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Social Organization

The Caste System

When the Aryans moved into northwest India, they imposed a caste system to organize the new society created by their arrival. They initially put together a hierarchy of four varnas (i.e., castes), which later was expanded to include a fifth category. The caste system initially served to maintain rigid social boundaries between the invaders and the previous inhabitants. Over the generations, the origins were forgotten and the system became the stratification of a single society.

The four original varnas were actually put together as three plus one. The top three varnas were the invaders, while the one on the bottom consisted of the Dravidian inhabitants. The four varnas are called:

 Varna  Occupation  Key status

Brahmin

 Priests and religious officials

 Twice-born,  Aryan Varnas

Kshatriya

 Rulers and warriors

Vaishya

 Farmers, merchants, traders, and craftsmen
 

 Not Twice-born,  Non-Aryan

Shudra

 Servants of upper castes and peasants


People are born into the caste of their parents. There is no mobility across caste lines during one's lifetime. Each varna is divided into a number of sub-castes, each of which is called a jati. Just as the varnas provide a social hierarchy in society at large, the different jatis provide a social hierarchy within a varna.

This system of varnas and jatis serves two important functions. First, it assigns occupations. The varna and jati to which one belongs is usually identified with an occupation. Within the Vaishyas, for instance, there are jatis of bakers, sheep herders, metal workers, and so on.

Second, the system separates the members of the different the varnas and jatis by a complex system of purity and impurity. The higher a varna or jati in the system, the higher a level of purity they must maintain. The lower, the more likely they are to transmit impurity. These purity restrictions appear most frequently in four areas: marriage, drink, food, and touch. Marriage is possible only between members of jatis closely related in the hierarchy, for instance. A mere touch--if a shudra should accidently brush against a brahmin--can require the brahmin to undergo extensive rites of purification.

The top three varnas have a status that excludes the fourth; this is the status of being "Twice-born." This means that the religion described in the Vedas applies to them only. The designation "twice-born" refers to the rite of initiation that the members of this caste go through upon reaching maturity. This rite brings them into the religion; they are reborn as a Hindu and not just as a caste member. The shudras, therefore, are excluded from worship in the Vedic religion, and are not even permitted to hear the Vedas read outloud. They therefore have their own priests and religious rites.

When the Aryans moved across India from their foothold in the northwest, they conquered yet more people. To place the newly conquered groups into their society, the Aryans created a new caste. However poorly off the shudras were at the bottom of the caste system, the members of the new category were even worse off, for the new caste was placed below the shudras. In fact, the Untouchables, as the new caste was called, was put outside the caste system altogether; they were outcastes. The purity regulations were such that not even the shudras would relate to them, and they were assigned the worst occupations, such as latrine cleaners, leather tanners, and so on. Thus the final picture of the caste system looks like this:


Category  Occupation  Key status

Brahmin

 Priests and religious officials

 Twice-born,
 Aryan Varnas

Kshatriya

 Rulers and warriors

Vaishya

 Farmers, merchants, traders, and craftsmen
 

 Not Twice-born,
 Non-Aryan

Shudra

 Servants of upper castes and peasants
 

 Outside the
Caste System

 Untouchables  The dirtiest jobs: latrine cleaners, etc.


The caste system has been remarkably stable in India for over two millennia; it is only since the modern, independent state of India was formed that the system has come under any scrutiny at all. (It is presently outlawed, but many of the practices and attitudes remain ingrained in Hindu society.) The reason for this stability is twofold. First, hindu rules for social behavior (dharma, as discussed in the Religious Life) expect one to fulfill the requirements of their caste. Second, in the system of samsara and reincarnation that governs the cosmos, rebellion against caste expectations will result in a lower rebirth in the next life (as discussed in the Cosmos).


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Copyright 1997. This page last updated on February 8, 1997