Tracing Back the Origins of the Caste System in India: A Sociological Perspective

If there are three things indispensable to an Indian, then those would be the three Cs: charity, corruption, and caste. Charity and corruption being voluntary traits can depend upon the choice of an individual and are prevalent almost everywhere, so, may be suppressed. However, this is not the case with caste. Caste system is so deeply ingrained exclusively in the Indian blood that taking it away would mean depreciating the essence of life. Like no other society, in the Indian society caste has become a way of life, a way of discerning identities, and an essential value to pass on to the next generations. With such striking importance, it is no surprise that the caste system is believed to have originated and developed in India. Its roots can be traced back to the Vedic period, particularly the Rig Vedic period, Although the Rig Vedic society was based on brotherhood but division on the basis of the Varna system was still there. Brahmins were superior to all other castes. The mention of the four varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, is found in 10th Mandal of the Purusha Sukta in Rig Veda, which is looked upon as an interpolation added towards the end of the Rig Vedic period. So, the caste system is believed to have originated at the fag end of the Rig Vedic period. The division of the society was not rigid as there were no restrictions in interacting with people of other castes. People were even allowed to change their caste.

Caste has always been a factor of social stratification and social mobility as it has affected society at large and not an individual or group in isolation from others. That is why it has been of prime concern to the study of society and thus sociology. From a sociological perspective, caste is a horizontal stratification of society which has been an active catalyst in social change and social evolution. A.W. Green defines caste as follows “caste is a system of stratification in which mobility up and down the status ladder, at least ideally may not occur”.According to C.H. Coole, “When a class is somewhat strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste.” Ketekardefines caste in his own words, “Caste is a social group having two characteristics (a) membership is confined to those who are born of members & includes all persons no born (b) the members are forbidden by an inexorable social law to marry outside the group.”

On the question of origin of caste system, many sociologists have attempted to give plausible explanations but none has got universal acceptance. However, the theories given by them are of utmost importance in the study. These theories lay special emphasis to the classification of four castes as envisaged in the Rig Veda- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. These theories attempt to give plausible explanations and define the factors responsible for the evolution of this classification where the Brahmins are at the top of the social stratification followed by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras in decreasing order. All the four castes had their respective roles, responsibilities, and were separated on the basis of occupation.

  1. Traditional Theory: According to this theory, caste is believed to have a divine origin, that is, from the body of Lord Brahma, the creator of the world, as an extension of Varna system. The body of Lord Brahma gave birth to the four castes specializing in respective tasks. The Brahmins, who were mostly teachers and intellectuals, descended from Brahma’s head, were at the top of the social order. The arms produced the Kshatriyas, or warriors and kings. The thighs produced the merchants, or Vaishyas. The Shudras, who descended from Brahma’s foot, were at the bottom. The Shudras’ obligation was to serve everyone else, as the feet support the entire body, mouth represents its usage for preaching, studying, etc., the arms serve as protection, and the thighs are used for work or commerce. Due to inter-varna marriages, the sub-castes developed later. This theory finds reference in religious scriptures as well as Smritis or law books such as Manusmriti and Yajnavalkya. 
  • Brahminical Theory: This theory states that caste has been invented by the Brahmins as a device to keep their status high in society. The Brahmins already held an important position in the society as their primary role was to educate all other classes so that they can perform their tasks efficiently and can achieve the ultimate telos, that is, happiness. The Brahmins imposed restrictions on food and social intercourse to preserve their purity necessary for the sacerdotal functions.[1] They even added the concept of spiritual merit of the king, through the priest or purohit in order to get the support of the ruler of the land.[2] Dr. Ghurye states, “Caste is a Brahminic child of Indo-Aryan culture cradled in the land of the Ganges and then transferred to other parts of India.” Later on, the Britishers supported the division as a part of the divide-and-rule policy. Although, the Britishers were reluctant to disturb the social structure of India, but they saw profit in the pockets of the Brahmins, so, they supported them and suppressed other castes which only served in deepening the caste system.
  • Occupational Theory: Nesfield gave name to this theory. This is the most widely accepted theory which states that functional differentiation gave rise to caste. The professions which were considered noble and respectable made the persons performing them superior to others. Accordingly, Brahmins, engaged in teaching and priesthood were given the topmost position, then Kshatriyas whose main function was to engage in warfare and protect people, then Vaishyas who looked after agriculture and reared cattle, and at the lowermost level were the Shudras who did menial tasks like that of artisans and peasants. In Nesfield’s own words, “Function and function alone is responsible for the origin of caste structure in India.” This theory puts stress on the fact that every generation did the same occupation and passed the skills to the next which made them to be known for that occupation and thus, caste emerged.
  • Racial Theory: This theory is supported by Herbert Risley, Ghurye, Mazumdar, Westermark, and others. According to Dr. Mazumdar, the caste system took its birth after the arrival of Aryans in India. In order to maintain their separate existence, the Indo-Aryans used for certain groups and orders of people their favourite word ‘varna’, ‘colour’.[3] The Aryans kept their own beliefs and ritual purity because they saw the locals as inferior to them. While the Aryans wed non-Aryan women, they refused to marry off their daughters to non-Aryans. Such couplings produced children who were known as Chandals. In society, the Chandals had the lowest status. Thus, it was believed that genetic supremacy and irregular racial couplings were to blame for the development of India’s caste system. In the Mahabharata each varna is associated with a particular colour, Brahmin with white as a symbol of purity, Kshatriya with red which represented their valour, Vaishya with yellow to symbolise agriculture, and Shudra with black.[4]
  • Theory of Mana: This theory, supported by Hutton, Roy, Rice and Swart, states that caste existed in India even before the Aryans invaded. ‘Mana’ is a supernatural power that possesses the capacity to do good or bad to people.[5]  The belief in mana enabled the indigenous tribal people to signify individuals as concepts of purity and pollution which led to the untouchability practice.[6] This led to the gradual separation of people with different cultures, traditions, rites, rituals, food and clothing habits, etc. as a different caste away from the mainstream.
  • Evolutionary Theory: According to Denzil Ibbetson, caste system evolved as a long and continuous process of development and not as a sudden change. Like any other social institution, caste has evolved as a sum total of many different factors. The factors which contributed to it were many including the desire for purity of blood, devotion to a particular profession, the theory of Karma, conquests of one army by the other, geographical location and isolation.[7] All these factors have led to the circumstances of gradual social change and social stratification as well as the social transformation of the society with caste as an important arm in the functioning of the society.
  • Religious Theory: Hocart and Senart are the main proponents of this theory. This theory believes religion to be the most potent factor in the emergence of the caste system. It is said that the caste system in India was founded on a number of religious traditions. Religious figures like Kings and Brahmins, who were believed to be the agents of the God, were granted positions of authority. For the administration of the king, various individuals used to carry out various responsibilities, which ultimately served as the foundation for the caste system. Also, those who believed in the same deity considered themselves different from those who believed in some other deity.[8] Additionally, limitations on eating behaviors had influenced the creation of the caste system.

On the basis of the theories given by different sociologists, it can be aptly concluded that no single theory or social phenomenon can be said to have originated the caste system in India. Each theory puts focus on one or few factors that triggered the inception of the caste system but none has been able to take a whole rounded approach in the matter that can quench the thirst of all sociologists in all aspects.

From the Vedic period until now caste has stimulated the attention of historians, sociologists, political scientists, and even rulers. Contemporary Indian governments have not been able to remain isolated from the same. From the first amendment for providing caste-based reservation to the recent Supreme Court judgment upholding the validity of reservation to the economically weaker section; dubbed as the first step towards a casteless and classless society; caste has always been the center of politics be it vote bank or policy making. The difference is that now, with the abolition of untouchability by the constitution, caste-based inequalities are seen as something that should be eradicated to foster equality amongst the citizens, but, at the ground level, people still have faith in the sanctity of caste system as well as the stratification attached to it. Today, with many developments in education, laws, healthcare, and lifestyle, people have developed a sense of acceptance for other castes. Earlier, caste was considered to be strictly endogamous but now, the boundaries are permeable to a very large extent, such that inter-caste marriages are taking place let alone the freedom to choose occupation. While the caste system originated in Hindu scriptures, it crystallized during British colonial rule and has stratified society in every South Asian religious community.[9] It is not exclusive to India but is seen the most here. Although there is no universally accepted explanation about the origins of caste system but has its roots in India. 

[1] Nitisha, “Theories of Caste System in India” India, available at: (Visited on January 13, 2023).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shelly Shah, “7 Major Theories Regarding the Origin of Caste System in India”available at: (Visited on January 15, 2023).

[4] “Unit-5 Brahminical Perspective” IGNOU, 2017, available at: (Visited on January 15, 2023).

[5] Supra note 1.

[6] Radhika Kapur, “Theories of Caste System”, Research Gate, 2022, available at: (Visited on January 16, 2023).

[7] Supra note 1.

[8] Supra note 3.

[9] “Caste doesn’t just exist in India or in Hinduism – it is pervasive across many religions in South Asia and the diaspora” The Conversation,  April 2022, available at: (Visited on January 17, 2023).

Author: Komal

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