The pervasive influence of caste characterises India more than anything else. There may be other countries and societies where caste exists, but nowhere outside India is caste the very structure of social survival.
In India caste is ubiquitous. It is overwhelmingly Hindu, but not exclusively so. Muslims, Christians and Jews too have, in varying degrees, succumbed to its influence in India. It is not mere custom, like manners, or a measure of social status like dress It is die fundamental rhythm of life in India.
A caste can be defined as a group of people traditionally pursuing a common occupation and living in a linguistically separated region. These people marry among themselves, and consequent on their common occupation and habits possess a generally accepted place in an essentially religious hierarchy Caste penetrates every aspect of living. It even determines how and when and what and where an individual eats, washes, talks and prays Even in modem India, an independent republic, castes remain dominant m selecting candidates for elections and determining votes.
Caste cannot be properly understood in isolation from Hinduism, for it is Hinduism that provides caste with its sanctions and gives the system its moral significance. Hinduism itself is the most spacious of all religions, with comfortable accommodation for those worshiping one god, many gods and no god, for the atheist and the agnostic, for those worshiping animals, ancestors, even trees and stones.
Yet there are certain beliefs held by all Hindus and these beliefs make them adopt a common attitude to caste. The concepts of rebirth, transmigration, sin, salvation and duty are intrinsic to the sustenance of caste. A Hindu believes that he is born into a caste as a result of his deeds in a previous life, and that if duties in this life are performed well, he will be entitled to a better place in the hierarchy when he is re-born.
This duty is in essence a natural attribute. It is the duty of a river to flow and the duty of a pond is to standstill. Likewise every human being has his duty. The duty of a shoemaker is to make shoes and that of a soldier is to fight. Living is acting and no one alive can escape from the need to act. The road to salvation lies in the pursuit by each man of the duties to which he was born, without love or hatred. Castes are nothing but the division of duties so they can be performed properly
But the recompense of heaven and hell is not a final one. So one may have to come back into this world to go on performing one’s duties until he is finally released. As Lord Krishna said to Aijuna: Always do your duties without attachment or expectation of reward.
However, caste in India is not always seen in the light of these interpretations. It is often an instrument of oppression- causing misery and humiliation to many. Even today in provinces like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh caste creates gulf between groups and leads to disastrous feuds and internecine wars. Those economically most depressed and exploited are obviously identified with the lower castes that languish in dark holes of poverty, ignorance and backwardness it is a curse of the millions and not blessing.
When we look beyond India we find castes in ethnic groups strutting and fretting as though they were from different planets. The black and white, yellow and brown, Jews and Muslims-all are embroiled in their quarrels. And the consequences of these race wars and communal wars are as disastrous as the caste war in India; their approach too is equally parochial.
Caste system and racial prejudices disintegrate society, for they do not diffuse social responsibility. It is true that caste-occupations in the past supplemented each other in a traditional pattern. But as the pattern is rigid and hierarchical it encourages discrepancies and disparities and leaves little room for progress. For example, a sweeper remains a sweeper and gives birth to sweepers as he submits to a hereditary debasement.
This is why this system is considered a curse and in the light of all-round progress in our age many feel that the abolition of it is long overdue.