If a Hindu person were asked to explain the nature of the caste system, he or she might start to tell the story of Brahma — the four-headed, four-handed deity worshipped as the creator of the universe.
According to an ancient text known as the Rigveda, the division of Indian society was based on Brahma’s divine manifestation of four groups. Priests and teachers were cast from his mouth, rulers and warriors from his arms, merchants and traders from his thighs, and workers and peasants from his feet.
Even today, most Indian languages use the term “jati” for the system of hereditary social structures in South Asia. When Portuguese travelers to 16th-century India first encountered what appeared to them to be race-based social stratification, they used the Portuguese term “casta” — which means “race” — to describe what they saw. Today, the term “caste” is used to describe stratified societies based on hereditary groups not only in South Asia but throughout the world.
According to one long-held theory about the origins of South Asia’s caste system, Aryans from central Asia invaded South Asia and introduced the caste system as a means of controlling the local populations. The Aryans defined key roles in society, then assigned groups of people to them. Individuals were born into, worked, married, ate, and died within those groups. There was no social mobility.
But, the idea of an “Aryan” group of people was not proposed until the 19th century. After identifying a language called Aryan from which Indo-European languages are descended, several European linguists claimed that the speakers of this language (named Aryans by the linguists) had come from the north — from Europe. Thus, according to this theory, European languages and cultures came first and were therefore superior to others — the so-called dark-skinned people from the rest of the world — and thus provide justification for genocide.
But 20th-century scholarship has thoroughly disproved this theory. Most scholars believe that there was no Aryan invasion from the north. In fact, some even believe that the Aryans — if they did exist — actually originated in South Asia and spread from there to Europe. Regardless of who the Aryans were or where they lived, it is generally agreed that they did not single-handedly create South Asia’s caste system. In the midst of the debate, only one thing is certain: South Asia’s caste system has been around for several millennia and, until the second half of the 20th century, has changed very little during all of that time.
In ancient India, the ranked occupational groups were referred to as varnas, and the hereditary occupational groups within the varnas were known as jatis. Many have immediately assumed that ascribed social groups and rules prohibiting intermarriage among the groups signify the existence of a racist culture. But this assumption is false. Varnas are not racial groups but rather classes.
Four varna categories were constructed to organize society along economic and occupational lines:
- Brahmanas (Brahmins), priests and religious teachers;
- Kshatriyas, kings, warriors, and aristocrats;
- Vaisyas, traders, merchants, and people engaged in other professions; and
- Sudras, laborers, cultivators, servants, and so on.
In addition to the varnas, there is a fifth class in Hinduism. It encompassed outcasts who, literally, did all the dirty work. They were referred to as “untouchables” because they carried out the miserable tasks associated with disease and pollution, such as cleaning up after funerals, dealing with sewage, and working with animal skin.
Brahmins were considered the embodiment of purity, and untouchables the embodiment of pollution. Physical contact between the two groups was absolutely prohibited. Brahmins adhered so strongly to this rule that they felt obliged to bathe if even the shadow of an untouchable fell across them.
Gandhi renamed the untouchables Harijans. Adopted in 1949, the Indian Constitution provided a legal framework for the emancipation of untouchables and for the equality of all citizens. In recent years, the Untouchables have become a politically active group and have adopted for themselves the name DaIlits, which means “those who have been broken.”