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The Caste System in India

The Caste System in India

By Albee NingUpdated Aug. 23, 2021

The caste system in India is considered to be the classic example of caste and the world's oldest surviving form of social stratification at around 3,000 years old. India's caste system classifies Hindus into four varnas (classes) based on their occupation:

  • A Brahmin is a member of the highest caste or varna and is an incarnation of knowledge.
  • The Kshatriyas are the second-highest of the four varnas representing warriors and aristocracy.
  • Vaishyas (business people) are the third class of the caste system.
  • Sudras (laborers) are the lowest of the four classes of the caste system.
Caste system in India Four varnas in India's caste system

What is the Caste System in India? 

The caste system is a way of dividing society into hereditary classes. The caste system in India originated with the arrival of the Aryans in India around 1,500 BC. Transformed by Indian history over the centuries, especially by the Mughal Empire and the British Raj as a means of social control, India's caste system consists of two different concepts: varna and jati.

Varna

Varna is a Sanskrit word that is translated as ‘class’. Varna is an ancient division with origin in the Vedas (the oldest texts of Hinduism). The caste system was called the varna system in Vedic society (c. 1100 – c. 500 BCE). The purpose of the varna system was to distribute responsibilities among the people. The four social classes in the Varna system are:

  • Brahmins: priests and teachers
  • Kshatriyas: warriors and rulers
  • Vaishyas: farmers, traders, and merchants
  • Shudras: laborers

Each varna covers certain aspects in the society, if all the four varnas prosper in their respective functions, society is healthy, prosperous, strong, and free.

Jati

Jati is from a Sanskrit root jaha meaning to be born. A jati describes a group or community that has generic hereditary characteristics and requires endogamy (marriage within the same group).

To maintain the purity of the varnas and establish eternal order, each jati had its customs and rituals. A person's jati determined his/her occupation and status, and those with whom he/she was permitted to eat and drink with, to interact with socially, and to marry.

There are only four varnas, but each varna contains many jatis. There are more than 3,000 jatis and these different jatis all fall under one of the four basic varnas.

The Caste System in India

The Origin of the Caste System

Following Hindu religious theory/scripture, many people believe that these four classes originated from Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. According to the Rig Veda, the first man Purush used his body to create a human society: Brahmins came from Purush's head, Kshatriyas came from Purush's arms, Vaishyas from his thighs, and Shudras from Purush's feet.

The Dalits (“Untouchables”)

The caste system did not consider the Dalits — the “untouchables”, people who had no jati classification. Outside of the caste system, the Untouchables performed “untouchable” jobs, such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal, requiring them to be in contact with bodily fluids! These were considered the ultimate uncivilized occupations and so were not given a jati.

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Brahmins: Highest Caste in India

In Hindu scripture, Brahmin originated from the head of Purush, so they are at the top of the varna hierarchy. Brahmin consist of priests and teachers. They have the privilege of interpreting religious scriptures and sacrificing to gods, the right to enjoy religious dedication, and the best education. They were in charge of the teaching of cultural education and reporting on agricultural seasons and the interpretation of religious discourse. They also had key positions in science, business, and government.

Although Brahmins have many privileges, many activities are forbidden to Brahmins, including making weapons, butchering animals, making or selling poisons, trapping wildlife, and other jobs associated with death. Brahmins live with strict austerity and voluntary poverty. They are very strict vegetarians and conform to many other Hindu beliefs.

For Brahmin women, chastity gets unequaled respect, Brahmin women usually only marry a Brahmin as inter-caste marriages are considered an imperfect match, culminating in ignoble offspring. But under some conditions, Kshatriya or Vaishya are allowed to marry a Brahmin. Shudra men are prohibited.

Brahmins comprise a small part of the Indian population — only about 5%. They are mainly distributed in the northern states of India like Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, with a lesser number in the southern states including Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala.

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Kshatriyas: Second Highest of the Four Varnas

Kshatriyas, it is written, come from the arms of Purush, and they are considered to be the second highest caste in the varna system or the second social classes.

Kshatriyas exercise temporal authority and power and their main occupations are warriors and rulers. They have the privilege of collecting various taxes, and they are in charge of the army. They are responsible for guarding the Brahmin class.

Kshatriyas traditionally learn weaponry, warfare, penance, austerity, administration, moral conduct, justice, and often start ruling from an early age.

The Kshatriyas had wealth and power and were permitted material indulgence like eating meat, and many also enjoyed alcoholic drinks. These characteristics set them apart from the Brahmins.

Kshatriyas are allowed to marry a woman of all varnas, but Kshatriya or Brahmin women are considered the best option. The Kshatriyas make up around 4% of India's population and are mainly located in the north of India.

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Vaishya: Third Highest of the Four Varnas

Vaishyas are described as commoners and they are the third highest of the four varnas that were penned as coming from the thighs of the first man.

Vaishyas mainly control commercial and agricultural occupations. They don't have political privileges, but they become strong economically because of their close relation to commerce and many become traders, merchants, landowners, and money-lenders.

Vaishyas support Kshatriyas and Brahmins by sacrificing, giving gifts, providing food through agriculture, and money through taxes. Vaishyas play an important role in the public sphere, providing artisans with technical education, but they are still considered as a lower caste.

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Sudras: Lowest Caste in India

Sudras are the lowest rank of the four Hindu castes and are considered to come from the feet of Purush. They are mainly composed of artisans, laborers, and high-level servants and craftsmen, including those who serve meals and cook.

Sudras are the most populous caste, making up nearly half of India's population. As the default varna, many of this caste are a product of the marriage of an upper caste member or even an Untouchable and a Sudra.

Because Sudras are believed to be created from feet, they face a lot of discrimination from the higher castes and are not permitted to have the same rights and privileges as higher castes, like being "twice-born" (initiation into a Vedic school) and offering certain sacrifices.

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How has the caste system worked?

The caste system in India has existed in Indian for thousands of years and has played a significant role in shaping the occupations and roles of its people, as well as the value system of Indian society.

It has ruled the interaction between members of society, especially that of people from different positions in the hierarchy. It has had the effects of segregation, hierarchy, and hereditary specialization.

Caste Dictates One's Occupation

According to the Rig Veda, all the four varnas come from a body created by the god Brahma, just from different parts.

The soul (head) is considered incomparably holy in Hinduism, while the flesh (rest of the body) is on a different level. Brahmins (from the head) are therefore responsible for religion and culture, whereas Kshatriyas (from the arms) are responsible for politics and military affairs, Vaishyas (from the legs) are responsible for supporting the upper castes, and Sudra (from the feet) are laborers.

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Caste is Hereditary

In general, the caste of your parents determines your caste, and your caste determines the caste of your children. Once a person is born, his/her varna is determined. His/her jita (occupation group) is also determined, and it cannot be changed in a lifetime.

However, some have changed their castes through certain rites of passage, such as entry into a Vedic school, or recognition by society. Some marry into a different caste.

Lifestyles and Interactions are Caste-Controlled

Each caste has its unique way of life and code of conduct. If it is violated, it will suffer serious consequences cosmologically, it is believed, as well as punishment by the believing populace.

In general, upper castes were prohibited from having contact with lower castes. The upper castes lived in the center of society, while lower castes lived in the periphery. Water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from Shudras, etc. Vegetarians and abstainers had a higher status than meat-eaters.

In order to prevent lower castes from breaking the caste barrier through marriage, Hindus could (usually) only marry within their caste. Cross-caste marriages could be classified as "untouchables".

To change your low-caste situation, you would have to strictly abide by Brahmin doctrine throughout your life, keep yourself sacred, and support the Brahmin nobles to raise your caste in the "next life" (reincarnation).

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India’s Caste System Today

Today, the caste system in India has been abolished by law. There is no caste mark on the identity certificates of Indians. After India's independence, the restraint of the caste system on people was significantly reduced. Relationships between castes are more relaxed today. There is more food sharing between castes and inter-caste marriages are becoming more common.

Both the Sudra and the untouchables can go to school and receive an education. Many people have become doctors, lawyers, and professors, changing the destiny of their ancestors, inter-caste marriages are becoming more common. Some of the low-castes have gone abroad and made big achievements in foreign countries. There have even been two presidents from the “untouchables” in India: Narayanan in 1997 and Ram Nath Kovind in 2017.

In order to take care of the low castes and untouchables, who have been oppressed for a long time, the Indian government introduced many policies of positive discrimination such as quotas in government, employment, and education for members of lower castes. To apply these policies, local governments classified thousands of communities and castes. Lower castes were given the status of Scheduled Castes (SC), and Scheduled Tribes (ST), and the slightly higher-ranked-but-still-poor were called Other Backward Classes (OBC).

Although modern India has a positive discrimination policy, most of the communities that were low in the caste hierarchy remain low in the social order, even today. And communities that were high in the social hierarchy still remain high in the social hierarchy. Most of the degrading jobs are still done by the Dalits, while the Brahmins remain at the top of the hierarchy by being the doctors, engineers, and lawyers of India.

The social hierarchy system has existed in India for about 3,000 years, and casteism has long been deeply rooted in the hearts of Indians, so it is hard to change it in a short time. India is still a long way from completely abolishing the caste system.

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