Social Scientist. v 25, no. 288-289 (May-June 1997) p. 3.


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SUVIRA JAISWAL*

Caste: Ideology and Context

Current definitions of caste place its essence in endogamy,^ which is regarded as a residue from the past existing more or less in a 'passive way'. Its role in the occupational system and social placement is not denied, in fact its past links with the form of the 'labour process' are duly underlined in Marxist historiography,^ but since it is seen as arising out of the incomplete fusion of tribal elements in the general 'Aryan', 'Vedic' or 'Sanskritic' society,^ the religious or ritual aspect of caste, the custom of endogamy does acquire the primarily role in its foundation making the play of political and economic factors in its origin as secondary. Such a perception makes caste a transhistoric institution, a continuation of old clan and tribal units predating the state. It is generally held that its influence on political and economic behaviour has declined with the development of capitalism and industrialization in India and now caste operates largely in personal or religious matters only. Hence, it is being defined as a form of differentiation wherein constituent units form not a continuous hierarchy but 'discrete categories' observing ritualized social practices and endogamy, justified 'on the basis of putative biological differences'.

However, locating the basic, fundamental principle of the institution of caste in endogamy not only gives it a static character but also provides grist to the mill of those who trace its origin to the desire of the conquering Aryans to keep the subjugated communities at a distance. Thus despite the severe criticism^ of making caste hierarchy related to the proportional mixture of Aryan and non-Aryan blood, racial theory continues to exercise a good deal of influence' in the academic as well as non-academic popular circles. D.D. Kosambi wrote that the Brahmana caste emerged as a result of 'interaction between the Aryan priesthood, and the ritually superior priesthood, of the Indus culture'^ and the assimilation of the Aryan and non-Aryan must have accelerated the formation of 'an internal, Aryan caste system, essentially the separation of the Brahmin in function and discipline from the Ksatriya and setting of both above the householder Vaisya, after dasas had been conquered ... for otherwise there is no reason for demarcating into endogamous caste'. We have critiqued

''"Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Social Scientist, Vol. 25, Nos. 5-6, May-June 1997



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