History of India’s Caste System – Summary & Essay

The Caste System is part and parcel of Hindu society. It has been coming through the ages.

The Origin of Caste and Caste system

The scholars trace the origin of caste by providing a general historical framework, which is supported by some evidence. The dominant view tracks down the origin of both caste and untouchability to the Aryans themselves and the way they related to the people of India with whom they came into contact. The Aryans, a highly self-conscious tribe sharing a common language and religion, began invading India from the northwest around 1500 B.C. For centuries they remained involved in the constant conflict with the indigenous people, they despised them as culturally inferior and racially unclean. In the post-Rig-Vedic literature, there are more frequent references to primitive forest-dwellers who were kept on the fringes of Aryan society in the conquered regions. Among these were the Chandals. Although the Chandals were severely stigmatized in the later Vedic age, it was only during the period between 600 B. C and A.D.200 that untouchability appears as such. In the Dharma Sutra and in Kautilya’s Arthasastra the Chandals are treated as untouchable. In Manusmiriti, this theory, as also the Varna theory and the classification of caste in a hierarchy based on occupation receives its classic statement. Manu holds that the four varnas were divinely ordained from the very beginning.

In the Sangam literature (300-600) there are references to broad divisions of society somewhat similar to the four varnas as well as to law and excluded groups such as Goldsmith, cobblers, and drummers. This description locates the origin of caste and untouchability but does not offer an explanation for them.

They are Aryan institutions going back to around 600 B.C, but why the Aryans developed such form of social organization and of segregation remains a matter of conjecture. Therefore, the quest for the origin of caste, untouchability and of specific Dalit castes ends in speculation, uncertainty, and frustration. It does not provide much that is of decisive significance for settling the political and ideological battle of the today

Manusmriti and the Varna System of Hindu Social Order:

Manusmriti is one of the greatest texts that uphold the varna system. Manu the author of Manusmriti express clearly the partiality and dogmatisms in his treatment of caste. He presents a detailed code of and caste duties and penalties in unequivocal terms.

He divided people into four varnas namely, Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Sudras. Manusmriti does not acknowledge the fifth varna. It explains the concept of mixed castes, which included these people who were born out of inter-caste marriages. The offspring born of them are considered the most degraded people in society. According to Manu, the lowest groups were the Chandals who were the offspring of inter-caste marriages.

The Chandals are a mixed race born of a Sudra father and a Brahmin mother. They live outside the villages. For Manu, the highest duty of a Sudra is to serve the Brahmins. The service of a Brahmin is declared to be an excellent occupation for a Sudra. Sudra is not entitled to perform scarifies or study of Vedas. Sudras, want to gain merit and knowledge but they are not given. They imitate the practice of various men without reciting the sacred text.

The varna system is a unique social framework of the Hindu social order. It signifies a division of labor, placement in the social hierarchy, and normative expectations. The caste system, it is said, is a perverse form of the varna system, which signifies consonance between capacity, ability, and adoption of specific work in the society. Manu’s description of the varna system reveals a more or less rigid hierarchy with greater privileges for the Brahmins.

Untouchability in India:

Untouchability means pollution by the touch of a certain person by reason of their birth is a particular caste. It is practiced in Indian society only. The problem of Dalits is more social than economic. The poverty of Dalits is a product of social oppression.

Ambedkar cites some of the insults and a great injustice was done to the untouchables. Under the rule of Peshwas in the Maratha country, the untouchable was not allowed to enter and use the public streets if a Hindu was coming along lest he should pollute the Hindu by his shadow. The untouchable was required to have a black thread either on his wrist or in his neck assign or mark to prevent the Hindus from getting them polluted by his touch through mistake. In Poona, the capital of Peshwa, the untouchable was asked to carry, strung from his waist, a broom to sweep away from behind the dust he trod on lest a Hindu walking on the same should be polluted.

Also Read: Dalit Movements in India

Caste in the Past, Present, and Future

Caste in the past has made the internal separation, but it has also made external unity. There seems no reason to suppose that, in the future, it will have any different effect. Every nation must have its social system; surely, it is advisable that it should maintain a system that is suited to its people. Herbert Risley has remarked: Caste is more than a mere mode of grouping the loose atoms of humanity. It is a congenital instinct. There may be times when National and caste interest will clash when somebody may cry I am a caste man first and Indian afterward. That has often happened in many nations and it is always a dangerous cry (Blunt 324). In many parts of rural India, things have not yet altered very much. Millions of Indians certainly do live in villages; mainly ones that are remote from the urban influence and having been little agricultural, infrastructural or educational development, in these villages there has been relatively little social change during the half-century since independence.

In many other settlements, however, considerable changes have occurred and caste, in particular, has become like an institution

Social Reforms of Caste System:

Hindu society is historically marked by a rigid form of social stratification based on varna or jati model of social organization in which the Brahminical religious principle, namely, purity and pollution, played a central role in defining social hierarchy and separation. This led to a verity to of social inequalities characterized by social oppression and economic exploitation.

However, caste as a social fact is now fast losing its significance in many areas of social life. The association of individual castes with specific occupations has to a great extent broken down. The system of production and structures of authority and power have detached themselves from the ideology of caste under which they were for centuries subsumed. In other words, the individual’s position in the system of production and structures of power is no longer tied to caste as in the past. A steadily rising awareness among the members of lower castes, especially the Dalits, and their aspiration for equality in every sphere of social life has lead to a continued questioning of the fundamental principles of the caste system and its practices.

The idiom of caste is invoked today by the oppressed for the purpose of political and social mobilization to challenge the traditional oppressive institutions and oppressors. But in spite of these changes in the public domain, the idea of caste continues to be an important factor in Indian private and domestic life

Political Reform of Caste System:

The exploitative structure is very strong. Dalits do not have a competent and efficient leader of their own in the area of politics. Even the Church does not allow the Dalit Christians to become a priest or a bishop. Mostly the Brahmins and other higher caste people are the leaders of politics and Government officials. Who does not wish for the development and well-being of Dalits? The participation of the Dalits in the decision-making process at the local government level is close to nil. Quite often their needs and aspirations are not even heard. Political awareness among people is very low.

During election time they are paid a certain amount of money by political leaders in order to get their votes. So their participation in the democratic process is limited. The election will be only voting and nothing else. Since they are ignorant and their force is feeble even the political parties do not take steps to come to their help

The Effects of Caste System on Society :

The effects of caste on Indian society are multifarious and vicious. Caste is the mother of most of the ills that exist in Indian society. Caste does not permit a true spirit but promotes a narrow caste spirit. We do not have a united society, but in many societies each caste being a separate society. Even in the same caste, there are many sub-castes, many mini-societies. The result is disastrous; endless division in society. Caste is antisocial in spirit. Caste has thwarted the emergence of what the sociologists call “consciousness of kind” (Ambedkar, 50). It is extremely painful to know that in Indian society, some groups of people are traditionally branded as criminals. They become the first targets of the police and are suspected and often tortured by the police for a crime committed by somebody else. The cause of all this is the caste system. Many killings, kidnappings, murders, rapes and all sorts of social unrest are caused by the caste system.

Also Read: 10 famous inter-caste marriages in India

Hindu religion cannot become a missionary religion because it cannot integrate the other social groups into its fold on the basis of equal footing. Civilizing the aborigines means accepting them as your own, living in their midst, cultivating a sense of family feeling. How is it possible for a Hindu to do this? His Very religion teaches him to do this, the more he does this, the better a Hindu he becomes. In this sense, Hinduism is just a conglomeration of castes, not a religion as such. Caste is, therefore, the real explanation of why the Hindu has left the savage to remain a savage  The stagnation that we see today in Indian society has its roots in the caste system. In the Hindu society, the caste rules are Vedic is the origin and they justify the status quo. Social change would mean crossing the barriers of these, and this, in turn, would mean radical rejection of the existing social norms. But this is exactly what the Hindu society is opposed to.

Abolition of Caste :

An ideal society would be based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. There is no doubt, that unless you change your social order you can achieve little by way of progress. You cannot mobilize the community either for defense or for offense. You cannot build anything on the foundation of caste. You cannot build up a nation. You cannot build up morality. Anything that you will build on the foundation of caste will crack and will never be a whole.

The only question that remains to be considered is how to bring about the reform of the Hindu social order? How to abolish caste? This is a question of supreme importance. There is a view that in the reform of caste, the first step to take is to abolish sub-caste. This view is based on the supposition that there is a greater similarity in the manners and status between caste. There is no doubt that from the standpoint of making the transit from one caste to another easy, the fusion of the Kayasthas of Northern India and the other non-Brahmins of Southern with the non-Brahmins of the Deccan and Dravid country is more practical than the fusion of the Brahmins of the South with the Brahmins of the North. But the fusion of sub-caste is not going to help the abolishing of the caste. In that case, the abolition of sub-castes will only help to strengthen the caste and make them more powerful and therefore more mischievous.

A Modern Manu(The Constitution):

A great day dawned in the history of the world on August 15, 1946, when India became a free nation. A great force was released in Asia in the form of Indian Independence. But its happiness was married in one respect. It was mutilated to create Pakistan. In the wake of this success, a development took place, which led Ambedkar to the top of the ladder of eminence. On August 29, the constituent assembly appointed a drafting committee with N. Madhava Rao, Sir Krishna Machari, T.T. Krishna, and two others as members and Ambedkar as its chairman. Ambedkar the untouchable who was kicked out from carts, segregated in schools in his boyhood who was insulted as a professor, ousted from hotels, saloons, and temples in his youth as despicable and decried as an executive councilor, became now the first law minister of a free nation and the chief architect of the Constitution to define the will, aim and vision of India. It was a great achievement and a wonder in the history of India. India chose; to amend her age-long sin of untouchability, by appointing as her new lawgiver someone from among a caste that had been dehumanized, demoralized and devitalized for ages. New India entrusted the work of framing her new laws to a man who had a few years earlier burnt the Manusmriti, the core moral of Hinduism.


Jat reservation agitation was a series of protests in February 2016 by Jat people of north India, especially those in the state of Haryana which paralyzed the state for 10 days. The protestors sought inclusion of their caste in other backward class(OBC) category which would make them eligible for affirmative action.

According to the National Commission for Backward Classes to be classified as OBC, a caste  has to satisfy the following criteria :

1.Social: The caste should be considered asocially backward by others.

2.Educational: The caste school non-enrollment should be at least 25% above the state’s average.

3.Economic: the assets of the average caste family should be at least 25% below the state’s average.

But Jats are economically well off but the educational background is too bad. Rajasthan was the first state to give the OBC status to Jats.


There are many laws and rules that have been put forward by the Indian    Constitution like,Article 15, which prohibits discrimination, also contains a clause allowing the union and state governments to make “any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” This language was added in 1951 within weeks of a Supreme Court decision outlawing quotas in school admissions. The speed of the amendment is indicative of the strong political support for reservations, Nehru’s personal views notwithstanding.   Similarly, Article 16, calling for “equality of opportunity in matters of public employment,” contains clauses permitting the “reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State” and another allowing “reservation in matters of promotion” for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

And also Article 17 which prohibits untouchability practice made the condition of Dalits and lower caste people better. But all these changes have been brought into practice only by-laws and rules but there has been no change in the mindset of the people. The real meaning of it will be achieved and improvement and appreciation of the caste system in India take place only after this, let’s hope to see a greater and transformed India.

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