The caste system in India is a system of social stratification which has pre-modern origins, was transformed by the British Raj, and is today the basis of reservation in India. It consists of two different concepts, varna and jāti, which may be regarded as different levels of analysis of this system.
Varna may be translated as “class,” and refers to the four social classes which existed in the Vedic society, namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Certain groups, now known as Dalits, were historically excluded from the varna system altogether, and are still ostracized as untouchables.
Jāti may be translated as caste, and refers to birth. The names of jātis are usually derived from occupations, and considered to be hereditary and endogamous, but this may not always have been the case. The jātis developed in post-Vedic times, possibly from crystallisation of guilds during its feudal era. The jātis are often thought of as belonging to one of the four varnas.
The varnas and jatis have pre-modern origins, and social stratification may already have existed in pre-Vedic times. Between ca. 2,200 BCE and 100 CE admixture between northern and southern populations in India took place, after which a shift to endogamy took place. This shift may be explained by the “imposition of some social values and norms” which were “enforced through the powerful state machinery of a developing political economy”.
The caste system as it exists today is thought to be the result of developments during the collapse of the Mughal era and the British colonial regime in India. The collapse of the Mughal era saw the rise of powerful men who associated themselves with kings, priests and ascetics, affirming the regal and martial form of the caste ideal, and it also reshaped many apparently casteless social groups into differentiated caste communities. The British Raj furthered this development, making rigid caste organisation a central mechanism of administration. Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during the 1920s led to a change in this policy. From then on, the colonial administration began a policy of positive discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes.
Caste-based differences have also been practised in other regions and religions in the Indian subcontinent like Nepalese Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. It has been challenged by many reformist Hindu movements, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity  and also by present-day Indian Buddhism.
New developments took place after India achieved independence, when the policy of caste-based reservation of jobs was formalised with lists of Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi). Since 1950, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. These caste classifications for college admission quotas, job reservations and other affirmative action initiatives, according to the Supreme Court of India, are based on heredity and are not changeable.[a] Discrimination against lower castes is illegal in India under Article 15 of its constitution, and India tracks violence against Dalits nationwide.
Varna (वर्ण) is a Sanskrit word which means color or class. Ancient Hindu literature classified all humankind, and all created beings, in principle into four varnas:
- the Brahmins: priests, teachers and preachers.
- the Kshatriyas: kings, governors, warriors and soldiers.
- the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans and merchants.
- the Shudras: laborers and service providers.
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