Caste systems

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Caste systems assign individuals permanently to social positions purely on the basis of race, religion, or some other ascribed characteristic. South Africa's apartheid was a caste system based on racial segregation. So were the systems of slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the history of the United States.

Caste in India may be described in reference to varnas and jatis. Varnas are the broad, classificatory levels of Indian civilization and typically include Brahmins (priests and teachers) at the top, Kshatriyas (warriors) at the second level, Vaisyas (merchants) next, followed by Sudras (laborers). Below are the Untouchables or, as Gandhi referred to them, the Harijans (children of God).

Jatis are endogamous groupings, i.e., members are expected to marry within the group. Historically they have also defined the occupations and lifestyles of their members. Jati prescriptions and proscriptions are religiously reinforced, meaning that, within the Hindu system of interpretation, it makes a difference for this and all future lives whether or not a person lives up to the definitions of his or her jati position. From 15 to 20 jatis can be found in most larger Indian villages; from 200 to 300 can be associated with each of the general language regions of India.

Indian churches today, particularly in the cities, include members from many different backgrounds. Yet the strengths, outlines, problems, and prospects of the church in India, in general, can only be well understood if caste considerations are taken into account. Recruitment of new Christians over the years has followed jati lines rather closely, or has occurred primarily at the "edges" of Indian civilization, where jati lines are not as clearly drawn as they are closer in. Another important source of Christian converts has been the Harijans, the level of Indian society at which converts have had the least to lose socially in leaving the Hindu system. Church rivalries frequently follow jati lines.


Neill, Stephen. The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970.

Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1970.

McGavran, Donald A. Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 1979.

Wiebe, Paul D. Christians in Andhra Pradesh: The Mennonites of Mahbubnagar. Bangalore: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1987.

Wiser, William and Charlotte. Behind Mud Walls, 1930-1960. Berkeley, CA: U. of California Press, 1963.

Hiebert, Paul G. Konduru: Structure and Integration in a South Indian Village. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press, 1971.

Author(s) Paul D Wiebe
Date Published 1987

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Wiebe, Paul D. "Caste systems." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 13 Apr 2021.

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Wiebe, Paul D. (1987). Caste systems. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 13 April 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 128. All rights reserved.

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