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Caste is derived from the Portuguese word for "chaste," and originally used to refer to a social division in Hindu society. Anthropologists use the term more generally to refer to a social group that is endogamous and occupationally specialized; such groups are common in highly stratified societies with a very low degree of social mobility. Broadly understood, Apartheid South Africa and parts of the United States before the Civil Rights movement, were caste-based societies.

The caste system in India is based on four varnas (meaning "colors") -- Brahmins (white), Kshatriyas (red), Vaishyas[?] (yellow), and Shudras[?] (black) -- each of which corresponds to an occupational category -- priests, warriors, merchants/craftsmen, and menial workers. Each varna is further subdivied into subcastes, or "jatis," which are more specific occupational categories. Each varna has its appropriate rules of conduct, or "dharma," including taboos regarding marriage, eating, and physical proximity. (see Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus). In this system hierarchies of social status are allied to models of ritual purity, so that the higher castes are relatively further removed from 'defiling' activities, and from those who perform them. The lowest position in this system is occupied by the outcaste group known as Chandalas. In post-independence India the status of Untouchable was abolished. Untouchables were integrated into the caste system as a fifth caste, labelled 'Harijan', a term promoted by Gandhi. However campaigners for Untouchable rights tend to prefer the term 'Dalit'.

Much of what we know of the caste system in India was documented and codified during the period of British occupation and rule (e.g. Herbert Risley's The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, published in 1892). Some scholars suggest that the resulting depiction of the caste system was as much a product of European racialist theories, and the interests of colonial rule, rather than Indian cultural realities. Certainly the color hierarchy from 'white' to 'black' was typically interpreted at this time in racial terms. Such modern scholars further suggest that prior to the colonial era, castes were much more open and flexible. Others disagree with this argument, pointing to the rigidity of the system even in early texts such as the Manu Smriti (an ancient legal code). Nevertheless, there are several passages in the Vedas which indicate that the four varnas were initially based on professions and not simply determined by birth. It was during a later period that the current rigid caste system came into place.

In any case, the vedas talk about only four castes. Today, we find numerous castes and subcastes in India which have fragmented the society.

In social insects[?] such as ants, bees and termites, a caste is a specific sub-type of an insect species which is specialized in a certain task. A common example is the "queen" and the "worker", in which queens are specialized in reproduction and the workers are specialized in feeding and protecting the queens.

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