Digest of terms
though extended by social scientists also to other contexts, 'caste' itself gains its most characteristic usage in the Indian sub-continent and within a Hindu frame of reference. By birth an individual is ascribed an identity and status, as traditionally belonging to one or other of four major caste groupings, varnas. These each contain a multiplicity of sub-groups or jatis, each with normative expectations regarding eating arrangements, marital restrictions, mutual economic support, hereditary occupation and pollution avoidance. The power of caste perception is pervasive, especially in the rural context where four fifths of Indians still live, and even amongst non-Hindus such as Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, in whose religions caste distinctions should not in principle apply. Rank ordering is involved, but tempered by the understanding that each individual, in each particular jati, has duties and responsibilities relative to all others, and that the way these are carried out will impact on prospects in future rebirth according to the law of karma. The social standing of particular jatis fluctuates over time, but the lowest castes engaged in the 'dirty work' of such as butchering, tanning, refuse collection, and sewage disposal have only been partly rescued from 'untouchable' status by laws against public discrimination.
Challenges to caste discrimination have come from both within Hinduism and outside. The best known are Nanak and the Sikh Gurus beginning in the 15th century, 19th century Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers, while in the 20th century Gandhi, who advocated a reformed caste system rather than its abolition, re-named the untouchables as 'Harijans', children of God, in a bid to counter the ingrained socio-religious prejudice against them. In line with this, in post-Independence India untouchability was made illegal, but nevertheless remains powerful. From a non-religious perspective the caste system has been criticized as a form of religious ideology legitimising a system of social injustice, and as such should be rejected. There are periodic mass conversions of low-caste Hindus to non-caste religions, including Buddhism, in protest and as an attempted means of escape (which, though, rarely works).