What is the Indian caste system?

What is the Indian caste system?

indian caste system

Untouchable Woman of Bombay (Mumbai) according to the Indian caste system in 1942.  CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia

This was India’s system of social hierarchy. At its root, it was a system referred to in Hindu scriptures that aimed to classify people based on their nature, aptitude and conduct, and put them to work in functions that suited their classification. Later interpretations resulted in a hereditary and hierarchical structure that was the basis for centuries of segregation and discrimination in traditional communities. It sharply limited socio-economic mobility. Changes in the law since independence have removed many vestiges of caste-based discrimination. However, it persists in many traditional villages and communities. Caste also forms the basis for a range of quotas and affirmative-action policies enacted by the Indian government aimed at erasing the legacy of discrimination in higher education and government employment. In many instances, these quotas and preferences have exacerbated tensions and resentments between caste groups and deepened caste-based identity and prejudice. Communities or castes can discourage marrying, associating or even dining with people of other groups. Indians in the United States do not use a caste system and freedom from it may encourage immigration.

What else should I know about the Indian caste system?

Sikhism stresses equality and rejects discrimination based on gender, caste or creed. Also, the Indian constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

Originally, people were grouped into four groups called the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. There was another caste known as the Untouchables, who were ostracized and strongly discriminated against. There were also sub-castes and sub-groups. India was composed of as many as 90,000 localized sub-groups. People were supposed to marry only within their sub-group.

Belonging to a caste meant you were in that caste for life, and for the Untouchables, life was particularly hard.

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