Caste is one of the most complicated and misunderstood concepts encountered when attempting to understand India and Hinduism. Part of the challenge is that there is no universally accepted definition nor is there a uniformly held understanding of it.

Yet caste and a caste system have become the singular focus of how Indian and Hindu society and culture are seen by the West. According to Professor Arvind Sharma, more than nine thousand books have been written about caste and the caste system with theories ranging from origins to its evolution to its (im)morality.

The various definitions of caste used by sociologists, anthropologists, historians, Indologists, and even in common parlance may include but are not limited to concepts such as birth, occupation, rituals, endogamy, or race.  All depend upon presumptions such as castes being homogenous entities with discreet boundaries that are identifiable in Indian society.

The definitions or idea of a caste system presume its pan-Indian existence, a static hierarchy, and that communities belonging to particular castes in one part of India share something in common with similar castes in other parts of India, including perceived and actual social standing.

Attempts over the past two hundred plus years to empiricize these definitions created by Europeans about Indians have failed because the structure of Indian society has never corresponded with the colonial theories about it.

Today, caste exists as an administrative designation under Indian law in spite of no coherent or reliable definition or understanding of caste.

Two indigenous concepts that are frequently associated with caste are jāti and varna.

Jati and Varna


Jāti are tribes or generalized people groups with some kind of shared distinguishing features, such as origin story, history, worldview, teachings, customs, religion, vocations or occupations, and/or language and dialect, etc.  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 across varying social markers and perceived social standing. 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 superiority, and act towards members of other jāti in manners that are prejudiced, unethical or inhumane. 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 necessarily 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 when 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’ understandings 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 and then combined and conflated into “caste.”

There are thousands of jāti (and countless kula, gotra, and biradari and other social groupings) on 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 as have other forms such as kula, gotra, or biradari. None, however, fully fit the earliest notion is of caste or align into a caste system as imagined by Europeans.

The term ‘caste’ is derived from casta, the Portuguese word for lineage, breed, or race. There is no equivalent concept to caste as such in Indian languages.

Caste as an administrative category

While there is no universal definition or understanding of caste, it does exist as an administrative designation under Indian law.

The Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of caste, religion, race, sex, or place of birth. It also provides the state power to make special provisions for what is called positive discrimination. As such, groups listed or designated at the national or state level as Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), or Other Backward Classes (OBC) are guaranteed certain legal protections and eligible for special provisions. The special provisions make up a system of affirmative action that is intended to provide equal  opportunity and greater representation in education, employment, and government at both the state and union levels.

Most of today’s SC and ST designations were largely adopted from British census operations from the late 19th century and early 20th century. Working with their understandings of  jāti and varna, British administrators struggled unsuccessfully through numerous decennial censuses to devise a pan-Indian list of communities defined as castes and ordered ostensibly by social standing.  In addition to severe difficulties British administrators encountered in simply identifying communities by what they believed caste to be, on the task of assigning social rank, some districts avoided ordering; others ordered but did not offer evidence; and some assigned orders with the assistance of native informants. British records demonstrate knowing that social identities and standing were continually changing, yet their idea of a pan-Indian caste system, in spite of it being non-existent in reality, has endured not only in public imagination, but in post-Independence policies as census data and colonial designations of “depressed classes” became the basis for for Indian law.

The idea of “depressed classes” was intended to identify communities, not on the basis of only economic or educational disadvantages, but the basis of particular social disadvantages. But even the standards by which thousands of communities within and across different regions of India were counted and categorized as such were not only peculiar, but were not the same across regions (administrators would change the standards if not relevant to their jurisdiction). Nor were the differing standards applied with any consistency within even the same region because of the difficulty of knowing where to draw lines and the malleability of social perceptions.

Regardless, the census exercises continued and resulted in an internally inconsistent class of communities, which outside of an administrative designation, shared very little in common socially, economically, educationally, or politically. Then and now, each community designated SC, OBC, or ST had their own identity, origin or ancestral legends, culture and traditions, and aspirations and challenges.  And while there might have been overlaps in any of these factors, often communities sharing the same administrative designation were in conflict with one another. Since India’s independence, few changes to the caste schedules have been made, though communities have been both listed and delisted.

Not during British rule nor today are all communities in India that face social or economic disadvantages necessarily designated as SC or ST.  Over the past several decades, there have been well-documented efforts of certain communities lobbying state governments throughout India to get designated as SC or OBC, in large part for the benefits associated with caste-based provisions, including quotas in public education and public employment, as well as moves to get removed from the schedules. There have also been demands to get benefits based purely on economic need by communities that have thus far been considered dominant castes.

Understanding terminology or acknowledging the historical role of the British in conceiving an Indian caste system in no way denies that prejudices, discrimination, or exploitation on the basis of various perceived differences in different quarters and levels of Indian society existed (and continue to exist) and that some groups or communities have suffered more horribly than others. It also does not deny the reality of individuals and groups using social, political, and economic advantages, even the color of religion, to justify their standing and behavior towards others. But the fact is that the legacy of colonialism very much informs not only the understanding of India to date, but also impacts contemporary caste and religious dynamics in the subcontinent.

Indian society is no different than any other society around the world in that individuals hold and act upon factors other than the inherent worth of all people. Without understanding the actual root causes of such perceptions, however, there can be little hope of resolving prejudice and discrimination and alleviating the harm and suffering that comes as a result.


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