Culture and Civilization Matters

January 20, 2010

Societal Tension: Religion, Caste and Indian Identity

Filed under: Term 3 Delhi — Tags: , , , — wadatripp @ 8:32 pm

India’s caste system has long imposed a hierarchical structure on society within the region. Despite the fact that India’s constitution has made caste based discrimination illegal there is still strong evidence to suggest that it still plays a major role in Indian society.

Given that the Hindu faith promotes religious tolerance, India has long been recognized as a country that is open to all faiths. Many faiths such as Buddishm and Jainism originated in India and India’s Jewish population remains the only diaspora in Jewish history which has never encountered a single incident of anti-sematism. India is also home to the second largest population Muslims in the world.

So while India has had a long history of religious tolerance it has simultaneously maintained a strong adherence to the rigid hierarchical structure of the caste system.

This section of the blog will explore the interplay between religious openness and adherence to the caste system and how it impacts Indian Identity today.

In the following brief video, Sashi Tharoor outlines India’s long history as an open society where people of all faiths have been allowed to freely and openly practice their faiths.

To view the Sashi Tharoor’s complete TED talk click here.

For a more detailed chronological view on the large variety or faith that have called India home over the centuries, we revisit BBC Civilizations web tool


You can access the tool by clicking HERE.

We encourage you to analyze the how faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism have been a part of India’s history.

For a thorough overview of the of the faiths that call India home, please review the PBS site based on Michael Wood’s documentary The Story of India.

You can see the full overview of religion in India by clicking here.

One of the most widely commented upon features of Indian society is the caste system. The origin of the usage of the term “caste” is traced to the 16th century when the Portuguese came to India and found the Indian community divided into many separate groups which they called “castas” meaning tribes, clans or families.

The four fold classification: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras – in descending order of social status is believed to have originated as a feature of Hindu society, but the influence of caste has made its way into most non-Hindu religions in India also.

A.L. Basham defines caste as a system of groups within the class which are normally:

  • Endogamous – Marriage being legitimate only within the group.
  • Commensual – Food to be received from and eaten only in the presence of members of the same or higher group
  • Craft Exclusive – Each man to live by the trade or profession of his own group and not take up that of another.

In the video below, Dr. Mridu Rai, Associate Professor of History at Yale, delves more deeply into the history of the caste system in India from 1200 BC to the legal elimination of caste based discrimination in the constitution of modern-day independent India.

Please review the first 10 minutes of this interview to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of the caste system in India.

Finally, please view the following short excerpt from an interview with Cyril Shroff, or a non-academic perspective on the caste system and its impact on business today, despite the fact that it is considered illegal.

To view complete interview with Cyril Sharoff click here.

In this brief video excerpt, Sashi Tharoor, clearly describes the role that Religion, Caste and Region play in defining Indian identity today.


  • How is it that Indian society can at simultaneously be so open to multiple faiths while continuing to adhere to a very rigid hierarchical structure such as the caste system?
  • How has India managed to maintain religious pluralism despite the fact that the region has lived through several Empires – most notably the Islamic Moghul Empire and Christian British Empire?
  • Consider the tension of maintaining religious freedom in a country where over 80% of the population is Hindu while at the same time being home to the second largest population of 150 million Muslims.
  • Consider how the prevalence of the caste system might influence the dynamics of religious pluralism and societal unrest in India.

Click here to return to CCL Delhi Main Page


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