The Caste-System and Class Analysis of Ancient India

by Taimur Rahman

One hears time and time again that the class structure of pre-capitalist India is extremely complex. In fact, the analysis of the class structure of the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP) in India is made theoretically simple in relation to other pre-captialist societies.

The caste system gives us the entire division of labour in the minutest detail. It even tells us the division of labour within classes. Whereas class is the social division of labour of any given society, caste is the social division of labour of ancient India that has become hereditary. This simple fact is recognized even by the Oxford Dictionary that defines caste as “each of the hereditary classes of Hindu society, distinguished by relative degrees of ritual purity or pollution and of social status. 2 any exclusive social class” (The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 2005).

In the caste system, every single type of work undertaken by any section of society is given an identifiable name and a very specific explicit social status in relation to all other forms of work. To convert caste in class, all one has to do is to grasp the specific relationship of a caste to the means of production. For instance, what is the relationship of Rajputs, Jats, Lohars, Dhobis, Chuhras to the means of production? That specific relationship tells us the class of Rajputs, Jats, Lohars, Dhobis, Chuhras respectively. Furthermore, caste divisions reveal not merely the class structure of a village but also the division of labour within classes.

Thus, if one wished to know about the class structure (that is, division of labour) of a particular village, an accurate picture can be drawn by the knowledge of the number, relative status, and proportion of caste households that exist in a village. The same method applied to a larger framework can give us a precise picture of the division of labour at that level.

Hence, the difficulty is not in the theoretical realm. The difficulty is in mastering the enormous amount of information regarding castes. There are thousands of castes that are divided into sub-castes across India. Take for instance the massive study based on Sir Denzil Ibbetson’s Census Report of 1883 and compiled by H.A. Rose called “A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North West Frontier Provinces” (Rose, 1919). This massive three volume study is nothing other than a study of the Asiatic social division of labour of Punjab and NWFP (two provinces of Pakistan). Thus, theoretically the entire social division of labour of ancient India is laid out neatly for any analyst in the shape of the caste system.

It follows that caste struggles (that often assumed the form of religious struggles) were nothing other than class struggle of pre-capitalist classes (with the exception that castes of the same status broadly form one economic class in the objective economic sense).

In conclusion, both the class structure and class struggles of ancient India can be grasped from an analysis of the evolution and changes of the caste system. Such an analysis is beyond the scope of this particular study. But this study does demonstrate that the Asiatic Mode of Production allows us to make this particular insight into the class structure and class struggle of ancient India.

The author of the note is a member of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) and pursuing his doctral degree at SOAS.

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5 Responses to “The Caste-System and Class Analysis of Ancient India”

  1. Salman Latif Says:

    Caste necessarily laild the foundations of class division and priority in India – that’s nothing new or surprising. Everywhere around the globe, the relative position of a sect, faction, race or group in society determines it’s social status. And this relative position, furthermore to dissuade any possibility of a flawed deduction from Indian caste system, is not fixed. In today’s America, being white makes you superior. In tommorrow’s, being black may bring the higher social status.

  2. The class is used in the article to be determined as the relation to the means of production. This is less to do with the class understood as social status.

    The gist of the article is that the class formation in the pre-captialist India and the ensuing development of capitalism in the South Asia is fundamentally different from other regions of the world. In the west, for example, identities like sect, faction, race, or group in the society do not define the relation of an individual with the means of production (as is the case with the Indian caste system). These prejudices were defeated in the Industrial revolution and are being gradually eliminated since then.

    While the Indian caste system and its relative prejudices are not fixed, but they do act as an impediment on the development and progress of our society – that is the basic point.

  3. I don’t think it the capitalist development would be any different here once the system attains the level already reached by the West. West, too, defeated such notions as caste, race and other difference once masses were too busy in producing, purchasing to attend to such trivialities.

    It’s true, however, that India still is to see a long way to come at the level where class differences would be eliminated on their own in face of rapid capitalist expansions within the social economic structure.

  4. rachna Says:

    on surname basis caste analysis

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