Before the arrival of the Aryans sometime in 1500 B.C.E., India consisted of agricultural communities that lacked true social class. Around the 3rd millennium B.C.E , the Harappan civilization rose up around what today is Pakistan and northwest India, perhaps indicating the manifestation of the ruling elite; however, even then social class was not attached to individuals, but functioned under the jati system. Ancient Indians gathered up in towns and villages that eventually became kingships, each ruled by its own council of members – an elite group composed of hereditary bloodlines based on power and wealth. Each kingship or jati was composed of hundreds or thousands of nuclear families that performed similar functions for society; off course occupations varied within a single jati in order to sustain its population, but in general, each jati had a specific economic role within its system, perhaps under the control of larger kingships, like the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Each jati belonged to a form of unwritten social class dictated by their function in society; this meant that if a whole community changed its occupation to one that ranked higher (or lower) in the social scale, then the whole jati transitioned social levels.
Sometime around 1500 B.C.E the Aryans - pastoral people from central Asia – descended onto India through what today is northern Pakistan and Tajikistan. These nomads brought along a social class that, unlike the jati, was attached to individuals, involving rajas (chiefs) that belonged to a warrior class, and a council of members. The Aryans took over the Indian subcontinent over the next centuries, establishing Hinduism, and at their peak they formed the Mauryan Empire (324-185 B.C.E). During the time the Aryans were settling, they executed dominance over the indigenous Indian population; the rajas eventually became maharajas (kings), and over time the social system of the Aryans, mixed with Hindu concepts, formed the class system known as varna. Ancient texts such as “The Law of Manu”, probably written in the first or second century B.C.E., explicitly describes the social ranks. At the top of the hierarchy were the brahmins, descendants from priests and seers who advised the ruling class; followed by the kshatriya, the warrior class, who sometimes are characterized as above the brahmins (perhaps in the case of royalty); third in line was the vaisya (meaning commoner), the merchant class; followed by the sudras (peasants); and finally, but unofficially, the paraiahs (slaves), also known as the untouchables. Eventually each jati became indentified with a certain varna.
Unlike the jati system, which was an economic structure, varna relied on religious dogma in order to function. By the time the “Law of Manu” was written, not only had Hinduism become a prevalent part of Indian life, but also the main reason why the social class structure developed in the first place. The top three castes – brahmins, kshatriya, vaisya – had the privilege of being “twice born”, meaning they were religiously initiated and educated; by using the concept of reincarnation, the elite class spread the belief that the top castes were closer to the spiritual release of the soul in the reincarnation cycle, and thus had to be higher up in the social scale. Coincidentally enough, this concept also reinforced the racial separation within India, being the reason why the elite class was mainly made up of light skinned Aryan descendants, while the sudras, who made up a big bulk of the population, consisted of descendants of dark-skinned indigenous Indians. Aiding the formation (and longevity) of the social structure was the concept of dharma. While the concept of karma itself ruled the reincarnations cycle (by either obtaining negative or positive karma), dharma taught that in this world every single soul has a duty one must perform regardless of karma– the king rules, the warrior kills, the mother nurtures, the slave obeys – and that only by following this law one could break free from the reincarnation cycle. This notion gave everybody adhering to Hinduism the mentality that one’s social status (and everything that came with it) was not only divinely deserved, but also one’s role and position in this world.
The social structure of ancient India was not a unique one in Asia. In ancient China, just like in the Indian jati system, the residents of a whole village or town were identified as a single clan; unlike the varna, both systems were based on community. Around 1700 B.C.E, the Shang dynasty rose up, and social classes gradually became differentiated; interestingly enough, this time is within time gap between the fall of the Harappan civilization, and the arrival of the Aryans. Over the course of the next few centuries social classes in both India and China would become highly structural, developing a central kingship, aristocracy, and lower classes. At the western edge of the Asian continent, the Sumerians also gathered up in cities starting in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. These city-states probably contained four major social groups: elites, dependent commoners (the elite’s staff), free commoners, and slaves; however, unlike the jati, but much like the varna system that would develop a millennium later in India, religion played an key role, with kingship being viewed as divine in origin.
In conclusion, the jati system of ancient India before the Aryan flooding has much resemblance with ancient china’s clan system. Meanwhile, the Sumerian city states of that rose up at the same time as the Harappan civilization resemblances the Aryan-brought system of varna, using religion dogma as the backbone of social status. While jati functioned as a concept of community and welfare, varna was much more structural, and power-driven, allowing racial and social domination over the indigenous Indian population by indoctrinating them in a belief system that told them to accept their way of life.