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The Indian Caste System

The Indian Caste System

By: Hari Prasad Doddi On: 2015-08-22 Category: About India Views: 3539
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The Caste System: In India is a system of social stratification which has pre-modern origins, was transformed by the British Raj, and is today the basis of reservation in India. It consists of two different concepts, varna and jāti, which may be regarded as different levels of analysis of this system.


The original caste system came about when the Aryans migrated from the north to India around 1600BC. During the Vedic age, Manu, the founder of this ancient Hindu or Aryan society established the new social order, reflecting a return to spiritual values from an earlier and materialistic humanity. He founded four social orders based on four main goals of both humans and society. A social classification system of four different classes (varnas) was thus devised so that the human race could have a smooth and ordered life in society.




The origin of the caste system is in Hinduism, but it affected the whole Indian society. The caste system in the religious form is basically a simple division of society in which there are four castes arranged in a hierarchy and below them the outcast. But socially the caste system was more complicated, with much more castes and sub-castes and other divisions. Legally the government disallows the practice of caste system but has a policy of affirmative discrimination of the backward classes.


The caste system in India can be described as an elaborately stratified social hierarchy distinguishing India’s social structure from any other nation. Its history is multifaceted and complex Caste is a term, which is used to specify a group of people having a specific social rank and dates back to 1200 BCE. The Indian term for caste is jati (Meaning Birth), and generally designates a group that can vary in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of jatis each with its own rules and customs. The various jatis are traditionally arranged in hierarchical order and fit into one of the four basic varnas the (Sanskrit word for “Colors”).


The varna of Brahmans, commonly identified with priests and the learned class

The varna of Kshatriyas, associated with rulers and warriors including property owners.

The varna of Vaishyas, associated with commercial livelihoods (i.e. traders)

The varna of Shudras, the servile laborers


The Untouchables occupy a place that is not clearly defined by boundaries and is outside of the varna scheme. Their jobs (such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal) cause them to be considered impure and thus “untouchable.” Historically the untouchables were not allowed in temples and many other public places. In 1950 legislation was passed to prevent any form of discrimination towards the untouchables. Although legislation has affected the status of the people, they are yet very much a visible part of Indian society.

Although the varnas and jatis have pre-modern origins, the caste system as it exists today is the result of developments during the Islamic rule (from 13th century), particularly during the collapse of Mughal era and over the British colonial regime in India. The collapse of Mughal era saw the rise of powerful men who associated themselves with kings, priests and ascetics, affirming the regal and martial form of the caste ideal, and it also reshaped many apparently casteless social groups into differentiated caste communities. The British Raj furthered this development, making rigid caste organisation a central mechanism of administration. Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during 1920s led to a change in this policy. From then on, the colonial administration began a policy of positive discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes.


New developments took place after India achieved independence, when the policy of caste-based reservation of jobs was formalised with lists of Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi). Since 1950, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. These caste classifications for college admission quotas, job reservations and other affirmative action initiatives, according to the Supreme Court of India, are based on heredity and are not changeable. Discrimination against lower castes is illegal in India under Article 15 of its constitution, and India tracks violence against Dalits nationwide.


Though caste is considered as dominant feature of Hinduism, in Indian context, it has influenced other religions too like Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism in the Indian subcontinent.

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