The very word caste was coined by the British from the Portuguese word Casta . In the 1800s Based on Darwin’s idea of evolution of species, many Europeans started this idea of evolution of races (though Darwin never talked about races). They said Africans were the lowest and Europeans, highest and so on. And this “science” of race was imported into India and mapped by “race scientist” Herbert Risley who was appointed the census commissioner of India. He categorized and made an hierarchy of the various Jaatis – or professional guilds – and wrongly mixed that up to Four Varnas – which was a scientific way of analyzing mental setups and not a discriminatory, defined-by-birth, rigid condemnation of individuals – which is what the Europeans were doing to everyone with their idea of higher and lower races.
It is extremely critical for all Hindus to understand this conspiracy and know the truth about the caste system., because this is the biggest stick with which both other religions and Hindus themselves beat themselves with. There is no word for caste in Sanskrit. Varna describes a mental setup. Jaati is a professional guild. Kula is a family tree. There is no word for caste. Let that sink in.
Hinduism never believed ANYTHING was unchangeable – your mental setup, your physical body including the DNA and yes, even the laws of physics. It is the Europeans idea of superiority of their skin that made them project the idea of un-changeable and by-birth nature to the jaatis of India. While it is true that parenting and community have a huge influence on individuals, we never believed that it was a final statement. History of Hinduism is replete with instances of this. Dhurva – one of the greatest devotees of Vishnu – was born to a demon. Vyasa – who scribed the Vedas, the Bhagavatham, Brahma Sutras and almost every major scripture – was born to a fisher woman. Vishwamitra, whose gave the Gayatri Mantra which every Brahmin recites daily was born a Kshatriya king. Rama and Krishna – the greatest incarnations of Lord Vishnu – who are worshiped by every Hindu were born as Kshatriyas and not a Brahmins. If this idea of hierarchy of Varnas or Jaatis was true, why would the Brahmins – who preserved these texts – retain these stories?
It is true that knowledge was kept in families and that families of a particular trade used to marry within themselves. But that is a phenomenon that is common on every part of the world and in every sub part. But nowhere was right denied by birth and no where were a particular mental setup looked down upon. Everyone had their role to play and power was equally distributed.
The scholars who were interested in pure knowledge were called Brahmins – but they had to live by begging only so that they will use their knowledge to serve society. The warriors or Kshatriyas were to defend the Kingdom, but they had strong rules to make sure that they never abused their powers. Vaishyas controlled the wealth and commerce and movement of goods and Shudras owned all the land. There was no superiority or inferiority – only choice. People did what they wanted and every group held one important part of the society.
The Varna System was the greatest freedom offered to men -it recognized everyone’s choice and gave them a rightful place in society. Power was equally balanced and nothing was restricted by birth – but only by intent and declaration.
Do Read this amazing article by Prof KS Kannan summarizes the main points about the origin of the caste system by the British.
Caste system in India is a direct result of multi-generational social engineering by the British as part of their divide-and-rule strategy. One of the key architects of this engineering was Lord Risley who institutionalized caste by making it part of the census. Over multiple censuses caste was inherited and soon one would be rigidly assigned to a caste right at birth. Caste-by-birth is a distortion of Hindu philosophy and tradition. Caste itself is a distortion and an European import, just like secularism. The closest Hindu construct is that of varna and jaati. This is a big topic, but Varna may be be thought of as division of labor in society and jaati as professional associations, like the Institute of Engineers. The relevant point is that these categories were fluid and could can evolve over time and are certainly not fixed at birth. I repeat – Inheritance of caste is a distortion, and not an fundamental tenet of Hinduism. Most prominent scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Gita, completely reject the idea of ‘caste by birth’. By the way, Lord Risley had gone further and also assigned a hierarchy to the different castes. That was the origin of the current upper, lower, scheduled, OBC and tribal categories.
Another notable Brit in this context is Sir William Jones. He interpreted Manusmriti to give Hindus their laws! My guess is that our current obsession with Manusmriti can be traced back to him.
The story now is more complex with multiple villains. Obvious ones are politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav who are using caste to play vote bank politics.
Please see this full 6 minute video by Rajiv Malhotra where he explains the origins of the caste system (6 min 24 secs)
And then this lucid explanation by Swami Nithyananda about the Spiritual truths about the Varnashrama System