The Caste System Of India

For thousands of years, a societal hierarchy has forced certain groups of people in India to be completely subservient to others.


One of the oldest written monuments of Indian culture, the Rig Veda, voices forth a hymn denoting that the Brahmans appeared from God's Mouth, the Kshatriyas came from God's Hands, the Vaishyas from his Thighs, and the Sudra emerged from God's Feet. This description has defined the social structure of Indian society for centuries ahead. But later India became a victim of this same caste system. The caste system began in the Vedic Era and at those times had advanced ideas that never appeared elsewhere in ancient world. In Vedic society, all humankind was viewed as a single organism, in likeness of the human body. The way all human organs performing different functions, so also did different parts of society need to be be responsible for certain duties as part of a collective coexistence. As centuries passed by, the caste system became more removed from the original idea. The Rig Veda tells about the appearance of the first cast divisions, when originally castes were called Varna, which translates as color.

The Varnas and the Untouchables

Brahmans belonged to the highest cast, wearing all white. They were priests and scholars, proficient with the Vedic philosophy. Kshatriyas are the warriors, carrying the red color, and this caste inherited courage and nobility. The word "kshatriya" was not mentioned in the scriptures, and instead the word "rajanya" was used, meaning princely royal qualities. Vaishya, the next cast, had a yellow color and was responsible for commerce and trade. The lowest caste of the Sudra, identified with the black color, is a caste of workers engaged in manual labor. The religious hierarchy of castes was distributed as follows. Agni, the fire God, was the patron of the Brahman caste. Indra and Varuna, the Gods of War, led the Kshatriyas. Rudra and the Maruts disposed the Vaisyas, and the god Pushan headed the Sudra caste.

Economic and Cultural Significance

Brahmans were attributed to possess the ability of spiritual and intellectual development, and brahmans therefore had to be the mentors. Kshatriya were supposed to be the guardians and administrators to maintain and protect the order in the society. The Vaishya should monitor the content of financial and material needs of society. And finally the Sudras were obliged to serve the society, to maintain and perform hard, but necessary, work. But over time, the higher castes began to feel that it was beneath their dignity to waste their time talking to Sudras, who had no Vedic knowledge. Controversy began in the higher castes too, with Kshatriyas expressing dissatisfaction about the Brahmans, who often lived in seclusion in the woods, and whose benefit to society was far less than that of any other cast. Since the system began to experience degradation, it's unavoidable outcome had taken shape in an exploitation of one society's group over the others. In addition, one more social layer came into existence as the "untouchables", who were not considered be part of society at all as described in ancient scriptures. In modern India, about 20 percent of the population belongs to the caste of untouchables, and most of these have to live in their separate ghettos or completer outside the villages. Such people are not allowed into the shops, any public or medical institutions, or even to use public transport.

Historical Changes and Present State

The first serious attempt to dethrone the caste system was made by Mughal Emperors ruling in India in the 17th and 18th Centuries. These Muslim emperors found it difficult to agree that male Brahmans could not work in the fields or perform any manual labor, and also that the representatives of the Brahmin caste only could be bonded in marriage with Brahman women. Mughal religious beliefs allowed polygamy, and the Mughal rulers of India began to promote conversion to Islam, which was not loaded with opposing restrictions and beliefs. Hindus objected to this, asserting that, following the rules laid down in their caste, in the next life one can be reborn as the representative of a higher being, being promoted to higher respect and occupying a much better position in society. But the Mughals criticized the postulate of inability to move from one caste to another, and asserted the equality of all people before the Almighty Supreme. This partly explains the popularity and rapid spread of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. Another serious blow to the caste system took place during the British Raj. The British would determine castes on numerous grounds on their own terms. People have different type of dress, manners of wearing it, the presence or absence of certain relationships, marks on the forehead, hair styles, types of housing, consumption of certain food, use of utensils, and even their names.

The British used all of these to demarcate divisions among the Indian people. To pose as a member of another caste was almost impossible. The colonial power perpetuated the lack of equal opportunities in order to influence all of the castes, and this created additional difficulties. In addition to British laws in India, castes used their own laws, independent from any government system of prohibitions and rules. This underlying system controlled social, domestic, and religious relations. Some rules were immutable and eternal, while others were more volatile. For example, every Hindu from birth until death would belong to his or her caste, and therefore could not perform work outside of their caste on behalf of the English Crown, but only that which was assigned to them from birth. Over the centuries, the Indian social climate and India itself have changed considerably. As a result, the number of community groups has increased from the original four to several thousand, if we consider the subgroups. The lower castes, Vaishya and Sudra, are still the most numerous among the populous. Combined, the members of these two groups account for approximately 40 percent of the country's population. The highest, Brahman, caste is the smallest, and is about 8 percent of the population. The caste of warriors, Kshatriya, made up about 22 per cent, and the untouchables constituted around 20 percent of the people. In addition, India is famous for its hermits, which are called sannyasins. Terms of castes does not apply to them.

Will the Discrimination Ever be Put to an End?

In modern times, the Indian caste system has become more structured, and a host of different subgroups, called jati, have arisen. Many outside observers consider the caste system a relic of the past, and are confident that in modern India the caste system no longer works. In fact, it is just opposite. Even the Indian government has not been able to agree on such a bundle of society. The division of society into unequal layers is actively used in policymaking and during the elections, adding to campaign promises the rights of protection for certain castes.

More in Society