Ancient Indian caste system: Trench of inequality and oppression

India's caste system source- ABC news

The existing caste system is India’s oldest living stratification that has survived the passage of time. The word “caste” was first used in India by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. The word “caste” comes from the Spanish and Portuguese words “race,” “breed,” and “lineage.”

This creed is thought to date back more than 3,000 years. The theory classifies Hindus into formal social classes based on their karma (work) and dharma (doing the right thing) (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty).


How did the caste system come into existence?

There are many different theories about how the caste system originates. There are religious-mystical theories. There are many more theories in society.

Religious-mystical theories

Source – Hindu website


Manusmriti, A book on Hindu law, dating back to at least 1,000 years before Christ was born I.e 1200BCE, is widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative. It “acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society”.

This caste system divides the Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras. It is believed by many people that the groups originated from Brahma, the God of creation in Hindu culture.


Another theory says, according to this the Rig Veda, the ancient Hindu book, the primal man “Purush” destroyed himself to create a human society.


In both hierarchy systems, the Brahmins were on top who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and it is believed that they come from the Brahma’s head or Purush’s head. The second in this chain was the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, and for them, it is believed they have come from Brahma’s arm or Purush’s arm. The third position went to the Vaishyas, the farmers, traders & merchants, who were believed to be created supposedly from his thighs. At the bottom of this system were the Shudras, believed by many people that they came from Brahma’s feet or according to Rig Veda Purush’s feet, and did all the menial jobs.

Brahmins—priests & teachers

Kshatriyas—warriors & rulers

Vaishyas— farmers, traders & merchants


They are also divided further, the main castes were divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on their specific occupation.

The Hindu caste system did not consider the Achhoots – the Dalits or the untouchables.

How does caste work?


Caste has affected almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life for centuries, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy.

For hundreds of generations rural communities have been arranged based on castes – the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one’s caste. They would not even go close to the untouchables, as they were considered impure at all times.

The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups.

As the Hindu caste system did not consider the Achhoots – the Dalits or the untouchables. It kept them outside. And these groups of people used to work such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal, which made them in contact with bodily fluids daily they were considered as impure.

The value of purity in body and food was introduced in early Sanskrit literature. In this system, the untouchables have separate entrances to homes and must drink from separate wells.

This system was criticized for being unjust and regressive throughout the centuries. But it remained unchanged for centuries, trapping people into fixed social orders from which it was impossible to escape.




Despite these challenges, some Dalits and other low-caste Indians, such as BR Ambedkar, the Indian constitution’s writer, and KR Narayanan, the country’s first Dalit president, have risen to positions of prominence and recognition in the country.

Though historians say that until the 18th Century, Indians gave limited importance to the formal distinctions of caste, identities were much more flexible and people could move easily from one caste to another.

According to the new report, British colonial rulers were the ones who used censuses to simplify the structure and set very strict limits, making caste India’s defining social characteristic. It also demonstrates that it was undertaken solely to establish a single state ruled by common law.


Independent India’s constitution banned discrimination based on caste, and, in an attempt to give a level playing field to the disadvantaged class of society and to correct historical injustices, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy, in 1950.

In 1989, quotas were extended to include a grouping called the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) which fall between the traditional upper castes and the lowest.

With the spread of secular and moral education and with social reforms and growing urbanization in the recent decades, the influence of caste has somewhat declined, especially in cities where different castes live side-by-side and inter-caste marriages are becoming more common.

Many people began using just one name after social reform movements in certain southern states and the northern state of Bihar. Despite the changes though, caste identities remain strong, and last names are almost always indications of what caste a person belongs to.

The demand for job quotas according to caste

Jats protesting in Haryana in 2016 source – the Indian express
Patidar community leader Hardik Patel during their Kranti Rally for reservation at GMDC Ground in Ahmedabad on August 25 2015 score -India content

From several communities there have been demands to be recognized as OBCs in recent years – in Haryana, there were violent protests by the Jat community in 2016, and in Gujarat, the Patel community-led huge protests in 2015 demanding access to caste quotas.

Both communities are wealthy and politically powerful, but they advocate caste quotas by claiming that vast numbers of people in their communities are disadvantaged and oppressed.

Many claim that if leaders did not routinely dig deep territories of disparities, the caste system would have vanished by now.

Many caste communities already vote as a majority in elections and are courted by politicians for political gains.

As a result, the initiative to help a variety of underserved communities has devolved into a vote-getting exercise for many politicians.


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