Name: The Caste System in India

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The Caste System in India (pgs. 86-87)

About 1500 BCE, powerful nomadic warriors known as Aryans appeared in northern India. The warriors were from Central Asia, but managed to overcome the Himalayas by finding lower passes in the mountains, such as the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. The Aryans conquered the Dravidians of Central India and imposed their social structure upon them.

The Aryans divided their society into separate castes. Castes were unchanging groups. A person born into one caste never changed castes or mixed with members of other castes. Caste members lived, ate, married, and worked with their own group.

At the top of the caste system were the Brahmin – the priests and judges. Next came the Kshatriya, the warrior caste. The Vaishya caste were the farmers and merchants, and the Shudras, were craft workers and laborers.

The untouchables were the outcastes, or people beyond the caste system. Their jobs or habits involved “polluting activities” including:

~ Any job that involved ending a life, such as fishing.

~ Killing or disposing of dead cattle or working with their hides.
~ Any contact with human emissions such as sweat, urine, or feces. (washers, street sweepers, etc.)
~ People who ate meat. This category included most of the primitive Indian hill tribes.

Untouchables were often forbidden to enter temples, schools and wells where higher castes drew water. In some parts of southern India, even the sight of untouchables was thought to be polluting. The untouchables were forced to sleep during the day and work at night. Many untouchables left their rigid social structure by converting to Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity.

The Caste System has been illegal in India for more than fifty years, but it continues to shape people’s lives. The Indian government has provided the Harijan, a term now popularly used in place of untouchable, with specific employment privileges, and granted them special representation in the Indian parliament. Despite such measures, the Harijan continue to have fewer educational and employment opportunities than Indians from higher castes.

In the triangle, fill in the hierarchy of the caste

system (top of society to the very bottom).


Class Discussion Questions

  1. Who were the Aryans and what did they do?

  1. Explain what a caste is.

  1. Why do you think that priests were at the top of society?

  1. What were the jobs of the Untouchables?

  1. Which religions did Untouchables convert to in order to lose their “dirty” status? What does this tell us about those religions?

  1. How long has the caste system been outlawed in India?

  1. But how are people from the Harijan (untouchable) caste still treated unfairly?

  1. Why do you think that Hindu priests wanted to KEEP the caste system? (Give 2 reasons).

  1. In our society, do you think we treat people differently who are born into different economic situations? Explain.

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