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Many Westerners have heard of India's caste system, but a thorough understanding of its ins and outs is still relatively uncommon. The following sections reveal the nitty-gritty of the caste system.

What's the caste system?

Broadly speaking, a caste system is a process of placing people in occupational groups. It has pervaded several aspects of Indian society for centuries. Rooted in religion and based on a division of labor, the caste system, among other things, dictates the type of occupations a person can pursue and the social interactions that she may have. Castes are an aspect of Hindu religion. Other religions in India do not follow this system.

Castes are ranked in hierarchical order (originally, the system wasn't to have a hierarchy based on occupation or birth but purely on personality; this has been skewed somehow over time), which determines the behavior of one member of society over another. Even in a modern business setting, where caste isn't openly acknowledged, there may be subtle observances of village or family-style ranking. For instance, a young official may address a senior person, not necessarily his superior, as chachaji, a respectful term for a paternal uncle.

How it's structured

India's caste system has four main classes (also called varnas) based originally on personality, profession, and birth. In descending order, the classes are as follows:

  • Brahmana (now more commonly spelled Brahmin): Consist of those engaged in scriptural education and teaching, essential for the continuation of knowledge.
  • Kshatriya: Take on all forms of public service, including administration, maintenance of law and order, and defense.
  • Vaishya: Engage in commercial activity as businessmen.
  • Shudra: Work as semi-skilled and unskilled laborers.

The most obvious problem with this system was that under its rigidity, the lower castes were prevented from aspiring to climb higher, and, therefore, economic progress was restricted.

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, made the lower castes and untouchables a fifth, lowly class with the name Harijan, or "children of God." You see many references to SC and ST in India, in newspapers, government notifications, and so on. These initials refer to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribesscheduled is what Harijan is translated into today. The government is sensitive about reserving seats in colleges and job opportunities for them. But the government has legislation to make up for the past suppression and oppression of the lower castes.

How it works

Castes still rarely intermarry and are definitely not changeable. In urban India, though, people of all castes meet socially or for business. Discriminating against anyone because of their caste for things like club memberships and so on is against the law.

Though caste and community are facts of Indian life, foreigners are not expected to behave differently toward any caste.

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