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What is a Caste System?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A caste system is a type of social structure which divides people on the basis of inherited social status. Although many societies could be described in this way, within a caste system, people are rigidly expected to marry and interact with people of the same social class. India has a well known example of a caste system, although various forms of caste systems can be found in many other cultures as well.

Several characteristics distinguish a caste system. The first is the tendency toward endogamy, meaning that people marry within the same caste exclusively. Caste mobility is also extremely rare; one cannot transform from a laborer to a scholar except in very rare circumstances, for example. Higher castes traditionally hold all of the political power, and the castes may be divided further through language, culture, and economics. Within a caste system, each member generally knows his or her place, and your social status is usually apparent to others as well.

Although people associate the caste system with India, the word is actually borrowed from the Portuguese. By 1555, English speakers were using the word to refer to a race of men, adopting the Portuguese word casta. Although the word was used in English to describe race or breeding, in Portuguese it was more widely used in reference to the stratified society of Portugal. When the Indian social system was encountered in the 1600s, it came to be described as a caste system in the Portuguese sense.

The roots of the Indian caste system can be found in the Hindu scriptures, although the caste system was adopted by other religions in India as well. According to scripture, Indian society could be broken down into a number of different groups, known as Varnas. Brahmins, the highest caste, were scholars and priests, while Kshatriya were warriors, rulers, and landlords. Vaisya were merchants, while Sudra were manual laborers. Beyond there four basis Varnas are the Untouchables or Dalit, and the system also has a space for outsiders and foreigners who do not conform with the system.

Within each Varna there are hundreds of Jati, individual endogamous groups. India's extremely refined and complex caste system began to be reformed during the push for independence, and technically discrimination on the basis of caste status is not allowed in modern India. However, the remains of the caste system can still be seen in the way that Indians move through and interact with their society. Many people of lower caste, for example, face legal barriers and difficulty when they try to enter Indian politics.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon938402 — On Mar 09, 2014

You should really learn about the caste system. You haven't experienced it and can't describe it, so don't say this kind of stuff. Travel to India and live like a dalit and you will see how it is. Until you do, don't say this and that because you don't know anything. Am I clear?

By anon934250 — On Feb 19, 2014

Thanks for the information, but people need to face this problem of untouchables.

By anon928063 — On Jan 27, 2014

This article completely lacks any understanding of the caste system. Obviously, one cannot justify the system the way it has been practiced in the recent past. As the article points out, the system was indeed described in the scriptures. What it does not point out is that there is no mention of it being inheritable in the scriptures. It was merely a system of governance, much like sarbanes oxley (that every public company in USA has to comply with) prescribes separation of duties.

A weakened economy and poverty led to insecurity and the spread of false interpretation of the governance system. While the current caste-ism is indeed a problem, the roots of it are not in Hinduism, but more so in the prevailing economic condition.

At any rate, the solution to the problem is certainly not caste based reservation, as this only exacerbated the problem and brought out more caste based feelings. The solution is simply equal treatment and opportunities for all human beings (not favoring any one group and that includes gender).

By anon347426 — On Sep 06, 2013

There is nothing that can justify this system. I'd like to see the excuses and valid reasons behind this. I've seen some on this page already. You don't compare a homeless man to an Untouchable. The homeless man wasn't homeless his whole life for the most part. Some were just people down on their luck. They don't deserve to be where they are. No one does.

Untouchables don't even get that luxury. Once they're stuck, they're stuck. So how dare you even try to justify things? It's probably my Westernized thinking, but any person with a bit of compassion could see that this is blatantly wrong. They don't even get the chance to work their way up. Some of them could become brilliant doctors or scientists who find the cure for cancer. But no. You let your prejudices get in the way. That is just sad. And for that, I pity you. It's all anyone can really do for you.

By anon336909 — On Jun 01, 2013

There is only one caste for all human beings- humanity. Youth should come up and abolish this stupid system.

By anon332417 — On Apr 29, 2013

The caste system must be abolished in India by the government. It is a kind of separation of human beings like Christians, Muslims and Hindus, but religion is a personal matter. It is almost like apartheid: useless to humanity.

By anon330231 — On Apr 15, 2013

The caste system should be banned.

By anon327981 — On Apr 01, 2013

It's sickening to think these so-called high class people consider themselves as superior while rest of them are inferior. They prevented people from getting an education. Thank God. If the British hadn't invaded India. People would have still been illiterate because of these so called high class people.

By anon299361 — On Oct 24, 2012

No, they just were the lowest social class. They were the unofficial lowest in the caste system. They did jobs like clean out horse manure or clean drains and whatnot.

By anon256857 — On Mar 23, 2012

If you're an untouchable, none of the higher caste systems will touch you because they think you'll like rub off on them or something like that.

By anon255646 — On Mar 18, 2012

Put the brahmins in an untouchable category for a few days and let them know how it was for others to be untouchable for hundreds of years.

By anon252788 — On Mar 06, 2012

If there is discrimination among your race, it is not good.

By anon248506 — On Feb 17, 2012

Crappy system. God makes every human being equal. There is no difference between them.

By anon240188 — On Jan 13, 2012

It is surprising that most of the people in India or abroad do not know what exactly the caste system is. How did it come into existence?

In the modern political understanding of the caste system, the element of caste is predominant and the element of system is less. There is a difference between “caste system” and “caste-ism.”

The caste system is one of the oldest social institutions. It covers almost the entire social fabric of India. The common man regards family, a unit of extended family, extended family of clan, Kula of tribe and tribe of caste, as all fundamental social institutions -- natural, valid, useful and inevitable.

Caste is a natural response in bringing many small and primitive multi-ethnic groups into a single cultural system by assigning each incoming new group a separate caste identity. Together, they formed a more advanced economic and social system.

It assimilated numerous social groups coming from different parts of the world at different points of time under one umbrella without any conversion. It did not disturb its existing internal social order nor did it block the freedom of others to prosper according to their internal rhythm.

The caste system was not a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, but a series of vertical parallels. All the castes were independent, yet their roles complementary. Importance of different castes was given on the basis of their knowledge, nature and relevance/contribution of work for social subsistence, efforts required to perform duties and amount of self restraint/self discipline practiced in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter-caste relationship. The higher the caste within a Varna, the purer it was considered, and greater were the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals.

The local character of caste and slower means of transport allowed very few links with the outside world. Only merchants visited different distant places. Inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance in personal life were the intrinsic features of the caste system, making each local area self-sufficient and capable of fulfilling all the needs of its people. Interdependence of different castes made close interaction and cooperation a reality.

The concepts of disparities, forward castes, backward castes or exploitation of the weak were almost non-existent earlier. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus.

The caste system took on different shades and meaning with the changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in the contexts of village, locality, region or religion.

Entry of “caste” into politics led to unchecked growth of caste-ism. Materialism and political ambitions are responsible for the discontent of various castes. It divides the Indians into innumerable and unbridgeable groups. “Politicization of caste” needs to be stopped as soon as possible.

By anon237175 — On Dec 28, 2011

I'm a medical student and what I have been told that there is only one race in this world and that is humanity. I am from a high caste and I have fallen in love with a guy from one of the low castes (the untouchables).

It is very hard for me to truly like a guy and this guy is everything I like in a guy. He is funny, smart and caring. My family is against this relationship, but what can I do? I do not believe in the caste system, but I am forced into this ridiculous system. How can you possibly judge a person based on his or her caste?

What should I do? Just forget about him and marry another guy and end up regretting my decision and having depression? That would just be equivalent to killing myself gradually. Why do indians still believe in this system? Why can't people be more open-minded and treat everyone equally? Other religions do not practice this discrimination. It's time for younger generations to change this perception because educated people do not normally practice stigmatisation.

By anon233945 — On Dec 09, 2011

@anon142184: Bravo! Great job!

By anon181285 — On May 29, 2011

what is kinship?

By anon172253 — On May 03, 2011

Based on the posts here, I'm not sure that everyone really understands the status of an untouchable. The western world is organized in the exact same name, and I feel anyone who comments on this system as a lower way of thinking is in the wrong.

It has its flaws, as any system does, but people who are considered "Untouchables" do the same things as the people in Western society who are considered to be on a lower level then anyone else. You don't see a homeless man doing drugs on the street because he doesn't want to benefit society in any way and decide that he deserves power and property. An untouchable is simply someone who is on that approximate level in India, and it doesn't mean that they can't move up in the caste system if they really try and it's well deserved.

By cherikasood — On Mar 22, 2011

The reason India is a developing country and not a developed country is the existence of caste system. it's time for us to join our hands and pledge to be Indians first, rather than Hindu or Muslim.

By anon162095 — On Mar 22, 2011

The role of education in overcoming caste differences is very important. It is through education that we can understand the fact that every human being has two eyes, legs, ears, hands and the same body parts. There is nothing special which upper caste people have and lower caste people do not have.

It's time realized that, if god has not made any difference in creating human beings, then how and why are we creating such differences? it's time to become an Indian rather than Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.

By anon158971 — On Mar 09, 2011

These are very superficial views about the caste system.

1. It is now established that the caste system has genetic distinctions too and endogamy is prevented by prohibiting same gotra and cousin marriage.

2. It is not a man made system as mentioned in Bhagwad Gita, unless one is a complete atheist and existentialist or those men must be geniuses.

3. Also, brahmins are considered superior for their wisdom, kshatriya for power, and vaishyas for accumulating wealth and material goods as their duty. Their food, skill, dress and everything is to be in sync with their assigned duty. In fact, shudras and untouchables were those who refused to follow the system.

4. Just because some people of one profession behaved badly with others at some point in a five thousand year old past does not mean the whole system is rejected or that whole caste is bad. It is only one social aspect of a big system. There are geographical and historical factors too.

5. It is permissible to move from one caste to another for example by virtue of marriage, a woman from lower caste can go to upper caste family. But like any merit based system, it is difficult to go up and easy to fall down.

6. God did not create everybody and everything homogeneous nor all people's actions are same. The caste system is only a representation of one's deeds and destiny.

7. Most of India's present day problems are due to denial and lack of reforms in the caste system because of selfish interest of a new class of people like politicians who do nothing to preserve and promote various trades and profession and an ill conceived notion that western society is superior.

Compared to the organized manner in which Indian society functions, western culture (?) is nascent and primitive. In western society, science is at loggerheads with religious practices whereas caste system is both scientific, social and religious. In India, the caste system is a reality and way of living.

By anon156281 — On Feb 26, 2011

Stupid system with messed up beliefs. My dad no longer practices Hinduism and I can see the reasons why. If you can't question this system in any way then I feel sympathy towards you!

By anon142184 — On Jan 12, 2011

My name is vikram and I am an untouchable according to your opinion. I am untouchable because I am an educated person, I am untouchable because I am so educated that I became a doctor, I am untouchable because I earn money which is far better than many others, and I am untouchable because i do bathe, clean myself and maintain a good neat life.

The thing is you indians got that feeling incorporated in your genes. We are not outcasts. we are humans and we are good humans.

Ever imagine when you are hospitalized due to an accident and you need blood to be transfused, then they give it by blood group, not by caste group.

Some people saying that these untouchables cremate dead bodies, well, someone has to do that, and they did it and those people added a name: untouchables. think if these untouchables did not cremate any dead body of your family members, then think once of those rotten, dead bodies of your loved ones with you.

They kill rodents. Yeah, they do it. If they didn't, then that will spread plague. Once a plague erupts, then you will run to them to kill those rodents to stop the plague spread.

They clean the dirt, cremate bodies, make and repair shoes and all those things and that's why they are untouchables, according to your opinions, right?

Look into the world. If there is money in cleaning dirt, making shoes and cremating bodies, then these so called higher caste people will jump into those fields, so then what do you call those high caste people who take up the projects of sewage cleaning, and electrocution of dead bodies, etc., etc.?

Wake up, wake up, guys. Wake up! You see only humans with your eyes not the persons belonging to your caste in this world.

Caste system, my foot.

By anon141356 — On Jan 10, 2011

To Anon: being so very far from you country my only little advice will be is for you to follow your heart, not what you family says.

Because with all the deepest respect to them, you are the one to live this life with the person you chose; and if you chose the wrong person - even to make your family happy - there is your fault and the life becomes a punishment.

By anon128060 — On Nov 18, 2010

I'm really ashamed you people still call them untouchables and people who do dirty jobs. If they don't do those jobs you will become dirty. They have cleaned the country so that some morons can stay clean and still call them untouchables.

By anon112109 — On Sep 19, 2010

I can see where the caste system helps to maintain the economy in such a populous land as India nut the danger lay in the idea that the castes' are defined by biological or inherent qualities.

The caste system is a man created system that serves man.

By anon104010 — On Aug 14, 2010

Its just not untouchables. Today many so called "untouchables" are far better than the brahmins. They were considered low, due to their job and hygiene. But today when they step outside India, they are not restricted.

I am from a so-called upper caste and for some reason I can't be with a person I like, but have to stick to what family says. They impose their decisions, saying if we don't listen to them, we'll bring shame to their names. How do you make them understand the fact that your ancestors classified you at one point for their own purpose and you cannot drag this forever.

They still follow what is said by the community but never would like to understand the reason behind it. How did this caste system evolve? What is the reason behind it?

For them their name is more important than the happiness in their family.

By anon91866 — On Jun 24, 2010

The caste system in India was most shameless practice in this world, worse than the racism. It was started as a classification on the basis of one's occupation. In that system, there could more than one caste in a family on the basis of one's occupation.

One can change his/her caste once he/she changes his/her occupation. Gradually, those who are in the higher castes wanted to protect their family members from slipping in to lower castes. They, with the help of then rulers built 'iron curtains' between the castes. The higher caste people cornered all the wealth, education, and power in their baskets.

The worst fact was these privileged classes denied these privileges to the so called shudras and dalit castes. They were treated worse than animals. It is these atrocities which are perpetuated on these low caste people which constitutes the vast majority of the population, resulting in utter poverty, illiteracy and backwardness among the majority of the population in this nation.

Had everybody been treated equally, India would have been the number one nation in the world by now.

By anon89487 — On Jun 10, 2010

Caste is there because we want it.I am a dalit and i have become an officer in the indian army but i want to retain my dalit name and not change to any shatriya name. Though i think i should because i am performing the task that a shatriya is supposed to do.

By anon80324 — On Apr 27, 2010

Yeah well what ticks me off is I'm a fine jeweler in the states and these nose-in-the-air Indian posers come around acting like Brahmins and talking down to me about how expensive I am and prices in India are so much better. And the 22k gold in India is so much better than the gold here.

I'm not playing your caste game here. You're not playing it either.

By anon78343 — On Apr 18, 2010

the untouchable are gross. why would they cremate the dead? it's creepy! In fact, why would anyone? it's disgusting.

By anon74474 — On Apr 02, 2010

The untouchables are really untouchable because in the ancient days in India they would do really bad things, like magic, and they were unholy. They had really bad jobs.

By anon72416 — On Mar 23, 2010

There are many vested interests that blame india for an unjust caste system due to the discrimination some castes have over others.

Basically, it is just a division of labor which any large corporation in the world would like to do to ensure various groups like civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and chemical engineers focus deeply on their specific jobs and combine their efforts into a large successful project.

The deviation from the optimum caste system occurs at times when some castes feel they are performing superior work to the rest and start disrespecting other castes. This has to be corrected by social engineering and education.

The deviation is similar to a situation in a navy aircraft carrier where, say a group of officers started disrespecting the garbage workers, leading to garbage not being collected and thereby health problems manifesting on board.

The caste system has always been part of the culture of India which is also known as Sanatana Dharma.

Highly evolved sages recommended this stratification as a means for the population to specialize in their job functions so that they excel in it over time, thereby increasing their spiritual level.

A country cannot survive is all of the population wants to be soldiers; someone has to grow and distribute food, invent new machines, educate people spiritually or become helpers of specific humans while they focus their highly developed skills to bring the country forward.

The original caste system is a division of people into four essential groups, the spiritually inclined people (Brahmins), the security personnel (Kshatriyas), the producers of the means of livelihood (Visayas) and the instruction followers (Sudras). These four groups represent one body of society where the head is made up of the Brahmins, the shoulders are the Kshatriyas, the stomach are the vaishyas and the legs are the sudras.

There are various ages when different castes seem prominent or prosperous on earth. Humans who were teachers or spiritual seekers (Brahmins) since ancient times will have some mental and physical characteristics, which can be inherited by their children. This inheritance could be biological or via education passed from parents to children.

In the very ancient times, Brahmins with their mantras seemed to have most of the power. They commanded the most respect because they could get anything people wanted through their mantras: rain, good crop yields, and weapons. Even the movements of materials for the construction of buildings depended upon their mantras.

Great sages like sage Satyavrata, sage Durvasa and sage Agastya and others were like the leaders of civilizations the world over.

The Kshatriyas became the most powerful leaders of society during the next age, with their fighting skills and weapons. During these times, kings like Alexander, King Arthur, Ashoka, Genghis Khan and numerous others became respected and powerful leaders of society.

The Viasas perform jobs like most professions of today (engineer, doctors, artisans, businessmen and farmers) where profit potential is of prime importance. In recent times, success in business made people and countries great.

Vaisyas have become the most prominent people today. People today respect business leaders like Thomas Edison, Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Micheal Dell and Jack Welch, for what they have accomplished.

The instruction-following producers (Sudras – current day factory operators and clerks are in this category) whose ancestors were following instructions will be able to handle the orders given by others.

When computers take over most jobs, it will be the Sudras, who willingly follow instructions of computers the best, who will have the most power. They will be the ones who can get things done for the rest of the human population. Using their instruction-following skills, they will be the most respected people because they will get people things from computer controlled farms, factories and even construction (food, clothing and shelter).

Other people will have to wait on these instruction-followers for their livelihood. In the opinion of this author, India was conquered for a thousand years by foreigners (firstly by the Muslims and then the Christians), so that she can finally overcome this fault of the different castes disrespecting each other.

The different castes were supposed to be equal parts of one body but with different jobs. Would a person not allow his head (Brahmin) to touch his feet (Sudra or instruction follower)?

Would a person not allow his feet (Sudra) to touch his shoulders/hands (Kshatriya or warrior group)? Or would a person not allow his hands to touch his stomach (Vaisya)?

By anon60617 — On Jan 14, 2010

Has the caste system in india affected the Hindus belief or is it just part of the religion?

By anon53791 — On Nov 24, 2009

I would like to learn more about the specifics of the caste system today.

By anon51782 — On Nov 09, 2009

do you think the caste system is the same as racism? why?

By anon47405 — On Oct 04, 2009

Can any one explain to me the last line of this essay? I want to know how many people are still facing this problem.

By anon44612 — On Sep 09, 2009

what is the caste system in india?

By anon36940 — On Jul 15, 2009

Untouchables are people who do jobs that are considered filthy and unworthy. jobs such as cremating the dead or killing rodents is considered unclean.

By anon36040 — On Jul 09, 2009

Thanks. I needed this information for homework and it has really helped. I am going to use this website much more often. :-)

By anon16744 — On Aug 14, 2008

What's an untouchable? Are they really untouchable?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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