Indian Caste System and Its Effect on Women

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The Origin of Caste System

The caste system of India, has lasted for around 3,500 years and has proved to be one of the most enduring concepts of Indian institutions. There have been many social organizations elsewhere in the world that have had a “de facto caste system” in the ancient past and also in more recent periods. However, it is in India alone that the caste system seems to have developed to a point that it still manages to retain importance in the contemporary social organization of India. This peculiar Hindu institution has resisted the influence of Buddhism, a religion that spread to the far East but could not take permanent root in its own country of origin.

It has withstood the Muslim invasion of India from the 13th Century and the subsequent establishment of the Mughal empire. It has survived the colonization of India by the British for two hundred years. And now, despite India’s rapid economic development in recent decades, it still insinuates itself into the social, economic, and political fabric of the country. No researcher with any familiarity with India would claim that caste is a thing of the past. The gender effects of caste have escaped from the attention of analysts because they have ignored the productive role of women. By explicitly recognizing this, we resolve many puzzling aspects of the caste system and also explain the asymmetric treatment afforded to women within this institution.

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Since no theory can hope to explain every nuance of the elaborate caste system of India, it was focused on the following core features at its incipience: (i) caste was hereditary and largely based on occupation, (ii) it was strictly endogamous (marriage occurred only within castes), and (iii) there was usually a well-established hierarchy between castes.

Impact of Caste System on Gender Roles and Marriage

The regulations of the caste system rationalize the various caste norms and the attendant punishments for violations. We show that as many groups will form castes as benefit from husband-wife skill complementarities even after incurring the cost of enforcing endogamy. Our theory has the advantage that it does not require one group (like the Brahmins) to impose the caste system on other groups. Although the Brahmins have undoubtedly had a strong influence in shaping the caste system, it is too much to believe that a small group could unilaterally impose such a system on the rest of the population. (This is the presumption of sociological and anthropological theories of caste.) We show, in fact, that it is only people in those occupations that have no overwhelming reason for endogamy that may be hurt by the formation of other castes. They would see a de facto restriction on their choice of marriage.

The importance of endogamy to caste was emphasized nearly a century ago in a prescient article by Ambedkar (1917). The benefit of endogamy is determined by the skill complementarity dictated by the technology of the husband’s occupation. Groups that perceive the greatest spousal complementarities are the ones that are most zealous of forming castes and would be willing to impose the harshest punishments for violations of endogamy. These punishments, we show, are gender dependent: at least in the groups with strong complementarities, women have greater incentives to out-marry and, therefore, face greater punishments.

However, our system of sexual relationship must point out that the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon Max Weber defined as “herrschaft”, a relationship of dominance and subordination. What goes largely unexamined, often even unacknowledged yet is institutionalised in our social order, is the birthright priority whereby males rule females. Through this system a most ingenious form of 'interior colonisation' has been achieved. It is one which tends moreover to be sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, certainly more enduring. However muted its present appearance may be, sexual dominion obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power. This is so because our society, like all other historical civilisations, is a patriarchy.

The fact is evident at once if one recalls that the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political office, and finance - in short, every avenue of power within the society, including the coercive force of the police, is entirely in male hands. As the essence of politics is power, such realisation cannot fail to carry impact. What lingers of supernatural authority, the Deity, 'His' ministry, together with the ethics and values, philosophy and art of our culture - its very civilisation - as T. S. Eliot once observed, is of male manufacture.

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