Though observance of the caste system is officially not allowed, castes are still identified in order to advance the status of previously disadvantaged castes.
Four "varnas" or social levels and functions were described in ancient Hindu scriptures, as well as a fifth lower group, the "untouchables." This last group have now chosen to call themselves "Dalits."
In modern India, three main groups are recognized (as well as those above these groups):
- 1) Scheduled castes (SC)
- Scheduled castes generally consist of former "untouchables" (the term "Dalit" is now preferred). The present population is 16% of the total population of India (around 160 million). For example, the Delhi state has 49 castes listed as SC.
- 2) Scheduled tribes (ST)
- Scheduled tribes generally consist of tribal groups. The present population is 7% of the total population of India i.e. around 70 million.
- 3) Other Backward Classes (OBC)
- The Mandal Commission covered more than 3000 castes under OBC Category and stated that OBCs form around 52% of the Indian population. However, the National Sample Survey puts the figure at 32%. There is substantial debate over the exact number of OBCs in India. It is generally estimated to be sizable, but many believe that it is lower than the figures quoted by either the Mandal Commission or the National Sample Survey
Here's an excerpt from a National Geographic discussion of caste in India:
To be born a Hindu in India is to enter the caste system, one of the world's longest surviving forms of social stratification. Embedded in Indian culture for the past 1,500 years, the caste system follows a basic precept: All men are created unequal. The ranks in Hindu society come from a legend in which the main groupings, or varnas, emerge from a primordial being. From the mouth come the Brahmans—the priests and teachers. From the arms come the Kshatriyas—the rulers and soldiers. From the thighs come the Vaisyas—merchants and traders. From the feet come the Sudras—laborers. Each varna in turn contains hundreds of hereditary castes and subcastes with their own pecking orders.
A fifth group describes the people who are achuta, or untouchable. The primordial being does not claim them. Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India's people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down.Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.