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The Caste System and Its Evolution Through Time

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The Caste System and Its Evolution Through Time

By Katherine Graham

Throughout history and throughout many different cultures and countries discrimination based on one?s race, religion, social standing, and gender has been evident. Segregation and slavery in the United States, Apartheid in South Africa, the Holocaust originating in Germany, and discrimination against women throughout the world are all examples of the horrors of discrimination that so many countries have faced. However, one of the most severe and most long-standing cases of discrimination is found in the exotic country of India, a land that is mystified for its religion and culture. Though within these mystical attractions of India there lies a darker side, the caste system, one of the worst tools ever used for discrimination.

The caste system finds its origin within the many beliefs and practices of the Hindu religion. Hinduism teaches that human beings are divided into four categories: the Brahmins who have white skin, the Kshatriya who have red skin, the Vaisyas with yellow skin, and the Sudras with black skin. Though these categories appear to be based solely on skin color, Hinduism states otherwise, for each hue or color actually refers to an attribute of that person. The Brahmins with white skin are thought to possess goodness, the Kshatriya with red skin possess passion, the yellow skinned Vaisyas have both passion and goodness, while the black skinned Sudras are attributed with darkness.(Four Orders par.1) The Hindus followed these divisions of the caste system strictly; however, these beliefs became more severe during Aryan invasions over 4,000 years ago.

The Aryans originally wanted only to separate themselves, being light skinned, from the darker skinned Dravidians of southern India. These divisional practices, which at one time helped to categorize the many diverse groups of India and gave them a better sense of unity, eventually transformed into a more severe system of many rules and regulations.(Casting 17)

The four main rules that pertain to all castes and to those belonging to them are:

* Caste members can socially mix with only those belonging to their caste.

* Caste determines where each member can live.

* Caste determines what an individual may eat and drink.

* Caste determines how each member may earn a living.(Casting 17)

The two most prominent of these rules are those which forbid social movement within the castes and the rules which determine how each person may make a living. Persons who find themselves in violation of either of these two rules know that their punishment will be harsh.

For example, in 1994 in Bihar, a northern state in India, a girl of a lower caste eloped with an Untouchable boy, the Untouchables consist of all who do not belong to any other groups and are therefore outcastes (Mayhew 208). The two were discovered and with the approval of the village council, a stone was used to smash in the boy?s head, while the girl was branded with a burning log and then whipped repeatedly, acts that seem unreal to be occurring in the 1990?s.(Casting 17)

The separation of the castes based on occupation proves to be another source of strict ruling. The Brahmins consist of the priests and the scholars who must establish and preserve the ideals of the nation. The Kshatriyas are the rulers and warriors of their country, while the Vaisyas are merchants and professionals and the Sudras serve as servants and laborers.(Mayhew 208) Finally, there are the Untouchables who wander the streets, for they belong to no caste and are therefore refused work that would in turn bring them a source of income. They resort to labors such as street sweeping and toilet cleaning.(Under Attack 54)

The Hindus believe in reincarnation, the process by which people's souls return to the living world again in another form. A Hindu?s goal is to fulfill his dharma, the destiny a person must fulfill in his lifetime, so that when reincarnated his soul may return as something better. Therefore, the punishment for disregarding the rules of the caste system do not necessarily occur in the lifetime in which the crime was committed but rather in the person?s next life. Spiritual punishment would occur for example, if an Untouchable were dissatisfied by his life and attempted to better himself by obtaining a job as a merchant. He would not have fulfilled his dharma (to live his life as an Untouchable) and thus, he would return in his next life as an Untouchable or an animal.

The devotion with which the Hindus follow their religion obviously makes it difficult for people to better their lives and their jobs by moving through the restraints the caste system has placed on occupation. Hindus feel that their souls can advance if their lives are lived without complaint or disgrace.

The previously listed rules and regulations that the caste system has placed upon its members have caused much concern throughout different groups and organizations in the world. Both the Indian government and the Buddhist religion have tried to uproot this system which still has a firm grip on many Indians.

The Indian government outlawed the practice of the caste system in 1950 when India established its first constitution (Mayhew 208) and set up a system of reservations, similar to Affirmative Action, to ensure the fair treatment of ex- Untouchables.(Rudolph 20)

The "reservations" require that some political offices in both parliament and state assemblies be held by ex-Untouchables as well as require that many educational scholarships be given to these individuals.(Rudolph 20) These reservations have brought with them both positive and negative changes. The percentage of educated Untouchables has increased due to the growth in open government jobs, schools, and universities.(Under Attack 54-55)

However, with administration and education positions being held for ex- Untouchables, Indians who are possibly more qualified but of a higher caste are finding they can not get the jobs that they deserve. This is due to the fact that many jobs are open only to Untouchables because of the reservations.(Rudolph 20)

Buddhism, though similar to Hinduism, disagrees with the caste system. The following quote from Buddha explains this belief: " In this sangha (religious order) all are equal. It is impossible to know Ganga water from Mahanadi Water after both have merged in the sea. In that way, after coming into the Buddhist sangha your caste goes, and all people are equal."(Hay 348) Despite these strong feelings of the Buddhists, they have been unable to impact a change on the strict caste system, for they are a minority population to the dominant Hindus.

The Indian government continues to take measures to rid the country of the caste system and its discriminatory placements of people into a society where a person?s only way to really define himself is through his caste. The system is becoming a less important part of Indian culture as the status and influence of Untouchables grows. However, the caste system is deeply rooted within the culture of the Indian people and has been for thousands of years. "Like other new Western borrowings, concepts of equality in some ways seem to float on the surface of Indian life like leaves on the surface of a river which has existed years before the leaves were even buds." (Lamb 135) Time is needed to determine whether or not the changes made today will actually have an effect on the caste system of tomorrow. Changes that are imposed upon the caste system may take as long to up root it as has it has taken the caste system to grow the strong roots that it possesses. One chop of the farmer?s axe is hardly enough to even break t

he bark of this deep-rooted tree.


NA. "Casting the First Stone." Economist 8 Oct. 1994: 17-18.

NA. "The Four Orders of Human Beings." Hinduism. 21 pars. Online. Internet. 8 January

1999. Available: http.//www.hinduism.co.za/caste.htm

Hay, Stephen. Modern India and Pakistan. Vol. 2 of Sources of Indian Tradition. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

NA. "India: Caste System Under Attack As Human Rights Violation." Women?s International Network News Winter 1997: 54-55.

Lamb, Beatrice Pitney. India A World in Transition. New York: Frederick A Praeger,Inc., 1965.

Mayhew, George Noel. "Caste." World Book Encyclopedia. 1987 ed.

Rudolph, Lloyd I, and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. "Organized Chaos." New Republic16 March. 1998: 19-21.


The Beginning of the caste system

©Aharon Daniel

There are different theories about the establishment of the caste system. There are religious-mystical theories. There are biological theories. And there are socio-historical theories.

The religious theories explain how the four Varnas were founded, but they do not explain how the Jats in each Varna or the untouchables were founded. According the Rig Veda, the ancient Hindu book, the primal man - Purush - destroyed himself to create a human society. The different Varnas were created from different parts of his body. The Brahmans were created from his head; the Kshatrias from his hands; the Vaishias from his thighs and the Sudras from his feet. The Varna hierarchy is determined by the descending order of the different organs from which the Varnas were created. Other religious theory claims that the Varnas were created from the body organs of Brahma, who is the creator of the world.

The biological theory claims that all existing things, animated and inanimated, inherent three qualities in different apportionment. Sattva qualities include wisdom, intelligence, honesty, goodness and other positive qualities. Rajas include qualities like passion, pride, valour and other passionate qualities. Tamas qualities include dullness, stupidity, lack of creativity and other negative qualities. People with different doses of these inherent qualities adopted different types of occupation.

According to this theory the Brahmans inherent Sattva qualities. Kshatrias and Vaisias inherent Rajas qualities. And the Sudras inherent Tamas qualities.

Like human beings, food also inherents different dosage of these qualities and it affects its eater's intelligence. The Brahmans and the Vaisias have Sattvic diet which includes fruits, milk, honey, roots and vegetables. Most of the meats are considered to have Tamasic qualities. Many Sudra communities eat different kinds of meat (but not beef) and other Tamasic food. But the Kshatrias who had Rajasic diet eat some kinds of meat like deer meat which is considered to have Rajasic qualities. Many Marathas who claim to be Kshatrias eat mutton. The drawback of this theory is that in different parts of India the same food was sometimes qualified to have different dosage of inherent qualities. For example there were Brahmans who eat meat which is considered Tamasic food.

The social historical theory explains the creation of the Varnas, Jats and of the untouchables. According to this theory, the caste system began with the arrival of the Aryans in India. The Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BC. The fair skinned Aryans arrived in India from south Europe and north Asia. Before the Aryans there were other communities in India of other origins. Among them Negrito, Mongoloid, Austroloid and Dravidian. The Negrito have physical features similar to people of Africa. The Mongoloid have Chinese features. The Austroloids have features similar the aboriginals of Australia. The Dravidians originate from the Mediterranean and they were the largest community in India. When the Aryans arrived in India their main contact was with the Dravidians and the Austroloids. The Aryans disregarded the local cultures. They began conquering and taking control over regions in north India and at the same time pushed the local people southwards or towards the jungles and mountains in north India.

The Aryans organized among themselves in three groups. The first group was of the warriors and they were called Rajayana, later they changed their name Rajayana to Kshatria. The second group was of the priests and they were called Brahmans. These two groups struggled politically for leadership among the Aryans. In this struggle the Brahmans got to be the leaders of the Aryan society. The third group was of the farmers and craftsmen and they were called Vaisia. The Aryans who conquered and took control over parts of north India subdued the locals and made them their servants. In this process the Vaisias who were the farmers and the craftsmen became the landlords and the businessmen of the society and the locals became the peasants and the craftsmen of the society.

In order to secure their status the Aryans resolved some social and religious rules which, allowed only them to be the priests, warriors and the businesmen of the society. For example take Maharashtra. Maharashtra is in west India. This region is known by this name for hundreds of years. Many think that the meaning of the name Maharashtra is in its name, Great Land. But there are some who claim that the name, Maharashtra, is derived from the Jat called Mahar who are considered to be the original people of this region. In the caste hierarchy the dark skinned Mahars were outcasts. The skin color was an important factor in the caste system. The meaning of the word "Varna" is not class or status but skin color.

Between the outcasts and the three Aryan Varnas there is the Sudra Varna who are the simple workers of the society. The Sudras consisted of two communities. One community was of the locals who were subdued by the Aryans and the other were the descendants of Aryans with locals. In Hindu religious stories there are many wars between the good Aryans and the dark skinned demons and devils. The different Gods also have dark skinned slaves. There are stories of demon women trying to seduce good Aryan men in deceptive ways. There were also marriages between Aryan heroes and demon women. Many believe that these incidences really occurred in which, the gods and the positive heroes were people of Aryan origin. And the demons, the devils and the dark skinned slaves were in fact the original residence of India whom the Aryans coined as monsters, devil, demons and slaves.

As in most of the societies of the world, so in India, the son inherited his father's profession. And so in India there developed families, who professed the same family profession for generation in which, the son continued his father's profession. Later on as these families became larger, they were seen as communities or as they are called in Indian languages, Jat. Different families who professed the same profession developed social relations between them and organized as a common community, meaning Jat.

Later on the Aryans who created the caste system, added to their system non-Aryans. Different Jats who professed different professions were integrated in different Varnas according to their profession. Other foreign invaders of ancient India - Greeks, Huns, Scythains and others - who conquered parts of India and created kingdoms were integrated in the Kshatria Varna (warrior castes). But probably the Aryan policy was not to integrate original Indian communities within them and therefore many aristocratic and warrior communities that were in India before the Aryans did not get the Kshatria status.

Most of the communities that were in India before the arrival of the Aryans were integrated in the Sudra Varna or were made outcast depending on the professions of these communities. Communities who professed non-polluting jobs were integrated in Sudra Varna. And communities who professed polluting professions were made outcasts. The Brahmans are very strict about cleanliness. In the past people believed that diseases can also spread also through air and not only through physical touch. Perhaps because of this reason the untouchables were not only disallowed to touch the high caste communities but they also had to stand at a certain distance from the high castes.

The Religious form of Caste System

In Hinduism there exists four castes arranged in a hierarchy. Anyone who does not belong to one of these castes is an outcast. The religious word for caste is 'Varna'. Each Varna has certain duties and rights. Each Varna members have to work in certain occupation which only that Varna members are allowed. Each Varna has certain type of diet. The highest Varna is of the Brahman. Members of this class are priests and the educated people of the society. The Varna after them in hierarchy is Kshatria. The members of this class are the rulers and aristocrats of the society. After them are the Vaisia. Members of this class are the landlords and businessmen of the society. After them in hierarchy are the Sudra. Members of this class are the peasants and working class of the society who work in non-polluting jobs. The caste hierarchy ends here. Below these castes are the outcasts who are untouchable to the four castes. These untouchables worked in degrading jobs like cleaning, sewage etc.

The first three castes had social and economical rights which the Sudra and the untouchables did not have. The first three castes are also seen as 'twice born'. The intention in these two births is to the natural birth and to the ceremonial entrance to the society at a much later age.

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