The caste system we know today is a gift of the British Raj. How and why they contrived to metamorphize the traditional Hindu Varna-Jati-based social order is the topic explored in this article.
The Hindu social order, based on flexible and changeable Varna categories and occupationally and politically defined Jatis, was a brilliant way to achieve unity in diversity and not an oppressive restraint based on race, color, or occupation. Unlike the pagan societies easily overcome by the early Christians , the Hindu structure was robust. The British, therefore, were forced to advertise it worldwide as an abominable system of lifelong enslavement at birth, knowing that it was contrary to the established Hindu “scriptures” like the Bhagavad Gita.
This essay reveals how this evil metamorphosis took place.
We begin with European society long before the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama “discovered” India. Egypt, Greece, and Rome had large slave populations. Antisemitism was severe; there were anti-Jewish pogroms in 12th-century Europe . Racial and genetic purity was prized. Not just in animals and plants but also in people. Spain, which never colonized India, had racial purity laws in the 15th century and the Sistema de Castas in the 16th century Spanish New Mexico. Status and ritual-based restrictions on inter-dining and marriage are also European .
Thus, Europeans brought the ideas of race, racial purity, hated minorities, and religious control of society to India. Based essentially on tabloids, they expected exotic, filthy, rich, idolatrous heathens in India and a wise race of “Brachmanes .” Instead, they found pliable Jatis and Varnas and a very religious people – without a prophet, a “Bible,” or an organized clergy.
From Casta to Caste
After two years of floundering en route, Vasco da Gama landed in Goa in May 1498. We have a 1508 account of the kingdom of Vijayanagara by Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese “India officer” during 1501-1517. He mentions seven “upper” and eleven “lower” classes, a class hierarchy, and a concept of “pollution,” and uses the word “casta” for classes that were both endogamous and occupational, such as Nairs. He does not mention a casta “system,” lifelong caste assignment at birth , or the four ideal caste groups, or make any moral judgments. However, modern writers indiscriminately use the word “caste”  for Barbosa’s classes.
Another snapshot, 150 years later, is available from Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French merchant and self-financed travel addict who traveled extensively in Persia and India in the mid-17th century. He provides many details of diamond mines and found what is now called the Hope diamond. Tavernier writes with sensationalistic relish about weird customs like sati, weird flora and fauna, and ignorant superstitions, but not of the Hindu spiritual literature. The English word “caste” appears in a 1670 translation of his travelog. He alludes to priests reporting seventy-two castes, though “these may be reduced to four principal castes from which all others derive their origin. According to him , notably, the Shudras fought in wars on foot.
Dozens of similar accounts by travelers exist. The conclusion, however, is that divisions of society and the gradation of Varnas were present in 17th-century Hindu society but as a social practice, not as divinely mandated lifelong assignments. The hierarchy was fluid and ever-changing, without explicit untouchability. The similarity in the accounts of a Portuguese office-bearer and a French traveling merchant, 150 years apart, is notable.
A description of Varnas given in the late 16th-century A’in-e-Akbari  confirms that caste was important in practical life only as a label or a club one might belong to. The short chapter mentions the four Varnas but attaches status more closely to titles of the Mughal court, such as Mansabdar, Zamindar, or Bahadur. It was not that Varna/Jati or “caste” was absent, but that it wasn’t dominant, rigid, or obvious. Europe at the time was more formally stratified.
Jesuit missionaries tried to convert Akbar in 1595 when searching for a new synthesis of religion. Sir Thomas Roe sent a British emissary to Prince Salim. But it was Robert de Nobili, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who learned Sanskrit and Tamil, who first converted a few upper-caste Hindus by allowing them to keep their Varna-Jati practices. The Catholic church, however, vetoed the artifice: there would be no religious conversion without social conversion.
According to Angela Xavier , “casta” in Portuguese originally signified good or chaste behavior but acquired a derogatory sense when specialized to India. It is found, for example, in inventories of plants and cattle but also of slaves, suggesting a derogatory a priori attitude. This attitude helps to understand why Europeans overlooked the benefits of caste.
Among these benefits were basic and vocational education at home, protection of trade and process secrets, an incentive for professionalism and continuous improvement, strong families due to common factors of livelihood, respect, and security in old age, and the cultural continuity of marrying within one’s Jati beyond a certain separation. They also missed the public health reasons to avoid contact with people exposed to biological waste and the remarkable religious harmony among a people with thousands of ways to worship God.
The Role of Missionaries
With the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company won the India lottery against Portugal, Spain, and France. Although much of India was still hostile and, in some cases, invincible, the Company’s hold on India only got stronger. In the beginning, it kept its eyes on conquest and profits rather than religion or reform, paying to translate and print religious documents in Sanskrit and Farsi and helping to set up schools as a goodwill gesture. Company employees like William Jones, James Prinsep, Charles Wilkins, and H. H. Wilson (the “Orientalists” ) spread awareness of great Sanskrit classics like Kalidas’ Shakuntala. The first book translated was the Manusmriti by Jones in 1794. Unfortunately, he jumped to the conclusion that he had found the divinely revealed law of the Hindus and likened the Manu who supposedly wrote it to the Biblical law-giver Moses. The mistake would resonate for centuries.
The early missionaries dressed as Brahmins to appear learned. Their ruse did not last long and backfired when the real Brahmins shunned them. Secondly, Indians thought of conversion as adopting a different personal god, not changing their lives in their entirety. Thus, caste, although a civil institution, protected Hindu dharma from socialized religion. Wise missionaries like Nobili recommended against substantial interference in the Indian social order. But there were many others who hankered for government backing.
In 1792, the evangelical silk millionaire Charles Grant wrote an essay  opposing the Company’s policy of religious neutrality and thanking the Lord for its success. In 1797 he presented it to the Court of Directors, and in 1813, to the House of Commons with the support of antislavery reformer Charles Wilberforce. The 1813 Charter Act  installed Grant as Chairman of the Court, with authority to promote Indians’ “interests and happiness” and “religious and moral improvement .”Evangelicals were now free to revile and assault Indian religions.
At this time, castes were flexible, and their relative rank was fixed by “public opinion,” – according to French Catholic missionary Abbe Dubois . Susan Bailey of Cambridge  agrees: “in the 1820s … ‘caste’ norms were still being actively forged… many Indians were still highly uncastelike in their social and moral norms”. A decade after the 1813 charter, Dubois wrote that conversion in India would be limited to “outcasts, persons without resources, or stupid and helpless fellows” because of prejudices, customs, and the ‘bad character of the Brahmins. But these obstacles did not deter the British colonial evangelicals and win-at-all-costs Anglicans.
Building a Caste System
Grant and Wilberforce expected to convert all of India in the second millennium. After all, early Christianity swept pagan Europe in a few decades, and Islam converted one-third of Hindus. They sent home horrifying accounts of the heathen Hindu, taking credit for stopping satanic practices . They opened churches all over, starting in Kerala and working with American missionaries. William Carey, William Ward, Joshua Marshman, and Anglican Claudius Buchanan spread evil and prurient lies about Hindus. The 1857 revolt interrupted them.
The 1857 revolt had many causes but was triggered by bullets that were taboo to both Hindus and Muslims. Charging that the Company did not understand its subjects, the Crown took over in 1858, and at first, Queen Victoria promised no interference in native religions. Evangelicals were allowed but no longer officially in charge. The top officials were not greedy soldiers of fortune but Christian young men with a few years of power over the Indians. The empire coveted India and wanted to hold it forever. But first, it would have to understand the people.
In England, this was the era of scientific racism, with men like Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (father of Eugenics and Statistics), Thomas Huxley, and James Hunt seconding Biblical Christian supremacism. The Hindus were inferior, if human at all; their caste, i.e., breed, defined them completely. Per social Darwinism, the breeds would be in a hierarchy, graded by their fitness to survive, and per anthropometry, their facial and skull measurements would correlate with said fitness. Hindu castes’ uniqueness was the alleged endogamy for thousands of years. This “science” was also being applied to enslaved people; the American Civil War was about to break out.
Regional censuses in 1872 and 1881 were followed by a national census in 1901 focused on religion and caste under Herbert Risley and his assistant James Thurston, producing a staggering amount of documentation, photographic, statistical/numerical, anthropometric, and anecdotal, in dozens of volumes. More relevant to our story, they created the name “Hinduism” as the default religion of any Indian who did not profess another religion.
The 1901 Caste Census 
The caste census turned out to be difficult. Contrary to expert expectations, people did not readily or precisely know either their “caste” or it’s ranking relative to other “castes .”The census directors hired “informants,” mostly Brahmins, to interpret the answers received, but there were no precise answers. The British were frustrated by multiple and varying answers, and the Hindus by having to answer questions that no one had asked before. As Bernard Cohn  perceived, the census was not just counting. It actually changed how Indians thought about many cultural realities, including caste and its importance. According to G. S. Ghurye , “the intellectual curiosity of early officials is mostly responsible for the treatment of caste given in the census.”
The “castes” people reported were a confusing mix of Varna and Jati names. At first, they were forced to fit into the four Varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras), but additional caste and tribe groups had to be added for untouchables and forest dwellers. Members of certain castes found their occupation was pre-specified, e.g., Brahmins had to be priests, and Rajputs had to be warriors. It was obvious to any Hindu that the whole scheme made no sense.
But the sahib meant it. Because castes were supposedly pure bloodlines, he classified certain castes as “martial” or, at the other extreme, “criminal .”Only the former could join the army or police forces. Even today, due to caste-turned-family tradition, Sikhs, Punjabis, Rajputs, Dogras, Gurkhas, and Pathans are overrepresented in the armed forces. The British also determined that certain castes followed crime as a family trade, some of which are still falsely tainted.
The 1881 census had asked employees to place all “true” Jatis into one of five categories: Brahmin, Rajput, Castes of Good Social Position, Castes of Inferior Social Position, and Non-Hindu or Aboriginal castes/tribes. Indian “experts” hired to arbitrate disputes often differed and debated the proper order. The 1901 census likewise could not stay with four Varnas. For example, there was no place to put untouchables or forest tribes who insisted their culture was unique.
The 1901 Census Report  is a 26-volume mammoth publication. The summary report alone is 604 pages. Instead of the classical four Varnas, there are seven types of castes and three types of tribes, with a total of 1,646 castes (to double later). Anthropometric measurements alone fill several volumes. Cohn quotes The director, Herbert Risley, as being personally invested in a caste hierarchy supported by anthropometric measurements. However, the volume of petitions against caste classification became so large and Risley so notorious for walking around with calipers to measure skulls that the 1911 census ended the plan to rank castes.
Nicholas Dirks gives a fascinating account of the so-called Ethnographic State in his groundbreaking book about caste .
Parts of the 1901 Census report18 show Risley’s thinking on caste. He asks why Europe’s tribes coalesced over time into nations, but India’s did not. He forgets that ethnic and religious strife in Europe killed 60 million people over centuries while Indians found a way to allow peaceful and respectful diversity. The report assumes that castes are strictly endogamous, which is known to be wrong . Risley himself admits it in later publications.
The “Caste System” of 1901 became a benchmark in the Raj and the global information base. Ironically, the caste order derived from the people was reflected back on them. The educated Indians who made the Raj hum came from the upper castes and were trained to despise their own culture. A new entity destined to shape independent India’s future was the list of “Depressed Classes” that became a potent political force in independent India.
Caste and “Hinduism”
As noted in Part 1, “Hinduism” in quotes refers to Hinduism – the set of Hindu religious and spiritual activities – as represented in Western civilization. It includes defamations concocted by a combination of religion, science, quackery, and evangelism.
The enormous Hindu spiritual literature was like the proverbial candy store to Western kids. An orgy of verbiage issued forth, all miraculously in agreement on only one thing: that caste was evil. Ronald Inden  is a good source; see Pennington  for the nasty evils heaped on caste and Hindus by the conversion-crazy Anglican evangelists. The Church Missionary Society minted gold by distributing its tabloid-ish accounts of India for just a penny a week. The popular anti-Hindoo hysteria thus whipped became respectable in James Mill’s infamous rant . It was now official; the Hindu was evil and worthless, and the sahib just had to save him.
A couple of ironies are worth noting. Although aimed at civilizing the Hindoo, the entire enterprise was by, for, and of Westerners. Indians were little more than beetles. When Jon Smith claimed to have found Hindu art in Ellora caves, he got only guffaws. Orientalists were just a shade more respectful, but only because they connected it to proto-Christianity. The second irony is of a barely civilized civilization that killed a hundred million of its own because of religion, having the arrogance and self-delusion to demonize a far more successful civilization.
To be fair, Westerners did find great poverty, illiteracy, and superstition among the Hindu masses because they were condemned to subsistence agriculture under Muslim rule. Go to the “old” town in any Indian city, and you will find the bazaars in narrow Islamic alleyways near the big mosque. The Hindus were growing crops, paying enormous taxes, and worshiping. Apparently, no Western writer paid attention to this. Jones knew what extravagant talent Kalidas had. But he didn’t wonder what had happened to it. He assumed it must have come from the West.
Evangelicals were the main force behind “Hinduism.”They are the ones who mangled the majestic Hindu thought like a pack of greedy hyenas. Pennington  calls their legacy “a fabricated Hinduism crazed by blood-lust and devoted to the service of devils.” They failed to convert many Hindus, but they permanently poisoned the popular discourse in the West about Hindus and caste. Evangelicalism is alive and well in the US today, and so is “Hinduism.” It comes in handy for whitewashing the whites’ guilt over slavery, as in this 2021 article . The entire popular Anglo-American culture, including schools and colleges, popular and social media, and government bodies at all levels, knows nothing but “Hinduism.”
What accounts for this persistence of lies? German Nazis could have told you a hundred years ago. Their reptilian hatred for Jews was contrary to every objective criterion of citizenship. But it was based on ancient Christian hate that just wouldn’t go away. Hindus have been hated for just as long, with a similar vacuum of evidence. It’s not a comforting thought to Hindus. Especially because, in a classic Orwellian twist, the Hindus are Nazis, determined to annihilate hundreds of millions of Muslims — by a Brahminic curse?
Commonly cited evidence for “Hinduism” includes the Purush Sukta in Rigveda and the dharma Shastras (DS). Arvind Sharma  takes care of the former, and Robert Lingat’s Classical Law of the Hindus , the latter. Lingat, a Frenchman who specialized in dharma law for 35 years in SE Asia, had no evangelical or colonial axes to grind. From the entire DS cohort and extensive learned commentaries, he concludes that the DS were guidelines for a wise Hindu king, not binding law. Kings also took into account evidence, arguments, custom, and opinion. This layer of justice and Hindu literacy died when Farsi-speaking Muslim kings replaced Hindus.
We will return to the horrors unleashed by the myth of an Aryan race and the Aryan Invasion Theory later in the Secret entitled “Side Effects and After-Effects.”
We have summarized the historical evolution of the Varna/Jati system over thousands of years, noting its diversity, adaptability, and variability across the country; its importance in being an essential part of the normal functioning of society; and how the Christian, colonial mind misunderstood and distorted it to suit their agenda, dividing Indian society into rigid castes with vested political interests. The resulting misconceptions such as ‘Castes are the same all over India,’ ‘Caste rankings are fixed and unchangeable,’ ‘Caste Rankings are the same within Regions,’ and ‘Caste is Hindu’ were, and to some extent, are still common. In reality, there has been rapid progress toward compensating for past injustices and inequalities. According to Pew Research, over 80 percent of Indians, across age, gender, region, religion, and caste, feel that there is no significant discrimination based on caste. The damage caused by colonizers and their sycophants before and after India’s independence is slowly being rectified.
However, none of this progress in Hinduism is known to devotees of “Hinduism.” As we write this, the State of California is repeating the dogmas of “Hinduism” in court.
- “On the Conversion of Pagans to Christianity,” Complete Christianity blog, Dec 26, 2018 https://completechristianity.blog/2018/12/26/on-the-conversion-of-pagans-to-christianity/
- Native Heritage Project. Las Castas – Spanish Heritage, paragraphs 3 and 4 https://nativeheritageproject.com/2013/06/15/las-castas-spanish-racial-classifications/
- Commensal Politics in Ancient West Asia, by Jacob L Wright, dGruyters Journal 2010. https://www.academia.edu/762247/_Commensal_Politics_in_Ancient_Western_Asia_Part_I
- The Book of Duarte Barbosa, Vol. 2 https://indianculture.gov.in/rarebooks/book-duarte-barbosa-vol-ii
- Languages of Difference in the Portuguese Empire. Angele Xavier, U. Lisbon 2016 https://www.academia.edu/28305493/Languages_of_Difference_in_the_Portuguese_Empire_The_Spread_of_Caste_in_the_Indian_World_2016
- Communal Relations in Pre-Modern India: 16th Century Kerala, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, V16 No. 2/3 pp. 319-327 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3596220?origin=crossref
- The Travels of J B Tavernier, Fifth Book, Indian Travels, Volume 3 https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/the-six-voyages-of-john-baptista-tavernier-1678
- Ain-e-Akbari, Volume III, pp. 114-118, “Animal Life” https://archive.org/details/ainiakbarivolum00mubgoog
- “Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs of the people of India, and of Their Institutions, Religious and Civil” by Abbe J a Dubois, Missionary in Mysore, London, 1817 https://archive.org/details/descriptionchar00dubogoog
- Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, by Susan Bayly, Cambridge U. Press, 1999 https://ia801304.us.archive.org/18/items/iB_in/4-3.pdf
- London, Longman & Co, 1823 https://ia802707.us.archive.org/25/items/lettersonstatec01dubogoog/lettersonstatec01dubogoog.pdf
- George Smith, Conversion of India, New York, 1894, pp 123-124. https://gospelstudies.org.uk/missiology/pdf/e-books/smith-g/conversion-of-india_smith.pdf
- The Census, Social Structure, and Objectification in South Asia, Bernard Cohn, 1987 http://www.cscsarchive.org/dataarchive/otherfiles/TA001050/file
- “Caste and Class in India”, G. S. Ghurye, University of Bombay, 1957, page 193. https://sahitya-akademi.gov.in/library/e-books/Caste_and_Class_in_India.pdf
- Census of India, 1901 http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ideologie/data/CensusIndia/CensusIndia1901/CensusIndia1901IndiaReport.pdf
- Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, by Nicholas Dirks, Princeton University Press, 2001. Part III. https://redox-college.s3.ap-south-1.amazonaws.com/kmc/2020/Mar/28/jjkdW2d8uHCwZt6a5UhB.pdf
- A Study of Social Mobility, Measure of Class and Prestige in India, K K Sharma, Indian Journal of Applied and Clinical Sociology, V5 n2, 2015 https://docslib.org/doc/4606322/a-study-of-social-mobility-measure-of-class-and-prestige-in-india
- Imagining India, by Ronald Inden, Indian University Press, 2000 https://sr.b-ok.cc/book/2474327/fc9df9
- Was Hinduism Invented? Brian Pennington, Oxford University Press, 2005. Quote on p.77. https://www.academia.edu/47762976/Was_Hinduism_Invented
- History of British India, by James Mill, 1858 edition, Volume II, Book 2, The Hindus https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/mill-the-history-of-british-india-vol-2
- “The Scourge of Caste”, by Nick Gier, Idaho State Journal, Jun 4, 2021 https://www.idahostatejournal.com/opinion/columns/the-scourge-of-caste-hindu-and-christian/article_38d39af5-f62f-5044-93b2-3f52c5e67697.html
- “The Purush Sukta and its Relation to the Caste System” by Arvind Sharma, J. Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. XXI, Part III. https://archive.org/details/ThePurushaSuktaItsRelationToTheCasteSystem
- Classical Law of India” by Robert Lingat, 1956, Tr. by JDM Derrett, 1973, U. California Press, Berkeley. https://archive.org/details/classicallawofin0000ling
- “Attitudes About Caste in India”, in Pew Research Survey of Religion, 2021 https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/06/29/attitudes-about-caste/