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Social Structure of Hindus Based On Varna Dharma

The Aryan social order was divided into four watertight compartments, which were popularly known as chaturvarna. Those outside the system were outcastes (panchamas or atishudras). The four varnas were

  1. Brahmins,
  2. Kshatriyas,
  3. Vaishyas and
  4. Shudras.

Shudras and Panchamas were the lowest of the social order and were treated to be untouchables. For their livelihood, they were assigned occupations/duties which were also of the same status like disposal of dead animals, etc. In short, all lowly, menial and unsavoury occupations were assigned to them. They had no alternative but to follow these occupations, not only for generation after generation, but for century after century. They were made to believe that it was their karma which assigned them such jobs and social status. The other three varnas had a specific occupational order.

Brahmins were engaged in imparting knowledge and worshiping Gods and deities and attend to the religious ceremonies as priests. Acquiring education and utilizing the same for their benefit was their exclusive domain and they came to be engaged as clerks, account keepers under the kingdoms.

Vaishyas were basically from trading/business classes. The nature of this trading/business community was directly encompassing the needs or outcome of the two main occupations of Kshatriyas which were agriculture and army. Thus, these two varnas were spread over in three different classes or occupation-groups namely cultivators, soldiers and traders.

With the emergence of traditional requirements of improved social order, the occupation of manufacturing also came up and initially this could be limited to erecting houses, weaving cotton fabric, tools/equipments required for agriculture, army and for trading.

Then came the need of having supportive services of these four branches of community life amongst the Aryan system. If a tool or equipment was required for agriculture or army, the requirement of carpenters, blacksmith, pot maker, etc. came up. So was the emergence of other occupations like erecting or building houses, trading and manufacturing of essential items. Thus, the other occupations like mason, weavers, barbers, washermen, tailor, etc. were developed.

The better-offs amongst the Kshatriya and Vaishyas got themselves involved in agriculture, trading or manufacturing as well as the military service at the relevant times. The jobs which were required for serving these main sectors, namely; agriculture, army, trading and manufacturing were available to those Kshatriyas and Vaishyas who could not find their place in the mainstream of these four branches. Therefore, for their survival, they had no alternative, but to accept these occupations and over generations or centuries they continued in these occupations. With the passage of time, they came to be identified with these occupations, e.g., pot maker was called as kumbhar; carpenter was called as sutar; mason was called as gavandi; weaver was called as koshti; tailor was called as shimpi; barber was called as nhavi; washerman was called as dhobi and so on and so forth. Over a period of time, persons born in these families of their respective occupations were identified only with that social group and they came to be called by that occupation alone which subsequently got the label of a ‘caste’.

Emergence of caste system

Thus, the persons belonging to different social orders but got into the same occupation became an endogamous group of social order which came to be named as ‘caste’ which had in fact its origin mainly in the occupations assigned to the respective citizens. The caste is a “hereditary endogamous and usually a localized group having traditional association with an occupation and a particular position in the hierarchy of castes.”

As the time passed by, membership in a caste came by birth and the members of each caste started to pursue the same occupations or trades. These castes were created in local hierarchy as well. All these occupations which emerged mainly to cater to the further requirements of four main-streams, namely, agriculture, army, trading/business and manufacturing were treated to be of lower social order even in Kshatriya and Vaishya varnas. The richer ones amongst these two varnas saw to it that the supporting occupations continued for generations after generations. In the social order, they were certainly lower than those who were agriculturists or soldiers or traders or businessmen.

Emergence of specialized trades of entertainment

There is also one additional facet of the social order of the ancient Indian way of life. All these occupations also had the need of entertainment. Therefore, those of the lower strata of the society had no alternative, but to learn some specialized trades of entertainment and, thus, came the concept of dancers, musicians, singers, street-entertainers, who are in the local parlance called tamasgirs, gondhali, vasudev, devdasni, masanjogi, etc. They also fell in the lower social order. Ultimately, all those involved in all such occupations other than agriculture (landlords), soldiers, traders, businessmen, etc. were treated and continued to be treated as belonging to the lower class of the society, but certainly not falling in the lowest class like Shudras and Atishudras.

Continuity of caste system

Even under the different Indian Kingdoms, caste system continued as such. The Muslim or Christian religions did not recognize such a social order in terms of caste. However, when Muslims migrated to India and became part of the Indian society under different emperors including Muslim emperors, all of them could not continue to be soldiers. They had to resort to various occupations for survival with the growth of population. This compulsion of survival forced the persons belonging to the Muslim religion as well to enter into occupations prevailing in this land. Thus, the occupations supporting the mainstreams like agriculture, army, trading and business were adopted by the Muslims as well. They continued as such for generations and centuries and, thus, came the caste system directly connected with the occupations amongst the Muslims as well. For example, a weaver in Marathi is called as ‘koshti’ and in Urdu; the same term is called as ‘momin’. Muslims who were engaged in weaving came to be called as momins. Ultimately amongst Muslims, there emerged a separate caste called ‘momin’.

Caste-occupation dissociation

With the emergence of economic development in the post-independence era, there occurred caste-occupation dissociation. This dissociation increased over a period of time due to upswing in industrialization and affinity towards higher education. The mobility of persons belonging to various castes increased towards the urban areas. As a result, hereditary occupations were dissociated by these groups. When they settled in the urban areas, the caste-occupation nexus ceased to exist contrary to their brethren who were living in the rural areas. This was more so amongst the members of the upper and middle class amongst the other backward classes (OBCs), as they normally tend to move away from the traditional occupations especially when they regarded it as socially degrading and defiling. In such cases, the shift was towards the job in what may be regarded as secular-economic order even if they are less remunerative. Thus, a man may give up the traditional occupation of sheep-rearing, washerman giving up the traditional occupation of washing clothes or a barber giving up his job for a job of a clerk or even a peon or messenger in the government or in a private firm.

It is well settled that the employment in the government confers prestige on a villager regardless of the labour of employment and the income. Over a period of time, urban employment became an important indicator of social status and every village house-hold desired to have one or more of its members employed in urban sector. Thus, the social fabric in the urban areas has little or no touch with the caste-occupation dynamics. The caste-related occupations even today remained relevant in the rural areas alone mainly on account of the fact that even after spread of education up to secondary or even graduation levels, mobility of villagers has been limited on account of lack of employment opportunities and inability to meet requirements of ever increasing population ratio. Baburao vs State of Maharashtra1)

About the Author

Adv. Sunil Sharma is a writer for about 25 years and has authored more than 40 books on Law.

Bombay High Court judgment on 3 June 2002

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