The caste system in India is a system of social stratification which historically separated communities into thousands of endogenous hereditary groups called Jaatis, usually translated into English as “castes”.
There are four main castes. At the very top are the Brahmins — the priests, scholars, and philosophers. The second highest caste is the Kshatriyas, these are the warriors, rulers, and those concerned with the defense and administration of the village or state. Third is the Vaishyas, who are traders, merchants, and people involved in agricultural production. The lowest caste is the Shudras — the laborers and servants for the other castes. Each caste includes many sub castes divided by occupation.
Below the Shudras are the Dalits and Pariahs formerly known as the Untouchables, these people have no caste at all and are seen as ‘outcasts’. They perform the most menial jobs, such as dealing with dead bodies (manual scavenging) and cleaning toilets, sweeping roads and leather work, basically anything associated with dirt.
Higher-caste people who partake in the caste system believe that if they touched one of the caste-less, they would be contaminated and would need to go through cleansing rituals.
Caste is often thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but various contemporary scholars argue that the caste system was constructed by the British colonial regime. Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during 1920s led to a change in this policy. Using occupation to define castes is also confusing. While Brahmins have been defined as priests and sometimes rulers, Kshatriyas as warriors and sometimes rulers, Vaishyas as traders and sometimes agriculturists and Shudras as laborers and sometimes agriculturists, all of them have also been defined by other professions.
Caste is determined by birth – a person falls into the same caste as their parents, and there is almost no way to change it. Hinduism preaches a cycle of birth and reincarnation, in which a person’s soul is reborn into a new form after death. An individual’s actions in this life determine their fate when they are born again. If they are faithful and dutiful in this life, next time, they will get a better caste. The system fits well with this belief. Lower-caste people believe that if they lived a good life, they could be reborn in a higher caste in the next.