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Origin of the Indian Caste System

Updated on June 25, 2015

Inequality based caste system is an unique feature of Indian society. The assumption of the various scholars, normally, is that the caste system is ancient and always was rigid, immobile and unjust as it is now. The very assumption has to be corrected because it is not true, it cannot be true. Also there is no relationship between Varna system of Vedic religion and caste system of Hindu religion, though both begun to plague each other in later course of the time. The assumption that the invading Aryans defeated aboriginals of the India and enforced lowly Varna status and caste system upon them also is not true because Aryan invasion theory that was propagated by western scholars and followed by Indian thinkers is proven to be preposterous on account of the various archeological and genetic evidences.

The number of castes in India is more than four thousand today. Many of the castes did not existed couple of centuries ago. If we go back in the human history we find the number of castes were far less in India. They go on reducing as we go back in the history. The castes could not be that much as they are today because simply there weren’t that many professions then. The main feature of the caste is every caste has ancestral profession. To form a caste the first prerequisite is to have a profession that could be continued traditionally for livelihood. And if we go back to the prehistory of the humankind, we will find there were no professions except foraging and some other work to be conducted jointly for the tribe. Division of labor was not at all required for there was no need.

When early human society began to form with the couple of inventions at hand to make life safe and easier, its division of labor was simple. Humane race has traversed long way from food-gatherer-hunter man to pastoral man. His life became semi-nomadic as his territorial conscienceless grew and he started owing the regions. Here we can find the division of the labor to some partial extent. Early wool-weavers, tanners, stone-masons would have formed the professions for their skills and the needs of their tribes. But this is not called as permanent division of the labor/skills but mostly it must have been a joint task conducted under leadership of the most skilled men/women.

The invention of agriculture made the nomadic man to settle changing revolutionarily his attitude towards the life. The transgression from nomadic man to settled man forced him to change his life style and social philosophy. Early professions were limited. There was no need to have well organized social order.

However, the agrarian life needed new innovations. Right from agricultural implements to permanent settlements were necessary to accommodate the new way of livelihood. With new inventions new professions emerged to serve the society. Exchange of the innovations and trade of the surplus products are seen from the era of 7000+ BC. From excavations we find rise in the specialty products from almost every region and traded across the known civilizations of those times. We can surmise from this that the specialty professions emerged gradually in the sedentary societies those helped them to prosper and lead better life.

The service class too emerged to fulfill the ever growing needs of the society. The people those joined new professions naturally were from the same human stock. It was not the rigid system. People were free to choose the profession of their like and choice. The excavations at Indus sites show the division of labor but it doesn’t show discrimination based on the profession. However, still the number of professions was not as many as they were till recently.

The social orders of the civilizations across the globe are almost similar. Still, we do not find birth-based caste systems anywhere.

The blame normally goes to Purushsukta of Rig Veda that the Varna system is created from the sacrificed body of the Lord himself. It suggests that the Brahmin was first to born from the head of the Lord and the Shudras were last born from his legs. This is a myth that has haunted Indian social system at the least from thousand years as it gave sanctity to the notion of birth based inequality. However whatever Purushsukta or later Smritis command, the social facts surprisingly are contrary to that.

Shepherds, cowherds, stone masons, farmers, leather workers, masons etc. were the earliest professions. The need of the early society was to survive from the odds while trying to make the life comfortable. The early states, whether democratic or monarchist, were made of small tribes consisting of few thousand citizens. The religion then was commanded by the King or head of the state of those times. Social order was changing from matriarchal to patriarchal society with invention of agriculture. In many societies the King was the Chief priest. The need of priestly class was not felt then because the state itself constituted of moderate population. It does mean that the Purushsukta’s declaration about Brahmin being born first is incorrect.

Brahmin or priestly class must have emerged with the expansion of the states and its requirement to appoint some people from the society to look after the ritualistic tasks of the religion those had special qualities or inclination. The founders or philosophers of the religion do not necessarily hail from the existing priestly class; rather they follow to the new ideas as they come to them. Buddha or Mahavira were not from the priestly class. Priestly class, across the globe, emerged quite later to fulfill the religious and cultic needs of the people. Hence the declaration of the Purushasukta (10.19 RV) is thus goes against the social journey of the human being.

The ancient religion that people of those times followed was shamanic in kind and pagan in nature. The rituals were less complicated. The Vedic sacrificial rituals too were too simple in its early times. They shares similar ritualistic and linguistics traits the Zoroastrians share for their close geographical proximities. None scholar dates both the religions prior to 1500 BC, when the Indus and other contemporary civilizations had declined owing to the global climatic changes. The priestly class has more antique origin than the Vedic religion. No civilization suggests that the priestly class was a hereditary profession. Even the composers of the Rig Veda did not belong to any priestly class. Rather whole Rig Veda, except Purushasukta, do not mention anywhere that the social classification ever did exist. Also except Purushsukta we do not find the term Shudra appearing anywhere in the Rig Veda. It also is agreed by all the scholars that the Purushasukta is later interpolation in the extant body of the Rig Veda. We will discuss on this issue in more detail later. However, it is clear that the Brahmin or priest was not the class that appeared in any human society first and others later. Rather the chronology is quite opposite.

The facts are, as we have seen, the settled society tends to division of labor. The skills are learnt and used in the productions. New inventions occur or they are borrowed from others and the manufacturing begins when trained people jump in it sensing the opportunities. There cannot be bondage to stick to the birth based profession. Had it been the case from where new people could have been brought to carry on new professions?

With further specializations in the same business people do divert into it. We can see in India every caste and sub-caste has ancestral profession, either in production or in services. Caste is nothing but the profession and from ample of examples we find in India that the people could change their professions and no profession was treated lowly except of those who dealt with the dead or filth.

Most importantly the professions could be changed. One could enter in reputed or disrepute professions depending upon his skills or choice. The great poet of India, Kalidas, belonged to the shepherd community, now considered to be a menial caste. From the play Mricchakatik” we find the hero of the play, even being Brahmin by birth, is in the profession of trader which was preserved by Smritis for Vaishya Varna. Shudraka, a great playwright belonged to Shudra varna and yet he was king and writer. Yadavas ruled Maharashtra for over 350 years those belonged to Gavali caste (cowherds). There are many examples that show clearly that the though the laws of social order were already codified by the Vedic people they were not actually practiced by either Vedic or non-Vedic societies.

Rather we have ample proofs that even the leather workers (Charmakar) had their nation-wide trading guilds and earned significant reputation in royal courts till 8th century AD. We also find that certain products were mass manufactured in the villages dedicated to the certain specialized productions and the goods used to be distributed in the various market places, domestic as well foreign. The centralized production system prevailed till end of the tenth century AD. The independent village system is not as ancient as it is thought to be. It was invented to survive from the adverse times but continued till recently as there never a chance occurred to get rid of it.

We must not forget that the caste system never ever was rigid, inflexible as is commonly thought. The Aryan theory has classified the lower castes as the defeated and enslaved aboriginals. There is no slightest evidence to prove this hypothesis. Then how come that the caste system persists even today with its evil sense of inequality, dividing the people those belonged to the same stock of the people?

Caste system originally was profession based and was not unjust or enforced by the priestly class for their benefit. Ruling classes too could not force any profession on their subjects. Slaves only could be exception, forcibly used for the labor work. How and when caste system became birth based and senses of inequality plagued the Indian society is a crucial question we have to deal with. Whether the religious commands were forced casteism on the people and they accepted it without any protests or was it the outcome of the peculiar circumstances? This has to be discussed at great length to know the roots of castes and its evil that has haunted Indian people from centuries.

However we have to leave behind the misconceptions those have been nourished by us for reasons or for the theories of the scholars of past to understand why our society is so casteist even today and why our attempts to eliminate caste system are utterly failing.

First we should know that the birth based caste system is not as ancient as it is thought to be. Emergence of birth based caste system has its roots in entirely different circumstances those we are going to discuss in the next chapters.

(To be contd.)


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    • sanjay-sonawani profile image
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      Sanjay Sonawani 2 years ago from Pune, India.

      Thanks suhani for detailed response!

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

      Be a nice human being is important not to have a good or high religion and caste.We need to work towards uniting the nation instead of splitting it. Work towards a society in which there will be no lower castes and no upper castes. We need to respect the way people live instead of looking at where they were born.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      All human-beings are equal in the eyes of God.The human-beings have only created the caste system.There are good and bad people in both high caste as well as low caste.Ultimately,what matters to God is, whether one is a good person or striving to become one, or not..

      One who thinks himself to be of a high caste is actually low. While one who thinks himself/herself to be of low caste is said to be high caste.As per the scriptures, people are known by their nature and the quality of work they perform..

      You cannot put people in high and low rank the basis of religious belief and caste. But those people do this who has a problem in their mind..

      God doesn’t need Brahmin priest, god isn’t so narrow minded. god accept everyone. actually Brahmin priest needs god to make money..

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      All Hindu communities in the country follow the varnashram system of Aryans and have divided the society in four castes – Kshatryas, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Shudras. Sindhis do not have such division in their society. They never followed a rigid caste system. That is why Sindhis are considered to be only businessmen. All members of the society inter-mingle with one another without any consideration of four castes of Aryans. There are no untouchables in Sindhis…..These religion and caste set up by mad and stupid people to control others not by god…who are still mentally sick they are following this castesim blindly..i must say be like all sindhi..leave these castesim and make only one hindu religion like sindhi religion dont create any caste,community and class…bcs its only give you tension and create problems for your own self..

      who divided society in caste line……only stupid and mentally sick hindu..first change your thinking that all people as a human being so the system ll be change itself understood..be like sindhi religion, make one religion and killed the bloody varan system n caste system…you ll b more happiest person in this world if you all mad hindu change ur narrow minded thinking about these caste n class…Because “I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being–neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      The Almighty Brahmin! by Khushwant Singh

      Whatever be the sphere of curiosity – literary, scientific, bureaucratic, or whatever, the Brahmin remains the top dog. Before I give details, we should bear in mind that Brahmins form no more than 3.5% of the population of our country. My statistics come from a pen friend, Brother Stanny, of St. Anne’s Church of Dhule in Maharashtra.They hold as much as 70% of government jobs. In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upward, out of 500 there are 310 Brahmins, i.e. 63%. Of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are Brahmins; of the 27 Governors and Lt. Governors 13 are Brahmins; of the 16 Supreme Court Judges, 9 are Brahmins; of the 330 judges of High Courts, 166 are Brahmins; of 140 ambassadors, 58 are Brahmins; of the total 3,300 IAS officers, 76 [per cent?] are Brahmins. Of the 508 Lok Sabha members, 190 were Brahmins; of 244 in the Rajya Sabha, 89 are Brahmins.This 3.5% of Brahmin community of India holds between 36% to 63% of all the plum jobs available in the country.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Whole world think that India has many castes which are main reason of discrimination of people but its very very big misconception of caste system spread around the world to defame culture of India because it was the biggest systematically designed system for people from thousands of years. Now let me tell you what is meaning of varna and caste system in India and how its was started. In Ancient India there were two great saints, one was saint Bhrigu and other was saint Bhardwaj. They met to discuss how to structure a stable society for human being to live proper life, First they recognized the four sources which are:

      1. Knowledge 2. Weapons 3. Wealth 4. Land

      They decided to make system where nobody has more than one of that. These should not be in one hand, not even two should be in one hand. So those who has knowledge will not have wealth, will not have weapons and will not have lands. Those who will have weapons will rule the country but they will not make policy. They need to go to people having knowledge to seek their permission and advice. Those who are having wealth, their social status will be decided by the how much philanthropy they do not by their wealth. Those who has lands have to produce for the society. In fact none of these four category or “varna” was based on by birth.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      We always talk about religion and castesim but in reality there is no any caste and religion. We all are same our blood are same.then why we believe in discrimination. God never created any caste they made simple human being.. Mentally sick people take the path of fundamentalism and spread casteism and communism. They suffer from inferiority complex and divide the society into “we” and “they”. They (belonging either to higher or lower ranked caste) have a fear in their heart that if they do not get a higher place for themselves in society, “other” people are going to exploit them and going to put them down.They don’t have believe on themselves and their own work. They have doubt own their capability. People with negative mindset suffer from inferiority complex and divide society into compartments like higher castes or lower castes.and can’t tolerate “others” progress or well-being. They cannot work hard and cannot tolerate anybody else’s achievements. These are the people with negative mindset who believe in ranking some belonging to higher castes and/or some to lower castes. They are coward and they are unable to protect themselves…

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      insaan apne guno se upar uthta hai unche staan pr baith jane se nhi..caste n community created by mad people jin logo ko khud ko dusro se shreshth batane ke liye apne aapko ek high community mein rakh liya or dusro ko niche dikhane ke liye lower community mein rakh diya gaya bina unki marzi jane...i want to tell to all mad hindu people community ye decide nhi kregi ki tum kitne high or low ho...tumhare karam tumhe upar or niche girane wale hai...arre god ne insaan banaye hai caste nhi...n listen aisa hota toh christan or muslim mein bhi aise hi char community hoti bt tum log unko as all christan n as all muslim hi bolte ho...tum katar hindu logo ne khudh hi apne bando ko khudh se alag kr diya...char community hai hindu mein let me explain it to very well ok...hindu ko as a body lo us body ke char hisse tum stupid logo ne char hiso mein describe kiya ..1st brahmin jisko sir ka staan diya or kshatriye ko bhuja or vaishya ko pait ka or tum sabki favorite community shudr jisko per ka staan diya....ab batao agr per kat doge toh kya apni manzil ki taraf tunde ho ke jayoge tum sb apahiz ho yaad rkhna..agr hmari body ka ek part bhi kat jaye toh hum apahiz kehlate hai toh tum stupid hindu khudh apahiz ban chuke ho..ek bade se bada brahmin or devta bhi jb apne maa baap ntmastak hone ke liye sir jhukata hai toh woh uske charno ko choone ke liye toh akal ke andho sabse uncha staan toh shudr log prapt kr chuke hai...tum nhi tum gire huye ghatiya egoist bande ho jisko god bhi narak mein dalega....i m also brahmin bt i hate castsim okh....say no to community n no caste den reservation should be stop itself...abroad isliye develop kr raha hai bcs unka mind indian ghatiya logo ki tarah nhi hai especially katar hindu..1000 saal baadh bhi india mein koi development nhi hogi yeh aise hi high low ke liye hi mrte rahenge...

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Many a time, man has taken birth in high caste and low caste; but this does not make him great or lowHaving been born in high caste man thinks himself to be great and being born in low caste thinks himself to be low and pitiable; both of these states of mind are wrong because many times man has been born in high and low castes. Hence, one should not be proud of having been born in high caste and not feel low if born in low caste family.

      Greatness has nothing to do with high caste. Man becomes great because of his noble work, exemplary character and becomes loathsome because of his immorality and evil conduct. Thus, it is his conduct only that decides his greatness or lowliness. Who does not know that high family born Ravana, Kansa, Duryodhana and others are censurable; whereas Metarya muni, Harikeshi muni and others, though born in low family, are venerable.

      Then, what is the importance of high or low caste?

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Hindu (body) four community: brahmin (head) kshatriya (arm) vaishya (belly) shudra (feet) All these four community called as hindu. We all are parts of one body. Without each part our body is not complete. If we lost one part of our body then we become handicap. The human body is the entire structure of a human being. Human Body is considered so loving that God even wants to have it. Spiritual Yogis have found that after going through the 84 millions species this souls get the most dignified human body. So it is the last step to explore the God or to get the view of almighty father god. We know that the soul never dies it takes birth again and again just like as we take new clothes to wear the soul as it takes new body and it is an infinite process. But the body what we get in next birth depend on our karma that thas been cited in Gita by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. We all here to perform our duties. Our action makes our destiny and nothing else. The result is in the hand of supreme power. Karma is the seed of plant and if the seed is genuine it must be fruitful.

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      suhaani 3 years ago

      Some stupid people living in India that's why this country cant be develop anymore as the other countries are well developed. Bcoz indian people live in caste-ism and egoist by nature especially who belong to upper class which is created by themselves not created by God.God only created human being..He didnt put any human in high and low category..This cheap things only created by some mad people itself who live in India..and they be proud by called themselves hindu..I am also hindu but I feel bad when every person who proudly said they are hindu but their thinking is so narrow minded..now its depend on human what they want to become Devil or Angel..Nobody is lower and higher by caste or religion..they become high and low by their behavior..Reservation should be stop itself when you all leave this stupid casteism..Say no caste and no community..All are hindu who live in hindustaan understood..

    • profile image

      suhaani 3 years ago

      We always talk about religion and castesim but in reality there is no any caste and religion. We all are same our blood are same.then why we believe in discrimination. God never created any caste they made simple human being..caste and community only created by stupid people who are mentally sick and had fear in their heart bcoz if they will not choose higher place for themselves then other people going to defeat them and going to put them down..bocz they don’t have believe on themselves and their own work..they have doubt own their capability..they always think negative we cnt do hard work if other person give their best then they must be achieve something better than them..by creating high and low community and even not asked to any people wh are coward they put themselves to higher community…bcoz they are coward and they to protect themselves..