As I had read in books on Indian History (which certainly do not discuss ideas in detail), the caste system as had been originally devised was not rigid; in other words, a person 'born into' a caste could change his work and thereby, shift his caste. I am curious to know if the scriptures give us an idea about the transition of the nature of the caste system. On a side note, I'd also like to know if untouchability prevailed during the ancient times.

  • I do not think it was that easy,Because according to our scriptures, caste is determined by birth.You could read the answers on difference relations between caste and varna etc. – user17294 Apr 25 at 19:02
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    A better title would be just: "How did caste system go from fluid to rigid?" because I doubt if scriptures discuss the transition. If they did, history books would be simply quoting/citing them. 'if untouchability prevailed during the ancient times' - see this post. – sv. Apr 25 at 23:53
  • who wrote those 'Indian History' books ? probably people with western-inclined ideologies. Caste system was and is based on birth for 99.99% of cases, with the exceptions being those with superhuman ability (e.g. fasting for years in deep meditation), or those born with divine boons (or curses). So it didn't go from fluid to rigid. It was and still is rigid. the only difference now is that most people don't follow it due to long periods of caste-mixing through inter-marriage and inter-work. – ram Apr 26 at 6:42
  • yes untouchability prevailed in olden days, and still prevails today, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, once you understand the reason behind it. for example, a person belonging to one varna will not touch another person belong to same varna if the latter has not washed his feet post urination. if he does touch him by accident, he has to bathe himself. even today, we put criminals behind bars and nobody interacts with them right ? in olden days, chandalas were those who had done heinous crimes (they could even be a brahmana by birth) in this birth or previous, and society would shun them. – ram Apr 26 at 6:46
  • I always know the caste system was for a reason, and a well defined one. But I heavily doubt that it has been implemented the way it was supposed to. We must accept the evils it has brought, and Brahmins of the time should have brought modifications to it, so that the loopholes could be closed. However, Hindus are fundamentally different (and IMO, better) in the way that we realize and openly debate what is not good, unlike other religions like Islam where preachers keep idealizing the faith despite huge gaps between purpose and execution. – Aabesh Ghosh Apr 26 at 14:37

Is there any writing in the scriptures that tell us how the caste system went from fluid to rigid?

No, the caste system never went from fluid to rigid. In fact, only in modern times is it going from rigid to fluid.

I will cite from ancient scriptures like the dharmashastras of Manu, Apastamba, and Itihasas like the Mahabharata to show that the consensus in ancient times among scholars was that the caste system was birth based and that caste is fixed from birth.

Manusmriti 10.5: Among all castes, those only who are born of consorts wedded in the natural order, as virgins of equal status, are to be regarded as the same (as their father).

Āpastamba (2.13.1).—‘Sons begotten by a man who approaches in the proper season a woman of equal caste, who has not belonged to another man, and who has been married legally, have a right to follow the occupations of their castes.’

Viṣṇu (16.1).—‘On women equal in caste to their husbands, sons are begotten who are equal in caste to their fathers.’

Yājñavalkya (1.90).—‘From women of the same caste as their husbands are born sons of the same caste.’

Baudhāyana (1.17.2).—‘Sons of equal caste spring from women of equal caste.’

Caste promotion only happens in subsequent lives, if they have correctly performed their duties:

Āpastamba (2, 11.10-11).—‘In successive births, men of the lower castes are born in the next higher one, if they have fulfilled their duties. In successive births, men of the higher castes are born in the next lower one, if they have neglected their duties.’

Vidura in the Mahabharata war was a Shudra who was very well respected and revered by Brahmanas due to his Brahminical qualities. Many Brahmanas came to him for knowledge. However, even though he could teach some knowledge, he could not instruct them into upasanas and mantras. He says:

As I was born a Shudra, I cannot teach any further. - Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva, 41-5

Vedanta Desikan, a medieval Sri Vaishnava scholar, says this about caste elevation and exceptional cases like Vishvamitra, etc:

Those who abide by the shastras should not believe in the elevation from lower castes stated in the deceptive shastras of heretics. The case of such as Vishvamitra, who became a Brahmin after being a Kshatriya, was due to certain special causes as the charu eaten by his mother without knowing that it was intended for producing a Brahmin child - it should not be considered that it is applicable to others as well, for it is against the texts in the shastras. The incidents and conduct of the Alvars who were possessed of powers even superior to those of Vidura and others should not be taken as precedents for our conduct. If we examine even their conduct carefully, we shall find that they did not transgress the rules of their respective castes. - Rahasyatraya Sara page 303

So, ancient Hindus followed a rigid, birth based caste system.

It is only in modern times that many Hindus believe that the caste system is based on self-identification. Vivekananda was the main person to promote this trend, and reformist Hindus have now adopted this belief. Orthodox followers of Vedanta do not believe that caste is based on anything other than birth.

For verses from scriptures like the Mahabharata that appear to talk about caste elevation in the same life and guna-based caste system, take a look at the correct interpretation in this answer.

Also take a look at my answer here that shows that the Vedas declare that caste is based on birth.

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