Caste is a word derived from Portuguese, meaning “lineage.” The closest Indian terms are varna, meaning “color” or “class,” and jati, meaning “birth.” The former is the term generally used for the caste system. The latter term describes any group that has characteristics in common, but is also used to describe the Hindu castes.
Among other things, an individual's caste dictates the type of occupation they can pursue and with whom they may socialize and marry. Hinduism, however, offers a path to moving up in caste via reincarnation. Someone who fulfills his duty (dharma) in one life may improve his social position in the next life.
The traditional Hindu castes include:
- Brahmin – the priestly and teacher caste. Salvation (moksha) is achieved through Jnana yoga (learning and knowledge).
- Kshatriya – the ruler and public service caste (traditionally, the warrior caste). Moksha is achieved through Karma yoga (good works).
- Vaishya – the business and merchant caste. Moksha is attained through Bhakti yoga (devotion to the Divine).
- Sudra/Dalit – the semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Moksha is also attained through Bhakti yoga.
Traditionally, the caste system did not include the lowest members of society, who were known as the “untouchables.” That term is now politically incorrect and they are typically included in the Sudra caste.