The Caste System
The Caste System: Introduction, Myths and
by Vikas Kamat
First Online: May 01, 2004
Page Last Updated: January 01, 2015
Introduction to Caste System of India
While caste system is not an area of my expertise, I am writing this
introduction by popular request. I have based the following information on my
personal studies and experiences while growing up in India (and later), and my
primary motive is to correct some of the stereotyping that goes on about the
caste system (example: there are four categories), while confirming some of the
unsaid rules of the practice.
Caste, Varna and Jati
Before we dwell too deep, it is important to understand the
history and meaning of the terms. The word varna (literally meaning
color) is used in Hindu philosophies to describe the nature (swabhava) of
a man (see: Who is a
Brahmin?) It initially had to do with the sophistication and spiritual
refinement of a man, and quickly got attached to the profession of a man.
The word jati indicates ethnicity of a person. Asking for
one's jati is like asking about one's heritage.
The word caste, coined by Europeans probably meaning to
say chaste (from English) or casta (from Portuguese), is
used very commonly to refer to one's lineage. So it is much more closer to jati
Due to the delicate differences, and their intricate
relationships --the professions were equated to the nature, and since India had a
system of inheriting the parent's profession, the words varna, jati
and caste became synonyms in the course of time.
The Four Layers
The caste layers most often quoted are:
The Brahmins -- those engaged in sacrifices, and priestly
The Kshtriyas -- Rulers and warriors
The Vaishyas -- Merchants, farmers, and tradesmen
The Shudras -- Laborers, craftsmen, service professions
One of the first references to the four categories of the caste
system are found in the Bhagawad-Gita, where Krishna advises the brahmins
to be learned, the warriors (kshartiyas) to be brave, vaishyas to
be good merchants taking care of cattle and farmlands and the shudras to
be faithful servants.
Notice that in the above list, the
caste is associated with a profession. The Bhagawad-Gita also offers
classification of men based on their predominant nature - satva (virtue),
rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance), and in the course of time,
these qualities (gunas) got mapped on to the four layers, associating the
brahmins with virtue and shudras with ignorance.
The biggest concern for students of the caste system is the
status of people, so called Dalits. For centuries, a segment of the India society was condemned as
caste-less and were denied access to temples, water, and other civil amenities.
Gandhi, who fought very hard for betterment of this segment, called them
Harijans or Children of God. Over a period of time, even the word Harijan has
become politically incorrect, and these days are referred to as
Dalits or Scheduled Castes.
© K. L. Kamat
Professionals such as janitors, and cobblers were/are discriminated in India in
the name of the caste system
See: Geographica Indica: The Dalits
The Caste System is Complex. Very Complex.
The caste system is a relative system - that means any prejudice
or hierarchy can come into existence only with respect to another caste. Most
people do not understand it and use the commonly available four category
classification. In my own experiences, I have discovered that each sub-caste or
community thinks that they are superior to others. I find it very hilarious. For
instance, the Saraswats think they are superior to Goud Saraswats, and vice
versa. The Daivajna community, who practice gold-smithy, consider themselves
superior to Acharis, who are temple builders. I get email all the time from
Christians and Lingayats (supposedly casteless faiths) claiming brahmanical
© K. L. Kamat
Initiation of a Brahmin Boy
Those who study Indian culture will quickly discover that most
of the culture involves all the communities. Both Hindu epics Ramayana
and Mahabharata revolve around Kshatriya leaders. Lord Krishna is often
identified as a Yadava (milkman of lower birth). Sage Vishwamitra, who is supposed to
have coined the Gayatri mantram, was a meat eater, so were Buddha, and
© K. L. Kamat
Indian culture is abundant with non-brahmin traditions
Shown above, a hunting scene.
The Europeans who ruled India, brought with them their own class
system of beaurocrats, aristocrats and commoners, and mapped to the already myriad
of castes in India, giving rise to all kinds of fusion, prejudice, and unfair
The Caste System: Myths and Reality
Myth 1: There are four castes in India
Reality: The four castes that are often mentioned derive from a
the chaturvarna (four layered social order) that is mentioned in ancient
Hindu scriptures. The Bhagavad-Gita defines what the four orders are, depending
on the nature of the person. However we see that throughout history more
than four castes have been in vogue, especially the fifth caste, the asprushya
or untouchables, who were considered not worthy of a caste.
In today's India
there are thousands of castes. In the list of Brahmin
communities alone, I was able to list over forty-five different castes!
Myth 2: The Upper-castes (Brahmins) exploited the lower-castes
for economic gain
Reality: The brahmins, while considered high on the social
strata, actually led priestly and humble lives -- the doctrine called for that.
The power and the wealth was mostly controlled by the kshatriyas and the trade
was conducted by the vaishyas. Almost all of the Hindu kings in India's history
belonged to the warrior community.
Myth 3: The Caste system led to slavery
Reality: Indeed the caste system was used for exploitation and
abuse. However slavery, as was practiced in Europe and America was not practiced
in India. The bonded-labor system, the servant system while can be argued as a
form of slavery, is not same as the slavery of Africans to which the term is
Myth 4: The caste system is on the decline
Reality: On the contrary. Due the complex social development and
prevailing conditions of post-independent India, the caste system has morphed,
and even developed. Every Indian knows about his or her own caste as well as the caste of
one's acquaintances. Caste is a deciding factor in decisions involving marriage, job
opportunities, and religious sacraments. Perhaps it is more accurate to say
"discrimination based on caste system is on the decline". However, the
forced equality has resulted in reverse discrimination in India, and resulted in
large scale migration of upper-castes to other countries during 1980s and 1990s.
Myth 4: The lower-castes are an exploited minority
The word minority is inaccurate. In all the states of India, the so called
lower-castes constitute majority in terms of population, and elected
Myth 4: The lower-castes want to be recognized as equals
For political and materialistic reasons, many communities wish to be classified
as lower-castes. In the 1980s there were agitations and violence in India, as some
communities were classified as no-longer backward, and the Government was forced
to reclassify them as disadvantaged.
Children of the Forest God -- Learn about the little known, but very rich traditions and cultures of the tribals of India
The Brahmins -- Potpourri of topics on the various brahmin communities of India; includes a number of pictures and a comprehensive list of priestly communities.
Castes of Ramayana -- A complete list of professions mentioned in Ramayana provides insight into the caste system of India.