The Indian caste system is one of the most sociologically interesting subjects in the world. It has stratified Indian society for thousands of years, and has divided and segregated it for hundreds. People have suffered because of it, and people have risen to unimaginable heights in spite of it. It has been a vital and integral part of Indian society for untold thousands of years, and as much as modern India has tried to escape it’s grasp, it still keeps a tight hold on the country and it’s people.

The origins of the Indian caste system are shrouded in mystery. Though it is frequently considered Hindu, that is not completely true, as other religious groups in India do also follow the caste system. And although there is one mention of the caste system in the Vedas, or the most important and ancient of the Hindu holy texts, it has been dismissed by many scholars as a later addition that is not an original part of the Vedas.

One theory of the origins of the caste system is that it was created by an influx of Indo-European invaders, primarily male, who pushed away the indigenous population and set up the caste system, with themselves at the top, in order to cement control over the native peoples. According to a 2001 study, there is some genetic differentiation between castes, with the upper castes being most like Europeans and the lower castes being more similar to Asians. However, the samples were taken from one concentrated area, and so it is unknown if the same holds true for the rest of India. Another theory is that castes were simply formed by a clustering of people according to jobs, and they simply bred with each other and created specialized groups, or jatis that each performed a specific task and thus had a certain profession in the society.

Although as mentioned earlier, the caste system was not mentioned very often in the Vedas, with in fact only one passage mentioning all four main groups at once. Later works, however, ascribe the creation of the caste to Krishna when he supposedly created the world.

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The caste system, once one gets past any form of myth, is relatively easy to understand. However, do not take this statement to mean that the caste system itself is simple. It is not, having castes and sub-castes, and then complicated relationships such as inter-caste, intra-caste, master-servant, boss-worker, along with many others. Do not assume simply that because the society is organized by the caste system, it is any less complicated than American society. Placing anyone in any single caste or jati can be complicated and subjective, and the caste system has spawned a whole type of politics in which caste is emphasized, called surprisingly simply caste politics, and creates an atmosphere in which politicians get themselves elected by promising handouts for the poor.

I am now going to give a general overview of each caste, and the dalits. First, the Brahmins. The Brahmins are the religious caste in charge of the spiritual duties of Indian society. However, not all Brahmins perform religious duties. Some have become warriors, or businessmen. Some have even had to become manual laborers. The other strange part about the Brahmins is that although they are considered one of the highest ranking and important castes in India, some of them were quite poor.

However, it is/was not uncommon for them to be rich from payments for their religious duties. Also, they held little political power, instead all of their power coming from spiritual needs. The Brahmins trace their family history back through an unbroken male line to a priest/sage. The portion of Indians who self-identify themselves as Brahmins is somewhere around 9%. Next is the Kshatriya. The Kshatriya were the warriors of Indian society, and they protected the people of India. Also, they were the kings and rulers of India.

Historically, there was a rivalry between the Brahmins and the Kshatriya, and although the Brahmins were said to have won the battle and are considered the top caste, the Kshatriya are now the more dominant caste. Also, there is a large representation of Kshatriya in the military, and there are martial arts that are Kshatriyan in nature. Next, the Vaishya. The Vaishya are/were the traders, merchants, land-owners, money lenders, and businesspeople in Indian society. They are often credited with spreading Indian culture, and are considered the founders of Indian capitalism. After that is the Shudra.

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The Shudra are considered the laborers for the other three castes. They are the lowest on the scale, and although they are poor, they are not as bad off as the last group, the dalits. The dalits, also known as the untouchables, are so low below the other castes that they are not even considered part of the caste system. They are commonly involved in such professions as butchery, tanning leather, removing corpses, or any other activity that is considered dirty. They are considered too dirty too be touched by other Indians, and there were at one time many attempts to segregate them from the other classes to prevent physical interaction. When India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the constitution that was drafted forbade discrimination against the dalits.

In more socially liberal cities, the dalits are not discriminated against as much, and have greater opportunity to advance themselves and their families. However, in the more socially conservative villages, they are still discriminated against, and violence against them is still not uncommon. Also, each main caste has several smaller divisions known as jati. The jati are the parts of the caste system that are based on your job. For example, let us say that the caste of management consultants is called pq2212. Let’s then say you are an investment banker, part of the caste A394. If you decided to become a management consultant, your jati would go from A394 to pq2212. Your jati is not determined by your birth, although in India fathers often pass down their work to their sons.

Now, the history of the caste system is probably the easiest of the three aspects of the caste system is probably the easiest aspect of it to explain. The caste system used to be a lot more flexible, and their is evidence in ancient texts that caste mobility was very simple, with the attainment of a new job. It is/was also possible for people to move around the caste system by marriage, often with a man marrying a woman of a lower caste. It remained that way for many thousands of years, until the British came and settled in India. They saw the caste system as an integral part of Indian society. They learned about the caste system, and then applied it to the censuses taken during their rule. They seemed to misunderstand the caste system as just a way to keep the ruling class in power.

The Indians did not see it as that. They instead saw it as a way of not only just organizing society, they also saw your class as the accumulation and result of the karma of your past life(s). No matter whether or not it’s original intentions where to subjugate the locals, it evolved and became a method of societal organization. In more modern times, the caste system has reduced in size and scope. The state of untouchability and the resulting penalties and discrimination that came with it were banned by the constitution when India gained independence in 1947.

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In the more liberal areas of India, such as the cities, the caste system is often overlooked. However, in more conservative areas such as rural villages, the caste system is still in full effect. Any attempt by lower class peoples to advance their status can be expected to be met with hostility or all-out violence. There are far right extremist terrorist groups comprising of members of the upper castes that promote and perform violence against those lower caste members that try to advance their position in society.

Also in more modern times, there have been attempts to help advance the quote, “economically and socially backward.” The Mandal commission was a commission designed to find those castes that are backwards and advance their position in Indian society through seat reservations. In India, there are reservations of government positions and spots in higher education for the poor.

However, the system has come under much attack from Indians, and it is a very controversial subject. Some of the arguments for the reservation system is that it is the best way to ensure that the poor can get into higher education and hold jobs, and thus help advance the backwards castes. Another argument is that affirmative action does help the poorer, and that without it, the backwards castes would become backwards faster and the forward classes would get richer, faster.

However, there are arguments against the system. For example, it is said that these advantages will only be used by the upper parts of these lower castes, thus simply giving the wealthy a way to stay wealthy and in power, and therefore not helping and actually hurting those who it is mean to help. Also, it is said that it will lower the total elitism of the higher education, instead making it so that you can get in not on merit, but on caste. It is said that the real way to help the poor would be not to reserve spots only in higher education and governmental work, but to improve primary and secondary education for all, so that way the poorer classes can actually work and can know how to get into higher education without government assistance, and that then they will help themselves and lift themselves out of poverty.