An old Hindu myth describes how the castes came to be. (1)
Humanity sprang out of one body, it says. From the mouth came the Brahmin. They were meant to be the thinkers of society, the priests and the scholars. From the arms came the Kshatriya, the warriors and aristocrats, whose tasks would be to defend and rule society. The thighs created the Vaishya, the merchants, who kept the wheels running. Finally, from the feet sprung the Shudra, the labouring castes, who served and maintained the entire society. Together, with each party looking after their own business, the castes made up one body, one civilization. (2)
The myth, when read as an explanation to the modern caste system, fails to mention one last group of people. Where did those come from who did the unclean work, such as the collection of garbage and the disposal of dead bodies, the equally important untouchables? It also gives the false impression that India's famous caste system is at all easy to get a grip on. Four easily defined castes and one unmentioned, what could be simpler? Think again.
Although the four categories described above are usually referred to as the main castes, they are not the community most Indians choose to identify themselves with. Instead, that group is usually their so-called sub-caste, which much more narrowly defines their occupation and traditions. The only exception to this are the previously untouchable, who have joined forces to combat many centuries of oppression and now refer to themselves as Dalits.
The four main castes of the above myth are referred to as varna, a Sanskrit word which means classification, characteristics, skill, quality, or colour (3). The sub-castes are called jati,
which means type, species, tribe, or lineage. Perhaps it was this word which was transformed by Portuguese colonizers into casta (with the meanings pure, chaste, type, or lineage), and thence into caste.
There are thousands of jati. They are defined by the language the members speak, where they live, what form their religion takes, and a thousand other customs. This grouping, then, may determine the names of its members, who they marry, what food they eat, how they dress, what kind of job they take, and some of their outlook on life. Then again, to many Indians, it hardly means a thing.
The beginnings of the caste system are lost in the mists of time, which isn't very strange, because Indian history stretches several millennia back.
In the oldest Hindu texts, the varna are described as different skills dominant in different people. Certain individuals are born scholars, others are better suited for manual labour. Some are good administrators, still others excel at trading. The varna came from within, it was not set in stone from birth, but was rather a description of someone's function in society. Jati were descriptors which functioned a little like Medieval European guilds - a person belonged to a jati according to the work he did. Although it was common for a child to take the same job as its parents, it was not mandatory.
Then, somehow, what we call the caste system came into being. Ironically, it most likely grew into a rigid system as a means of making Indian society flexible
to newcomers. Segregation
into various jati meant people of different traditions could live together without actually mixing
, reducing friction between them. It allowed for a more heterogenous society, where different languages and customs lived side by side. However, while traditions were maintained, flexibility was lost, and the walls between different jati grew taller.
A member of a jati had to abide by certain rules, such as keeping a specific diet (4) and perform certain religious rituals. He could be thrown out of his jati if he broke any of its taboos or left the shores of India. Marriage outside one's jati became difficult or impossible. According to the rules of some jati, a member who married an outsider could be expelled. Others allowed marriages to some other jati, but not all. Of course, as in Western society, women were quite upwardly mobile if they happened to be rich or beautiful.
Since newcomers were never assimilated, the jati remained in place, and grew in number rather than diminishing. New specializations, created by new technologies and inventions, would create a new jati for those who performed the new craft. Religious splits, such as a profound disagreement in philosophy or a charismatic new religious leader, would also create new jati.
The caste system had grown part of Indian religion and society. Philosophers found reasons for why it should be so, creating the popular theory that karma leads to reincarnation into a specific caste (or a lower life-form) according to our previous deeds. Most Indians, whichever jati they were a part of, would think "We deserved it" about themselves, and worse, "They deserved it", both about those who were above them in the caste system and those below. In this way, members of high-status jati justified the various abuse they heaped on members of lower-status jati, and those who were abused, accepted it as a religious necessity, perhaps a penance for a sin committed in an earlier life.
This system also involved complex rules about ritual cleanliness and pollution. Upper-castes would, for instance, not accept cooked food from lower castes, share a well with them (5), or let them into their houses or temples, from fear they would be polluted by low-jatiness. In modern India, these notions are still being upheld by a small number of people, but are seen as backwards by most.
When the English took control over India, they recognized the system of segregation into jati as reminiscent of their own strict class system. They generally took a positive view on the caste system as a way to keep a society as huge and crazy as India stable and governable. The British encouraged caste divisions to remain by exclusively hiring the traditional administrator jati for their administration. When they made having a surname mandatory, many Indians took the name of their jati as a surname, thereby increasing their caste identity.
Mahatma Gandhi saw the jati as a dangerous division in a society he wished to see united, and worked all his life to abolish them. He especially despised the ostracism faced by the untouchables, and designed a new term for them, Harijan, meaning children of God. When India became independent, the constitution abolished the caste system.
A Hard Habit to Break
Several Indian saints and religous reformers have tried to change the caste system throughout its history. (6) Unfortunately, their words went unheeded or were soon forgotten. In fact, the followers of these people would often form a new jati of their own, which might again divide into still more jati.
Creation of and conversion to other religions did not do away with the jati, either. There are caste divisions among Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, even Buddhists, although the Buddha specifically preached against caste distinctions.
In order to help those most repressed by the caste system, India implemented a system similar to Affirmative Action, where a number of university places and government jobs would be reserved for the so-called "backwards castes" (7). These rules have helped many, but they have also created sharper distinction between castes, and has in many ways hampered with the abolition of the caste system.
In the end, modern life may be the most efficient tool against casteism. In a city, you can't avoid the shadow of anyone with a lower jati than you, traditionally a way of caste contamination. You would starve if you went around looking for a food vendor of your own caste, and so food rules become relaxed. The last remnant of the caste system lies in marriage. Matrimonial ads will still often ask for a specific jati, but others will proclaim "caste no bar". Most love marriages are performed across jati lines, but some youngsters still give up a sweetheart because their parents won't accept someone from the wrong jati.
From the Purushasukta, in the 10th book of the Rg Veda:
When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.
From the Bhagavad Gita:
As a part of God's creation (work), the four vocations are subgrouped according to people's guna (skills) and karma (assignments). Know that all work is for Him, even though He is beyond work, in Eternity. (Ch. 4, Verse 13)
The duties involving Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are grouped according to people's abilities and skills. (Ch. 18, Verse 41)
A lot of people like to focus on the fact that varna means colour; in fact, many will give you that as the only meaning. This is confusing issues a bit. Although fair skin has indeed been a sign of beauty in India for a long time (because invading rulers from the north were light-skinned, it became a status symbol), it is not associated with caste. There are jati of low status where all the members are lightly coloured, and a number of dusky Brahmins. In fact, the Indian insistence on a clearly defined caste system may have prevented the unspoken ones that exist in Latin America, where your social status rises with the whiteness of your skin.
Typically, the higher up the caste hierarchy, the more vegetarian your food. Lower jatis will eat everything, normally with the exception of beef, whereas the highest ones will be strictly vegetarian, some even going so far as to exclude root vegetables, because harvesting them will kill the plant. Some jatis have changed - "Brahminized" - their eating habits in order to gain a higher status.
The well problem is still current in certain rural communities which are still heavily ruled by tradition: A group of Brahmins were recently told by the courts to give lower-castes access to a well which they had earlier kept to themselves, so that the lower-castes wouldn't have to go so far to fetch water. The Brahmins let them, but stopped using that well themselves - instead they all went to fetch water at a well on a Brahmin's private land, where the others couldn't force their entry.
Some examples of saints renouncing caste division:
11th-century holy man Ramanuja was reknowned for treating everyone with kindness and devotion. His religious teacher was of a lower caste, and Ramanuja entered an untouchable's hut because they were of the same faith.
The 15th-century Hindu, Sikh and Muslim saint Kabir says in his poetry:
It is needless to ask of a saint the caste to which he belongs ;
For the priest, the warrior, the tradesman, and all the thirty-six castes, alike are seeking for God.
Narayana Guru, a 19th-century wandering teacher, proclaimed that humanity has One Caste, One Religion, and One God.
Lists created by the British administration divided the lower castes into Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and (Other) Backward Classes. These lists have been used when deciding which people should benefit from positive discrimination. The Scheduled Castes, which consist of previously untouchables (they currently call themselves Dalit, the repressed), make up 15% of the population, and the same percentage of university seats and government jobs are reserved for them.
Scheduled Tribes, also called Adivasi or aboriginals, are communities that lived apart from the main Indian society. They make up about 7.5% of the total population, and receive a similar percentage of places. The other Backward Classes, made up of low-status Shudra jatis and low-jati converts to other religons, receive 27% reservations, even though their percentage of India's population is much higher. Because of this, many jati are currently fighting to be defined as Scheduled Castes.
The system of Reservation obviously makes life difficult for anyone not benefitted by it, and many of these resent it. The system was originally planned to last a limited time, until the castes were done away with, but that particular goal will not be reached for a good while yet.