how did the caste system affect ancient indian society
Castes in India. A page from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India, which consists of 72 full-color hand-painted images of men and women of the various castes and religious and ethnic groups found in Madura, India at that time. Each drawing was made on mica, a transparent, flaky mineral that splits into thin, transparent sheets. As indicated on the presentation page, the album was compiled by the Indian writing master at an English school established by American missionaries in Madura, and given to the Reverend William Twining. The manuscript shows Indian dress and jewelry adornment in the Madura region as they appeared before the onset of Western influences on South Asian dress and style. Each illustrated portrait is captioned in English and in Tamil, and the title page of the work includes English, Tamil, and Telugu.
Society during the Vedic Period (c.1750-500 BCE) was patriarchal and patrilineal, meaning to trace ancestral heritage through the male line. Marriage and childbearing were especially important to maintain male lineage. The institution of marriage was important, and different types of marriages—monogamy, polygyny and polyandry—are mentioned in the Rig Veda. All priests, warriors, and tribal chiefs were men, and descent was always through the male line.
The caste system was bolstered under the British Raj, which appointed only upper-caste Hindus to senior positions and administrative jobs. During the 1920s, however, protests led to the colonial administration introducing a system of quotas under which a certain percentage of government jobs were reserved for lower-caste Hindus.
In the system, Hindus are divided up into four classes based on the principle of “varna,” which literally means “color”: the Brahmins (the priestly class); the Kshatriyas (the ruling, administrative and warrior class); the Vaishyas (the class of artisans, tradesmen, farmers and merchants); and the Shudras (manual workers). There are also people who fall outside the system, including tribal people and the Dalits, previously known as “untouchables,” although the term is somewhat contentious.
Marriage across caste lines was strictly forbidden. Most people even married within their own sub-caste or jati.
Although originally caste depended upon a person’s work, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into an unalterable social status. The four primary castes are Brahmin, the priests; Kshatriya, warriors and nobility; Vaisya, farmers, traders, and artisans; and Shudra, tenant farmers and servants. Some people were born outside of (and below) the caste system; they were called “untouchables” or Dalits—”the crushed ones.”
In recent decades, with the spread of secular education and growing urbanisation, the influence of caste has somewhat declined, especially in cities where different castes live side-by-side and inter-caste marriages are becoming more common.
In recent years, there have been demands from several communities to be recognised as OBCs – in 2016 there were violent protests by the Jat community in Haryana and the Patel community led huge protests in Gujarat in 2015 demanding access to caste quotas.
Brahmins were the foremost choice as tutors for the newborn because they represent the link between sublime knowledge of the gods and the four Varnas. This way, since the ancestral wisdom is sustained through guru-disciple practice, all citizens born in each Varna would remain rooted to the requirements of their lives. Normally, Brahmins were the personification of contentment and dispellers of ignorance, leading all seekers to the zenith of supreme knowledge, however, under exceptions, they lived as warriors, traders, or agriculturists in severe adversity. The ones bestowed with the titles of Brahma Rishi or Maha Rishi were requested to counsel kings and their kingdoms’ administration. All Brahmin men were allowed to marry women of the first three Varnas, whereas marrying a Shudra woman would, marginally, bereft the Brahmin of his priestly status. Nevertheless, a Shudra woman would not be rejected if the Brahmin consented.
Shudras would serve the Brahmins in their ashrams, Kshatriyas in their palaces and princely camps, and Vaishyas in their commercial activities. Although they are the feet of the primordial being, learned citizens of higher Varnas would always regard them as a crucial segment of society, for an orderly society would be easily compromised if the feet are weak. Shudras, on the other hand, obeyed the orders of their masters, because their knowledge of attaining moksha by embracing their prescribed duties encouraged them to remain loyal. Shudra women, too, worked as attendants and close companions of the queen and would go with her after marriage to other kingdoms. Many Shudras were also allowed to be agriculturalists, traders, and enter occupations of Vaishyas. These detours of life duties would, however, be under special circumstances, on perceiving deteriorating economic situations. The Shudras’ selflessness makes them worthy of unprecedented regard and respect.