Practice Question – Write a note on Ghurye’s conception of caste in India. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Definition of Caste, Ghurye’s Conception, Context, Characteristics of caste, Critic, Conclusion. 



The term ‘caste’ is derived from a Portuguese word ‘caste’ meaning breed, race or group. The castes are ascriptive groups. Thus basically caste refers to people belonging to the same breed. An individual is born into a caste, and this status is usually permanent. Though the elements of castes are found outside India, it is only in India that numerous castes are found. Apart from general features like endogamy, castes also have specific features which are the outcome of regional, linguistic or other variables. Caste in India is an ascriptive group. It is a hereditary group. Caste is a community as it is based on kinship and primordial affinity. As an institution, “caste illustrates the spirit of comprehensive synthesis-characteristic of the Hindu mind with its faith in the collaboration of races and the cooperation of cultures.”



A.W. Green, while defining caste says: “caste is a system of stratification in which mobility, movement up and down in the status ladder, at least ideally, may not occur.”

Gait says that caste is an endogamous group or a collection of such groups bearing a common name who by reason of traditional occupation and reputed origin, are generally regarded, by those of their countrymen who are competent to given an opinion, as forming a single homogenous community, the constituent parts of which are nearly related to each other than they are to any other section of society.

Béteille has defined caste, ‘as a small and named group of persons characterised by endogamy, hereditary membership and a specific style of life which sometimes includes the pursuit by tradition of a particular occupation and is usually associated with a more or less distinct ritual status in a hierarchical system’.

M. Senart defines caste ‘as a close corporation, in theory at any rate rigorously hereditary; equipped with a certain traditional and independent organisation including a chief and a council, meeting on occasion in assemblies of more or less plenary authority and joining together at certain festivals; bound together by common occupations, which relate more particularly to marriage and to food and to questions of ceremonial pollution, and ruling its members by the exercise of jurisdiction the extent of which varies, but which succeeds in making the authority of the community more felt by the sanction of certain penalties and above all by final irrevocable exclusion
from the group.

Nesfield defines a caste as ‘a class of the community which disowns any connection with any other class and can neither intermarry nor eat or drink with any but persons of their own community.’



Division into segments:

The caste system divides the whole society into segments or sections. In the society there are several groups and associations and the people associated with these groups and associations care more for their own castes than for the community as a whole.


The caste system is always characterised by a hierarchal arrangement which implies that there are some castes which are considered superior to the others. Membership in the caste hierarchy is based on birth and is more or less fixed. Traditionally it is the hierarchal arrangement of caste according to different degrees of dominance and privileges. The Brahmins in India are placed on the apex of the social ladder. 

 Restrictions on Interaction:

In the caste system, there are several restrictions on interaction. The members of one caste cannot mix or move freely with the members of the other castes. This ban on interaction becomes still more rigid when the question of mixing of a superior caste with an inferior one comes to the front. Every caste abides by well-established customs and well-defined norms of interaction.

Social and religious disabilities:

In a rigid caste system the members of a higher caste impose certain disabilities and restrictions on other castes as well as on themselves. In the Hindu caste system, the Brahmins are the most privileged caste and the Sudras are the least privileged. A Sudra cannot even touch an individual belonging to a higher caste. People belonging to the lowest caste in the hierarchy are not allowed to dwell in the cities and purchase property in the localities inhabited by the high caste people. They are not allowed even to go to the temples and worship there. They are not even permitted to study religious books etc. They are not also allowed to use village wells or ponds, used by the higher castes.

Imposition of restrictions on Commensality:

These refer to the restrictions on eating and drinking. Each caste group has its own laws which govern the food habits of the members. Generally, there are no restrictions on fruit, milk, butter, dry fruits etc. But there are some restrictions regarding unfried food. Un-fried food has been divided into two classes, ‘Pacca’ and ‘Kachcha’. This division is based on the use of ‘ghee’ with or without water. If in the preparation of the food only ghee is used and no water is used, it is called ‘Pacca’ type of food. On the other hand, a ‘Kachcha’ food is prepared with the use of water. The ‘Kachcha’ food can be accepted only from a person of one’s own caste or of a higher caste.

The Ideology of Purity and Pollution:

The gradation of castes is based on the notion of ritual purity. The higher castes are believed to be purer and less polluted. A central point in Hindu ritual is that it is necessary to make offering to the gods in order for human affairs to continue without undue disaster. The Brahmin or the priest acts as an intermediary between the general society and the gods. The lower castes are regarded as less pure and more polluted. However, purity or the lack of purity bears no direct relation to physical purity. Ritual purity is derived from the caste ideology that human beings are born into a high or a low caste in accordance with the doctrine of karma.

Restrictions on Occupations:

The different castes are usually associated with traditional occupations. Hindu religious texts determined the occupations of all ‘varnas’. According to Manu, the great Hindu law giver, the function of the Brahmin is to study and teach, to guide and perform religious rituals, and to give and take of alms, that of the Kshatriya is to go to war along with study and performance of religious rituals and alms- giving and checking the evil, that of Vaishya is to carry on agriculture, trade and commerce, performance of religious rituals and alms-giving and that of Sudra is to serve all other ‘varnas’ through menial work.

Marital Restrictions:

Caste endogamy is strictly enforced wherein the members of each caste marry only within their own caste. Inter-caste marriage is not only viewed with disfavour but it is also very much resented and discouraged. Westermarck considers this endogamic practice to be a chief characteristic feature of the caste system.

Hereditary Status:

Caste system is based on the ascriptive pattern which implies that the birth of a person in a particular caste decides his caste. It is usually difficult or rather impossible to change one’s own caste despite the acquisition of qualifications or disqualifications, the membership of a particular caste continues and does not undergo any change even if changes in a person’s status, occupation, education, wealth etc. occur.



Social institutions that resemble caste in one respect or the other are not difficult to find elsewhere. The caste system has survived in a perfect form in India than elsewhere, but Hocart shows that the Indian caste system is not an isolated phenomenon as it is thought to be. Comparable forms, still exist is Polynesia and Melanesia and that clear traces
of them can be seen in ancient Greece, Rome and Modern Egypt. Hutton finds analogous institutions, which resemble caste in one or other  of its aspects in various parts of the world like Ceylon, Fiji, Egypt, Somali, Rnada and Urundi in modern Africa and Burma. Ghurye traces elements of caste outside India like Egypt, Western Asia,
China, Japan, America, Rome and Tribal Europe.



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