by Jayaram V
In the Vedic age, the caste system was not very rigid since "there was no
privileged order of priests." During this time the word vaishya denoted all the people in the region irrespective of their profession and lineage. There was a rudimentary form of caste system in which a person's caste depended not upon his birth but upon his profession as is evident from some of the hymns of the Rigveda (9.112.3).
Historians tend to quote many reasons for the emergence of caste system as a dominant social reality during the
Vedic period. The social compulsions of that time must have contributed to its development. The most plausible and accepted theory is that probably caste system was found by the
Vedic people as a convenient means to integrate a multiracial society into one complex system.
There is no doubt that in the later vedic age, in the name of religion, the caste system was most conveniently justified and exploited by those in positions of power and authority. Their aim was to perpetrate the dominance of the priestly class and reduce competition to the ruling class in matters of political dominance.
This was accomplished in many ways. Firstly, the original meaning of the word
'Brahmin' and the beautiful concept hidden behind it was changed to suit the social requirements of the changing times. The word
'Brahmin' or Brahman' originally denoted the person who realized Brahman, the one who became one with Brahman, the highest God, or the one who had the knowledge of Brahman or became Brahman Himself in mortal form because of that supreme knowledge. But unfortunately, during the later period, this word acquired new connotations to denote a person who was born in a brahmin family or to a brahmin father.
Secondly, thanks to the tradition of passing of the Vedic knowledge from one generation to another through oral means, there was enough scope for manipulation of the vedic mantras. As a result, some new verses were cleverly and deliberately incorporated into the early vedic scriptures to justify the system and ensure the supremacy of the higher castes.
Historians quote the purusha sukta of the Rigveda (10.90) as the earliest reference to the existence of caste system in vedic society. This verse must be definitely a latter day addition to the Rigveda, for otherwise in the scripture we do not find much obsession about caste. We have no doubt that the scripture might have been cleverly altered and manipulated so as to provide some religious justification for the perpetuation of the caste system.
This must have been equally true in case of the Bhagavad-Gita also, where we find references to the caste system peculiarly out of context. When we look at such verses in the context of the fact that Sri Vasudeva Krishna himself was neither a brahmin nor a
kshatriya, but belonged to a pastoral community near the present day Mathura, we understand the truth.
The emergence of Manu smriti, sealed whatever chance there was for the caste system to remain plastic. One of the greatest books of social and religious laws ever written in the ancient history of man, this scripture elaborately dwelt upon each and every aspect of human conduct and religious life and through its unflinching emphasis on dharma and varna system firmly established the supremacy of the priestly class and their unquestionable right to perform all religious rites. Thus declares Manu smriti, "The very birth of a brahman is the eternal incarnation of dharma. For he is born for the sake of dharma and tends towards becoming one with Brahman..."
It is difficult to state how the caste system as it is known to us today took shape on the Indian soil, for today's caste system does not contain just the original four divisions but hundreds and thousands of castes and sub castes. The many foreign invasions and contact with new races and new tribes must have prompted the priestly class to change the laws here and there and admit new people into the system in various guises. The bactrian greeks, the barbarious huns, the sakas, the kushanas, and many others who came to India either as traders or as rulers, were somehow integrated into the system so smoothly that today we do not know into which castes these races merged finally.
Whatever be the truth, while the caste system helped the society to stabilize itself in the early stages, it considerably weakened the society by undermining its unity. Since the system was so unfair to the vast majority of the lower castes who had no privileges but only duties, it alienated them deeply from the rest of the society and made them apathetic and indifferent to the events of their times.
With no scope for their social advancement or economic independence, ever under bondage, and suffering from various kinds of social disabilities, they became the third or the fourth class citizens of hindu society, without any dignity of their own and with a status comparable to that of animals, as they were the 'once born' in contrast to the 'twice born'.
Therefore, for these unfortunate souls, it mattered little who came and who went, who won and who lost, who ruled them and who did not. As long as they were obedient to the state laws and paid their taxes or did their duties sincerely, it mattered little who sat on the throne and what virtues or vices, or for that matter what religion, the king practiced or advocated. The kings were hardly benevolent or tolerant. Failure to pay taxes, when the state demanded, perhaps with a few exceptions here and there, meant instant death.
Reduced to penury and the lowest social status, oppressed by the political system in which they had no chance of participation, condemned by the religion which eluded them, they worshipped whatever their limited wisdom suggested, from the rivers to the trees, from the earth to the sky, from various spirits, ghosts and demons to the various village deities.
It is difficult to believe that Buddhism gave them any relief, since it was not a religion for the weak minded. It demanded inner purity and observation of the eightfold path which was difficult to practice even by the privileged sections.
The rulers in turn paid little attention to them. Perhaps in matters of state priorities they did not matter at all. Their welfare must have never bothered the rulers. In theory these people were already condemned by the inexorable laws of karma to lead miserable lives and suffer from the consequences of their previous bad actions. Then how could and even why should a mortal king try to improve their lot? Preoccupied with their own problems of governance and survival, and perhaps palace intrigues and court politics, the rulers seldom ventured out into the rural areas to interact with these less privileged groups.
Though theoretically, the king was supposed to be concerned with the welfare of his subjects, with a few exceptions here and there, it is hard to believe that the kings of ancient India would have ever bothered to consider the lower castes of his kingdom as his important subjects.
What is strange is that many ancient rulers of India were neither Brahmins nor kshatriyas but came from lower castes. So was the case with many seers and saints. For example most of the rulers of the Magadh came from lower castes. But unfortunately none of them seemed to have worked for the upliftment of the lower castes. Having became converted to Buddhism, the Mauryan emperor Asoka, must have encouraged many to follow him. But we do not have any evidence to suggest that he was especially sympathetic to the cause of the lower castes or that he worked for their specific welfare.
Instances of oppression and cruelty against the downtrodden was also not entirely unknown. In times of war, the villages through which the army passed had to provide food, cattle and provisions to the marching army. This must have put considerable strain on their meager resources. The villagers were never trained in the art of warfare nor in the art of self-defense. So if the army lost the battle the masses had no option but to surrender meekly to the new ruler and pay their taxes.
It is true that it is difficult to generalize Hindu society on any particular issue since it consisted of diverse groups and communities even in ancient times. But we can confidently consider the caste system as the bane of hindu society from the earliest times. It divided and weakened the society, alienated the people and exposed them to foreign invasions on a scale unprecedented in the history of the world.
In south India the position was slightly different. Here the caste system did not divide the society as sharply as it did in north India, which is one reason why the south remained relatively free from foreign invasions as well as invasions from the native rulers of the north. King Asoka barely managed south. Samudra Gupta led a successful expedition to the south and defeated some local rulers there, but did not achieve much beyond that. Harshavardhana was defeated and stopped by Pulakesin II on the banks of river Narmada. In contrast to the rulers of the north who never tried to cross the frontiers and conquer the far away lands, the south Indian rulers were able to navigate across the oceans, with the help of fishermen and sea
farers, and establish new kingdoms in far away lands like Cambodia and Thailand.
The trend continued even during the Muslim or the Mughal rule. The south remained largely free from the Muslim rule. The Muslims did invade the southern provinces, except in a very limited way. Most of the famous temples of south India we know today escaped destruction in their hands. In strange contrast, some new temples were even built during their rule like the Sri Ram temple on the banks of river Godavari at Bhadrachalam in Andhrapradesh.
Must not Hindus learn something out of this experience of their past? If Hinduism has to survive as a major world religion and if Hindus want to stand out as exemplary beings on the global scene, the caste system must go. It must vanish in its present
abominal form, with all its monstrous roots and manifestations.
The caste system is an evil, that has no divine sanction whatsoever. It is full of demonic vitality and diabolic intent and it is there only to create discard and destruction. The bane of Indian society for so long, it will continue to remain so unless it is uprooted and thrown out, with the strength of Bhima, without any apology, without rationalizing its justification in the past, and without exploiting it for ones political or economic gains.
The caste system must yield place to a new society that is based upon the principles of equality and fraternity, where the status of an individual is determined not on the basis of his caste, but on the basis of his achievements and his character. The Hindus must learn to treat each individual with dignity and self respect and learn from their Christian and Muslim friends a few things about charity and brotherhood.
It is not a curse to be born in poor circumstances or come from a not so distinguished family. Hinduism teaches that before a soul begins its new birth, it willingly and carefully selects the family and the environment in which it wants to take its new birth. If we accept this as true and if we understand the significance of why a soul wants to be born in a poor family, we will never look down upon any one as a low or inferior person. We will realize that hidden in that person is a soul that is trying to break free by creating the necessary circumstances that would enable it to achieve it.
If Hindus do not shed the caste system in its present form, they cannot blame others for the disunity and disharmony of their society and for the increasing popularity of other faiths among the less privileged castes. They cannot blame foreign hands, charitable institutions and Christian missionaries, for the alienation of these people. Every hindu ought to remember that if there is one force that can destroy Hindu society either in part or in full or reduce them to a simple minority in their own country, it is neither nuclear weapons nor the foreign hands, but the stench of
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I liked Jayaram's article about caste. He put things very simple and analyses why other religious are gaining popularity. I am in USA and amazed by the way people are here. They don't care family history but just the person. It is a shame for us and we should learn from them in this aspect. Casteism is nothing but racism. Racism sees color and casteism sees birth irrespective of value of person as an individual. Casteism generalizes people with assumed characteristics. All big shots, great philanthropists, religious people who give big talk about religion should be ashamed of this because in their lives they practice it but talk of big things about racism, claiming Hinduism is ideal religion. Hope we realize and learn from the
west. If they come to know how mean we are in selecting a wife or husband based on caste, they will loose respect for us. - Sunil Kiran