History of the Caste SystemAn 1857 photograph of warriors from the Indian Hindu Rajput clan, which belongs to the military Kshatriya caste. Photo: Henry Guttmann/Wikimedia.If a Hindu person were asked to explain the nature of the caste system, he or she might start to tell the story of Brahma. This was a four-headed, four-handed deity, or god, worshiped as the creator of the universe.According to an ancient text known as the Rigveda, the division of Indian society was based on Brahma's divine explanation of four groups.Priests and teachers were cast from his mouth, rulers and warriors from his arms, merchants and traders from his thighs and workers and peasants from his feet.Others might present a biological explanation of India's stratification system, based on the notion that all living things inherit a particular set of qualities. Some inherit wisdom and intelligence, some get pride and passion, and others are stuck with less fortunate traits. Proponents of this theory attribute all aspects of one's
lifestyle—social rank, occupation and even diet—to these basic qualities and thus use them to explain the foundation of the caste system.What Does "Caste" Mean?Even today, most Indian languages use the term "jati" for the system of hereditary social structures in South Asia. When Portuguese travelers to 16th-century India first encountered what appeared to them to be race-based social stratification, theyused the Portuguese term "casta" to describe what they saw. "Casta" means "race."Today, the term "caste" is used to describe societies that are "layered" based on hereditary groups not only in South Asia but throughout the world.