While defining caste in the context of Indian social system, Ketkar has written, “A caste group is a group having two characteristics: i) Member is confined to those who are born of members and includes all persons so born, and (ii) The members are forbidden by an inexorable, social law to many outside the group.
M. N. Srinivas writes, “Caste in India is a hereditary group having a traditional association within occupation and a particular position in the local hierarchy of castes. Relations between castes are governed among other things by concept of pollution or purity and generally, maximum commensality occurs within the caste. However, each caste is in itself stratified into sub-caste. A complex hierarchy of castes characterises Indian social system.
1. Segmental Division of Society:
The Indian society stands divided into several castes and the position of each caste is based on traditional importance. The position of each individual is related to the position of his caste group and right at the time of his birth he becomes a member of either a high caste or a low caste.
Each caste group has a definite and determinate set of rules in respect of relation with other castes. Usually inter-caste marriages are prohibited and no one can ever get out of his caste.
2. Social and Religious Hierarchy:
Each caste group stands alone as a particular social group. For example, several castes are considered to be Brahmin castes while several others are considered to be Kashtriya castes.
Some castes are considered to be higher castes while others are considered to be lower castes. All the castes are bound by a well defined system of social and religious functions and relations. Social and religious hierarchy runs along the caste hierarchy.
3. Restrictions of Food-sharing and Social-intercourse:
The members of each social group are involved in exchange of relations among themselves. The higher class always tries to secure the formal purity of his caste. Each caste has its own caste culture which defines the food sharing and social intercourse rules which are to be followed by the members of the caste.
4. Endogamy System:
Each person gets placed in a particular caste at the time of his birth and he remains a member of his caste group throughout his life. Each member can marry persons belonging to his own caste groups. People of a Kshatriya caste can marry only in other Kshatriya castes. Usually no one can marry in his own sub-caste.
5. Caste-based Occupational Groups:
Traditionally castes in the Indian society have been inseparably associated with several professions. Parental occupation is always considered a good and essential occupation for the new generation. Only the son of a purohit or pundit can perform the functions of a purohit or pundit.
6. Civil and Religious Disabilities:
Right from ancient times, the member of each class, particularly the members belonging to the lower class have to live with certain disabilities. A system of civil and religious disabilities has been traditionally associated with different caste groups. In ancient India persons belonging to some low castes were even not allowed to enter the cities and they were even not allowed to enter the schools.
Even some people used to be denied the right to study Vedas and other religious scriptures. As such several civil and religious disabilities were part and parcel of the Indian caste system and consequently of the Indian system of social stratification.
The Constitution of India prohibits inequalities and discriminations based upon caste, colour, creed, religion, race, sex, place of birth and any similar factor. Untouchability is a crime. Equal citizenship, equal rights and equal opportunities for development have been granted to all persons.
However, some Special protections have been given to the persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This has been done to secure social equality in Indian society.
Indian society has been traditionally a caste-based stratified society. In the past, such stratification acted as a source of inequalities and exploitation of members of some castes by the members of the so-called high castes.
Now the system has been changing and the Constitution of India has laid down several laws for securing the objective of social, economic political justice and equality of status and opportunity for all. Caste based rigid social stratification has been now undergoing changes and the role of the caste is getting diluted in the Indian society.