An introductory definition of caste. The most characteristic thing about a local caste group, sometimes called a sub-caste but actually the most significant unit in the caste system, is its autonomy in caste matters. One of the universal codes enforced by all local caste groups is that requiring endogamy. Other rules have to do with the regulations pertaining to religious purity or cleanliness. Sometimes it restricts occupational choices.Next Page
The autonomous social organization of the caste, then, creates an association among the civilized Hindus quite comparable to the clan among many primitives. Kroeber states this idea clearly: 25
It [the sub-caste] resembles the clan in being a social unit within a larger political or cultural whole, and in being marriage regulating and therefore hereditary from the point of view of the individual. It differs from the clan in being endogamous ...
If the word caste were to apply to groups outside of India, according to this definition, those most typical would be the Jews of Eastern Europe and the gypsies. 26 In the United States the Mennonites and Amish communities offer good illustrations. Articulate whites in the towns of our southern states, by constant gossip and watchful alertness, keep the caste codes of their group intact. The blacks, except in large cities like Atlanta, are hardly permitted, at this time, the honor of autonomous social organization, although the black churches, if united, might develop into independent and highly disciplinary associations.
In India, all groups are not Hindu; some are theoretically opposed to the cast idea. This is especially true of the Christian missions. Yet, being virtually excluded from social intercourse with other local groups, each local mission settlement is slowly transformed into a caste. For this to happen, no uniformity of social status or occupation is necessary. By being forced into endogamy, however, they tend to develop that characteristic common to all castes, common ancestors. The Bishnoi, for instance, although they refuse to employ Brahmin priests, are nevertheless considered a caste. 27
Ketkar shows that tribes, by adopting the Hindu religion and by becoming endogamous, become castes. 28 This, again fortifies the idea that caste may transcend status and occupation, but it always keeps something of kinship and much of social control as its hallmarks.
Essential to this brief preliminary definition of caste is the knowledge that no reputable authority any longer attaches importance to the four traditional castes of India, the Brahmin, Kahatrya, Vaisya, and Sudra. The emphasis is now placed upon the thousands of sub-castes, which, for all practical purposes, are the castes themselves. These (five thousand castes) include not only occupational groups but tribes, races, sects, in fact all populational bodies possessing any distinctive traits and groups consciousness." 29
Further examples of this type of social distance and social differentiation are to be found in the towns of North Africa, which are divided into endogamous, culturally integrated, and self-disciplinary groups: Arabs, Jews, Berbers, and Europeans. These give a caste flavor to the social life of these towns.
Caste is not social status. If Kroeber is correct in identifying eastern European Jews and gypsies as typical non-Indian castes, then of necessity some modification in the status notion is imperative. If Poles have for centuries felt superior to the Jews, the reverse is likewise true. In such a situation there is no socially accepted superiority and inferiority. The social distance here is not typical class exclusiveness.
25. A. L. Kroeber, "Caste," Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. III (New York, 1937) p. 254.
26. Ibid., p. 255.
27. R. V. Russell, The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, vol. I (London, 1916) p.80.
28. Shridhar Venkatosh, The History of Caste in India, vol. I (Ithaca, 1909) pp. 17-19.
29. Kroeber, op. cit., p. 255.