The Origin of Caste System in India

Caste System is a menace. Untouchability is a crime against humanity. Let us accept the problem first. And the only solution to this is equal education and opportunities to all, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. Thankfully, that is happening to a large extent in India, people are entering comfortable economic zones through education, hard work and availability of equal opportunities.

But how did this is all start? A matter of fact is all societies and cultures and civilizations around the world have had in the past some sort of discrimination against different categories of people, and it is present even today across the globe.

We have white supremacy, the world has seen apartheid, European countries had this class segregation, and so on. So it is a universal problem across human societies, albeit with different names and forms. But the origins of caste system in India have a peculiar background.

Varna System of social order

The unique case in India is though that it emerged from a system that was actually meant to do the exact opposite. The Varna system. Varna is not color as some people think. It is about social order.

In the Vedic India, the original system that was introduced to maintain social order was this Varna system. In this system, every person was classified as belonging to a varna depending on his occupation or role in the society.

The four varnas were Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra

Brahmins were scholars, teachers, researchers, learned persons, experts, knowledgeable persons. Kshatriyas played the defensive role as warriors, soldiers, kings and rulers. Vaishyas conducted the business, while Shudras provided all other social services.

So Brahmin varna had knowledge power, Kshatriya had political power, Vaishya had economic power, and Shudra had none.

But, no varna was considered inferior or superior. Varna was not an attribute obtained by birth, but by education and occupation. The Gurukul system that were the schools of those days, identified the best varna for each student depending on his/her interests and passion. A son of a Brahmin, if he was unable to complete his education would end up as a Shudra. A son of a Shudra, if he could complete his education with great skills would become a Brahmin.

Janma Jaata Shudra Sarve, Karmena Brahmanam Bhavati

It was said that by birth (Janma) every body is a shudra, and one has to work hard, study (do Karma) to become a Brahmin. This is similar to what we teach our kids today, that to become intelligent one has to study a lot, burn the midnight oil, else you will fail. Shudra was simply the person who has not had any education or lacks knowledge of any kind.

In fact, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya were called a Dvija (twice born), where the second birth was the one they got after successfully completing their education.

Those who could not complete their education became Shudra. Since they had no knowledge or expertise, they entered the working class, but were not discriminated as a caste, nor was it determined by birth.

Vidura was the son of a servant woman, but became a Brahmin, a minister in the royal court.

People were free to switch their Varna as well, just like how people are free today to switch fields of their occupation. So Vishwamitra who was a Kshatriya became a Brahmin.

People also sometimes belonged to multiple varnas – a knowledgeable person who was also a warrior – was both Brahmin as well as Kshatriya at the same time – like Ravana. Very few know that Ravana was an expert in the vedas, was the composer of Shiva Tandava Stotram.

This was not to say that there was no discrimination of any kind in ancient India when Varna system was being practiced. There have been always instances of influential people discriminating against the down trodden in all societies and cultures and in all times. But, Varna system never did that, not was it meant to do that.

How was the caste system in India born?

Over a period of time, the Varna system became embedded into families. Just like the way today many business families exist where the family business is passed down across generations, and children take over their parent’s business, similarly in those days, a doctor’s son became a doctor, royal families continued to be kshatriya, businesses were passed down for generations and so on. There continued to be exceptions as well, where children were not interested in their family business and choose a different path of their own.

So a mindset evolved where, there used to be instances of people being mocked because of the social status of their parent’s occupation. Karna in Mahabharata was called Suta Putra. Note that he was not called a Suta, which means it was still not a caste system decided by birth. It was the beginning of the mindset that was getting into a notion like, how the Son of a Suta (a Kshatriya who is a charioteer) can learn archery (learnt by warrior Kshatriya)?

And just like today, such attempts to discriminate against a person were opposed by right minded people in those days as well. Krishna himself was laughed at as being a cow herder. Krishna is a reformer who fights against the menace that had started creeping into the society. He rebels against existing blind faith. The incident of Govardhana hill is a classic example of Krishna’s attempt to get the society rid of meaningless rituals.

So, it is not as if everything was all right in the past, and things got worse only in recent history. But the fact is Varna system was not a caste system. Unfortunately, it got converted into one in later era. When? But before that let us look at a similar system – the Jati system.

Jati – a general classification system

In the ancient India, there was a system that was developed to classify everything – Jaati – using different attributes, one of which was also birth. So, we had Vruskha jaati (trees), animals born via eggs (Andaja), mammals (Pindaja) and similarly humans were classified into Manava jaati – mankind. So jaati is not a caste, it is a general categorization or classification of all entities and beings based on some attribute. A thing may belong to multiple jaati at the same time, so can a person.

So there were further jati classifications among humans based on their tribes, communities, languages, occupations and clans. So a person speaking Gujarati, whose profession is business, and place of origin is Kutch – belonged to 3 jatis or classifications.

So while Varna was education and role based classification, jaati was birth attribute classification, where the attribute could also be occupation as well. But, it never meant that a person from a specific jaati cannot belong to a specific Varna. In fact, no ancient texts talk about any kind of relationship between Varna and Jati, jati was a general scientific attribute based classification, not restricted to humans alone, while Varna was a classification of humans based on their role in the society – education and occupation.

Census – The Birth of Caste in Colonial India

Caste is not a word of Indian origin, meaning it has no similar meaning words in Indian languages. Caste has its origin in the world Casta – a system of race classification created by Spanish elites in Hispanic America based on the idea of purity of blood. So it has nothing to do with Jati (general attribute based classification) or Varna (human specific education and social role based classification).

Jati was any attribute like linguistic, regional, religious, geographical, etc. Sonar jaati (professional origins), Bangla jati (linguistic origins), Christian jati (religious origins), tribal jaati (geographical origins) and so on.

The British colonial rulers of India conducted nation wide census 1881 for the first time. There was also earlier localized attempts of census by British before that as well. The aim was to classify people based on age, gender, religion and caste. Yes caste!! The British wanted to classify India on lines similar to what existed in Europe, the class system – where people were classified based on their social status – upper, middle and lower.

But to their astonishment, they found that the Indian society was a much more complex one. If they tried varna, there were people who belonged to more than one varna. So they focused on Jaati. But even that was not homogeneous due to the very nature of it being a mere classification system based on different kinds of origin of a person. A person could belong to multiple jaatis at the same time due to the profession of his jaati, due to its geographical origins, due to his religious affiliations, due to his linguistic origins and so on.

But the British wanted a person to be identified with a single jati, for ease of classification. So people were forced to identify themselves with any one single jati. Thus a beautiful system of classification that identified a person with multiple different kinds of origins was reduced into a narrow caste based definition by this first census of India conducted during the colonial rule. In fact, the initial efforts at census ended up with lot of confusion as people tried to identify themselves with multiple jaati when asked about their origin.

The caste based classification in the census was termed in the British parliament as

“not satisfactory, owing partly to the intrinsic difficulties of the subject, and partly to the absence of a uniform plan of classification, each writer adopting that which seemed to him best suitedfor the purpose”

The very purpose of the census seemed failed. In fact, this is how the British described how a person responded to a question about his caste in the census:

“a ‘marhatta’ when he is a Kunbi of the Marhatta nation; that he is by ‘occupation’ a carpenter when he is a cultivator of the carpenter caste; that he is by ‘religion’ a Brahmin, when he is a Brahmin by caste”

The aim of the census was to classify the people of India on the lines of upper class, middle class and lower, but it was soon found that no such classification was possible based on the lineage of that person. Instead, a complex web of jati was found.

The census commissioner then observed that while “Castes can only be classified on the basis of social precedence. No scheme of classification can be framed for the whole of India”. In other words, he was admitting that no caste system exists in India!

So, in the later censuses, the surveyors were given further refined definitions that forced the people into identifying with one single jati. That is occupation became a caste, tribes became a caste, geographical origins became a caste, even varnas became a caste!

Thus, the jati and varna based classifications finally evolved into caste system of India during the colonial rule. As colonial rule progressed, people began to identify themselves with the caste they were allotted in the census, because the government based classification is what enabled to avail government provided facilities. Thus every person became more and more strongly linked to his/her caste.

This is not to say that there was no discrimination against the poor, down trodden, people in India before that. There definitely was. But the association of a person with a specific caste meant, classification of the society into upper caste and lower castes, and so individual oppression turned into group oppression with people supporting others in their caste.

This does not either mean that British intentionally created the caste system in India either. The intention of the census was to create a simple one to one classification of people for the ease of administration. Unfortunately, no such classification existed, and so the British ended up creating one, and in the process a highly organized discriminatory caste system was born in India.

Solution to the menace of Caste System

The only practical solution I see to get rid the society of this caste system is to undo what the British did. The government should stop asking people about their caste. Instead, equal opportunities should be provided to all, and any benefits to the downtrodden should be provided purely based on their economic status. Education system and schools should focus on educating children about the demerits of discrimination.

Once people talk less about caste, once everybody realizes that no political mileage can be taken by invoking caste – the caste system will die its natural death.

References:

UPDATE: The article has been updated with quotes and facts from the references below

8 COMMENTS

  1. This post reminds me of a story about Sri Loknath Brahmachari, a saint from Bengal who is said to have lived well beyond his two hundredth year. It is said that he claimed, “”there are only three brahmans now on earth””. One was he himself, the second person was a saint in the himalayas (whose name I have forgotten) and the third was a person called Gafur in Mecca.

    This could be simply be a story . . . but I do believe that becoming a true brahman has nothing to do with a persons birth. Yours was a nice post to remind us of that.

  2. Very interesting, this provides the beginning for the process discussed in Nicholas Dirks book, “”Castes of Mind…”” and commonly known in those who study British colonial history. What we know as the Caste system is not from ancient South Asia but rather a product of the colonial system…It’s funny how people look at some cultures as being stagnant or backwards, yet anyone who studies cultures knows they are always dynamic. Colonialism and war are two catalysts that have been known to cause immense cultural change for both parties involved and the caste system is one of the results.

    Thanks for the crash course in Vedic texts as I had not known much about them.

  3. this means brahmin or brahaman is a varna as per vedic texts…..can the ritual of hair cutting ceremony be done for any one…maye he be of any caste ????….since it is always said that the above ritual is only conducted in brahamins….Please clarify ???

    Thanks

  4. This has been very pleasing to read. I’m actually in the process of writing a book on this topic, which will be the doctorial thesis…which ever comes first.
    Anyhow, I’m interested because I’m a African American Vaishnava in the Madhava Sampradaya. This is my life. Having some compassion has made me think about how I can help some ppl of background. I’m seeing how so called lower caste indians (Dalits) have been seeking guidance in Black Power movements that were so successful in the 60’s.
    What is sad to see is that they are teaming together and saying that Brahminical culture is the cause of Dalit oppression. See publications by V.T. Rajshekar (Dalit, the black untouchables of India). The find shelter in British Colonial brainswashing tactics like the Aryan Invasion theory to support their ideas. Stating that Varna is based on the color of the skin they criticizing and trying sympathizers around the world. Ignoring the fact that Sukadeva Goswami, Vysasdeva, Arjuna, Prahlad, Indra, Krsna (of course) and many of the great leader of the Puranas and other vedic literatures are said to have jet black skin…they were in know way known as sudras but were described as have “”arya”” qualities with skin being darker than most have seen today.
    For me true brahminical is the essence of being human. Compassion, humility, self-control, austerity, using your intellect for the betterment of mankind, and training yourself and teaching others what will benefit them to the highest degree…this is Brahminical. Something that any respectable man should strive to be. Anyway I’m rambling. Keep up the good work. Please list more sources that could assist me in my writing. We have a duty to preserve the idea of a true brahmana.

  5. awesome article gurudev…

    Feel very sad that people here have misinterpreted the meaning of “”caste system”” and gather information about it from sources who want to use it for their own selfish interests.

    I feel very strongly about it as I am a brahmin (Iyengar) by birth and my entire life has been shattered by this as my family wants to forcibly marry a guy from the same caste even though i like someone else 🙁

    I have been undergoing this for 10 long years…and i still wait for the day they realize that caste system is nothing to do with birth but to do with the deeds or the knowledge gathered. I dont think I have the strength left to continue this with my family at the same time don’t want to hurt them…just leading a terrible terrible life…hope i hang on to my life till it becomes too late and i decide one day to just end it all…. (sigh)

  6. Caste is by profession[karma and gyan] which covers qualities,nature,birth etc.So every caste is equal in status and opportunities .We have misunderstood,misinterpreted knowingly and unknowingly due to our selfishness and superiority or ignorance .So UNO and govts and societies should deal accordingly.Equal castes and equal opportunities and services.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.