One integral aspect of Nepalese society is the existence of the Hindu caste
system, modeled after the ancient and orthodox Brahmanic system of the Indian
plains. The caste system came with the arrival of Indo-Aryans. Its
establishment became the basis of the emergence of the feudalistic economic
structure of Nepal: the high-caste Hindus began to appropriate lands--
particularly lowlands that were more easily accessible, more cultivatable, and
more productive--including those belonging to the existing tribal people, and
introduced the system of individual ownership. Even though the cultural and
religious rigidity of the caste system slowly has been eroding, its
introduction into Nepal was one of the most significant influences stemming
from the migration of the Indo-Aryan people into the hills. The migrants from
the north later were incorporated into the Hindu caste system, as defined by
Indo-Aryan migrants, who quickly controlled the positions of power and
authority. Tibetan migrants did not practice private ownership; their system
was based on communal ownership.
No single, widely acceptable definition can be advanced for the caste system.
Bishop and others, however, view caste as a multifaceted status hierarchy
composed of all members of society, with each individual ranked within the
broad, fourfold Hindu class (varna, or color) divisions, or within the fifth
class of untouchables--outcastes and the socially polluted. The fourfold caste
divisions are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya or Chhetri (rulers and
warriors), Vaisya (or Vaisaya, merchants and traders), and Sudra (farmers,
artisans, and laborers). These Pahari caste divisions based on the Hindu system
are not strictly upheld by the Newars. They have their own caste hierarchy,
which, they claim, is parallel in caste divisions to the Pahari Hindu system.
In each system, each caste (jati) is ideally an endogamous group in which
membership is both hereditary and permanent. The only way to change caste
status is to undergo Sanskritization. Sanskritization can be achieved by
migrating to a new area and by changing one's caste status and/or marrying
across the caste line, which can lead to the upgrading or downgrading of caste,
depending on the spouse's caste. However, given the rigidity of the caste
system, intercaste marriage carries a social stigma, especially when it takes
place between two castes at the extreme ends of the social spectrum.
As Bishop further asserts, at the core of the caste structure is a rank order of
values bound up in concepts of ritual status, purity, and pollution.
Furthermore, caste determines an individual's behaviour, obligations, and
expectations. All the social, economic, religious, legal, and political
activities of a caste society are prescribed by sanctions that determine and
limit access to land, position of political power, and command of human labour.
Within such a constrictive system, wealth, political power, high rank, and
privilege converge; hereditary occupational specialization is a common feature.
Nevertheless, caste is functionally significant only when viewed in a regional
or local context and at a particular time. The assumed correlation between the
caste hierarchy and the socioeconomic class hierarchy does not always hold.
Because of numerous institutional changes over the years and increased dilution
(or expansion) of the caste hierarchy stemming from intercaste marriages, many
poor high-caste and rich low-caste households could be found in the society.
Although Paharis, especially those in rural areas, were generally quite
conscious of their caste status, the question of caste did not usually arise
for Tibeto-Nepalese communities unless they were aware of the Hindu caste
status arbitrarily assigned to them. Insofar as they accepted caste-based
notions of social rank, the Tibeto-Nepalese tended not only to see themselves
at a higher level than did the Hindu Pahari and Newar, but also differed as to
ranking among themselves. Thus, it was doubtful that the reported Rai caste's
assumption of rank superiority over the Magar and Gurung castes was accepted by
the two latter groups. Moreover, the status of a particular group was apt to
vary from place to place, depending on its relative demographic size, wealth,
and local power.