The Caste System Shapes India

The Aryans divided society into four groups. Non-Aryans held the lowest jobs. During the Vedic Period, class divisions moved more toward reflecting social and economic roles. As these changes occurred, they eventually led to a more complex system of castes, or social groups into which people are born and which can rarely be changed.

Complex Rules of the Caste System

Caste, over time, became closely linked to Hindu notions of a proper society. Each caste had different functions and were set off from one another by specific rules of behavior, such as where people lived, how they earned a living, and who they could marry. These rules became more rigid as Hindu society moved into the medieval and modern periods.

High-caste people had the strictest rules to separate them from the lower castes. Because they had jobs such as digging graves, cleaning streets, or turning animal hides into leather, some people were considered so impure that they were called “untouchables.”

For the untouchables, now referred to as Dalits, life was harsh and restricted. Other castes feared that contact with an untouchable could spread pollution. Untouchables had to live apart and sound a wooden clapper to warn of their approach. Today, untouchability is outlawed and the Indian government has urged its citizens to reject any form of discrimination based on caste.

Caste Affects Social Structure

Despite its inequalities, caste ensured a stable social order. In time, people came to believe that the law of karma determined their caste. While they could not change their status in this life, they could reach a higher state in a future life by faithfully fulfilling the duties of their present caste.

The caste system gave many people a sense of identity and interdependence. Each caste had its own occupation and its own leaders. Caste members cooperated to help one another. In addition, each caste had its own special role in Indian society.

Although strictly separated, different castes depended on one another for their basic needs. A lower-caste carpenter, for example, built the home of a higher-caste scholar. The caste system also adapted to changing conditions.

As people migrated into the subcontinent, they formed new castes. Other castes grew out of new occupations and religions. This flexibility allowed people with diverse customs to live side by side in relative harmony. By modern times, there were thousands of major castes and subcastes.

Illustration of a group of ancient people walking outdoors, holding items such as musical instruments and a torch. One person is on horseback, under a parasol held by someone on foot.


Chair-bearers, or “dolavahi,” were part of the caste of untouchables in ancient India and in later times, as shown in this 19th century image. Who in this image would be a higher caste person?

The Buddha's Key Teachings

More than 2,500 years ago, warring princes battled across the northern plain of India. During this troubled time, Brahmin priests acquired great power by insisting they alone could perform the sacred rites to bring victory in battle or ensure adequate rainfall. Reformers rejected Brahmin domination and offered other paths to truth.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, a reformer named Siddhartha Gautama (sih DAHR tuh gow TUH muh) founded a new religion, Buddhism. His teachings eventually spread across Asia to become the core beliefs of one of the world's most influential religions.

From Boy to Buddha

The facts of Gautama's early life are known mostly through traditional stories. He was born into a high ranking family about 563 B.C.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments