Two indigenous concepts that are frequently associated with caste are jāti and varna.
Jāti encompasses a variety of social markers including ancestry, clan, class, language, lineage, region of origin, religion, traditional occupation, and other only locally recognizable markers. Some jāti identify as belonging to a traditional occupational community, but adhere to different religions (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) and/or their members engage in a variety of occupations. Some jāti share rituals, common ancestry, or adherence to a particular lineage, but are otherwise diverse in terms of traditional and current occupation, region, language, etc. Some jāti practice endogamy; others do not. Boundaries between and amongst jāti are also not always apparent nor discreet.
Indeed, members of one jāti may hold perceptions of difference and hierarchy, and mistreat members of other jāti in ways that are inhumane or unethical. Such perceptions, however, were and are highly localized, and could be informed by a variety of factors ranging from social, economic, political, historical, even religious. That said, members of poorer or deprived jāti also do not simply concede an attributed inferior status claim by others nor simply accept the claimed superiority of others over them. The social standing of a jāti in one region may be very different from a similar or even the same jāti living in another region, and social standing can change if an entire jāti moves from one area to another. Essentially, actual standing in any local hierarchy, even rivalries and frictions, have been complex, nebulous at best, and mobile over time.
Norms within and between various jāti are not tied to sacred texts or written social codes — they have historically been passed down through oral traditions and customs. Some of the Europeans’ understanding of caste emerged from observing the norms and traditions within and amongst different jāti as well as other local forms of social organization and identity such as kula (clan), gotra (patrilineage), or biradari (kinship) that they encountered.
There are thousands of jāti (and kula, gotra, and biradari) in the Indian subcontinent across all religions.
The Vedas make reference to four varna or functional personality types found in most human societies. Various Hindu texts have come to use the term, which has a variety of meanings (including form, figure, character, and hue) to describe a way of understanding human diversity and purpose.
In most societies, this typology contends, there are individuals who are driven to pursue knowledge to grow spiritually and impart knowledge and wisdom to society (brahmana/brahmin); those who exercise power to govern and protect society (kshatriya); those who seek wealth creation to support society (vaishya); and those who grow, make, or labor to nourish society (shudra). At the same time, personality or temperament and skills may change over time and the social functions one takes up are not mutually exclusive to any one individual or group.
As explained through countless sacred texts, stories, and poetry, and the interpretations and teachings of widely respected Hindu spiritual teachers, both past and present, varna is based on guna (qualities/virtues) and karma (thoughts, words, actions). Varna is not hereditary or familial nor is it a determinant of any established social hierarchy. Instead, they and other sources of sacred wisdom associate one’s varna with the individual’s predominant personality type.
Indian society was never organized nor functioned as only four varna.
Both concepts, varna and jāti, have been aspects of social identity throughout history of the Indian subcontinent, as have other local forms such as kula, gotra, or biradari. None, however, fully fit the earliest notions of caste or align into a caste system as imagined by Europeans.