This paper will explore the Hindu caste system. Varnasrama-dharma, as applied to the varnas, or castes, is one of the fundamental aspects of Hinduism. Its origins trace back to the 1500’s, when the Aryans invaded India from then Persia. The complex hierarchy was devised as a system to facilitate the subjugation of the conquered tribes. The caste system is based upon the principle that human society is like a complex machine, with individuals and communities as its parts. If the parts are weak, broken, or asked to perform a function it was not designed for, the machine will not work. Likewise, each part has its place and function; no part can do the job of another, and all must keep their place for the machine to function smoothly. This Dharma, our place within and duty to the machine of society, is not just essential to our happiness, but the happiness of all.
Hindu society is traditionally divided into four main castes, with each main caste divided into hundreds of sub-castes, or jati. The function of these castes is to quantify how ‘pure’ a person is, and thus how close he is to reaching Moksha, or enlightenment. Being born to a higher caste is an indication that one had lived one’s previous lives in a holy manner. As a result, the higher castes must live holy lives themselves, or they will regress to a lower caste in their next life; or worse, be born outside of the castes entirely (Flesher).
The highest caste is the Brahmins, the priestly caste. Their dharma is to study and understand the Vedas, Hindu’s four holy texts, and bring this knowledge to others. The second caste is the Kshatriya, the warrior/ruling class, who protects and guides the people. Vaishya, the professional caste, work in business and production to provide economically for the people. The Shudra, lowest of the castes, are servants to the higher three castes, providing the labor which moves society. Some upward mobility is possible, in that each caste has hundreds of jati. It is possible in one’s lifetime, by marriage or economics, to attain a different jati, but never to transcend or fall from the main caste one is born into.
There is a segment of society that is so low that it was once not officially considered a caste. These are the Harijan; once known as the untouchables. The untouchables were considered wholly impure, and were given positions within society to reflect that. These jobs typically involved handling dead matter and filth; such as street sweepers, butchers, latrine cleaners, and the like. They are outcast from society to the point that they may not come into physical contact with one of the pure casts. If such contact were to occur, or even if an untouchable were to touch a casted person’s possessions or furniture, the casted person would immediately be required to cleanse his person or property (Anand).
At first appearance, the Hindu caste structure and the social laws pertaining to rights based on caste seem to be prejudicial and exclusive. The lowest caste, Shudra, is not allowed to hear or study the holy Vedas. However, from a religious standpoint, the caste system is not abusive in itself. The Shudra are not allowed the Vedas, but they are allowed to participate in the Hindu religion. It may seem counterproductive to deny them the very texts that dictate their caste and dharma, but Hindus believe that everyone who is born into a caste is there for a reason. Karma, how you spend a lifetime, which follows you throughout your many lifetimes, determines which caste you will be in for the next lifetime. You may be demoted to an animal, repositioned within the castes, or granted Moksha. One’s karma and success in fulfilling one’s dharma determine if one is ready for a caste in which he will be allowed to study the Vedas and progress along Samsara; the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Proponents of the caste system argue that it provides the answers that people turn to religion for. It gives the people a social structure that encourages closeness with other members from your caste. It gives an individual a meaning to life, even if that meaning is to serve or sweep the street. It provides a goal and a purpose. The caste system has the advantage of clearly defining morality and giving people a firm place in society. Though one may not be able to raise is caste within a lifetime, neither can his caste be lowered. It enables one to concentrate upon their dharma, to improve their karma, and progress toward rebirth in a higher caste. “Since it is accepted that one’s caste is determined by one’s past karma, there is no reason to be bitter about one’s lot or envy others” (Ludwig, 109).
Granted, the caste system has not been implemented as the Vedas instruct. The system has come to be a hierarchy wherein the lowest levels are not given the respect commanded in religious texts (Embry). Detractors point to this as why, even with the caste system officially dissolved by the Indian democratic government, caste-based discrimination continues to be a hardship on the lower castes when it comes to employment and economic improvement. Today, things are much improved with the introduction of programs similar to Affirmative Action, and free education for all Indian citizens. Still a complete and genuine equality for all continues to elude them.
It should be pointed out, with the official removal of the caste system; the door has been opened to social backlash, often referred to as ‘reverse discrimination.’ Policies originally meant to equalize the treatment of all citizens have been over extended and misapplied. Opportunities once reserved for the higher castes are now available to Harijan and Shudra, and actually denied to Brahmins. This upturn has triggered a re-stratification of society, converting it to a new system the where once oppressed become the oppressors.
Every society naturally stratifies its population on the basis of influence, wealth, or education. The varna system ensures a high standard of craftsmanship, a sense of community belonging, family integrity and religious-cultural continuity. Indians have clung to these traditions as a source of economic and social stability in an often distressed society. It is unfortunate that the varna system has ended this way. However, it does not mean that classification is wrong. Rather than scrapping a major tenant of the national religion, it should be restructured to properly reflect karma as set in the Vedas.
Flesher, Paul. Social Organization; The Caste System. Retrieved February 02, 2010 from http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism/HORGS.HTM
Anand, Mulk Raj: Untouchable. London. Penguin Putnam, 1940.
Embree, Ainslie T.: India’s Search For National Identity. Delhi, India. Chanakya Publications, 1980.