The Caste System

The Caste System (Damodar Sharma) The Hindu Scriptures clearly advocate the theory that people differ in their capacities and inclinations, and that these differences are caused by the laws of nature and forces beyond our control. These ideas are stated and emphasised in a number of verses. All living beings act helplessly, pushed by their own nature. (The Bhagavad Gita ch.3, v. 33). It ought to be understood that all good, medium and bad tendencies (in men) have been produced by Me. (ibid, ch. 7. v. 12). It is believed that these differences are based mainly on heredity and only to a small extent on education, training or environment. A person is born with both general and specific capacities: physical, vocational, intellectual and emotional. Hinduism teaches that these are determined by one’s previous life or lives (see Chapter 11). It also teaches that one can make the best ofthis life by trying to develop and use one’s innate interests and abilities. Therefore, everyone should do whatever he or she is most suited for, as a result of past lives. Hindu society has, therefore, been divided into four broad classes which have come to be known as the four varnas or castes. I have created the four varnas (castes) and this division is based upon their different kinds of qualities and capacities to perform certain activities. (The Bhagavad Gita ch. 4, v. 13). These four castes are: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Brahmins are those who are supposed to be best fitted for intellectual, priestly f and advisory tasks. The Kshatriya caste consists of those who should prove good as governors, administrators and soldiers. They should be made responsible for maintaining law and order, and the security of the land. The 20 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS third caste, that of Vaishyas, consists of people more inclined to engage in business, industry and agriculture. These people ought to be made responsible for looking after the economic affairs of the nation. The fourth caste consists of Shudras who are considered to be, by and large, good only at performing manual labour and doing menial work. Within this broad framework there exist hundreds of sub-castes, each following a particular occupation, and there are still further groupings within these. Each group keeps to itself as much as possible, living, socialising, eating with and marrying their own kind. The theory in support of the caste system is that if someone is good at intellectual activities he cannot be equally good at soldiering, commerce or physical labour and should not be pushed into them. Similarly, those who can be more useful in defence work or business activities should not be forced, or even permitted, to do intellectual or manual work. Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘father’ of modern Indian nationalism and independence, held that the Hindu caste system had a scientific basis and was sensible. According to him, the four castes exist in all societies, and Hindus have recognised this fact and have organised themselves accordingly. The Hindu Scriptures lay down that, whether a person is engaged in manual labour or is a high priest in a temple, both are equally useful to society and should receive equal respect and enjoy equal status. They do not, however, recommend equal opportunities, since they believe that people are born with fixed and different potentials. In practice, over the centuries, the Brahmins have taken the highest place of respect and the Shudras have come to be relegated to the bottom. These divisions of society have, as a result, assumed the form of the high and the low, the “haves” and the “have-nots”, the privileged and the down-trodden. To show his disapproval of this kind of discrimination against Shudras, Gandhi objected to wearing the sacred thread, which members of the three upper castes are permitted to wear, but which is forbidden to Shudras. Untouchables This discrimination went so far that the lowest of the Shudras, those who do the dirtiest kinds of work like refuse collection and disposal of dead animals, came to be considered untouchables i.e. so low and so impure that they are not even to be touched by members of the higher castes. Indeed, another name for them is outcastes. Until about 50 years ago they would not enter a temple, hotel, restaurant or any other public place, and certainly not the house of a high caste Hindu. They could not attend even government schools. They were not allowed to draw water from public wells, nor to travel by public transport, unless a train had a special compartment for them. Today, although they form quite a substantial proportion of the Hindu population, I f • THE CASTE SYSTEM 21 untouchables are the poorest: they can hardly manage to get a square meal a day; have to go half naked; live in squalor in hovels on the outskirts of settlements; are shunned by the higher castes and made to do all the dirty work. Mahatma Gandhi raised his voice against this inhumanity and launched a campaign for the removal of untouchability. He renamed the untouchables Harijans, meaning Children of God, a term which is still used by many today. Early in this century he took the bold step of abolishing untouchability in his ashrams (communes) in which all the inmates, whether from the high or the low castes, whether Hindus or non-Hindus, lived as equals and were made to share on an equal footing in offering prayers, cooking, serving food and in all menial work, including the cleaning of toilets. Gandhi was at first very strongly opposed by Brahmins, the other high caste Hindus and even by his own wife. Gradually opinions changed and he was eventually able to muster the support of many high caste Hindus against the inhuman treatment given to millions of decent human beings. The result has been that much of the sting has now been taken out of the ill-treatment given to Harijans, although many still continue to receive a very raw deal. When India became independent in 1947, the Indian Constitution was based on the humane principles so dear to Gandhi. It gives equal status and rights to members of the Scheduled Castes (the official name for the former untouchables). It also provides for a number of special preferences to be given to them for some decades to come (e.g. in employment, in economic aid for health, education and housing, seats in Parliament and positions in local government). The aim is to bring them up to the level of the average high caste Hindu and that their handicap, reinforced over centuries, should be reduced to the minimum, if not altogether removed. The practice of untouchability is now illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Yet in spite of these efforts made by the Government of India, as well as by many broad-minded Hindus, the life of many members of the Scheduled Castes, who number more than 100 million, still needs a lot of improvement. Gandhi once said that he would consider India to have attained full and mature democratic nationhood only when an untouchable, young woman was freely elected to the highest post of President of India. This expectation of his has so far remained unfulfilled. Caste rigidity The philosophy behind the caste system has led to its rigidity, so that it is virtually impossible for anyone to change castes during this lifetime. Hinduism teaches that everyone is the result of his previous life and that he is born into the caste for which he is suited. The Bhagavad Gita states: It is better to risk even death in the performance of one’s own duties (that have been laid down in Hindu Scriptures for each caste) rather than to 22 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS attempt to perform what has been assigned to others, since such an attempt is wrought with risks and dangers. (The Bhagavad Gita ch. 3, v. 35). Members of the lower castes were not even allowed to study the Vedas or take up the highest, spiritual practices, since there was thought to be no point in giving higher, religious teaching to undeserving people who were not yet ready for it. Foreign invasions and attempts to convert Hindus to other religions have encouraged Hindu society to become even more closed and inflexible. By and large even now the majority of Brahmins and Vaishyas follow their family caste professions, i.e. intellectual work for Brahmins and commercial activities for Vaishyas. Similarly, most Shudras have been forced to stick to their traditional manual work and menial vocations. With the changes in government: the Muslim and British rules and the emergence of an independent, democratic republic of India, the Kshatriya caste and its profession have been badly disrupted. Enrolment to the defence forces of India has been thrown open to members of all four castes from the time of the British rule, so that the special role of the Kshatriyas has almost disappeared. With greater contact with modern Western society and its notions of equality and respect for the dignity of the individual, cracks are starting to appear even in the ancient and rigid Hindu caste system. The constitution of India does not recognise castes and positively discourages even their mention in official records and correspondence, except in the case of Scheduled Castes. The result is that one can find some Brahmins engaged in jobs traditionally assigned to Kshatriyas and Vaishyas; for example, in the defence forces, the police and administrative services, running business establishments and managing industries. Similarly, it is not uncommon now to find members of the Vaishya caste teaching at the highest levels in schools, colleges and universities and successfully entering tfie armed forces of India. The lot of the majority of the Shudras has not changed much, however. Out of many millions of them some have, of course, risen to the high positions of governors, chief ministers, members of parliament, judges, managers, senior officers in the armed forces and so on; but the vast majority of Shudras are still down-trodden and poor, performing hard, back-breaking and dirty jobs. • ” •