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The word Caste is derived from the Portuguese word casta, meaning lineage, breed or race. The term "caste", when used in human culture, is usually in conjunction with the social division in Hindu society, particularly in India.

This term is also used in entomology to describe social insects species who have a specific sub-type of which is specialised in a certain task. For example, social insects like ants, bees and termites have caste divisions of queen (specialization in reproduction) and worker (specialization in food gathering).

The notion of Varna as a non-inherited human types system rather than a socio-religious caste system was first attested in the Rig-Veda, though it generally refers to the four principal classes described in Manu's code, viz. Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. It is believed that one is born into a caste depending on one's karmic influences, i.e. actions in the past life. The castes are not mentioned in the oldest part of the Rig Veda (the "family books", (2-7)). Only the Purusha Sukta hymn (i.e. Rig Veda 10:90) mentions the castes and compares them to the body of a man: “The Brâhmana was his mouth, of both his arms was the Râjanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Sûdra was produced.” (RV 10:90:12)

Varna comes from the Sanskrit (वर्ण varṇa "colour, tint, dye, pigment", or faith (faithless), preference, religious affiliation, conviction, or "to choose", or lustre). In the Zend Avesta and the Gathas, the word Varana or Varena (from the root Var ("put faith in, to believe in") is used in the sense of "faith, religious doctrine, choice of creed or belief". It may also come from the root Var- "choose", as in "svayamvara", “[a girl’s] own choice [of a husband]”, or from the root Vri (which means "one's occupation"). In the Rig Veda, the word varNa occurs 22 times and means "lustre", in 17 out of 22 times it refers to the "lustre" (i.e. "one's own typical light") of gods.


Primary Hindu castes


The caste system, although not currently officially sanctioned by their governments, is used by Hindus, particularly in India and Nepal. It is based on four varnas, (meaning "colours"):

The occupations of the Vaishya are those connected with trade, the cultivation of the land and the breeding of cattle; while those of a Kshatriya consist in ruling and defending the people, administering justice, and the duties, of the military profession generally. Both share with the Brahman the privilege of reading the Veda, but only so far as it is taught and explained to them by their spiritual preceptor. To the Brahman belongs the right of teaching and expounding the sacred texts, and also that of interpreting and determining the law and the rules of caste. Shudras were the serfs, and performed the physically difficult work shunned by the higher castes.

Indian texts speak of jati, which are communities. Each varna is further subdivided into many jatis. Each varna has its appropriate rules of conduct, or "dharma", including rules regarding marriage, eating, and physical proximity. The four varnas are psychological categories that are supposed to be present in each individual.

The Four Sections of Varnas


The Brahmins (the word comes from Sanskrit for 'knowledge', root word Vid 'to know') are the priestly caste, and are responsible for all religious affairs of society, and must endure 12 years studying the Vedas.

They are not presently considered the rulers of society, but in the past they have often shaped the path of those below them. The goal in this Vedic system is to ascend to the level of Brahmin, as it is easiest, (or in some views possible) to achieve moksha - release from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation, and attainment of heavenly bliss when a Bramin.

The existence of a priestly caste is well known from many cultures, e.g., the Druids of the Celts, the Magi of the Persians and the levites of Judaism.

In India, even though the Varna Caste System has been outlawed, the Brahmins still play a vital role in Hindu culture.


Kshatriyas also known as Shatriyas, were primarily associated with the defense and governance of the state. The kings and rulers belonged to this caste. As kings, they had power on earth. They protected their subjects and looked after the proper functioning of the society. As warriors, their caste duty was to slay enemies.They were the only caste allowed to rule.

  • Arjuna, of the famous Bhagavad Gita, was a Kshatriya prince, and was faced with the problem of going to war with family members.
  • Siddhartha Gautama, who is known to have become the Buddha, was born a Hindu Kshatriya prince.


The Vaishyas make up

  • craftsman
  • traders/merchants
  • and husbandmen in society.


The Shudras, who make up the lowest caste, are effectively the majority of the populace. They are peasants equivalent to serfs in Europe.

The Untouchables

Below the four recognized castes there are the untouchables, considered to be casteless. They are also referred to as pariahs or dalits.

Bodhisattva Ambedkar wrote:

The Broken Men hated the Brahmins because the Brahmins were the enemies of Buddhism and the Brahmins imposed untouchability upon the Broken Men because they would not leave Buddhism. On this reasoning it is possible to conclude that one of the roots of untouchability lies in the hatred and contempt which the Brahmins created against those who were Buddhist.

In the Manusmriti it is asserted that there are only four varnas, which leads one to the conclusion that the formation of the outcaste groups may have been a consequence of the Buddhist injunction against professions dealing with animal-killing. Support for this view comes from the fact that similar outcaste groups have existed in Japan, Korea, and China. However, this seems a stretched comparison to some since the Manusmriti itself condemns the eating of animal flesh, stating that non-vegetarians will come back in later lives to be killed by the very beings they killed and ate in former lives.

These people performed the dirty work of society:

They were the most despised people of the Imperial Indian Civilization.


Mixed in with the Varna Caste system was the Jati sub-caste system. The Jati was effectively a system similar to guilds, and was associated with occupation. If the Varnas gave structure to society, the Jati gave structure to each Varna.

Unlike the Varna caste system, where one could not change one's class in one's lifetime, Jati could be changed with comparative ease. Marriages would be arranged within one's varna, but sometimes between Jati sub-castes. There is a lot of 'caste prejudice' between castes, usually taking the form of disassociation with lower castes, though sometimes it would degenerate into petty 'gang wars,' usually among the lowest caste(s) and the Pariahs.

Division of labor

The varna system is based on division of labor. The colors are based upon the daily activities of each group. The Brahmin wears white because he performs various sacrifices and has to be clean. Any impurities will show on the white clothing. The Kshatriya warriors wear red because they see a lot of blood and wounds as they practice their daily warrior routines. The Vaishya traders handle items like turmeric and other spices and they wear yellow because it masks the colour. The Shudras wear blue because the color blue was more appropriate for the work environment.

The power of the sacerdotal order having been gradually enlarged in proportion to the development of the minutiae of sacrificial ceremonial and the increase of sacred lore, they began to lay claim to supreme authority in regulating and controlling the religious and social life of the people. The author of the so-called Purusha-skta, or hymn of Purusha, represents the four castes. the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras having severally sprung respectively from the mouth, the arms, the thighs and the feet of Purusha, a primary being, here assumed to be the source of the universe. It is very doubtful, however, whether at the time when. this hymn was composed the relative position of the two upper castes could already have been settled in so decided a way as this theory might lead one to suppose. There is, on the contrary, reason to believe that some time had yet to elapse, marked by fierce and bloody struggles for supremacy, of which only imperfect ideas can be formed from the legendary and frequently biased accounts of later generations, before the Kshatriyas finally submitted to the full measure of priestly authority.

Below these four castes lies the casteless untouchables, also known as dalits or pariahs.

Origins of the system

The beginnings of Vedic ritual and textual traditions were possibly as early as 6000 BC. It probably originated with prehistoric Proto-Indo European peoples. In the framework of the "trifunctional hypothesis" of Georges Dumézil, the presence of four castes is seen as an indication that the lowest caste consists of the descendants of a subjugated indigenous people, while the original system would have included three castes, priests, warriors and peasants, comparable to the three classes, viz. clergy, nobility and peasants of medieval Europe.

At the time of the Vedas, and even during the Indo-Persian period, the sacrificial ceremonial had become sufficiently complicated to call for the creation of a certain number of distinct priestly offices with special duties attached to them. While this shows clearly that the position and occupation of the priest were those of a profession, the fact that the terms brahmatza and brahmaputra, both denoting the son of a brahmin, are used in certain hymns as synonyms of brahmin, seems to justify the assumption that the profession had already, to a certain degree, become hereditary at the time when these hymns were composed.

There is, however, with the exception of a solitary passage in a hymn of the last book, no trace to be found in the Rig Veda of that rigid division into four castes separated from one another by insurmountable barriers, which in later times constituted a distinctive feature of Hindu society.

The idea of caste is expressed by the Sanskrit term varna, originally denoting color, thereby implying differences of complexion between the several classes.

The partial subjection of the comparatively uncivilized tribes (the Dravidians) as the rule of the superior race was gradually spreading eastward, and their submission to a state of serfdom under the name of shudras , added to the Aryan community an element, totally separated from it by color, by habits, by language, and by occupation.

The religious belief of these tribes being entirely different from that of the conquering people, the pious Aryas, and especially the class habitually engaged in acts of worship, could hardly fail to apprehend considerable danger to the purity of their own faith from too close and intimate a contact between the two races. What more natural, therefore, than that measures should have been early devised to limit the intercourse between them within as narrow bounds as possible?

This view is linked to the controversial Aryan invasion theory; a nativist view would be that the Varna system goes back to the Indus Valley Civilization.

Manu's Code

The stability of caste was rendered still more secure by the elaboration of a system of conventional precepts, partly forming the basis of Manu's Code, which clearly defined the relative position and the duties of the several castes, and determined the penalties to be indicted on any transgressions of the limits assigned to each of them. These laws are conceived with no sentimental scruples on the part of their authors. On the contrary, the offences committed by Brahmans against other castes are treated with remarkable clemency, whilst the punishments inflicted for trespasses on the rights of higher classes are the more severe and inhuman the lower the offender stands in the social scale.

Regarding caste, the Indian History Sourcebook writes:

43. But in consequence of the omission of the sacred rites, and of their not consulting Brahmanas, the following tribes of Kshatriyas have gradually sunk in this world to the condition of Shudras;
44. (Viz.) the Paundrakas, the Kodas, the Dravidas, the Kambogas, the Yavanas, the Sakas, the Paradas, the Pahlavas, the Kinas, the Kiratas, and the Daradas.)
Indian History Sourcebook: The Laws of Manu, c. 1500 BC, translated by G. Buhler


Notwithstanding the barriers placed between the four castes, the practice of intermarrying appears to have been too prevalent in early times to have admitted of measures of so stringent a nature as wholly to repress it. To marry a woman of a higher caste, and especially of a caste not immediately above one's own, is, however, decidedly prohibited, the offspring resulting from such a union being excluded from the performance of the obsequies to the ancestors, and thereby rendered incapable of inheriting any portion of the parents' property.

On the other hand, a man is at liberty - according to the rules of Manu - to marry a girl of any or each of the castes below his own, provided he has besides a wife belonging to his own class, for only such a one should perform the duties of personal attendance and religious observance devolving upon a married woman.

If the mother of a child born from such an unequal match belongs to a twice-born caste (one of the three upper castes), the child has the rights and duties of the twice-born. Otherwise they, like the children of the former class of intermarriages, share the lot of the shudra, and are excluded from the investiture and the svitri . For this reason, the marriage of a twice-born man with a shudra woman is altogether discouraged by some of the later law books. At the time of the code of Manu the mixture of the classes had already produced a considerable number of intermediate or mixed castes, which were carefully defined, and each of which had a specific, hereditary profession assigned.

Sacramental rites

The three first castes, however unequal to each other in privilege and social standing, are united by a common bond of sacramental rites (satiskdras ), traditionally connected from ancient times with certain incidents and stages in the life of the Aryan Hindu, as conception, birth, name-giving, the first taking out of the child to see the sun, the first feeding with boiled rice, the rites of tonsure and hair-cutting, the youths investiture with the sacrificial thread, and his return home on completing his studies, marriage, funeral, etc.

It is from their participation in this rite that the three upper classes are called the twice-born.

For a Brahman, the ceremony takes place between the ages of eight and 16. For a Kshatriya, between the ages of 11 and 22, and for a Vaishya, between ages 12 and 24.

Those who have not been invested with the mark of his or her class within this time is forever excluded from uttering the sacred savitri and becomes an outcast, unless absolved from sin by a council of Brahmans. After the performance of a purificatory rite, one may resume the badge of one's caste.

With one not duly initiated, no righteous man was allowed to associate or to enter into connections of affinity. The duty of the Shudra was to serve the twice-born classes, above all the Brahmans. He was excluded from all sacred knowledge, and if he performed sacrificial ceremonies he must do so without using holy mantras. No Brahman could recite a Vedic text where a man of the servant caste might overhear him, nor may he even teach him the laws of expiating sin.

Transition in Caste

There is the Upanishadic story of a boy who went to a guru to learn the Hindu scriptures. His guru asked him what his caste was. Consulting his mother, who was actually a prostitute and didn't really know what her caste by birth was, the boy returned to the guru and responded that he was all castes. He worshipped the Gods, thus fulfilling the duties that are ordinarily a Brahmin's, he earned his keep like a Vaishya, took care of cleaning the house, like a Shudra, and protected his family's interest like a Kshatriya. The guru was pleased and told the boy he was fit to be taught and initiated into the Brahmin's life. However the very fact that the boy had to refer to his birth to determine his caste as a first step indicates that the default caste of a person was always determined by birth.

The caste system originated in nomenclature and was changed through the influence of a powerful elite into an enforced system. Indeed, the Dharmashastras (which are collections of Hindu codes and laws) say that caste is not determined by birth but by action in life. One must also keep in mind that since the dawn of Vedanta and with the increase of Tantrics of the Shiva-Shakti variety many Vedic-rooted people (i.e. Hindus) rejected the stratified and corrupted version of varna-ashram that became caste. On the other hand, caste still retained a significant influence on modern Hindu society.

Brahmin (priest), Kshatriya (warrior, nobility), Vaishya (large group of ordinary workers, merchants, businessmen, etc.) and Shudras (menial workers , janitors, sweepers, etc.) were the four varnas. Each varna was said to possess certain characteristics: i.e. the shudra was often someone with a violent temper, crude tongue, given to intoxicants, not loving of God; the Vaishya was hardworking, dutiful but given to avarice and while believing in God, was not spiritually inclined. The Kshatriya was noble, learned and beyond all selfless, his or her duty being the administration of the people and fighting of battles against intruders; often very spiritually inclined. The Brahmin was kind, loving, was the society's storehouse (especially when scriptures were memorized) of the ancient scriptures, the performer of rituals, a lover of God and the most spiritually advanced member of a community.

Thus, one sees that the original conception of caste was that people who acted a certain way, fell into a certain category. If one were born into a Brahmin family, but drank and had no respect for one's fellow living beings and God, one was simply not a Brahmin. This view is supported by a reading of the Bhagavad Gita that held that caste was a function of practice, rather than based on birth. It is worthy to note that all three acharayas, Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva all subscribed to this view. The lives of great Vaishnavite saints such as Kanaka Dasa and Tukaram demonstrated that single-minded devotion to God was the sole criteria for Him, not birth.

It was considered highly auspicious if someone had the good fortune to be born into a Brahmin family and then, following the family tradition, established oneself as a Brahmin by actually living the life of a Brahmin. Hence, the term twice born, or dvija. Clearly it is far easier to move down than up the ladder of caste.

One sees in scriptural descriptions of caste another motivation: it was a way of explaining the natural inequalities into which all human societies are necessarily born. It was the unhappy truth that some people were born into poor families, or in the slums, and others into the families of holy men. Explaining to people in clear terms that the natural processes of life and death, reincarnation, led to certain circumstances with which one was confronted. Thus, the varnas were a good way of helping people who had no chance of being warriors or priests, due to their upbringing or native intelligence/ability, to live happily within their life and feel good about attaining God through proper adherence to their own dharma (overall duties).

Over and over again, the Upanishads and other great texts spoke to the nature of caste being a mere name and not defining whom one was. Calling someone a Vaishya was supposed to be like calling someone a blue-collar worker today.

The established Brahmins, whose duty it was to act as gurus (teachers) for new generations of Brahmins, by culling those worthy of Brahminhood from all the young boys of the society, began discriminating based on caste. This practice began to become more ingrained, and social mobility became a thing of the past but for in a few areas of India. Even today, however, in the most traditional of circles, sanyassis (renunciates of the world) are given the utmost respect, as it is said that by leaving human society, they leave behind their distinctive social characteristics, including caste.

The Hindu tantrics are a part of Hinduism whose scriptural texts, the Agamic strand known collectively as the Tantras, assert their descent from the Vedas, especially the Atharva-Veda. Claiming that the Vedic rituals no longer applied to Kali Yuga, the fourth and final age of humanity in Hinduism that sees morality ebb to complete dissolution until the end of the earth, the Tantrics see themselves as natural continuations of the Vedas through Hindu yogic practices. Among other progressions from Vedic Hinduism, the Tantrics spoke of the caste system as it had evolved as unfounded and inapplicable to humanity and spiritual growth.

Many Hindu yogis and sages have, over the centuries, constantly denounced enforced caste as an aberration of any faith in God. The great non-dualist, Vedantic jnana-yogin (Yogi of discrimination) Shri Adi Shankaracharya (8th century), denounced caste as but one more indication of one's weak, ego-driven self and the flouting of Brahman (the impersonal, ultimate monist basis of Hindu belief). Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (15th century), the powerful bhakti (loving devotee) of Brahman in its manifestations of Vishnu, also denounced caste. But like most societies across the world, the tenets of the religion were completely ignored in the face of personal gain and the corruption of power. The strongly cemented and oppressive caste hierarchy was so ingrained in the Indian consciousness that it was all but indestructible.

Modern perceptions of caste

The caste system was perhaps first exposed to the Western world during the British occupation and rule. Herbert Risley's The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1892, was one of the first works on this practice by a Western scholar. Some scholars suggest that the resulting depiction of the caste system was as much a product of European racist theories, and the interests of colonial rule, rather than Indian cultural realities. Certainly the color hierarchy from "white" to "black" was typically interpreted at this time in racial terms. Modern scholars further suggest that prior to the colonial era, castes were much more open and flexible. There are several passages in the Vedas that indicate that the four varnas were initially based on professions and not simply determined by birth. It was during a later period that the current rigid caste system came into place.

In any case, the Vedas are said to talk about only four castes. Contemporary India however, has numerous castes and sub-castes, many of which are officially documented (primarily to determine those deserving reservation, an affirmative action process similar to and predating the US system) through the census, and these divisions have fragmented the Indian society. Caste-based politics have strong roots in many Indian states. Sometimes, converts to other religions like Christianity, or Islam, retain their caste identity, often due to the economic benefits it carries, and also to retain their ties with the community for social reasons.

The embracement of the lower castes into the mainstream community was brought about by Mahatma Gandhi who called them "Harijans" (people of God).

Presently, India has tough laws against individual discrimination on the basis of caste. There is a policy for the socio-economic upliftment of the erstwhile lower castes, by the provision of free education till graduation, reservation of admission seats in institutions for higher education, and a 50% quota in government jobs with faster promotions. (The state of Tamil Nadu reserves 69% of its college admission seats instead of 50% as mandated by the Central Government). In spite of these affirmative actions, identification and discrimination based on castes is quite common in the Indian society while on the other hand in states like Tamil Nadu where the caste-based affirmative action has been carried too far creating a situation where the Brahmins are now the oppressed caste! Matrimony between members of different castes is still looked down upon and not very popular. Caste based atrocities are still fairly common in many economically backward states and isolated rural districts.

These affirmative actions have often been challenged in courts, and through mass protests. Anti-reservation activists allege that the process, which they suspect is fuelled by political gains, artificially fosters the divisions. A few allege that in the process of categorizing people "who need reservation", caste based identities become firmly entrenched in the Indian psyche. Many also allege that the progress of the meritorious is cramped by the reservation system, which has not been set any deadline by the Constitution of India. Pro-reservation activists allege that the system helps in upliftment of the long-suppressed masses and needs to be in place until all sections achieve an equal status in the Indian society. There is a third viewpoint, which suggests that reservations should be continued but based on the financial plight of an individual rather than on his/her caste. This debate has raged on for the last two decades in India.

Caste Internationally

Anthropologists use the term more generally to refer to a social group that is endogamous and occupationally specialised; such groups are common in highly stratified societies with a very low degree of social mobility. Broadly understood, South Africa during the era of apartheid, the practice of slavery in the antebellum South of the United States through the Civil Rights movement, colonial Latin America under Spanish and Portuguese rule, and India prior to 1947 were all caste-based societies.

There are numerous societies, however, in which immutable caste is combined with a very high degree of social mobility. Furthermore, the concept of caste cannot be limited to socieites in which caste is legislated, such as the southern states of the United States until 1965, since the caste distinction between Negroes (now called African Americans) is no less forceful in the lives of the members of this caste than in the past. Other examples of caste combined with social mobility: traditional Igbo society in Nigeria; Twareg society at present; Japan. Although frequently caste is associated with occupation, especially when first instituted, caste identification and enforcement has often survived the complexities of modern economies.

Quotes about Caste

The late Swami Krishnananda , the successor to Swami Sivananda and former head of Divine Life Society , noted the following about caste in his autobiography:

"While the caste system was originally evolved for the necessary classification of human duty in order to preserve the organic stability of society, its original meaning and its philosophical foundation was forgotten through the passage of time, and bigotry and fanaticism took its place through the preponderance of egoism, greed and hatred, contrary to the practice of true religion as a social expression of inner spiritual aspiration for a gradual ascent, by stages, to God Almighty. Vidura, famous in the Mahabharata, was born of a Shudra woman. But he had the power to summon the son of Brahma, from Brahmaloka, by mere thought. Which orthodox Brahmin can achieve this astounding feat? It is, therefore, necessary for everyone to have consideration for the facts of world-unity and goodwill, Sarvabhuta-hita, as the great Lord mentions in the Bhagavad Gita. Justice is more than law. No one's body is by itself a Brahmin, because it is constituted of the five gross elements,- earth, water, fire, air and ether. Else, it would be a sin on the part of a son to consign to flames the lifeless body of a Brahmin father. It is, therefore, not proper to victimise a colleague by an action plan of any religious community wedded to fundamentalist doctrines."[1]

Even as early in the Mahabharata period, those same feelings were evoked. Yudhisthira, when questioned by Yama in the form of a Yaksha, about what makes one a Brahmin. Yudhisthira, without hesitation, said that it is conduct alone that makes one a Brahmin.

Traditional Last Names by Varna

Brahmin --- Sarma, Deva; eg. Vishnu Sarma

Kshatriya --- Varma, Trata; eg. Rama Varma

Vaisya --- Gupta, Bhuti; eg. Candra Gupta

Sudra --- Datta, Dasa; eg. Krishna Datta

(Information obtained and translated with modification from entry 'jatidyotakam' from the Malayalam dictionary 'Sabdataravali' by Sreekanteswaram Padmanabha Pillai.)

See also

Some Indian castes

Notable people


Bodhisattva Ambedkar’s 1948 work The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? as reprinted in Volume 7 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, published by Government of Maharashtra 1990

Ambedkar, B.R. Who were the Shudras and other writings. 1946.

Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Paperback Edition, Cambridge University Press 2001

Dumont, Louis Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Complete English edition, revised. 540 p. 1970, 1980 Series: (NHS) Nature of Human Society

Christophe Jaffrelot, India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes, C. Hurst & Co 2003

Kane, Pandurang Vaman (1880 - 1972): History of Dharmasastra : (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law). -- Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. 1962 - 1975.

Murray Milner, Jr., Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Ranganayakamma, For the solution of the "Caste" question, Buddha is not enough, Ambedkar is not enough either, Marx is a must, Hyderabad : Sweet Home Publications, 2001

Alain Danielou, Les Quatre Sens de la Vie, Paris 1976

External links

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