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Traditional social grouping in India into which persons are born. Each group ranks higher or lower than other groups in terms of its RITUAL purity. Thus, a caste is distinguished by limiting participation in rituals, including marriage and eating together, to members of the caste, as well as by specifi c occupations. The term "caste" usually refers to two distinct but related ways of organizing society; varnas, an ideal organization of human society into broad ritual classes, and jatis, specifi c, localized groups within the varnas. VARNAS In Sanskrit the word varna means "color." Applied to social groups it does not refer to skin color, and although it may be translated as "class," it does not refer to economic status, either. Varna refers instead to ritual status. It is quite possible to belong to the highest varna and be extremely poor. The varnas were systematized roughly 2,000 years ago in books of religious codes known as the Smritis or the Dharmasastras. Before then, many scholars maintain that distinctions of varna existed but were not so rigidly drawn or applied. The four traditional varnas are, in order of descending ritual purity, BRAHMIN, kshatriya, vaisya, and sudra. According to the Dharmasastras, a brahmin should be a priest, a kshatriya a ruler or warrior, a vaisya a merchant or businessperson, while a sudra should meekly serve the other varnas. In addition, the varna system defi nes two groups of persons who are s...


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