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The caste system


Rural revolution – these Dalit women have taken charge of the granite quarry where they used to earn less than $1 a day. They now employ their husbands.

Mark Henley

The Indian caste system is probably the oldest social hierarchy in the world. It is difficult to place a firm date on its origin as the system evolved over time into a rigid social hierarchy, and was further reinforced under British rule. You can be a president or a pauper, but you cannot escape the caste you are born into.

Caste originated as a Hindu system of social stratification (though it often persists in other religions as well) and has been exported throughout the Indian Diaspora. A person remains in the same caste from birth to death and caste is handed down from generation to generation. Such divisions are justified by making use of the religious doctrine of karma, a belief that status in life is determined by one’s deeds in previous lifetimes.

In the caste system in India there are four principal varnas or generic caste categories. Within each of these categories there are many sub-groupings.

Brahmins (priests and teachers)

Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers)

Vaishyas (merchants and traders)

Sudras (labourers and artisans)

A fifth category, now often called Dalits, is outside the system; at the bottom of the hierarchy. It consists of those popularly known as ‘Untouchables’, and officially known as ‘scheduled castes’. Mahatma Gandhi called them harijans: ‘children of god’.

Caste systems in other parts of the world also have a rigid social structure and consist of a group of people who are considered ‘lower’ than others because by birth they traditionally perform tasks that are considered dirty, demeaning or polluting.

New Internationalist issue 380 magazine cover This article is from the July 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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