Caste system is a unique phenomenon of Indian society. The history of caste system in India may be traced back to the Vedic period which extends up to 600 BC. The Indian caste system originates from the Chathurvarnya system of the Aryans.
Among the Aryans, the priestly class was called the Brahmins, the warriors were called the Kshatriyas. The common people who were devoted to agriculture and pastoral pursuits, trade and industry were called the Vaisyas.
The Dasas or the non Aryans were the people of mixed blood and were called Sudras. The Chathurvarna system had its beginning during the later Vedic period. This system came to be gradually distorted in shape and meaning and replaced by the caste system in India.
The beginning of caste system may be traced to the four fold classification of society. The purusha sukta of Rigveda gives a mythological story of the origin of the four Varnas. By referring to the origin of the Chathurvarna the Purushasukta compares the society with giant organism having the Brahmin, the Kshatriya , the Vaishya and the Sudra as its head, arms, trunk and feet respectively. It is believed that the Brahmins originated from the mouth, the Kshatriyas from the arms; the Vaisyas from the thighs while the Sudras from the feet of Lord Brahma.
The Brahmins and Kshatriyas emerged as two leading classes. The Brahmins claimed superiority over all other Varnas but the Kshatriyas remained their contenders. Later on, however, these two Varnas compromised with each other. The functions of each Varna were specifically laid down.
The Brahmins performed religious and ritual activities for the welfare of society. They studied the Vedas and formulated norms for all sections of the society. They acted as priests, judges, assessors and ministers. They were required to live a life of simplicity, virtue and asceticism. They were to have good will towards all. Therefore, they were given a higher status and were placed at the top of the hierarchy.
The Kshatriyas were given the second position in the hierarchy. The Kshatriyas were assigned the task of defending the country and maintaining law and order. They were the protectors of the kings who held all the power. They were well versed in war techniques and were supposedly brave.
The Vaishyas occupied the third position. They were a highly differentiated class, as they consisted of a few wealthy families, small peasants, artisans and petty officials. The Vaishyas were required to attend to agriculture, trade, commerce and cattle rearing. They were expected to add to the prosperity of the country.
The fourth Varna is the Kshudra, the ekaja. They did not have the advantage of education. They were to render services to the three varnas or the wages paid to them. They were the servicemen. They were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy.
In course of time, numerous other castes and sub castes were formed. Today it is estimated that India has more than 3000 castes and sub castes.