The Caste System Explained
The caste system is probably the biggest and most popular cudgel to beat Hinduism. Modern Hindus, buying into the modern social justice agenda are deeply embarrassed and have no idea how to respond.
When investigating ancient social structures the most important factor is perspective and context. Marxist social class categories do not really apply to ancient cultures.
First caste is derived from the Portuguese casta = class. In Hinduism caste is known as varṇa and jāti. Varṇa means "character" or "Nature" and refers to one's natural disposition. Jāti refers to the economic unit/community in which one is born.
The unit of an ancient pre-industrial society was the extended family; a large number of families working in the same profession constituted a jāti. The extended family fulfilled all those functions which are now fulfilled by the market and the government. Education, employment, health care, insurance, old age care, arranging of marriages, child-care and resolution of family disputes. Those matters which could not be resolved within the extended family were referred for arbitration to the elected governing body of the jāti community known as the panchayat. Each and every jāti was autonomous and took care of their own members providing training, employment, security, super-annuation etc. They decided their own laws and rules about marriage, food and personal and inter-personal conduct and every other aspect of social life. So for example some jātis ate pork and beef and others didn't, some were vegetarian, some drank alcohol and used marijuana, some were matriarchal some were patriarchal, some accepted divorce and remarriage of widows and others didn't. The jāti also resolved land and stock disputes and also dealt with crime such as theft, murder, rape etc.
The different jātis also had networks of other jātis with whom they would exchange goods and services. One of the defining features of the jātis was the complex matter of inter-dining and inter-marriage. Inter-dining consists of sharing water, raw-food, dry food and cooked (wet) food. There were rules about what item of consumption could be taken from which jātis. Many of these rules were obvious - like vegetarian jātis would not take cooked food from carnivore jātis or inter-marry with them.
Members of jātis would dress in certain ways and wear insignia and forehead marks which would identify them to others. On seeing another member of one's jāti one could be assured of mateship, help and hospitality.
The kings would refrain from interfering with working of the jātis and concentrated on the collection of taxes. The jāti system in an agrarian society functioned to create a stable and sustainable economic framework. Nowadays it is no longer required since education, health-care, social security and crime is dealt with by the state and employment, business, insurance and retirement are all taken care of by the market. The vast majority of the traditional jāti occupations are now redundant just as 40% of the jobs done today will become redundant in another 30 years.
The varṇa system refers to the classical structure of society first described in the Rig Veda where society described as a single socio-economic entity (puruṣa) was divided into four sections: brahmins - teachers, priests, scholars, advisors were the head of the social entity, the kshatriyas - warriors and administrators were the arms of the social entity, the vaishyas - farmers, were the loins and the sudras - legs, were the support, the stabilizers and the locomotion of society. This was a purely idealistic description of society and not a socio-political functional model. Power in ever society in invested in the economy and in those who control the means of production. The brahmins, although theoretically the "head" of the society were actually economically powerless as they were dependent upon the largess and patronage of the kshatriyas and vaishyas and thus were, and still are in their thrall. The Kshatriyas - kings and warriors, by force of arms and the control of taxes were in fact the top of the social hierarchy. The next in power were the vaishyas. The vaishyas were originally the cattle-breeders and farmers. As society advanced a mercantile layer was added to the social structure, thus the vaishyas became the merchants and shop-keepers, exporters and importers, bankers and financiers and the sudras took over the cattle-breeding and farming as well as all the other skilled work such as construction, manufacturing, handicrafts, weaving as well as low and unskilled work.
So the medieval economy was comprised of the power (kshatriyas), finance (vaishyas) and labour (sudras); the brahmins were the custodians of knowledge and rituals and were peripheral to the economic functioning of society but were important in terms of maintaining the perceived cosmic order through their spiritual power. The Vedic texts repeatedly refer to the axis of power as being temporal (kshatra) and spiritual (brahma).
The other aspect of varṇa (character) was the natural propensities and talents with which an individual is born. (Discussed in Gīta 18:42 - 43)
yasya yallakṣaṇā proktā pūso varṇābhi vyañjakam |
yad anyatrāpi dṛśyeta tat tenaiva vinirdiśet ||
If the qualities pertaining to a certain varṇa are seen in another varṇa, then the later are to be classified as belonging to the former. (Bh. Sk. 7; Adhy. 11; 35.)
PURITY & IMPURITY
Another determining factor of caste status in the hierarchy was the complex notion of purity and impurity - common to all societies.
Death and all discharges of the human body as well as decomposing organic matter were considered as "impure". So a caste was considered "pure" or "impure" according to its proximity of function to any of these factors. So those folks who worked with dead things, feces, blood, sputum and decomposing organic matter were considered as "impure" and socially shunned. The further one was in function from these, was considered as "pure" i.e. brahmins. Consumption was another factor - vegetarians vs carnivores and imbibers vs teetotalers. Many castes changed their social status by changing their jobs and practices and resorting to agriculture and vegetarianism.
It may surprise many Hindus that even the brahmins were categorised according to this system. Not all brahmins are "pure" - those (mahāpātras) who deal with the rituals of death and dying and post-mortem memorial ceremonies (srāddhas) are considered as "impure" and are shunned by other brahmins as well as all the other castes!! So the doms who cremate the dead and the brahmins who perform the rituals both share in impurity. But since the doms actually touch the corpses and cremate them, they are closer to death than the brahmins who conduct the rituals but do not actually touch the corpses - so the doms are more impure than the funeral priests! The doms actually consider themselves as fallen brahmins.
One of the most highly regarded jobs in modern Hindu society which is aspired to by all, is medicine. Doctors and health-care workers are according to the purity system "impure" and therefore to be socially shunned!!! This has been inverted and now a MD is a most desirable qualification to have!
In modern times most of this is irrelevant and inapplicable. Most people no longer follow traditional occupations nor do they belong to jāti collectives. In western society even sanitary work is highly regulated with Occupational Health and Safety procedures which render them relatively free from disease and contamination. So this system, which was once the bedrock of Hindu civilization is no longer relevant to modern society and should be dispensed with. The eliminating of the caste system does not in any way affect the actual religious structure or spiritual majesty of Hinduism.
The problems associated with the caste/class system are the universal ones — prejudice, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, corruption, coercion, etc. These faults are found in all Human Societies wherever they are. Even the Soviets and Chinese couldn’t eradicate the class system in their Communist Utopias. All these are social justice issues which every Hindu should fight against.
THE OUTSIDER VIEWS
The caste system has been highly eulogised and also most severely condemned by Western writers. Sidney Low in his 'Vision of India’ (pp.262-263, 2nd ed. of 1907) speaks of the beneficent aspect of the caste system in the following eloquent passage:--
‘There is no doubt that it is the main cause of the fundamental stability and contentment by which Indian society has been braced up for centuries against the shocks of politics and the cataclysms of Nature. It provides every man with his place,’ his career, his occupation, his circle of friends. It makes him at the outset a member of a corporate body, it protects him through life from the canker of social jealousy and unfulfilled aspirations; it ensures him companionship and a sense of community with others in like case with himself. The caste organization is to the Hindu his club, his trade union, his benefit society, his philanthropic society. There are no work-houses in India and none are as yet needed.'
Abbe Dubois, who wrote about 200 years ago after being in close touch with Hindus of all castes for 15 years as a missionary and not known for his love of Hinduism, remarks (in his work on the character, manners and customs of the people of India, translated into English and published in London in 1817)
“I consider the institution of castes among the Hindu nations as the happiest effort of their legislation; and I am well convinced that, if the people of India never sunk into a state of barbarism, and if, when almost all Europe was plunged in that dreary gulf, India kept up her head, preserved and extended the sciences, the arts and civilization, it is wholly to the distinction of castes that she is indebted for that high celebrity.” (p.14)
and he devotes several pages to the justification of this remark. Maine in his 'Ancient Law' (new edition of 1930 p.17) characterises it as 'the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions." Sherring in 'Hindu tribes and caste' vol.3 p.293 says ‘it is the most baneful, hard-hearted and cruel social system that could possibly be invented for damning the human race’.
On the other hand Meredith Townsend in 'Europe and Asia’ (edition of 1901 p.73) "wrote:--
“I firmly believe caste to be a marvellous discovery, a form of socialism which through ages protected Hindu Society from anarchy and from the worst evils of industrial and competitive life and is an automatic poor law to begin with and the strongest form known of Trades Union’.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
1. Out of the three million three hundred thousand gods we have, are they all linked to the one Supreme God? And if so does it really matter which one we chose to pray to?
Answer; There is what we call the “Godhead” or the single Divine Essence known in Sanskrit as Brahman – the Absolute Reality which is the totality of all existence. This single absolute Reality takes three forms for Creating, Maintaining and Transforming the Universe. These three forms are known respectively as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Each one of these has a female counterpart;
Brahma – Sarasvati, Vishnu- Lakshmi, and Shiva-Parvati or Durga.
As the Creator Brahma’s energy is known as Sarasvati – the goddess of learning because creation takes place through the medium of knowledge. As the Preserver Vishnu’s energy is known as lakshmi the goddess of prosperity and compassion, It is through wealth and compassion for all living beings that preservation of the world takes place. Shiva as the transformer has as his energy Durga also known as Kali who is the goddess of Time because it is through the medium of time that all transformations take place. These are known as the High Gods of the Trinity (Trimurti) they are all aspects of the same Supreme being with various sub-manifestations such as Rama, Krishna etc.
Below them there are countless other gods (with a small g) who have an administrative function in ruling the universe, like the god of the wind – Vayu, the god of rain – Indra, the god of fire – Agni , Yama – the god of death etc.
These lesser gods are given offerings when we do elaborate ceremonies but are not worshipped individually – they are like the Christian angels.
The trinity on the other hand are worshipped individually by devotees, each choosing an aspect that they are particularly attracted to.
2. When I learned about our gods as a child. I was told that each god rules in a particular area of speciality. Does that mean that if a person desires wealth they should pray to Goddess Lakshmi? (and if they desire beauty or intellect or both, there are different gods that they should pray to so they can be granted boons by the relevant gods)
Answer; When it comes to praying for material things – it is not a good idea because you will get whatever is due to you according to your Karma not according to the intercession of various gods! What you should pray for is the welfare of all beings – not selfish, transient material benefits. The Sacred texts tells us that the outcome of every project depends on three factors, Karma, the grace of the gods and personal effort. But since the first two are not knowable you should rely entirely on PERSONAL EFFORT!
3. What is Hinduism’s stance on pre-marital sex? Do the sacred texts say anything against it? And if people do have pre-marital sexual relationships and have several different sexual partners throughout their life do they create bad karma or not?
Answer; All your activities involving others should be guided by the principles of loving kindness, compassion and care for their well-being and a preparedness to accept the responsibility for your actions! If two people mutually, spontaneously and freely without being coerced by each other, decide to engage in pre-marital sex being guided by these four principles, then there is no problem as long as they are prepared to deal responsibly with pregnancy, unwanted children, HIV, herpes, parental approbation etc.
4. What about people who are gay? Is there anything wrong with that according to Hinduism?
Answer; According to the Scriptures there are three sexual identities, heterosexual male, heterosexual female and a mixture of both - homosexual/trans-sexual/bisexual etc. – both male and female. All beings pass through these three types of births, so everyone was once male, female and gay at some stage in the past and will be so at some stage in the future. These relationships too should be governed by the above principles. Relationships between human beings (gay or straight) are condemned as immoral only when there is exploitation, coercion, cruetly, lack of sensitivity and using the other for one’s personal gratification without caring about their needs and wellbeing.
5. Hinduism states that there are many other life forms living on other planets. But is it possible that we have been visited by these extra terrestrial life forms who are also Hindus?
Answer – being a Hindu means following the “Universal Path of Right Living” or DHARMA. The basis of Dharma is truth, love, compassion, charity, generosity, friendliness, peace, wisdom, contemplation, tolerance etc. If the Extra terrestrials are following this path then they are “Hindus”. We certainly believe that this earth has been visited by beings from outer space!
6. In order to be a true Hindu do I have to be inaugurated/inducted/baptised like in Christianity? By this I mean is there a particular prayer that I should perform?
Answer: there are forms of ‘initiation’ which are not compulsory and which are granted in order to confirm one commitment to pursuing the path of Right Living (Dharma). All orthodox Hindus do undergo some form of initiation at some stage when they are ready for it. One needs to approach a guru to receive formal initiation.
7. My course/destiny for this life time has already been determined due to my past lives (I am relating to my sanchit karma) does that mean, that if my desire in this life time is to be an Actor that doesn’t make any difference because I am destined to be an accountant or bum?
Answer; see answer to question #2 – rely on personal effort – if you are destined to be a bum it will happen anyway - so try your best to be what you want to be!
8. If I commit suicide does that create bad karma and banish me to another 100 lifetimes on earth or any other planet before I can continue my spiritual journey?
Answer; Suicide is a coward’s way out – avoiding the responsibility for one’s actions – it is simply trying to cheat yourself. So one becomes a hungry ghost for a few life times and then finally one is reborn again on earth to carry on from where one left off – so it is a pointless exercise.
9. What should I do in order to obtain spiritual enlightenment?
Answer; Practice, practice, practice.
10. What should I do in order to be able to go to heaven?
Answer – do lots of good deeds – helping old ladies to cross the street, carrying pregnant ladies shopping bags etc. (But ultimately we believe that heaven is also a temporary state and so you will still have to come back here at some stage to carry on your spiritual evolution to Nirvana – the state of no return!)
11. Does Hinduism teach about hell?
Answer – there are certainly teachings in the Garuda Purana about hell but like heaven, hell is also a temporary state of suffering — a purgatory where our excessive negativity is purged and then we return to earth again to continue our spiritual evolution back to Godhead. It is important to note that it is only extremely evil deeds which afflict other living beings that lead one to hell. There is no "thought crime" or "crime of disbelief" that leads to an eternal state of damnation as taught by some Christians and Muslims.
12. Is Lust /desire/masturbating a sin in Hinduism?
Answer; A sin is defined as causing suffering to other living beings, so as long as one’s lust/desire/masturbation are not causing harm to anyone else – then they are neutral acts; neither good nor bad – they just are!!
13. Do we have to be a vegetarian in order to be a Hindu? If I eat meat (all meat including fish, beef chicken etc) am I creating bad karma? Or is it bad to eat meat but even worse to eat beef?
Answer; Vegetarianism is based on the principles of compassion for other beings. As such it is one of the many factors of the Path of Right Living (Dharma). Karma is caused by the intention to harm, simply eating meat passively without wishing the animal harm does not cause karma, but does not contribute to the welfare of other beings, therefore it is not a very skilful action. In other words eating meat per se is not a sin. If one needs to eat meat, it is best to eat lower life forms such as shell-fish, etc, and avoid the higher life forms such as beef. But it is better to give it up entirely – good for the environment as well as the health.
14. Is it a sin to drink alcohol in small or large quantities?
Answer; Again - a sin is defined as causing suffering to other living beings, so as long as one’s drinking does not cause harm to anyone else – then it is a neutral act. But the problem with alcohol, drugs etc is that in large quantities they cloud one’s judgement between right and wrong and cause one to do many things that one later regrets. It is better to avoid cause for regret than to wear the consequences of one’s stupidity – so above all, always think about the consequences of your deeds BEFORE you act.
15. Is it wrong to smoke ganja (cannabis)?
Answer: it may be illegal according to local laws to smoke or use ganja (cannabis) but it is not against the Dharma Shastra. Many sadhus use ganja as a means of enhancing their meditative practices. Having said that it is not recommended on health grounds. The use of any mind or mood altering substance like drugs, or alcohol can become addictive, the Shastra condemns all sorts of addiction as being destructive to oneself and one’s family. If these things are taken in moderation there’s no problem but once they take control of you then destruction is certain. So use discretion and moderation in all things.
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