by Jayaram V
Hinduism is a universal religion. Its primary
emphasis is on universal brotherhood. It views the world as
one family. It believes that man is divine in nature and realization
of that supreme truth as the primary aim of all human activity.
It is therefore unfortunate that for a very long time this religion
of great antiquity has been in the clutches a few privileged
It would be a great service to the cause of Hinduism
if the present day Vedic teachers identify bright children from
the lower castes and start teaching them the Vedas and the Upanishads
and allow them to serve God in the temples of India. The strength
of Christianity stems from dedicated missionaries who
come from all sections of society. The weakness of Hinduism
and of Hindu society is caste system, which divides people into
divergent and bickering groups and keeps them apart.
Perhaps there is no other nation in the world
that is as openly and shamelessly as racial as India. To be
born in an upper caste is a matter of pride whether the family
to which a person belongs deserves it or not. A number of Indians
who visit foreign countries often complain about being treated
differently on account of their skin color or accent. They overlook
the fact that a vast number of people in their own country exhibit
a far greater obsession with accent, skin color and caste.
Indian film stars put on white makeup, on the screen and off
the screen, even if they are black, to look acceptable and desirable.
The country's democracy is not a true democracy, but castocracy,
where people vote and leaders are elected on caste lines. The
Indian political parties thrive and succeed by appealing to
this base emotion of people.
There are countless scholars who justify Hindu
caste system quoting chapter and verse from the scriptures,
ignoring the fact that they were convenient interpolations
or authored by bigoted scholars in an otherwise
sacred lore to justify a cruel and unjust system using
the very authority of God.
Caste System has been the bane of Hindu society for centuries.
terms of impact, it did much greater damage for a much
longer period to a great many people than the slave system of the
western world or the witch-hunting practices of medieval Europe.
The Hindu caste system was a clever invention of the later Vedic
society, justified by a few law makers. The upper castes found it
convenient to retain and perpetuate their social and religious distinction
and political and economic advantage. With the exception of
a few ascetic traditions, most
of the ancient sects of Hinduism
were caste biased.
The idea of staying away from unclean people is understandable
in a society that was obsessed with the concept of physical and
mental purity. There is nothing unusual with people who are selective
in choosing their friends and relationships. It is normal behavior
to stay away from people who are found to be socially deviant, untrustworthy
or unfamiliar. It is an expression of our social intelligence and
self-preservation instinct. Personal hygiene, family background
and financial status do matter today in society as it was thousands
of years ago. But what was wrong with the Vedic society was it recognized
inequalities among men based on birth and family lineage and proclaimed
it to be the will of God. This line
of thought was perpetuated by vedic scholars for centuries through
the authority of scriptures and fear of divine retribution. They
wrongfully created human stereotypes to justify a social structure
that favored a few at the expense of many, denying a vast majority
of people opportunities to use their inborn talents and pursue their
own dreams and aspirations.
What is the Caste System ?
The Hindu caste system is unique in the world, but resembles
in some ways Plato's ideal society of philosophers, warriors
and commoners. A caste is a division of society based on occupation
and family lineage. Hindu caste system recognized four distinct
classes or divisions among people based on these criteria and enforced
it through a rigid code of conduct that was specific to each class
and rooted in the
(law books) of the later vedic period. The four main castes recognized
by traditional Hindu society based primarily on hereditary occupation
are mentioned below.
- Brahmins. They are the priestly class, who are entitled
to study the Vedas, perform rites and rituals for themselves
and for others and obliged to observe the sacraments. They are
the middle men between gods and men. The act as temple priests
and invoke gods on behalf of others. They are expected to show
exemplary behavior and spend their lives in the pursuit of divine
knowledge and preservation of the traditions. According to Manu,
the law maker, a brahmin was an incarnation of dharma (sacred
tradition), born to serve and protect the dharma. He belonged
to the excellent of the human race, endowed with intelligence
and knowledge to attain Brahman. He was the highest on earth,
the lord of all created beings. Whatever that existed in the
world was the property of a Brahmana and he was entitled to
- Kshatriyas. They are the warrior class, who are commanded
(by tradition) to protect the people, bestow gifts to
the brahmins, offer sacrifices to gods and ancestors, study
the Vedas, dispense justice, and, according to
abstain themselves from sensual pleasures. Manu laid down that
it was a king's duty to protect his kingdom and his people.
He had something in himself of the gods such Indra,
Vayu, Yama, Surya, Varuna, Moon and Kubera. A king should
not be despised even if he was an infant. His authority should
not be questioned except when he ignored his duties in supporting
and protecting brahmins. The king had the right to punish, but
he must be fair in his punishment. It was king's responsibility
to protect the caste system and the social order and lavish
the priests with generous gifts at every opportunity.
- Vaishyas: They are the merchant and peasant classes,
who are expected to tend cattle, offer sacrifices, study the
Vedas, trade, lend money and cultivate the land. They had the
right to perform and participate in certain vedic rituals but
they were not allowed to marry women of higher castes.
- Shudras: The are the labor class, whose only duty
is to serve the other three castes. They were not required to
observe any vedic rituals or samskaras except a few. They were
not allowed to study the vedas or even hear the sacred chants.
They were not allowed to eat food in the company of higher castes
or marry their women.
- Chandalas: The lowest of the sudras were called chandalas
or the impure ones. They were treated as untouchables because
of their gory religious practices, penchant for sacrifices,
magical rites and unclean habits. In ancient times they were
not allowed to enter a village or city during day time or walk
in the same street where men of other castes walked. Even their
shadow was considered impure and their very sight as a bad omen.
So they lived mostly on the fringes of society, unknown and
uncared for, following some esoteric religion of their own and
working mostly in the graveyards and cremation grounds or as
hunters, butchers and professional cleaners of human waste.14
How the Caste System was Enforced
The caste system was enforced with the help of law books such
as Manusmriti and the support of kings who considered themselves
as upholders of dharma. The force of tradition, superstition, religious
beliefs, fear of punishment also played an important role in its
success. Some of these factors are explained in detail.
- Heredity. The caste system was based on birth. People
inherited caste from their parents and passed it on to their
children. Individuals had no right to change their caste as
long as they practiced the vedic religion. But they could be
excommunicated from the caste by the kings or the local administrators
or village heads in case of serious transgression. In case of
inter caste marriage which were rare, children inherited the
castes of their fathers.
- Caste Rules. The caste rules were enforced strictly
through the fear of political and religious authority. The success
of the system depended upon the performance of duties prescribed
for each caste. The rules varied from caste to caste. People
of higher castes enjoyed privileges but were also expected to
be good role models. For a Brahmin study of the
of rituals and leading a pure and
austere life were a must. Otherwise he was considered to be
equal to a sudra in the eyes of his fellow caste members.
Women were expected to assist
their husbands in observing the caste rules. Purification ceremonies,
fines and minor punishments were prescribed to annul the negative
effect of violating caste rules.
- Marriage. The caste system prohibited
marriages outside one's caste
to avoid inter mixture of the castes (varna samkaram), which
was considered to be a sign of decline of dharma and the very
reason why the caste system was devised. The law books
allowed certain types of inter-caste marriages as an exception
rather than rule. Marriages between a higher caste men and lower
caste women were less objectionable than Marriages between sudra
males and higher caste females and marriages between men of
upper castes and sudra women. 2
- Preferential treatment: The three upper castes enjoyed
distinct advantages in society compared to the sudras whose
job was to serve the three upper castes and live like fourth
People born in the three upper castes were
given initiation into the study of the Vedas and treated as
twice born, while sudras were not allowed to study or even hear
the Vedas. They were treated on par with animals and considered
once borne. The brahmins enjoyed the highest status and privileges
followed by the kshatriyas, the vaisyas and the sudras in the
same order. The laws were discriminatory in matters of rewards
and punishments. They prescribed lighter punishments for higher
castes than the lower castes who had technically little recourse
against the former in criminal cases. For the same offence committed,
a lower caste person might attract physical torture, slavery
or death penalty while a higher caste person might get away
with a simple fine or chastisement or purification ceremony.
The lower caste persons were also not allowed to act as witnesses
or sit in judgment against higher castes.
- Royal Support: The caste system was preserved and
enforced mostly through royal support. The relationship between
the priestly class and the warrior class was one of convenience.
The kings took upon themselves the tasks of protecting the caste
system and preventing caste intermixture while the priests performed
sacrificial ceremonies and purifications ceremonies seeking
the welfare of the king and a place for him in heavens. The
scriptures proclaimed the king as a god in human form and protector
and preserver of castes and caste order
4. The very notion of punishment
was a created by God and given to the kings upon earth to help
them destroy evil and keep men on the path of dharma
5. The scriptures
suggested that a king should start his day by worshipping three
Brahmins on waking up and follow their advice with humility
and modesty. He should also appoint a Brahman to the position
of a chief minister with and deliberate with him on the most
important affairs concerning royal policy.
The Rigvedic people came to the Indian subcontinent as priestly
families, not as warriors. They won over the subcontinent not through
the power of sword as some historians want us to believe but through
their superior skill in debate and magical ritualism which they
used to gain royal patronage of the local kings. With the support
of some native kings whom they won over to their side and who probably
had some racial affinity with them, by cleverly adopting many local
customs and traditions that would make them acceptable in the eyes
of the native people, with their special abilities in using magical
incantations and elaborate sacrifices
to summon rains or prevent floods or defeat the enemies or drive
away thieving hostile tribes, diseases and pestilence, they established
their social, political and economic power and spread their influence
gradually to the four corners of the Indian subcontinent.
Non-Vedic Character of Caste System
The vedic priests did not bring with them the caste system. The
early vedic people had a flexible social organization in which people
could change their vocations easily. Different members within the
same family practiced different vocations. But as they came into
contact with hostile tribes and competing traditions, they resorted
to caste system to preserve their identity as a group. Some form
of caste system was already in vogue in ancient India
6, which in all
probability the vedic people adopted to maintain their racial purity
and family lineages. This is evident from the fact in the entire
is no reference to the caste system except in the Purusha sukta
which is considered by many scholars as a later day interpolation.
Caste in Hindu Mythology
In the Hindu mythology we find men of lower castes ascending
to positions of eminence and authority. Some important characters
in the epics
and Mahabharata belonged
to lower castes. Lord Rama was assisted by mostly men of humble
origins, who lived in the forests and were ignorant of the vedic
scriptures. Lord Krishna himself was brought up by a family of cowherds.
So was Balarama, his step brother, who is sometimes included in
the list of Vishnu's ten incarnations. Only three or four of
the ten incarnations of
Lord Vishnu came from higher castes. Of
the ten only one, the incarnation of Vamana, belongs to the Brahmin
caste. Rama, Parashurama and the Buddha belong to the Kshatriya
caste while other incarnations such as the incarnation of fish,
turtle, boar and the half man and half lion are actually animal
incarnations, which in other words means once born, just like the
forest dwellers that assisted Lord Rama in his battle against the
demon king Ravana.
Many ancient sages and rishis also came from humble backgrounds.
Parasurama was a brahmin by birth but a warrior by profession. Vishwamitra7
was a warrior by birth but practiced austerities
like a brahmins and became a great rishi. Sage Parashar, the famous
law giver, was the son of an outcaste (chandala). Rishi Vashishta
was born to a prostitute ,while sage Vyasa, the original author
of the Mahabharata, was born to a fisherwoman. Rishi Valmiki the
original composer of Ramayana came from a tribal family of traditional
hunters. Some composers of the Vedic and Upanishadic hymns belonged
to either lower castes or mixed castes. Satyakama Jabala was born
to a prostitute who could not tell him who his father was. Karna,
the famous character from the Mahabharata was brought up by low
caste family, while Drona, the teacher of the Pandavas, was a Brahmin
by caste but excelled in marital arts .
The Development of Rigid Caste System
The Rigvedic society had a flexible caste system which allowed
individuals to change their castes if necessary. Color (varna) and
family lineage were more important during this period rather than
occupation. But during the post vedic period, caste system became
rigid and offered little flexibility to people to pursue vocations
not authorized by caste rules. Foreign invasions and the presence
of foreigners should have sparked this new development to prevent
the possibility of caste pollution and confusion of castes. Well
defined code of conduct, rewards and punishments and purification
procedures became necessary to regulate the inflow of new members
into the vedic society and their integration into the existing framework
of castes without disturbing the social structure and the dominance
of the priestly class.
Elevation of the Sudra Kings
Many emperors and rulers in ancient India came from humble backgrounds.
They became rulers on account of their personal valor and adventurous
spirit. The Nandas who ruled a vast empire with pataliputra as their
capital at the time of the birth of
the Buddha, belonged to
a low caste of barbers. So was Chandragupta Maurya, who succeeded
them. His mother belonged to a family of peacock tamers and probably
served in the court of Nandas as a courtesan. The Sakas and the
Kushanas were foreigners who came from outside. They patronized
Saivism but kept away from Vedism. The Guptas were either Vaishyas
or Jats8 while
the Nagas or the Barashivas were sudras. We do not know for sure
how the vedic priests managed their relationship with the sudra
kings and the foreign rulers. In most cases these kings joined Buddhism
or Jainism or
Saivism as these religions did
not favor caste system. In fewer cases they accepted the compromise
offered by the vedic priests in return of gifts and land grants
to admit them into the Vedic fold as kshatriyas through purification
ceremonies and the blessing of the gods and by tracing their lineage
to some mythical race having roots in heaven. If these strategies
failed, the vedic priests either kept a low profile or sought the
protection of neighboring rulers.
Varna, Jati and Gotra
The early vedic society was more concerned with the color and
family identity of people rather than their castes as is evident
from the Rigvedic hymns which distinguish people based on their
complexion and creed rather than occupation based castes. The caste
system9 is known
in Sanskrit as varnashrama dharma which actually means a system
based on color. In the early days it was color of the skin that
mattered, not the caste. A Brahmin was considered varnashresht or
best of color. Varna also meant a letter or character or sound.
Teaching how to write and spell Sanskrit letters was called varna-shiksha.
The Vedic people were conspicuous by their color in contrast to
the dark skinned tribes whom they derogatorily referred as dasyus,
dasas, asuras, pisachas and rakshasas. These tribes spoke different
languages, did not show any respect for the vedic gods and sacrifices
and would have probably shown the same contempt towards the vedic
people for their racial snobbery. Many scholars believe that the
varnas were different from castes. The varnas were classes based
on racial features, while the castes were further divisions within
each class based on occupation or lineage. Thus while there were
only four varnas or classes, the number of castes or occupational
divisions with in each class varied.
The word jati actually means the form of existence that comes
by birth. Thus animals belong to pasujati or the group of animals
and humans to narajati or the group of humans. Jati is also used
loosely to mean a caste, a race, a lineage, a tribe or a class of
men. A jati-brahmin is some one who is a brahmin by birth but not
by occupation or knowledge or performance of rites and rituals.
Closely related with jati are the worlds jat, meaning birth or existence
and jatakam meaning natal chart.
Gotra actually means the name of a cow pen or stable. It is also
used to denote the name of a family, lineage or race of Brahmin
families. Strictly speaking, only Brahmin families are supposed
to belong to particular gotras. In case of people belonging to other
castes, it denotes the lineage of their respective family priests.
So if a Brahmin quotes his gotra he is telling from which lineage
or family he descended and when a non Brahmin is quoting his gotra,
he is telling the gotra of the priest whose services his family
traditionally used. Traditionally the gotras of brahmin families
are traceable to seven or eight ancient sages. But today there are
thousands of gotras and no one knows how these many gotras have
sprouted. While for Brahmin families gotras carry a lot of significance,
for others gotras usually matter during ritual worship and performance
of sacraments. As in case of castes, marriages within the
same gotra are prohibited by the law books.
The Indian society was complex in ancient India as it is now.
Any generalizations about it need to be regarded with some reservations.
The political, geographic and linguistic diversity, absence of adequate
dependable historical evidence, contradictory literary sources
and the existence of multiple religious traditions make it a daunting
task for any writer to present a satisfactory picture of the prevailing
conditions of the Indian society at any point of time in the past.
In the following paragraphs we attempt to trace a broad outline
of the development of caste system in the post vedic period.
During the Mauryan period (300 BC), while the varnas remained
four, the castes became many. Inter caste marriages, practice of
polygamy, assimilation of foreigners, creation of vast administrative
machinery that resulted in new classes of people and new positions
of authority, and geographical expansion of the empires to the south
which exposed new groups and communities to the vedic religion contributed
to this new development and added diversity and complexity to the
social fabric of ancient India.
Megasthanese, who stayed
in the court of Chandragupta Maurya as a Greek ambassador for several
years and recorded his observations in his work titled the Indika,
noticed seven classes of people in the Mauryan empire, namely
- overseers and
- councilors or assessors.
Within each of these classes there were further sub divisions.
Megasthanese identified two distinct divisions with in the philosophers
group, the priests and the ascetics.
In the Satavahana empire, society was organized into four classes10.
- The first class consisted of high ranking officials and
feudatory chieftains such as Maharathis, Mahabhojas and Mahasenapatis.
- The second class consisted of officials such as ministers
and treasurers (Amatyas, Mahamatras and Bhandagarikas) and non-officials
such as merchants, traders and heads of guilds (Naigama, Sarthvaha
- The third class consisted of professionals such as scribes
(lekhakas), physicians (vaidyas), cultivators (halakiyas), goldsmiths
(suvarnakaras) and chemists (gandhikas).
- The fourth class consisted of carpenters (vardhaki), garderners
(malakaras), blacksmiths (lohavanija) and fishermen (dasakas).
The Guptas patronized Hinduism and revived many ancient
vedic traditions. They enforced the caste system throughout their
empire with religious zeal. They implemented many traditions of
vedic religion as a part of the king's duty to uphold and protect
religious laws (dharma) and safeguard the caste system from the
unlawful inter mixture of castes. The Brahmins, who enjoyed many
privileges under their patronage, were known for their austere lives.
There were many groups within the priestly class, each performing
specific duties. They studied the scriptures, practiced contemplation,
devotional worship and observed austerities such as tapas and penance.
They received lavish gifts and land grants from kings, often entire
villages in return for their services. People venerated the saints
and regarded the places where they lived as sacred places. The kings
employed royal priests whom they consulted frequently. Brahmins
of this period belonged to many lineages or gotras.
The Guptas brought peace and prosperity to the Indian subcontinent
and contributed to the emergence of new classes of aristocracy.
Their period witnessed the development new elite groups, as in the
Roman empire, in the form of urban bourgeoisie consisting of wealth
traders and merchants and landed gentry owning vast tracts of agricultural
lands, which precipitated a new power struggle requiring compromises
within the social structure. While the priestly classes had the
religious authority over the sudras or the landless peasants, the
landed gentry assumed feudal and administrative authority over them.
The assimilation of foreign groups such as the Hunas in the declining
phase of the Gupta rule resulted in some social unrest and imbalances
within society. According to Havell, the infusion of Huna blood
lowered the high ethical standards of Indo-Aryan traditions and
caused the growth of many vulgar superstitions which were never
contradicted by the great teachers of India. The intolerance of
the Hunans only added to the rigidity of the caste system in the
subsequent period as a defensive reaction, just as the intolerant
attitude of Muslim rulers contributed to its rigidity of castes
during the medieval period.
Hiuen Tsang who visited India during the reign of Harshavardhana
noticed that the caste system dominated the Hindu society. He described
the four distinct classes as described in the Hindu law books. The
brahmins and the kshatriyas observed decency and decorum in their
dress and eating habits. The higher castes were very particular
about cleanliness. After eating food they destroyed the wooden and
stone vessels in which they ate food and clean the metal ones thoroughly.
They lived upright and honest lives and dreaded the retribution
of bad karma. There were no inter-caste marriages and marriages
with in the same caste among close relations. The caste distinctions
and restrictions in food and marriage, however, did not prevent
various castes from interacting socially.
Despites its universal appeal and emphasis on Muslim brotherhood,
Islam could not destroy caste system nor vedic religion. Caste system
actually helped Hinduism to maintain its integrity and inner strength
during this turbulent period. Some Muslim rulers made attempts to
humiliate higher caste Hindus by forcing them to work in Muslim
households as servants after reducing them to penury through unjust
taxation. They also managed to convert to Islam some low caste and
a few high caste Hindus. Some Muslim rulers made it a policy to
kill a certain number of Hindus each year to humiliate and destroy
Hindus. These developments made the caste system more rigid and
uncompromising. Those who switched their loyalties to the new religion
(usually the lower castes) became despicable and loathsome in the
eyes of those who suffered silently. Interestingly the newly converted
Muslims maintained some sort of caste system among themselves based
on their old caste affiliations and added a new social dimension
to the community of Muslims in the country.
The British respected the Indian caste system in the formulation
of their policies, formation of their military and in their government
policies regarding education and employment. They did not attempt
to abolish the caste system as they saw in it a great opportunity
to maintain their hold by keeping the society divided. The Christian
missionaries found in it a convenient means to convert people to
Christianity and keep the Hindu society defensive. Educated Indian
middle classes sensed the danger and felt a need to reform the caste
system in the interests of Hindu society. Leaders like Baba Saheb
Ambedkar demanded equal status for the low castes, while Gandhi
advocated complete abolition of untouchability and equal rights
to all people.
After independence, Indian constitution guaranteed equal status
and fundamental rights to all classes of people. Practice of untouchability
was officially declared as a serious crime, punishable with severe
penalties. Provisions were made to identify and protect the lower
castes from exploitation and ill treatment. Reservation policy created
a level playing field and protected them from unfair competition
from higher castes in matters of employment and education. Today
the lower castes occupy positions of authority and leadership and
are engaged in every profession. While a lot of improvement in their
overall status is still required, through constitutional guarantees
the Indian government established many safeguards for the lower
castes and improved their status in society considerably so much
so that often the high castes complain of being discriminated and
at a disadvantage. By granting constitutional guarantees to the
lower castes and protecting them from unfair competition, the Indian
government averted a major disaster for the newly independent country
such as a civil war or civil strife or mass conversions to other
Justification of Caste System
Caste system was rationalized in ancient India on various grounds.
Some of them are discussed below.
- Justification in the Vedas: No vedic tradition is
valid unless it is found in the Vedas. The caste system would
not have found approval among the vedic people unless there
was some reference to it in the Vedas. The Purusha Sukta in
the 10th Mandala
of the Rigveda describes how the castes came into existence,
from different parts of Purusha, the Cosmic Soul, at the time
of a grand sacrifice performed by the gods. The brahmins came
out of his mouth, the kshatriyas from his arms, the vaisyas
from his thighs and the sudras from his feet. Many scholars
believe that concepts and the imagery of Purusha Sukta
to later Vedic period rather than the Rigvedic period and so
it was probably a later day interpolation. It is interesting
that this hymn is quoted even today by many orthodox brahmins
to justify the system, despite the inconsistencies in the logic
employed. Firstly the one indivisible and unchanging Brahman
does not have a body like humans. Secondly even if he has, his
feet cannot be unclean compared to his mouth. Judging by the
human physic, the mouth should more unclean than the feet unless
God has a tendency to wallow in mud. Thirdly, among the bodily
parts, it is the feet of God that is usually worshipped in the
temples and rituals rather than any other part of His body.
- Justification in the theory of Karma: The concept
of karma perfectly justifies the caste system based on birth.
It favors the argument that people of lower castes have to blame
themselves for their plight because of their bad
karma in their past lives. Their
pitiable plight is a stern warning to the rest of the humanity
that the wheel of dharma operates inexorably, sparing none and
favoring none. This line of argument is found in many scriptures,
including the Bhagavadgita, according
to which people of good merit and those who had developed detachment
or dispassion were born in pious families12.
In the fourth chapter of the book, Lord
Krishna declared that the fourfold varna system was created
by him based on the triple gunas and mechanism of karma
13. By combining
the belief in karma with the caste system, the ancient law makers
prescribed different vocational and occupational duties for
each caste and expected people to follow them sincerely as an
integral part of their religious duty. Observing these duties
without questioning them was an act of merit, which entitled
them to progress on the path of dharma and obtain a better life
in the next birth.
- Justification by the theory of Gunas: According to
many schools of Hindu philosophy,
all beings and objects in the world contain the triple gunas
or qualities of Prakriti. Their
dominance or suppression cause people to act and behave differently
and make them fit for certain types of occupations. These
three qualities are sattva, rajas
and tamas. Sattva is characterized by purity and spirituality
and manifests in men in the form of knowledge, intelligence,
faith, sincerity, devotion, piousness and so on. Sattva is believed
to be the predominant quality among the men of knowledge, in
other worlds, brahmins. Rajas is characterized by egoism and
materialism and manifests in men as ambition, pride, desire
for wealth and personal power, lust, hypocrisy, attachment and
so on. Rajas is believed to be the predominant quality
in case of men of action, in other words, in kshatriyas and
vaisyas. Tamas is characterized by lethargy and manifests in
men in the form of ignorance, lack of ambition, extreme austerities,
demonical resolve, uncleanliness, negative attitude, unhealthy
habits and other forms of undesirable behavior. Tamas is believed
to be the predominant quality in men who are unclean and ignorant,
in other words, sudras.
- Justification by the religious laws. The caste system
was justified by most of the smriti literature, Manusmriti being
the most notorious among them and by such religious scriptures
as the Puranas, the Sutra literature and scriptures such as
the Bhagavadgita and some later day
Upanishads. The law books not
only justified rigid caste system but prescribed severe punishments
in case of violation. The very purpose for which the law books
were composed and the manner in which the information was organized
in them on caste lines suggest that in ancient and medieval
India they were meant to perpetuate and justify the caste system
and provide clear guidelines to the administrative machinery
to enforce the laws concerning social divisions with little
Critical Analysis of Caste System
The Hindu caste system had its own merits and demerits and should
not be judged purely based on the social values of today. Inequalities
and social divisions based on economic and family status were not
unknown in other parts of the world. The Nordic races followed
some form of caste system. The Greeks and Romans had freemen and
slaves. The British, the French and the Russians had their landed
gentry and nobility in contrast to the commoners and peasants who
were subject to unjust taxes and unequal treatment. The new world
had its own slave system practiced for nearly two centuries. Compared
so some of these systems and practices, the Hindu caste system was
more humane and gentle. Although the chandalas were excluded from
social interaction, they were free men within their own world. So
were the sudras. The Romans had their slave revolts. The French
had their revolution. The injustices of American slave system produced
deep rooted aggression, resentment and frustration in the USA. But
the low castes in India never launched large scale organized revolts
or violence against the upper castes because there was no physical
suppression of castes but only limitations of opportunities imposed
by tradition and religious beliefs. There were rigid walls among
the communities but within the walls life went on as usually independent
of how others lived. It is in this context one should examine the
advantages and disadvantages of Hindu caste system which are listed
- Continuity of traditions: It would be unfair to say
that the caste system had no merit, because if it were true
it would not have survived for so long. If Hinduism survived
amidst many competing traditions, religions and foreign invasions,
without a central authority and with so many centrifugal forces
working from all directions, a great deal of credit ought to
go to the rigid caste system that discouraged people from experimenting
with their faith and beliefs acting as a binding force and kept
them within the boundaries established by the scriptures and
the tradition. A vast majority of the Hindus were illiterate,
but were not unaware of the laws of karma or the implications
of violating caste rules or their commitment to their caste
based family occupations and its role in ensuring their family
well being and survival.
- Division of labor: The caste system promoted division
of labor and specialization of knowledge which helped each family
perfect and improve their vocational skills and continue them
from generation to generation.
- Bonds of Brotherhood: The caste system contributed
to the development of caste based guilds in the urban areas,
which acted like social and labor unions. They united people
together under a common purpose and provided some kind of social
insurance against unfair competition and unjust exploitation
of labor. They ensured fair wages to their members, loaned money
to them acting like banks, helped the unemployed to find wor,
in addtion to promoting work ethics and standards of performance
among their members. In the rural areas the caste system brought
together people of the same caste and promoted unity, solidarity
and fraternity among them, strengthening the bonds of their
relationships through marriage, friendship and other forms of
social and professional interaction.
- Purity of lineages: Because of the rigid rules regarding
marriage and physical union among the castes and prohibition
of marriages with in the same gotras, many families were able
to maintain the purity of their lineage.
- Unity in diversity: The caste system was not a system
of mere division of labor. While it acknowledged birth related
inequalities and karma based existential problems, it also emphasized
the underlying unity of all the castes and their divine nature
as products of a great cosmic sacrifice, arising from various
parts of the universal being. The original purpose of the caste
system, at least in theory, was not to exploit the weaker castes
but establish social order, regulate the affairs of the people
and preserve the sacred law (dharma). God was the protector
of this order and it was also the responsibility of everyone
to ensure that chaos and unrest would not ensue from the intermixture
and confusion of castes.
Following are some of the disadvantages of caste system
- Exploitation of the Weak: The Hindu caste system
had inherent weaknesses which rendered it unjust and exploitative
over a period of time, giving rise to social injustices, disabilities
and inequalities among a vast majority of the people. Its rigidity
and continued practice exposed the weaker sections of society
to unjust exploitation by the socially and politically privileged
groups in the name of religion and tradition.
- Disunity and division of loyalties: The caste system
divided the society vertically and horizontally into several
groups and bred distrust and resentment. It promoted disunity,
distrust and caste prejudices among the people
- Foreign domination: The caste system weakened
people's resolve to stand united against foreign invasions.
The physically strong sudras were condemned to pure agricultural
labor and menial jobs, while they could have been more useful
as fighters and soldiers in defending the land and the religion
against foreign invaders. By relegating the physically strong
population to menial labor and ignoring them in the political
affairs of the country, except for tax and labor purposes, the
Hindu rulers deprived themselves of able bodied soldiers who
could have defended them and their empires against foreign aggression.
It is interesting to note that the Muslim rulers and the British
who recruited people from all castes into their armies were
able to conquer the subcontinent and rule it for centuries.
- Preferential Treatment: The caste system was based
on birth rather than individual talent and vocational choice.
This created many disabilities for talented individuals belonging
to the lower castes. The story of Ekalavya in the Mahabharata
is a good example of how the system preferred to protect the
less competent or the incompetent among the higher castes from
the more talented lower caste persons in the name of dharma.
This biased approach stilted the growth of the nation and contributed
to its downfall in course of time.
- Political and military implications: The caste system
placed the foreigners on par with the untouchables and prevented
healthy exchange of knowledge and ideas. This worked to the
disadvantage of Indians in general and the armies in particular
as it isolated people from the rest of the world and prevented
them from knowing about the invading foreigners, their strategic
moves and counter moves and methods of warfare. The caste system
also divided Indian soldiers on caste lines and created groups
within groups, making coordination a difficult task for the
- Conversion to other religions. Caste system indirectly
contributed to the decline of Hindu religion as many people
belonging to the lower castes were converted to other religions
to escape the social indignities and inequalities associated
with their castes. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam thrived
in India on the weaknesses of Hinduism rather their own merits.
Speaking of this subject, Swami Vivekananda commented in the
following words, "Was there ever a sillier thing before
in the world than what I saw in Malabar country? The poor Pariah
is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high-caste
man, but if he changes his name to a hodge-podge English name,
it is all right; or to a Moahammedan name, it is all right.
What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are
all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that
they are to be treated with derision by every race in India
until they mend their manners and know better."
- Instrument of oppression. The caste system became
an instrument of oppression in the hands of socially privileged
castes. Landlords and wealthy merchants exploited the lower
castes and subjected them to inhuman treatment without fear
as the lower castes did not enjoy equal rights nor the confidence
of those who enforced the laws.
- Untouchability: Caste system created a class of individuals
who were regarded as untouchables and treated as less than human
beings. They were not allowed to enter the cities and villages
freely. People of higher castes were advised not to touch them
or let their shadows fall on them because the shadows were also
treated as sources of defilement. They were not allowed to draw
water from the wells or ponds used by the upper castes. In modern
times, many untouchables converted to other religions because
they saw no hope in sticking with their traditional castes and
among those who did not opt for converstion, the educated ones
are its worst critics.
- Low self-esteem: The caste system lowers
the self-esteem of many and makes them feel bad about their
social status and caste identity. Since it is based on birth,
there is nothing much anyone can do about one's caste other
than changing one's religion, a decision that may have other
social implications such as alienation from one's own family,
friends or community, accompanied by feelings of guilt and fear
of divine retribution. The caste system is a blistering
and festering ancient sore of Hindu society that evokes painful
memories and keeps the Hindu society divided for ever.
Caste System in Modern Hindu Society
Today untouchability is a serious crime. But the idea of caste
system still prevails in the minds of many Hindus. The following
points are worth noticing:
1. Inter caste marriages are not approved in many traditional
and rural families.
2. Caste based organizations and associations still exist in
India and play a crucial role in perpetuating the idea of caste.
3. Upper caste people are unhappy with the government's reservation
policy and their grievance is not entirely unfound. Some castes
demand the government to recognize them as scheduled castes or tribes
and from time to time resort to violent agitation over the issue.
4. Caste conflicts often lead to violence and bloodshed in the
rural areas and college campuses.
5. In many educational institutions students tend to group themselves
on the basis of castes, often with the tacit connivance of teaching
faculty and local politicians. A similar trend is often noticeable
in the work places also. Scheduled caste and tribe unions and organizations
often put undue pressure on the government and managements using
their protected status. Frivolous complaints of discrimination and
bogus criminal cases against officers of higher castes to settle
some past scores are not unknown.
6. In Indian politics, caste is a powerful factor. In many states
of India political parties are identified on the basis of dominant
castes that support them. During general elections many politicians
appeal to the baser instincts of people using caste affiliations.
They shamelessly and clandestinely seek votes in the name of caste.
7. Indian temples are still under the siege of caste chauvinism.
The temple administrations, some of which are managed by government
officials, do not recruit people from other castes to act as temple
priests. They also often perform purification rituals for caste
transgressions which invite lot of public criticism. The priesthood
continues to be an exclusive privilege of the brahmins and no noticeable
effort has been made to encourage people from other castes to study
the Vedas and join the priesthood.
8. Discrimination continues in several states in remote areas.
There are still people who would not let low castes draw water from
their wells and would not let them sit in the same row to share
9. The lower caste people continue to be employed by the higher
castes in the rural areas to perform menial and degrading jobs.
We do not see the opposite happening anywhere in the country, except
perhaps in companies and corporations owned by a few lower caste
The caste system might have served its purpose in ancient times,
but does not fit into the values and principles of modern times,
such as democracy, fundamental rights, individual freedom, equality
and non-discrimination. It does not uphold the values of modern
Hinduism either, such as tolerance and universal brotherhood. It
does not validate the concept that all life is a sacred expression
of divine will and energy. Followers and upholders of Hinduism cannot
and should not rationalize caste system if they want to maintain
the credibility of Hinduism as world religion that can accommodate
people of all nations, races and backgrounds.
Scholars tend to rationalize the caste system by quoting
the Purushasukta and the Bhagavadgita. They ignore the fact that
these verses contradict the very core values of Hinduism emphasized
in the same texts and present a world view that is a negation of
Hinduism. If caste system is allowed to prevail, it would do a much
greater damage to Hinduism than any other disruptive force we can
imagine. We have already seen its negative impact. If Hinduism lost
millions of its followers to other religions and continues to lose
so, it is because the lower castes were pushed to the wall and made
to feel bad about themselves. It is time we consign the ancient
law books such as Manusmriti to the dustbins of history and move
forward to establish an egalitarian society based upon firm ethical
and spiritual foundation upon which Hinduism can brace itself to
meet the challenges of the coming times and appeal to the inquisitive
and advanced minds of the future generations.
Suggested Further Reading
1. A twice-born man who
knowingly eats mushrooms, a village-pig, garlic, a village-cock,
onions, or leeks, will become an outcast. (5:14)
A Brahmana who neither performs austerities nor studies the Veda,
yet delights in accepting gifts, sinks with the (donor into hell),
just as (he who attempts to cross over in) a boat made of stone
(is submerged) in the water. (4.190)
2. A Brahmana who takes
a Sudra wife to his bed, will (after death) sink into hell; if he
begets a child by her, he will lose the rank of a Brahmana. (Manusmriti:
3. Let (the first part
of) a Brahmana's name (denote something) auspicious, a Kshatriya's
be connected with power, and a Vaisya's with wealth, but a Sudra's
(express something) contemptible. (Manusmriti: Ch2:31)
4. Manusmriti Chapter
5. Manusmriti Chapter
6. It is said that the
Dravidians or those who spoke Dravidian languages and probably lived
in the Indus valley and present day Rajasthan before migrating eastwards
and southwards due to climatic changes, practiced some form of caste
system based on vocation which was later taken up by the vedic priests
as the model along with the integration of traditions such as Vaishnavism,
Saivism and Tantricism.
7. He is also considered
to be the progenitor of the Andhras of the south.
8. Prof K.p. Jayaswal
9. According to H.G.
Rawlinson, caste is a portugese word meaning purity of race.
10. The Satavahanas,
who ruled in the early Christian era, patronized Brahmanism and
contributed greatly to the revival of Brahmanism in southern and
central India. Their empire extended from the river Krishna
in the south to Malwa and Kathiawar in the north and also included
large parts of present day Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat
11. The Purusha Sukta
verses dealing with the creation of castees is reproduced below
When they divided the Purusha how many portions
did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his
thighs and feet?
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms
was the Rajanya made.
His thigh became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was Produced.
12. Bhagavadgita Ch6:42
13. Bhagavadgita Ch4:14
14. Fahien mentioned
that when the Chandalas entered a city or a street they were required
to strike a price of wood to warn others of their coming so that
people moving in the streets would not be polluted by their contact.