Quick note from Caroline: this is a great big-picture overview of the history of caste in India. I want to point out that the word “Aryan” as used here is not what the Nazis meant. The Nazis borrowed a lot of their language and symbols about race superiority from 19th-century pseudoscience about White northern Europeans moving across Eurasia and founding all the great civilizations. This is nonsense. The origin of the term Aryan in ancient Hindu texts (ca. 1500-500BCE) is uncertain, but in this context, it refers to the people who dominated what is now northern India and Pakistan. Ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences are also tied to caste in India historically and today…but not Nazis. Now, back to Xixiang’s summary.
The caste system (tied to Hinduism) has a long history and there has long been contentious in the origin of this system. In recent years, the most accepted explanation of the origin is related to the Aryans since many pieces of research support this hypothesis. For example, Dr. Sharma’s team proved that there exists a strong relationship between the status in the caste system and a special chromosome which is the trait of the Aryans (Sharma, et al. 50).
Following the hypothesis related to the Aryans, around 1500 BC, the Aryans arrived at the Indian subcontinent and they conquered the local Indian tribes with their advanced technology (Deshpande, 19). To classify their ruler’s status from those local people, the class division between the conqueror and the conquered has been created. That is the prototype of the caste system. Later, as the interaction between the Aryan conquerors and the indigenous people, the social hierarchy has developed from two to four. The Aryans were divided into three levels internally: the Hindu priestly aristocracy – Brahmins; the military chiefs – Kshatriyas; and the free civilians engaged in various productive labor – Vaishyas. On the other hand, most local people are classified into the lowest level, which is Shudras who need to subordinate to Vaishyas, Kshatriyas, and Brahmins. Besides, some of the local people have been excluded from this system, and they are called Dalits or Untouchables who are in the lowest social status and being most discriminated against (Deshpande, 22). The graph below is a general presentation of the caste system hierarchy.
To secure their status, the Aryans dominator set up several restrictions. The most essential one is that your caste is only determined by your parents. Also, the marriage across the caste is prohibited. Besides, people from low status are prohibited to pursue a high-level career (Mason, 648). For example, if you are born as a Shudras or Dalits, you can only do some dirty physical work since decent jobs are reserved for Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas. Combining those restrictions, we can find that there doesn’t exist any chance for the people from Shudras and Dalits to gain a better life in such social hierarchy.
Nowadays, with the help of the Indian government, the effect of the caste system has already been much less than before. In the rural area, movement out of caste specializing occupations and access to resources is still difficult, but in urban areas, people can pursue their desired job without considering their caste (Deshpande, 31). As time goes by, I believe that the impact of caste would keep decreasing, and Indian society would become more equal.
Deshpande, Manali S. “History of the Indian Caste System and Its Impact on India Today.” DigitalCommons@CalPoly, Dec. 2010, digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/socssp/44/.
Joe, and Thomas DeMichele. “The Caste System Explained.” Fact/Myth, 27 Nov. 2018, factmyth.com/the-caste-system-explained/.
Mason Olcott. “The Caste System of India.” American Sociological Review, vol. 9, no. 6, 1944, pp. 648–657. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2085128. Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.
Sharma, S., Rai, E., Sharma, P. et al. The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1* substantiates the autochthonous origin of Brahmins and the caste system. J Hum Genet 54, 47–55 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/jhg.2008.2