Jati (Birth Group or Caste in Hinduism)

Jati, meaning “birth-group”, is a system in which Hindus are categorized. Caste is another name for the over two thousand Jati groups that exist. These groups are usually based upon occupation, although they can also be categorized in different ways, such as by clan, region, or language. Typically, a Hindu will not marry outside of the caste in which they are born. The exception would be women, who sometimes will marry into a higher caste, although this is frowned upon by some. Jati, is related to Varna as well (Mittal and Thursby 357). Varna, meaning “colour”, is first described in the Rg Veda, which is the first sacred book of the Hindus, composed around 1500-1400 BCE. Varna is a class system of four categories which are the Brahmin (priestly class), Kshatriyas (nobility class), Vaishyas (merchant class), and Shudras (servant class). Particular groups of Jati will sometimes claim to be a part of one of the Varna classes. Sometimes, these designations that Jati groups make to be a part of a Varna class are not supported by fellow Hindus (Rodrigues 103-104).  Jati, as well as Varna, is said to be subject to Karma. In addition to Varna, Karma was also first presented in the Rg Veda. Karma, meaning act or deed, is the concept that people’s actions in this life or past lives, will alter their next lives. Hence, a Hindus Karma will decide what Jati one is born into.  Since one cannot control their birth status, some lower caste Jatis believe they are being discriminated against (Mittal and Thursby 357). Creation, mobility, and modern ideas and practices are all important in understanding the Jati system.

The Jati system is somewhat based on the Varna model. Thus, to understand the history of the Jati system, we must start with the history of the Varna system. Because Varna means colour, some historians have drawn the conclusion that it is based on when the Aryans came to settle in the Ganges area. The Ganges River supported many tribes in the Indian subcontinent. Aryans, being lighter skinned, considered themselves to be superior to the non-Aryans, who were of darker complexion. Non-Aryans were the indigenous people that had lived in the Ganges area before the Aryans migration. However, this is based on the migration thesis, and although it is the more widely accepted theory, there are other theses on how the Aryans came to live in these areas. Aryans used the Varna system to differentiate themselves from the rest of the population. Despite the fact that the Varna system existed during the early phases of expansion of the Aryan civilization, it didn’t play a huge role in their society at the time of conception.  For example, Aryans were allowed to marry non-Aryans and higher ranked Varnas worked on the land, which is not their dharma (duty). Jati and Varna did come to play a large role in society, but it was through a slow progression. Throughout the Vedic age, the higher class began to assert more power over the lower classes. Aryans enslaved some non-Aryans and higher classes like the Brahmins and nobles were not subject to taxes, but others were. Exploitation of the lower classes became common.  The developments of the economic order eventually led to Jati groups. Localization from the seventh and twelfth centuries is when Jati groups began to emerge. Trade and commerce largely broke down at this time, as a result communities were more dependent on the Hindus in their regions. Therefore, Shudras and Vaishyas became even more exploited and were more directly controlled by the elite.  At this time, different Jati groups emerged through the diversification of occupations.  For instance, instead of artists having to also fulfill agricultural duties they had to be more focused on their work as artists.  The number of Jatis grew with increased captivation of tribal groups (Gupta 198-224).

Mobility of Jati groups is a greatly debated subject. Some scholars believe that there is no mobility between castes, the caste to which you are born is the one that you will remain in. However, others argue that it is possible for Hindus to move to a different caste through varying methods. Two types of mobility, group-level and individual mobility, are sometimes sought after.  Sanskritization refers to the means of lower castes trying to move to a higher rank in their society.  Castes try to accomplish this goal by imitating the caste in which they want to be a part of. Therefore, Jati groups will adopt specific practices that are used by the group in which they want to belong, for example they might become vegetarian.  Politics is a huge factor in mobilization as well. Some scholars believe that mobility through castes can only be accomplished with support from the government, as well as changing their practices (Vaid 5-6).  Occupation is primarily how Jatis are categorized.  Hindus will inherit a career held by their family. Thus, a way to be mobile throughout castes is through the ability to change occupations. Scholars believe that a breakdown of occupational inheritance will lead to further mobility in Jati groups. Therefore, if Hindus are able to change their occupation then they have mobility in the caste system. It is observed that higher castes are able to use their wealth and influence to change their occupations. By contrast, lower castes are not able to change their occupation as easily because of their lack of wealth and power. This demonstrates that although there is mobility in some situations, it is limited (Vaid 397).

Change has occurred with how people view castes. Jatis and their influence on society have also experienced changes. A study in a rural community shows how some changes have occurred with respects to the Jati structure. It was observed in the small community of Bilwa that although changes have occurred with respects with Jatis, they still play a crucial role in the community (Burger 59-60).  A way that change has occurred in this community is to do with occupation.  Unlike it was previously, where Hindus were unable to hold any career, now people are able to hold different jobs more easily. With help from the government Hindus are able to find more diverse jobs. Also, many Hindus in the village work outside of their community which offers new opportunities that weren’t originally available. The middle castes disagree with these new practices. These Jatis may feel threatened as they do not receive help from the government, therefore they protest these changes. Arguing that these occupations are rights reserved by those born into these Jatis. This is where discrimination based on birth is witnessed (Burger 68-69).

Marriage is an example of how traditions of Jatis have not had any drastic changes.  One is still expected to marry within close range to their Jati. These Hindu castes still follow tradition where marriages are arranged to members of the same Jati. Only a slight change has occurred, because now Hindus are able to marry sub-divisions of the same caste (Burger 72).  It is also important to notice that although some people want to change their Jati or where their Jati is in society, some want the caste structure to remain the same. These Hindus embrace the practices and community that a Jati provides. In Bilwa, traditional ideas of Jatis aren’t as prominent and castes in this society act more as social groups. Jatis are groups in which people are able to share common values, customs, and practices (Burger 75-78).  In another study, college students from North, South, and East India were asked a series of questions that concerned the caste system.  The results concluded that liberal ideas are replacing the traditional views of the caste system. When students were asked if they believed that Karma was what determined their Jati group, 69.7 percent said no.  Karma was previously thought to play an important role in what Jati or Varna someone was born into. This shows that people are becoming more liberal in their ideas of these systems. Another important question that was asked had to do with voting in Indian society.  Out of the college students, more than 80 percent said they would vote for a candidate in any caste group. As well, they were asked if the Jati system should remain the same, be altered, or abolished. 64.4 percent of students voted for the caste system to be eliminated.  In studies such as these, we can see that perspectives are changing regarding Jatis in Indian society (Anant 193-196).

The government in India has gotten involved in the twentieth century to help eliminate Jati discrimination. Reforms have been put in place to aid those in lower Jatis who have said to be discriminated against for their caste. The Government of India Act of 1935 has guaranteed legislative representation for these groups.  It should be noted that seats were also reserved for Christians, Muslims, Anglo-Indians and other minorities in India (Mittal and Thursby 380).  Furthermore, the Constitution ratified in 1950 opposes any discrimination by birth, and adds that words such as Jati be avoided. However, enforcing discrimination regulations proves to be challenging.  Additionally, the government implemented compensatory education and employment as a remedy for the affected Jatis. Another act by the government was to reclassify the Jati groups into four main categories, by roughly inverting the Varna’s ordering. Although these reforms have been in place for a while, that is not to say that discrimination against lower castes is not still a problem in modern India. Progression will continue with these modifications of Jatis as long term effects have yet to be completely observed (Mittal and Thursby 381).



Anant, Santokh (1978) “Caste Attitudes of College Students in India.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 8. 193-202.

Burger, Maya (1988) “Jatis: Mirror of Change.”  Revue européenne des sciences sociales, No. 81 p. 59-80. Genève: Librairie Droz.

Gupta, Dipankar (2000) Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Mittal, Sushil and Gene Thursby (2004) The Hindu World. New York: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online Books, Ltd.

Vaid, Divya (2014) “Caste in Contemporary India: Flexibility and Persistence”. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 40, p.391-410.  New Delhi: Annual Review.


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Article written by: Chelsea Woods (March 2015), who is solely responsible for its content.


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