The caste system is often taken to be very ancient, even timeless. “Hinduism” is sometimes said to be 5000 years old, so people will think the caste system dates equally back. But this is simply not true. Neither the caste system nor Hinduism is that old. Caste is actually relatively recent historically. (And “Hinduism” was constructed during the colonial period).
About 500 BCE Brahmanism (which possibly dated back before that to the late Vedic period) got engaged in a contention with the shramana tradition (Buddhism, Jainism, lokayata materialism etc). Buddhism was an alternative to Brahmanism. The shramana tradition itself (which defended the gana-sanghas and contested the varna of Brahmanism) may date back to the Indus civilization; there is some evidence for this; thus it would be older than the Brahmanic tradition. Between the downfall of the Indus civilization and the emergence of patriarchal gana-sanghas (internal democracy among the elite and exploitation of dasas) came either tribal societies or matrilineal gana sanghas which had surplus production but not exploitation. (It should be investigated whether there was also a Brahman-Kshatra division of society, which got reflected in the philosophy as purush-prakriti). After the time of the patriarchal gana-sanghas and the contestation of the shramana and brahmanic traditions came the flowering of Brahmanism. The first “manifesto” of the caste system, the Manumsriti, dates to about the 2nd century BCE. The Arthashastra and others are somewhat similar. We have to differentiate between this Brahmanic caste ideology (which emerges with Manu) and the caste system, which rose to dominance only centuries later.
For a long period when Buddhism was hegemonic (until about 500 CE or the 5-6th centuries) there was no caste system dominant. The state controlled agricultural production, mining etc.; there were guilds (shrenis) whose production was channeled by the state, dasa-kammakara slaves and workers, gahapatis and merchants and so on. People from tribal societies were established on state land as “kutumbin” farmers with a major share of the produce going to the state. This was an independent and dominant mode of production. Shrenis and gahapatis were part of the state apparatus, while the exploited sections included the kutumbin farmers and dasakammakaras.
But this began to change. As the stable agriculture grew in a wider area it became impossible for urban-based shrenis to provide implements because of distance and economic viability; thus groups of artisans from among the kutumbin farmers and defeated tribal clans began to be established in the villages. This became the basis for the growth of the jajmani system.
We speak of varna; but what was the “varna system”? We need to discuss as to what extent it practically existed as a system and to what extent it was only an ideology. Despite the fact that except in Vedas and some literary texts the mention of varna is not found elsewhere, we cannot wholly rule out the possibility of existence of three varna-like groups. What was the period of the “Varna system” or of varna as a social reality, (social reality that linked caste, work, exploitation surplus and hierarchy) if it was one? There may be no concrete proof for the varna system; but if the varna system was not there then why did the ideology emerge?
From 6th-12th centuries we can see the consolidation of the jajamani system. The jajmani system began its formation about the 6th century and was consolidated slowly after this. Gradually caste and Brahmanism, which was evolving from an earlier period, were asserting themselves, in spite of the dominance of Buddhism and within the framework of guilds etc. Gradually they triumphed, partly because of the consolidation of new relations in society but also due to violence of the state.
The bhakti movement (12th to 17th centuries) represented a ch allenge to caste; so did Sufism which influenced it. Islam had a dual position; at the top the Sultans etc were willing to enforce brahmanic authority, but Sufi-carried Islamic traditions of equalitarianism. In any case, the bhakti challenge was deflected and absorbed by the 18th century.
Colonialism brought a new challenge to caste, though Brahmans could take the greatest advantage of British education, communications and employement, still a new historical outlook and new ideas emerged with Phule, Iyothee Thass and others.
Independence, modernization and caste: new themes came with the growth of capitalist industrialization, the erosion and weakening of jajmani occupations. Modern changes in Brahmanism are very important.