what is the definition of caste system in hinduism
The lowest of the four ancient social classes, or Varnas-, the Shudras were considered so low as to be prohibited from the study of the “Vedas,” the earliest texts of sacred Indian literature. Shudras are now con-sidered to be a “scheduled caste” by the Indian Government, meaning that they are historically disadvantaged. The government’s 2011 census showed that over 200m Indians belong to a scheduled caste.
The system appears to have had ancient roots. Sanskrit texts from the second millennium BC refer to a practice of dividing individuals into social groups called “varnas”—the term’s precise meaning is unclear, but is seems not only to suggest classification, but also colour. The Varnas, which are associated with early Hinduism, are the first recorded manifestation of India’s caste system. Four principal classes emerged, in descending order of prestige: the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. Myth holds that these groups were created from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of an ancient character called Purusha.
Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots – the Dalits or the untouchables.
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From the traditional Hindu point of view, this social system is the necessary complement of the principles of dharma, karma, and samsara. Corresponding to hells and heavenly regions in the hereafter, the castes are the mundane social frame within which karma is manifested and worked out.
Another means of rejecting the social order, which forms the background for significant portions of Hindu belief and practice, is renunciation (self-denial and asceticism). The rituals of sannyasa, which serve as a gateway to a life of religious discipline, often mimic death rituals, signifying the renouncer’s understanding that he (or, less typically, she) no longer occupies a place in family or society. Other rituals serve to induct the initiate into a new family—the alternative family provided by a celibate religious order, usually focused on a guru. In principle this family should not be structured along the lines of caste, and the initiate should pledge to renounce dietary restrictions. In practice, however, some dietary restrictions remain in India’s most influential renunciant communities (though not in all), and some renunciant orders are closely paired with specific communities of householders. This follows a pattern that is loosely present everywhere. Householders and renunciants offer each other mutual benefits, with the former dispensing material substance to the theoretically propertyless holy men and women while the latter dispense religious merit and spiritual guidance in return. Such an enactment of the values of dharma and moksha is symbiotic to be sure, but that does not serve to domesticate renunciants entirely. Their existence questions the ultimacy of anything tied to caste, hierarchy, and bodily well-being.
Some observers feel that the caste system must be viewed as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups. In many parts of India, land is largely held by dominant castes–high-ranking owners of property–that economically exploit low-ranking landless laborers and poor artisans, all the while degrading them with ritual emphases on their so-called god-given inferior status. In the early 1990s, blatant subjugation of low-caste laborers in the northern state of Bihar and in eastern Uttar Pradesh was the subject of many news reports. In this region, scores of Dalits who have attempted to unite to protest low wages have been the victims of lynchings and mass killings by high-caste landowners and their hired assassins.*
With sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice—
these were the first of the sacred laws.
These mighty beings reached the sky.
where the eternal spirits, the gods.
The concept of “jati,” meaning “birth,” also underlies the caste system and causes its differentiation into thousands of sub-groups based on lineage or kinship that are difficult to define.
In the system, Hindus are divided up into four classes based on the principle of “varna,” which literally means “color”: the Brahmins (the priestly class); the Kshatriyas (the ruling, administrative and warrior class); the Vaishyas (the class of artisans, tradesmen, farmers and merchants); and the Shudras (manual workers). There are also people who fall outside the system, including tribal people and the Dalits, previously known as “untouchables,” although the term is somewhat contentious.