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The Hindu caste system

One of the hymns in the Rigveda describes how at the start of the world a primal man is sacrificed. From his body the four main divisions of Hinduism (known as varna, literally 'colours') are created: from his mouth come the priests (the Brahmans), from his arms the warriors and rulers (the Kshatriyas), from his thighs the people who live by agriculture or trade (the Vaishyas) and from his feet a serf class (the Shudras).

The groups probably reflect the three classes of Aryan society, with the Shudras at the bottom as the conquered indigenous people of India. These distinctions have survived to our own day and are usually thought of as the caste system, though they are only a tiny part of it.

The essential element in the caste system is the division of society into a great many mutually exclusive groups - jati in Hindi. The jati into which a person is born defines his or her social status through life, as well as providing the group within which that person must marry.

Each jati has its place within a well-established hierarchy. Work of an unclean kind (leather-tanning, sweeping, garbage removal) will ensure a very low status. Even today Brahmans consider themselves polluted if coming into contact with Hindus of a low caste - an attitude which has led the lowest groups of all to be classed as 'Untouchables'.

Rigid though this is in the short term, the pattern can be broken. Sometimes entire jati succeed in moving up the social scale simply by giving up a degrading occupation or custom; a generation or two later, other jati come to accept this higher-caste behaviour as evidence of a higher-caste status.

On a personal level the rigidity of the system is softened by the Hindu belief in reincarnation. One of the main rewards of a virtuous or holy life is to be reborn into a higher caste.

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