Sudras in Ancient India

The Sudra class  carried out many necessary functions of Indian society
... Jupiterimages/ Images

The lowest order of the four-level Indian caste system, the Sudras make up the laboring class of classic Indian society. Still very prevalent in Indian society today, especially in rural village culture, the caste system goes back thousands of years. There are many types of Sudras, as they have traditionally done the work that was necessary for India to function as a society, and they may not always have been considered inferior to the other classes.

1 The Story of the Varnas

The origin of the Indian caste system is described in mythological terms in the RIg Veda, one of the most important scriptures of ancient India. In it, the four Varnas -- or castes -- are described as being created from the body of Brahma, the supreme God of Indian religion, as he became human. Society represented a single unitary being, with the Brahmins, or priests, being the mouth; the Rajas, or warriors, his arms; the Vaishya, or merchants, his thighs; and the Sudras, his feet. All the Varnas were seen as necessary for the society to function properly, especially the Sudras upon whom the rest was built -- like a foundation.

2 The Jati System

Within each Varna there exists a subdivision of castes according to the specific function within the larger caste. These are called Jati. Among the Sudra caste are thousands of Jati classifications, most revolving around the traditional trade of the individual or family. In ancient India, the Jati of the various Sudras functioned much like the guild system of Medieval Europe. There were potters, smiths, woodworkers, farmers, builders and many more. Many Sudras in ancient India became just as wealthy and successful as members of other castes, as society depended upon most of the skilled functions they performed.

3 The Sudras and the Untouchables

Although there is no mention of the untouchables in the Rig Veda, at some point Indian society adopted this classification for those who worked with polluted objects, such as sewage and garbage. The untouchables, considered outside of the Varna class system even though they too are necessary for the function of society, were often looked down upon. This disdain often meant that that they were not allowed to enter Hindu temples. Because the Sudras did most of the menial work in Indian society, many of them became part of this untouchable class, and the caste system as a whole became more of a hierarchical arrangement than a multi-faceted unitary being.

4 Heredity and Caste

Because Varna and Jati are determined at birth -- most people enter directly into the profession and caste of their family -- class distinctions are usually set for each individual by their heredity. Sudras are not allowed to marry outside of their caste, and in many parts of ancient India they even had prescribed diets according to their Jati or Varna. While being a Sudra may not have been looked down upon in ancient India, the modern hierarchical caste system is seen by many as inherently unjust.

Based in San Francisco, Ocean Malandra is a travel writer, author and documentary filmmaker. He runs a major San Francisco travel website, is widely published in both online and print publications and has contributed to several travel guidebooks to South America.