All types of societies and races have some sort of functional social stratification. The only difference is that in most cases it remains in an elementary from and elastic. The peculiar feature of the Indian caste system is that in India the aforesaid process has crystalized into watertight compartments. And it has become permanent feature of the Hindu society.
It is very difficult to give out and dried definition of caste. We may offer fairly accurate description of caste system. ‘A caste is an endogamous group or collection of groups, bearing a common name and claiming a common origin, following the same traditional occupation and occupying the position of superior and inferior rank of social esteem in comparison with other group maintaining a social exclusiveness with reference to diet, marriage and observing certain ceremonies and rituals.’
The essential feature of caste are thus food, marriage restriction, hereditary, occupation, hierarchical organization, social exclusiveness and religious sanctions.
In India social stratification has, through caste been carried to length unparalleled elsewhere. Hindu society is divided into about 3,000 castes and each of these is segregated from every other by restriction with regard to marriage, food and sometimes even personal contact. A person’s caste, his station if life, his occupation, the people with whom he may associate and among whom the caste he may marry all determined for him by the fact of his birth in a particular caste. It is pre-determined of him by the law of karma or purva-sanchit.
The first distinguished feature of the Indian caste system is its absolute rigidity and immobility. A man dies in the same caste in which he is born. And it is the caste that determines his station of life.
The caste system Brahmin is not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas can but even for them certain kind of non-vegetarian food such as of buffalo is forbidden. But Shudra can eat any type of food.
Of all the features of caste system, endogamy is the most important one. The essence of the system is endogamy. Occupation for instance, though usually associated with caste, has never been an essential part thereof. Coles Brooke writes, ‘daily observation shows even Brahmins exercising the menial profession of a Shudra. But the different castes are strictly endogamous.’
Each one must marry within his own caste and within the subgroup if there be any in that particular castes. Brahmins for instances, if inter-caste marriages become extremely difficult because two persons belonging to two different castes differ in their food-habits, cultural habits etc.
Thirdly, according to the Indian caste system, the caste of jati is more often than not named after the hereditary profession and the son inherits the profession of his father. There are thus jatis such as sutar, lohar, sonar, koli according to Carpenters, Blacksmiths, Goldsmiths, Fishermen respectively.
And these occupations are for the most part hereditary and even it someone changes the occupation, the caste name remains the same and the rules of endogamy apply. The caste system however forbids shudras to tapasya, or to recite Vedas etc. Secondly both of them are the distinguishing feature of practically every society, save the primitive savage tribe. However the two differ in most important respects.
The fourth one is the hierarchical occupation. There is definite social gradation in which the different castes are related as higher and lower. The Brahmins are at top of the leader whereas; Shudras are at the lowest rung of the ladder. Brahmins are twice born, and they alone can devote exclusively to lore and learning. This gives them a position of advantage. He is placed even higher than the kind whose duty is to rule.
Agriculture and trade is in the hands of Vaishyas over whom the king rules whereas Shudras are properly speaking rightless mass of people.
Finally this rigid stratification is sanctioned by the religion. The violation of the system is an offense. And the law of dharma says that the advancement of each one can be best brought by each sticking to his own station in life and doing this duty prescribed by dharma loyalty.
We have already described what the caste system is at the beginning of this answer. We shall presently note the difference between a caste and class.
There is a resemblance between classes and castes and castes. In as much as both are the forms of social stratification implying a sort of consciousness of superior and inferior.
Secondly both of them are the distinguishing feature of practically every society, save the primitive savage tribe. However the two differ in most important and respects.
Classes are elastic whereas castes are rigid. One can on his merit strive for money and success in life and with wealth he can change his social status implied in the class distinction. A man may be born in a particular class, but is not predetermined for him that they must die in the same class. There is a possibility of his moving upwards or downwards.
This is well nigh impossible in case of caste system. Once a man is born in a particular caste he remains in it for his life time and makes his children suffer the same fate. Thus classes are changeable, while castes are water-tight compartments. Secondly classes are secular in origin, they are capable of adaptation to changing environment and are determined by social needs castes, however, are believe to be divinely ordained. They are founded on religious dogmas.
Finally while the class distinction have served an impetus to further progress, the caste distinction have proved a great dragon on social progress.