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The Caste System Explained

Discussion in 'World History' started by allhailIndia, Oct 6, 2003.

  1. allhailIndia

    allhailIndia Deity

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    Most people who know of India instantly think of the caste system when they think of the society of India. However, the history and origin of the caste system has never been fully understood by many non-Indians and quite a few Indians as well. So for the benefit of those interested in one of the most controversial social systems to have existed in the world, here is the caste system explained!
    (Due to the limit on the size of the post I have to split this into two parts)

    To go back in history, we must look at the first civilization in India, the Harappan or the Indus Valley civilization as it is called. This was mainly an urban civilization, a contemporary of the Ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations with which it had trading contacts. Its main focus was trade and the surplus from the fields irrigated by the Indus river system built the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.
    About 1500 BC onwards this civilization started declining and though no satisfactory reason has been discovered, it disappeared into the mists of time. Some theories suggest that it was destroyed by the Indo-Aryans who came from Central Asia, though it is not widely accepted either.
    The Harappans were replaced by the Aryans, who settled around the Punjab region and later moved into the Gangetic plain. The contrast between the two peoples could not have been greater. While the Aryans were pastoralists and agriculturalists, the Harappans were merchants and traders. The Aryans were mainly nature worshippers, while the Harappans were idol worshippers.
    At the time of the Aryans arrival, there also lived in India a third indigenous, tribal people whom the Aryans called the Dasas or Dasyus (literally slaves). They were the conquered people and were expected to do the more menial tasks of the Aryans.
    Thus, the first caste divisions were on the basis of colour; the fair skinned Aryans, keeping themselves apart from the Dasyus on the basis of Varna (colour).
    The period from 1500 BC to c. 800 BC is called the early Vedic period, wherein the first Veda, the Rig Veda was composed. In this period, caste divisions among the Aryans were very loose and the Rig Veda describes it as such. There is a particular poem which describes the author's parents as a potter and a weaver, while the author himself is a poet. In this period, there was limited mobility between the castes and it was not unknown for a Bramhin( priestly class) to take up arms or a Vaisya(trading class) to rule a kingdom. This is also reflected in the Mahabharata which was written later but composed in this period.
    However, from c.800 BC onwards was the second urbanization of India wherein, the Aryans moved into the Gangetic plain and used the surplus food from the agriculture to move into cities. This brought about a change in the society and polity as well.
    During this period the remaining three Vedas, the Sama, Yajur and Atharvana were composed and these clearly show a demarcation of the caste society. The Bramhins or the priestly caste were placed highest, followed by the Kshatriya or warrior caste, then by the Vaisya or trading and commercial caste and the Sudra or the menial or labour caste.
    This is justified by a verse in the Vedas which proclaims that when primeval man was sacrificed by the Gods, Bramhins emerged from his head, Kshatriyas from his hands and stomach, Vaisyas from his hip and waist and Sudras from his feet.
    At the same time, with the urbanization came more and more increasingly complex society and the caste system also became more complex. Thus sub-castes also developed along with a concept of Gotra. Gotra had to do with the descent from an ancestor, i.e., one of great acclaim worthy to be mentioned in the ancient texts like the Puranas and Mahabharata. For example, all Bramhins claimed descent from one of the Sapta Rishis, or seven sages, who escaped the flood of the dissolution of the last universe. Thus, I can call myself as a Bramhin of the Gotra of Jamadagni, one of the Sapta Rishis.

    As mentioned earlier, there were four castes, each with its own set of numerous sub-castes, which caused more and more division in the Aryan Society. At this time, there was a fifth "casteless" group, the Panchamas. They were the Untouchables in the society. It is imperative to note here that while the Bramhins considered ALL other castes to be impure, ALL other castes considered the Panchamas to be impure!
    This group faced the worst possible discrimination akin to apartheid and slavery. They were technicaly "freemen", but they had no rights at all. They were not allowed into the villages and could not even approach a person of the higher caste without being cursed and shooed off. They were allowed into the village only when a cow died of a disease or any animal was killed, and they were supposed to get rid of the carcasses. They did most of the dirtiest and filthiest jobs to be done, including cleaning nightsoil from toilets and carrying it away to a far off place. they did not have the right to perform rituals or even worship in a temple. Even the shadow of a Panchama was not suppoed to fall on the shadow of the Bramhin.
    Some historians suggest that the reason was that the Panchamas were more likely the oppressed tribal people of India, who lived in the forests cleared away by the expanding Aryans. Furthermore, the more technologically advanced Aryans saw these people to be outside civilization and more akin to animals. This concept also spread to South India, but its vigour lessened as one moved below the Vindhyas. In the far South, where the Aryan civilization was melded with the local culture, untouchablility was restricted to the snobbery of the Bramhins and there was not particularly an untouchable caste, though the Sudras were equally ill-treated.
    All this did affect India as a whole and still does affect India.
    This is most evident in the fall of Indian science and technology which reached its height around the 3-4th Century AD. The knowledge was restricted to the skills of each caste and sub-caste and there was no spread of general education to the people to preserve and enhance the knowledge. Education was limited only to what function the members of the caste were supposed to do and nothing more. No "outsider" was allowed access to this information and it was sacrilege to disseminate this knowledge. This is most evident in the most educated caste at that time, the Bramhins. It was their closed mindset, not only to foreign ideas, but even to ideas from others not of their own caste which damned Indian science and technology till modern times. Further, a foreigner was immediately casteless and hence, could never integrate into Indian society, even if he wanted to. Alberuni, a famous Arab historian of the 10th Century AD, says of the Indians, "They think there is no country like theirs, no knowledge like theirs, no kings like theirs and have contempt for our ideas and beliefs."
    Only with the coming of Western education and the nationalist movement did the average Indian in the city start shedding his/her inhibitions relating to caste. Yet, the exploitation continues, though paradoxically not from the Bramhins or the Kshatriyas, but from the so called middle castes, who form the majority of Hindus after the lower castes. They form a majority in the political sections of the so-called Hindi belt of North India, the most populous part of India and hence control the government with casteist politics. A clear example of this is the legislation involving reservations for the so-called Other Backward Classes or OBC's. This included reservations, irrespective of merit or skill, in govt. jobsfor anyone who was not a Bramhin. Yet, the exploitation of the REAL backward castes and classes continues.

    To find the first "fightback " against the caste system, we should go back to the 6th century BC, a period of great religious ferment in the country as such. The second urbanization of India and the growth of the regional kingdoms called the Janapadas, had brought wealth and prosperity to the Kshatriya and Vaisya castes, being traders and warriors respectively. They greatly resented the power of the Bramhins to control their lives and were sore that they had to spend so much in fulfilling ritual obligations laid down by the Bramhins.
    This period also great progress in philosophical thought and gave rise to several heterodox sects which sought to break away from Hinduism or the Vedic religion as it was known then, with their radical, new, materialistic philosophy. Two of these are Jainism and Buddhism, started by Mahavira and Buddha respectively.
    Both these religions gained great popularity among the masses, especially Buddhism because of its simpler teachings as compared to the rigid Jainism, and patronage from Kings trying to break away from the influence of the powerful Bramhins.
    Buddhism and Jainism were at their height under the Maurya rulers who spread them to all corners of the world. However, corruption and venality also entered the erstwhile simple monasteries and soon Buddhism and Jainism all but disappeared from the Indian scene around the 12th c. AD
    Their effect on Hinduism was significant though. Seeing the popularity of the their own religion under threat, Hindu thinkers and philosophers came up with new ideas and theories to make it more appealing to the masses.
    Here lies the strength of Hinduism. Hindu philosophers accepted Buddha as one of the incarnations of Vishnu ( one of the Hindu trinity), who came down to save Hinduism and that non-violence, as preached by Mahavira, is in reality a fundamental dharma or duty in Hinduism! Thus Hinduism literally swallowed up Jainism and Buddhism and the effect of this was the serious weakening of caste. The Bhakti cult which sprang up all over India, greatly influenced Hinduism and gave it a more egalitarian nature.

    The advent of Islam and Christianity, the two "new" religions of the medieval period also affected Hinduism. Lower castes were immediately attracted to these two religions to escape Bramhinical persecution and converted in large numbers, especially to Islam, as it was more aggressively propagated by the Sultans and some Mughal rulers. Despite the oppressive nature of Hinduism, there were no mass conversions to Christianity or Islam as seen in many other places. Only much later, due to the influence of Sufi saints and the arrival of large numbers of Afghans and Turks did the Muslim population in India really pick up.
    The reason for this is the belief of every Hindu in Karma. According to it, your birth as an upper caste or lower caste is because of your deeds in your past life and the deeds of your current life will determine your next birth , until your spirit attains a state of birthlessness. The lower castes, were very reluctant to convert because they believed that only by performing their duties as a low caste would they gain status as a high caste and hence, were not very keen on conversion till the 17-18th centuries, when the Bhakti movement changed the face of Hinduism, giving it a more monotheistic character.
    Even today, everything bad or disastrous that happens in India or to an Indian is almost involuntarily blamed on Karma!
    However, the biggest contribution to the growth of Islam in India must be accorded to the efforts of the Sufi saints, whose efforts at bringing Hindu-Muslim harmony are significant and noteworthy.
    Sikhism should also be mentioned here, as it first started out as a religion trying to find common ground between Hinduism and Islam and eventually distinguished itself from Hinduism and Islam. Sikhism totally rejected the idea of caste and united its people as part of one brotherhood.
     
  2. allhailIndia

    allhailIndia Deity

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    After the fall of the Mughal Empire, the British filled the vacuum of power a bit reluctantly at first, and went whole-heartedly into it after the Mutiny. The coming of the British also opened up Western education to a lot of Indians and this is primarily responsible for the death of the caste system. It was after the Mutiny, that both the British govt. and the Indians set up a large number of universities and colleges leading to an education explosion, hitherto unseen in India. The movement to modernise India can be traced back to the efforts of "Raja" Ram Mohan Roy, a western educated Bengali reformer, who managed to convince the British to outlaw some of the more reprehensible practices among the HIndus like Sati( the forced suicide of widows on their husbands' pyres) and child marriage, as well as thugee.
    From the 1860's and 1870's onwards, a new class was created in India, which did not exist before, the middle class. Western educated, they sought to try and reform Indian society and bring about change under the British, whose rule they believed beneficial to India. However, they were still a minority and rarely connected with the masses in the rural areas.
    All this changed with the arrival of Gandhi. It was his fearless campaigns in South Africa for the rights of the Indian minority there which had made him a celebrity even before he hit Indian shores after he had left them. People from the most remote corners of India looked upto him as the saviour of the people from the British and were willing to follow him to the distance. Despite the fact that there was no radio, television or telephones in most parts of India, Gandhi's image spread like wildfire and somehow, he managed to connect with the ordinary peasant like no other before him.
    Gandhi also realized that for India to be truly free, he had to emancipate the low castes or the casteless, who were still brutally exploited by all sections of society. He praised the efforts of the Maharaja of Tanjavur, who ordered the temples to open their doors to the low castes or Harijans( children of God), as Gandhi had named them, and urged others to follow his example.
    Gandhi believed that the Harijans were an essestial part of the Hindu religion and it was only the repression of the Bramhins which had kept them at a low status. He broke all taboos when he ate with them, talked and lived with them and even slept under their roofs. Gandhi realized that bringing the arijans into the mainstream Hindu religion was just one of the steps needed to reform the whole religion and India itself. It is important to note that Gandhi was firmly against conversions of any kind, as it led to more divisions in society and it went against his personal philosophy that all Gods were One.
    Opposite to Gandhi, was Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, a dynamic lawyer and leader of the Harijans, who was himself a Harijan, and though was denied access at every level to a good education, came up through sheer dint of hard work and his own brilliance. HIs view was that the Hindu religion itself had kept Harijans out of the mainstream and hence should convert to another religion, his choice was Buddhism, to escape oppression from the higher castes.
    This was the crux of the serious disagreement between Gandhi and Ambedkar, as both fought for essentially the same cause, the emancipation of the Hariajans. Eventually, though Ambedkar reluctantly ceded to Gandhi and discouraged conversions away from Hinduism. Even today, the most remote village in the farthest corner of India, where the Dalits, as the Harijans are now called, a statue of Ambedkar, his right arm pointing towards a distant future, will be found next to Gandhi's smiling bust.

    It would be foolhardy to say that caste no longer has a role in Indian society anymore. A casual glance at the classifieds shows the importance of caste in the search for prospective brides or grooms. Caste is also an important factor in several constituencies, where candidates vie for the attentions of a particular caste. However, one can safely say that the institution of caste is slowly dying. Today, when I, of the Bramhin caste, travel in a bus, sit in a classroom, eat in a restaurant or walk on the streets, it bothers me in the least whether the other is of a high caste or a low caste, just as long he or she is a fair and decent human being. Not only me, but in all of the major towns, cities and villages, the institution of caste is slowly being dumped into the wastebin of history.
     
  3. pawpaw

    pawpaw Now Farve-Proof

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    good article allhailindai, its a subject we all have heard of, but don't know alot about.
     
  4. aneeshm

    aneeshm Deity

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    BTW , caste may be important in choosing brides/grooms , but it's irrlevant in professional or non-religious fields , though I admit that it very much exists in rural areas .
     
  5. Lonecat Nekophrodite

    Lonecat Nekophrodite King

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    If the term Dasas (which spreaded whenever Indic culture transmitted due East, as an evident of the word "ทาส" in modern Thai language with literal meanings of (household) slaves) was coined by Aryans. what did the 'Dasas' people called themselves? are they the same as 'Nagas' people ?
     
  6. Lonecat Nekophrodite

    Lonecat Nekophrodite King

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    If Industrialization and market economy did have profound effects towards disintegrating caste systems (Four castes based on functions and one outsider 'subhuman'). Did the Classical Era warfare evolutions (Archery and chariots, for example) a foundations of caste systme where Ksatriyas are expected to train martial arts, weapons (swords, spears and archery), charioteering (and later jousting) from his youth means that they can't farm so is it better to have the other member of society to learn and work on paddy fields, ranches, and mines as they're better off on that trades??
     

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