How did the caste system develop in India?

society : caste system : How-did-the-caste-system-develop-in-India – balaji : awesome

Answer by Balaji Viswanathan:

It didn't develop in one shot and evolved over time by merging many different social groups. The caste system is not a well-defined entity, but an amorphous grouping of people with different origins that all got mixed over time.

Humans, like many other mammals, live in various social groups. We often build a web of relationship known as the Kinship. Initially we were all in small bands or tribes & we were not in close contact with other groups. As we kept coming together to form more complex societies, some wanted to organize & formalize the group.

  1. Band – Bands are the smallest units. It is an informal group of a few dozen people who work together. It might not have a leader.
  2. Clan – This is a slightly more matured group with a belief in a common origin & descent. In India, this roughly translates to Gotra. For instance, my family believes that we are descent of the 3 saints of Viswamitra-Ahamarshana-Koushika. Such clans were in most ancient human societies. The clans formed a strong kinship & bonding among themselves. Also, most clans thought of others in the clan as brothers/sisters & thus would not marry within the clan. The Khaps in Haryana take to this the extreme & can even give death sentences to those who marry within the clan.
  3. Tribe – Mulitiple clans can come together to form a tribe & tribes can often be quite well structured. They can have their own leaders & build common cultural practices. In many ancient societies, people married within the same tribe. In short, you marry out of a clan and within a tribe. In India, this roughly corresponds to Jati.
  4. Nations – Tribes formed even bigger groups named the nation. For instance, in the Battle of the Ten Kings the tribal groups formed the nation of Bhāratas that won over the confederation of 10 tribes in north India. Thus, we call our nation Bharat.
  5. Division of labour – As we started forming civilizations, we also found it quite useful to divide work. Thus, some would produce milk, some would farm, others would weave etc. Like in other civilizations, India had this division of labor too. These divisions then got superimposed over the much older clan & tribal divisions.

Some of the tribes/jatis are as big as most nations. For instance, the peasant caste of Jats numbers about 83 million people – a little bigger than Germany & Mongolia combined. Other castes like Yadavs, Minas and Rajputs also have millions of people have built a formidable political force.

Building Social Hierarchies

Almost all societies eventually turned into building hierarchies in a pyramid system. The tribes had no ranking system before this & somehow people felt that there needs to be a rank. Such rankings are somewhat present in our mind always.

For instance, if you ask a kid to rank the professions of plumber, soldier, doctor and shopkeeper in terms of attractiveness/usefulness, he/she might instinctively say doctor > soldier > shopkeeper > plumber. We have some universal notions of the relative worth of different professions & this bias reflected in the social hierarchy.

 Around 3500 years ago, the various tribes that were creating the Rig Veda was grappling with a way to organize all the different systems – since there were 100s of tribal groups & occupation groups. Rig Veda did it this way.

  1. Brahmins (with all the different clans who were in priest related occupations)
  2. Kshatriyas (the warriors)
  3. Vaishyas (merchants)
  4. Shudras (workers)

Such a pyramid organization was not unique to the Rig Vedis. Plenty of societies around the world had stratified their society. Europe had Estates of the realm.

Egypt had a 8 levels with more fine grained.

Japan also had 8.

Mesopotamia had 6.

While north India had a more formalized social stratification systems, south India didn't get as formalized. It turned out to be quite binary – brahmins and non-brahmins. Only recently many jatis like Reddys, Thevars and Lingayats started grappling with where they fit into the varna system.

In short, there was no single system and people often made up the rules on the go. Many also used obscure texts like a 2000 year old Manu Smriti [that is hardly read by anybody] to define their position in the outdated hierarchy.

Dealing with the "outsiders"

Now, the question is what to do with those who were not part of their civilization. Almost every civilization thought of people outside their own culture/civilization as inferior and almost inhuman. Romans called the Germans, Scandinavians and others as "barbarians".

Throughout the world, societies marked the older natives as outcasts. Burakumin [Japan],  Baekjeong [Korea],  Tanka people [China],  Cagot [France], Al-Akhdam & Yazidis [West Asia] Romani people [Gypsies of Europe], Aboriginal Australians & Native Americans were all treated as "untouchables" and outcasts. A lot of it stem from them having a different practice, different color or due to the perceived inferiority of their civilizations. India's equivalent of this discriminated people is the Dalits. Their fight for rights is similar to the other groups all over the world.

The Rig Vedis put the others into different buckets:

  1. Mleccha – There were many types of "barbarians" from outside of the Indian subcontinent – You can click through some of these groups:   Sakas, Huns, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas, Bahlikas and Rishikas
  2. Dasa – These were the outsiders within India, but were not a part of the rig vedic civilization. These groups also had a superior culture but were eventually subdued by the Vedic people.

These "outsiders" were often treated inhumanly & these were considered out of bounds for the Rig Vedic civilization. While the rest of the world eventually accepted many of their "barbarians" [like Italians becoming friendly with Germans and French] in India the social classifications of the yore became set in stone.

The fight for equal rights for black people & native americans in the US is still going on. In case of ancient Egypt & Mesopotamia, the civilizations themselves ended.

Strength of the Tribes

In most parts of the world, tribal units generate the highest degree of passion. For instance, Hitler and various German leaders before him worked hard for centuries to bring all the Germanic tribes together. Africa is rife with 100s of tribal warfare. Scotland almost split with the rest of UK as they value their identity more than their nationstate. In the US, politics often happen at the level of races – Democrats often get the blacks, asians & hispanics, while Republicans get sizable whites.

India too faces the strength of the tribes. Many tribes/jatis have a strong political identity & a pseudo warfare is constantly going on among many powerful jatis.

How the Caste system became harmful

If we just say doctors > plumbers, it is somewhat harmful, but still tolerable. However, if we combine that with clan blased work [for instance, some clans would take up medicine and others would take up plumbing] it gets quite harmful. In various parts of the world, the strata and guild formation existed somewhat separate. In India, these two got merged & that is the reason for all that harm. It means that some will always be doctors & since doctors are considered superior, they will always be a group who are born superior.

To prevent this, we need to both prevent clan based occupation selection and also understand the dignity of labor – every type of labor is good for the society. Doctors are no more important than plumbers or farmers.


The Indian caste system is a complex amalgamation of many different social groups. It includes clans called gotras, tribes & ethnicity called jatis and a defined social hierarchy in Rig Veda called varnas.

None of these were unique to India and is present in most civilizations. What is unique to India is how rigid these social classifications have become and how immobile the different strata are.

While many educated Indians have little trouble understanding why the social stratifications [varna] are outdated & harmful, they still have passions for their tribe [jati] – as a tribe is a unit of culture. This is also true in many parts of the world. For instance, while English, Welsh, Irish and Scots may live in the same nation of UK, there is still some strong identity between those individual tribes [we got some glimpse of it in the Scottish referendum process]. In the same way, while Blacks, Whites, Asians and Hispanics may all be the citizens of the US, each have their own culture and often marry within their group. You can see such tribal/ethnic identities in Europe, Africa and Asia.

India is sort of many nations superimposed into one & the tribal passions that come from being a particular caste can be quite high.

How did the caste system develop in India?


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