Monday, 17 February 2014

Caste - Race, Status, Purity and Hierarchy

Caste, Casteism
A Dalit (or Untouchable) woman of Bombay, India, c. 1942


Noun. Also (obsolete) cast. Mid-16th century.
[Spanish & Portuguese casta use as noun (raza, raça race) of feminine of casto pure, unmixed from Latin castus chaste.]

1 A race, a stock, a breed. Obsolete in general sense. M16

2(a) A Hindu hereditary class of socially equal persons, united in religion and usually following similar occupations,
distinguished from other castes in the hierarchy by its relative degree of purity or pollution. E17

2(b) Any more or less exclusive social class. E19

3 The position conferred by membership of a caste. L18

4 The system of division of society into castes. M19

5 The form of a social insect having a particular function. M19

Although the words caste and casteism are often primarily associated with Hinduism and, by extension, India, it's difficult to identify a major culture that hasn't, to some degree, adopted some notion of hereditary classism, division and purity. In English, up until quite recently, it was common to hear the term half-caste to describe a person whose parents are from different ethnic backgrounds, and specifically those whose parents have different skin colours, such as a white mother and a black father, or (historically in Britain) one white and one Indian parent. Considering the origin of the word caste, meaning 'race', and coupled with its overtones of racial purity, it's easy to see why this term has come to be considered so offensive - especially considering the implications of suggesting that someone is only half-caste.

A diagram of the Hindu caste system. Although caste-based discrimination is illegal in India,
it is still common, particularly against those deemed Untouchable, or without caste.

(diagram by Dave Hallmon)

Do please leave any comments in the box below.


  1. Interesting stuff you are really growing my brain! Naomi

    1. Glad you like it! I learnt a lot reading about 'caste' too, Naomi - it was an interesting subject.

  2. Ha! I had no idea that's where "half-caste" came from. We used to use that a lot where I grew up. All rather innocently I might add. But then we were natural born herrenvolk!

    1. Yeah, it was rather common in 1980s Britain. Fortunately, it now just tends to be heard from loveable but embarrassingly un-PC grandparents, bless 'em.

  3. The inception of the caste system is not known with conviction.Hindus keep up that the multiplication of the castes (jatis, truly "births") was the aftereffect of intermarriage (which is prohibited in Hindu works on dharma),which prompted the subdivision of the four classes, or varnas.Advanced scholars,then again,expect that castes emerged from contrasts in family ritual practices,racial qualifications, and word related separation and specialization.