The Controversial Indian Caste System Has Been Dividing India for 2000 Years
A study of genetic populations in India suggests the Indian caste system, a traditional method of social organization into a hierarchy of hereditary groups, has been prevalent in the South Asian society for about 2000 years.
As an overview: the caste system is based on Hindu religious principles and dictates how different groups of people can interact. This hierarchical organization of society only permits marriage within the same caste and dictates that a caste is fixed from birth. Moreover, each caste is linked to a traditional occupation.
A 1922 stereograph of Hindu children of high caste, Bombay, India. ( Public Domain )
Live Science reported that researchers analyzed the DNA of 371 people from 73 groups and reported their findings in the American Journal of Human Genetics . The researchers discovered that different populations began to intermix in India about 4200 years ago, but stopped intermingling approximately 1900 years ago. These results were supported by clues found in ancient texts which suggest class distinctions have existed since about 3000-3500 years ago. Caste divisions became strong approximately two millennia ago.
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An 1860s photograph of Rajputs, classified as a high Hindu caste. ( Public Domain )
Three principal groups of people – priests, nobility, and common people – were identified in the 3500-year-old collection of Sanskrit hymns known as the Rigveda. This source doesn’t mention segregation or restrictions on employment areas at that time. A fourth group, called the Shudra (the lowest class), was mentioned by 1000 BC. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 100 BC that the holy text Manusmruti mentioned direct prohibition of marriages across castes. This restriction reflects the results of the genetic analysis.
Study co-author Priya Moorjani, a geneticist at Harvard University, explained that although relationships across castes was once common, a "transformation where most groups now practice endogamy [where people marry within their own group]" occurred about 2000 years ago.
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The caste system is linked to a Hindu belief in the four varnas - ordering and ranking people by their “innate” spiritual purity. At the highest position are the priests, Brahmins. The warriors, Kshatriyas, are next and the Vaishyas, merchants, follow them. The lowest caste belongs to Shurdas (laborers, artisans, and servants doing ritually “unclean” work.) The Shudra caste was once known as the “untouchables” and they were heavily discriminated against – being unable to drink from wells used by higher castes, participate in religious rituals, or even have their shadows fall on Brahmins.
Pyramid of Caste system in India. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
By the early 20th century India was on its way to independence from the British and the caste system became very controversial. It has been criticized as unfair and discriminatory. Now, the Indian constitution prohibits the use of “untouchable” to describe members of the Shudra caste or discrimination based on caste. With the increase of the information age, the caste system has lost much of its economic importance. However, it remains important to religious practices and continues to be a divisive area of life in India today.
Gandhi visiting Madras (now Chennai) in 1933 on an India-wide tour for Harijan causes. His speeches and writings during these tours discussed the discriminated castes of India. ( Public Domain )