The Caste System in India

The Caste system separates Hindus into 4 categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. This hierarchy goes back to at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. It is acknowledged in Manusmriti (one of the most important books on Hindu law) and is said to have originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.

At the top of the system were the Brahmins- mainly teachers who are theorised to have been created from Brahma’s head. Next, were the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers) who are believed to originate from his arms. Then, there were the Vaishyas who were traders, from Brahma’s thighs. At the bottom slot, were the Shudras who supposedly came from his feet and did all the ‘lowly’ tasks. These main castes are further split up into around 3,000 more castes and then into subcastes. The Dalits were outside of this hierarchy and are regarded as ‘untouchables.’

For decades, this system has influenced almost every part of Hindu life. In many rural communities, the upper and lower castes are segregated- you can only marry within your caste and cannot accept food and drink from other castes. The hierarchy has been criticised for being unfair, but these set social orders seem impossible to break free from.

Research indicates that before the British colonized India, social identities were more flexible and caste wasn’t as influential, but the British wanted there to be a simple system in place.

In 1950, the constitution prohibited discrimination based on caste and introduced quotas for the lowest castes in government jobs and schools. Since then, one may say the importance of caste has decreased. Some Dalits and people from lower castes have even leapt to high-up positions, but there is still a divide and many believe some politicians are adding to further separation. India cannot be free until the Dalits are free and caste is not a defining social feature.

Originally published at on September 24, 2020.

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