Caste System in HinduismThe historical background
A Historical and Analytical Approach
– Dr. R.K. Lahiri, PhD
November 20, 2005
A Historical and Analytical Approach
– Dr. R.K. Lahiri, PhD
November 20, 2005
It is difficult to trace out when the caste system entered into the life of Hindus and how and why there occurred confusion between the Varna System and the caste creation. In fact in the Vedic era, there existed no such division and discrimination among the people.
In the later Vedic period, the Varna system showed its signs of appearance with the classification of Brahmin. The word Brahmin was not used out of any sense of respect. Devas were called kavi and also Brahman but not as Brahmin. The word Brahmin was out of place in the composition of Kavis. They came to be related to rituals and were called the Vedagya Brahmins. It was they who first created distinction in their ranks for financial gains in performance of rituals. This discrimination was based on professional competition. The Kavis began to challenge this discrimination since its very inception. They voiced their grave concern over it.
In the beginning of Rg Veda period, the word Brahman was used but it did not indicate any Varna. Then the word Rajanya followed it. The use of this word Rajanya indicates that even in the later Vedic period the word Kshatriya was not known. The word Rajanya was used in context of a divine power or the power of governance of the king or any other power. During those days, there existed two types of political orders 1 – One based on Kingship and 2 – based on power of ganas or other type of peoples rule. Rajanya was used for kings and other ruling powers or even for a powerful person. It was never used in context of caste. Rg Veda only at one place mentions Sudra and Vaisya each and that too at a very late period in MandalX-10-90-12, though the word Visha has been frequently used as equivalent to common people of a gana.
It can therefore be safely concluded that the caste was never known to exist in the Vedic era.
The word Sudra
There is mention of the word Sudra in the Purush Sukta, but it is proved a later day interpellation. We do not find any mention of the word Sudra in the Brahmanas but they do mention Kshatriyas and Vaisyas but not the Sudras. It may be concluded that the Sudras might have belonged to either of the two mentioned castes and thus there existed no need to mention them separately. It also makes it clear that no section, group or division was considered low in social order.
Chandogya Upanishad says that Guru Raikva taught Jansruti even though he was a cart man (Sudra) Dr Ambedkar, the champion of the low caste people treats Kavas Ailavya as Sudra but he was great exponent of sacrificial rites despite belonging to the lower class. The Ashwani Kumaras, the physician of gods, were not allowed to participate in yajna, but were offered Soma by Maharsi Chayavan. The Vedic king Sudas was a Sudra but was patron of Visvamitra, the Brahmin saint. The conclusion is that no where in ancient India, the low class people were treated and placed so differently and maliciously as they are today in the Hindu social order.
The Nature of free Intermixing of the People
Rg Veda, Sat path Brahman, Taittarya Upanishad, all speak of only the three divisions and none speaks of the fourth one. This leads us to conclude that the Sudras were either a part of Kshatriyas or had their share among the Brahmins. During those days the intermixing among castes was as liberal as it made the cross-over an easy-go. The caste changes were very easy in the process.
Innumerable examples can be cited. The Rsi in the Vedic Sukta says, 'I am a poet , my father was a physician and my mother a pissan ` Rg Veda in( X-102) describes Rsi Mudagalya ,as a warrior -seer with a sword in hand rushing to recover the cows from the thieves. So was Parasuram, famous as a seer with a sphere (Farsa), an edged weapon to fight the battles. The brave seers, Braghus, were carpenters, makers of chariot-bodies. Even among gods, Ribhus, were architects, sculptures and carpenters. These seers and saints were Brahmins and Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, with out any restriction. All belonged to one and the same profession. This is the clear picture that emerges unto the Itihaas and Purana periods.
In the beginning there was flexibility among castes but the caste as a system began to be rigidly adhered to during the Islamic Invasions and their rule of torture leading to conversion. It may probably be the 10th century. Till the time of Gori's attack, there are examples of inter-caste mixing. In the year 1178, the Islamic army of Gori was defeated by the mother of the minor king Mool Raj of Gujarat, who was also the lady chief of the army. As a result, the mustachios and beards of the captured prisoners were cut off and the chiefs were assimilated into the Rajput caste and the rest of the army among the Kolis, Khauts, and other sub-castes. There never existed any rigid observation of the system that separated one from the other. Even the food prepared by the low caste people was consumed by all caste peoples regardless of any reservation. It may be that rigidity came to be observed with the influence of Buddhism and Jainism when the people began to be divided into veg and non-veg. dietary habits.
Jai Chand Vidyalankar in Itihaas Pravesh writes that in the beginning the castes had all the possible flexibility but it began to be rigid in the 10th century, to defend the Hindu life from the barbaric invaders who not only raped, murdered, plundered but also terrorized people towards conversion to Islam.
The power of Assimilation
The Hindu culture was flexible enough to accommodate and assimilate in the main stream the outside influences of different sects and faiths into its fold from time to time. Jawaharlal Lal Nehru says that `Iranians and the Greeks, Parthian and the Bactrian, the Sakyas and the Hunas, and even the Turks of pre-Islamic era, the Christians of pre-Christ era all came one after the other and were absorbed with a little impact in the wide ocean of Hinduism to become a part of the main stream. 'It is well known that a band of Zoroastrians in the 10th century left their mainland Iran to seek a new land of freedom and refuge and found safe in India to settle down. It is here that they are known as Parsis, the people from Persia. The Hindus never tried to eliminate others identity or attack outside territories and extinguish the original people replacing them with Hinduism. It maintained their identity and then assimilated them in the main stream, keeping its basic in check.
In India various racial groups have found refuge and shelter as it always stood for unity in diversity. The Sakas, Hunas, Mongols and even the Christians led by Saint Thomas, Jews and Parsis have all found refuge in India and made it their homeland. All these people merge in the main stream of Hindu life and culture. Hindus always preferred to adopt a very liberal and safe course of assimilation and accommodation. Neither the people lost their identity nor did the Hindu culture deviate from the basic values. It accepted so many idols and customs, deities and rituals brought forth by these people into its stream. How then such a strong culture create differences among its own people and divide them into the absurd structure of the present type caste system?
The Nature of Varna System
The Hindus have Varna System. It is not at all caste-equivalent. It simply indicates a social division based on Gunas There exists all over the world one sort of division or the other in a society, which is so inevitable for social growth and prosperity. Each individual is possessed of a particular ability by nature. One may well perform a physical labor, another may be more of a thinker and some may be artistic some inclined to technology, music. Medicine, trade, industry or any other material or spiritual activity. The Lord speaking on action and inaction in Geeta (IV -13) says,'the four Varnas have been created by Him according to differentiation of Gunas and Karmas.' These Varnas are 1 – Brahmin; 2 – Kshatriya; 3 – Vaisya and 4 – Sudra.
Varna means different shades of texture or color. They represent mental temper. There are three Gunas – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva is white, Rajas red and Tamas black. These in combination of various proportions constitute the group or class of people all over the world with temperamental differences. The above classification is based on this assumption. In continuation, Veda Vyasa says in the same couplet, 'by the differentiation of the mental quality and physical action of the people.' It is clear that the type of ones action, the quality of ego, the color of knowledge, the texture of ones understanding, the temper of fortitude and the brilliance of ones happiness defines ones Varna. Not by birth a man becomes Brahmin but by cultivating noble thoughts and good intentions of service alone, one can ever aspire to Brahmin hood.
The Brahmin is generally Sattvik. Sama and Dama are his valuable assets. He is serene and self-controlled and is possessed of the quality of austerity. (Tapas) He has purity, uprightness and forbearance. He has a will to acquire knowledge (Jnan), Vigyan (Wisdom) and faith.
The Kshatriya is a warrior class, powerful of physique and might. They are possessed of more of Rajas Guna with base of Sattva. They have a duty to protect the Dharma and the people. They are bold, alert and full of fortitude, generosity. discipline and modesty along with masterly behavior mingled with Ishvar Bhava (Love of God).
The Vaisya class is a trader class and prefers business of all kinds. It is possessed of Raj Guna mixed with Tamas. They deal with wealth and gold and strive for material prosperity of the self as well as of the people in general. The Sudras are working class people, artisans and craftsmen. They are physically strong and hard working. They are possessed of Tamas with a base of Rajas. Really speaking, Sudra class is indispensable to society as they are like a spiral chord on which rests the social structure.
Thus it is clear that the whole Varna System stood on the basis of Gunas and karmas of the individual. It has nothing to do with birth. To quote Mahabharata, the serpent god asked Yudhisthir to tell him the virtues of the caste. He says that those Brahmins who were fond of personal pleasures, prone to violence, had forsaken their duties and were red limbo, fell into the category of Kshatriya. Those Brahmins who derived their livelihood from kine, who were yellow and sub-divided by agriculture and who neglected to practice their duties, fell into the category of Vaisyas. Those Brahmins who were addicted to mischief and falsehood and were covetous, lived by all kinds of works and fell from purity and were black went to the condition of Sudra. As a conclusion, the serpent god says that the man in which the marks of a Sudra are not found is no Sudra, whereas while a Brahmin who acts so is not a Brahmin and may be called a Sudra. It is clear that the world being the projection of Brahma is therefore Brahma-roopa and these castes came up later as a creation of man in society. Therefore it stands for modification and change according to times.
Today people have mistaken Varnas for caste and treat them as identical. Varnas are God created and caste is not. Varnas are conditioned with one's actions and desires based on Gunas. The caste is man made. It is simply a social institution and can easily be changed and modified according to changing needs of society. Caste-by-birth was never the original intent nor it ever was the basis upon which the Varnas were constituted, Sutra says that a person should be engaged only in a field of activity that he is capable of doing.
Today we have miserably failed to understand what a Brahmin is. Generally we believe that one is born by birth in a certain class. This belief has keenly been protected and propagated by the vested interests. It also served the policy of divide and rule of the foreign rulers and served an easy prey to conversions. The confusion has been repeatedly tried to be removed by the saints. Vajra Suchikopanishad clearly states that one can not be a Brahmin either by its being, birth, physical equipment of body and color or by wisdom and knowledge nor by religious action even.
Hindus believe in rebirth and countless yonis of births. So the very idea of being born in one birth as Brahmin is unscientific. Even the physical body structure does not make one a Brahmin. The body is made of matter and matter acts uniformly in every clime and time. Every one is so born and there can not be any difference. The ill-found belief that a Brahmin is fair, Kshatriya black, Vaisya yellow and Sudra dark black is entirely baseless. Even the cremation and last rites are the same for all of us. The possession of super brain and knowledge is also not the monopoly of Brahmin alone. Vishvamitra, the warrior was a talented seer and was not a Brahmin. So were many saints, and even Kabir, Dadu, Nabhadas. Raiyadas, the Alvars and the Saivites etc. We have also to remember that even a wise man goes astray and loses the right path.
Vajra Suchikopanishad states clearly that a Brahmin is one who lives and moves in Brahman. He remains above the pair of opposites. He is unmoved in joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, pride and prejudice, and has conquered desires and is free from ego-sense. The one so equipped is indeed a Brahmin.
The cause of Confusion
It is indeed disheartening that a system based on very sound principles has come to result in such an evil. It is annoying to note that the basic principles of Varna system were distorted beyond any controlled limit in due course of time. During the foreign rule, the caste System that stood firm like a rock in support and defense of our religion and culture lost its metal, when the spirit of exclusiveness was perpetuated by a group of vested interests who gained political and economic mileage over their fellow beings. It soon degenerated into an instrument of oppression and intolerance. It threw away all norms of human behavior and fellowship and distanced man from man with a clear cut division of population even in small village's. This degeneration is man-made and is a social evil. It is the weakness of Hindu society. All other religious groups suffer such evils. Unfortunate it is that others blame the Hindu religion for this whereas they do not blame their religions likewise on such grounds; rather they call it social weakness.
The whole confusion is caused by the differences among the Brahmin class. During Vedic era, there were Brahmins who did all the sacrificial rituals for their own sake. Some others did for others on payment. These Brahmins were looked down as inferior. Gradually the prosperity brought their group in position of advantage and these ritualistic Brahmins imagined Brahman in their own way, They wrote, 'From mouth of Brahman came out the wise priest Brahmin, the warrior Kshatriya was born of his hands, the Vaisyas from the thighs and the Sudra from legs.' (Rg Veda 10-90-12) Dr R.B. Sharma, an authority on Rg Veda in his book `Bharatiya Navajagaran Aur Europe`says that it is an interpellation of a later period. He says that a study of Rg Veda would reveal that the word `Kavi' (Poet, Composer) was used in deep reverence and the word Brahmin does not find a similar mention. Many Devas have been addressed as Kavi and even as Brahman, but no one as Brahmin even once, as these people have been associated with rituals and economy away from the Kavis. They did all that for the sake of more and more remuneration.
Dr Sharma says that the word Sudra comes only once in the mantra and it is here in this mantra that the word Vaisya used only once has been repeated. The word Brahmin has found expression many times but not in the sense of a Varna. More over the word "Kshatriya `is not used in that mantra. The word used is Rajanya and that too only once. It is clear that there was no mention of four Varnas in most of the Rg Vedic period. No one can imagine a Brahmin without a Sudra and a Vaisya. Even in the later Vedic period the word Kshatriya was not prevalent. Rajanya was used as much as the Sudra and Vaisya were used. Scholars conclude that the Sukta is an interpellation. and an after thought. Max Muller and Colebrook both agree that from the point of view of style and language, this mantra is totally different and of a later period. (Sanskrit Ke Char Adhyaya).
Needham in `Science and Civilization Vol II ` points at the penetrating cultural influence of Indian thoughts on Iran. We notice philosophical similarities between Rg Veda and Avesta. It was not accidental. In the third and fourth century, the Indian religious sects had deeply entered into Iranian religious life and had created a great impact. The Greek work `Mangeeste' and the works of Iran were influenced by the concept of four Varnas. They divided the human body into four parts. The Purohit was the head; the warrior was the hand, the agriculturist stomach and the handyman or the artisan the leg. (Nava Jagaran Aur Europe p358). In pahelvi, the word used for Varna is Peshak. These Peshaks ( occupation ) were Astronan (Brahmin), Auteshteran (Rajanya), Vastryoshan (Vaisya) and Hutukhsan (Sudra). These Hutukhsan were artisans and not sevaks or servants. Dasas were called servants. Sudras stood apart from them. Gradually with the decline of prosperity and urban life, the Sudras were dragged into as servants. This form of thought was prevalent in the 3rd century It can easily be concluded that there was no division on the line of casts by birth. We can not also say how the Sudras came to be known as untouchables.
A lot of confusion prevails in reference to Manu Smriti, Law of Conduct, and a judicial theory written about 200 BC. Manu Smriti in (1-5-118) speaks about the liberality in Kalyuga and says, 'He, the most resplendent one, assigned separate duties and occupation to those who sprang from his mouth, arms, thighs and feet.' To Brahmin, he assigned teaching and study of Vedas, Sacrificing for their own benefits and for others, giving and accepting of alms. To Kshatriyas, he commanded to protect the people, to study the Vedas, and abstain from sensual pleasures. The vaisyas were to trend cattle, bestow gifts study Vedas and lend money and cultivate land. He asked the Sudras to do meek service to the above three classes.
It is a rule of conduct and not a religious canon or word of scripture. Manu says that the rule is transcendent law and belongs to social institution of Kalyuga. In the Vedic era, people firmly believed that all are born from the Supreme. Sruti says that the fisherman, gamblers and all such people are divine. There is only one class as there is only one God. Manu says that all men are born unregenerate (Sudra) by their physical birth. They become Dwija (regenerate) by the second birth. Manu Smrit (Ix-14-48) says that,' One becomes a Brahmin by his deeds, not by his family or birth. even a Chandal is a Brahmin, if he is of pure character.' Was not Vashista born of a prostitute? Vyasa was born of a fisher woman and; Parashars from Chandals. It is therefore clear that conduct counts and not the birth. The caste can not stand on birth at all.
The Intent of Varna System
The various stratification of Varna system was meant to settle the Hindu life and regulate the society for a united action. Every society in the world has some form of groups that works for the common cause of social progress and general prosperity. In the various spheres of life, cultural, spiritual, religious, economic, political and social, medical, science and technology and even unskilled workers, there are groups united differently to work for the social cause of all the people. In Hinduism, this division is called Varna System. Each Varna has its social purpose, its own code, norms of behavior and keeps its independent identity. Still each part remains an integral part of the whole. The whole is always present in the part and the part is ever a part of the whole. This is the spirit behind the creation of Varna System. The four Varnas represented the people of wisdom, of action, of compassion and loving feelings, and of service to people. It was not intended to be hereditary and connected with birth. and therefore free interchange and intermixing was liberally permitted.
It is indeed unfortunate that the Varna System came to be connected with the caste System We can not know how and why and when it so happened. It grew up with a sort of spiritual monopoly of a certain group bent upon its material prosperity. It established the class of Brahmin by birth to safeguard their posterity. It is they who created and developed the ideas of inferiority and superiority among the people. This led to discrimination and distinction between various groups of occupations and the degradation of society began and reached so low as there came out people such as untouchables and pariahs. Thus the Varna turned Caste system brought about social degradation and downfall dividing people as low and high and the lowest. The Varna system, so sound and healthy and perfect came to such a pitiable state. It needs a reconstitution at this stage.
India is a developing nation. It has a responsibility to safeguard the rights of people as enshrined in the constitution, irrespective of considerations of caste, creed, color or sex. It is the need of the day that the Hindu scriptures be thrown open to all people of caste and sex so that they may have right understanding of their faith It may lead to the fall of the manmade caste system like a sand hill. When the boundaries of the world are vanishing and there is open mixing of people and ideas, there has to be a ready flow of crossovers among the people as in the past. The watertight compartments only stink. The Hindu society has to be wellknit for the good of the world.
It is a fact that the Buddhists discarded the Vedas to preach against caste system; Kabir followed the same path of denouncing the Hindu scriptures while opposing the casts system. A proper understanding of scriptures can remove the ignorance and illusion. Gandhi and Aurobindo favored Varna system though opposed caste system. Swami Dayananda with authority on Vedas declared that Vedas do not mention about caste system and opposed caste system tooth and nail while defending the scriptures. There is nothing in the scriptures to justify the caste division, only the Varna system exists as an integral part of the whole society. It is not the Caste system at all.
There are people in large majority who realize that the most oppressed people today called as Sudra were really a great adherent of Hinduism. In the Buddhist dominated era, they did not change their religion though the call was in their favor. During the terror rule of Islam for conversion, they did not convert and suffered from the rulers as well as from their own people who called them by many abusive names such as Sudra, chamar. Bhangi. Harijan. Achuta or untouchables and even today remain bracketed in schedule caste and schedule tribes. They had opportunity to convert and be saved from humiliations and insults but they preferred to stay as Hindus and suffer as Hindus.
It is high time we get rid of such abuses and grant same and equal rights to these religious heroes as are enjoyed by the others in the Hindu society. Are they not a part of the whole and is the whole an invalid one? No, we have to restore their dignity as in the Vedic days. We have to treat them as a part of either Brahmin class or as Kshatriya class to which they really belong. The ancestors of Raiyadas were Chanvar Kshatriyas and so are others. Restore them to their past glory and while doing so do not forget to undo what we have done by granting them the prevalent privileges intact for their growth without any restriction. We have to do it. No one else can do it. Do it now and here for unity of Hindu life and religion as we have a duty to rescue the present world from terror, chaos. disbelief and confusion. It is only the Hindu philosophy of unity in Diversity that can bring relief to the confused masses of humanity today.