Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India: Unity in Diversity

Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India: Unity in Diversity

Indian is a vast country and has a long history. Its society has evolved through the ages and has also been affected by foreign influences giving it extreme diversity and made unity amidst diversity a characteristic of the Indian society. However, to understand the process, we need to understand the meaning of diversity, unity and pluralism as well as their relevance to the Indian society


‘Diversity’ means collective differences among people, that is, those differences which mark off one group of people from another. These differences may be of any sort: biological, religious, linguistic etc. On the basis of biological differences, for example, we have racial diversity. On the basis of religious differences, similarly, we have religious diversity. The point to note is that diversity refers to collective differences.

The term diversity is opposite of uniformity. So when there is something common to all the people, we say they show uniformity. When students of a school, members of the police or the army wear the same type of dress, we say they are in ‘uniform’. Like diversity, thus, uniformity is also a collective concept. When a group of people share a similar characteristic, be it language or religion or anything else, it shows uniformity in that respect. But when we have groups of people hailing from different races, religions and cultures, they represent diversity. Thus, diversity means variety.

However, diversity needs to be differentiated from fragmentation. Diversity means existence of differences in a whole. It does not mean separate parts. Fragmentation does not mean differences, it means different parts and in that situation each part would be a whole in itself. For all practical purposes it means variety of groups and cultures. We have such a variety in abundance in India. We have here a variety of races, of religions, of languages, of castes and of cultures. For the same reason India is known for its socio-cultural diversity.

India is a land of “Unity in diversity”. The high mountain ranges, vast seas , large river-irrigated lands, countless rivers and streams, dark forests, sandy deserts, all these have adorned India with an exceptional diversity. Among the people there are numerous races, castes, creeds, religions and languages.

The term “Unity in diversity” refers to the state of togetherness or oneness in-spite of presence of immense diversity. “Unity in diversity” is based on the concept where the individual or social differences in physical attributes, skin colour, castes, creed, cultural and religious practices, etc. are not looked upon as a conflict. Rather, these differences are looked upon as varieties that enrich the society and the nation as a whole.

Unity in diversity is a very important principle because we all live in a diverse world and it is crucial to respect each other and to support each other no matter what our culture, background, gender, orientation or other differences may be.

In India, there are a large number of ancient culture prevailing or still practicing today. Though there are several numbers of diverse cultures in India, still it has unity in diversity. The modern Indian civilization has been nourished and developed by multiracial contributions. From times immemorial, diverse races migrated into India by via land and sea routes and get themselves settled here. In course of time they are absolutely absorbed in India’s social life. The ancient ethno-linguistic groups, such as, the Aryans, the Austrics, the Negritos the Dravidians, the Alpines and the Mongoloids, had combined to constitute the modern Indian race.

In the historical period, diverse branches of the aforementioned unique ethnic groups – the Persians, the Pallavas, the Kushanas, the Greeks, the Sakas, the Huns, the Portuguese, the Arabs, the Turks, the English and the European races came to India, and enriched Indian ethnicity and culture by their contribution to the same.

The Indian people composed of several racial elements have a range of languages among them. Official accounts confirm that more than two hundred languages are present in this country. Each region has its own language. The local people speak in their own language. In spite of the fact that there are numerous languages among various races, there is a sense of national unity and oneness among all the Indians. It is this spirit of patriotism that binds us together as one nation.

Concept of Indivisible India

Since the ancient times, the powerful kings were inspired with the ideal of one, indivisible India. This prompted them to make conquests of lands stretching from the Himalayas to the seas. Chandragupta Maurya had tried to build one nation in Ancient time. Ancient India was known as ‘Bharatvarsha’.

Even in modern times, we all celebrate our National festivals, viz. Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti, etc. with a sense of unity. These festivals are widely celebrated at schools, colleges, universities, offices, societies across all the states of India. Every Indian watches the Flag Hoisting ceremony at Red Fort and listens to the speech of the Prime Minister. In every state, similar event takes place in which the Chief Minister of the state addresses to the audience through a speech. The unity or oneness that we display during these National festivals display the indivisible character of India.

Another source of unity of India lies in what is known as temple culture, which is reflected in the network of shrines and sacred places. From Badrinath and Kedarnath in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, Jagannath Puri in the east to Dwaraka in the west the religious shrines and holy rivers are spread throughout the length and breadth of the country. Closely related to them is the age-old culture of pilgrimage, which has always moved people to various parts of the country and fostered in them a sense of geo-cultural unity. As well as being an expression of religious sentiment, pilgrimage is also an expression of love for the motherland, a sort of mode of worship of the country. It has acted as an antithesis to the regional diversity and has played a significant part in promoting interaction and cultural affinity among the people living in different parts of India.

Sense of Unity among diverse in Cultures and Society

The social customs and traditions which the Indians observe irrespective of caste, race and creed in all parts of the country contains within them a sense of Unity. It has kept alive a message of Unity in Diversity in India.

Following the different tradition and culture which diverse societies in India have developed, there lies a sense of unity which keeps the people of India bonded together. This fundamental unity can be observed among all the Indian tribes and races.

Indian culture, has a remarkable quality of accommodation and tolerance.  There is ample evidence of it. The first evidence of it lies in the elastic character of Hinduism, the majority religion of India. It is common knowledge that Hinduism is not a homogeneous religion, that is, a religion having one God, one Book and one Temple. Indeed, it can be best described as a federation of faiths. Polytheistic (having multiple deities) in character, it goes to the extent of accommodating village level deities and tribal faiths.

And everything passes for Hinduism. What it shows is that Hinduism has been an open religion, a receptive and absorbing religion, an encompassing religion. It is known for its quality of openness and accommodation. Another evidence of it lies in its apathy to conversion. Hinduism is not a proselytising religion. That is, it does not seek converts. Nor has it ordinarily resisted other religions to seek converts from within its fold. This quality of accommodation and tolerance has paved the way to the coexistence of several faiths in India.

Indian society was organized in such a way that various social groups were independent of each other.  One manifestation of it is found in the form of Jajmani system, i.e., a system of functional interdependence of castes. The term “jajman” refers generally to the patron or recipient of specialised services. The relations were traditionally between a food producing family and the families that supported them with goods and services.

Hindu-Muslim Unity in India

Though, there are differences between the Hindu and the Muslim communities in regard to their customs, ideology, and rituals. But since centuries, they were born in and brought up by the same mother-land. They live together and have deep respect for each other. The Hindus send greetings to their Muslim friend on the occasion of Muslim festivals such as Eid, Muharram, etc. Similarly, the Muslims also wishes good luck on the occasion of Hindu festivals such as Diwali, Durga Puja, etc.

This explains the growth unity between the Hindus and the Muslims in India. On many matter, they influence one another, and are inspired by the ideals of oriental civilization.

Efforts have been made from time to time by sensitive and sensible leaders of both the communities to synthesise Hindu and Muslim traditions so as to bring the two major communities closer to each other. Akbar, for example, founded a new religion, Din-e-Ilahi, combining best of both the religions.

Some bhakti saints like Kabir, Eknath and Guru Nanak, as well as some sufi saints made important contributions in forging unity among to communities. At the time of independence struggle, Mahatama Gandhi laid extreme emphasis on Hindu Muslim unity which was instrumental in India becoming a secular state and moving on the path of progress.

All these factors have helped in developing a composite culture in the country which provided a model for the preservation and growth of plurality of cultures within the framework of an integrated nation. The above account of the unity of India should not be taken to mean that we have always had a smooth sailing in matters of national unity, with no incidents of caste, communal or linguistic riots. Nor should it be taken to mean that the divisive and secessionist tendencies have been altogether absent.

These tendencies were at full force at time of independence when the partition took place. There have been occasional riots, at times serious riots like those after Babri Masjid demolition and in Gujarat in 2002. Incidents of oppression and violence against members of scheduled castes take place form time to time and regionalism has expressed itself in extreme in separatist movements in the North East and in a little less extreme form in the violence against north Indians in Mumbai.  The redeeming feature, however, is that the bonds of unity have always emerged stronger than the forces of disintegration.

Diversity: Indian Context

India is a large country with different geopolitical conditions in different parts of the country. This has brought differences in social evolution of the groups living in different parts of the country. Apart from the geo-political diversity, interactions with foreigners due to invasions, trade and missionary activities have also led to foreign influences and social groups coming to India.

All these have impacted the Indian society in one way or the other. A large number of foreign invader communities like the Greeks, Kushans, Sakas and Hunas settled in India and were in due course assimilated in Hinduism, while retained some of their characterstics and hence formed different social groups. Muslims maintained their separate religious identity but adapted themselves to Indian conditions creating yet another category of social groups.  Presently, Indian society is highly diverse. Almost every major religion is represented in India. Institution of caste has added one more dimension to the diversity and every geographical region has developed its own language and culture. Some of the traits of diversity are as under:

Caste Diversity

Caste is the most important social concept in the Indian society. It has continued since thousands of years and has not confined itself to Hinduism and has percolated itself to other more egalitarian religions like Islam, Christianity and Sikhism.  We can find castes among the Muslim, Christian, Sikh as well as other communities. Among the Sikh again we can hear of a number of castes including Jat Sikh and Majahabi Sikh. Caste system is a closed system. Entry in a caste is only through birth in the system while exit is impossible.

The system is discriminatory as it allows certain privileges to the high castes while the lower castes face disabilities. It is maintained by enforcing the notions of pollution and purity which are enforced through elaborate rules governing touch, dining and marriage.

Caste as a regional reality can be seen in the different patterns of caste-ranking, customs and behaviors, marriage rules and caste dominance found in various parts of India. Caste structure and kinship; caste structure and occupation; and caste structure and power are three important aspects which are discussed as under:

  1. Caste Structure and Kinship

Caste structure is intimately related to the kinship system amongst the Hindus in India. The sole reason for this relationship lies in the endogamous nature of caste system. Caste is basically a closed system of stratification, since members are recruited on the criteria of ascribed status. Kinship is a method or a system by which individuals as members of society relate themselves with other individuals of that society. There are two types of kinship bonds.

One is consanguine and the other is affine. Consanguine ties are ties of blood such as, between mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter, etc. Affinal ties are ties through marriage, such as, between husband and wife, man and his wife’s brother, etc.

Kinship in India is largely an analysis of the internal structure of the caste and its sub caste the gotra. Kinship system found in various parts of India differs from each other in many respects. However, generally speaking, we can distinguish between the kinship system in the Northern region, the Central region and the Southern region. North India is in itself a very large region, having innumerable types of kinship systems. This region includes the region between the Himalayas in the North and the Vindhyas in the South. In this region a person marries outside the village since all the members of one’s caste in a village are considered to be brothers and sisters, or uncles and aunts. Marriage with a person inside the village is forbidden. In fact, an exogamous circle of a few villages around a man’s village is drawn.

  1. Caste Structure and Occupation

The hereditary association of caste with an occupation used to be a very striking feature of the caste system. A caste is considered to be high if its characteristic way of life is high and pure and it is considered to be low if its way of life is low and polluting. By the term ‘way of life’ we mean whether its traditional occupation is ritually pure or polluting. In the association of caste structure with a hereditary occupation the “jajmani system” forms the framework. The jajmani system is a system of economic, social and ritual ties between different caste groups in the villages.

Under this system some castes are patrons and others are service castes. The service castes offer their services to the landowning upper and intermediate castes and in turn are paid both in cash and kind. The patron castes differ from one region to another depending on the socio-economic and political status of the castes. For example, the Rajput, Bhumihar and Jat are the patron castes in the North and Kamma, Reddi and Lingayat in the South.

The service castes comprise Brahman (Priest), Barber, Carpenter, Blacksmith, Water-carrier, Leather-worker, etc. Thus, to understand regional variations we have to know something about the ownership of land, the land tenure status and adherence to the jajmani system. These economic organizations depend a lot on the caste structure and regional topography and vice versa.

There is congruence between high caste status and land ownership. At the top of occupational hierarchy stands a group of families, which control and own most land rights in the village/region. They also belong to the caste occupying the highest rank. Next in the hierarchy would be estate managers, landowners of relatively smaller size who are drawn from the castes who occupy a position next to the highest ranking castes. Smaller tenants and subtenants occupy the middle ranking caste groups. Finally, laborers are drawn from the lowest ranking caste.  The tendency of land ownership by the high castes serves to maintain and re-impose the existing caste hierarchy.

  1. Caste Structure and Power

Central to caste system are caste panchayats and leadership. These power structures are highly formalized in certain caste groups and informal in others. The panchayat literally means a group or council of five. In a village it refers to a group that presides over, and resolves conflict, punishes people transgressing customs and launches group enterprises. It must be remembered that the village panchayat is quite different from the legislative use of the term panchayat. The usage, after the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act 1922, refers to a statutory local body, formed through elections, vested with legal powers and charged with certain governmental responsibilities. In certain villages traditional caste panchayats and leaders are still a powerful means of control. The democratic panchayat with legislative powers and traditional panchayat may overlap in certain regions.

Regional caste structures, in part, account for variations in their respective power structure. It is important to know what qualifies caste for regional dominance. According to Srinivas (1966), a caste is said to be dominant when it is numerically the strongest in the village or local area and economically and politically exercises a preponderating influence. The status of a dominant caste appears to rest on such criteria as:

  1. The control of land and economic resources;
  2. Numerical strength;
  3. A relatively high ritual status in the caste hierarchy; and
  4. Educational status of its members.

The above factors combine to place a particular caste group in a position of political dominance.

A near monopoly of management rights in local resources (usually agricultural land) and control of the same gives the group an ability to control the lives of the others. Numerical strength alone may not place a group in a bargaining position. It needs an economic power base to backup its strength. Once economic rights are in possession, however the size of a group does become important. The control of resources by members of a dominant caste leads in turn, to making decisions for others, which constitutes real dominance.

Regional variations that account for dominant caste can be explained by i) the degree to which a single large land holding caste controls a set of dependent castes, ii) rigidity of caste ranking, iii) the existence of two or more dominant caste groups in a region. Studies from various parts of India suggest that dominant castes do not exist everywhere. Areas where a landowning group has been able to establish itself in proportionally large numbers, and yet maintain distinctive character (by strictly regulating marriage and descent) that dominance has been possible.

Local power flows mainly from land, which is the main source of wealth. Power is safeguarded if it is confined to a unified and numerically preponderant caste group. Numbers alone do not guarantee power. Caste groups numerically preponderant, but with divided loyalties, creating disunity, may not wield power. It is only when a caste group becomes politically united that it becomes a political force. This is very important because in the new democratic political system where every vote counts the numerical preponderance of a caste group gains an additional meaning.

Power may also accrue to a jati, when its members have effective connections with the power of the village panchayats. In regions where religious groups and tribals are intermixed and no single caste possesses enough land, power or numerical strength, in such a condition, there is bound to be dual or multiple domination in a region.

Organization of ritual and temple services, concentration of land holdings correlates caste rank with secular power and promotes consistency in the total hierarchy of inter-caste relations. In regions where caste and power hierarchy overlap there is a definite concentration of power, wealth and land invested with high ranking caste groups. Correspondingly ritual sanctions reinforced the super ordinate status of upper caste groups and subordinate status of the lower caste groups. Thus, this correlation leads to the minimizing of disputes.

Regions, which do not reveal a major correlation between caste and power structures, are characterized by certain features very different from the earlier example. Caste ranking may not be clear-cut and may promote disputes about caste ranking and status within the hierarchy. Caste groups of equal rank may be constantly disputing over their mutual positions in the hierarchy, resulting in dissent and dispute over ranking. Such conflicts get consolidated over a period of time resulting in formalized factions within the caste groups. Factions may promote disputes between them. Lack of clarity in caste ranking results in a diffused power structure, with no single caste group wielding economic, political and ritual clout

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fresh batch Philosophy: 15 Jan, 11 am