Caste has always been a dominant feature in the Hindu society. Division into groups based on vocation is a phenomenon common to all societies. But in India, such groups have often become fossilized and mutually exclusive, the membership of the group being acquired only by birth. Hence the appellation ‘jāti’ (= birth). In spite of the vigorous attempts of its leaders to make the particular jāti a water-tight compartment, thanks to human nature, mixing has always taken place throughout history, giving rise to more castes, born out of the admixture of the prevalent ones. The ābhīras constitute such a mixed caste. They are regarded by Manu as the offspring of a brāhmaṇa by an aṁbaṣṭha (descended from a brāhmaṇa father and vaiśya mother) woman. Whether the ābhīras were a nomadic tribe which migrated into India by stages or were natives of this land, it is certain they lived a nomadic and predatory life. By the 2nd cent. A. D. some of them had attained high ranks and had even siezed political power, wielding it effectively till the 4th cent. A. D. Mention may be made of Ābhīra Īśvarasena, son of Śivadatta, supposed to be the founder of the Kalacuri-Cedi era (3rd cent. A. D.) who rose to the royal rank in northern Maharashtra.
The common people among them lived by dairy farming. They have contributed much to the development of Indian music. The Apabhraṁśa dialect, a form of Prākṛt, is also their contribution. But their greatest contribution is towards the growth of pastoral legends centring round Śrī Kṛṣṇa. The modern āhīrs are considered to be the descendants of ābhīras and are scattered over the greater part of India.