Caste: background

What is caste? 


The case study of the Meos and the history of Bisru more generally indicates clearly that caste identity is not fixed and immoveable, nor solely linked with Hinduism, as is often assumed.  Rather, it is contested, often rapidly changing and always embedded in a complex of dynamic, regionally specific social hierarchies.  This means that generalization about the institution of caste is somewhat hazardous.  But it is not impossible, as long as one remains sensitive to these contingencies.  The challenge of the humanities is to provide a sufficiently nuanced approach to such a task of generalization.  When we turn, then, to do this in relation to the question, What is caste?, we find that we need to take account of three concepts rather than one, each linked with a non-English term.  These terms are respectively: casta (Portuguese), varna (Sanskrit) and jati (Sanskrit, and with forms in many modern Indian languages, including jat, Hindi, Urdu etc and zat, Punjabi).  Study of these terms alerts us to the fact that translation from one language to another has a significant impact on the formation of social reality.  When we use a term like caste, then, we need to be aware that it is itself replete with a complex of social relations, including those which are invested with issues of power and domination.  ‘Caste’ is a social construction, not just a reflection of social reality.  This will become apparent, as we study each of these words in turn.

Casta   Varna   Jati   

If you have read the links above, you will have seen that our approach to the question, ‘What is caste?’ is to look at the way in which these three key concepts – casta, varna and jati – operate and are interrelated in the production of the complex social relations which are labelled ‘caste’.  To take this further, it is vital to develop a contextualized understanding, not just of the historical emergence and changing meanings of caste’s ‘underlying’ terms, but of the way in which ‘caste’ operates in a range of specific locations. A key strategy you could use in developing your understanding of caste would be to locate the particular example you are considering in a kind of conceptual diagram indexed by these three concepts:So, for example, you could look at the Meo [See Exploring caste dynamics] and attempt to ‘plot’ them, along with other castes, on this diagram.  To do so, you need to ask yourself questions like: in what sense, if any, do the Meo function as a jati?  as a jati in terms of a varna-based hierarchy? as part of a ‘universal’ casta-as-caste type system?  Taking this a stage further, you might ask: do my answers to this depend on which anthropologist I read? how do his or her assumptions affect the representation of Meo social life? are there any aspects of Meo social and cultural life which fall outside these three terms or push us to reclassify their interrelations?  How might changing social and political circumstances affect all these issues?

It is in such ways that you can build up a detailed picture, across a range of examples and regions, both within South Asia and the diaspora.  Through this you can add nuance to the somewhat schematic approach to casta, varna and jati which we have suggested, and so develop a properly contextualised view of caste.