Jati, Varna and Caste

1. Are there Jati’s in India? Yes, there are. What kind of units or entities are they? I do not know; neither does anybody for that matter. It is a matter of fact that (a) they are not occupational groups; (b) they are not social classes (that is, there is no correlation between Jati’s and the `means of production’); (c) appear hereditary (though one could obtain certificates that `change’ one’s Jati legally). Some Jati’s are organized as some kind of legal or semi-legal associations, some Jati’s are not.

2. Are there conflicts between groups of people in India? Yes, there are. But they do not follow any strict lines: sometimes members of some Jati’s fight members from other Jati’s; sometimes, there are fights between Muslims and `non-Muslims’; sometimes it is the trades unions that struggle and so on.

3. Are the Jati’s immutable? No, they are not. Over the last two thousand years, some Jati’s have disappeared, some new ones have come into existence.

4. Is it possible to classify all the Jati’s that exist in India hierarchically using some or another set of criteria? This question does not allow an unambiguous answer: may be it is possible, may be it is not. The British tried to develop such a classificatory system, which they called `the caste system’, and gave up on this attempt after about 30 years.

5. Is the English word `caste’ used to translate the Indian word `Jati’? Yes, many use it as a synonym. Increasingly, however, some find this translation inadequate because the word `caste’ cannot distinguish between `Varna’ and `Jati’. Besides, using the word `sub-caste’ suggests the existence of a super-ordinate and a subordinate `caste’, whereas `Jati’ does not suggest this.

6. What is a `Varna’ and what is its relationship to `Jati’? No one knows. Some claim that `Jati’ is a sub-division within the `Varnas’, some claim that there is no relationship between the two, yet others suggest that Jati’s exist only in some Varna’s and so on.

7. Is Varna a hierarchical social system in India with `Brahmins’ occupying the top of this hierarchy with Sudra’s at the bottom and a social group that finds itself outside this `hierarchy’? There is no correlation between the `Varnas’ and occupation; there is no correlation between `Varna’ and political power. Therefore, it is not possible to suggest that `Varna’ is a social system, hierarchical or otherwise. Furthermore, it is not clear what `Varnas’ are or what criteria have to be used to classify people into Varnas. If one uses `birth’ as a criterion (that is, one says that one’s parents have to belong to one of the Varnas in order to `qualify’ as a member of that Varna), then the vast majority of Indians fall outside this classificatory framework. (This group would include Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Lingayats, many Saivites, some Viashnavites, and so on.) From this it follows that whatever `Varnas’ are, such a classificatory system cannot be a social system because it fails to classify the majority of the people in a society. Therefore, no one specific social group falls outside this `system’ but many, many groups.

If any on this board disagree with the answers to the above questions, I would like to know what their answers are. I presuppose their truth for the time being. None of the above claims is the result of my research; this is something that everyone on this board (who has more than merely a passing acquaintance with India) knows. (I presume the truth of the last statement as well.)

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