For thousands of years on the Indian subcontinent, a person’s social class was determined by birth, known as the caste system. Caste members lived, ate, married, and worked with their own group. A person born into one caste rarely changed castes or mixed with members of other castes. Social rules defined how to behave within and among castes.
The caste system likely developed on the traditional beliefs of the Aryan nomads who began moving onto the subcontinent, about 1000 BCE.
Each caste had a clearly defined role and its own support system. These traditions were later incorporated into the Hindu religion.
At the top of the caste system were the Brahmin and the Kshatriya. The Brahmin were the priests, teachers, and judges who understood dharma, the spiritual laws that govern the universe. The Brahmin often lived in temples, apart from the rest of society.
The Kshatriya were the warrior caste who made everyday decisions and ran the government. The Kshatriya had most of the power in everyday life, but their decisions could be overruled by the Brahmin.
The Vaishyas were skilled farmers and merchants. They occasionally had leadership positions in local villages. The unskilled workers belonged to the Sudras caste. The caste often worked on the farms owned by people of higher castes.
Many Brahmin priests believed contact with lower castes would contaminate their souls. Vedic prayers were considered so pure that they could not be recited or even heard by a person of a lower caste. One Indian law stated that if a Sudras was caught listening to the Vedas, molten lead was to be poured into his ears.
Foreigners, lawbreakers, people from isolated tribes, and people suffering from contagious diseases lived outside the caste system. These untouchables or “outcastes" were traditionally regarded as unsuitable for personal relations with people who belonged to a caste. Caste members were vegetarians, which meant that people who ate meat or fish were not accepted into their society.
Untouchables were hired to do work that members of the caste system would not do. These jobs included killing or disposing of dead cattle or working with their hides. The untouchables also worked as sweepers, washers, or in other jobs that required contact with human emissions such as sweat or urine
Source: The Caste System
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