One of India’s most hot-button issues is that of caste, an old system that defines people’s place in life at birth. Although caste discrimination was outlawed with the Indian constitution of 1949, tensions surrounding caste issues still abound in India.
This week’s posts will explore the caste system and give you a closer look into the system that defined Indian culture for many years. Stay tuned to learn more about the caste system and what it looks like today. We will also share some stories from people from the highest caste who have come to faith.
Today’s post will be about the history of the caste system, explaining the castes and what they traditionally mean. Times have indeed changed in India for many of the issues surrounding castes. This post is a look into the past and how castes came about.
Origin of the Caste System in India
The exact origin of the caste system is unclear. Some research suggests that two groups make up the ancestors of Indians: North Indians, who are related to people from Central Asia and the Caucasus areas, and South Indians more closely linked to people from the Andaman Islands. Around 4,200 years ago these groups began to intermarry during a time of migration and change in the area. It is believed that this intermarriage between ethnic groups stopped around 1,900 years ago, a time when people believe the caste system emerged.
Hindus believe that castes came from the god Brahma, the Hindu creator of the universe. In the Rigveda, an ancient text, India’s society was divided according to how Brahma created the four groups. He cast priests and teachers from his mouth. Also, rulers and warriors emerged from his arms. Also, merchants and traders came from his thighs. From Brahma’s feet came the lowest castes of workers and peasants.
The Caste Categories
Historically, whatever caste people were born into determined their quality of life—in jobs, social status, even in their religious world.
Hindu scriptures divide people into four categories:
- Brahmins: Priests and spiritual leaders
- Kshatrivas: Warriors and nobility
- Vaishya: Businesspersons and merchants
- Shudras: Servants and laborers
One group of people in India does not fit into a caste included in Hindu scriptures. These people, traditionally labeled as “untouchable,” adopted the name “Dalits.” Traditionally Dalits did the dirtiest jobs. For example, they dealt with sewage. Physical contact with a Dalit was once believed to make one unclean, and other castes went to great measures to avoid them. Though recent years have seen positive changes for the Dalits, historically Dalits were the most marginalized in society. Gandhi, though of a higher caste, spent much of his time advocating for rights for the Dalits. He gave them the name, Harijans, which means, “the people of God.”
India’s current constitution outlawed discrimination between castes and provided pathways for equality for all groups. Our next post will discuss what the caste system is like today in India.
India is our prayer focus for Secret Church 16: A Global Gospel in a World of Religions. In the weeks and months leading up to the Secret Church event, join us as we learn more about India’s culture, people, and persecuted church.