Any of the ranked, hereditary, endogamous (see exogamy and endogamy) occupational groups that constitute traditional societies in certain regions of the world, particularly among Hindus in India. There caste is rooted in antiquity and specifies the rules and restrictions governing social intercourse and activity. Each caste has its own customs that restrict the occupations and dietary habits of its members and their social contact with other castes. There are about 3,000 castes, or jatis (broadly, “form of existence fixed by birth”), and more than 25,000 subcastes in India. They are traditionally grouped into four major classes, or varnas (“colours”). At the top are the Brahmans, followed by the Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Those with the most defiling jobs (such as those who dispose of body emissions and dead animals) are ranked beneath the Shudras. Considered untouchable, they were simply dubbed as “the fifth” (panchama) category. Although a great many spheres of life in modern India are little influenced by caste, most marriages are nevertheless arranged within the caste. This is in part because most people live in rural communities and because the arrangement of marriages is a family activity carried out through existing networks of kinship and caste.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
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