Caste in Hinduism is simply the traditional social grouping in India into which persons are born. Each group ranks higher or lower than other groups in terms of its RITUAL purity. Thus, a caste is distinguished by limiting participation in rituals, including marriage and eating together, to members of the caste, as well as by speciﬁ c occupations. The term “caste” usually refers to two distinct but related ways of organizing society; varnas, an ideal organization of human society into broad ritual classes, and jatis, speciﬁ c, localized groups within the varnas.
In Sanskrit the word varna means “color.” Applied to social groups it does not refer to skin color, and although it may be translated as “class,” it does not refer to economic status, either. Varna refers instead to ritual status. It is quite possible to belong to the highest varna and be extremely poor. The varnas were systematized roughly 2,000 years ago in books of religious codes known as the Smritis or the Dharmasastras. Before then, many scholars maintain that distinctions of varna existed but were not so rigidly drawn or applied.
The four traditional varnas are, in order of descending ritual purity, BRAHMIN, kshatriya, vaisya, and sudra. According to the Dharmasastras, a brahmin should be a priest, a kshatriya a ruler or warrior, a vaisya a merchant or businessperson, while a sudra should meekly serve the other varnas. In addition, the varna system deﬁ nes two groups of persons who are so impure that they fall outside the system altogether. The ﬁ rst group comprises the so-called untouchables, ofﬁ cially known today as Dalits. These were often people whose menial jobs were thought to be extremely polluting, for example, hunters and those who cleaned latrines. Pollution often comes from contact with body parts or with dead people or animals. The second group comprises foreigners. In traditional India “foreigners” were most often Muslims.
The focus of the varna system is on the purity of males, since they are the ones who perform household rituals. As a result, men may marry women from a higher varna, but a man who marries a woman from a lower varna loses caste. At the same time, men who cannot ﬁ nd work in an occupation appropriate to their varnas may do the jobs of lower varnas, but not higher ones. Thus, sudras cannot become Vedic priests, for that would pollute the ritual. Finally, the three upper varnas—brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaisyas—are called “twice-born,” because the males born in these varnas undergo a “second birth,” initiation into the study of the most sacred Hindu scriptures, the VEDA.
The varnas represent the way certain thinkers thought society ought to be classiﬁ ed. In actual practice, Hindus have belonged to a more restricted jati, Sanskrit for “birth group.” Jatis are relatively local groups that were ranked on the varna spectrum. There are literally thousands of jatis in Indian society.
The occupation that members of a jati perform is speciﬁ ed quite narrowly: Members of one jati may be barbers or shoemakers, those of another may be grocers. Traditional marriages also take place between members of jatis rather than between members of the broader varna classiﬁcation.
In general it is not possible to change one’s varna ranking because it is not possible to change one’s jati. But even in traditional India a limited amount of mobility was possible. It is not unknown for the varna rank of a jati to alter when over several generations its fortunes changed. At the same time, individuals of ability or ambition have not always been limited to jobs within their jati. For example, several dynasties of India were begun by persons of low status.
During the 20th century the caste system changed enormously. One of Mohandas GANDHI’s most cherished goals was the elimination of untouchability, and the present constitution of India outlaws it. The Indian government has also established vigorous educational and employment quotas for underprivileged groups.
Today caste is much less visible and pervasive in India than it was a century ago, but its inﬂ uence has not disappeared. Prejudices against low-caste people like the Dalits still remain strong among the higher castes, and marriages, an overwhelming majority of which are arranged, are still often performed within the boundaries of varna and jati.