India's Caste System

Varṇa and social history

it01The caste system in India has intrigued visitors to the country, yet it was exploited by those who sought to rule over India. Within India today there is controversy and there are even efforts being made to ban the caste system, so does it really exist, what are its origins and purpose?

Actually class systems exist all around the world and in the West, caste demarcations refer to social class and wealth. It has been traditional in Western society that children received a level of education and went into the same work as their parents. The son of the blacksmith became a blacksmith and the son of the trader also became a trader.

On the whole, women were trained to be mothers but the education was that of their social community. In Western society communities were organised in the thousands and tens of thousands of people, but in India people were organised in millions which made the social and occupational groups more distinct.


If we step back 1000 years or more, the caste system was much more fluid, the place of any individual within social and economic life was based on merit and ability as much is it was in Western society before a price was put on education. In general, varṇa is a four-fold classification of society, based on attitude and aptitude. The texts of grammar tell us that the word varṇa comes from the root vṛ-varaṇe, ‘to choose.’ According to semantic etymology, the word varṇa comes from vṛṇoteḥ, ‘choosing.’ This suggests that the word initially referred to a self-selection, just like in modern times we choose a career path of our preference.

European Caste
In his book The Social Contract, Ardrey argued, that individuals are genetically unique and that their genetic traits determine what they are. These traits help or hinder us in terms of adaptation to the environment and therefore it is not only unnatural but impossible for “equality” to exist between humans. He claimed that only by recognising the fundamental inequalities between people could a just society be founded. Ardrey complained that cultural anthropologists had treated humans as if they were outside the animal kingdom when in fact they were simply its most dominant members.

"The British caste system which still exists is actually worse now. I mean it really is – it’s more insidious." ~ Actor Brian Cox 

In the right video, Dr David Frawley gives a more detailed overview.

In ancient India the child of a street sweeper could grow to take any position in society, but colonisation and foreign rule of India destroyed the flexibility of a cultural system that had worked very well for tens of thousands of years. Few people today realise that prior to colonisation, India was the richest country in the world with zero poverty and about 95% literacy.

Within Indian society the Brahmans are equivalent to the university professors in the West, the Warrior class equivalent to the Western military, the traders and merchants equivalent to those same roles within Western society. Below that we have the engineers, mechanics, nurses, farmers and those who provide the essential services.

"The Hindu caste system (caste is a Portuguese word and does not do justice to Varnashrama which was originally nothing hut a system of division of labour, a sort of guild system) is (the subject of much ridicule by western people today, hut the original Varnashram* system was an admirable system based on ability and not on birth Die same system was implanted in many far off countries—Greece. Egypt, Japan and America." ~ Chaman Lal

castColonisation came close to destroying Indian civilisation and the various casts of India coalesced in order to survive. In other words the social structure became more rigid and reduced the possibilities for people to flow from one social level to another.

The Brahman's before colonisation were responsible for preserving and managing the wealth of India's knowledge, and maintaining the temples. They like everyone else were forced to embrace capitalism in order to survive because the British especially dismantled the Indian social structure.

"The biggest contribution of Brahmins is sustaining the best language ever spoken in the earth - Sanskrit. If you learn English or Arab, you have commercial benefits. Nobody ever promoted Sanskrit. Without any benefits, Brahmins took up voluntary task of learning Sanskrit. Then, now you accuse them of monopoly in Sanskrit!" ~

Discussions about India's caste system flow all around the world and visitors to India may be tempted to get drawn into the discussions which are sometimes very heated. But one must remember that today's India was created by the British and that the wealth of India was stolen by them.

But inside India, like everywhere else in the world. memories are short and the country is in the process of becoming corporatised helping to further cement the divisions created by the British. The only way out of this dilemma for India is in the restoration of its ancient heritage and the acknowledgement by the world that India is indeed the home not only of civilisation but the home of all the sciences.

Varṇa in Hindu tradition


2 comments to India’s Caste System

  • Joline Abee

    Hi, I agree and think what’s called cast in India exists in every country because our societies cannot work without some kind of division of labour and for the world to dump its guilt on India is reprehensible

  • Caste system is a lie propagated by the west. Although they left accounts of their observations, a caste system was not noticed by those coming to India earlier in history. Greeks, Chinese, and Muslim writers did not leave any account of a caste system, based on an immoral rank and hierarchy as it is now conceived. Catholic padres were the first to remark on what they saw as ‘castes’ (casta in Portuguese) as the various groups Indians belonged to, but could not discern a ‘system’ of any type.

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