Introduction to the Indian Caste System

Let me introduce you to the caste system in India. There are four main castes usually listed in the following order;

The Castes

Brahmins, the teachers, and priests who occupied themselves with the task of performing common ceremonies such as weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals and house-warming as well as yagnas and other religious activities. They were also involved in teaching and education and were often associated with the head of a body. Though most sources will tell you they are the highest caste, they were not associated with money because they were supposed to lead simple lives living off the gratitude and donation of those they taught or performed ceremonies for and pursue a spiritual life.

Kshatriyas, the warriors and administrators who held actual power over the land, defined policies, fought wars etc. They were considered the strength of a society and were trained in archery, swordsmanship, strategies of war. They were allowed to travel as part of their diplomacy with neighbouring kingdoms or to fight. They were also allowed to eat meat on all but auspicious days to keep the energy involved in their lifestyles. They were associated with the strong arms and torso of a body. They were mostly well to do.

Vaishyas, the traders and travellers were the richest of all castes as they owned land and businesses. They were allowed to travel overseas, not only to neighbouring kingdoms. They were associated with a prosperous belly of the body. Some of them were vegetarian like Brahmins but other types ate meat.

Shudras, the labourers and farmers were often the ones to do ‘unskilled labour’ like construction work, cleaning etc. Like the Brahmins, they were also poor but unfortunately were not highly respected. They were often the servants of people of the other castes and were associated with the legs of the body. They were allowed to eat meat.

Paraiyas were the untouchables. The word paraiya actually means those on the outside, the outcasts. They were the people of any of the above four castes who did not perform their duty (dharma) as a functioning part of the society. They were usually treated very badly by the rest of society and often had a different well to get water from, and were not allowed to make eye contact with others among other such rules that kept them from interacting with the others. They usually had the worst jobs like cleaning toilets which was a far nastier job than it is in today’s world.

Origins and changes

This system originally developed as method of division of labour and thus the analogy of the different parts of the body. In very little time though, even as early as the Later Vedic Era, the system became thoroughly corrupted. People began to lose the freedom to move between the castes based on one’s choice of profession. Caste became a matter of birth. The fact that it was simpler for a farmer to teach his or her child to farm only expedited this process. The caste system became more and more rigid until Buddhism, which questioned and threw into the air all the corruption which had set into society by then. Hinduism went through a reformation soon after but not long after Buddhism moved to China, similar trends began to set in again. Part of this corruption was the hierarchy which set in in the order of the castes. Brahmins were considered superior to all others because they were ‘closer to god’. Kshatriyas followed because they ruled the land. Vaishyas followed next because they had the most money and finally came the Shudras who had very little money, power or respect, but who were essential to the running of a society. In a short story I once read, a mighty Rajput warrior said something along the lines of, if not in war, it is honourable to die fighting for the honour of a woman, the protection of a cow or a Brahmin. The hierarchy was so accepted and the priorities of the society so clear that no one questioned this for a long time.

Someone once told me that to gauge the values of any society, one need only evaluate the height of the buildings. I observe this is often true outside of India as well. In cultures where religion is still the most important, a temple (or equivalent religious building) will often be the tallest building. In others where the power of the state is higher, a palace will be taller. In many cities we see trade centres are the tallest buildings, which shows a clear dominance of the power of money over both the government as well as any religion which exists. As time has passed, this process has occurred in India. Traders are the most powerful section of society now, so it would indeed be incorrect to say Brahmins are the highest caste. Vaishyas are. Religion and education are given next to no importance in an urban setting compared to money. Money gives you status, it makes the world go round. Why, education itself has become a business.

This brings me to the most significant change that must be noted about the caste system in today’s context. No one follows the dharma of their caste anyway! Many Brahmins eat meat, drink alcohol, travel overseas and are as far from spiritual as can be. Even those who stay within education get paid for it and in principle ‘sell’ their knowledge and skills to those who will give them the best wages. In contrast, many Vaishyas are highly educated and pursue research instead of the ‘family business’. So it is indeed pointless to have castes at all.

Yet it has been a social habit for so long that many find it hard to break from. The many include stuck-up Brahmins who refuse to make friends with anyone who isn’t also one, as well as those in other castes who see themselves as ‘lower’ and carry a grudge or an inferiority complex of being discriminated against in all their interactions even if they meet level-headed people of a so-called higher caste. These feelings of superiority and inferiority must go. If farmers didn’t farm, even a king would starve. Every job is important to the functioning of society and to associate less respect to one over another is like valuing one part of your body more than another. To have a healthy society, all sections need to function optimally and be equally respected.

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Where does caste matter these days?**

1) To most people in the urban context, caste only becomes a consideration while considering marriage or other ceremonies which have taken on caste specific differences in rituals. Though this is obviously true for Hindus, funnily enough, even those who convert to Christianity or Islam tend to look for marriage alliances with others converted from the same caste. (So much for that selling point of conversions.) But with the acceptance of love as a valid reason to marry, inter-caste marriages are ever-increasing and ceremonies too have become more flexible to suit the new needs.

2) Some may also argue that within each caste, the predispositions of the old dharmas are still intact and that it shows in the tendencies of Brahmins to be physically weaker and show more potential in studies, or classical arts, of Kshatriyas to be athletic and better at sports and Vaishyas to have a natural knack for running businesses and thinking in terms of productivity. While endogamy may have contributed to some genetic predisposition, I think it has more to do with one’s economic status, the opportunities that become available and the priorities with which one is raised, which have less to do with caste in more recent times. (Speaking as a scientist though, the genetic experiment that the caste system has put Indians through could make for an interesting analysis.)

3) Castes also tend to matter in education institutions where ‘positive discrimination’ is practised. Since the dharmas broke down long ago and money has been spread irrespective of caste, I think it would make more sense for quota systems to take into account a potential student’s economic background rather than her caste so that the differentiation based on caste isn’t perpetuated. After all, there are rich people within the ‘lower castes’ who get support from a caste-based quota system which could help poor people of so many castes who could do with that same support.

Hopes for the future

I hope that over time, we leave this outdated, purposeless and corrupted system of identity behind and embrace freedom of choice for one’s career and lifestyle and respect for everyone. I also hope that we can work towards a society that no longer differentiates people based on caste and provides equal education quality from the very small grades so that by the time students reach the 10th grade, they are capable of competing on equal terms no matter which caste they come from. I look forward to the day when caste is no longer part of an Indian’s identity.


See also