Q. 2 Examine the role of the caste system in Hinduism. Was it possible for the Hindus to outgrow their caste system?
Discuss. People, in general, belong to many social categories that could either be achieved, such as one’s profession or inherited, such as one’s gender. The consequences of social categorizations are often not only seen in the dynamics of social interactions, but also in the way social status is represented.
For the present research, the Indian/Hindu caste system is of interest, which is an integral feature of the Indian societal structure. The caste system provides a hierarchy of social roles that hold inherent characteristics and, more importantly, remain stable throughout life.
An implicit status is attached to one’s caste which historically changed from social roles to hereditary roles. This, created status hierarchies on the hereditary basis with limited social mobility. For instance, individuals born into the highest caste, that is, the Brahmin caste have usually been priests and scholars. Individuals born into the Kshatriya caste have been warriors and kings.
Individuals born into the Vaishya caste have been merchants. Finally, individuals born into the Shudra caste have been laborers. Besides, there was an additional ‘outcasted group called the Dalits or the ‘untouchables’ who occupied the lowest step of the social ladder.
In modern India, the Indian government introduced a categorization scheme in which the untouchable castes were categorized as scheduled castes (SC), the backward tribes were categorized as scheduled tribes (ST), and the disadvantaged castes as other backward castes (OBC). The Forward caste (FC) community generally constitutes the high caste group.
The SC, ST, and OBC comprising the historically disadvantaged groups, were provided job opportunities by the government through affirmative action. The FC has historically been and, continues to be, in a strong socioeconomic position with the highest status in society1.
Thus, one of the main objectives of the present research was to examine how status is cognitively represented in the Indian society as a consequence of the way caste is perceived2. Even now, people in India continue to define their self-identity by means of the caste they belong to and the social group that they find themselves in.
Caste membership is thus ingrained in the society and there is considerable reason to claim that caste as a type of social identity would probably be one of the most salient identities in the Indian context. This aspect is addressed by Social Identity Theory, to which we now turn.
Social Identity as a Basis for Caste Identity
Social identity claims that people derive an important part of their identity from an affirmation of membership with the group they belong to. It suggested that any group (e.g., social class, family, football team etc.) can act as a source of pride and self-esteem, therefore, we tend to enhance our self-esteem by promoting and endorsing the status of the group we belong to, the so-called “in-group”.
The Indian societal structure provides a fertile ground to examine the interactive roles of multiple identities like religious, national, regional (north vs. south), class, and caste wherein one could discard or fuse these identities for the benefit of societal functioning.
But many researchers have stressed the importance and the influence of caste as an integral social identity among many South Asians compared to other social identities like gender and ethnicity. It has in fact been argued that caste identity may override other social identities, because of its primary importance for many South Asians.
We argue that in the context of status representation, caste identity (as opposed to religion, national and regional identities) would be the most prominent identity in explaining the differences in status perception, due to the inherent associations of caste and status.
Thus, according to social identity theory, individuals would strive to maintain a positive image of their caste identity. We further argue below that caste identity will especially be more salient for high caste individuals.
A strong caste identity could provide feelings of belongingness or self-esteem, thereby relying on some caste norms. Particularly, it is known that high caste individuals see caste identity as a more stable construct wherein this identity is inherited at birth.
They tend to essentialize their identity and this is predominantly attributed to the feelings of connectedness with previous generations of one’s caste group. High caste individuals also develop feelings of temporal continuity, positive distinctiveness, and heightened self-esteem from the essentialisation of their caste identity.
It was argued that the caste system tends to be legitimized through the ideology of Karmic beliefs (beliefs that general good or bad deeds in one’s life are rewarded or reprimanded by being born into a high or low caste in the next life) especially by those high on social dominance orientation (SDO), that is, those who demonstrate a general preference for hierarchical social relations.
Furthermore, when members of higher castes essentialize their caste identity they permit themselves to stigmatize members of the lower castes. The low caste members of the Dalits on the other hand, do not believe that their caste identity is inherited and therefore do not essentialize it.
They may thus enhance their self-efficacy, through the possibility of social mobility, based on the idea that caste identity can be seen as less permanent. We thus argue that caste identity is more salient amongst high caste individuals due to the belief they have about being privileged to have inherited this positive image of high caste at birth.
Low caste individuals would not have a salient caste identity because they believe that this identity is not essentialized and belonging to this group has negative consequences.
Social Identity Threat and Caste Norms
Social identity effects are based on the protection of self-concepts and thus any threat to this self-concept would be associated with strong identity effects. Research has shown that highly identified group members would find ways to protect their in-group identity.
However, the claim that threat to one’s social identity in fact depends on the degree of group identification. For instance, they suggest that those who are highly identified with their in-group are more likely to show defensive responses than those who are not so highly identified.
We can assume that high caste individuals who legitimize their inherent high caste would also show strong high caste identity.
So, what specifically could elicit an identity threat related to caste? We claim that norms and expectations that are associated with caste membership, when questioned, could fundamentally be a source of threat. In fact, it is most commonly seen that a person engaging in any sort of norm violation (especially of the higher caste) is ostracized and devalued.
One of the most deeply rooted caste norms relates to marriage. For instance, when people violate the norm of marrying within one’s own caste by engaging in inter-caste marriage, the higher caste individual is believed to bring shame to the family and this norm transgression is considered to be immoral.
It argued that when an identity related to the morality value is threatened, high identifiers will show more defensive reactions. We, therefore, argue that the threat to one’s own caste, if related to moral values or norms would motivate strong caste identifiers to alleviate this threat and protect their identity.
For many years, the high caste members, in general, had greater status in the society, and viewed themselves as living to higher moral standards and values, as compared to low caste individuals.
It is generally believed that high caste individuals hold qualities related to wisdom, intelligence, honesty, austerity, and morality while low caste individuals possess qualities of dullness, stupidity, immorality, impurity, and other negative qualities.
These ancient established norms carried over into modern-day Indian society and thus certain norms were explicitly attached to a caste type. Thus we can argue that morality is perhaps a significant value attached to one’s caste and violating such a norm could be a source of threat particularly amongst high identifiers.
As introduced earlier, inter-caste marriages can be seen as a typical norm-violation in India and are often viewed as ‘polluting’ the sanctity of the caste system thereby touching upon the value of morality.
Marriages between high and low caste persons are especially harshly punished and sometimes lead to public lynching of couples or their relatives, murder (of the bride, groom or their relatives), rape, public beatings, and other sanctions. In fact, in Northern India, inter-caste marriages frequently result in family members choosing to kill the couple.
Thus, when a high caste member commits norm violation s/he is devalued in society. This effect can especially be understood by the ‘Black sheep effect’ (BSE) wherein people, in general, derogate deviant in-group members.
Norm Violation Effects and Identity
When a norm is violated, members often perceive this deviant behavior as potentially threatening to the group identity, and therefore deal with the deviance in order to reduce the threat. However, research has shown that the tendency for a group to defend the threat depends on the extent to which an individual is identified with the group.
Those who are not as much identified with the group, are typically less motivated to protect one’s social identity. It can thus be understood that high identifiers would show greater motivation to engage in in-group protection to defend the threat.
We argue that high caste individuals would be high identifiers with their caste, and low caste individuals would be low identifiers with their caste. However, we claim that in-group identity protection will be seen in the form of the black sheep effect and not as in-group favoritism.
In certain situations, in-group members are known to exclude undesirable members from the in-group in order to maintain a positive and distinctive social identity.
For instance, that an aggressive social interaction between a victim and a perpetrator would lead to generally biased responses that could either lead to in-group favoritism or the black sheep effect; the latter effect being most likely to occur in situations.
More specifically it is said that in-group favoritism is particularly observed when the deviant behavior of the perpetrator was ambiguous or unintentional. However, when there is explicit evidence suggesting that in-group perpetrators deliberately “committed the crime” one would observe the black sheep effect.
Wang also found neural evidence showing that intentional aggressive interactions result in patterns of the black sheep effect. Thus, there is some evidence indicating that aggressive, intentional, and unambiguous interactions would lead to more in-group derogations.
Furthermore, this pattern of in-group derogation tends to be more distinct among individuals who are highly identified with their group than those who are not. High-caste individuals would indeed be high identifiers, owing to the notion of ‘being born into’ one’s high caste and thus would be especially motivated to protect one’s in-group by excluding the undesirable member.
Furthermore, explain that well-established group members (high caste members) are especially aware of the pertaining rules and norms and therefore, any kind of deviance from such norms would pose a threat to one’s group identity, which will be responded to by devaluating the perpetrating in-group member and seeing him/her as low in typicality.
Research further also adds that especially those who highly identify with one’s in-group perceive the in-group deviant as less typical of the in-group.
We would thus argue that high caste individuals who are also high identifiers with their caste would devalue another in-group member committing norm transgression (that is aggressive and intentional) and would find the transgression morally unacceptable in order to protect their threatened social identity.
Elaborating on the black sheep effect, according to subjective group dynamics theory group members are motivated to maintain a positive social identity. This motivation then results in positive evaluations of in-group conformers and negative evaluations of in-group deviants.
In a similar vein, found that higher-ranked group members showed more preference for norm followers than norm violators. They suggest that this could be because higher-ranked members were more threatened by the norm violator’s challenge to the status quo.
Thus we can argue that high caste individuals would be more motivated to protect one’s in-group identity by making negative evaluations of the deviant member. Likewise, according to relational models theory, a derogation of in-group members in order to protect a group identity and integrity is explained by a transgression of moral norms regulated by specific in-group relations.
In our context, it particularly refers to moral motives for unity and hierarchy. Unity is aimed at caring for and supporting the integrity of the in-group by avoiding or eliminating threats of contamination. When a group member commits a moral violation, the whole group feels contaminated and shamed until it purifies itself.
Hierarchy in turn is aimed at maintaining linear orderings of social status where subordinates are motivated to respect and obey, and superiors to guide, protect, but also take moral responsibility for the actions of their subordinates.
Thus, high caste individuals who break the strongly ingrained high caste norm of morality, purity, self-control, and pastoral care must expect group aversion or even a punishment. We were therefore interested in identity threat in the form of caste norm violation, and the ensuing cognitive representations of caste and status, which could be identity-maintaining.
We assume in this context only the caste-based identity will be activated whilst other identities, such as religion, national and regional affiliation, will not play a role.