Linguistic derivation of ‘caste’:
It is well known truth that the word ‘caste’ derived from ‘casta’ a Portuguese word. But with the arrival of the Iberians to Asia and the Americas, they began categorize people by a new order ‘caste’.
These close-knit, normatively endogamous groups have a long history in Southern Asia. But the division had no bitterness and hate. For centuries, they have been described with the Sanskrit “varna”, or “jati”, Arabic “qaum”, Persian “zat” and others. But there is no equivalent word for “caste” in any Indian or Asian language. It was imported by Christians and missionaries as a loan-word but is today firmly set in Indian public and policy system. All know that the original users of the term (as casta) were Iberians – Portuguese and Spanish, first in the European-Iberian Peninsula and then it was exported to Asia and the America. But one thing is very clear neither Indians nor Hindus were in any way related with this word and system. Later on due to the political reasons the term became very popular – descriptively, administratively, and sociologically.
Two Iberian Empires began and, those for more than a century, controlled all the trans-Oceanic business enterprises of modern Europeans. These were the Spanish in the Americas and the Portuguese in Asia. Several Iberian kingdoms had begun a brutal religious persecution against Jews in the 1300s. A large numbers were converted by force. But to the dismay of many “old Christian” churchmen in high positions, the educated and affluent among the Jewish converts then controlled the Church and royal service.
Classification by descent
Furthermore, converts’ importance among tax-collectors naturally made them unpopular with poorer Christians. The interests of clerics and lower class thus joined together first in pogroms and then in justifying their hostility towards converts via a doctrine of “purity of blood.” A new idea was forced that only “old Christians” were superior and worthy of favour in Spanish and Portuguese society. Leaders of the new idea had to contend against long-established Church dogma that all humans are redeemable through Christ. Quite remarkably, they nonetheless succeeded in prioritising original Christians above converts.
It was widely practiced that “New Christians”, “conversos” etc., particularly those belonging to the “casta de judios”, or lower castes were excluded from high positions. (The above is drawn mainly from Albert Sicroff, Le Controverse de Statuts de Pureté de Sang 1960.) This became a harsh prejudice that deepened into the 19th century. “Casta” before 1500 was used to refer to type or breed of plant or animal: but it now came to denote a class of human separated by birth. It was thus accepting on the rising concept of race or caste. Even now an ordinary dictionary mentions its denotation with the idiom “eso me viene de casta” illustrating as “it’s in my blood”.
It is natural that when the Iberians, Christians, and missionaries came to Asia and the America, they quickly began grading people by birth and descent. Converted Christians were treated as inferiors. Indians did not have this grading of lower or higher. They only used “varna’ to marry within a specific set of families and later on it was translated by Iberians, Christians and missionaries as “caste” defined as a “marriage-pool”. Iberians however swiftly misinterpreted that this was practiced by a desire to maintain the purity of their “blood”. American anthropologist, Morton Klass propagated the same views. Not only this, The Portuguese and Spanish also began grading a “sistema de castas”, a caste system in the Spanish colonies in America at the same time.
Influence of migration on Language
From 1580 to 1640 Portugal and Spain were one united nation under one monarchy. More significantly, both were controlled by authoritatively, by the dominant racial dogma well entrenched in the Iberian Catholic Church. The Portuguese initiated later-migrating Europeans to the Indian subcontinent and Indians to a new class of Westernization. Asian languages borrowed many Portuguese words.
One of these was casta, anglicized to cast or caste. Most discussion has accepted that the borrowed -word was used to a pre-existing and very old indigenous “varna’ system, and intruded the sense of bitterness in the Indian social system that was strengthen by the political maneuvering by the political parties and intellectuals propagating secularism and social justice.
In the 20th century, with the increasing influence and cultural clout of the west and USA, supporters of this idea have ever more mixed caste to the Western division of race and colour. They have also forced it to be prevalent to the Hindu system in the Indian population. This has been a potent and relentless argument, even though many unbiased authorities, such as the expert sociologist Joseph Elder, have pointed out many faults in the accepted Western perceptive of Hindu caste.
Thinkers erroneously claim that “Castes are exclusively Hindu”. But in India, “castes exist among Christians, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists.” Another system about marrying within one’s caste and evading relations with other castes are much stricter among Muslims or Christians, as amid Hindus. This system is also has an important point of its stability. The British colonial rule – the most powerful of South Asian realms – used it in its legal, administrative and political system.
The American anthropologist Morton Klass pointed out that the Portuguese and Spanish were creating a system of ethnic and social stratification by genetic or birth descent; it was for this motive that they instantly thought that Indian ja?ti or varna endogamous linage were intended at preserving “purity of blood”.
Europeans did not try to eradicate caste but to ease most traits of it to a disquiet of critics, not related with the faith (adiaphora). Converts of diverse castes were thus forced separate churches and graveyards.
Jesuit missionary Nobili motioned, this was a well-known practice by 1615. Even, Nobili quoted a Brahman convert who had faced discrimination after conversion, reacted to the analysis that Nobili’s coluor was proof to his being a wicked “prangui” (barbaric Westerner).
“You reproach the saniassi [ascetic, meaning Nobili] with being a vile Prangui and cite his color as proof…by that argument I prove that you are a paria [a Dalit caste-name]. You are black; parias are black so you are therefore a paria. What! Can you not conceive that in another country where all men, brahmans and parias alike are white, there will be among the whites the same distinction of castes, the same distinction between nobles and commoners? Everyone applauded this reply, which was as substantive as it was spirited.”
The word casta to stand for any category of descent group penetrated other European languages. For example, the Dutch were by 1640 relating the wives of some sailors as of “Portuguese casta”. It also penetrated into English too.
Early colonial governments in Asia misused the administrative worth of caste as a way to organize and divide “civil society”. The Dutch conquered Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and imposed a stern caste structure there. Even separate labour and tax laws were framed for each caste in order to prolong Dutch colonial rule. The customs and peculiarities of caste were meticulously imposed by Dutch penal set of laws. The British rule not only continued this but strengthened it in Sri Lanka.
Similarly, in the first British colony in India, in Bombay island, the administration divided the local people into the “severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting on the Island of Bombay be categorized or identified into so many castes or tribes and that each group or nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same group or nation chosen over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell”.
In 1900, the British government in India brought the controversial Land Alienation Act, an important agrarian act controlling property sale-purchase among two particular categories of “Tribes and Castes” depicted as ‘agriculturist’ and ‘non-agriculturist’. They incorporated Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. This was the legalizing the caste and tribe enclaves and villages in India. The British government also commissioned regiments, educational institutions, government jobs etc. denoting castes and tribes. The British also classified castes on the basis of profession, skills like priestly, business, martial and even branded some as criminal tribes.
This article is based on the article and blog of Sumit Guha, Professor of History, The University of Texas at Austin first on the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas.
For more details read his: (European) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present (Indian) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present.
Linguistic derivation of ‘caste’: