Risley defined caste as a collection of families or group of families bearing a common name claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, professing to follow the same hereditary calling and forming a single homogeneous community.
According to M.N Srinivas the features of caste prevailing through the past centuries may be described under 9 heads: hierarchy, restriction on food, drink and smoking; distinction in custom, dress and speech; pollution, ritual and other privileges and disabilities; caste organization and caste mobility.
b) Hereditary-Each caste is a hereditary group. The membership of the caste is confined to those who are born into it by an endogamous marriage relation. The status of an individual is determined by virtue of his birth. Each caste has a traditional occupation and all the members strictly follow this occupation to earn their livelihood.
c) Endogamy-Every caste is an endogamous group. This endogamous character is maintained by the rules and regulation of marriage. However gotra exogamy is maintained in each caste. Every caste is subdivided into different small units on the basis of gotra.The members of one gotra are believed to be successors of a common ancestor-hence prohibition of marriage within the same gotra.
d) Unique culture- Ghurye says that castes are small and complete social worlds in themselves marked differently from one another though subsisting within the larger society. Every caste has a distinct culture, traditions and customs which distinguish it from those of the other groups. The behavioral pattern, food habits etc is prescribed by the caste rules.
e) Closed group- Endogamy, unique culture and heredity combined together to make caste a closed group. No person can enter into a particular caste except by birth.Srinivas talks about process of Sanskritisation which takes place with in Indian society.
f) Organization- Every caste has its own organizational structure known as caste panchayat which lays down rules and regulations that have to be obeyed by the members of that caste. The internal differences and conflicts are settled in the caste panchayat which serves as a judicial system. Socially every caste group is an autonomous body having judiciary, executive and financial power of its own which it exercises over the members of that caste in the interests of the caste as a whole.
g) Rights and Privileges-These vary from caste to caste. Generally the Brahmins enjoy the most privileged position and have extensive rights which they can exercise over the members of other castes. They have a dominant position in social, political and economic fields of rural life. Such rights and privileges decrease as one descends the caste hierarchy.