The Caste System
For Kids: The idea of the caste system in ancient India began after the Indus Valley Civilization disappeared and a new people arrived, the Aryans. The Aryans were nomads from the north. They brought with them some new ideas. One of those ideas was Hinduism, which is now a world religion. Another was the idea of a caste system. A caste is a life-long social group into which a Hindu is born.
The Vedas are the Sanskrit writings that are the earliest sacred texts of Hinduism. The Vedas suggest the caste system in India. There were four social classes in the ancient Aryan society. These were the Brahmins (priests & scholars); warriors & nobles; artisans & merchants; and on the lowest level, farm workers, laborers, servants
Once the Aryans settled down and began to grow their food instead of being just herdsmen, they started developing a caste system. The caste system started with just four castes. In order of importance and power these castes were priests, warriors, traders and farmers, and finally paid workers. The caste system grew progressively more strict until finally you were born into your caste and could not move or marry out of your caste.
The caste system really wasn't part of Hinduism, at first. The caste system began at about the same time as Hinduism. The caste system remained in place in India for thousands of years, long after Aryan rule was replaced by other leaders. But over the years, the caste system became intertwined with Hindu India. When Buddhism began in India, Buddhists did not recognize castes. That made Buddhism very attractive to the lower ranks in India's society. But in spite of the introduction of Buddhism and other religions, most ancient India people remained Hindus, and thus the caste system continued.
Top Caste: The Brahims: The top caste was made up of scholars, priests, teachers, judges, and landowners. They were know as the Brahmin caste or Brahmins. Many Brahmins lived in temples, removed from society. Others spent a great deal of time in contemplation and meditation. Some were quite social.
The Kshatriya: Kshatriyas were the warriors. Rulers of towns and cities mostly came from the Kshatriya caste. Any decision they made, however, could be overruled by a member of the Brahmin, the caste above them.
The Vaishyas: Vaishyas were skilled farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. Vaishyas could hold office in village government. They might live in very nice houses. Even though they were three down on the social scale, they still had good clothes and ample food. They might not be the top leaders, but they were certainly a respected part of society.
Bottom Caste: The Sudras: The Sudras were the unskilled workers. They might find a job on a farm or a non-skilled job in a home or business like cleaning. They were the bottom caste.
The people without a caste, the Untouchables: There was one other social rank in ancient India. People who were born into this social rank were called Untouchables. These were the people who were considered the lowest in society in Hindu India, so low that they were not part of the caste system. They had no rights. If they had a job at all, other than begging, it was a degrading job that no one else wanted to do. If your parent was an Untouchable, so were you. Untouchables could not move up or marry out of their social rank.
Since 1950, the Indian Constitution has forbidden discrimination.