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The Indian Caste System: Explained

The Origin of the Caste System

Maybe you learned what the caste system is in world history class in school. Maybe you thought it was a historical system that was left in the past a long time ago. But, unlike other societal divisions we’ve seen throughout history – this one still dictates much of life in India today. Including where you can live, what job you can hold, and even what water you can drink. But let me rewind. The caste system is deeply rooted in the Hinduism belief in karma and reincarnation.

Dating back more than 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras based on who they were in their past life, their karma, and what family line they come from. Many believe that the system originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, believing that the Brahmins represent the eyes and mind of Brahma and are therefore often teachers and priests, the Kshatriyas represent his arms and are often warriors, the Vaishyas represent his legs and are often farmers or merchants, and the Shudras represent his feet and are often laborers.

Here is the Breakdown of the Four Main Castes:

  1. Brahmins: The highest and most esteemed caste. These people often hold the job of priest or teacher.
  2. Kshatriyas: The second caste. These people are often known traditionally as ‘warriors.’ They often hold the job of farmer, trader, or merchant.
  3. Waishyas: The third caste. These people often hold the job of farmer, trader, or merchant.
  4. Shudras: The fourth caste. These people are often those that do manual labor.

Although there are 4 main castes, the system is divided into thousands of sub-castes, further dividing the people of India. Additionally, there is a whole separate caste, who society believes to be so vile that they aren’t considered part of the system at all – the Untouchables or Dalits. They are completely shunned from society. forbidden to live amongst those of high castes.

Here are Some Facts About India’s Caste System:

  • Brahma, the four-headed, four-handed deity who Hindu’s worship as the creator of the universe. The caste system is based on Brahma’s diving manifestation of the four main castes explained above.
  • Mahatma Gandhi spent much of his life working to bring equality to the Dalits (Untouchables). He was the refer to Untouchables as “Harijans,” meaning children of God.
  • Your caste is assigned at birth based on the caste of your family.
  • The caste system was first outlined in the Hindu text, the Laws of Manu – written around 250 B.C.
  • Dalits are considered so impure, the are forbidden to share the same water, use the same street, etc. as higher castes.

Although many bigger cities across India have moved away from such a heavy influence on castes – the system is still very prevalent in villages across the country – determining who can live where, what job they can have, who they can speak to, and even what human rights they may have.

It’s a system so deeply embedded in the culture of the country, it’s guidelines and effects will live on for many years to come.

You might also like:

Christianity and the Dalits in India

The Dalits – There is Hope for India’s Caste Away

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