Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

11.7: Indian Caste System

  • Page ID
  • The caste system in India is a system of social stratification[1] which has pre-modern origins, was transformed by the British Raj,[2][3][4][5] and is today the basis of reservation in India. It consists of two different concepts, varna and jāti, which may be regarded as different levels of analysis of this system.[6]

    Varna may be translated as “class,” and refers to the four social classes which existed in the Vedic society, namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.[6] Certain groups, now known as Dalits, were historically excluded from the varna system altogether, and are still ostracized as untouchables.[7][8]

    Jāti may be translated as caste, and refers to birth. The names of jātis are usually derived from occupations, and considered to be hereditary and endogamous, but this may not always have been the case. The jātisdeveloped in post-Vedic times, possibly from crystallisation of guilds during its feudal era.[9] The jātis are often thought of as belonging to one of the four varnas.[10]

    The varnas and jatis have pre-modern origins, and social stratification may already have existed in pre-Vedic times. Between ca. 2,200 BCE and 100 CE admixture between northern and southern populations in India took place, after which a shift to endogamy took place. This shift may be explained by the “imposition of some social values and norms” which were “enforced through the powerful state machinery of a developing political economy”.[11]

    The caste system as it exists today is thought to be the result of developments during the collapse of the Mughal era and the British colonial regime in India.[2][12] The collapse of the Mughal era saw the rise of powerful men who associated themselves with kings, priests and ascetics, affirming the regal and martial form of the caste ideal, and it also reshaped many apparently casteless social groups into differentiated caste communities.[13] The British Raj furthered this development, making rigid caste organisation a central mechanism of administration.[2][12][4][14][5][15]Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during the 1920s led to a change in this policy.[16] From then on, the colonial administration began a policy of positive discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes.

    Caste-based differences have also been practised in other regions and religions in the Indian subcontinent like Nepalese Buddhism,[17]Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.[18][19][20] It has been challenged by many reformist Hindu movements,[21] Islam, Sikhism, Christianity [18]and also by present-day Indian Buddhism.[22]

    New developments took place after India achieved independence, when the policy of caste-based reservation of jobs was formalised with lists of Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi). Since 1950, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. These caste classifications for college admission quotas, job reservations and other affirmative action initiatives, according to the Supreme Court of India, are based on heredity and are not changeable.[23][a] Discrimination against lower castes is illegal in India under Article 15 of its constitution, and India tracks violence against Dalits nationwide.[24]

    Varna (वर्ण) is a Sanskrit word which means color or class.[25][26] Ancient Hindu literature classified all humankind, and all created beings, in principle into four varnas:[25][27]

    • the Brahmins: priests, teachers and preachers.
    • the Kshatriyas: kings, governors, warriors and soldiers.
    • the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans[28] and merchants.[29]
    • the Shudras: laborers and service providers.


    1. *Berreman, Gerald D. (1972), “Race, Caste, and Other Invidious Distinctions in Social Stratification” (PDF), Race(University of California, Berkeley) 13: 389,doi:10.1177/030639687201300401
    2. a b c d e de Zwart (2000)
    3. a b Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics (2001), pp. 25-27, 392
    4. a b St. John, Making of the Raj (2012), p. 103
    5. a b c Sathaye (2015), p. 214
    6. a b Smith, Varna and Jati (2005), pp. 9522-9524
    7. Sadangi (2008)
    8. Jaffrelot, Impact of Affirmative Action (2006)
    9. a b c Dipankar Gupta, Interrogating Caste (2000), p. 212
    10. Robb, Race in South Asia (1997), pp. 91-99, 349-353
    11. a b Basu 2016, p. 1598.
    12. a b Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics (2001), p. 392
    13. a b Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics (2001), pp. 26-27what happened in the initial phase of this two-stage sequence was the rise of the royal man of prowess. In this period, both kings and the priests and ascetics with whom men of power were able to associate their rule became a growing focus for the affirmation of a martial and regal form of caste ideal. (…) The other key feature of this period was the reshaping of many apparently casteless forms of devotional faith in a direction which further affirmed these differentiations of rank and community.
    14. a b c Dirks, Castes of Mind (2001)
    15. a b Dirks, Scandal of Empire (2006), p. 27
    16. a b c Burguière & Grew (2001), pp. 215-229
    17. LeVine, Sarah (2009). Rebuilding Buddhism: The Theravada Movement in Twentieth-Century Nepal. Harvard University Press. p. 21. ISBN 9780674025547.
    18. a b Cohen, Stephen P. (2001). India: Emerging Power. Brookings Institution Press. p. 21. ISBN 9780815798392.
    19. a b c d e Chaudhary (2013), p. 149
    20. a b c Christian Castes Encyclopædia Britannica.
    21. Dirks, Castes of Mind (2001), p. 3.
    22. Omvedt, Gail (2014). Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste. SAGE Classics. p. 252.ISBN 9788132110286.
    23. a b Ex-India President Narayanan dies BBC News (2005)
    24. CRIME AGAINST PERSONS BELONGING TO SCs / STsGovernment of India (2011), page 108
    25. a b Doniger, Wendy (1999). Merriam-Webster’s encyclopedia of world religions. Springfield, MA, USA: Merriam-Webster. p. 186.ISBN 978-0-87779-044-0.
    26. Stanton, Andrea (2012). An Encyclopedia of Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. USA: SAGE Publications. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-1-4129-8176-7.
    27. Ingold, Tim (1994). Companion encyclopedia of anthropology. London New York: Routledge. p. 1026. ISBN 978-0-415-28604-6.
    28. Hazen, Walter (2003). Inside Hinduism. Milliken Publishing. p. 4.
    29. a b Kumar, Arun (2002). Encyclopaedia of Teaching of Agriculture. Anmol Publications. p. 411. ISBN 978-81-261-1316-3.