Social Castes

Doctrines The word "caste" is derived from the Portuguese casta, meaning "pure" or "chaste." The Sanskrit words varna and jati are commonly translated as "caste" but this is misleading and obscures important differences between them.
Varna refers to the form and colour of something and is used in the Rg Veda to differentiate the Aryans from the indigenous peoples. The Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras have a socio-religious stratification in a four-tiered ideal, the catur-varna, the four caste-orders. At the highest tier are the brahmans, priests, then come the ksatriyas, warriors, the vaisyas, commoners, yeomen farmers, and merchants, and the sudras, servants. From a very early time it seems that membership of each varna was determined by birth. The brahmans, ksatriyas, and vaisyas are dvija, twice-born, because they have a second, spiritual birth when they are invested with the sacred thread.
Jati comes from the root jan meaning "to beget" or "to produce" and is used to denote origin and the group or class which something belongs to. In terms of caste, jati is the social stratum in which one is born. One is fixed in a jati by birth and there are sets of rules governing acceptable occupations, foods, marriage, and association with other jatis. Though there are only four varnas, there are thousands of jatis. The jatis are the contemporary "castes."
The relationship between the varnas and jatis is complex. Some scholars believe the varnas evolved into the jatis. However, there is controversy over the varnas, whether they were marriage-restrictive and whether a considerable proportion of the population lived completely outside the varna structure. But many orthodox Hindus believe the original varnas are still in place and serve to express divine justice through the transmigration of souls. The varna-jati one is born into reflects the reward or punishment of each soul for its previous life. All the jatis of the brahmans link into the all-India brahmanavarna, which is the classical varna. A large number of jatis are considered by higher jatis to be outside the varna system; these are the untouchables. The actual rank of a jati is not so much due to social and occupational practices of the members but is more because of the purity of the souls of the members resulting from their previous lives.

History Legend says that in the Krita Yuga, the first age, all the people of the world were of one caste, the Hamsa. Because of the degeneration of mankind other castes came into being during successive ages. The brahmans belong to the original caste, the ksatriyas to the Treta Yuga or second age, the vaisyas to the Dvapara Yuga or third age, and the sudras to the Kali Yuga or present corrupt age. Manu, the legendary lawgiver and father of mankind, is said to have laid down the basic rules of caste behaviour.
There are various theories about the origin of caste. It may have been on the basis of colour. The Aryan was originally white and Patanjali said blonde hair was an essential attribute of a brahman. But blonde brahmans soon became rare, and even Rama and Krishna are dark. A racial or tribal origin is another possibility. But priests of all races and tribes became brahmans and similarly with the ksatriyas. It is more likely that religious belief and practice in different cults and sects caused caste division.
Many castes have their own theories of origin, being descended from association with rivers, pools, trees, and sacred grasses. The Kumbi caste of ksatriya cultivators in Gujarat were created from perspiration at the waist of the goddess Parvati. The Kammalan caste is descended from as Visvakarma, architect of the universe, and their members are artisans such as goldsmiths and stonemasons. Occupation was an important factor and guilds of craftsmen formed castes as the Kammalan caste did, while some occupations formed separate castes. With change, especially technological change, subcastes were formed. One belief to explain the multitude of jatis is that they were created from the four varnas over time as a result of expulsions for violations of marriage rules.
At a very early date the custom of investiture with the sacred thread to mark adulthood fell into decline with most ksatriyas and vaisyas and it came to be applied almost exclusively to brahmans. There are a few non-brahman castes which follow the practice.
It is historically obscure how the untouchables were produced by the evolution of the caste system. The occupations of the untouchables came to be those which the upper castes considered polluting and economically impoverished. Many untouchables have converted to Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity in the hope of a better life. It may have been revolt against caste and its punishments for breaking caste inviolability that helped to inspire the Buddha's renunciation of Hinduism and the founding of a new religion.
There have been several attempts to reject the caste system within Hinduism. In the twelfth century there was Basava and the Virashaivas (see separate entry), and in the fifteenth century came Kabir and his disciple Dadu (see Kabirpanthis and Dadupanthis). But these sects became castes within Hinduism and in their own sects there arose caste divisions.
Many Indians lost caste status because of association with foreigners. Gandhi was excommunicated from his caste on returning from England for crossing the polluting kalapani, black waters.
Ram Mohan Roy in the nineteenth century started a more humane way of looking at caste and his views continue in the Brahmo Samaj. Dayananda and the Arya Samaj wanted to revert to the traditional varnas and remove the innumerable jatis. Gandhi in the 1920's worked on behalf of the untouchables, giving them the name "Harijans," meaning "the begotten of God," which is used today.
Despite legislation in the Indian Constitution against caste discrimination, untouchability is still very much a part of Indian life. There have been protests and attacks on Harijans by higher caste Hindus who are against change, such as making employment opportunities in government for Harijans. In the cities change in caste is being forced by interaction with the West through technological progress, foreign travel, satellite television, and other factors. In the villages, where most people live, change comes more slowly.

Symbols Colours are associated with the four varnas: white for a Brahman, red for a Ksatriya, yellow for a vaisya, and black for a sudra. Brahmans can have gold and silver ornaments, while ksatriyas can have ornaments of inferior quality gold and silver. Vaisyas must use brass ornaments and sudras those of iron. Caste Hindus can build a two-storey house and carry an umbrella, but outcastes cannot even if they are rich.
The sacred thread of the brahman is of munja grass, that of the ksatriya is a bow-string, and the vaisya wears one of hemp or wool.
Traditional modes of greeting differed according to caste. The brahman stretches his right hand forward on a level with his ear, the ksatriya holds his hand level with his chest, and the vaisya level with his waist. The sudra bows low and stretches forward his joined hands.
Many of the symbolic caste distinctions are becoming obsolete with change.

Adherents There are about 3,000 castes and over 25,000 subcastes in India. Some have millions of members, others only a few hundreds. New castes are still being formed.
More than 115 million people, that is about fifteen per cent of the Indian population, are designated members of the Scheduled Castes, that is untouchable. Most of these live in the villages.
Caste is not restricted to Hindus, but pervades all strata of Indian society so that there are castes among Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Christians.

Main Centre
 The thousands of castes each have their own main centre.