India’s Caste System

Ask a child in America, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

You might hear one of these responses: An astronaut! A doctor! A firefighter! A veterinarian! A teacher!

But in India, your job—and your position in society—is determined long before you are even born. Children have the same jobs as their parents…and grandparents…and someday their own children are expected to do the same work.

This is because of something called the caste system. For centuries, Hinduism has divided Indian society into four main varnas, or castes:

  • Sudras are the lowest caste. They do hard work and manual labor.
  • The Vaisya caste includes merchants, farmers, and artisans.
  • Warriors and rulers belong to the Kshatriya caste.
  • The highest caste, Brahmin, is the smallest and most powerful group. Hindu priests and religious leaders come from the Brahmin caste.

Each varna is divided into thousands of sub-castes, called jatis. There are different sub-castes for every kind of job: blacksmiths, lawyers, stoneworkers, etc. Often members of a jati will live and work together, forming communities based on castes. Mothers and fathers choose marriage partners for their sons and daughters from the same caste.

India’s caste system is similar in some ways to discrimination based on skin color, gender, or ethnicity. But there is one big difference: Hindus believe their gods decide a person’s caste as either a punishment or a blessing.