Thursday, March 15, 2012


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India’s caste system is a particularly unique feature of its society. As a dominant principle of social organisation, caste is deeply rooted in both Hindu tradition and religion. Although it has been argued that caste’s influence is slowly on the decline (Weber 157; as cited by Gerth & Mills 158, p. 7), its importance can still be seen in all areas of Indian life � socially, politically and economically. These spheres are all influenced by caste to different extents, as the caste system does not uniformly carry out the same role in all areas. A system so heavily ingrained in the culture cannot simply be eroded after a couple of decades (Arunoday 1, p. 1), and while the system may be lessening in its rigidity, there is evidence that indicates that caste is still a significant force in daily life.

There are numerous theories as to why the caste system developed in India. All of these, however, seem to draw to the same conclusion � that caste developed as a means of organizing Hindu social space (Flood 16, p. 57). A widely accepted explanation for the development of caste in India is the socio-historical theory. This claims that characteristics of caste were present in Indian society as early as rd century BC. The system was more rigidly established with the arrival of the fair-skinned Aryans, who used caste (or more specifically, the four classes, or varnas) to keep the dark-skinned indigenous peoples in a state of permanent subordinance (Arunoday 1, p. ). There is evidence from 1500 BC of conquerors inter-marrying with non-Aryans. However gradually, the upper sections of the Aryan groups (i.e. priests and warriors) resented this due to their loss of power and privilege. This led to marriage being confined to occupational groups, with a change in ancestral vocation as socially barred, and thus the system was established as it is still distinctly seen today.

The influence of caste can be particularly seen in Indian politics. Different regions of India have been influenced politically by caste to different extents. There is a great difference, for example, between South and North India when considering caste’s political influence - South India is seen with more caste-based politics than other regions (Varshney 000, p. ). However, there is one universal concept that can be seen throughout India. Although both socially and economically, caste can be seen as a tool of subjugation, politically, lower castes may use their universal franchise as a means of empowerment simply due to sheer numbers (Beteille 16, Dirks 17, Kothari 170, Rudolph & Rudolph 187 & 167, Weiner 17; as cited by Varshney 000, p. ).

Lower castes have increasingly begun to use their numbers to their own electoral advantage (Varshney 000, p. ). Elections held between 16 and 1 in India are evidence that lower caste parties are gaining increasing support, achieving 18 to 0 percent of the national vote. This result, when compared to India’s largest political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (who gained 0 to 5 percent of the national vote), shows that lower caste parties have a significant standing in Indian politics. Thus it has also been realized by other political parties the importance of the lower caste vote, and policies of various parties have changed accordingly.


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This shift of electoral power has subsequently seen a change of direction in Indian politics, as parties compete for lower caste support. The BJP, with a history of support mainly stemming from upper castes, has changed its direction as a result of this (Baldauf 001). BJP has attempted to gain lower caste support by changing its policies to become more ‘lower caste friendly’. At the expense of potentially alienating its grassroots support, BJP’s new suggested policies include the creation of a new category of Most Backward Classes, with this group being given extra access to government jobs. Thus as the lower caste vote becomes increasingly important, caste’s influence over Indian politics can be seen as significant, forcing political parties to take notice of members of society disregarded by most.

Although caste is a great social influence over Indian society, it has been argued that its stronghold on the people is gradually loosening. Caste, as particularly perceived by a growing educated middle class, is increasingly being viewed as outdated and irrelevant to contemporary society (Chennakesavan 174, p. 18). The importance of the caste system, however, should not be dismissed. It is not disappearing, but rather can be viewed as undergoing significant alteration due to the dynamic nature of a changing society (Arunoday 1, p ).

The influences of caste on social interaction are seen through many facets. Physical contact between members of different castes, forms of greeting, modes of dress and physical posture all indicate a ritual hierarchy (Singh 176, p. 4). However, the increasing modernization of society has contributed to the changing role of the caste system. Due to modern means of production and communication, caste rituals once strictly adhered to may be more difficult to perform (Arunoday 1, p. 1). The system has changed in the sense that it is less rigid, with structural differences between castes and also sub-divisions of castes being reduced. Religious and ritual barriers are being loosened, with ideas on purity and pollution and segregation between castes becoming more relaxed (Jayaraman 181, p. 0). This however is seen to a much greater extent in the metropolitan areas of India, and has affected rural areas to a lesser extent.

India’s society is mainly agriculturally based, with most of the population still living in villages. It thus should be noted that caste still plays a considerable role when concerned with social interaction in these areas. This can be seen as housing patterns within villages are affected by caste. Members of higher castes live in the centre of the village, middle castes live beyond the higher castes at a distance, and lower castes live on the periphery in small clusters. The patterns of social interaction among people of different castes is subsequently influenced, and also determined by caste. There has been resistance to the system though, as lower castes gain power through ownership of land. These members are more reluctant to participate in old traditions that are clearly degrading � displaying an increasing class mobility due to economic power that affects the way in which caste operates (Singh 176, p. 64).

The acceptance of the caste system, especially by those who are disadvantaged to a certain extent by its operation, can be linked to its religious justification. This can explain why the caste system has survived since its early beginnings, and still has an influence over contemporary Indian society. Through such major Hindu concepts such as karma (every action has an effect that must be accounted for in other lifetimes), a person’s place in the caste system is justified. This fatalistic characteristic of Hinduism sees members of Hindu society accepting their place in the caste hierarchy; as to disrupt the order of caste is to disrupt the order of the universe (Flood 16, p. 76). As the caste system is therefore so deeply rooted in the culture and religion, it will continue to influence India’s social sphere both directly and indirectly, through the shaping of people’s values, attitudes and morals (Arunoday 1, p. ).

The influence of caste over India’s economic activities is seen by many to be on the decline. In contemporary Indian society, people are becoming more inclined to form alliances that may not be within their caste in order to serve their own personal economic interests. In the past, a strong positive correlation existed between caste and property ownership. However, Singh (176, p. 45) argues that over time, caste will have increasingly less influence on property status, political power, education status and occupational status.

The industrialization of Indian society has contributed to a change in the influence of caste over economic behaviour. D. Lal argues that the introduction of non-traditional sources of economic power, increased commercialization of agriculture and introduction of property rights has contributed to the caste system becoming less influential (as cited by Osborne 001, p. 7). Although in rural areas caste still influences economic interaction to a larger extent, the introduction of methods such as cash payments in replacement of traditional caste-based bartering of services are contributing to a decline in its role.

Another significant factor for the decreasing economic role of caste is the diminishing importance of occupation specialization based on caste. This argument has been acknowledged by scholars such as D. Gupta, who even suggests that members of traditional castes have been performing non-traditional occupations since 181. There is also evidence indicating that although members of a particular occupational caste have held family names, many have been performing different tasks, seen even in rural India, the nation’s most traditional area. Thus it can be seen that the influence of caste over economic activity is on the decline, or as D. Quigley suggests, already has a limited role in economic life (as cited by Osborne 001, pp. 7-8).

In conclusion, caste’s influence over contemporary Indian society is apparent socially, politically and economically. Although these spheres are influenced by caste to different extents, caste’s influence can still be observed in all three areas, thus playing a significant role in daily life. As society continues to change, the role of caste will change with it. The modernization of society has seen the loosening of the system’s rigid structure and rules, in order to become more relevant to contemporary Indian life. However, this does not compromise caste’s importance as a social structure, as caste will continue to operate as the basic structural feature of Hindu society for years to come.


Arunoday, Saha, ‘The caste system in India and its consequences’, The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, vol. 1, 1, pp. 1-

Baldauf, S., 001, UN Summit Spotlights India’s Castes [online], Christian Science Monitor, Available from http// [ May 00]

Chennakesavan, Sarasvati, A Critical Study of Hinduism, Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 174

Gerth & Mills (eds.), From Max Weber Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 158

Jayaraman, Raja, Caste and Class, Delhi, Hindustan Publishing Corporation, 181

Osborne, Evan, ‘Culture, development, and government Reservations in India’, Economic Development and Cultural Change, vol. 4, no. , 001, pp. 1-8

Singh, Vijai P., Caste, Class and Democracy Changes in a Stratification System, Cambridge, Schenkman Publishing Company, 176

Varshney, Ashushtosh, ‘Is India becoming more democratic?’, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 000, pp. -6

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