NCERT Textbook - Social Institutions: Continuity and Change Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

Sociology Class 12

Humanities/Arts : NCERT Textbook - Social Institutions: Continuity and Change Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

 Page 1


2015-16
Page 2


2015-16
Indian Society
42
H aving studied the structure and dynamics of the population of India in
Chapter 2, we turn now to the study of social institutions.  A population is not
just a collection of separate, unrelated individuals, it is a society made up of
distinct but interlinked classes and communities of various kinds.  These
communities are sustained and regulated by social institutions and social
relationships.  In this chapter we will be looking at three institutions that are
central to Indian society, namely caste, tribe and family.
3.1 CASTE AND THE CASTE SYSTEM
Like any Indian, you already know that ‘caste’ is the name of an ancient social
institution that has been part of Indian history and culture for thousands of
years.  But like any Indian living in the twenty-first century, you also know that
something called ‘caste’ is definitely a part of Indian society today.  To what
extent are these two ‘castes’ – the one that is supposed to be part of India’s
past, and the one that is part of its present – the same thing?  This is the
question that we will try to answer in this section.
CASTE IN THE PAST
Caste is an institution uniquely associated with the Indian sub-continent.  While
social arrangements producing similar effects have existed in other parts of the
world, the exact form has not been found elsewhere.  Although it is an institution
characteristic of Hindu society, caste has spread to the major non-Hindu
communities of the Indian sub-continent.  This is specially true of Muslims,
Christians and Sikhs.
As is well-known, the English word ‘caste’ is actually a borrowing from the
Portuguese casta, meaning pure breed.  The word refers to a broad institutional
arrangement that in Indian languages (beginning with the ancient Sanskrit) is
referred to by two distinct terms, varna and jati.  Varna, literally ‘colour’, is the
name given to a four-fold division of society into brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya
and shudra, though this excludes a significant section of the population
composed of the ‘outcastes’, foreigners, slaves, conquered peoples and others,
sometimes refered to as the panchamas or fifth category.  Jati is a generic term
referring to species or kinds of anything, ranging from inanimate objects to
plants, animals and human beings.  Jati is the word most commonly used to
refer to the institution of caste in Indian languages, though it is interesting to
note that, increasingly,  Indian language speakers are beginning to use the
English word ‘caste’.
The precise relationship between varna and jati has been the subject of
much speculation and debate among scholars.  The most common interpretation
is to treat varna as a broad all-India aggregative classification, while jati is
taken to be a regional or local sub-classification involving a much more complex
system consisting of hundreds or even thousands of castes and sub-castes.
2015-16
Page 3


2015-16
Indian Society
42
H aving studied the structure and dynamics of the population of India in
Chapter 2, we turn now to the study of social institutions.  A population is not
just a collection of separate, unrelated individuals, it is a society made up of
distinct but interlinked classes and communities of various kinds.  These
communities are sustained and regulated by social institutions and social
relationships.  In this chapter we will be looking at three institutions that are
central to Indian society, namely caste, tribe and family.
3.1 CASTE AND THE CASTE SYSTEM
Like any Indian, you already know that ‘caste’ is the name of an ancient social
institution that has been part of Indian history and culture for thousands of
years.  But like any Indian living in the twenty-first century, you also know that
something called ‘caste’ is definitely a part of Indian society today.  To what
extent are these two ‘castes’ – the one that is supposed to be part of India’s
past, and the one that is part of its present – the same thing?  This is the
question that we will try to answer in this section.
CASTE IN THE PAST
Caste is an institution uniquely associated with the Indian sub-continent.  While
social arrangements producing similar effects have existed in other parts of the
world, the exact form has not been found elsewhere.  Although it is an institution
characteristic of Hindu society, caste has spread to the major non-Hindu
communities of the Indian sub-continent.  This is specially true of Muslims,
Christians and Sikhs.
As is well-known, the English word ‘caste’ is actually a borrowing from the
Portuguese casta, meaning pure breed.  The word refers to a broad institutional
arrangement that in Indian languages (beginning with the ancient Sanskrit) is
referred to by two distinct terms, varna and jati.  Varna, literally ‘colour’, is the
name given to a four-fold division of society into brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya
and shudra, though this excludes a significant section of the population
composed of the ‘outcastes’, foreigners, slaves, conquered peoples and others,
sometimes refered to as the panchamas or fifth category.  Jati is a generic term
referring to species or kinds of anything, ranging from inanimate objects to
plants, animals and human beings.  Jati is the word most commonly used to
refer to the institution of caste in Indian languages, though it is interesting to
note that, increasingly,  Indian language speakers are beginning to use the
English word ‘caste’.
The precise relationship between varna and jati has been the subject of
much speculation and debate among scholars.  The most common interpretation
is to treat varna as a broad all-India aggregative classification, while jati is
taken to be a regional or local sub-classification involving a much more complex
system consisting of hundreds or even thousands of castes and sub-castes.
2015-16
Social Institutions: Continuity and Change
43
This means that while the four varna classification is
common to all of India, the jati hierarchy has more local
classifications that vary from region to region.
Opinions also differ on the exact age of the caste system.
It is generally agreed, though,  that the four varna
classification is roughly three thousand years old.  However,
the ‘caste system’ stood for different things in different time
periods, so that it is misleading to think of the same system
continuing for three thousand years.  In its earliest phase,
in the late Vedic period roughly between 900 — 500 BC,
the caste system was really a varna system and consisted
of only four major divisions.  These divisions were not very
elaborate or very rigid, and they were not determined by
birth.  Movement across the categories seems to have been
not only possible but quite common.  It is only in the post-
Vedic period that caste became the rigid institution that is
familiar to us from well known definitions.
The most commonly cited defining features of caste are
the following:
1. Caste is determined by birth – a child is “born into”
the caste of its parents.  Caste is never a matter of
choice.  One can never change one’s caste, leave it, or
choose not to join it,  although there are instances
where a person may be expelled from their caste.
2. Membership in a caste involves strict rules about
marriage.  Caste groups are  “endogamous”, i.e.
marriage is restricted to members of the group.
3. Caste membership also involves rules about food and food-sharing.  What
kinds of food may or may not be eaten is prescribed and who one may
share food with is also specified.
4. Caste involves a system consisting of many castes arranged in a hierarchy
of rank and status.  In theory, every person has a caste, and every caste
has a specified place in the hierarchy of all castes.  While the hierarchical
position of many castes, particularly in the middle ranks, may vary from
region to region, there is always a hierarchy.
5. Castes also involve sub-divisions within themselves, i.e., castes almost
always have sub-castes and sometimes sub-castes may also have sub-
sub-castes.  This is referred to as a segmental organisation.
6. Castes were traditionally linked to occupations.  A person born into a
caste could only practice the occupation associated with that caste, so
that occupations were hereditary, i.e. passed on from generation to
Ayyankali, born in Kerala, was
a leader of the lower castes
and Dalits. With his efforts,
Dalits got the freedom to walk
on public roads, and Dalit
children were allowed to join
schools.
Ayyankali
(1863 - 1914)
2015-16
Page 4


2015-16
Indian Society
42
H aving studied the structure and dynamics of the population of India in
Chapter 2, we turn now to the study of social institutions.  A population is not
just a collection of separate, unrelated individuals, it is a society made up of
distinct but interlinked classes and communities of various kinds.  These
communities are sustained and regulated by social institutions and social
relationships.  In this chapter we will be looking at three institutions that are
central to Indian society, namely caste, tribe and family.
3.1 CASTE AND THE CASTE SYSTEM
Like any Indian, you already know that ‘caste’ is the name of an ancient social
institution that has been part of Indian history and culture for thousands of
years.  But like any Indian living in the twenty-first century, you also know that
something called ‘caste’ is definitely a part of Indian society today.  To what
extent are these two ‘castes’ – the one that is supposed to be part of India’s
past, and the one that is part of its present – the same thing?  This is the
question that we will try to answer in this section.
CASTE IN THE PAST
Caste is an institution uniquely associated with the Indian sub-continent.  While
social arrangements producing similar effects have existed in other parts of the
world, the exact form has not been found elsewhere.  Although it is an institution
characteristic of Hindu society, caste has spread to the major non-Hindu
communities of the Indian sub-continent.  This is specially true of Muslims,
Christians and Sikhs.
As is well-known, the English word ‘caste’ is actually a borrowing from the
Portuguese casta, meaning pure breed.  The word refers to a broad institutional
arrangement that in Indian languages (beginning with the ancient Sanskrit) is
referred to by two distinct terms, varna and jati.  Varna, literally ‘colour’, is the
name given to a four-fold division of society into brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya
and shudra, though this excludes a significant section of the population
composed of the ‘outcastes’, foreigners, slaves, conquered peoples and others,
sometimes refered to as the panchamas or fifth category.  Jati is a generic term
referring to species or kinds of anything, ranging from inanimate objects to
plants, animals and human beings.  Jati is the word most commonly used to
refer to the institution of caste in Indian languages, though it is interesting to
note that, increasingly,  Indian language speakers are beginning to use the
English word ‘caste’.
The precise relationship between varna and jati has been the subject of
much speculation and debate among scholars.  The most common interpretation
is to treat varna as a broad all-India aggregative classification, while jati is
taken to be a regional or local sub-classification involving a much more complex
system consisting of hundreds or even thousands of castes and sub-castes.
2015-16
Social Institutions: Continuity and Change
43
This means that while the four varna classification is
common to all of India, the jati hierarchy has more local
classifications that vary from region to region.
Opinions also differ on the exact age of the caste system.
It is generally agreed, though,  that the four varna
classification is roughly three thousand years old.  However,
the ‘caste system’ stood for different things in different time
periods, so that it is misleading to think of the same system
continuing for three thousand years.  In its earliest phase,
in the late Vedic period roughly between 900 — 500 BC,
the caste system was really a varna system and consisted
of only four major divisions.  These divisions were not very
elaborate or very rigid, and they were not determined by
birth.  Movement across the categories seems to have been
not only possible but quite common.  It is only in the post-
Vedic period that caste became the rigid institution that is
familiar to us from well known definitions.
The most commonly cited defining features of caste are
the following:
1. Caste is determined by birth – a child is “born into”
the caste of its parents.  Caste is never a matter of
choice.  One can never change one’s caste, leave it, or
choose not to join it,  although there are instances
where a person may be expelled from their caste.
2. Membership in a caste involves strict rules about
marriage.  Caste groups are  “endogamous”, i.e.
marriage is restricted to members of the group.
3. Caste membership also involves rules about food and food-sharing.  What
kinds of food may or may not be eaten is prescribed and who one may
share food with is also specified.
4. Caste involves a system consisting of many castes arranged in a hierarchy
of rank and status.  In theory, every person has a caste, and every caste
has a specified place in the hierarchy of all castes.  While the hierarchical
position of many castes, particularly in the middle ranks, may vary from
region to region, there is always a hierarchy.
5. Castes also involve sub-divisions within themselves, i.e., castes almost
always have sub-castes and sometimes sub-castes may also have sub-
sub-castes.  This is referred to as a segmental organisation.
6. Castes were traditionally linked to occupations.  A person born into a
caste could only practice the occupation associated with that caste, so
that occupations were hereditary, i.e. passed on from generation to
Ayyankali, born in Kerala, was
a leader of the lower castes
and Dalits. With his efforts,
Dalits got the freedom to walk
on public roads, and Dalit
children were allowed to join
schools.
Ayyankali
(1863 - 1914)
2015-16
Indian Society
44
generation.  On the other hand, a particular occupation
could only be pursued by the caste associated with it –
members of other castes could not enter the occupation.
These features are the prescribed rules found in ancient
scriptural texts.  Since these prescriptions were not always
practiced, we cannot say to what extent these rules actually
determined the empirical reality of caste – its concrete
meaning for the people living at that time.  As you can see,
most of the prescriptions involved prohibitions or restrictions
of various sorts.  It is also clear from the historical evidence
that caste was a very unequal institution – some castes
benefitted greatly from the system, while others were
condemned to a life of endless labour and subordination.
Most important, once caste became rigidly determined by
birth, it was in principle impossible for a person to ever
change their life circumstances.  Whether they deserved it
or not, an upper caste person would always have high status,
while a lower caste person would always be of low status.
Theoretically, the caste system can be understood as
the combination of two sets of principles, one based on
difference and separation and the other on wholism and
hierarchy.  Each caste is supposed to be different from –
and is therefore strictly separated from – every other caste.
Many of the scriptural rules of caste are thus designed to
prevent the mixing of castes – rules ranging from marriage,
food sharing and social interaction to occupation.  On the
other hand, these different and separated castes do not
have an individual existence – they can only exist in relation
to a larger whole, the totality of society consisting of all castes.  Further, this
societal whole or system is a hierarchical rather than egalitarian system.  Each
individual caste occupies not just a distinct place, but also an ordered rank – a
particular position in a ladder-like arrangement going from highest to lowest.
The hierarchical ordering of castes is based on the distinction between ‘purity’
and ‘pollution’.  This is a division between something believed to be closer to
the sacred (thus connoting ritual purity), and something believed to be distant
from or opposed to the sacred, therefore considered ritually polluting.  Castes
that are considered ritually pure have high status, while those considered less
pure or impure have low status.  As in all societies, material power (i.e., economic
or military power) is closely associated with social status, so that those in power
tend to be of high status, and vice versa.  Historians believe that those who
were defeated in wars were often assigned low caste status.
Finally, castes are not only unequal to each other in ritual terms, they are
also supposed to be complementary and non-competing groups.  In other words,
Jotirao Govindrao Phule
denounced the injustice of
the caste system and
scorned its rules of purity and
pollution. In 1873 he founded
the Satyashodhak Samaj
(Truth Seekers Society), which
was devoted to securing
human rights and social
justice for low-caste people.
Jotirao Govindrao Phule
(1827-1890)
2015-16
Page 5


2015-16
Indian Society
42
H aving studied the structure and dynamics of the population of India in
Chapter 2, we turn now to the study of social institutions.  A population is not
just a collection of separate, unrelated individuals, it is a society made up of
distinct but interlinked classes and communities of various kinds.  These
communities are sustained and regulated by social institutions and social
relationships.  In this chapter we will be looking at three institutions that are
central to Indian society, namely caste, tribe and family.
3.1 CASTE AND THE CASTE SYSTEM
Like any Indian, you already know that ‘caste’ is the name of an ancient social
institution that has been part of Indian history and culture for thousands of
years.  But like any Indian living in the twenty-first century, you also know that
something called ‘caste’ is definitely a part of Indian society today.  To what
extent are these two ‘castes’ – the one that is supposed to be part of India’s
past, and the one that is part of its present – the same thing?  This is the
question that we will try to answer in this section.
CASTE IN THE PAST
Caste is an institution uniquely associated with the Indian sub-continent.  While
social arrangements producing similar effects have existed in other parts of the
world, the exact form has not been found elsewhere.  Although it is an institution
characteristic of Hindu society, caste has spread to the major non-Hindu
communities of the Indian sub-continent.  This is specially true of Muslims,
Christians and Sikhs.
As is well-known, the English word ‘caste’ is actually a borrowing from the
Portuguese casta, meaning pure breed.  The word refers to a broad institutional
arrangement that in Indian languages (beginning with the ancient Sanskrit) is
referred to by two distinct terms, varna and jati.  Varna, literally ‘colour’, is the
name given to a four-fold division of society into brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya
and shudra, though this excludes a significant section of the population
composed of the ‘outcastes’, foreigners, slaves, conquered peoples and others,
sometimes refered to as the panchamas or fifth category.  Jati is a generic term
referring to species or kinds of anything, ranging from inanimate objects to
plants, animals and human beings.  Jati is the word most commonly used to
refer to the institution of caste in Indian languages, though it is interesting to
note that, increasingly,  Indian language speakers are beginning to use the
English word ‘caste’.
The precise relationship between varna and jati has been the subject of
much speculation and debate among scholars.  The most common interpretation
is to treat varna as a broad all-India aggregative classification, while jati is
taken to be a regional or local sub-classification involving a much more complex
system consisting of hundreds or even thousands of castes and sub-castes.
2015-16
Social Institutions: Continuity and Change
43
This means that while the four varna classification is
common to all of India, the jati hierarchy has more local
classifications that vary from region to region.
Opinions also differ on the exact age of the caste system.
It is generally agreed, though,  that the four varna
classification is roughly three thousand years old.  However,
the ‘caste system’ stood for different things in different time
periods, so that it is misleading to think of the same system
continuing for three thousand years.  In its earliest phase,
in the late Vedic period roughly between 900 — 500 BC,
the caste system was really a varna system and consisted
of only four major divisions.  These divisions were not very
elaborate or very rigid, and they were not determined by
birth.  Movement across the categories seems to have been
not only possible but quite common.  It is only in the post-
Vedic period that caste became the rigid institution that is
familiar to us from well known definitions.
The most commonly cited defining features of caste are
the following:
1. Caste is determined by birth – a child is “born into”
the caste of its parents.  Caste is never a matter of
choice.  One can never change one’s caste, leave it, or
choose not to join it,  although there are instances
where a person may be expelled from their caste.
2. Membership in a caste involves strict rules about
marriage.  Caste groups are  “endogamous”, i.e.
marriage is restricted to members of the group.
3. Caste membership also involves rules about food and food-sharing.  What
kinds of food may or may not be eaten is prescribed and who one may
share food with is also specified.
4. Caste involves a system consisting of many castes arranged in a hierarchy
of rank and status.  In theory, every person has a caste, and every caste
has a specified place in the hierarchy of all castes.  While the hierarchical
position of many castes, particularly in the middle ranks, may vary from
region to region, there is always a hierarchy.
5. Castes also involve sub-divisions within themselves, i.e., castes almost
always have sub-castes and sometimes sub-castes may also have sub-
sub-castes.  This is referred to as a segmental organisation.
6. Castes were traditionally linked to occupations.  A person born into a
caste could only practice the occupation associated with that caste, so
that occupations were hereditary, i.e. passed on from generation to
Ayyankali, born in Kerala, was
a leader of the lower castes
and Dalits. With his efforts,
Dalits got the freedom to walk
on public roads, and Dalit
children were allowed to join
schools.
Ayyankali
(1863 - 1914)
2015-16
Indian Society
44
generation.  On the other hand, a particular occupation
could only be pursued by the caste associated with it –
members of other castes could not enter the occupation.
These features are the prescribed rules found in ancient
scriptural texts.  Since these prescriptions were not always
practiced, we cannot say to what extent these rules actually
determined the empirical reality of caste – its concrete
meaning for the people living at that time.  As you can see,
most of the prescriptions involved prohibitions or restrictions
of various sorts.  It is also clear from the historical evidence
that caste was a very unequal institution – some castes
benefitted greatly from the system, while others were
condemned to a life of endless labour and subordination.
Most important, once caste became rigidly determined by
birth, it was in principle impossible for a person to ever
change their life circumstances.  Whether they deserved it
or not, an upper caste person would always have high status,
while a lower caste person would always be of low status.
Theoretically, the caste system can be understood as
the combination of two sets of principles, one based on
difference and separation and the other on wholism and
hierarchy.  Each caste is supposed to be different from –
and is therefore strictly separated from – every other caste.
Many of the scriptural rules of caste are thus designed to
prevent the mixing of castes – rules ranging from marriage,
food sharing and social interaction to occupation.  On the
other hand, these different and separated castes do not
have an individual existence – they can only exist in relation
to a larger whole, the totality of society consisting of all castes.  Further, this
societal whole or system is a hierarchical rather than egalitarian system.  Each
individual caste occupies not just a distinct place, but also an ordered rank – a
particular position in a ladder-like arrangement going from highest to lowest.
The hierarchical ordering of castes is based on the distinction between ‘purity’
and ‘pollution’.  This is a division between something believed to be closer to
the sacred (thus connoting ritual purity), and something believed to be distant
from or opposed to the sacred, therefore considered ritually polluting.  Castes
that are considered ritually pure have high status, while those considered less
pure or impure have low status.  As in all societies, material power (i.e., economic
or military power) is closely associated with social status, so that those in power
tend to be of high status, and vice versa.  Historians believe that those who
were defeated in wars were often assigned low caste status.
Finally, castes are not only unequal to each other in ritual terms, they are
also supposed to be complementary and non-competing groups.  In other words,
Jotirao Govindrao Phule
denounced the injustice of
the caste system and
scorned its rules of purity and
pollution. In 1873 he founded
the Satyashodhak Samaj
(Truth Seekers Society), which
was devoted to securing
human rights and social
justice for low-caste people.
Jotirao Govindrao Phule
(1827-1890)
2015-16
Social Institutions: Continuity and Change
45
each caste has its own place in the system which cannot be
taken by any other caste.  Since caste is also linked with
occupation, the system functions as the social division of
labour, except that, in principle, it allows no mobility.
Not surprisingly, our sources of knowledge about the
past and specially the ancient past are inadequate.  It is
difficult to be very certain about what things were like at
that time, or the reasons why some institutions and practices
came to be established.  But even if we knew all this, it still
cannot tell us about what should be done today.  Just
because something happened in the past or is part of our
tradition, it is not necessarily right or wrong forever.  Every
age has to think afresh about such questions and come to
its own collective decision about its social institutions.
COLONIALISM AND CASTE
Compared to the ancient past, we know a lot more about
caste in our recent history.  If modern history is taken to
begin with the nineteenth century, then Indian
Independence in 1947 offers a natural dividing line between
the colonial period (roughly 150 years from around 1800 to
1947) and the post-Independence or post-colonial period
(the six decades from 1947 to the present day).  The present
form of caste as a social institution has been shaped very
strongly by both the colonial period as well as the rapid
changes that have come about in independent India.
Scholars have agreed that all major social institutions
and specially the institution of caste underwent major
changes during the colonial period.  In fact, some scholars argue that what we
know today as caste is more a product of colonialism than of ancient Indian
tradition.  Not all of the changes brought about were intended or deliberate.
Initially, the British administrators began by trying to understand the
complexities of caste in an effort to learn how to govern the country efficiently.
Some of these efforts took the shape of very methodical and intensive surveys
and reports on the ‘customs and manners’ of various tribes and castes all over
the country.  Many British administrative officials were also amateur ethnologists
and took great interest in pursuing such surveys and studies.
But by far the most important official effort to collect information on caste
was through the census.  First begun in the 1860s, the census became a regular
ten-yearly exercise conducted by the British Indian government from 1881
onwards.  The 1901 Census under the direction of Herbert Risley was particularly
important as it sought to collect information on the social hierarchy of caste –
i.e., the social order of precedence in particular regions, as to the position of
Savitri Bai Phule was the first
headmistress of the country’s
first school for girls in Pune. She
devoted her life to educating
Shudras and Ati-Shudras. She
started a night school for
agriculturists and labourers.
She died while serving plague
patients.
Savitri Bai Phule
(1831-1897)
2015-16
Read More
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