I understand there is a caste system on the basis of occupation. What is the reason for having such a classification system?

Has the original concept stayed the same or has it evolved over time (if at all)?

  • 1
    Caste system is not based on occupation. – user1195 May 16 '17 at 16:57

The caste system, as existing in modern India, is a degraded form of varnasrama. The Wikipedia article is full of western speculation, but the proper definition is given in Bhagavad-gita:

(God says)

Four [profesional] colorings were created by me, differentiated by qualities and activities. ...

The qualities (guna) mentioned in this verse are not just random general qualities of a person but specifically the goodness/passion/nescience (sattva/rajas/tamas).

It is described in more detail in Brhat-Parasara-Hora-Sastra:

  1. A person affected primarily by sattva guna is apt to be a good brahmana (teacher, scientist, priest...)
  2. A person affected primarily by rajo guna is apt to be a good kshatriya (leader, officer, governor...)
  3. A person affected primarily by tamo guna is apt to be a good shudra (worker, artisan, performer...)
  4. A person without a dominating influence from the mix of three gunas is apt to be a good vaishya (merchant, landowner, industrialist...)

Please note that the entire material world consists exclusively of these 3 qualities, there is no question of anyone not being affected by them or being affected by something else. It is only a question of proportions.

So, the original system was a natural system of work division that made everyone happy. The degraded caste system arose as people started to claim positions without being actually qualified. They substituted heredity in place of qualities. The first example of transgression is given in Srimad-Bhagavatam where a brahmana boy Shringi curses good king Parikshit, although brahmana and ksatriya duties are to protect each other.

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    I'd like to see some evidence for the breakdown you ahve mentioned. What I have read is brahmanas are dominated by sattva, ksatriyas have rajas, vaisyas have rajas and tamas, and sudras are in tamas. – cheenbabes Jun 19 '14 at 20:26
  • @cheenbabes BPHS does have problems with authenticity: shyamasundaradasa.com/jyotish/resources/articles/bphs.html . But I have not seen any evidence for the Caranaravinda Swami's version either. Quoting [SB 1.2.19] is not applicable to vaisyas. – user3603546 Jun 19 '14 at 22:18
  • A very good point you mentioned is the transgression from the original system. The intention (may be) is good, but there have been much corruption of the original concept. – tempusfugit Jun 20 '14 at 13:20
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    Oh! and btw, there are numerous example of people changing their varna, for eg. Valmiki, a born hunter became a Brahmana or Vishwamitra, a Brahmana born turned into Kshtriya. – Vineet Menon Jul 9 '14 at 15:16
  • I've herd there is a karmic concept relating to varna system (I don't know the source), that states "if you commit a crime in your present life you will be born into a lower cast in your next life". Does this karmic concept really exist in the original concepts of varna?? – Xlam Dec 11 '17 at 19:55

Caste is an inappropriate translation of the Varna system.

The word 'caste' was an English adaptation from the Portuguese term 'casta, which was first used by the Portuguese' in describing what they perceived to be India's social structure. There is no term 'caste' in Sanskrit or any Indian language. The only reference to such social structure in the Gita is verse 13 of chapter 4, where the notion of 'varna' has been explained. Varna was mistranslated as 'caste', and after generations of repetition, it became the prevailing view even amongst Hindus educated under the British system.1

What is the reason for having such a classification system?

The reason for having a classification based on occupation was division of labor. Division of labor is natural and can be observed in nature. For example, insects such as wasps, ants, bees etc. have a clearly defined roles in their colonies. Power hierarchies have been observed among primates.

The division of labor in the case of the Hindu system was based on one's aptitude(guna) as mentioned in other answers.

Has the original concept stayed the same or has it evolved over time (if at all)?

The original system was flexible and people constantly kept moving between Varnas. It was getting ossified during British time and the boundaries were made fixed in post-independence time which is against the original purpose of the Varna system.

Here is an example of Jatis changing Varna in pre-independence period 2:

Jati changing Varna


[1] Bhagvadgita on Caste by Rajiv Malhotra

[2] Caste: a HAF-baked lamentation By Kalavai Venkat

  • Nai and Kamar, Brahmin? o.O – Vineet Menon Jul 9 '14 at 15:18
  • They were in 1931 census according to the link 2. Maybe now they are not. In post-independence, they might have been reverted. – Bharat Jul 9 '14 at 15:21

The caste-system a few thousand years ago was largely Varna (profession) based. The caste-system as we see today, was artificially created and then systematically enforced by the British to dominate Hindus or India. Rajiv Malhotra in his book 'Breaking India' talks about this at great length. I would recommend that you read that book. I will post some excerpts below to just give an overview.

Europeans invent the Aryan race:

In the eighteenth century, when the traditional religious edifice of Europe was threatened by the Enlightenment, Europeans looked for a golden past. Many hoped they could find it in India, which had been the source of much of Europe's imports for centuries. In this search for identity, they began to hypothesize and construct an idealized 'Aryan race' through a distorted reading of Indian scriptures. Fed by virulent German nationalism, anti-Semitism and Race Science, this manipulation ultimately led to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.”

Inventing the 'Dravidian race':

In the late eighteenth century, the Indologist Max Müller proposed the Aryan category strictly as a linguistic group, but it soon got transformed into the Aryan race by colonial administrators who used Race Science to make a taxonomical division of traditional Indian communities. The castes designated as 'non-Aryan' were marginalized or excluded in depictions of Hindu society. In parallel, the Church evangelists working in South India constructed a Dravidian race identity. They de-linked Tamil culture from its pan-Indian cultural matrix, and claimed that its spirituality was closer to Christianity than to the Aryan North Indian culture.”

Risley's morphs Jati-Varna into Race (Caste) and freezes them:

Risley wrote that he wanted his 'scientific' research to 'detach considerable masses of non-Aryans from the general body of Hindus'. He adopted the popular Race Science measurement methods used by French experts, according to which physical traits, such as the size of the nose, were a more reliable measure than skin color. Risley was an enthusiastic champion of the newly fashionable science called anthropometry, which measured various parts of the head to characterize different peoples. He used his measurements of people in India to conclude that there was a remarkable correspondence between two kinds of data, namely, (i) the 'gradations of type' as brought out by certain indices of head measurements, and (ii) the 'gradations of social preference'. This, he wrote, 'enables us to conclude that the community of races, and not, as has frequently been argued, the community of function, is the real determining principle . . . of the caste system'. His 1891 ethnographic study of Bengal became the model for similar studies across India. His program measured Bengali heads and noses with calipers in order to establish hierarchies based on physical body dimensions.”

Based on Risley's research, Indians were classified into seven major races located on a linear scale, with Aryans and Dravidians as the two opposite poles. He also organized 'social types' into seven groups. To protect himself, he wrote numerous disclaimers against blatant racism, and against taking things too far. Yet that was precisely what he did and wanted others to do. He claimed that according to his data, 'the correspondence between the two sets of groupings', namely, the seven races and the seven social types, was sufficiently close. He thereby concluded that Indian tribes had turned into castes. He described the various tribal types in the order of their primitiveness, positioning the Dravidians as the lowest, assigning manual labor as their 'birthright', along with human sacrifices to a goddess.16 Those tribes that had developed professional specialization became castes, while those that had remained in a limited geographic territory were still classified as tribes.”

As the commissioner of the 1901 census of India, Risley wrote the section on caste, which was published in the highly influential Imperial Gazetteer of India, and became the template for academicians and colonial administrators to do their studies. He decided that Indians consisted of 2,378 main castes and tribes (with sub-castes), and 43 races. To implement his hierarchy of castes, he decided not to list them in alphabetical order in the census forms, but rather in order of what he considered 'social preference' based on his evaluation of 'native public opinion'. Thus, a hierarchy was constructed and made official. The bewildering array of castes he listed, from which each person was required to choose when filling out official government forms, ran into so many pages that it 'gives so much trouble to the enumerating and testing staff and to the central offices which compile the results.

Risley translated the dharma of various jatis as 'race sentiments', and made it his ambition to scientifically prove that a comparatively pure 'Aryan type' existed in North India. His obsession with noses caught on with other colonial administrators. For example, noses of Indians became the subject of scientific inquiry for Edgar Thurston, author of the voluminous Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909). Thurston even used his 'Lovibond Tintometer' (originally an instrument for quality-testing in breweries) to measure the racial features of Indian villagers.

When I first heard about this, it did not sound convincing. Although, this book talks in-depth about the large extent to which the British used an artificial caste-system to dominate India, making it very clear and evident.


To understand the original concept of caste system, one must first understand the basic tenets of karma and reincarnation in hinduism.

Once these ideas are clear, you get a clear picture how caste sytem is deeply interleaved with karma and rebirth.

Karma states that one reaps what one sows. Hinduism also supports the idea of an immortal soul that is reborn. Thus, the actions in a past life decides the fate and thus the caste one is born into in the future life

The Caste System is the long-time Hindu practise of job allocation based on the group one is born into. There are 4 groups - the Brahmins (the learned), the Kshatriyas (the warriors), the Vaisyas (the merchants) and the Sudras (the labourers).

How it started?? Purpose?

  • The Caste System was one of the first attempts at division of labour when the society was primitive. There were a few major job roles that needed to be filled in.
  • The different roles were alloted based on the inherent nature one was born with. Brahmins possesed the intellectual capacity, Kshatriyas exhibited courage, Vaisyas had good business sense and the Sudras could serve well.
  • It also helped in easy grasping of the job skill by the child from the parent. The hierarchy structure helped in smooth issue of commands for getting things done in the society. Eventually, the Caste System became a deeply established practise in the Hindu society.

What went wrong ??

  • Since the Caste System was based on ranking, the higher castes misused it to subjugate the lower ones. It went to such intolerable levels as to the creation of the idea of 'untouchables' - those who were considered sub-standard humans.

  • However this rigid caste system was a degraded form of Varnashrama- dharma as prescribed by Lord Krishna.

What was actually prescribed by Lord Krishna??

Bhagavad-gita (4.13):

catur-varnyam maya srishtam

According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.

Lord Krishna says that a person’s varna comes from his guna, “nature” or “quality,” and karma, the type of activity he does. Krishna does not use the word janma, “birth.” The varnashrama system is not rigid or oppressive. If a person born into a family of a lower varna shows the qualities and inclinations of a brahmana, he can be educated accordingly and become a brahmana. On the other hand, being born in an upper- varna family does not automatically confer that status without the proper qualities and training.

I have not elaborated on the idea of "Gunas" since it is well explained in one of the answers.

  • 2
    Your first bullet in 'what went wrong?' is the stereotypical reason leftist/marxist historians give to tarnish the idea of Hinduism which Hindus have mindlessly accepted. Untouchables have nothing to do with varna system. Refer to my answer: hinduism.stackexchange.com/a/548/14 – Bharat Jul 14 '14 at 14:12

It is very difficult to defend the concept of caste, given so much bad light it has received.

But, here is a scientific explanation..

1000's of years back, there were limited professions - agriculture, trade, art, professional services ( carpentry, digging wells etc), and warriors.

There was no concept of recruitment bazaars, or campus recruitment.. All professions were learnt only through one model - Internship. So, there was ONE guru, and many SHISYAS. After the gurus death, the SHISHYAS would become gurus, and they would pass the knowledge along.

Since there were no printing and books, there was no storage medium for skills. People were the storage medium. In such a society, it would be hard to switch careers. If you are in agriculture, you are stuck to agriculture, no matter what you wanted to do. There was no concept of "DREAMS, GOALS, LIKES, DISLIKES". There was only one concept " DO or DIE"

Manu happened to capture this knowledge transition process by giving it brand names such as Kshatriyas, Brahmins, Vaishyas.. This branding exists everywhere, in all societies. It exists even today in the form of " COO, CEO, CTO, CIO, Sales Head, Operations head and so on".

For some reason, Manu's scriptures have become poisonous material for the readers. And the reason for that is simple.

Over a period of centuries, when more and more services came, and the ROI for Services became better than Agriculture, the equation of power shifted. So, the Agriculturists became poor, and the Services folks became rich. So, this changing social equation meant that the symbols of such power and influence wielded by people who controlled agriculture and trade had to be targeted and destroyed. So, Manu's scriptures have become corrupt, and wrong. And Hindus have to constantly answer questions like these in every forum.

But, I think that is fine. The most important aspect is that the change has happened, and is happening peacefully without civil war, murder and blood. That is what the more mature societies do, when they find themselves in the wrong side of things. And that is the great thing to take away from this question..

How do you deal with your religions inadequacies, and make change happen, adopt it, accept it, and move on, instead of wallowing in knee deep blood, anger and revenge.

  • Very good answer! One thing, I never expected anyone to 'defend' the caste system. These things are circumstantial. They might have been relevant at some point in past, but not today and definitely not in the future. But it's important that we understand the reasoning. – tempusfugit Jul 31 '14 at 12:40
  • You are wrong to say Manu(Smriti) gave the labels for the Varnas. They appear for the first time in Yajur Veda which predates Manu Smriti. – Bharat Jul 31 '14 at 20:46

Everybody has explained caste system well, So I am not going write about it.

Caste System was by quality and activity as per Vedic Scripture.

How it changed to by birth??

Actually in vedic age if the person is seating for meditation, he was actually meditating.

So there was no doubt that the person is Brahmina and with Sato guna.

But later on, fake and show off started. So it was very hard at that time to identify a person in caste.

For example:

  1. A Brahmina considered person got arrested for murder!!
  2. A Khsatriya or king goes for sanyaas to meditate!!!

Also parents were forcing their children to accept their activity as own's activity.

And caste system changed to by caste instead of by birth.

So those who had knowledge started teaching to only those who are son of particular caste.

For Example, Parshurama taught only Brahmans and Khashtriyas.

  • 1
    More of a personal opinion than a real answer. – Bharat Jul 29 '14 at 21:33

The word 'Caste system' is used interchangeably and undifferentiated for 'jati' and varna.

Varna is the classification of people on the basis of their occupation and has four classes.

  1. Brahman, possessor of knowledge
  2. Kshatriya, the warrior and rulers
  3. Vaishya, the mercantile and businessmen
  4. Sudra, farmers and landowners

This scheme was not heriditary but people find it generally easy to just take up the family business rather than start soemthing on their own. The story of how Varna system started goes like this,

Visvamitra, and Agastya, two great rishis suggested a mean to counter great evils upon mankind by first understanding what great powers were. They noticed that there were four great wealths which were dear to mankind. These were,

  1. Knowledge

  2. Strength

  3. Financial Wealth

  4. Land

Both Rishis pondered that among these four wealth, none two should be held by one man, hence they constituted four classes or Varna and gave responsibility of each wealth to each of them and laid down specific conduct rules of each varna.

For instance, a Brahmin is not supposed to employ armed men or soldiers neither is he supposed to buy land or amass wealth. A Brahmin is supposed to lead a life of financial misery and lead his life teaching pupil and sustain himself and his family by alms.

Similarly, a Kshatriya is not supposed to legislate any law in his kingdom. This has to be done by Brahmin in his court. He cannot buy land and amass wealth as Brahmin.

Jati on the other hand was heriditary and mean little except in cases of endogamous marriage and clan relationships. Even today, people in India practice endogamous marriage within one's Jati.

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    Could you please give a reference? I am studying the varnasrama system and the reference to Visvamitra and Agastya is completely novel to me. – user3603546 Jun 19 '14 at 18:08
  • I heard about this from a talk show. I have to really work hard to get an online source. Let me search.. elearning.sol.du.ac.in/mod/book/tool/print/… – Vineet Menon Jun 19 '14 at 18:20

The question was:

"I understand there is a caste system on the basis of occupation. What is the reason for having such a classification system?

Has the original concept stayed the same or has it evolved over time (if at all)?"

What was the reason? It is hard to know why the founders of Hinduism decided to create this hierarchical system. There are no written records of what happened at 1000 BC. But one can speculate, based on what the caste system does achieve in practice. But the foundations of the caste system are clearly delineated in Hindu scripture. This would be my obvious theory:

The views presented in the Hindu scriptures were most likely expressly codified to preserve the privileges of a pre-existing, entrenched elite. By 1. Postulating that certain groups (to which the elites belonged) were superior to others; 2. Asserting that this superiority was obtained only by birth; and 3. Restricting inter-group marriage (and excommunicating those who did marry between groups), these groups were able to preserve the existing hierarchy for all time and for all future generations.

As for the second question: has the original concept evolved over time? I don't think anyone knows, and I do not think it matters. What matters is what is in the scriptures today, because the scriptural sanction for caste-based discrimination is corrosive, and is the cause for the great injustice we see before us. If scriptures sanction an injustice, it is much harder to remove that injustice from society - maybe even impossible.

I have explored the question of whether caste is sanctioned by Hindu scripture in great detail, and have come to the conclusion that indeed, the scriptures as they exist today certainly sanction caste discrimination, and even enjoin the faithful to discriminate.

I have written a multi-part article series to share the results of my research.

Part I gives an overall summary of what I have learned, talks about the methodology of the study, and discusses why so many people have been in denial of what should have been obvious truths:


Part II takes up the study of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holiest books of Hinduism, and shows how caste discrimination is not only present in the Gita, but is the very basis of Krishna's arguments in the Gita:


Parts III to IX form a 7-part miniseries on the Bhagavad Gita, where I have taken every verse in the Gita that is relevant to caste discrimination and analyzed it threadbare, beginning with the Sanskrit shloka, its word-by-word translation, free translation, and the commentaries of six highly respected saints/philosophers on the Gita: Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Jnaneshwar, Shridhara Swami, and Keshava Kashmiri. Based on all these, I draw overall conclusions about the exact import of each verse. The links to parts III to IX can be found at the end of either part I or part II.

Based on all this, I show how caste-based discrimination is essential to the very foundation of Hinduism as described by Krishna in the Gita.

The Gita is the first of many scriptures that I will analyze in detail in this evolving series. I will also be writing on the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Manu Smriti, etc.

I hope this helps answer your question, at least partially.

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