Elacqua, Joseph, et. al. "Hindu Caste System." Faithology.com. Faithology, 4 March 2013. Web. 24 October 2014.

Elacqua, J., et. al. (2013, Mar 4). Hindu Caste System. Faithology. Retrieved from http://faithology.com/beliefs/caste-system

Elacqua, Joseph, et. al"Hindu Caste System" Faithology, LLC. Last modified March 4, 2013. http://faithology.com/beliefs/caste-system

Elacqua, Joseph, et. alHindu Caste System. Faithology, LLC, 2012. http://faithology.com/beliefs/caste-system (Accessed Oct 24, 2014).

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  • Last Updated: March 4, 2013
  • Originally Published: July 18, 2012
  • Hindu Caste System

Introduction

Frequently known as the social caste system in English, the Hindu concept of varna depicts a strict separation of society based on assigning individuals to social classes. The social caste system is thought to have first originated with the Aryan appearance in India during the 1st millennium BCE and is often perceived as intrinsic and distinctive to the Indian subcontinent. The caste system is still a core aspect of the Hindu lifestyle in modern times.

Hindu Caste System

Two dalit children collecting animal manure to use as fuel in Rajasthan, India

While many other ancient cultures divided their societies into social classes, the caste system of India is of particular interest because it continues to be a powerful presence in every Hindu's life. There is extremely limited mobility between castes; members of a caste are regulated to eat with, interact with, and marry only members of their own caste. The designation of caste overshadows any and all religious distinctions. Consequently, regardless of one's religion, the obligations of caste still act as a powerful influence in Hindu life. According to Hindu doctrine, the only way to change castes is to be reborn into a new caste after death as a result of good or bad karma.

Four main social groups serve as a part of the Hindu caste system, though a fifth is sometimes included in this system:

  • Brahmans,3 the priests, who are charged with ritual functions and the preservation of sacred texts within oral traditions
  • shatriyas, the warriors and rulers, who are known for physical strength and power
  • Vaishyas, the agriculturalist-stockbreeders, who focus on the attainment of material wealth. Merchants, artists, and other professions are included here.
  • Shudras, the servants, are charged with supporting the other three classes
    • Although servants are mentioned in earlier verses, a reference to the caste of the shudras first appears in a relatively late Rigvedic passage. This famous passage describes the creation of the four castes from the fallen body of Purusha, the Hindu cosmic man.
  • Although technically outside the caste system, another group called dalits (once referred to as "untouchables") are regarded as lower than the entire caste system.

The first three castes are often referred to by the designation "twice born." This designation refers to a tradition in which males from those castes are ritually born a second time in order to purify themselves as a precedent to Vedic studies.

In addition to castes, there are a number of communities, clans, tribes, and families referred to collectively as jati. These lineage groups, often distinguished by their surnames, are characterized by jobs, tasks, or other traits that are passed on from generation to generation.11This concept is similar to English-language surnames based on jobs such as "Smith," "Fletcher," and "Miller." For example, the Kayasthas are scribes by birth. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of jatis exist in India.