The History of India’s Social Class System (the Caste System)
India’s caste system is a class system based on birth. These classes, or “Varnas,” are Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (ruling and military), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers), Shudras (peasants), Dalits (untouchables)… which is almost exactly like Plato’s class system in his Republic. (even down to the noble lie).
In other words, India’s class system is unique, as no other major culture historically used a fully hereditary class system that was as defined and tied to their faith as the Indians. Most systems, from Athens, to Rome, to Britain, historically based class on wealth and power, with only governmental power, wealth, and slavery [sometimes] being passed down through birth.
The system is disturbing in many ways, but it speaks to a very important fundamental aspect of nature. This is that people are naturally divided into classes, and some types of personalities are naturally suited for certain roles.
While today few would argue that roles and classes should not be mandated by birth or the state, and should be instead defined by individual choice and merit, many would argue that hereditary class systems none-the-less exist in practice in most of our history’s cultures.
Below we take a deeper look at India’s class system.The Caste System and Ancient Indian Society.
NOTE: It is interesting that one of the cultures that best withstood the warring factions of history, India, has long organized itself into a structured system like this. Plato eludes to a system like this being sustainable, issues of morality and liberty aside, the system did seem to work in practice.
FACT: Caste is an English word to describe India’s traditional hierarchical system. In India, the terms are varna (color) for caste and jāti (birth) for a subgroup within a caste. Indians organized themselves into jāti before the Varna system was implemented in the Vedic era (1500-800 BCE).
FACT: You might have noticed the graphic said Aryan. This is the same as Hitler’s concept of Aryan race, as he stole it from the Indians. It means those who are of a higher class by birthright.
FACT: The Caste system still exists to some extent in India, and class systems have been persistent despite any culture’s efforts. Classes even exist in those Communist societies who claim to have abolished it. In India, caste reforms are similar to affirmative action in the West; lower castes are given extra help, which has drawn a backlash. See Why India is still fighting over caste system.Part I – Untouchability & Casteism (Castes) Still EXISTS even Today in India- 2016.Must Watch It.
The Castes Explained
Each class is said to have Natural Qualities. They are:
- Sattva qualities include wisdom, intelligence, honesty, goodness and other positive qualities.
- Rajas include qualities like passion, pride, valor and other passionate qualities.
- Tamas qualities include dullness, stupidity, lack of creativity and other negative qualities. People with different doses of these inherent qualities adopted different types of occupation according to caste theory.
The Classes (Varnas) who have natural Qualities:
- Brahmins were said to have Sattva qualities. They were priests.
- Kshatriyas were inherently Rajas and Sattva, the ruling and military elite. Their role was to protect society by fighting in wartime and governing in peacetime.
- Vaishyas were believed to possess Rajas qualities inherently. They were agriculturalists, cattle rearers, and traders.
- Shudras were held to possess Tamas qualities inherently. They served the other Varnas and were the original slave-like or peasant-like population.
- Dalits were the class of untouchables. They did menial and despised jobs and were thus believed to be “polluted.”
TIP: According to the the Rig Veda (the first scripture of Hinduism, containing spiritual and scientific knowledge) the castes come from the body of Purusha, a “cosmic being” who sacrificed himself to create the universe. The priest or Brahmin come from his mouth; the warrior Kshatriyas come from his arms; the peasant or Vaishya come from his thighs; the servant or Shudra come from his legs. The Dalits class was added later, probably after the 4th century.
Why Does This Matter?
The above matters for two reasons.
- It helps us remember that different ancient cultures evolved in different ways, yet we all share traits. We should remember the History of India from the early days to the Mughals, to the English East India Company, to Gandhi, to the modern day.
- We can look at other cultures and see how these same classes arose in different ways. They seem to be systems that form along with social groupings, which we could see as naturally arising systems. I’m not arguing they are hereditary; just that they appear to form naturally.
European society has historically been divided by:
- Kings, Aristocracy, and Their Army
- Merchants and Oligarchs
Brief Notes on The Greek and Roman Class Systems
Likewise, Athens divided itself into lower (Thetes – laborers), middle (Yoked Men – Merchants), upper class (horse breeders – horse owners), and highest class (Pentacosiomedimni – land owners). They also had two non-citizen classes (resident aliens and slaves).
Not only did Athens (and other societies like Sparta and Rome) divide their societies by class, but Plato’s ideal society from his Republic contains a rigid class strikingly similar to the Varnas system used in India.
The key difference between the Varnas and Plato’s ideal classes is that Plato didn’t have a lowest class on paper and his classes where non hereditary (people could choose a class early in life to fit their tastes). Another key difference from other class systems was that it was more focused on job than status. Also, unlike many societies, Plato’s ideal system made men and women equals. However, all this should be waited against the fact that Athens had a slave class and lower class and women weren’t equals in practice.
The Class System as an Overarching Metaphor
At first glance, especially with the lowest Dalits class considered, the caste system seems ridged and unfair… But give Plato’s Republic a read, and you can see why the general concept is less about a single culture and more about the different types of humans and jobs that need doing in a society.
With the negatives of a class system noted, I would go as far as to say that the class system works well as a metaphor for societies, politics, and even the human soul (in every case being a metaphor for the balance and moderation of different powers)… but this is no different than what Plato says, and perhaps this is the concept behind the Varnas in the first place.
Ultimately, I am of the opinion that major aspects of the left-right political system can be summarized by these four (or five if slavery is included) classes, as each relates back to an aspect of the human condition and general types of people.
Today we my frown on a class system, but looking deeper we might say: Whether social division occurs with capitalism, socialism, Indian culture, Islamic Mughals, Mongols, the Rus’, or what have you, a division of labor and related class system seems to be an underlying paradigm in most societies.
TIP: Learn more about Plato’s Republic and his class system, or see an explanation of the modern American class system (which is very similar but not purely based on birth).Reality of Caste System by Hindu Scholar Jay Lakhani.