Normally, caste is traced to the “Aryan invasion,” when presumably marauding bands of Indo-Europeans conquered and subjugated the native peoples, turning them into Shudras enslaved by caste bondage. However, this a-historical. A more accurate analysis would stress the following facts:
(1) There was no “caste” as such among the ancient Aryans. There is evidence of a three-fold division of priests, warriors and commoners, but none known as “Shudras” were there. It was a loosely stratified society, with themes of purity and pollution beginning to assert themselves, but no so dominant.
(2) From a very early period, Brahmans were solidifying themselves and asserting as a social group. Their “sacred” texts, from the Vedas to the later Manusmriti, Arthashastra etc. proclaimed varnashrama dharma as the ideal form of society, ie caste was prescribed. But this was not a description of the existing society, it was rather a kind of manifesto describing how the Brahmans felt society ought to be constructed.
(3) Society in the subcontinent at the time of the Aryan incursion was mostly within a tribal mode of production. Hunting and gathering were the main occupations. Gradually as agricultural developed, new classes arose. These took the form of gan-sangha oligarchies, with large landowners or gahapatis farming with das-kammakaras (either paid or unpaid) or independent villages kutumbin farmers, along with guilds or srenis. Production of implements for agriculture was done through the guilds, based in the cities.
(4) This system existed from the time of Buddha onwards. Buddhism became hegemonic, and fostered a relatively open society. The gahapatis and srenis predominated. Jainism also was an important religion, not quite so hegemonic as Buddhism.
(5) Towards the end of the Buddhist period, with the vast spread of agriculture, it became difficult for the city-based srenis to continue to supply sufficient tools and implements for agriculture. A new system began to come into being. Groups of artisans were settled in villages and made to produce for agriculture. Thus the jajmani or balutedari system began. The ideology of Brahmanism had been formed earlier, with the formulation of varnashrama dharma in the Manusmriti and other texts; now it had a material foundation to build upon. So the caste system began to be consolidated.
(6) The bhakti movement arose in various parts of India, challenging Brahmanism and caste and putting forward a more equalitarian concept of human life and divine joy. Namdev and Dnaneshwar, Kabir, Cokhamela, Tukoba, Ravidas all represented an outflowing of human aspiration. They rejected priestly ritualism and preached equality; Tukoba wrote of dancing on the river banks “forgetting the pride of varna and jati.” Though later in the l8th century processes of cooptation and absorption into a more orthodox framework took place, their heritage was a crucial one.
(7) Following the 18th century reaction, progress was stalled in India. “Modernization” came on the heels of colonialism, and this also transformed caste in India. New means of transportation and communication, railways, telegraphs, all provided tools for Brahmans to consolidate their communication and position in society. Education, now pioneered by the British, provided a few openings for those from lower castes, but it was also monopolized by Brahmans who could obtain through it a stranglehold over government jobs. As Iyothee Thass had put it, “the British rule having appeared, these brahmanar have rolled up and thrown away all the Vedas, Puranas, Smruties and Bhashyams devised for making a living; and learning now Vedas of high court jobs, Smritis of Revenue board employment, Upanishads of Akbari office jobs and Bhashyams of municipal office employment, are in prosperous living.”
(8) During this period the ideology of “Hinduism” was also constructed. “Hindu” had always been a geographical concept referring to those who lived beyond the Indus river, in the land of “Al-Hindi” or “Hindustan.” Now it was given a religious meaning. The claim was for the existence of a religion called “Hinduism” presumed to be the religion of all those living in the subcontinent who were not Muslims, Christians, etc. The content of it was constructed as an amalgam of the Vedas, Shastras, a sanitized version of bhakti, with local gods and goddesses thrown in for color and local claims. This began to emerge as a powerful ideological force.
(9) Gradually during the colonial and even more the post-independence period, the former jajmani-balutedari system began to fade away. As modern industries replaced the old woven ropes of the Matangs, the iron of the Lohars, the carpentry of the Sutars, people no longer found a place in their hereditary “caste occupations.” Instead, a renewed caste hierarchy was formed on the basis of modern industry, obeying the laws of motion of the caste mode of production – that is, that the lowest, “dirtiest” jobs with the greatest amount of manual labour and no element of abstract labor were done by former untouchable castes, while heavy laboring jobs but less “dirty” jobs were done by former peasant and balutedari caste people. At the top, the clean jobs with a great amount of abstract mental labor – the professions, doctors, lawyers, professors etc. – were monopolized by Brahmans. Thus caste took on new life in a changed form in the modern period. But the old hierarchy and its sense of graded exclusiveness remained.