Caste System in the Medieval and British Period!

Caste System in the Medieval Period:

Class or occupational distinctions crystallised in the early phase of the medieval period. Artisans, servants, priests and moneylenders were the main groups. The caste panchayats had become very strong instruments for regulating the behaviour of its members. The Turks placed a premium on high lineage in matters of appointment. The nobles and officers were graded into Khans, Maliks, Amirs, Sipahsalars and Sar Khails, according to their military status. There was also a class of slaves.

The Turkish rulers had a preference for luxurious city life. The lower classes of Muslims mainly consisted of converts from Hindus. They retained a Hindu identity even after conversion to Islam, and continued to work as artisans, shopkeepers and clerks. Many worked as workers and slaves in the royal palace and in the house­holds of the nobles and the rich. In social matters, they were treated as inferiors by the ruling group.

The Mughal rule did not adversely affect the socio-cultural aspects of the caste system. The Brahmanas looked after the temples, directed religious ceremonies, worked as teachers, admin­istered Hindu personal laws and served the Hindu society in various other ways. The Kshatriyas were rajas, rais and zamindars, although they lost a large part of their dominion in the north.


They were a war-like people, and fought against the foreign invaders to protect their interests, position and prestige. The Vaishyas were quite prosperous, as they were engaged in banking, commerce, transport and crafts. They generally served the royal families and the rich. The plight of the Shudras was the same as before because they continued to suffer from social disabilities.

Numerous castes, sub-castes and sub-sub-castes arose based on occupational and regional differences. The Kayasthas came into limelight as government servants, and continued to be so until India became independent. The Khatris proved to be successful finan­ciers and administrators.

The Nagars, the Brahmanas and the Chettiyars became influential as they performed administrative and financial responsibilities. However, the Bhakti movement, by recog­nising spiritual equality of all persons, reduced the rigidity of the caste system in day-to-day social relations.

The caste system is known for its adaptive capacity. It has adapted to innumerable difficult situations, forces and pressures. I have written elsewhere: “Because of its (caste) adaptability, caste has evolved simultaneously in several directions and adjusted with ideologically antagonistic systems, adjusting its principles whenever necessary. It has never paved the way to the emergence of an alternate system of stratification and social relations, though the contents of its functions and other paraphernalia changed from time to time” (Sharma, 1980).


Caste System in the British Period:

The various views on caste are based cither on impressionistic understanding or on the scriptural texts. Lines of distinction between varna and caste, and caste and class, have not been clearly drawn. Extreme views have been expressed about the caste system.

One such view is that caste is an undesirable and harmful institution because it serves the interests of the entrenched and dominant caste groups. Contrary to this is the view that caste is a functional insti­tution as it ensures division of labour, orderliness and regulation of behaviour of its members through endogamy and caste panchayats.

The caste system has also been considered as a coercive system. It compels members of a caste to follow certain rules of marriage and interpersonal relations. The freedom of the individual is curtailed by the corporate strength of the caste system. Due to these divergent views, it is difficult to arrive at a precise definition of caste.


Max Muller, a German indologist, writes: “The whole caste system, as it has come down to us, bears unmistakable evidence of Brahmanical origin.” The Brahmanas, according to Muller, have been the strongest advocates of the caste system. They have created the vast divisions in Hindu society. They cruelly punished those who questioned the caste system and their supremacy. The principle of exclusion/inclusion or seclusion/rejection based on birth and endogamy resulted in diversification of caste groups, occupational roles and rituals.

However, caste has never been a static system. The prevalence of thousands of castes and sub-castes and many more clans and sub-clans within these castes is a proof of diversification, differenti­ation and change in the caste system. Inter-caste or mixed marriages, migration, change in occupations, the Buddhist movement, the impact of Islam, the impact of the British, and several other factors have made caste not only an adaptive but also a living system of social relations.

A number of books written, particularly in the pre-independence period, refer to the advantages and disadvantages of the caste system. The advantages are: division of labour, measures of protection, cleanliness, respect for authority and moral restraint.

The disadvantages are:


Physical degeneracy, national poverty, hindrance to intellectual progress, hostility to social reform, curbs on individual liberty, hindrance to the growth of nationality, discord between classes, human suffering, exploitation and cruelty, the pride and arrogance of Brahmanas, moral gradation and blasphemous falsehood, etc. Caste was and is considered to be a tyrannical system. For the Brahmanas the caste system itself became a religion under the pretext of maintaining the unity and wholesomeness of Hindu society.

The British Raj encouraged the continuity of the caste system by favouring some caste groups with higher status and by granting them titles and land. The system was basically inegalitarian, and the British never discouraged caste-based inequalities, injustices and discriminations.

On the contrary, British administrators and ethnographers defined caste in terms of its ‘functionality’ to society and culture in India. They have emphasised inter-caste and intra-caste harmony and discipline with the implicit objective of keeping people divided into castes and sub-castes so that they did not unite against British colonial rule in India.