caste system definition hinduism
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.
The term is used to refer to a collection of ethnic and tribal groups regarded as India’s aboriginal people. More than 95 per cent of Adivasis live in rural areas. Sixty-eight per cent do not reach high school. More than half of all Adivasi are dependent on forest produce, especially the tendu leaf, used in the production of Indian cigarettes, for their livelihoods.
In 1989, quotas were extended to include a grouping called the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) which fall between the traditional upper castes and the lowest.
India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. The BBC explains its complexities.
1. Inter caste marriages are not approved in many traditional and rural families.
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 below.
In general, a caste is an endogamous hereditary group of families bearing a common name, often claiming a common descent, as a rule professing to follow the same hereditary calling, adhering to the same customs—especially regarding purity, meals, and marriages—and often further divided into smaller endogamous circles. Moreover, tribes, guilds, or religious communities characterized by particular customs—for example, the Lingayats—could easily be regarded as castes. The status of castes varies in different localities. Although social mobility is possible, the mutual relationship of castes is hierarchically determined: local Brahman groups occupy the highest place, and differences in ritual purity are the main criteria of position in the hierarchy. Most impure are the so-called “ untouchables,” officially designated as Scheduled Castes in the constitution of modern India. Many Scheduled Caste groups now prefer the name Dalit (“Crushed” or “Oppressed”). Among the Scheduled Castes, however, there are numerous subdivisions, each of which regards itself as superior to others.
For many centuries certain Indian religious communities have been dedicated in whole or in part to the elimination of caste discrimination. Many have been guided by bhakti sentiments, including the Virashaivas, Sikhs, Kabir Panthis, Satnamis, and Ramnamis, all of whom bear a complicated relation to the greater Hindu fold. A major theme in bhakti poetry throughout India has been the ridicule of caste and the etiquette of ritual purity that relates to it. In North India this element is stronger among the bhakti poets who accept the concept of nirguna, which holds that brahman is to be characterized as without qualities, than among the poets who advocate the idea of saguna, which maintains that brahman possesses qualities. This tendency is not evident among bhakti poets of South India.
Although many other nations are characterized by social inequality, perhaps nowhere else in the world has inequality been so elaborately constructed as in the Indian institution of caste. Caste has long existed in India, but in the modern period it has been severely criticized by both Indian and foreign observers. Although some educated Indians tell non-Indians that caste has been abolished or that “no one pays attention to caste anymore,” such statements do not reflect reality. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]
From his navel came the air.
from his head there came the sky
from his feet the earth, the 4 quarters from his ear.
thus they fashioned the worlds.