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The Caste System in India

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The caste system in India came about 2000 years ago before colonial rule; it came from the Hindu God, Brahman. The system classified people’s hierarchy that dictated their professions, social sphere, and even diet. The hierarchical system dictated the authority and influence one caste has over the other. The system consists of the Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaisyas (merchants), Sudra (peasants), and the Dalits (street cleaners), or the untouchable caste; the latter were also excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism. Initially, the system held minimal importance in Indian society, because it largely existed on religious scripts. Before colonial power came to india, caste classifications were not as rigid, and stepping up the social hierarchy had been fairly simple. The caste system had significant relevance to the Britsh Raj in India. The Britsih aimed to learn new information about the India society to better govern and learn new ‘knowledge’ about their territory. In order to do this, they initiated the census gathering process. The census led to the highlighting of the number of people representing various religious groups or identities in the subcontinent, which in turn hardened already existing boundaries and created further new ones.

The Britsih census had firmly established the brahman caste structure, and also brought to light the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims of the sub-continent, which open the floodgates for large-scale conflicts that ended with the partition of 1947. The census also highlighted the Hindu majority over Muslims, and further exaggerated the already-present rift between the Muslims and Hindus.

While the census reported various Hindu caste groups, Muslims were largely viewed as a homogenous group of people with similar practices and ideologies by the British. This is because caste system does exist in Islam. However, Muslims did have different groups representing various identities. While these identities were not based in the caste system, but did function as one. For example, the elite Ashrafs were socially and economically better than the low class Ajlals, who were peasants and were thus treated poorly based on this difference.

Moreover, Muslims were seen as backward because of their dislike for the Britishers and their culture. This made the British ally with the Hindus, which made the Hindus benefit from the alliance. For example, In 1871, out of a total of 2,141 persons employed by the colonial government there were 4.3% Muslims, 33.2% Hindus, and 62.5% Europeans (Jayapalan 2001). This further pronounced the divide of the muslims and hindus and increased muslim resnetament between the two. Therefore, the British census had re-imagined political and societal differences between Hindus and Muslims and worked to highlight the extremities between the two.

As far as the Hindus were concerned, census figures had reached the public eye and discrepancies of quantitative strengths and social privileges of Hindu caste become visible, it set motions of lower caste demanding their rights against the upper caste, namely the Brahmins. This was also because Brahmins formed a small fraction of the hindu population, compared to the majority of Vaisyas, Sudra, and Dalits; that raised concerns over respectable professions, such as medical practitioners or legal workers, which were reserved for the Brahmin population and not available for them to pursue. That is why it is no surprise that Brahmins dominated most respectable jobs at that time and still continue to do so till today, long after the colonial rule.

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The colonial reinterpretation of the caste system had come from Manusmriti: the first scripts translated from Sanskrit to English by Sir Willam Jones, and the text that helped conduct the colonial census process. At a time when general information was scarce, colonizer’s had the most access to it. Similarly, this made the britsh had the understanding of hierarchy in the hindu caste system. Shortly, Brahmins had been entitled to privileges, such as working in the British Raj. This supports the idea that the Britsh were indeed using the caste system for their own benefit by manipulating all indians by using the brahmins as their controlling point.

The colonial state took quick measures to learn about the Indians to control them. Colonizers had created knowledge from what they sought was India’s most definitive text. They studied culture and practices, instead of using history as modes of knowing, that formed an essential part of the census. The resulting hierarchical system after colonial influence became rigid in the 20th century where cast systems were associated with real rights. Being in different castes had severe consequences, e.g.: Dilates or Sudras. From religion-based elections in British India and caste-based reservations in independent India made categorization key in determining the eligibility of Indians. Caste system had dictated all aspects of life and the Britsh were certainly the ultimate definers of todays Indian history.

Reservations or quotas were introduced to Indians caste categories in 1950 (after colonial rule); quotas in India was a small way of compensating the millions of Indians who faced discrimination and suffered untouchability. Inevitably, a backlash followed and higher castes demanded higher placements in the social hierarchy in a competition of the lower caste reservations. The caste system during and after the colonial rule had run against democracy, it believed in inequality were brahmins were at the top and held the ability of dominant control in Indian society till today. For example, the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, imposed education of Sanskrit language mandatory in school to revive the ‘Hindu’ spirit; Hinduism was originally an ideology of “Brahmanism” that existed largely on a text that had spurred the interest of the elite Sanskrit-educated social class. (Majumder 2014)

On the other hand, Muslims in India at the time of British Raj felt uneasy about British culture and religion. Also, The colonizers had vastly employed Hindu rather than Muslims, because they were classified as ‘backward’ to them. The colonial government had also rejected education to the Muslim mass that made them homogenize Muslims and who lacked competence against the Hindus. The census operation quantified the Muslim as a unit that they supposed had invariable religious and social practices. However, this is not true. For instance, The Deoband school that provided religious education for the Muslims, hosted mostly Bengali Hindu students who conversed in Sanskritized Bengali; this resulted in ramifications with the elite Ashrafs that demanded separate schools to preserve their distinctness their religion and language which was different from the Bengali Muslims (Banerjee-Dube 2014).

For Muslims, religious hierarchical structures had not existed, but Muslims did have notions of caste system within them called ‘baradari’, where communities had different ethical and cultural profiles. In the 1872 census, United Provinces Muslims constitute a minority, but a large number of them were Mulsim aristocrats. In Punjab, however, Muslims amounted for over half the population but were not part of the Muslim aristocracy. The census had reported a small elite group of Ashrafs, and the wider populace of Ajlaf, who both also spoke different languages of Bengali and Urdu. Furthermore, a significant number of Muslims population in India differed in class, economic wealth, as well as in Muslim sects, such as Shia’s and Sunnis’. This diverse ‘Muslim’ community constituted 19.7 of the total Indian population in 1881 (Banerjee-Dube 2014).

To sum up, the publication of census revealed the Muslims as a minority, which gaslights the rivalry among the Hindu’s that brought the demand for separation between the two. This also favored the colonial representation of the Indian past or the “Hindi versus the Muslim” notion. This notion did not set rivalry just for the Muslim community, but also further exaggerated the divisions within the Muslim community, just like how we have seen in the Hindu varna system. For example, the turmoil of Sunni and Shia that has erupted since the independence of Pakistan. The sheer number of Sunnis has enabled them more control in legislative matters of Pakistan, which has fueled the oppression of the Shias in frequent riots. Ahmedis, who were most prominent at the time of Jinnah, are now an outcast in the Pakistani context of ‘Muslims’, while Shias are questioned on their right to being Muslims. This seemingly resembles when the Dalits were forbidden from using roads to Hindu temple– because of their low class profession– and that which the British compensated for with a new road instead of making any amendments of the oppression of the already oppressed. Today, the Hindu nor the Muslim can look eye into the eye, nor can the Brahmin to the Dalit. The colonial strategy worked insofar as making a new country, but which laid the after-effects of caste and secretarial oppression in the subcontinent.

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The Caste System in India. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
“The Caste System in India.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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