History of the Caste System in India

What is the Caste System?

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, 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.
A stereotyped colonial image of Bhil 'tribals'

Religious Background

The earliest expressions of caste can be found in one of India’s vast bodies of religious scripture known as the Vedas, which are though to have been complied between 1500 and 1000 BCE, although the time of their composition is under debate. They were transmitted orally for many generations before being written down. Therefore, centuries may have passed before they were ever committed to writing. 

These works are considered the source of ancient Indian wisdom. The first of the four basic Vedic books is the Rig Veda; a collection of over 1,000 hymns containing the basic mythology of the Aryan gods. The Rig Veda contains one of the most famous sections in ancient Indian literature in which the first man created, Purusa, is sacrificed in order to give rise to the four varnas.

“The Brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the Rajanya [Kshatriya, king and warrior], his two thighs [loins] the Vaishya, from 
his feet the  Sudra [servile class] was born.” 

Quoted in Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth century to the Modern Age, Susan Bayly.

Watercolor showing the elaborate devotional worship which became very common in 'clean caste'
households by the late nineteeth century.

It can be argued that the composers of the Vedas, especially those sections within the Vedas called the Brahmanas, were concerned with the interconnections that organized reality (Smith, 7). This way of looking at the varnas allows us to see how such a system can survive several millennia. It classifies people not only in terms of their different qualities but also with respect to their different privileges. Each class thus has a special role to play in society as well as a unique function: this structure is a means of creating and organizing an effective society.

The varna system is inter-linked with creation, lending itself a great deal of reverence and validity.
If space, time the congregation of the gods and goddesses, the natural world, scripture and ritual, and the human body itself- if all these realms bear classification according to varna, how could an organization of society be regarded as anything other than the way things should be? (Smith 59)

An important thing to note is that the Vedas do NOT mention a concept such as Untouchability. It is a part of the system that has been created by society itself.
An albumen print of high caste youths wearing the sacred thread (suta). This photo is labeled 'vedic students'
and is presumably from from one of the nineteenth century schools.

Society Pre-Colonialism

Although the nation has a long and varied history, the role of the caste system pre-colonialism can be understood by focusing on the major eras in Indian history. Much of India is rural and that which is not, for the most part, is much more urban. with such a drastic difference in the city and the village there is also a difference in the way caste has been interpreted and implemented over the years.

The early system  most represented something analagous to the mideval guild system. It allowed a specialization of society and each member knew their role. Much laterin India's history, as India became more and more prevalent in the international scene the concept of the caste sytem began to have different connotaions. It was thought of as backward by much of the west. The greatest changes in the perception as well as in the reality came with the coming and going of the British.


Caste In Modern India

Theories and Future Implications