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Layers of Society:
The Caste System
The Hindu caste system is the oldest and most well-known social hierarchy in the world. Complicated, with many rules, this system stretches back thousands of years. At the heart of the caste system is the belief that a person’s rank or status in society depends on their caste. It impacts many parts of life in India and determines what people eat, who they marry, and most importantly, what kinds of jobs they can obtain.
There are four main castes to which a person might belong: Brahman [brah-muhn], Kshatriya [ksha-tree-uh], Vaishya
[vei-shai-uh], and Shudra [shoo-druh]. Brahmans hold high positions in society and are often priests, spiritual advisors, teachers, and scholars. Kshatriyas, the second-highest of the four castes, are traditionally known as warriors and take on roles in the military and government. Vaishyas are typically merchants, traders, and farmers. At the bottom are the Shudras. They work in jobs that are viewed as undesirable and are often craftsmen, blacksmiths, and laborers.
There’s also a group of people who fall even below the Shudras; they don’t belong to any caste and are called Dalits [da-luhts], or Untouchables. Dalits perform tasks that deal with dirt, like handling dead bodies, cleaning toilets, and sweeping roads.
There are different theories about how the caste system got started in India. Some believe that the Aryans, or Indo-Iranian peoples, introduced the system to control the local population when they invaded India during the Vedic period (c. 1500–1000 BCE). Others believe it had Hindu origins. They claim the Rigveda, Hinduism’s oldest sacred text, included
an explanation of how people were created from parts of
the divine Purusha’s (god) body. Brahmans were made from Purusha’s mouth, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudra from his feet.
Although experts still disagree about how or why people started following the caste system, it continues to have a hold over Indian society. The Constitution of India, which determines many laws in the country, made the caste system illegal in 1950. However, many in India still follow this well-known social hierarchy.