Nowhere is caste better exemplified by degree of complexity and systematic operation than in India. The Indian term for caste is jati, which generally designates a group varying in size from a handful to many thousands. There are thousands of such jatis, and each has its distinctive rules, customs, and modes of government. The term varna (literally meaning "color") refers to the ancient and somewhat ideal fourfold division of Hindu society: (1) the Brahmans, the priestly and learned class; (2) the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; (3) the Vaisyas, farmers and merchants; and (4) the Sudras, peasants and laborers. These divisions may have corresponded to what were formerly large, broad, undifferentiated social classes. Below the category of Sudras were the untouchables, or Panchamas (literally "fifth division"), who performed the most menial tasks.
Although there has been much confusion between the two, jati and varna are different in origin as well as function. The various castes in any given region of India are hierarchically organized, with each caste corresponding roughly to one or the other of the varna categories. Traditionally, caste mobility has taken the form of movement up or down the varna scale. Indian castes are rigidly differentiated by rituals and beliefs that pervade all thought and conduct (see dharma). Extreme upper and lower castes differ so widely in habits of everyday life and worship that only the close intergrading of intervening castes and the intercaste language communities serve to hold them together within the single framework of Indian society.
The explanation that Indian castes were originally based on color lines to preserve the racial and cultural purity of conquering groups is inadequate historically to account for the physical and cultural variety of such groups. Castes may reflect distinctiveness of religious practice, occupation, locale, culture status, or tribal affiliation, either exclusively or in part. Divergence within a caste on any of these lines will tend to produce fission that may, in time, result in the formation of new castes. Every type of social group as it appears may be fitted into this system of organizing society.
The occupational barriers among Indian castes have been breaking down slowly under economic pressures since the 19th cent., but social distinctions have been more persistent. Attitudes toward the untouchables only began to change in the 1930s under the influence of Mohandas Gandhi's teachings, who called the group Harijans. Although untouchability was declared illegal in 1949, resistance to change has remained strong, especially in rural areas. As increased industrialization produced new occupations and new social and political functions evolved, the caste system adapted and thus far has not been destroyed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.