One of the oldest written monuments of Indian culture, the Rig Veda, includes a hymn whose meaning may seem curious. The hymn describes four types of beings: the Brahmans, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Sudra. According to the hymn, the Brahmans appeared from God's Mouth, the Kshatriyas came from God's Hands, the Vaishyas from his Thighs, and the Sudra from God's Feet. This description would define the social structure of Indian society for centuries through what would come to be known as the caste system.
The seeds of the caste system were planted in the Vedic Era, 3000 years ago. At the time, they were advanced ideas that never appeared elsewhere in the ancient world. In Vedic society, all humankind was viewed as a single organism, in likeness to the human body. All parts of society performed different but important functions, just like the human body. Every part needed to be responsible for certain duties as part of a collective coexistence. However, as centuries passed by, the caste system became more removed from the original idea.
Some historians claim that the caste system became more pronounced during the British colonial control of India. Even more, there is an argument to be made that skeletons of the caste system still exists today.
Brahmins belonged to the highest caste and traditionally wore all white. They were priests and scholars who were proficient with the Vedic philosophy. Brahmans were said to possess the ability of spiritual and intellectual development, and were often given the role of mentors. Brahmans mostly lived in seclusion in the woods in ancient times.
Kshatriyas wore red and stood for courage and nobility. Kshatriyas were supposed to be guardians and administrators who maintained and protected the societal order. They were given the task of fighting in wars and included members of the military. They represent a large amount of the population.
Vaishyas, the third-highest caste, were responsible for commerce and trade. They were represented by the color yellow. The Vaishya were also responsible for monitoring the content of financial and material needs of society.
Shudras were obliged to serve society and required perform hard but necessary work. Over time, many of the higher castes began to feel that it was beneath their dignity to waste their time talking to Sudras, who had no Vedic knowledge.
The Untouchables (Dalits)
Distinct from all other caste categories are the Untouchables, later called the "Dalits". The Untouchables got their name from the fact that they were marginalized from mainstream society. Such "untouchables" were not allowed into the shops, in any public or medical institutions, or even to use public transport. They were forced to live in separate ghettos or far away from villages. About 20% of the population was considered to be a part of this caste.
The Caste System in the Modern Day
The Caste System in India has been outlawed since 1955. However, there are people who believe that the Caste System is still informally in place. In some rural areas of the country, marrying or associating outside of one's caste still isn't the norm. Many Indians belonging to what is seen as a "lower caste" report discrimination and inequal access to opportunities, despite laws that have been put in place to protect them.