- The Indian term jati (birth) is usually translated as “caste,” which is a Portuguese word. It refers to the community into which one is born. In VEDIC tradition the concept of VARNA stratified society into four groups: BRAHMIN (priests), KSHATRIYA (warriors), VAISHYA (common people, including merchants), and SHUDRA (servant classes). The simple stratification of the Vedic tradition became the template for a much wider formal social strati-fication within Indian society.In addition to the four classes of the earlier scheme, a fifth class of people known as untouch-ables (now referred to as Dalits) emerged, possibly when certain non-Aryan tribes began to be inte-grated into the larger ARYAN cultural framework. “UNTOUCHABILITY” involved cultural concepts of POLLUTION; “purer” classes and castes avoided eat-ing food with certain other classes or taking food that had been touched by certain other classes. At its most extreme, this required that the lowest castes not touch or have physical contact with upper castes at all. The lowest strata often per-formed work that put them in contact with dead animals, leather, and excrement, all of which were considered polluting.The loose array of four classes (somewhat confused in the south of India, where the British incorrectly classified many agriculturists as Shu-dras) sprouted additional castes that amounted to guilds that protected certain occupations from encroachment by other groups. An intricate array of occupationally defined castes and sub-castes emerged. Marriage between castes is very restricted; even low-status castes jealously guard against intermarriage with groups that are lower in the hierarchy.Brahmins are considered the purest in the hierarchy, by virtue of their cultivation of the ancient tradition of the Vedas and their strict veg-etarianism. They may give food to any group, but they will only accept food from or eat food with other Brahmins. Certain Brahmins who are con-sidered purer than others will not associate with or marry those other Brahmins.Caste ranking has never been and is not now eternally fixed; however, it usually takes more than a generation for a given caste to move up or down the hierarchy. The primary means of advancement is to restrict meat-eating. Vegetari-anism is a highly valued sign of purity, and avoid-ing all meat has aided more than one caste in gaining higher status, if the practice is sustained and universal. Second in importance is avoidance of marriage and association with groups that are low on the caste scale. Third, members must find different forms of employment that do not involve polluting substances. Slipping in any of these areas might cause a caste to lose status.The Indian Constitution, which was written by the untouchable B. R. Ambedkar, outlaws caste. The national and state governments have instituted strict affirmative action in the makeup of parliaments (untouchables and disadvantaged tribals are assured a percentage of seats) and in government hiring. Many great strides have been made in modern India to abolish the evil of caste, but it is an ancient and deeply rooted system that may take generations to abolish, just as it took two centuries to dismantle discriminatory racial laws in the United States.Further reading: Christopher J. Fuller, ed., Caste Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Richard Lannoy, The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); McKim Marriot, India through Hindu Cat-egories (New Delhi: Sage, 1990); Brian K. Smith, Clas-sifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.