20120502-Kshatriya Rajput RajaRaviVarma_MaharanaPratap.jpg
Kshatriya Rajput Raja Ravi Varma
In descending order, the four major varnas (traditional castes) are: 1) the Brahmins (priests and scholars), 2) the Kshatryas (landowners, rulers and warriors), 3) Vaisyas (commoners and merchants) and 4) Sudras (craftsmen, servants and laborers). Sometimes a fifth caste is added: the Haijuts (the lowest class). The Dalits (formally known as Untouchables) have traditionally been regarded as having such a low status they were not even considered being members of the caste system.

The first three varnas are considered "twice born" and thus higher. Their ranking is defined in the Rig Veda. Twice born is a reference to the fact that, unlike the Sudras, they are expected to go through a ceremonial rebirth when they begin wearing the sacred thread. This initiation into adulthood can takes place as early as the age of 7 and among other things means the wearer of the sacred thread is expected to follow strict taboos against eating meat.

Higher castes are usually associated with whiter skin and purer Aryan descent because the first light-skinned Aryan conquerors gave the conquered dark-skin Dravidians dirtier, lower status tasks. Even today, non-Indians are considered to be members of the lowest castes. Over centuries the basic castes have split into thousands of separate subdivisions based usually on occupation and location. Indians often refer to the these occupational castes as jati. According to Hindu texts jati emerged out of intermarriage between the varnas. Anthropologist posit that jatis developed as social groups like tribes and were integrated into the existing varna system. The process continues today as new crafts and jobs are created.

Within the four main castes there are numerous subdivisions, including 3,000 major castes and over 25,000 sub-castes. Some have only a few hundred members others have several million. Even journalists have their own caste. Some are specific to certain areas. In Gujarat, Brahmins make up 4 percent of the population; other upper castes, 8 percent; middle castes, 12 percent; farm laboring castes, 24 percent; lower castes, 7 percent; Untouchables 7 percent; Muslims, 8 percent; and Scheduled Tribes 14 percent.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) ; India Divine ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page ; Hinduism Index ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Castes and Varnas


The first four varnas apparently existed in the ancient Aryan society of northern India. Some historians say that these categories were originally somewhat fluid functional groups, not castes. A greater degree of fixity gradually developed, resulting in the complex ranking systems of medieval India that essentially continue in the late twentieth century.[Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

Although a varna is not a caste, when directly asked for their caste affiliation, particularly when the questioner is a Westerner, many Indians will reply with a varna name. Pressed further, they may respond with a much more specific name of a caste, or jati , which falls within that varna . For example, a Brahman may specify that he is a member of a named caste group, such as a Jijotiya Brahman, or a Smartha Brahman, and so on. Within such castes, people may further belong to smaller subcaste categories and to specific clans and lineages. These finer designations are particularly relevant when marriages are being arranged and often appear in newspaper matrimonial advertisements.*

Inequalities among castes are considered by the Hindu faithful to be part of the divinely ordained natural order and are expressed in terms of purity and pollution. Within a village, relative rank is most graphically expressed at a wedding or death feast, when all residents of the village are invited. At the home of a high-ranking caste member, food is prepared by a member of a caste from whom all can accept cooked food (usually by a Brahman). Diners are seated in lines; members of a single caste sit next to each other in a row, and members of other castes sit in perpendicular or parallel rows at some distance. Members of Dalit castes, such as Leatherworkers and Sweepers, may be seated far from the other diners--even out in an alley. Farther away, at the edge of the feeding area, a Sweeper may wait with a large basket to receive discarded leavings tossed in by other diners. Eating food contaminated by contact with the saliva of others not of the same family is considered far too polluting to be practiced by members of any other castes. Generally, feasts and ceremonies given by Dalits are not attended by higher-ranking castes.*

Castes that fall within the top four ranked varnas are sometimes referred to as the "clean castes," with Dalits considered "unclean." Castes of the top three ranked varnas are often designated "twice-born," in reference to the ritual initiation undergone by male members, in which investiture with the Hindu sacred thread constitutes a kind of ritual rebirth. Non-Hindu castelike groups generally fall outside these designations.*

Castes in a Typical Indian Village

members of the Nair caste

Members of a caste are typically spread out over a region, with representatives living in hundreds of settlements. In any small village, there may be representatives of a few or even a score or more castes.

Each village usually has members of 20 castes or so living there full time---farmers, bakers, tailors, merchants, tax-collectors, shoemakers, government officials, animal herders, servants, laborers, and artisans. Each caste has ties with same caste in villages nearby. Nomadic castes such as snake-charmers, bear trainers, merchants, medicine salesmen and dancers enter the villages from time to time.

The villages have a vertical unity provided by many castes and horizontal unity provided by caste alliances with other villages. Villages are typically divided into communities made up of members of the same castes, with the dominant castes living in the center of the villages, and the lower castes and Untouchables on the fringes. Towns and cities are often divided into neighborhoods made up of members of the same castes, with the dominant castes living in nice neighborhoods and the lower castes and Untouchables in the slums.

Because agriculture is the primary way of life peasants are the dominant caste. In a typical village with 600 households and 4,000 people there might be 22 Brahmin households and one Kshatryas household. Other households are identified by subcaste: 16 Banias (merchants and businessmen); 40 Mallas (fishermen); 20 Koiris (farmers); 25 telis (oil seed crushers who use bullock powered presses); 20 Lohars (blacksmiths); 15 Ahirs (cowherds); 10 Dhobis (washermen); 10 Khatiks (fruit and pig dealers); 5 Gawals (sheep herders); 3 Bhats (singers and dancers for perform at weddings); 2 Nias (barbers); 2 Doms (cremation attendants); and 1 Gond (peanut seller). In addition there are might be 50 Muslim weaver and tailor households and 200 Untouchable households. [Source: John Putman, National Geographic October 1971]

Caste position is often determined more by economic position than tradition. In some villages upper caste families and Untouchable families are kinked in master-servant relationships.

Brahmins and Purity

Brahmin priest

On the difference between Brahmin, Brahman and Brahma: 1) Brahmin refers to a person who belongs to the priest caste, the highest caste in Hindu society. 2) Brahman describes the Absolute, the Supreme Reality of the Vedanta philosophy. The word Brahma can refer to the creator god Brahma — one of the Hindu Trinity along with Shiva and Vishnu — or the first being created with every new cycle.

Members of the highest priestly castes, the Brahmins, are generally vegetarians (although some Bengali and Maharashtrian Brahmins eat fish) and avoid eating meat, the product of violence and death. High-ranking Warrior castes (Kshatriyas), however, typically consume nonvegetarian diets, considered appropriate for their traditions of valor and physical strength.[Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

A Brahmin born of proper Brahmin parents retains his inherent purity if he bathes and dresses himself properly, adheres to a vegetarian diet, eats meals prepared only by persons of appropriate rank, and keeps his person away from the bodily exuviae of others (except for necessary contact with the secretions of family infants and small children).*

If a Brahmin happens to come into bodily contact with a polluting substance, he can remove this pollution by bathing and changing his clothing. However, if he were to eat meat or commit other transgressions of the rigid dietary codes of his particular caste, he would be considered more deeply polluted and would have to undergo various purifying rites and payment of fines imposed by his caste council in order to restore his inherent purity.*

Lower Castes and Pollution

In sharp contrast to the purity of a Brahmin, a Sweeper born of Sweeper parents is considered to be born inherently polluted. The touch of his body is polluting to those higher on the caste hierarchy than he, and they will shrink from his touch, whether or not he has bathed recently. Sweepers are associated with the traditional occupation of cleaning human feces from latrines and sweeping public lanes of all kinds of dirt. Traditionally, Sweepers remove these polluting materials in baskets carried atop the head and dumped out in a garbage pile at the edge of the village or neighborhood. The involvement of Sweepers with such filth accords with their low-status position at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, even as their services allow high-status people, such as Brahmins, to maintain their ritual purity. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

20120502-Kshatriya Rajput 3.jpg
Kshatriya Rajput
Members of the Leatherworker (Chamar) caste are ascribed a very low status consonant with their association with the caste occupation of skinning dead animals and tanning the leather. Butchers (Khatiks, in Hindi), who kill and cut up the bodies of animals, also rank low on the caste hierarchy because of their association with violence and death.*

However, castes associated with ruling and warfare — and the killing and deaths of human beings — are typically accorded high rank on the caste hierarchy. In these instances, political power and wealth outrank association with violence as the key determinant of caste rank.*


The Kshatriyas are a large group of Hindu castes, located mainly in the northern half of India. The Sanskrit term “kshatra “ means “warrior, ruler” and identifies the second ranking varna, below Brahmins. Kshatriya have traditionally been expected to maintain law and order and protect the land from attackers from the outside. Although they are supposed to be descendants of warriors who served princes or rulers or were in royal families themselves few have anything to with soldiering or royal families anymore.

In the past some rulers have legitimized their status, especially as usurpers, by claiming their lineage was Kshatriya. The most well known of these are the Rajputs, who established many princedoms in Rajasthan. Both Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, came from Kshatriya families. It has been argued that these spiritual leaders took the path they did as a reaction to excessive ritualism that was associated with their caste. Most Kshatriyas today are landowners or follow urban professions. Many are civil servants, teachers and servants. They have many of the same customs as Brahmins but the caste restrictions they observe are not as strict as those of Brahmins. Many Kshatriya eat meat (not beef) and drink alcohol, which are denied Brahmins.

Over the centuries Kshatriya were often accused of hypocrisy. In the past they were supposed to deny themselves worldly pleasures so they could be better soldiers. But often, as was the case with the Rajputs, they spent relatively little time on the battlefield and made their homes in lavish palaces with multiple wives and concubines and enjoyed he pleasures of good food, fine horses and falconry.


The Vaisya are the third highest of the four varnas. They are ranked below the Brahmins and Kshatriyas but are higher than Sudras and Untouchables. They have traditionally been traders, moneylenders, farmers and peasants, and now work in a large number of castes with similar ranking. Vaisya are allowed to wear the sacred thread and are more well represented in northern India than in southern India.

The Vaisyas are a very ancient category. They were described in the Rig Veda (dated to the 12th century B.C.) as being Aryans not Dasas and were described in the Zend Avesta, the Zoroastrian Holy Book, as ranking third in the Zoroastrian ranking system. According to the classical 2nd century lawgiver Manu the duties of the Vaisyas were “to keep herds of cattle, to bestow largess, to sacrifice, to read the scripture, to carry on trade, to lend at interest, and to cultivate the land.” They were vital to keeping the economy going.


The Sudras are the lowest of the four varnas but are higher than Untouchables. They are generally rural laborers. The classical 2nd century lawgiver Manu defined their roles as those serving the three higher ranking varnas above them. The justification for this, offered in early Sanskrit writing, was that the three higher varnas were made of Indo-Aryam invaders while the Sudras were Dasas (dark-skinned local people who speak Dravidian languages). If there is any truth to this then they may be descendants of the Indus people.

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

The Sudras are not allowed to wear the sacred thread but they are allowed to enter all Hindu temples (something that Untouchables have traditionally not been able to do)

There are several hundred million Sudra. They have traditionally been self-employed farmers but now they make a living in all kinds of ways. They are found throughout India and work in hundreds of different castes.


"Untouchables" are generally defined as people belonging to castes that rank below the Sudra varna. They have traditionally been regarded as having such low status they don't even register on the caste system. There are an estimated 170 to 240 million of them, depending how different castes are counted, and they make up one sixth to one forth of India's population. The term “Untouchable” was first used in 1909 in a lecture by the Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda to describe the primary features of the group’s relationship with other castes. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, June 2003]

Untouchables don't like the being called Untouchables. They prefer to be called Dalits, meaning “ground down” and "oppressed." Mahatma Gandhi called them "Harijans" which means "children of god." Many find this term patronizing. They and members of other lower castes are often described these days as "scheduled classes" (a term introduced by the British that means they are on the schedule of castes eligible for government aid).

Other terms used to describe them include Depressed Classes, Avarna (outside the varna system), Antyaja (last-borne), Outcastes (inaccurate since they are in caste system), Adi-Dravida (meaning “original Dravidians”), external caste, backwards castes, Panchama (meaning fifth varna, a term developed to accommodate intercaste offspring into the caste system) and Pariah (a term used by the British based on the name of the major Untouchable group of Tamil Nadu).

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

Their low rank is based in on the general belief, often associated with Hinduism, that traditional occupations dealing with death, excrement, blood or dirt — such as butchers, leather workers, scavengers, latrine cleaners and street cleaners — are polluting to other castes and touching them should be avoided. Implicit in this construct is the belief that Untouchables deserve their lot in life because they are in the position they are in because of karma and as a punishment for sins committed in earlier lives. Untouchability is not unique to South Asia. Untouchable-like groups can be found in Japan (the Burakumin), Korea (the Paekching), Tibet (the Ragyappa) and Burma (Pagoda slaves).

Discrimination Against Untouchables

Untouchables have traditionally been forbidden from entering Hindu temples and schools, or touching members of other castes (hence their name). They have had drink from separate wells and sit on separate benches. In some places Untouchables are not allowed to use the same cups or utensils used by members of others castes at restaurants and food stalls. Sometimes they are served from coconut shells or have water poured into their hands rather than in a cup.

In some cases higher castes will not even let the shadows of lower castes fall on them and Untouchables were required to wear bells to alert upper class Hindus that they were coming. If a member of a high caste touches an Untouchable the are supposed to take a special bath and perform a ritual to regain their purity.

Untouchables in the countryside have traditionally lived in separated satellite hamlets or segregated neighborhoods. In the cities they often lived in segregated slums. In many cases they often used their own well and in some cases, their own roads, footpaths and bridges. In some places, Untouchables live in hamlets downwind from villages with non-Untouchables residents so their wind doesn't defile the higher caste people in the villages. Such segregation are regarded as necessary measures to protect others from their polluting presence.

In some cases lower castes are excluded from village wells. They are expected to collect water from muddy pools or stagnant ponds near the boundaries of their village. Often times the water they collect makes their children sick. Sometimes upper caste members charitably draw water for them and give it to them. Until a century ago there were rules in Kerala that described distances, ranging from 12 to 96 paces, which Untouchable castes could approach higher-status Hindus. In some places it it was a custom for higher class landowners to deflower Dalit brides on their wedding in front of the helpless groom.

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

In some places Dalits are prevented from reading or studying Hindu scriptures. Those that did were sometimes severely beaten as a punishment. Untouchable children are often prohibited from attending classes with children from higher castes. Even educated Untouchables with high level government jobs are forced at sit at the feet of Brahmins when they return to their villages. It has been said that some Untouchables are so polluting that they could pollute a corpse, which itself is regarded as polluting.

The discrimination persist even Untouchable generally have the same skin color and dress n the same clothes as other Indians. They are not dirty and do not live in unclean homes.

Special Benefits for Dalits

Independent India has built on earlier British efforts to remedy problems suffered by Dalits by granting them some benefits of protective discrimination. Scheduled Castes are entitled to reserved electoral offices, reserved jobs in central and state governments, and special educational benefits. The constitution mandates that one-seventh of state and national legislative seats be reserved for members of Scheduled Castes in order to guarantee their voice in government. Reserving seats has proven useful because few, if any, Scheduled Caste candidates have ever been elected in nonreserved constituencies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Educationally, Dalit students have benefited from scholarships, and Scheduled Caste literacy increased (from 10.3 percent in 1961 to 21.4 percent in 1981, the last year for which such figures are available), although not as rapidly as among the general population. Improved access to education has resulted in the emergence of a substantial group of educated Dalits able to take up white-collar occupations and fight for their rights.*

There has been tremendous resistance among non-Dalits to this protective discrimination for the Scheduled Castes, who constitute some 16 percent of the total population, and efforts have been made to provide similar advantages to the so-called Backward Classes, who constitute an estimated 52 percent of the population. In August 1990, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap (V.P.) Singh announced his intention to enforce the recommendations of the Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission), issued in December 1980 and largely ignored for a decade. The report, which urged special advantages for obtaining civil service positions and admission to higher education for the Backward Classes, resulted in riots and self-immolations and contributed to the fall of the prime minister. The upper castes have been particularly adamant against these policies because unemployment is a major problem in India, and many feel that they are being unjustly excluded from posts for which they are better qualified than lower-caste applicants.*

From “Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India” (1837)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and the 19th century book Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India

Text Sources: “World Religions “ edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions “ edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators “ by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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