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Caste ( Portuguese / Spanish casta "breed" of Latin castus "pure") referred to in the anthropology and sociology , a predominantly from India known and religiously justified and legitimate social phenomenon of hierarchical classification and definition of social groups . The division according to social structures mainly concerns status , marriage and division of labor . The term is also used colloquially or sociologically in general and applied to individual groups of other and also modern societies.

A caste system in the true sense of the word can be found particularly in India and Nepal , on the islands of Sri Lanka and Bali , and among the ethno-religious group of the Yazidis .


One page of an 1837 manuscript illustrating "72 types of sets in India". Depicted are men and women from the Madurai area .

According to current estimates, the development of the Indian caste system took place in the 2nd millennium BC. When the Rigveda was written. In the initial phase of Rigveda, two groups ( Varnas , Sanskrit "color") are distinguished according to lighter and darker skin color. In later texts of the Rigveda the lighter group is divided into the three strata of Brahma (priest), Kshatra (warrior) and Vis (common people). According to a 2013 study published over 73 Indian caste there were two separate genetic groups : the Ancestral South Indians (ASI) in the south of India and the Ancestral North Indians (ANI) in the north, with the inhabitants of Central Asia , the Caucasians and Europeans used are. 4,200 years ago, these two groups began to mix. This process of mixing stopped 1900 years ago and it became common to only marry endogamously , i.e. within one's own group.

To this day, caste affiliation in India has cultural and social effects on many areas of life and can shape the behavior of caste members in these areas.

Profession and partner: Even today, it largely, if no longer exclusively, determines the choice of partner (see endogamy ) and the choice of profession. The traditional social order continues to have an influence on everything that concerns “roti aur beti” ( Hindi : “bread and daughter”). For the most part, marriages are organized within the caste.

Common meals: In the past, common meals were generally not allowed because high-class people found the common meal with low-class people polluting, today the traditional separation between the individual social groups has largely been eliminated in this area, especially in urban environments. In rural areas, on the other hand, the old structures are even more firmly anchored, although here too they are no longer absolutely valid.

Significance today : The caste system is a very differentiated social order that also shows a certain dynamic. The criteria are handled quite differently from region to region, so in many cases it would be better to speak of a “caste system” instead of a “caste system”.

Assigning a person to a caste says little about their wealth. It is largely a division according to ritual purity and area of ​​responsibility, but not an "upper class" or "lower class", which is based on financial criteria. However, due to centuries of exploitation, poverty tends to be found more among the Shudras and untouchables, although Brahmanic families, members of the uppermost caste, can also be economically very poor.

Structural levels: The "caste system" is divided into:

  1. the four main castes ( Varna )
  2. these are divided into subgroups (Jatis)


Varna means "class, class, color". There are four varas:

  1. Brahmins (traditionally the intellectual elite, interpreters of holy scriptures (Veda), priests)
  2. Kshatriyas (traditionally warriors and princes, higher officials)
  3. Vaishyas (traditionally traders, merchants, landowners, farmers)
  4. Shudras (traditional craftsmen, tenants, day laborers)

Among them are the “ untouchables ”, also known as pariah or harijans. It is traditionally assumed that the term Varna meant the skin color: the higher the caste, the lighter the skin, which reflects the racial affiliation of different waves of immigrants and conquerors. However, this theory is controversial. Others put the term in connection with the "spiritual" colors of the Gunas , the qualities and properties in humans and nature. This view assigns a specific color to each caste.

The system of the Varnas can be described as the spiritual-ideological level of the caste system, since it offers a legitimation for the social hierarchy. It is considered an ideal and theoretical order that only became a historical reality in the context of colonized India: When the British colonial rulers came into contact with the ascetic Brahmins, because they had mastered the English language due to their training, they kept the system they represented, in which the Brahmins themselves represent the highest and therefore most elitist caste, for social reality and projected it onto the entire population, who had never heard of the construct in case of doubt. Through the contacts between the colonized areas and Great Britain, the idea arose in Europe that the caste system of the Varnas had been the social order that had ruled India for millennia.

Daily life is more about the Jatis. The question of the origin is unresolved, no institution and no script created or decreed the caste system. Historically, it was probably created by the merging of different peoples, which now form an overall system.

It is often traced back to the myth of Purusha , the divine prehistoric man, from whose body parts the first boxes are said to have arisen (the first from the head, the second from the arms, the third from the thighs, the fourth from the feet).

“When they dismantled the Purusha [prehistoric man], how many parts did they divide it into? What did they call his mouth, like his arms, like his thighs, like his feet? His mouth became a Brahmin, his two arms became a warrior [Rajanya], his two thighs became Vaishya, and the Shudra emerged from his feet. "

- Rigveda  10.90, 11-12 de sa

The Purushasukta is the only hymn in the Rig Veda that mentions the four Varnas. In the other three Vedas and the Upanishads, the Varnas are hardly mentioned.

The rules of the caste system were only really formulated in the Manusmriti (originated between 200 BC and 200 AD). Other Hindu scriptures accept the system as something worth striving for, but also repeatedly deal with it critically. The Mahabharata in particular presents it on the one hand in innumerable places as a desirable institution, on the other hand, other statements in the same epic clearly reject the hereditary social hierarchy.

According to Hindu ideas, certain duties ( Dharma ) are associated with belonging to a caste . So it is the traditional duty of a Kshatriya to go to war, to fight and to lead the society (cf. Bhagavadgita ), whereas Brahmins should study the scriptures, teach and ensure the performance of the rites.

In the early Vedic period, the restrictions on occupation and social mobility were significantly lower. A hymn of the Rig Veda reads:

"I'm a poet, my father is a doctor, my mother fills the millstone."

- Rig Veda 9,112,3


The Varnas are divided into hundreds of Jatis. The term is derived from the term jan for "to be born". This indicates the main meaning of Jati: "birth group", also in the sense of extended family or clan. Jatis are thus the social and familial dimension of the caste system and to a certain extent are reminiscent of the medieval class structure in Europe. The anthropologist Louis Dumont went from about 2000 to 3000 Jatis.

The caste membership of the individual is determined by the birth, whereby entry or exit is not possible. The Jati serves not only for professional but also for ethnic , socio-economic and cultural differentiation; it connects an ethnic group through special, common, moral norms. In the past, there was a strict marriage regime associated with it, with more or less strict closeness to other Jatis. In India today, all caste system discrimination is prohibited by law. Nevertheless, the caste system has not completely disappeared from practical life, especially since it still fulfills important social tasks today. The Jatis, for example, also function in a certain way as a social security system that is anchored in cultural and social tradition. In the megacities, for example, they often offer jobseekers from other areas of the country the only way to find shelter, food and help, or they guarantee the family's survival in the event of unemployment and illness.

The social mobility within the Jati is not very great. However, certain Jatis as a whole can rise socially, as was the case in the 19th and 20th centuries under the influence of British colonial rule, especially the merchant and scribe Jatis. In practice, sub-populations with higher or lower social rankings split off with the formation of new Jatis. The jatis are divided into subjatis.

The rise of entire jatis called the Indian Sociologist M. N. Srinivas as "Sanskritization" (sanskritization) . Jatis of lower rank adopt the lifestyle, rituals and symbols of higher Jatis and thereby ascend in the long run. Not only are the elements of classical Indian culture adopted, but also western symbols. Jatis with high economic status usually serve as models.

If an Indian wants to know which caste another belongs to, one asks in Hindi about the Jati or in English about the community , but never about the caste , as this term has too many unpleasant connotations and the social relevance is more in the Jati . The term Varna would also not be used.

“Among the untouchables in India, there is compelling evidence that the Hindu doctrine, which seeks to legitimize the dominance of one caste over another, is rejected. Members of the castes listed are much less likely than Brahmins to believe that the doctrine of karma governed their present living conditions; instead, they attribute their situation to their poverty and to an original, mythical act of injustice. "

In addition to orthodox Hindus, who still propagate the caste system today as a desirable form of coexistence, and those who legitimize privileges and exploitation with the old system, there have also been Hindu movements at all times that denounced excesses and injustices and overcoming the strict caste barriers have requested. Particularly important were the bhakti movements, which have influenced Indian society for several centuries.

Today, many modern Hindus are opposed to maintaining the basic bondage to caste, just as most internationally known spiritual Hindu teachers, including Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda , reject the caste system in whole or in part.

Study of the Veda through the Upper Castes (Varnas)

The first two varas make up about ten percent of India's population. The first three varnas consider themselves "twice-born" (dvija). This means that after the natural birth there is still a “cultural / spiritual” birth, which is performed in the form of an initiation rite (Upanayana) for men. In the past only this “second birth” authorized the study of the sacred texts ( Veda ), today this is open to everyone, in the private and academic field or with a guru .

Belonging to the upper Varnas was closely linked to knowledge of the Veda , the sacred Indian texts. A distinction was made between Chaturvedi (those who had studied all four Vedas), Trivedi (three Vedas) and Dvivedi (two Vedas). These are still common family names today. The knowledge and the privilege to pass it on used to be an important criterion to distinguish the first from the other varnas: They regarded the study of the Vedas not only as their duty, but also as their privilege to pass this knowledge on to outsiders with the exception of the "twice-born" was taboo for a long time.

Job assignments

The original occupations in the Jatis today are largely of a theoretical nature, practically anyone can pursue any occupation. Only a fraction of the Brahmins are priests. Brahmins, on the other hand, are popular as cooks in better restaurants, since even today some upper-class people would not eat meals prepared by lower-class people, whereas their traditional tasks, even the priesthood, are now increasingly exercised in progressive social classes by members of other Varnas. Few of the kshatriyas are soldiers. KR Narayanan was the first president from 1997 to 2002 who came from a caste of the formerly "untouchables"; Mahatma Gandhi , who led India to independence, as well as the important religious leader Swami Vivekananda were Vaishya. However, there are still remnants of original professional identities on a local basis, such as the dhobi or washermen of Benares, where a majority of the formerly "untouchables" still earn their living in the laundry industry. The traditional caste councils were modernized here as quasi-union self-organization.


In India, many surnames correlate with belonging to a particular caste. For example, Sharma or Banerjee are typical names of the priestly class ( Brahmins ), other names suggest that the person in question is very likely to belong to the Untouchables ( Dalit ).


Jatis do not only serve the professional classification, but also the social and ethnic. They differ considerably within India depending on the region. On Indian dating websites very often there are search functions based on caste criteria, both for the Varna and Jati. Even if there are strong tendencies towards love marriages in modern India and self- arranged marriages overcome caste barriers, the traditional rules have by no means lost their meaning. Subjatis often limit themselves to certain other subjatis when choosing a partner, and so there are many “marriage alliances” between some of the subjatis. Marriages within Subjatis with the same Gotra , a common forefather, are traditionally strictly avoided for reasons of incest prevention .

Purity and impurity

The ideas of purity and impurity play a major role in the hierarchy between different Jatis. Brahmins, the priestly caste, are considered to be particularly clean, while those Jatis who have to do with unclean professions, such as the washer, hairdresser and garbage collector, are particularly unclean. The clean castes strive to stay away from the unclean casts as much as possible, with physical purity or uncleanliness being an important criterion in this context. For this reason, even today untouchables are often denied access to temples. However, strict separation is only possible in rural areas, since in an urban environment one is only informed about the caste of another person if one knows them personally or at least the name, an important criterion of the Jati. In addition, living together in cities follows different rules than in the country, and daily life there makes constant spatial separation almost impossible. For example, when eating together in company canteens, criteria such as ritual purity are completely irrelevant. In cities, as everywhere in the world, separation is more likely to be found according to economic status. Those who are rich go to school with rich people; those who are poor live in slums, attend poorer schools and thus also have a poorer position in their professional life.

Untouchable boxes

The western notions of “casteless” ( pariah ) are largely based on outdated descriptions. First and foremost, the book on India by the French missionary and Indologist Abbé Dubois should be mentioned, which is still being copied without criticism to this day, although it was already out of date when it was first written about two centuries ago. The French clergyman viewed the Indian caste system as the work of the devil and made no serious effort to do it justice. There are hardly any real “casteless”. The so-called "untouchables" are mostly members of the lowest castes or lower castes, of which there are probably over 3000.

Since Indian independence, the members of untouchable castes and the tribal population ( Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes ) have been granted certain quotas in filling positions in public administration and in the education system. This has led to the untouchable in this area no longer being disadvantaged, but being consciously promoted. A lot has changed in politics too: The first president from an untouchable caste was KR Narayanan , who held office from 1997 to 2002. It has been shown, however, that the formal emancipation of members of lower castes has not yet contributed to an emancipation in social life everywhere to the same extent.

The term Harijan, which is also used in India for untouchables, comes from Mahatma Gandhi . It literally means “child of God” or more precisely “Vishnu-born”. The official name for untouchables is Scheduled Castes . The term Dalit for untouchables, coined by the reformer BR Ambedkar , has a more combative connotation and means “oppressed, exploited”.

The neo-Buddhist Dalit movement founded by BR Ambedkar is clearly directed against the caste system. Most of the neo-Buddhist members are former members of untouchable castes. Also the Christianity is relatively well represented in many Dalits and the so-called tribal population.

Other disadvantaged groups

In 1953 a commission was set up to identify "other backward classes" ( Other Backward Classes , OBC) in addition to the officially recorded tribes and castes ( Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes , abbreviated to ST and SC) . The list of 2399 other backward classes that this commission presented in 1955 did not, however, meet with the government's approval at the time. In 1979 a second commission was commissioned, known as the Mandal Commission. She submitted her report in 1980, which listed 3743 other backward classes and suggested ways to promote these groups. These proposals were approved by Parliament in 1982. In 1990 a memorandum was issued that increased the reservation of public service posts for the ST, SC and OBC categories to a total of 49.5% (ST 7.5%, SC 15%). The attempt to implement the proposals of the Mandal Commission nationwide, however, led to massive protests, especially in northern India. Middle-class students demonstrated, burned themselves in public and set fire to buses. In southern India - especially in Tamil Nadu - the regulations were largely implemented.

In 2006 efforts to apply these regulations to the elite Indian universities - the IITs ( Indian Institute of Technology ), the IIMs ( Indian Institute of Management ) and the AIIMS ( All India Institute of Medical Sciences ) - triggered massive protests and hunger strikes. Discrimination on the basis of caste membership is ubiquitous at these universities today.

According to the scientist Purushottam Agrawal, the policy of positive discrimination has cemented the caste system in society in India.

Discrimination against non-Hindu casteless people

This special promotion of the disadvantaged castes was initially only granted to the Hindu casteless and later extended to Buddhists and Sikhs. All other religious groups, including Christians and Muslims, were excluded. In December 2009 the "National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities" (NCRLM) presented a report in the Lok Sabha , the Indian parliament, with the recommendation to amend the 1950 law to promote disadvantaged castes. For the first time since India's independence, the Indian was discussed Parliament on the legal equality of all casteless people. The Supreme Court is now looking into the matter.

Christian and Muslim castes in India

Although Christianity officially rejects the caste system, it is a living reality among Christian Indians, such as in Kerala . There are seldom marriages between members of the lower and those of the upper castes. Often they even sit separately in churches and even in the cemetery they are buried in different places.

The centuries-long coexistence between Indian Muslims and Hindus has led to the fact that a caste system has developed in everyday life among Muslims in India and Pakistan, despite the fact that the Muslim form of society is principally oriented towards social equality for all Muslims. The choice of the respective spouse within one's own caste is particularly important.

Sri Lanka

In the caste system in Sri Lanka , caste affiliation is not only observed by the Tamil population group, but also by the Buddhist Sinhalese , who, however, do not know the caste of the untouchable. However, Buddhism does not offer religious legitimation of the caste system, as is the case with Hinduism. But there is also no clear opposition to the caste system.


In Bali , although the four-part Varnasystem was taken, but there are significant differences from the Indian caste system. In Bali there are the Brahmana , Satria , Wesia and Sudra . The twice-born are called Triwangsa . In terms of social status, the Majapahit immigration legend plays an important role. The counterpart to the Indian Jati is the Dadia , the title group. However, unlike India, these titles have nothing to do with professions. In the competition for prestige, the relative status of a title group is signaled and established through ceremonies. In Bali there is no untouchability, limited commensality (eating together) only exists in the higher ranks.


The caste system in Madagascar goes back to the royal family of the Merina . The Andriana officially lost influence through Christianization and colonization . Nevertheless, the members of the Council of Kings and Princes of Madagascar belong to the privileged upper class to this day and there were efforts in 2011 to reintroduce the monarchy.


Societies that are predominantly characterized by caste can be assumed for some tribes in the figurative sense, but no longer exist in modern times . However, in societies that are richly subdivided according to social class and function and very permeable - that is, mobile - individual groups can show pronounced "caste structures" - such as in the clergy , in the officer rank , as the cadre of a dictatorship. They are then mostly interpreted as other social patterns .

See also


  • Susan Bayly: Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age (= The New Cambridge History of India. Volume 4 = The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia. Volume 3). Reprint, paperback edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge u. a. 2001, ISBN 0-521-79842-6 .
  • Monika Böck, Aparna Rao: Aspects of the social structure of India: castes and tribes. In: Dietmar Rothermund (Ed.): India. Beck, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-406-39661-5 , pp. 112-131.
  • Louis M. Dumont : Society in India. The sociology of the caste system. Europaverlag, Vienna 1976, ISBN 3-203-50558-4 .
  • Christophe Jaffrelot : India's Silent Revolution. The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. Columbia University Press, New York 2003, ISBN 0-231-12786-3 .
  • Stefan Schütte: Caste organization and the politics of caste. Self-determination of untouchable work using the example of the washers of Banaras (India) , in: Work - Movement - History , Volume III / 2016, pp. 7–26.
  • MN Srinivas: Caste in Modern India and Other Essays. Asia Publishing House, Bombay u. a. 1962.

Web links

Wiktionary: caste  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Ajit Roy: Caste and Class: An Interlinked View. In: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 14, No. 7/8, (Annual Number: Class and Caste in India) February 1979, pp. 297-312, here p. 297
  2. Priya Moorjani et al. a .: Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India. In: The American Journal of Human Genetics , American Society of Human Genetics, August 8, 2013 ( doi: 10.1016 / j.ajhg.2013.07.006 ). Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  3. ^ Announcement: genetic analysis: India's caste society came into being 1900 years ago. In: Spiegel Online. Hamburg, August 9, 2013, accessed on August 13, 2013 .
  4. ^ S. Radhakrishnan : The Bhagavadgita R. Löwit Verlag, Wiesbaden
  5. Axel Michaels: The Hinduism. Past and present . CH Beck, 2012.
  6. Jati also means "gender", "genre" in music, simple melody forms from which ragas have developed.
  7. Pradeep Chakkarath: Caste . In: Günter Endruweit, Gisela Trommsdorff & Nicole Burzan (Ed.): Dictionary of Sociology . Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart 2014, ISBN 3-8252-8566-9 , pp. 268-269 .
  8. James C. Scott : Dominance and the Arts of Resistance , Yale University Press, 1990, p. 117 ("Listed casts" or Scheduled Castes is the official categorization of castes, for which in India the term is taken from the English "Untouchables" is used.)
  9. Cf. Stefan Schütte: Caste organization and the politics of caste. Self-determination of untouchable work using the example of the washers of Banaras (India) , in: Work - Movement - History , Volume III / 2016, pp. 7–26.
  10. Volker Pabst: How an «untouchable» could become the most powerful man in India. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung. July 22, 2017. Retrieved February 15, 2019 .
  11. Peter Gerhardt: India: uprising of the Dalits. In: Weltspiegel. The first, February 4, 2018, accessed February 15, 2019 .
  12. Archived copy ( memento of the original from January 29, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  13. Archived copy ( memento of the original from January 29, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  14. As a case study on the washer caste cf. Stefan Schütte: Caste organization and the politics of caste. Self-determination of untouchable work using the example of the washers of Banaras (India). In: Work - Movement - History , Volume III2016, pp. 7–26.
  15. ^ AIIMS apartheid, cricket to class. In: The Telegraph India , May 7, 2007
  16. ^ Purushottam Agrawal: India - quotas for untouchables. ( Memento of the original from December 10, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. In: Le Monde diplomatique , May 11, 2007 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  17. [1]
  18. Official Report, Chap. 9, p. 140 ( Memento of the original from October 25, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 1.8 MB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  19. Archived copy ( Memento of the original dated June 2, 2013 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  21. Page 140 - Report of the "National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities" ( Memento of the original from October 25, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 1.8 MB) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /