what is the caste system in hinduism
The traditional caste system consists of a hierarchy of four castes (varnas): Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and cultivators), and Shudras (servants). The non-Aryans who were incorporated into the Aryan society belonged to the Shudra caste. Those who were rejected on the grounds of ritual impurity were treated as and called Untouchables because members of the four castes did not associate with them. With the expansion and spread of the Hindu worldview throughout India, the division, hierarchy, and names of the traditional castes were not maintained, with the exception of the Brahmins, who claimed and were acknowledged as possessing a degree of ritual purity that retained their superiority above the other castes. The word dharma is central to Hindu belief. Hindus often refer to their religion as Hindu Dharma, basically stating that Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion.
The key constructors and defenders of the caste system, the Brahmins, claimed that the presence of an organized caste system, with its elaborate rules and required caste duty (dharma), prevented society from degenerating into chaos. The Brahmins thus devised rules for each caste (varna) in accordance with the four stages (ashramas) in the life of a man (the Vedic society was patriarchal): celibate student, married householder, retired forest dweller, and the ascetic stage. This whole system was called varnashrama dharma— the duties of each caste in the four stages of a man’s life. In the first stage, a boy receives his education by studying under a guru, and in the second stage he marries and has children. In the third stage, he retires with his wife to the forest after handing over the responsibility of the household to his oldest son. In the final stage he sends his wife home to their son and renounces all contact with the society by becoming an ascetic, and attempting to pursue moksha with greater intention. Among the four stages of the ashramas, most people only completed the first three. Retired couples usually stayed with their oldest son, and very rarely did a man become an ascetic in his old age. Basically, the concept of the four ashramas sought to synthesize the necessity of order in society and the spiritual liberation (moksha) of the individual.
Untouchables were barred entirely from temples, and sometimes they were not even allowed to set foot on temple grounds. If the shadow of an untouchable touched a Brahmin, the Brahmin would be polluted, so untouchables had to lay face-down at a distance when a Brahmin passed.
Nonetheless, during the six centuries of Islamic domination (roughly 1150–1750), the caste system evolved considerably. For example, Brahmins began to rely on farming for their income, since the Muslim kings did not give rich gifts to Hindu temples. This farming practice was considered justified so long as Shudras did the actual physical labor.
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A caste that is influential in trade, the Vaishyas were traditionally cattle-herders, agriculturalists, artisans and merchants. They are now associated with the middle-class and social advancement and make up around one fifth of India’s population.
In certain southern states and in the northern state of Bihar, many people began using just one name after social reform movements. Despite the changes though, caste identities remain strong, and last names are almost always indications of what caste a person belongs to.
Despite the obstacles, however, some Dalits and other low-caste Indians, such as BR Ambedkar who authored the Indian constitution, and KR Narayanan who became the nation’s first Dalit president, have risen to hold prestigious positions in the country.
Other religions have provided members of low-ranked castes with a further hope for escaping social hierarchies associated with Hindu practice. Sikhism has traditionally rejected caste, a position clearly emphasized in the gurdwaras, where access to sacred scripture, the Adi Granth, is granted without regard to caste and communal meals are served to all Sikhs. Nevertheless, some practices associated with the castes were retained. Islam also offered hope to low-ranked castes in Kerala from the 8th century onward and elsewhere in India from the 12th century, but some convert groups retained their original caste organization even after embracing Islam. Christianity exercised a similar force, serving for centuries as a magnet for disadvantaged Hindus, but to a large extent converts continue to identify themselves in terms of their original Hindu castes. In 1956 B.R. Ambedkar, the principal framer of the Indian constitution and a member of the scheduled Mahar caste, abandoned Hinduism for Buddhism, and millions of his lower-caste followers eventually also converted to Buddhism. Yet many Ambedkarite Dalits continue to venerate saints such as Kabir, Chokhamela, and Ravidas, who figure in the general lore of Hindu bhakti. Other Dalits, especially members of the Chamar caste (traditionally leather workers), have gone further, identifying themselves explicitly as Ravidasis, creating a scripture that features his poetry and building temples that house his image. Still other Dalit communities have claimed since the early 20th century that they represent India’s original religion (adi dharma), rejecting caste-coded Vedic beliefs and practices.
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.