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).
- Varna, Veda, and stuff (kalicharanveda.wordpress.com)
- Reservation in Promotion and Caste System (prosperousworld.wordpress.com)
- * Dalits see smallest rise in wages (chindia-alert.org)
- caste system in India as seen by PCI(M) (readandactnow.wordpress.com)
- The Caste System: The Hindu’s imaginary Achilles’ heel – George Augustine (bharatabharati.wordpress.com)
- A Documentary About Anti-Caste System Activists in India (patheos.com)
- “Some people continue to feel they can get away with attacking Dalits” (thehindu.com)
- My comment to the post about caste system in India in the Hindi Language Blog (burubaxair.wordpress.com)
- Reservation, Caste system and Development (ggrwlknl.wordpress.com)
- Take 5: The Halloween Candy Caste System (bronzeagebabies.blogspot.com)