India’s ancient caste system was derived from the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, and divided humanity into four main castes and a much larger number of subdivisions within these groups. According to the Vedic Code of Manu of the 1st Century CE, every person was born into a particular caste and remained in it for the rest of their lives, and this was based on their karma and the good or evil actions they had committed in previous lives. A person who was born into a lower caste or as an Untouchable (outcaste) was being punished for their sins in past incarnations. Brahmans were the elite group, the ruling priestly and intellectual caste, followed by the Kshatriyas who were the aristocracy of soldiers and state officials. Vaishyas or peasants and small merchants were the majority group in an agrarian society, followed by the Shudras or artisans and landless laborers. Lowest of all on the social scale were the Untouchables, consigned to the direst and least desirable work and regarded as subhuman (Fisher, 2010, p. 76). They were not even permitted to look at or breathe on members of higher castes, and even their footprints were thought to poison the ground they walked on. Most of them were from the dark-skinned population of India, treated as slaves by the invading Aryans. Such caste systems were common in feudal-agricultural societies, although they generally were replaced by class systems after a nation began to urbanize and industrialize. Of course it is not always that simple because in India and many other modernizing countries, the caste and class systems tended to combine and overlap.
According to the Vedas, the universe began with the sacrifice of the god Purusa (Man) whose body created space, the stars, living things, and the four Hindu castes. He had 1,000 heads, 1,000 eyes and was present everywhere in the earth. Birds and animals were created from his body as were languages, music and poetry. From his mouth came the Brahmin or priestly caste, while the Warriors came from his arms, peasants from his thighs and slaves, laborers and outcastes from his feet. Then his mind made the moon, the sun came from his eyes and space from his navel. Unlike the Jewish and Christian tradition, there was no Creator or God in this void before the universe existed, and no night or day existed or even the lower gods. The Vedas refer to some kind of life force that had a thought or desire, which led to seeds, powers and impulses, although the writer conceded than no one really knew the answers to these ultimate cosmological questions. They sometimes call this force as Reality that is “beyond human understanding, ceaselessly creating and sustaining, encompassing all time, space, and causation” (Fisher, p. 74). In traditional, authoritarian society, this system was designed to maintain a fixed social order, but it become increasingly outdated as India began to industrialize and laborers and peasants evolved into a modern working class, or people from the lower orders began to move into the new middle class. Democratic ideas began to take hold in the 19th and 20th Centuries, particularly in the leftist labor and peasant movements and the Congress Party led by Mahatma Gandhi. As the most influential Indian leader in the 20th Century, Gandhi opposed the caste system in favor of a more universal version of Hinduism in which all men and women were considered equal. After independence in 1948, the Untouchable caste was abolished by law although not in custom and actual social practice, while all persons were declared equal citizens before the law regardless of caste. To be sure, the caste system continues to exist in reality, especially in rural India, and influences many areas of social and economic life, although it remains incompatible with the ideas of a modern, democratic society.
Fisher, M.P (2010). Living Religions: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Faiths, 8th Edition. Prentice-Hall.