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Caste System, Indian


In ancient India society was divided into four classes (varna, meaning literally "color"): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaiśyas (merchants and peasants), and Śūdras (servants). The caste system does not seem to have been derived from these classes, but rather to have been grafted upon them. It arose among the non-Aryan peoples of India and was the means by which different racial, religious, and social groups were assimilated within Hinduism. In the course of time the number of castes and subcastes has grown to over 2,000. The basic principle of caste is that no one may marry or entertain in his or her home a person of another caste. Thus, all the different castes are kept permanently separate, even though they may live together in the same village. Further, certain trades and habits of life were considered un-clean, so that those who practiced them could not come within a certain distance of a member of another caste or drink from the same well. This prohibition is based on ritual purity and shows the fundamentally religious basis of caste. In modern times the extremes of "untouchability" have been legally abolished and many caste distinctions

are breaking down, especially in the towns. But in the villages they remain in force, and it is still very rare for anyone to marry outside his or her caste.

See Also: hinduism.

Bibliography: j. h. hutton, Caste in India: Its Nature, Function and Origins (Cambridge, Eng. 1952). b. ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon (New Brunswick, N.J. 1953).

[b. griffiths/eds.]

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