The most peculiar characteristic of the Hindu society is the system called varna and jati. Varna is caste on the basis of position in the society and jati a sub-caste. (Varna in Sanskrit actually means colour). Varna is the positional label imposed upon different castes as a yardstick for social classification. It was this discrimination, exploitation and human right violations on the basis of the varna-jati classification that the reformist movements opposed the most. The varnas are four in number: brahamanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. This four-fold division was on the basis of profession and the grades of respectability attributed to each of these. And thus the brahmanas who were the custodians of the worship of gods and the performance of the rituals were sanctioned the highest of varnas. The shudras who were allotted the manual labour and related ‘clean’ jobs the lowest. Below these four layers were the numerous other castes and sub-castes engaged in ‘unclean’ jobs. These people were below the varnas and therefore were treated as untouchables. The practice, of ‘untouchability’ is prohibited by law, but it is continued in certain parts of the country. Mahatma Gandhi called the untouchables harijans, the people of Lord Vishnu. They now call themselves dalits. The government coined the term scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

‘Varna’ did not have any particular use in the operations of the social system, nor had it a built-in power for that. But the most important factor was the caste or jati. Jati denoted a particular community with a definition on customs by and large, having a particular profession hereditarily and, inclusive marriage rights. Each varna would contain several jatis each of which had its own customs and practices. Historian Romila Thapar writes on the genesis and formulation of the caste system: When the Aryans first came to India they were divided into three social classes, the warriors or aristocracy, the priests, and the common people. There was no consciousness of caste, as is clear from remarks such as “a bard am I, my father is a leech and my mother grinds corn”. Professions were not hereditary, nor were there any rules limiting marriages within these classes, or taboos on whom one could eat with. The three divisions merely facilitated social and economic organization. The first step in the direction of caste (as distinct from class) was taken when the Aryans treated the dasas (slaves) as beyond the social pale, probably owing to a fear of the dasa and the even greater fear that assimilation with them would lead to a loss of Aryan identity. Ostensibly the distinction was largely that of color, the dasas being darker and of an alien culture.