Category Archives: c. The Caste (Jati) System

The Bardic Tradition in Hinduism

Bards, in the English Oxford Dictionary, are defined as poets who recite epics and are tied to a certain tradition. India’s bards were not merely poets, rather, they had numerous duties which were much more intricate. Bards were genealogists, astrologers, praise poets, historians, court minstrels, and artisans (Balfour 341). They were responsible for reciting genealogies at weddings, keeping family history and lineage, and performing praise-poetry to deities and chiefs. They would also recite history and myths during festivals or rituals. In the past, they would announce and salute their kings in a social setting, and were regarded as sacred or Brahmin-like. Possessing a sacred status allowed bards to find employment guarding caravans or travellers, and to witness contracts and financial arrangements by threatening self-mutilation (traga) if one were to renege (Snodgrass 2004: 276). In 1885, it was reported that bards were found all over India, but were concentrated in Rajputana (modern day Rajasthan), and that every family of importance in Rajputana had at least one bard to announce their tittles and achievements (Balfour 342). As a result of British colonial rule and laws, many services that bards would have provide are now obsolete, such as announcing tittles for their kings, as India is no longer a monarchy. Rajasthan is one area that maintained bardic tradition and culture. As a result, many bards still reside and make a living there today (Snodgrass 276). Modern bards make a living as musicians, puppeteers, genealogists, religious teachers, agriculture farmers, and reciters of historical knowledge.

Bardic hierarchy was dependent on how close to centres of wealth and power they were, and the reputation of a king often depended on his bard. A king or warrior would desire a loyal, talented bard, to ensure “his name will survive his death” (Hardy 112). The relationship of bards and their patrons was one of gifts in exchange for services (Basu 85). Jeffery Snodgrass reports a myth told to him by Narayan Bhat, a Rajasthan bard, that illustrates the powerful influence bards possess due to their mastery of language (Snodgrass 2004: 270). In the myth, Man Sing, king of Jaipur, gifts his bard with an elephant for praising his son’s birth. The bard was upset that he had an elephant but not the equipment to ride it and the king noticed, asking him what more he would want. The bard explained and the king was enraged, to which the bard replied that the king should shove the elephant up his ass (Snodgrass 2004:271). Man Singh then had to travel to a wedding without his bard to accompany him, where all of the other guest bards were reciting praise poetry. This elevated all other guests above Man Singh. The bard had come secretly, and was then spotted by the king, distressing him. He feared the bard would insult him in front of everyone. To avoid this, the king motioned to the bard that he would receive 4 elephants if he raised his honour. The bard created a verse that compared Man Singh to Visnu, able to destroy Ravana’s fortress, a member of the solar system himself This won the competition and impressed all the other kings. The bard received his four elephants for his work. (Snodgrass, 2004: 272). The myth exemplifies the influence of bards on kingly reputation, the interdependence of kings and their clients. Bards used their influence over reputation in other ways, being masters of language and regarded as sacred, some bards were said to have “the power of the ‘word’, the corpus of sounds by which the moral order of society is maintained and altered” (Kamphorst 228). Certain bards were regarded as rsi-poets, able to curse, predict the future, or cure ailments. Others would simply jest and satire a person publicly for disgrace or mistreatment. In this way, bards would promote Dharmic behaviour through their mastery and clever use of language (Basu 220).

Modern Rajasthan, an Indian state that has maintained strong bardic identity, holds two main classes of bards: Bhats and Charans. These words are derived from Sanskrit roots. In the Dictionary of Spoken Sanskrit, Bhat comes from a Sanskrit translation meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘lord,’ while Charan is said to mean ‘god’s feet’ or ‘son or daughter of the goddess.’ These definitions introduce an important concept regarding the status of these two Bardic classes, that Charans are perceived as elite over the Bhats (Kamphorst 225). In Hindu mythology, there is a story of how Mahadeva (Siva) created a Bhat to attend to his lion and bull, but every day the bull was killed by the lion. Mahadeva, tired of creating a bull daily, created Charan, equally devout as the Bhat but of bolder spirit, to watch over the lion and the bull. From that date on the bull was never slain again (Balfour 341). This gives Charans a strong identity, that allegorically they are guardians of justice, in the from of the bull, against savage violence, as the lion (Kamphorst 225). This myth highlights differences in the tradition of the two classes, such as their claim of different ancestry, and subsequently their identity as separate Indian castes.

In Rajasthan today, Bhats are low caste bards who mainly make a living as entertainers. Most commonly they are puppeteers who make a profit by selling their puppets to tourists after a show. They claim descent from Brahmins who composed Sanskrit verses of praise on stone tablets in temples (Snodgrass 2004: 275). They currently serve an untouchable caste of leather workers called Bhambhis through jokes, dramas, stories, and music. If they share food with these patrons, they are moved into the lowest caste with them in the view of Brahmin and other orthodox adherents (Snodgrass 2004:273). The Bhats perceive themselves, however, as equal if not greater than Brahmins. This is a result of their culture of language and learning: they create myths that make the other castes of society seem dependent on their skill over words. In their view, remembering history is a process that keeps the past alive and is an act of reconstruction (Snodgrass 2004: 282). This also identifies them with the Brahmin, as the ideology behind Hindu ritual sacrifice is to reconstruct the dismemberment of Purusa.

Colonialism had a large impact on the livelihood of these bards. The need for bards as messengers and negotiators faded as Britain demilitarized regions of India. Their function as guardians of caravans and contracts dissipated as railways replaced caravan routes, and acts of self mutilation (traga) were outlawed. Replacing feudal landholding and the patron-client economy with commercialization deprived bards of their property, status, and income (Snodgrass 2004: 277). Modernization extinguished many bardic duties, though some have survived in new contexts. Genealogies are still recited at weddings; also, hotels, restaurants, nobles, and militants hire Bhats to present history and epics through puppeteering and storytelling. This allows them to make a living through an art of their past. They are also employed at folklore festivals, singing and poetry competitions, and maintain some of their power over reputation during elections. When the Babri Masjid Mosque was destroyed in 1992, the Baharatiya Janata Party hired Bhats to spread anti-Muslim sentiment and help them gain popularity to win the upcoming election (Snodgrass 2004: 279).

Charans are an elite bard caste in western India that identify with the Ksatriya, rather than the Brahmin varna. The root of the word Charan can be traced back to the Rajasthan words caranau (to graze or wander), uccaraṇ (the art of recitation, verbal expression), or chahaṛ (love, justice). Each of these relate to Charan lineage and identity as cattle and horse traders, linguistic masters, and agents of loving devotion (bhakti) to goddesses (devi) (Kamphorst 224). Charans fulfill the same roles as Bhats, while possessing a unique identity of their own as more courageous and fierce. The Mahadeva bull myth is likely the origin for this difference. Their courage is attributed to their role as royal bards who would ride into battle with their kings. Being on the battlefield allowed them to create ballads that would commemorate the deeds of their warriors. Charans have distinct literature on this; Vira kava, a genre of warrior and king hero praise, and panegyrics: praise of battle-field bravery, victory, royal generosity, and sacrifice (Basu 83). Charans experienced significant loss of their culture, as Bhats did, during colonization. When Europe colonized India there were no longer frequent battles over territory, the result of this was evident in Charan literature. They could no longer compose praise about the best warriors, so they began to glorify the best hunters. Eventually, modernization caused them to become praise poets of their own caste (Basu 90).  Praising themselves and their tradition allowed them to become unique. As bardic tradition came to an end throughout much of India during British rule, they maintained an active and strong culture. Ancient bardic tradition and practices still thrive daily in Kacch, and a festival dedicated to Charan lineage takes place there every year.

In Kacch, to applaud, glorify, adore, or eulogize the qualities of an exalted being is considered a vocal art. Charans have mastered this art and made it a part of their social identity (Basu 81). 35000 people in Kacch identify themselves as Charans, which entails: having the ability to compose poetry, recite in many different styles, remember history, love the play of words, and be inclined to asceticism. They have a uniform dress code and claim that Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, language, and learning, gifted them with their nature. Charans are mainly praise-poets, who doubled as herders, agricultural workers, and artisans. In Kacch they played a larger role in ritual over Brahmin priests. During Navaratri, a 9 night goddess festival, a buffalo is sacrificed and a Charan women would be the first to drink its blood and become host to the goddess for the rest of the royal sacrifice, embodying her. Charan Matajali are human-goddesses, said to have the power to destroy enemies, spontaneously produce water, and uphold the moral status of kings by cursing or rewarding their actions. Some Charan women are deified after death, Ai Sri Sonal Mataji is one of these women who was born in 1920, and passed away in 1975. Sonal Mataji was born into a time of colonial rule in India and was a guide for her people during the changes brought with modernization (Basu 89). She emphasised a vegan diet, meditation, asceticism, anti-alcoholism, and rejected blood sacrifice. The Charan Caste Council created a festival that begins on her birthday, and last two days each year: the Sonal Mataji. The festival allows these bards to keep many of the traditions used by their ancestors in the past. It begins with ritual praise worship, and is followed by praise poetry of the goddess. Lectures are then given on the history of the Charan caste: their origin in the peaks of the Himalayas, their descent down from the mountains, the breeding of cattle, attaching themselves to patrons, their role as warriors, and lastly their establishment in Kacch. The Following Speeches relate these stories to present morals that are expected of these bards today: to be loyal, have dharmic action, and to sacrifice oneself for moral cause. Many performances of poetry, song, and recitals are performed over the two days, creating a sense of belonging that embodies loving devotion (bhakti) to the goddess (Basu 96). This is a modern example of bardic tradition that flourishes today.

An example of Bardic tradition in the past is a 19 night long story that was recorded by a scholar in 1965 (Beck 13). Olappalayam was a village in south India when Brenda Beck conducted her fieldwork. The story is called The Elderbrothers’ Legend, and was conducted by firelight in the evenings with costumes, body paint, drums, and poetic recitation. The story referenced places in past that still exist today, providing geographical information about specific areas and their history. The story also revealed the relationship of kings with their subjects, and illustrated the ethnic and moral code of the area. Beck reported that local ritual, praise, and mannerism, mirrored practices within the story, stressing how important bards are in transmitting Hindu ideology and behaviour. Beck also stated that the story encompassed the regions unique culture and history, revealing the devastating loss of culture from modernization which make it difficult for these stories to be told in the same way today. (Beck, 17)

Bardic tradition is an important aspect of Hindu culture that has experienced drastic change during the period of colonization and industrialization of the world. In the past, bards were considered a sacred order and thus could work as grantors. They were messengers, exclusive educators, court minstrels, could dictated a nobles’ popularity, and would ride into battle reciting warrior praise. In exchange for their service they would receive gifts, such as animals and land. In modern society, they make a living mostly as teachers and agricultural workers, while performing poetry and history on the side. Most bards are now found around Rajasthan, and view themselves as a third social body in the caste system. Genealogies and recitation of family history is part of Hindu weddings still today, and a few bards still make a living as story tellers through theatre (Snodgrass 2004: 278). Some areas of India have defended their bardic lineage and still practice it today, such as the Charans. Overall, bards continue to serve Hinduism by spreading mythology, composing praise, promoting dharmic behaviour, and keeping history alive across generations.


Balfour, Edward (1885) The cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia,             commercial, industrial, and scientific; products of the mineral, vegetable, and animal             kingdoms, useful arts and manufactures, volume 1. London: London B. Quaritch.

Basu, Helen (2005) “Practices of Praise and Social Constructions of Identity: The Bards of         North-West India” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, Vol. 50, No. 3: 81-105.

Beck, Brenda (2011) “Discovering a story.” In Studying Hinduism In Practice. New York:   Routledge. pp.10-23

Hardy, Friedhelm (1995) The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom. Cambridge:                 Cambridge University Press.

Kamphorst, Janet (2008) In praise of death: history and poetry in medieval Marwar (South Asia). Leiden: Leiden University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffery (2006) Casting Kings: bards and Indian modernity. New York: Oxford            University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffrey (2004) “The Centre Cannot Hold: Tales of Hierarchy and Poetic Composition               from Modern Rajasthan.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10,     No. 2. pp. 261-285

Related Topics for Investigation

Cand Literature  

Vira Kavya Literature


Charani Deval


Bhil History

Websites Related to The Topic

Article is written by: Ashley Rewers (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Marathas (and their social mobility)

Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).

Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).

The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; atribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.  

It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302).  Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.

The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).

The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).

Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.

Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.

Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later.  Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.

By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).

The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.


References and Further Recommended Readings:

Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.

Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.

Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.

Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.

Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.

Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.

Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.

Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.

Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.

Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.

Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.


Related Websites:


Related Topics:

Class/Caste System in India

Maharashtra during the late 17th Century







Mughal Empire

Maratha Empire

Afzal Khan

Hyderabad Karnatik






Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

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.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Aryans and non-Aryans





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


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Changing Attitudes Regarding the Indian Caste System

There are four major varnas in India: Brahmin (priestly class), Ksatriya (military and ruling class), Vaisya (merchants and traders), and Sudra (labourers). At the bottom and separate from the varnas one finds the Dalit, formally called untouchables. Dalit are considered unclean, and as a result, in the past interaction with those outside their group had not been permitted. There are also subgroups called jatis found within the varnas. Varnas and jatis are typically understood to make up the Indian caste system, which determines the social hierarchy in India. However, changes are taking place in India concerning how people view the caste system and how it shapes their lives. One study shows that college students have adopted more liberal ways of thinking that have diminished the importance of the ancient caste system in their eyes. Another study shows how the effects of globalization have changed the mindsets of youth in upper-class New Delhi, causing a drastic departure from the views of the older generation concerning issues such as marriage and religion. A final article explores the status of Dalit women in Indian society today and indicates that problems such as poverty, oppression, and abuse still exist in light of these changing views. Hence, while the influence of the Indian caste system may be disappearing in India, many inequalities still persist in light of changing attitudes.

Research conducted among college students in the cities of Bangladore, Calcutta, and Delhi indicates that caste distinctions among Indians are eroding and being replaced with more liberal views. As students are subjected to western ideas, pressures regarding caste, expectations for marrying within one’s caste, and rules for interacting with “Dalits” (untouchables) have become less important. For instance, 67.5 percent of college students surveyed believe one’s occupation, not caste, determines one’s status (Anant 194). The research also says that 69.7 percent do not support the theory of karma, which suggests that actions from a previous life determine one’s caste (196). Very noteworthy is the fact that 64.4 percent believe the caste system should be abolished altogether. Sixty-nine percent say it is okay to marry someone from another caste, and 86 percent say they would eat food that was touched by a Dalit (199). An interesting point from this study is that females are generally more liberal in their attitudes than males (196). The findings of this research, done in 1978, suggest that even twenty-eight years ago, religion and the caste system were playing a less significant role in the lives of Indians, who instead opted for a more liberal view.

Another study, conducted more recently, also suggests that this trend is taking place among upper-middle class youths in the city of New Delhi. This particular study suggests the effects of globalization are causing western influences to manifest themselves among India’s elite (Mathur 161). The study compares and contrasts the views of Delhi’s youth aged 18-26 with those held by middle-aged persons aged 46-62. For example, 62 percent of the older group believed parents should choose their children’s spouse, whereas 73 percent of the youth believed the children should decide (167). Another example indicates that 64 percent of the older generation do not believe love is an important component for those getting married. However, 57 percent of the younger generation believe love is important prior to getting married. Even more interesting is the fact that while 70 percent of the older generation believe one should marry within their religion, only 25 percent of the youth feel the same way. An interesting finding in the study indicates that while 83 percent of the older generation are proud to be Indian, 95 percent of the youth feel the same way (168). On the other hand, 59 percent of the younger generation claim they would migrate to a more advanced, developed country if given the opportunity, whereas only 30 percent of the older generation said the same (169).

The author interpreted this apparent contradiction by stating that “increasing nationalism could be one of many responses to the erosion of one’s cultural identity” (170), and that “the youth are not rejecting India, but what they consider outmoded in their culture” (177). The study also makes some interesting concluding statements, declaring that “Many of the elite youths surveyed here would have more in common with youths in advanced, developed countries than with their own parents” (170). The findings of this study appear to support its argument. The article ends by saying, “most middle-class Indians have learned to de-emphasize the importance of ethnic markers to their sense of identity that they feel as Indians” (171).

Despande takes the findings even further. Taking for granted that the forces of globalization and liberalism have been at play in India for some time, the author takes a close look at how women have been effected by the diminished importance of traditional ideas pertaining to the caste system and religion. In her article she states “While a small proportion of Indians (of both sexes) can claim that caste does not matter, …this freedom from caste is impossible for [lower caste women], who endure a combination of poverty and gender discrimination that keeps them illiterate, low paid, malnourished, and unhealthy…” (32) The author states that despite changing perspectives, “Dalit women are worse off than upper-caste women in terms of standard of living” (27). The author also explores the assumption which holds that the conduct and behavior of upper-caste women is more heavily regulated than Dalit women, and as a result, Dalit women enjoy greater autonomy in their lives. However, the research done by the author suggests that this assumption simply is not true. That is, they do not enjoy “greater autonomy to compensate for their greater poverty” (28). The author states that the majority of Dalit women are not allowed to decide how to care for themselves, nor do their husbands consult with them in making decisions that affect the whole family. Furthermore, Dalit women are also more prone to domestic violence and abuse. She concludes by saying that, “An assessment of the material aspects of the gender-caste overlap suggest that more than fifty years after Indian independence, the economic condition of women continues to be defined and constrained by their caste status” (33). So despite changes in how the caste system is regarded, inequalities left behind by the powerful distinctions it imposed are still an important issue in India.

So one sees that the importance of caste is disappearing as people are more willing to interact and associate with those from different castes, including the Dalit. Religion has taken on a less significant role in the lives of Indians, and traditional ideas pertaining to the caste system have been challenged even by the privileged youth of the upper castes as well as by college students. Forces of liberalism and globalization have been at play, as western influences serve to weaken the status quo. Nevertheless, despite such changes, inequality, poverty, and discrimination are still the reality among women at the bottom of the social ladder. Unfortunately, even as caste distinctions disappear, problems pertaining to class inequality still remain. Thus, in light of caste distinctions being less visible now, the consequences of such distinctions continue to manifest themselves plainly.


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

Deshpande, Ashwini (2002) “Assets Versus Autonomy? The Changing Face of The Gender- Caste Overlap in India.” Feminist Economics. Vol. 8, No. 2. 19-35.

Mathur, Smita & Gowri Parameswaran (2004) “Intergenerational Attitudinal Differences about Consumption and Identity among the Hindu Elite in New Delhi, India.” Journal of Intercultural Studies. Vol. 25, No. 2. 161-173.

Further Reading

Anant, Santokh (1975) “The Changing Intercaste Attitudes in North India: A follow-up after four years.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 5, No. 1. 49-59.

Borooah, Vani K. & Sriya Iyer (2005) “Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India.” Journal of Development Studies. Vol 41, No. 8. 1369-1404.

Arora, Kriti (2006) “Living in Refuge: Kashmiri Pandit Women.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Vol 7, No. 1. 113-120.

Related Research Topics

effects of globalization on Indian society; economic and social conditions of Dalit men and women; Liberal influences in Indian culture; public education and its role in forming perceptions; attitudes of class inequality in India; socio-economic conditions of women within India; ancient Hinduism and the Indian caste system; relationship between caste and religion; intercaste relationships; views of women on the caste system as compared to men.

Notable Relevant Websites

Written by Noah Heninger (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.