The Caste System

Learning Objective

  • Explain the history of the caste system

Key Points

  • The institution of the caste system, influenced by stories of the gods in the Rig-Veda epic, assumed and reinforced the idea that lifestyles, occupations, ritual statuses, and social statuses were inherited.
  • Aryan society was patriarchal in the Vedic Period, with men in positions of authority and power handed down only through the male line.
  • There were four classes in the caste system: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (kings, governors, and warriors), Vaishyas (cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans, and merchants), and Shudras (laborers and service providers). A fifth group, Untouchables, was excluded from the caste system and historically performed the undesirable work.
  • The caste system may have been more fluid in Aryan India than it is in modern-day India.



The term used to denote the thousands of clans, tribes, religions, communities and sub-communities in India.


The four broad ranks of the caste system in the Indo-Aryan culture, which included Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (kings, governors and warriors), Vaishyas (cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans, and merchants), and Shudras (laborers and service providers).

Caste systems through which social status was inherited developed independently in ancient societies all over the world, including the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The caste system in ancient India was used to establish separate classes of inhabitants based upon their social positions and employment functions in the community. These roles and their importance, including the levels of power and significance based on patriarchy, were influenced by stories of the gods in the Rig-Veda epic.


The caste system in India may have several origins, possibly starting with the well-defined social orders of the Indo-Aryans in the Vedic Period, c. 1750-500 BCE. The Vedas were ancient scriptures, written in the Sanskrit language, which contained hymns, philosophies, and rituals handed down to the priests of the Vedic religion. One of these four sacred canonical texts, the Rig Veda, described the origins of the world and points to the gods for the origin of the caste system.

The castes were a form of social stratification in Aryan India characterized by the hereditary transmission of lifestyle, occupation, ritual status, and social status. These social distinctions may have been more fluid in ancient Aryan civilizations than in modern India, where castes still exist but sociologists are observing inter-caste marriages and interactions becoming more fluid and less rigid.


The Rig-Veda. A page of the Rig-Veda, one of the four sacred Veda texts, which described the origins of the world and the stories of the gods. The Rig-Veda influenced the development of the patriarchal society and the caste systems in Aryan India.


The classes, known as varnas, enforced divisions in the populations that still affect this area of the world today. By around 1000 BCE, the Indo-Aryans developed four main caste distinctions: Brahamin, consisting of priests, scholars, and teachers; Kshatriyas, the kings, governors, and warriors; Vaishyas, comprising agriculturists, artisans, and merchants; and Sudras, the service providers and artisans who were originally non-Aryans but were admitted to Vedic society.

Each varna was divided into jatis, or sub-castes, which identified the individual’s occupation and imposed marriage restrictions. Marriage was only possible between members of the same jati or two that were very close. Both varnas and jatis determined a person’s purity level. Members of higher varnas or jatis had higher purity levels, and if contaminated by members of lower social groups, even by touch, they would have to undergo extensive cleansing rites.


Castes in India. A page from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India, which consists of 72 full-color hand-painted images of men and women of the various castes and religious and ethnic groups found in Madura, India at that time. Each drawing was made on mica, a transparent, flaky mineral that splits into thin, transparent sheets. As indicated on the presentation page, the album was compiled by the Indian writing master at an English school established by American missionaries in Madura, and given to the Reverend William Twining. The manuscript shows Indian dress and jewelry adornment in the Madura region as they appeared before the onset of Western influences on South Asian dress and style. Each illustrated portrait is captioned in English and in Tamil, and the title page of the work includes English, Tamil, and Telugu.

As the Aryans expanded their influence, newly conquered groups were assimilated into society by forming a new group below the Sudras, outside the caste system. These outcasts were called Untouchables, as they performed the least desirable activities and jobs, such as dealing with dead bodies, cleaning toilets and washrooms, and tanning and dyeing leather.

Development of Patriarchy

Society during the Vedic Period (c.1750-500 BCE) was patriarchal and patrilineal, meaning to trace ancestral heritage through the male line. Marriage and childbearing were especially important to maintain male lineage. The institution of marriage was important, and different types of marriages—monogamy, polygyny and polyandry—are mentioned in the Rig Veda. All priests, warriors, and tribal chiefs were men, and descent was always through the male line.

In other parts of society, women had no public authority; they only were able to influence affairs within their own homes. Women were to remain subject to the guidance of males in their lives, beginning with their father, then husband, and lastly their sons. Male gods were considered more important than female gods. These distinct gender roles may have contributed to the social stratification of the caste system.

Enduring Influence

The caste system that influenced the social structure of Aryan India has been maintained to some degree into modern-day India. The caste system survived for over two millennia, becoming one of the basic features of traditional Hindu society. Although the Constitution of India, the supreme law document of the Republic of India, formally abolished the caste system in 1950, some people maintain prejudices against members of lower social classes.


Gandhi at Madras, 1933. Mahatma Gandhi visits Madras, now Chennai, during a tour of India in 1933. As leader of the Indian independence movement, Gandhi frequently spoke out against discrimination created by the caste system.