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The Caste System in Early India

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  • 0:08 India Before Castes
  • 1:54 The Four Major Castes
  • 3:54 Caste and Religion
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Often misunderstood as an outgrowth of Indian religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism, the idea of social caste in India was actually started to maintain social order in the face of a diverse religious and social landscape.

India Before Castes

Indian society is unique in that it was never truly united in the way that societies were in China and the Mediterranean. Sure, from time to time an empire like the Mauryans or the Guptas managed to conquer the majority of the region, but these empires were more concerned with issues of national importance, and they cared little about the mix of societies on the streets. And frankly, if a leader tried to make one group happy, he would just upset another.

India has always been a place of significant diversity in belief, with a number of different religions and even more subdivisions within those religions. In short, Indian society was full of chaos, in that there was no social order. No religious leader could emerge to control all those divisions, just as no political leader could hope to make everyone happy.

However, one thing that all Indians could agree on is that chaos was not good for society. As a result, the idea of caste developed. Although it is controversial as to who started the idea of caste, many historians believe that it goes back thousands of years. A caste is a social division within society. However, the Indian idea of caste went much further than just division.

It was as if your whole life, from who your friends would be, to the job you took, to the person you would marry, was determined by the work that your parents did. While this sounds really unusual to those of us living thousands of years removed from the establishment of the castes, this made sure that a society would always have an appropriate amount of weavers, potters, and soldiers, helping to ensure social order.

The Four Major Castes

In India, four major castes, known as the varnas, would emerge. These four castes were the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, and the Sudra. The Brahmin were the highest caste and were priests who were charged with making sure that the devotions to the gods were made. The Kshatriya were the warriors and kings, charged with protecting the Brahmins. Next down were the Vaisyas, or the merchants and other semi-educated individuals who could hope to amass considerable wealth, but not the power of the Kshatriya or Brahmins. Finally, the Sudras were the farmers and other unskilled workers whom everyone else depended upon.

Each of these groups was divided into hundreds of sub-castes based more specifically on the type of work done, and it was these sub-castes from which people would choose their friends and spouses. After all, the benefits of having all the farmers as friends was one thing, but having all the farmers of a specific crop meant that they could further look out for each others' successes and share tips. While these castes have faded in importance due to the rapidly changing economy of India, they are still in place in the minds of many Indians.

There was one other group that emerged as a result of the caste system. Known as the Untouchables, these individuals performed the jobs that were viewed as unclean, such as handling the dead or cleaning up after animals. Erroneously, the Untouchables are often portrayed as unimportant. However, they performed very important tasks that others didn't want to do, such as helping during funerals. They were called Untouchable because they were often unclean due to the 'dirty' nature of their work, and therefore those of the higher castes wished to avoid them. In recent years, reformers in India have worked to improve the lives of this group, as in the past they were often discriminated against.

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