The caste system is a powerful institution prevalent in Indian society today, and was formerly prevalent in Nepal until a law passed in 1962 made it illegal to discriminate against other castes. For many Indians, caste is a major aspect of their identity. It is something one is born into. People are expected to marry (and in some places, even socialize) within their own caste. A person inherits their parents' caste, and it cannot change regardless of what job they have or how much wealth they accumulate.
Modern caste identity is something akin to ethnicity or race, and as with race, some caste groups are distinctly disadvantaged. And though there is a strong relationship between caste, occupation, and economic status, it is not as homogeneous or simple a system as Westerners are led to believe. Its power varies across India and across time. People can and have taken occupations outside those associated with their caste, historically as well as in the present day.
The Manusmriti theoretically divides society into four varnas (a Sanskrit word which means type, order, or class) listed below, which can be further divided into jatis (clans, tribes, communities and sub-communities, and religions).
- Brahmin, religious priests and scholars.
- Kshatriya, kings and warriors.
- Vaishya, merchants and artisans.
- Sudra, servants.
- Outside of these four groups are the Dalit castes, who have historically been considered "untouchable" and relegated to supposedly unclean jobs like sanitation, cremation, and leatherworking. About 160 million Dalits live in India today.
Contrary to popular belief, these are not the castes. There are thousands of groups in India that are called castes (such that it would be difficult to list all here in any meaningful way) and an Indian will identify with one of these thousands of groups rather than one of the varnas. The varna of Brahmins and Dalits, though, is truly a large part of their identity.
The concept of jati is closer to the actuality of caste, and in fact the two words "jati" and "caste" are often used interchangeably in India. There is not always a clear-cut hierarchy because there are a lot of jatis, and they change across region and time. Castes can also arise from various ethnic, tribal, or religious divisions (i.e, not solely from class or occupational divisions). In addition, there can be overlap and redundancy, with more than one jati occupying the same "niche" of occupation or function.
Although the British, relying on the Manusmriti to govern Indians, did use the varna system for categorizing the castes, varna has little practical relevance today except in the case of the brahmins and the dalits. It was a simple theoretical system imposed imperfectly upon a large and complex real one. So, because people cannot be neatly cataloged, the two concepts of jati and varna are not inflexibly linked, and the lines can be blurred, with some castes not clearly belonging in a varna, some belonging to multiple, and some moving around in status.
The Indian Government classifies people into castes in order to run affirmative action programs as it reserves some seats in the various national and state legislatures for disadvantaged castes, as well as universities. This is subject to controversy similar to debates about affirmative action in the United States. Intermarriage between castes does take place, but is unusual. With arranged marriages, often people will specify what caste they want potential partners to belong to. Caste-based political parties also exist.
See Knight Fever for hereditary peerage and the associated noble titles (along with non-hereditary titles) in Britain, Fantastic Caste System for fictional caste systems not related to Indian traditions, Hive Caste System for the hierarchy determined by birth in an insect society, and Blue Blood for high-born families in any setting.
- Buddha deals heavily with issues of caste prejudice throughout the series.
- Devdas: Paro is born of a family of traders while Devdas is born of a higher class. This leads to them being Star-Crossed Lovers.
- Dilli 6: A Dalit woman in the movie is shunned by a higher caste man that she loves because of her caste. She is not allowed to touch anyone who is higher caste in case she "pollutes" them. She is also subject to harassment by the local police officer. The movie ends with the higher caste man reciprocating her love and bemoaning the foolishness of caste segregation and meaningless rituals.
- Lagaan: Kachra, their bowler, is a crippled Dalit. Some of the members refuse to participate in the game and get a morality lecture from the protagonist.
- Lajja: Sushma is the daughter of Gajendra, a wealthy politician. Prakash's mother, on the other hand, is a widowed and poor country midwife disliked by Gajendra for her radical desire to educate the women of her rural village. When Gajendra finds out that Sushma has kissed Prakash and is helping him escape from her father, who wanted him castrated, he disowns her and tells everyone she's dead.
- Mughal-e-Azam: Salim is the Prince and the son of the Emperor Akbar. Anarkali is a tawaif, a dancer who entertains the court. Their different social status leads them to become Star-Crossed Lovers.
- Swades: The protagonist finds that Dalits were segregated and not allowed into school in the village that he was educating. He is able to better their condition by the end though.
- Isaac Asimov's "Strikebreaker": Ragusnik reminds the sociologist Lamorak of the Untouchables in ancient India. This compares the story's Fantastic Caste System to the Dalit castes. Both the Dalit and the Ragusnik perform sanitation servies for their society.
- Karna is condemned to not participate in a match of arms because he is the son of a charioteer by Kuru elders and the Pandavas. He is rejected by Draupadi as a potential suitor because of his origin. He becomes a warrior and a King regardless due to the help of Duryodhana, the serial antagonist who gifts him the kingdom of Anga and his superior archery skills. It is later revealed that he was actually the son of Kunti and therefore half-brother to the Pandavas.
- In the expanded version, Krishna, the Avatar is criticized by Uttanka, a brahmin, for not having stopped the Kurukshetra war and his partiality towards the Pandavas. Krishna is impressed by his argument and promises him that he would get water whenever he is thirsty. Uttanka wanders in the desert and is thirsty. He sees a untouchable who walks up to him and offers him water in a bag made of animal skin. Uttanka refuses due to his prejudice. Krishna appears and states that the untouchable was actually Indra who had ambrosia/nectar in his bag that would make him immortal. He then chastises Uttanka for his own prejudice.
- Women are less subjected to caste restrictions and could rise up to a higher caste/social station through hypergamy. Satyavati is the daughter of a fisherwoman and becomes the wife and Queen of Shantanu. Parishrami is a slave whose son by Vyasa, Vidura, easily rises to the level of Vizier.
- The Moonstone correctly states that observant Hindus lose their caste when they cross the sea/large body of water. However, this is not universal. South Indian Hindus didn't have much of an issue with crossing the Black Water as the maritime kingdoms of the region attest.
- Ramayana: Valmiki's profession was that of being a thief. He repented of his thievery and became instead a hermit and a poet. It does not seem like Valmiki had any obstacles to this path, perhaps because being a hermit/sage removes one from all obligations to society and by default, caste. Caste was not as rigid back at that time as it turned out to be much later.
- Seeta: The leader of the Thuggees, Azrael Pande, is noted to be a Brahmin, a holy man, in spite of being a murderous dacoit bandit.
- In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Raj's parents set him up on a date with an Indian woman whom he knew as a child. He remembers her as, "The little fat girl that used to kick me in the samosas and call me untouchable." In another episode, Raj is criticized for using the world "lackey", to which he replies, "Oh, Im sorry, is that politically incorrect? In India, we just call them untouchables."
- In an episode of The Simpsons, Apu has casual sex with a random Indian woman at a party. He promises to "tell everyone [she was] untouchable", presumably to defend her reputation. His mother also says in another episode that their family is Brahmin (it has become more common in modern times to have real Brahmins as Asian store owners and other poor professions).