The Hindu Society in India is often misunderstood for its division into four castes, as a way to establish a status and power hierarchy within the Society.
However, the fact is that the four fold division was not created, but only defined or named as per the division that already existed in India, at the time when the Aryans arrived, on the basis of the work or profession being followed by the different sections of the society. It was not assigned newly by the Aryans onto any group.
To elaborate, the Aryans already had people following different professions,as per which they were given specific names and a code of conduct by the ancient Rishis, like Manu.
There was a group which was engaged in Priestly functions for the society,
Who were called ‘Brahmins’.
Another group comprised the Warriors, who were the Kings and called ‘Kshatriyas’ as their duty was to act as Kshatrap or Chhatra, to their subjects to protect them from other invading tribes.
The third group was the ‘Vaishyas’, or Commercial people, who were traders or merchants by profession.
Here, it is relevant to mention that there was also an analogous group of traders among the Dravidians, who had occupied the Indus Valley and part of India, before the advent of the Aryans. They were called ‘Panis’, from the Tamil Brahmi word for money ‘Panam’ (பணம்/ पणम). They were mostly Arabs and Babylonians who had come from the Middle East.
Lastly, there was a caste called the ‘Shudras’, which meant the common people, who were Dravidians. It is important to clarify that not all the
Shudras were Untouchables. Instead, there are two main classes among them,viz. (1) the Upper class Shudras, who were traders and artisans, and were not outcast or treated as Untouchables. They are the ones who were called ‘Dasas'( Dahae in Persian) by the Aryans in the old times, and are now categorized as the OBC , that is, Other Backward Castes, to distinguish them from the lower Scheduled Castes.
(2) the Lower class Shudras,termed ‘Dasyus’ earlier,were the pre- Dravidians or Aborigines of India. Some of them took to staying in forests and were called the Forest/Vanvasi Tribes or Adivasi Tribes. Now, they are also known as the Scheduled Tribes and Backward Tribes.
Those who stayed on in the cities were made to do Menial work as sweepers and scavengers. They were the ones who were the Untouchables, Backward or Scheduled Castes.
Yet, in the beginning the divisions of caste were not rigidly limited to birth within any caste, and there was opportunity for meritorious individuals of lower castes to get a place in a higher caste, as in the case of the low-caste boy Satyakaam, the son of a courtesan, who was accepted by the Rishi Parashar as a Brahmin disciple, because of his stark Truthfulness about his Low birth. Later, however, the right or merit of persons was decided by birth, which turned the system into a social evil, as it led to unfair debarring of worthy and deserving people of lower castes from competitions of prowess in the arts of warfare, like archery, or fighting with spears, etc. in order to make it the Monopoly of Brahmins and Kshatriyas.
This is clearly seen in the case of Karna, the valiant character of the ‘Mahabharata,’,who though actually a Kshatriya by birth, being the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, was humiliatingly forbidden to take part in a competition of archery with Arjun, the favorite disciple of Guru Dronacharya, as he was brought up as their child by a couple of the Charioteer caste, who found him in a basket floating in a river, after he was abandoned by Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, for having been born to her through the Surya God before her marriage, and thus mistakenly regarded as a ‘Sutputra’ ! Likewise, the story of the Forest tribal boy, Eklavya, the self-appointed disciple of Dronacharya, is also well known to all.
This rigidity of the ‘ higher than thou’, and ‘touch me not’ attitude of upper castes designed to exclude deserving members of lower castes from
the privileges reserved for the higher castes, was a very unfortunate aspect of the Caste system, as it aimed at keeping the lower castes in the downtrodden position by denying them the right to get education and training to further their prospects, and to partake in contests against the higher castes. This highbrow outlook of the Upper castes also affected
their mutual relations adversely, leading to revolt against the oppression
in course of time, and to weakening of the solidarity of the Hindu Society. The case of Karna in Mahabharata, who developed hostility towards the Pandavas, and joined the Kauravas, because of their scornful attitude towards him, as the son of a charioteer( though he was actually a Kshatriya, which was not known to anyone but to Kunti and Krishna), is an example
However, after the independence of India, much has been done for the uplift of the Dalits or downtrodden castes by the Government of India, under the pioneership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, who composed the Constitution of India, and by Gandhiji, to reduce the gap of status between them and the Upper castes, cleaner facilities and better, modern toilets devised to make their cleaning work less demeaning or obnoxious. They are also encouraged to study and take up more dignified jobs by the introduction of the system of Reservation for them in Government educational institutions and civil service. Some of them have also joined the Army.
On the other hand, the Upper castes too, have been forced by circumstances over the years, to adopt non-traditional professions.
For example, many Brahmins have turned to Trading , in place of Priesthood and Teaching of Vedas. A good number of Kshatriyas too have become Merchants, while Vaishyas are working as Teachers in schools and colleges.
In short, it is high time other communities and countries changed their view about the Caste system in Hindu Society, and prejudice towards it.