The caste system is a social, economic, political and religious phenomenon. And it is extremely complex. Here we will simplify greatly to try to understand it.
The Hindu caste system is based on an assumption that lies at odds with the assumption of Western democratic ideals: that all people are created equal. From the classical Hindu perspective it is apparent that people are born with different intellectual and spiritual qualities and capabilities. These differences dispose different people to different sorts of occupations and responsibilities in society.
The innate differences with which people are born derive from how they acted in previous lives. This is the law of karma. How we act now determines who we will become. And who we are now has been determined by how we have been in the past.
A Hierarchical Structure Founded on Purity
Of course, caste is more than just a division of labor. It also entails a hierarchy. The hierarchy of caste is not based on wealth. It is founded on purity. Those at the top of the social ladder are regarded as more spiritually pure than those at the bottom. The entire system is thus a gradient of purity.
Some in India defend the principles of caste saying that it makes more sense to make the social distinctions based in merit and function rather than on money, as it is done in the West. Like the words Hinduism and India, the word caste is not an indigenous Indian word. Caste is actually a Portuguese expression that fits the Indian social system a little imprecisely.
The term caste refers to what Hindus call Varna and Jati. These two terms designate two different but related systems of organizing Indian society. Varna means color and the term jati means birth, or more specifically, birth group.
If Westerners are at all familiarized with the caste system, they usually think of what Hindus call Varna. The Varna system is essentially the traditional Hindu division of labor, comprised of the four categories we mentioned in the discussion of Aryan civilization:
- Brahmins: the class of priests and intellectuals who comprise about 6% to 7% of the population.
- The kshatriyas: the warriors and administrators.
- The vaishyas: who are the merchants, farmers and artisans.
- The shudras: the peasants or the common folk.
The first three castes are known as the twice born, because as children their members undergo a ritual initiation compared to a second birth. The shudras, however, have no such ritual initiation, so they are known as the once born.
Outside of the Varna system altogether are those who have no caste. These are the persons known variously as outcastes, untouchables and harijans: the word used by Gandhi meaning “children of god”.
Today, members of this group prefer to call themselves dalits, meaning “the oppressed ones”. People in this class are the handlers of leather, the body burners and the toilet cleaners. In short, the persons who perform the dirty work in Indian society. Other Hindus regard this kind of work so highly polluting that they cannot remove the impurity with standard procedures of purification.
The untouchables both are and are not Hindus. Up until the advocacy of Gandhi, they were forbidden from entering Hindu temples. They lived outside the villages and towns and couldn’t use public facilities like the well. The Indian constitution outlawed untouchability when the nation gained its independence from Great Britain. They did so by making the untouchables a part of the shudra varna.
Despite this theoretical abolition of untouchability, its practice remains a very real and present part of daily Hindu life.
The Jatis or Birth Groups
In addition to Varna, the caste system is made of a large number of jatis or “birth groups”. Jatis may be thought of as subcastes, existing within the larger Varna groupings. As its name implies, one subcaste is determined by birth and one does not leave it except under very rare circumstances.
Unlike the Varnas, which are pan-hindu, jatis are local groupings. Because of this fact the actual number of jatis has not been determined with certainty. However, estimates suggest that there may be over 3000. There are hundreds of jatis in each Varna. Local ranking is not always the same. In other words, in one region of India a particular jati may be considered part of one varna, and in another region maybe it is regarded as part of a different varna.
Just as the varna system is hierarchical, so too is the jati system. Although there is little or no social mobility for individuals in the caste system, there is some mobility for subcaste as a whole. Members of some jatis might attempt to gain a greater standing for their entire subcaste by imitating the behavior of higher castes.
In the past, it has been sometimes possible for social aspirants to buy a higher caste rank. There have even been some lower caste kings who had their genealogies reconstructed to prove that they were of the warrior caste. This, however, are rare exceptions to the rule, for the vast majority has its destiny.
In addition to specify occupation, castes also determine many others facets of everyday life. These are based on the dynamics of purity and pollution.
One’s caste and subcaste imply marital restrictions. Generally, people are expected to marry within their caste and even within their subcaste.
Men cannot marry another caste but in special occasions women can. In the matrimonials, the clasified ads that many Hindus use for the purpose of arranging marriages, caste is always featured. Even when couples have what now is called “love marriages”, that is, marriages based on romance rather than on family arrangements, they still overwhelmingly marry within their social groups.
Caste determines the kinds of food one may eat. The kinds of people for whom one may receive food and the kinds of people with whom one may eat. The high caste Brahmins maintain strict vegetarian diets, whereas eating meat may be accepted at lower caste levels, where ritual purity is of less concern.
Animal flesh is considered unclean and those who wish to maintain purity avoid it. In much of South India most restaurants are assumed to be vegetarian, unless they explicitly advertise themselves as non-vegetarian.
Caste also determines the type of people with whom one can associate or whom one may touch. This obviously is the origin of the term “untouchability”. Touching someone less clean than oneself is thought to be polluting. This is why it is essential to marry within one’s caste.
Some high caste persons would consider even seeing an untouchable as ritually polluting. We must remember that in India seeing is tantamount to touching.
The Functions of Each Caste
Lower castes cannot perform the duties of upper castes, but if necessary, upper castes members can do lower caste work. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see a Brahmin at a business. Sometimes it is not possible for a Brahmin to find work as a priest.
There are limitations to this flexibility, however. As the laws of Manu state:
“It is better to discharge one’s own appointed duty incompletely than to perform completely that of another. For he who lives according to the law of another caste is instantly excluded from his own.”
Early Hindus believed, as do many modern ones, that if everyone performs his or her duty unquestionably a balance could be maintained in the world and humans could live in peace. The laws of Manu explain the basics of this attitude:
“In order to protect this universe, He, the most resplendid one, assigns separate duties and occupations for those who sprang from his mouth, arms, eyes and feet.”
Caste, then, exists for the good of the world, and to upset it in any way leads to social and eventually cosmological disruption.
You may ask how this caste structure is enforced. By family and intracast pressure. In other words, it is not usaully a matter of the upper castes enforcing rules on the lower castes, although that sometimes happens. More frequently, however, enforcement comes from within one’s own group.
Most castes have caste counsils, in which the interests of the caste are discussed and advanced.
Let’s examine what are the duties and responsabilities of the caste members. Our source will be the Laws of Manu. According to these laws, this is the Dharma for Brahmins:
“Brahmins shall live dully performing the following six acts, which are enumerated in their proper order: teaching, studying, sacrificing for himself, sacrificing for others, making gifts and receiving them.”
Among these six acts ordained for the Brahmin, three are his means of subsistence: sacrificing for others, teaching and accepting gifts from pure men. Many people grow cynically when they hear that one of the duties of the Brahmins is to receive gifts from other castes. What a difficult job that must be, they think.
Yet, accepting gifts creates the opportunity for others to generate merit by increasing their positive karma, which enables them to gain a more favorable rebirth. In this sense, the giving of gifts to Brahmins is reciprocated. Still, the laws of Manu clearly explain the value of the Brahmins:
“On account of his preeminence, on account of his superiority of origin, on account of his observance of particular restrictive rules and on account of his particular sanctification the Brahmin is the lord of our castes.
The attainments of his previous lives are what make the Brahmin worthy of such honor. For it is by the production of great merit in his earlier life times that the Brahmin has achieved this status in the present life.”
The Dharma of the kshatriyas according to the laws of Manu is this: “To dully protect this whole world.”
The laws of Manu go on to specify that the kshatriyas must protect the world in two ways. First, they must protect their people from foreign enemies:
“Their duty is to fight thy foes, be they equal in strength, or stronger or weaker. They must not shrink back from battle. Not to turn back in battle, to protect the people, to honor the Brahmins is the best mean for a king to secure happiness. Those kings who seeking to slay each other in battle fight and do not turn back go to heaven. Nonetheless, the kshatriya should, whenever possible, seek peaceful resolution to conflict”.
Second, the kshatriya is responsable for maintaining the order of the caste system itself, knowing that a breach of caste causes social chaos and ultimate destruction. According to the laws of Manu:
“The whole world is kept in order by punishment. Through fear of punishment the whole world yields enjoyments.”
According to Manu, this is the dhrama for the Vaishyas:
“After the Vaishya has recieved the sacraments and has taken a wife, it should always be attentive to the business whereby he may subsist, that of attending cattle. A Vaishya should never conceive this wish: I will never keep cattle. A Vaishya must know the respective value of gems, of pearls, of metals, of cloth made of thread, of perfumes and of condiments. He must be acquainted with the manner of sowing seeds and of the good and bad quality of fields. He must know perfectly all measures and weights.”
This is the dharma for the Shudras:
“To serve the Brahmins is the highest duty of a Shudra which leads to beatitude. A Shudra who is pure, who serves his betters, is gentle in his speech and free from pride and always seek refuge with the Brahmins, attains in his next life a higher cast.”
A Shudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude, since that is innate in him.
Since the laws of Manu do not recognize the “untouchables” as part of the caste system, it makes no mention of their particular dharma.
The caste system in India has made for a highly stable society. It hasn’t changed substancially for the last two thousand years. Certainly, there has been friction between and among the castes and subcastes. However, the system itself has remained stable.
This fact may be a bit surprising. How is it that a society based on hierarchy and privileges has not been subject to revolutions from the lower classes? To answer this question we must return to the religious foundations of Hindu life. The concepts of reincarnation and karma work to support the idea that one’s circumstances in life are the consequence of our own actions. Our place in life is not accidental. All persons are responsible for where they happen to be and where one happens to be is fair and just.
By the same token, these concepts function to encourage individuals not to resist the system but to fulfill the dharma of one’s caste, because in doing so, one’s position in the next life is sure to improve.