Caste system in India existed since Harappan times, says archaeologist

Dr. Arvind Jamkhedkar  

The caste system is a hierarchy and it existed in India as far back as the Harappan civilisation, said Arvind Jamkhedkar, archaeologist, historian and Indologist. Dr. Jamkhedkar, who is chancellor of Pune’s Deccan College, and is now retired as director of the Maharashtra State Archaeology and Museum Department and a former vice-president of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, was speaking on the topic ‘Archaeological histories of Urbanisation’ at the School of Environment and Architecture (SEA), Borivali last week.

During his speech, Dr. Jamkhedkar touched upon the caste system in India over time. Relying on Prof. Iravati Karve’s extensive study of castes, he said “Within Harappa, walls separated one section of the people from another, which clearly shows how the caste system existed way back. Even during the Mauryan Empire, there is mention of seven clans of people.”

Varna , Dr. Jamkhedkar said, citing Prof. Ghurye’s theory of Varna Sankaras , differed from caste: while the varna of a person depended upon the person’s chosen profession, and people from different varna s could live within a single family, the caste system was hereditary and depended upon birth. The people of those times, he said, were free to choose their own varna which depended upon the education they pursued. He explained how the educated class, Brahmins had different kinds of sub-castes. Those who went to become kings had to fight to protect their kingdoms and ended up as Kshatriyas, the fighting class.

Dr. Jamkhedkar says that various kinds of caste systems existed around the world: “In New Zealand and Australia, the caste system can now be seen only in museums, because the tribal people there were forcibly converted into a certain system of living. But there may emerge castes in multicultural democracies like US.” In India, though there was no such coercion, the various stages of human development right from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural to the urban co-exist even today. “It was economic reasons that forced the tribes in India to be part of the urban population,” he said, “But they preferred to keep their identity distinct. Thus, the clans turned into castes in urban Hindu society.”

He continued, “The caste system is there because we refuse to change and forget our old ways of living. Friction happens, because people insist on retaining their distinct identity even in urban spaces.” While ideally, caste should have no place in in an urbanised society, Dr. Jamkhedkar said that the people had to decide for themselves which way they wanted to go: “Though laws suggest otherwise, even today candidates are decided on the basis of caste because that is the simplest thing to do. While it’s true that castes existed over a period of time, now they are being utilised by selfish, ambitious interests; there are some disadvantages which are not conducive to urbanisation.”

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 7:54:18 AM |

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