The four great classes (var^a), constituting an eternal hierarchical social order, were believed to have emerged at the beginning of time from the body of the Creator as the fundamental basis of society. The Brahman (priest), the Kgatriya (warrior and ruler), the Vaisya (merchant), and the Sudra (worker) formed these four classes, each with different roles, responsibility, and status. Maintaining differences that distinguish each of them was a prerequisite of the social order, and any effort to violate the boundaries of social organization and behavior was an affront to nature and the gods, degrading for those at the top and punishable for those at the bottom. Below the four great classes were the untouchables, theoretically outside, but operating at the bottom of the social order. They performed important social functions that others considered polluting, such as removing garbage, cremating corpses, working in leather, and so forth. Contact between them and the other classes was strictly limited.
Although aspects of this class structure persist in Hindu society today, social conditions rarely operated according to textbook norms. More important and more complex in everyday life was the caste (jati), a group of families generally following the same profession and theoretically contained within one of the four classes, though not always recognizably so in practice, especially in South India. Castes were also hierarchically graded and normally endogamous. Local councils of elders exerted great power over their members.
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