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the lowest of the four ancient Indian varnas.
The Sudra varna, which became established during the formation of a class society in India, was made up of conquered tribes and of outsiders who were admitted into the community; the latter included persons who had become separated from their own tribes and persons whose tribes had broken up. In the ancient Indian slaveholding society, the Sudras were servants, artisans, and dependent and subordinate workers. In confirmation of their lowly status, they were forbidden to undergo the initiatory rite (”second birth”) that would entitle them to full civil rights; as a result, the Sudras, unlike the three higher varnas, were “once born.”
The Sudras were subject to many social restrictions: they were forbidden to own land, hold priestly or governmental office, or take part in politics or religious ceremonies. Their unequal status was reflected in various practices; for example, if convicted of a crime, Sudras were punished more severely than members of the higher varnas would be in similar circumstances, and money could be lent to them at unusually high rates of interest.
In the first centuries of the Common Era, the Sudras achieved higher status, and many restrictions disappeared; their social position came to resemble that of the Vaisyas. In various parts of India, castes were classified as Sudra regardless of their actual status, and the term lost a fixed meaning for India as a whole.
G. F. IL’IN