system remained in place in most areas of Spanish America up to the time independence was achieved from Spain. Castes were used to identify classes of people with specific racial or ethnic heritage. However privileges or restrictions were more related to race and wealth than to a clearly defined system of Castes.

Among the caste / racial classifications used then in Spanish America are: Peninsular, Criollo, Castizo, Mestizo, Cholo, Mulato, Indio, Zambo and Negro,Maracucho.

Caste 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.[12]

Several dynasties of Northern and especially Southern China (the East Jin, Song,Qi), had a social configuration divided mainly into two classes in along political and cultural lines. The dominant noble class, Shizu (literally "Noble Family"), controlled most of the government offices and functions in the court. Most of the time they also had kinship ties to the Emperor. The other class, Hanmen ("The Austere Family"), were largely excluded from all aspects of political and cultural life.[citation needed]

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 1959, some 700,000 slaves were freed.[13][14][15]

Caste 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:

  • Aliʻi, the royal suuwop 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 boat builders, chanters, dancers, genealogists, and physicians and healers.
  • Makaʻāinana, 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 descendants 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.[16]

Caste in Bali

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:

  • Sudras - 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
  • Brahmins - 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.

Caste in India

Indian society has been divided since ancient times into several thousands of groups, castes or communities called Jāti. The phrase "Hindu Caste System" mixes up two different schemes - the Varna (class/group)[17], theoretical scheme based on idealized Brahminical traditions and some medieval codes, and the Jāti system prevalent in Indian society since historical times. Despite the present day use of the same phrase to describe both Varna and Jāti, some observers have claimed that the caste system is ideological rather than religiously motivated, for example K. Srinivasulu claims:

"The Varna system is of no significance to an understanding of the present day caste situation except in broad ideological terms. Any attempt to examine the caste system by fitting it into the classical Varna model would be of limited relevance in understanding its role in the socio-political processes of contemporary India."[18]


Early Indian texts like the Rigveda (10.90.12), Manusmriti and the Puranas speak of 'Varna,' which means order, category, type, colour (of things), and groups the human society into four main types as follows.

  1. Brahmins (scholar, teacher, priest)
  2. Kshatriyas (warrior, king), [Soldiers])
  3. Vaishyas (merchant, agriculturist)
  4. Shudras (worker, service provider)

All others who did not subscribe to the norms of this Hindu society, including foreigners, tribals and nomads, or even those who had been excommunicated, were called Mlechhas or "Anaryas" and were to be treated as contagious and untouchables. The fear of banishment from the society was seen as a major disincentive against violating its norms by its members. A late section of the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata suggests an origin of this practice: " He who becomes harsh in speech, or violent in temper,he who seduces or abducts other people's women or robs the wealth that belongs to others, should be cast off by us".

The Varna system being a Utopian scheme should however be differentiated from the ubiquitous socio-cultural Jati-caste-system pervasive throughout India since ancient times. According to the Varna system, Brahmins are enjoined to live in poverty and their primary vocation was to learn the Vedas, sacred texts and secular subjects, teach others and pray for the well-being of all. The Kshatriya's chief occupation was martial skills and kingship. The Vaishyas were those occupied with trade and agrarian activities including cattle raising, while the Sudras were workers and service providers of all types. All the Varnas were urged, without exception, to inculcate non-possessiveness, non-stealing, truthfulness, non-violence and benevolence. These too were the very attributes propounded by the Jain and Buddhist doctrines.

As the historian Romila Thapar has pointed out in her 'The Past and Prejudice': "The dynamic of Indian society was the juxtaposition of precept to practice, of the organisation of life as it should be, to the organisation of life as it is. For every aspect of life, from the most mundane to the most exhilarating, there was a theory of functioning which did not necessarily reflect the reality. The theory was the ideal image.....The resulting dichotomies were not forced into confrontation but were adjusted...Such adjustments seem easier in pre-industrial societies whose cultures invariably appear to be more gentle,meditative and less competitive,..".

It may also be noted that although Brahmins have usually been described as the priestly class, this is not entirely accurate, as a temple priest need not have been a Brahmin, in fact very few could have been, given the vast number of temples and the sparse population of Brahmins; however, the performers of a Vedic Yajna for others or a public Yajna fire sacrifice usually were Brahmins. All the Dvija(Twice Born)ie Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas could and did perform the Homa fire sacrifice for themselves. Even this has not always been followed by all sects within Hinduism - for example, in the Arya Samaj, all castes including Shudras can perform the fire sacrifice. There were several categories among the Brahmins and temple priests were definitely at the lower end of the Brahmin social scale. The ancient Greeks, e.g., Megasthenes in his Indika, and the Muslims, e.g. Alberuni (1030 CE) described Brahmins as philosophers. Megasthenes calls them Brachmanes and characterizes them thus:

"The philosophers are first in rank, but form the smallest class in point of number. Their services are employed privately by persons who wish to offer sacrifices or perform other sacred rites, and also publicly by the kings at what is called the Great Synod, wherein at the beginning of the new year all the philosophers are gathered together before the king at the gates, when any philosopher who may have committed any useful suggestion to writing, or observed any means for improving the crops and the cattle, or for promoting the public interests, declares it publicly."

According to some researchers, by the 4th century AD, and certainly by the 7th century AD, [19] there were people excluded from society altogether - the group of outcastes now referred to by themselves as Dalits or the "downtrodden." Thus, an untouchable, or an "outcaste", was a person who was deemed to not have any "Varna by those who claimed to possess it."[20][21][22]


Professor Madhav Gadgil (1983) has described the reality of castes, which are called Jatis, in India, based on his researches in rural Maharashtra: "The Indian society is even today an agglomeration of numerous castes, tribes and religious communities. The tribal and caste groups are endogamous, reproductively isolated populations traditionally distributed over a restricted geographical range. The different caste populations,unlike tribes, have extensive geographical overlap and members of several castes generally constitute the complex village society. In such a village society, each caste, traditionally self regulated by a caste council, used to lead a relatively autonomous existence. Each caste used to pursue a hereditarily prescribed occupation; this was particularly true of the artisan and service castes and the pastoral and nomadic castes. The several castes were linked to each other through a traditionally determined barter of services and produce (Ghurye 1961, Karve 1961). These caste groups retained their identity even after conversion to Islam or Christianity. Each of the caste groups was thus the unit within which cultural and perhaps genetic evolution occurred, at least for the last 1500 years when the system was fully crystallized and probably much longer. Over this period the various castes had come to exhibit striking differences in cultural traits like skills possessed, food habits, dress, language, religious observances, as well as in a number of genetic traits." [1]

In "A New History of India," Stanley Wolpert states," 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...."

Under the Jati system, a person is born into a Jati with ascribed social roles and endogamy, i.e. marriages take place only within that Jati. The Jati provided identity, security and status and has historically been open to change based on economic, social and political influences (see Sanskritization). In the course of early Indian history, various tribal, economic, political and social factors led to a continuous closing, consolidation and variation in the prevailing social ranks which tended to become traditional, hereditary system of social structuring. This system of thousands of exclusive, endogamous groups, is called 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, for resolution of disputes and it was also the community which one sought to promote.

The Untouchables - Pariahs or Antyajas, were at the bottom of the social scale and even now perform the jobs nobody else wants such as raw sewage handling, killing animals, cremating bodies or execution of criminals; They lived in special areas and were not allowed to read holy books.

It is, however, rather interesting that people of all Jatis across the spectrum, from the so-called upper castes to the lowest of castes, including the Untouchables, tended to avoid intermarriage, sharing of food and drinks, or even close social interaction with a Jati other than their own. Indeed, most of the Jati castes did not see themselves as socially inferior to the others in any way. If at all, it was the other way round and most of them had folk narratives, traditions, myths and legends to bolster their sense of identity and cultural uniqueness.

An interesting perspective on ancient North Indian society is provided by the Greek Megasthenes, who,in his Indika, described the society as being made up of "seven classes":

"The whole population of India is divided into seven classes, of which the first is formed by the collective body of the Philosophers, which in point of number is inferior to the other classes, but in point of dignity preeminent over all. For the philosophers, being exempted from all public duties, are neither the masters nor the servants of others. They are, however, engaged by private persons to offer the sacrifices due in lifetime, and to celebrate the obsequies of the dead: for they are believed to be most dear to the gods, and to be the most conversant with matters pertaining to Hades. In requital of such services they receive valuable gifts and privileges. To the people of India at large they also render great benefits, when, gathered together at the beginning of the year, they forewarn the assembled multitudes about droughts and wet weather, and also about propitious winds, and diseases, and other topics capable of profiting-the hearers. Thus the people and the sovereign, learning beforehand what is to happen, always make adequate provision against a coming deficiency, and never fail to prepare beforehand what will help in a time of need. The philosopher who errs in his predictions incurs no other penalty than obloquy, and he then observes silence for the rest of his life."[citation needed]

The other classes are also described by Arrian, in The Anabasis Alexandrae, Book VIII: Indica (2nd c. CE) relying on the account of Megasthenes:

"Then next to these come the farmers, these being the most numerous class of Indians; they have no use for warlike arms or warlike deeds, but they till the land; and they pay the taxes to the kings and to the cities, such as are self-governing; and if there is internal war among the Indians, they may not touch these workers, and not even devastate the land itself; but some are making war and slaying all comers, and others close by are peacefully ploughing or gathering the fruits or shaking down apples or harvesting.

The third class of Indians are the herdsmen, pasturers of sheep and cattle, and these dwell neither by cities nor in the villages. They are nomads and get their living on the hillsides, and they pay taxes from their animals; they hunt also birds and wild game in the country.

The fourth class is of artisans and shopkeepers; these are workers, and pay tribute from their works, save such as make weapons of war; these are paid by the community. In this class are the shipwrights and sailors, who navigate the rivers.

The fifth class of Indians is the soldiers' class, next after the farmers in number; these have the greatest freedom and the most spirit. They practise military pursuits only. Their weapons others forge for them, and again others provide horses; others too serve in the camps, those who groom their horses and polish their weapons, guide the elephants, and keep in order and drive the chariots. They themselves, when there is need of war, go to war, but in time of peace they make merry; and they receive so much pay from the community that they can easily from their pay support others.

The sixth class of Indians are those called overlookers. They oversee everything that goes on in the country or in the cities; and this they report to the King, where the Indians are governed by kings, or to the authorities, where they are independent. To these it is illegal to make any false report; nor was any Indian ever accused of such falsification.

The seventh class is those who deliberate about the community together with the King, or, in such cities as are self-governing, with the authorities. In number this class is small, but in wisdom and uprightness it bears the palm from all others; from this class are selected their governors, district governors, and deputies, custodians of the treasures, officers of army and navy, financial officers, and overseers of agricultural works.

To marry out of any class is unlawful -- as, for instance, into the farmer class from the artisans, or the other way; nor must the same man practise two pursuits; nor change from one class into another, as to turn farmer from shepherd, or shepherd from artisan. It is only permitted to join the wise men out of any class; for their business is not an easy one, but of all most laborious."

Caste in Modern India

Faced with a bewildering array of thousands of autonomous and hierarchically fluid communities (Jatis),the late 19th century British colonial administration decided to categorise and rank the entire Hindu population of India by placing each of the Jatis within the theoretical Varna scheme for the purposes of the decennial Census, and ostensibly for eventual administrative convenience.[citation needed] The 1901 Census was led by Herbert Hope Risley, an ICS officer with strong pet racial beliefs about the Indian population. Simultaneous with this first ever codification into secular law of Varna-based caste identities during the British empire, communities (Jatis) sought to place themselves on higher levels of Varna categories. On the other hand, most of the Jatis grouped into the lower caste categories rejected the Varna categories as they found this arbitrary classification unreasonable, unfair and unacceptable, as it did not reflect the reality. This newly frozen materialization of caste created a growing resentment firstly against the system itself and secondly against the Brahmins, who were seen to be the beneficiaries of the arrangement which now officially anointed their place at the top of the social hierarchy. The revolt of the Justice Party and Periyar in the south, by the Maharaja of Kolhapur and the outstanding scholar Dr Ambedkar in western India against this, in the early decades of the twentieth century, has had a profound, long-lasting impact on the Indian society and politics, which continues to this date.

The British Colonial melding of the ubiquitous and fluid Jati with the theoretical and rigid Varna scheme starting from the 1901 Census has resulted in many people erroneously assuming that the entire Hindu society was organized according to the Varna scheme since ancient times. In fact, India's diverse population has viewed the artificially rigid scheme imposed by the British rulers as unjust and arbitrary. Modern Indian society has struggled with this flawed, inflexible imposition of caste implemented by the British for their dominion interest since the 1901 Census.

Some activists, most prominently at the UN conference at Durban, have asserted that the caste is a form of racial discrimination.[23][24] This view has been disputed by some 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."[25]

The Indian government, too, has denied 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 processional, empirical and contextual stratification. Others have applied theoretical models to explain mobility and flexibility in the caste system in India.[26] 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.

The eminent Socio-anthropologistM. N. Srinivas has also questioned the rigidity of caste and introduced the concept of Sanskritisation.[27][28].

In any event, now in modern India, with rapid urbanization and large scale migration, the ensuing crowded living arrangements and public transport, and the broad-based mix of workplace colleagues, there has been a significant change in social attitudes, at least in the larger towns and certainly in the metros. Associations of occupations with caste have also been changing, especially as new occupations are developing.

Scheduled castes

In rural areas and small towns, the Jati-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 Jati-caste system is part of the multicultural heritage of South Asia, but was distorted by the British Colonial policy, when it was cast into the theoretical Varna mould. In this artificial Varna-caste system mutual respect seems a difficult proposition and a distant, if ever possible goal, due to caste politics.[citation needed]

The Government of India has officially documented backward castes and subcastes, primarily to determine those deserving reservation (positive discrimination in education and jobs). The Indian reservation system relies primarily on quotas for the Hindu backward castes and classes and does this by reserving almost 50% of the seats or vacancies in educational institutions and in government jobs for them. Promotions in government employment are also made with this criteria. The Government lists consist of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes:

Scheduled castes (SC)
Scheduled castes generally consist of former "untouchables" (the term "Dalit" is now preferred by the activists). 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.[29]
Scheduled tribes (ST)
Scheduled tribes generally consist of tribal groups. Present population is 7% of total population of India i.e. around 70 million.
Other Backward Classes (OBC)
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%.[30]. 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[31]

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 . [32][33][34][35][36][37][38][39]

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."[40] 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.[40]

The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to "identify the socially or educationally backward,"[41] 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 politics. Parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) relies on the Dalits, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal rely primarily on the support of Other Backward Castes, and Muslims to win elections.[42]

Caste in Japan

The two main castes in Japan were samurai and peasants. Only the samurai caste was allowed to bear arms. A samurai had a right to kill any peasant whom he felt was disrespectful.

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.[43] 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 "ostracised."[44] The burakumin are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaidō and those of residents of Korean and Chinese descent.

Caste 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Also around the same time, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them.[45] They 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.[46]

With the unification of the three kingdoms in the seventh century and the foundation of the Goryeo dynasty in the Middle Ages, Koreans systemised 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 specialised.

Beneath the Jung-in were the Chunmin. 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 retained 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.[47][48][49]

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 a belief in egalitarianism. However in North Korea, there is still a caste system.

Caste in Nepal

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

Caste 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.[50] These tribes practice a ritual-based system of social stratification. The Quoms who deal with human emissions are ranked the lowest.[51]

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.[52] 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,[53] though, in 2006, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf proposed laws against Hudood making rape a punishable offense,[54] 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 civilised towards women is against the mandate of Islamic religious law.[55]. 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."[56]

Caste in Sri Lanka

Caste in Yemen

In Yemen there exists a caste-like system that keeps the Al-Akhdam as perennial manual workers for the society through practices that mirror untouchability.[57] The Al-Akhdam (literally "servants", plural Khadem) are the lowest rung in the Yemeni caste system and by far the poorest. According to official estimates, the total number of Khadem countrywide is in the neighborhood of 500,000, some 100,000 of which live in the outskirts of the capital Sana'a, while according to a New York Times article from February 27, 2008 there are more than a million.[58] The remainder are dispersed mainly in and around the cities of Aden, Taiz, Lahj, Abyan, Hodeidah and Mukalla.[59]


The Khadem are not members of the three castes, Bedouin (nomads), fellahin (villagers), and hadarrin (townspeople), that comprise mainstream Arab society.[59] They are believed to be of Ethiopian ancestry. Some sociologists[who?] theorise that the Khadem are descendants of Ethiopian soldiers who had occupied Yemen in the 5th century but were driven out in the 6th century. According to this theory the al-Akhdham are descended from the soldiers who stayed behind and were forced into menial labor as a punitive measure.[59]


The Khadem live in small shanty towns and are marginalised and shunned by mainstream society in Yemen. Khadem slums exist mostly in big cities, including the capital, Sana'a. Their segregated communities have poor housing conditions. As a result of their low position in society, very few children in the Khadem community are enrolled in school[59] and often have little choice but to beg for money and intoxicate themselves with crushed glass.[60]

A traditional 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."[59] Though conditions have improved somewhat over the past few years, the Khadem are still stereotyped by mainstream Yemenese society, considering them lowly, dirty, ill-mannered and immoral.[60]

Many NGO's and charitable organizations from other countries such as CARE International are working towards their emancipation, while the Yemenese government denies that there is any discrimination against the Khadem.[57][61]

See also


  1. ^ Discrimination, UNICEF
  2. ^ Sparta - A Military City-State
  3. ^ The Roman Republic
  4. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1:8
  5. ^ Medieval Society
  6. ^
  7. ^ Polish Nobility and Its Heraldry: An Introduction
  8. ^ Serf. A Dictionary of World History
  9. ^ Fair elections haunted by racial imbalance
  10. ^ Mauritanian MPs pass slavery law by BBC News
  11. ^ Africa's Lost Tribe Discovers American Way
  12. ^ The 'Four Class System'
  13. ^ Black Bone Yi (people)
  14. ^ General Profile of the Yi
  15. ^ The Yi ethnic minority
  16. ^ Kapu System and Caste System of Ancient Hawai'i
  17. ^ varna, or Varna (Hinduism)
  18. ^ Caste, Class and Social Articulation in Andhra Pradesh: Mapping Differential Regional Trajectories, K. Srinivasulu
  19. ^ The Origin of Untouchability
  20. ^ India: ‘Hidden Apartheid’ of Discrimination Against Dalits (Human Rights Watch, 13-2-2007)
  21. ^ UN report slams India for caste discrimination
  22. ^ India Criticised for Discrimination Against Untouchables
  23. ^ An Untouchable Subject?
  24. ^ Final Declaration of the Global Conference Against Racism and Caste-based Discrimination
  25. ^ Discrimination that must be cast away,The Hindu
  26. ^ James Silverberg (November 1969). "Social Mobility in the Caste System in India: An Interdisciplinary Symposium". The American Journal of Sociology 75 (3): 443–444. 
  27. ^ Srinivas, M.N, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India by MN Srinivas, Page 32 (Oxford, 1952)
  28. ^ Caste in Modern India; And other essays: Page 48. (Media Promoters & Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Bombay; First Published: 1962, 11th Reprint: 1994)
  29. ^ List of Scheduled Castes Delhi Govt.
  30. ^ Reply to SC daunting task for government, Tribune India
  31. ^ What is India's population of other backward classes?,Yahoo News
  32. ^ SC allows 27% quota for OBCs-India-The Times of India
  33. ^ SC okays 27% quota for OBCs in higher studies- Politics/Nation-News-The Economic Times
  34. ^ SC upholds 27 per cent OBC quota in educational institutions
  35. ^
  36. ^ Breaking News Online: Breaking News! Supreme Court upholds OBC Quota in Educational Institutions
  37. ^ » Supreme Court upholds Governments OBC quota in higher educational institutions - Thaindian News
  38. ^ The Hindu : Front Page : Supreme Court upholds law for 27% OBC quota
  39. ^’s-obc-quota-in-higher-educational-institutions-24625
  40. ^ a b Danny Yee. "Book review of Caste, Society and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age". Retrieved on 2006-12-11. 
  41. ^ Bhattacharya, Amit. ""Who are the OBCs?"". Retrieved on 2006-04-19.  Times of India, April 8, 2006.
  42. ^ "Caste-Based Parties". Country Studies US. Retrieved on 2006-12-12. 
  43. ^ Caste, Ethnicity and Nationality: Japan Finds Plenty of Space for Discrimination
  44. ^ William H. Newell (December 1961). "The Comparative Study of Caste in India and Japan". Asian Survey 1 (10): 3–10. doi:10.1525/as.1961.1.10.01p15082. 
  45. ^ Kim, Joong-Seop (1999). "In Search of Human Rights: The Paekchŏng Movement in Colonial Korea". in Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson. Colonial Modernity in Korea. pp. 326. 
  46. ^ Kim, Joong-Seop (2003). The Korean Paekjŏng under Japanese rule: the quest for equality and human rights. pp. 147. 
  47. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica - Slavery
  48. ^ Edward Willett Wagner - The Harvard University Gazette
  49. ^ Korean Nobi
  50. ^ Leach, Edmund Ronald (November 24, 1971). Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-West Pakistan (Pg 113). Cambridge University Press. 
  51. ^ Leach, Edmund Ronald (November 24, 1971). Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-West Pakistan (Pg 113). Cambridge University Press. 
  52. ^ - Six men found guilty in gang rape - Dec. 12, 2002
  53. ^ Pakistani graduate raped to punish her low-caste family The Sunday Times - September 24, 2006
  54. ^ Pakistan senate backs rape bill,BBC
  55. ^ Strong feelings over Pakistan rape laws,BBC
  56. ^ Tribals looking down a barrel in Balochistan
  57. ^ a b Akhdam: Ongoing suffering for lost identity Yemen Mirror
  58. ^ Despite caste-less society in Yemen, generations languish at bottom of ladder
  59. ^ a b c d e YEMEN: Akhdam people suffer history of discrimination,
  60. ^ a b Caste In Yemen by Marguerite Abadjian, archive of The Baltimore Sun
  61. ^ Yemen Times


  • 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.

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has articles on:

Wikipedia Wikipedia


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





caste (plural castes)

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

Related terms





caste f.

  1. Feminine plural form of casto


caste f.

  1. Plural form of casta.


  • Anagrams of acest
  • cesta

Simple English

The caste system is a system in India that was once mainly used by Hindus. It started as a job system. It later became a social class system. There are four castes in this system.

  • Brahmin - teacher, doctor, religious person
  • Kshatriya - warrior, ruler, politician, administrative worker
  • Vaishya - trader, merchant
  • Shudra - servants
  • "Untochables" - came much later after the other four groups and consisted of sweeping ashes after creamations or tanning animals skins.

Caste: Group of people who are born into a certain position in society, as in Hinduism that restricts the occupation and assiociations of their numbers.

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