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In ancient India the caste system apparently was regarded as a positive, divinely based phenomenon. The hierarchical differentiation of human beings on the basis of color (varna) and birth (jati) was seen as a worldly reflection of a ritually sacrificed Divine Body (purusa).
Accordingly, the Rig Veda of the conquering northern Aryans¹ tells of the ritual dismemberment of a Primal Cosmic Man, on which the caste system is based.
The highest, fair-skinned Brahman caste (priests, thinkers) emanated from the head, the lower and darker Kshatriya caste (rajas, warriors, persons of action) from the arms, while the next lower and darker Vaisna caste (merchants) originated from the thighs.
Later, the additional fourth, lowest and darkest Sudra caste (servants) was added, believed to be the “feet” of the purusa. This caste was probably created by the Aryans to account for the indigenous Dravidians.
Like distinctions made by the apostle Paul in the New Testament, each caste had a unique social duty (dharma) to fulfill, corresponding to the particular part of the cosmic body from which it originated. Unlike Pauline Christianity, however, the Sudras were forbidden to study the sacred scripture of the Veda.²
In time, another fifth category evolved, the “untouchables” (quite literally, societal outcasts), whose members were allegedly so lowly that they didn’t belong to any caste. Deploring the caste system, Mahatma Gandhi called these people Harijans (“Children of God”).
Of the upper three castes, at age twelve the Hindu male undergoes the ritual of upanaya, receiving a sacred thread to indicate his status as ‘twice born.’ Not unlike the Christian Confirmation or Jewish Bar Mitzvah, this ceremony contains both cultural and spiritual significance.
The western equivalent to caste is the equally misguided idea of class. Both concepts tend to separate and evaluate individuals on a hierarchical scale. Caste did this exclusively by birth, whereas class includes other variables.
Despite the fact that caste was openly challenged by Gandhi in the 1930s and legally criminalized in the 1950s, both subtle and overt injustices premised on caste distinctions continue to this day, just as they do with the idea of class.
¹ It should be noted that not everyone subscribes to that version of Indian history. Click here for more.
² Human nature being what it is, similar prohibitions later arose in the Christian Church regarding the study of Latin and the reading of the Bible.
³ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 175-177).
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One of the former Hindu castes, characterized by merchants and businessmen.
Members of the Vaisya caste are traditionally associated with karma-yoga, the yoga of action, although it should be noted that in contemporary India a businessperson does not necessarily attach religious significance to his or her work.
The Vaisya caste was generally ranked as the third of four, along with a 5th unofficial group of “outcastes.”
By way of contrast, the merchant class in medieval Japan under the powerful Tokugawa military rulers (1600-1867) was regarded as the lowest class, not the second-lowest or, depending on how one looks at it, third-lowest.
The whole notion of caste was deplored by Gandhi in the 1930s and criminalized in India during the 1950s. Its power over the minds of people has diminished although some arguably backward families still look to ‘appropriate’ caste marriages.
Old Indian Castes by rank
- Brahman caste (priests, thinkers)
- Kshatriya caste (rajas, warriors, persons of action)
- Vaisna caste (merchants)
- Sudra (menial laborers, servants)
- Unofficial group of Outcastes.
» Yoga, Karma-yoga
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Buddha (Skt. “awakened or enlightened one”)
The Buddha began as Prince Gotama Siddhartha, born of the brahmin caste (c.563-483 BCE), likely in the Mountain valleys between what is now India and Nepal.
His father was a king (raja) who apparently sheltered him from the vicissitudes of life outside the royal palace.
When Gotama reached 29 he left his wife and traveled beyond the borders of his insular world.
Legend has it that upon seeing death and disease outside the palace gates, he became disillusioned with his father’s rose-tinted restrictions.
Siddhartha resolved to find Truth. At first he explored the opposite of his formerly privileged life by becoming stringently ascetic, eating only a few grains of rice to survive. But this didn’t bring him enlightenment as he came to understand it.
After much inner and outer experimentation he advocated a middle-way between the extremes of excess and renunciation. He is said to have found enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, thus becoming a Buddha.
Although Christianity is often criticized for being based on scriptures written 45 to possibly 140 years after the death of Jesus, for some odd reason few of these critics seem equally concerned that Buddhist scriptures were not written until some 300-400 years after the death of Gotama.
As for the idea of “enlightenment” or being “awake,” many people use these terms probably with different meanings. We probably have no way to understand exactly what the Buddha found, the true nature of his inner experience, etc. And with so many schools of Buddhism existing today, its hard to know just how effectively they can facilitate the kind of altered psychological state that the Buddha, himself, actually encountered.
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Not to be confused with the Brahman, which is a Hindu metaphysical concept, Brahmin refers to the highest caste of landowner/priests who in Indian antiquity had exclusive knowledge of the Veda and its right of transmission. In the Indian middle ages, it became possible for some exceptional individuals to covert themselves into becoming Brahmins, although this was rare.
Today Brahmins remain as the so-called upper classes in India and Nepal, wearing the sacred thread of the “twice-born” to separate themselves from the so-called lower classes. Although they are said to be of the scholar class, this usually just means that they go to university. The university, itself, may be good or not so good. However, because Brahmins usually have a bit of money, a privileged social position, and thus more cultural capital than non-Brahmins, they do tend to be more visible in cultural matters.
Contemporary Brahmins are supposed to adhere to strict dietary regulations such as vegetarianism and the avoidance of alcohol. In West Bengal, however, fish is often taken with meals.
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Brahmanism is an early type of Indian religion that was prominent during the Vedic Period (c.1200-500 BCE). It’s usually regarded by Hindus as the origin of their faith. The sacred scripture of the Vedas, upon which its based, exalted the Brahmin caste. And members of the Brahmin caste were the power brokers of ancient Indian society, controlling both priestly and secular life.
The Brahmins’ alleged authority was based on learning. They alone were permitted to recite sacred scripture and perform sacrificial rituals.
The term Brahmanism is still applied today, denoting orthodox Hinduism under the priesthood in contrast to popular and mystical Hinduism. Some mystics tend to devalue the supposed authority of Brahmin priests, while others see them as necessary, if limited in their knowledge of matters spiritual.
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Brahmacharya is the first Hindu asrama (stage of life as outlined in the Veda) in which a young person receives practical instruction from family and begins to study the Veda with an experienced master or priest.
The word bramacharya once indicated the observance of correct sexuality, in this case the necessity of self-imposed celibacy.
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The Bhagavad-Gita [Sanskrit: The song of the Lord] is a central scripture holy to Hindus that belongs to book VI of the epic Mahabharata. Believed by many scholars to be a more recent insert within the Mahabharata, the Gita synthesizes different, previously existing forms of yoga.
The main plot line revolves around Krishna urging Arjuna to fulfil the dharma (sacred duty) appropriate to his warrior caste (kshatrya). Taken literally, in the Gita this means Arjuna must slay kith and kin in the battlefield.
Krishna outlines additional dharmas appropriate for other castes, but Arjuna’s sacred task is to kill. Krishna further instructs Arjuna that his relatives will not really perish because the soul (atman) is eternal.
A gentler, psychological interpretation of the Gita sees the ‘killing’ in terms of the destruction of bad karma accumulated over past lives. These attributes manifest as outward aspects of the personality in the present life, not unlike that which Carl Jung terms the persona. Thus the ‘killing’ could be seen as the elimination or, perhaps, redirection of superficial and negative personality components that obscure awareness of the immortal soul (atman)
Because God’s grace is said to be central in overcoming negative past karma, some scholars believe that the Gita was written as late as 2nd-century CE, influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the precise date, Arjuna’s dharma seems to lie somewhere between Old Testament ideas concerning the problem of social justice (“an eye for an eye”) and the New Testament emphasis on spiritual salvation (“turn the other cheek”).
While some Christians may argue that the Gita’s message is clearly inferior to the New Testament’s prescription to love one’s enemies, this claim is complicated by the additional teaching of the so-called “Just War,” a teaching which is explicit or, perhaps, implicit to many Christian belief systems.
Having said that, it seems that a valid distinction may be made between what Jesus of the New Testament says we ought to do vs. what will happen.
Jesus of the New Testament says his followers ought not to be violent, nor to even think violently, even though conflict and war will inevitably break out among some members of the population. By way of contrast, the Krishna of the Gita essentially says killing is okay in certain circumstances. And this is something that Christ never advocates in the New Testament.
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Dharma is the idea of sacred duty in Hinduism. The concept originates from India’s ancient legal texts, so it’s not surprising that “doing the right thing” within this belief system is usually bound up within specific caste and gender biases, which many today would see as hopelessly backward.
As a Hindu ideal, dharma is doing one’s divine duty in an apparently impersonal manner. In essence, the mind is said to be fixed on God while correct action is performed without care for the personal “fruit” of those actions.
The belief that one’s actions may be entirely untainted by personal biases and desires seems questionable. And this is no scholarly quibble. Orthodox Hinduism, for instance, advocates killing as the appropriate dharma for members of the kshatriya caste. And in domestic affairs, the dharma of the wife is often marked by servitude to her husband and family, a position widely held to be sexist.¹
The idea of surrendering to God is nothing new but each religion tends to define the notion of appropriate surrender differently. Despite the obvious problems with the idea of dharma, recent social movements within India are compelling the middle classes, especially, to become increasingly aware of the often conflicting distinction between the idea of universal human rights and this ancient view of religious duty.
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¹ India, where 80.5 % of the population say they’re Hindu, has recently been labelled the worst place to be a woman, with Canada being the best. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/13/us-g20-women-idUSBRE85C00420120613
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Rosemary Ellen Guiley (19?? – ) is an American researcher, author and broadcaster on paranormal phenomena. Dr. Guiley promotes awareness of the paranormal. At her website she writes that her “driving purpose is to help further our understanding of our place and role in the cosmic scheme” (visionaryliving.com). She also addresses issues like communicating with the dead and dealing with malevolent spirits.
This is all very interesting stuff. Unfortunately, it’s still difficult for most people to understand because of the inherent difficulties in the public verification of paranormal reports. In addition, some materialist or (ironically enough) religious reactionaries tend to cast aspersions on anyone interested in trying to understand the paranormal—even though the very same people will often delight at movies like The Exorcist.¹
¹ The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, of course, would say that the horror movie watcher is momentarily fascinated by the archetype of the shadow. For Jung this is not unhealthy. But in some destructive instances, if left unconscious the shadow archetype apparently can erupt and compel non-integrated individuals to behave in a manner harmful to self or others.
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