The Aryan Caste System

Around 1500 BC, about 500 years after the Indus River Valley civilization fell, northern India began to be settled and conquered by nomadic warriors known as Aryans. The Aryans were originally hunters and herders. When they migrated to the Indian subcontinent they learned agriculture and began developing settlements and cities, which established the beginning of the Aryan civilization in India.

The Aryans had a religious tradition that they developed from their sacred texts called the Vedas. The Rig Veda is a Vedic text that describes the mythological creation of the world and the sacrifice of the first human, a giant named Purusha. The texts state that Purusha was separated into four parts by the gods. These four parts became the four castes of people in Aryan society. Purusha’s mouth became the Brahmins, his arms became the Kshatriyas, his legs became the Vaishyas, and his feet became the Shudras.

The highest caste in the Aryan caste system was the Brahmins. Brahmins were priests, scholars, judges, teachers, and landowners and were believed to understand the Dharma, or spiritual laws that governed the universe. Many lived in the temples apart from the rest of society. The second caste included the Kshatriya who were the rulers and warriors. They made everyday decisions and ran the government. The third caste were the peasants, farmers and traders called Vaishyas. Sometimes Vaishyas had some leadership positions in smaller villages. The last caste were the laborers known as Shudras. They most often work on farms owned by people in higher castes.

The Caste System was a very important aspect of life in Ancient India. People were born into their caste for life. Their caste membership determined the work they did, the man or woman they could marry, and the people with whom they could eat. Cleanliness and purity were also regarded as very important. Those considered the most impure because of their work as butchers, gravediggers, and collectors of trash lived outside the caste structure. They were known as “untouchables” since even their touch endangered the ritual purity of others. They had no rights and could not move up or marry out of their caste.