In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Caste

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Colonial Ethnography
  • The Question of Untouchability
  • Caste Among Non-Hindus

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Hinduism Caste
Christophe Jaffrelot
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0095


Caste is one of the key concepts of Indian civilization. It gives the civilization most of its sociocultural distinctiveness. Caste is inseparable from Hinduism but is not limited to this religion since caste-based logic is found in Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity, and, to some extent, in Buddhism and Jainsim as well. The interpretations of this phenomenon are many: about its origins, meanings, and evolutions. It has attracted the attention not only of Indologists, anthropologists, and historians but also that of sociologists and political scientists, because it continues to play a major role in the public as well as the private spheres in India and within the Indian diaspora.

General Overviews

Works that provide an interpretation of caste in India are many. Their objective is always to explain the origin (sometimes even the birth) of this social institution and to elucidate its mechanisms. Some of these analyses are too partial or ideological to be mentioned here. Among the scientific works, in addition to the pioneering Sénart 1930 and Ghurye 1932 (in which the study of relationships between caste and race is not always convincing), one may distinguish among the authors who look at caste as a rather ahistorical basic mainstay of Indian society justifying the development of a sociology of India (hence, the title of one of the most famous Indian sociology journals, Contributions to Indian Sociology). This school of thought is well represented in Dumont 1980 and Madan 1971. Another approach downplays the role of religion in the making of caste-based social hierarchies and emphasizes the malleability of caste identities. Most of these authors, including Dirks 2001 and Gupta 1984, stress the impact of colonialism in the shaping of the modern caste system.

  • Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    Insists on the impact of the British Raj in the rigidification of the caste system under the aegis of Brahmins (the main anthropological advisors of the British), who were formerly not so high in the social hierarchy.

  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    Highlights the ritual dimension of the hierarchy of castes based on the notions of purity and impurity. Dumont therefore emphasizes that castes cannot exist separately but form a system. He also places stress on the association (and differentiation) of the Brahmin and the Kshatriya at the top of the hierarchy. Originally published in French in 1966.

  • Ghurye, G. S. Caste and Race in India. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932.

    This book has played a pioneering role but was still influenced by some of the usual confusions regarding the racial dimension of caste (some European Orientalists tended to look at the darker Indians as members of the lower castes, whereas here there is no correlation between the color of the skin and caste status).

  • Gould, Harold. The Hindu Caste System. Vol. 1, The Sacralization of a Social Order. Delhi: Chanakya, 1987.

    Emphasizes the religious dimension of caste, at the expense of more mundane social relations.

  • Gupta, Dipankar. “Continuous Hierarchies and Discrete Castes.” Economic and Political Weekly 19.48 (1984): 2049–2053.

    A critique of the Dumontian view (Dumont 1980), Gupta argues that caste hierarchies are not based on ritual criteria only and that therefore they are effectively contested.

  • Madan, T. N. “On the Nature of Caste in India.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 5 (1971): 1–13.

    One of the first Indian analyses of caste supporting the Dumontian approach—published by the journal that Madan and Dumont (Dumont 1980) had initiated themselves.

  • Quigley, Declan. The Interpretation of Caste. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    One of the most systematic attempts at explaining caste and the limitations of the Dumontian approach. Like A. M. Hocart (see The Colonial Ethnography), Quigley brings back kingship to explain the structure of caste society.

  • Sénart, Emile. Caste in India: The Facts and the System. New Delhi: Ess Ess, 1930.

    One of the first attempts—with Celestin Bouglé’s—to present caste in a comprehensive and anthropological, though rather descriptive, way to the Western public. Originally published in French in 1896.

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