Hinduism and Caste System

by Jayaram V

Hinduism is a universal religion. Its primary emphasis is on universal brotherhood. It views the world as one family. It believes that man is divine in nature and realization of that supreme truth as the primary aim of all human activity. It is therefore unfortunate that for a very long time this religion of great antiquity has been in the clutches a few privileged castes.

It would be a great service to the cause of Hinduism if the present day Vedic teachers identify bright children from the lower castes and start teaching them the Vedas and the Upanishads and allow them to serve God in the temples of India. The strength of Christianity stems from dedicated missionaries who come from all sections of society. The weakness of Hinduism and of Hindu society is caste system, which divides people into divergent and bickering groups and keeps them apart.

Perhaps there is no other nation in the world that is as openly and shamelessly as racial as India. To be born in an upper caste is a matter of pride whether the family to which a person belongs deserves it or not. A number of Indians who visit foreign countries often complain about being treated differently on account of their skin color or accent. They overlook the fact that a vast number of people in their own country exhibit a far greater obsession with accent, skin color and caste. Indian film stars put on white makeup, on the screen and off the screen, even if they are black, to look acceptable and desirable. The country's democracy is not a true democracy, but castocracy, where people vote and leaders are elected on caste lines. The Indian political parties thrive and succeed by appealing to this base emotion of people.

There are countless scholars who justify Hindu caste system quoting chapter and verse from the scriptures, ignoring the fact that they were convenient interpolations or authored by bigoted scholars in an otherwise sacred lore to justify a cruel and unjust system using the very authority of God.

Caste System has been the bane of Hindu society for centuries. In terms of impact, it did much greater damage for a much longer period to a great many people than the slave system of the western world or the witch-hunting practices of medieval Europe. The Hindu caste system was a clever invention of the later Vedic society, justified by a few law makers. The upper castes found it convenient to retain and perpetuate their social and religious distinction and political and economic advantage. With the exception of Saivism and a few ascetic traditions, most of the ancient sects of Hinduism were caste biased.

The idea of staying away from unclean people is understandable in a society that was obsessed with the concept of physical and mental purity. There is nothing unusual with people who are selective in choosing their friends and relationships. It is normal behavior to stay away from people who are found to be socially deviant, untrustworthy or unfamiliar. It is an expression of our social intelligence and self-preservation instinct. Personal hygiene, family background and financial status do matter today in society as it was thousands of years ago. But what was wrong with the Vedic society was it recognized inequalities among men based on birth and family lineage and proclaimed it to be the will of God. This line of thought was perpetuated by Vedic scholars for centuries through the authority of scriptures and fear of divine retribution. They wrongfully created human stereotypes to justify a social structure that favored a few at the expense of many, denying a vast majority of people opportunities to use their inborn talents and pursue their own dreams and aspirations.

What is the Caste System ?

The Hindu caste system is unique in the world, but resembles in some ways Plato's ideal society of philosophers, warriors and commoners. A caste is a division of society based on occupation and family lineage. Hindu caste system recognized four distinct classes or divisions among people based on these criteria and enforced it through a rigid code of conduct that was specific to each class and rooted in the dharmashastras (law books) of the later Vedic period. The four main castes recognized by traditional Hindu society based primarily on hereditary occupation are mentioned below.

  • Brahmins. They are the priestly class, who are entitled to study the Vedas, perform rites and rituals for themselves and for others and obliged to observe the sacraments. They are the middle men between gods and men. The act as temple priests and invoke gods on behalf of others. They are expected to show exemplary behavior and spend their lives in the pursuit of divine knowledge and preservation of the traditions. According to Manu, the law maker, a Brahmin was an incarnation of dharma (sacred tradition), born to serve and protect the dharma. He belonged to the excellent of the human race, endowed with intelligence and knowledge to attain Brahman. He was the highest on earth, the lord of all created beings. Whatever that existed in the world was the property of a Brahmana and he was entitled to all.
  • Kshatriyas. They are the warrior class, who are commanded (by tradition) to protect the people, bestow gifts to the Brahmins, offer sacrifices to gods and ancestors, study the Vedas, dispense justice, and, according to Manusmriti, abstain themselves from sensual pleasures. Manu laid down that it was a king's duty to protect his kingdom and his people. He had something in himself of the gods such Indra, Vayu, Yama, Surya, Varuna, Moon and Kubera. A king should not be despised even if he was an infant. His authority should not be questioned except when he ignored his duties in supporting and protecting Brahmins. The king had the right to punish, but he must be fair in his punishment. It was king's responsibility to protect the caste system and the social order and lavish the priests with generous gifts at every opportunity.
  • Vaisyas: They are the merchant and peasant classes, who are expected to tend cattle, offer sacrifices, study the Vedas, trade, lend money and cultivate the land. They had the right to perform and participate in certain Vedic rituals but they were not allowed to marry women of higher castes.
  • Shudras: The are the labor class, whose only duty is to serve the other three castes. They were not required to observe any Vedic rituals or samskaras except a few. They were not allowed to study the Vedas or even hear the sacred chants. They were not allowed to eat food in the company of higher castes or marry their women.
  • Chandalas: The lowest of the Shudras were called chandalas or the impure ones. They were treated as untouchables because of their gory religious practices, penchant for sacrifices, magical rites and unclean habits. In ancient times they were not allowed to enter a village or city during day time or walk in the same street where men of other castes walked. Even their shadow was considered impure and their very sight as a bad omen. So they lived mostly on the fringes of society, unknown and uncared for, following some esoteric religion of their own and working mostly in the graveyards and cremation grounds or as hunters, butchers and professional cleaners of human waste.14

How the Caste System was Enforced

The caste system was enforced with the help of law books such as Manusmriti and the support of kings who considered themselves as upholders of dharma. The force of tradition, superstition, religious beliefs, fear of punishment also played an important role in its success. Some of these factors are explained in detail.

  • Heredity. The caste system was based on birth. People inherited caste from their parents and passed it on to their children. Individuals had no right to change their caste as long as they practiced the Vedic religion. But they could be excommunicated from the caste by the kings or the local administrators or village heads in case of serious transgression. In case of inter caste marriage which were rare, children inherited the castes of their fathers.
  • Caste Rules. The caste rules were enforced strictly through the fear of political and religious authority. The success of the system depended upon the performance of duties prescribed for each caste. The rules varied from caste to caste. People of higher castes enjoyed privileges but were also expected to be good role models. For a Brahmin study of the Vedas, practice of rituals and leading a pure and austere life were a must. Otherwise he was considered to be equal to a sudra in the eyes of his fellow caste members. 1 Women were expected to assist their husbands in observing the caste rules. Purification ceremonies, fines and minor punishments were prescribed to annul the negative effect of violating caste rules.
  • Marriage. The caste system prohibited marriages outside one's caste to avoid inter mixture of the castes (varna samkaram), which was considered to be a sign of decline of dharma and the very reason why the caste system was devised. The law books allowed certain types of inter-caste marriages as an exception rather than rule. Marriages between a higher caste men and lower caste women were less objectionable than Marriages between sudra males and higher caste females and marriages between men of upper castes and sudra women. 2
  • Preferential treatment: The three upper castes enjoyed distinct advantages in society compared to the sudras whose job was to serve the three upper castes and live like fourth class citizens.3 People born in the three upper castes were given initiation into the study of the Vedas and treated as twice born, while sudras were not allowed to study or even hear the Vedas. They were treated on par with animals and considered once borne. The Brahmins enjoyed the highest status and privileges followed by the Kshatriyas, the Vaisyas and the sudras in the same order. The laws were discriminatory in matters of rewards and punishments. They prescribed lighter punishments for higher castes than the lower castes who had technically little recourse against the former in criminal cases. For the same offence committed, a lower caste person might attract physical torture, slavery or death penalty while a higher caste person might get away with a simple fine or chastisement or purification ceremony. The lower caste persons were also not allowed to act as witnesses or sit in judgment against higher castes.
  • Royal Support: The caste system was preserved and enforced mostly through royal support. The relationship between the priestly class and the warrior class was one of convenience. The kings took upon themselves the tasks of protecting the caste system and preventing caste intermixture while the priests performed sacrificial ceremonies and purifications ceremonies seeking the welfare of the king and a place for him in heavens. The scriptures proclaimed the king as a god in human form and protector and preserver of castes and caste order 4. The very notion of punishment was a created by God and given to the kings upon earth to help them destroy evil and keep men on the path of dharma 5. The scriptures suggested that a king should start his day by worshipping three Brahmins on waking up and follow their advice with humility and modesty. He should also appoint a Brahman to the position of a chief minister with and deliberate with him on the most important affairs concerning royal policy.

Historical Perspective

The Rigvedic people came to the Indian subcontinent as priestly families, not as warriors. They won over the subcontinent not through the power of sword as some historians want us to believe but through their superior skill in debate and magical ritualism which they used to gain royal patronage of the local kings. With the support of some native kings whom they won over to their side and who probably had some racial affinity with them, by cleverly adopting many local customs and traditions that would make them acceptable in the eyes of the native people, with their special abilities in using magical incantations and elaborate sacrifices to summon rains or prevent floods or defeat the enemies or drive away thieving hostile tribes, diseases and pestilence, they established their social, political and economic power and spread their influence gradually to the four corners of the Indian subcontinent.

Non-Vedic Character of Caste System

The Vedic priests did not bring with them the caste system. The early Vedic people had a flexible social organization in which people could change their vocations easily. Different members within the same family practiced different vocations. But as they came into contact with hostile tribes and competing traditions, they resorted to caste system to preserve their identity as a group. Some form of caste system was already in vogue in ancient India 6, which in all probability the Vedic people adopted to maintain their racial purity and family lineages. This is evident from the fact in the entire Rigveda there is no reference to the caste system except in the Purusha sukta which is considered by many scholars as a later day interpolation.

Caste in Hindu Mythology

In the Hindu mythology we find men of lower castes ascending to positions of eminence and authority. Some important characters in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata belonged to lower castes. Lord Rama was assisted by mostly men of humble origins, who lived in the forests and were ignorant of the Vedic scriptures. Lord Krishna himself was brought up by a family of cowherds. So was Balarama, his step brother, who is sometimes included in the list of Vishnu's ten incarnations. Only three or four of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu came from higher castes. Of the ten only one, the incarnation of Vamana, belongs to the Brahmin caste. Rama, Parashurama and the Buddha belong to the Kshatriya caste while other incarnations such as the incarnation of fish, turtle, boar and the half man and half lion are actually animal incarnations, which in other words means once born, just like the forest dwellers that assisted Lord Rama in his battle against the demon king Ravana.

Many ancient sages and rishis also came from humble backgrounds. Parasurama was a Brahmin by birth but a warrior by profession. Vishwamitra7 was a warrior by birth but practiced austerities like a Brahmins and became a great rishi. Sage Parashar, the famous law giver, was the son of an outcaste (chandala). Rishi Vashista was born to a prostitute ,while sage Vyasa, the original author of the Mahabharata, was born to a fisherwoman. Rishi Valmiki the original composer of Ramayana came from a tribal family of traditional hunters. Some composers of the Vedic and Upanishadic hymns belonged to either lower castes or mixed castes. Satyakama Jabala was born to a prostitute who could not tell him who his father was. Karna, the famous character from the Mahabharata was brought up by low caste family, while Drona, the teacher of the Pandavas, was a Brahmin by caste but excelled in marital arts .

The Development of Rigid Caste System

The Rigvedic society had a flexible caste system which allowed individuals to change their castes if necessary. Color (varna) and family lineage were more important during this period rather than occupation. But during the post Vedic period, caste system became rigid and offered little flexibility to people to pursue vocations not authorized by caste rules. Foreign invasions and the presence of foreigners should have sparked this new development to prevent the possibility of caste pollution and confusion of castes. Well defined code of conduct, rewards and punishments and purification procedures became necessary to regulate the inflow of new members into the Vedic society and their integration into the existing framework of castes without disturbing the social structure and the dominance of the priestly class.

Elevation of the Sudra Kings

Many emperors and rulers in ancient India came from humble backgrounds. They became rulers on account of their personal valor and adventurous spirit. The Nandas who ruled a vast empire with Pataliputra as their capital at the time of the birth of the Buddha, belonged to a low caste of barbers. So was Chandragupta Maurya, who succeeded them. His mother belonged to a family of peacock tamers and probably served in the court of Nandas as a courtesan. The Sakas and the Kushanas were foreigners who came from outside. They patronized Saivism but kept away from Vedism. The Guptas were either Vaishyas or Jats8 while the Nagas or the Barashivas were sudras. We do not know for sure how the Vedic priests managed their relationship with the sudra kings and the foreign rulers. In most cases these kings joined Buddhism or Jainism or Saivism as these religions did not favor caste system. In fewer cases they accepted the compromise offered by the Vedic priests in return of gifts and land grants to admit them into the Vedic fold as Kshatriyas through purification ceremonies and the blessing of the gods and by tracing their lineage to some mythical race having roots in heaven. If these strategies failed, the Vedic priests either kept a low profile or sought the protection of neighboring rulers.

Varna, Jati and Gotra

The early Vedic society was more concerned with the color and family identity of people rather than their castes as is evident from the Rigvedic hymns which distinguish people based on their complexion and creed rather than occupation based castes. The caste system9 is known in Sanskrit as varnashrama dharma which actually means a system based on color. In the early days it was color of the skin that mattered, not the caste. A Brahmin was considered varnashresht or best of color. Varna also meant a letter or character or sound. Teaching how to write and spell Sanskrit letters was called varna-shiksha. The Vedic people were conspicuous by their color in contrast to the dark skinned tribes whom they derogatorily referred as dasyus, dasas, asuras, pisachas and rakshasas. These tribes spoke different languages, did not show any respect for the Vedic gods and sacrifices and would have probably shown the same contempt towards the Vedic people for their racial snobbery. Many scholars believe that the varnas were different from castes. The varnas were classes based on racial features, while the castes were further divisions within each class based on occupation or lineage. Thus while there were only four varnas or classes, the number of castes or occupational divisions with in each class varied.

The word jati actually means the form of existence that comes by birth. Thus animals belong to pasujati or the group of animals and humans to narajati or the group of humans. Jati is also used loosely to mean a caste, a race, a lineage, a tribe or a class of men. A jati-brahmin is some one who is a brahmin by birth but not by occupation or knowledge or performance of rites and rituals. Closely related with jati are the worlds jat, meaning birth or existence and jatakam meaning natal chart.

Gotra actually means the name of a cow pen or stable. It is also used to denote the name of a family, lineage or race of Brahmin families. Strictly speaking, only Brahmin families are supposed to belong to particular gotras. In case of people belonging to other castes, it denotes the lineage of their respective family priests. So if a Brahmin quotes his gotra he is telling from which lineage or family he descended and when a non Brahmin is quoting his gotra, he is telling the gotra of the priest whose services his family traditionally used. Traditionally the gotras of brahmin families are traceable to seven or eight ancient sages. But today there are thousands of gotras and no one knows how these many gotras have sprouted. While for Brahmin families gotras carry a lot of significance, for others gotras usually matter during ritual worship and performance of sacraments. As in case of castes, marriages within the same gotra are prohibited by the law books.

Subsequent Developments

The Indian society was complex in ancient India as it is now. Any generalizations about it need to be regarded with some reservations. The political, geographic and linguistic diversity, absence of adequate dependable historical evidence, contradictory literary sources and the existence of multiple religious traditions make it a daunting task for any writer to present a satisfactory picture of the prevailing conditions of the Indian society at any point of time in the past. In the following paragraphs we attempt to trace a broad outline of the development of caste system in the post Vedic period.

During the Mauryan period (300 BC), while the varnas remained four, the castes became many. Inter caste marriages, practice of polygamy, assimilation of foreigners, creation of vast administrative machinery that resulted in new classes of people and new positions of authority, and geographical expansion of the empires to the south which exposed new groups and communities to the Vedic religion contributed to this new development and added diversity and complexity to the social fabric of ancient India.

Megasthanese, who stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya as a Greek ambassador for several years and recorded his observations in his work titled the Indika, noticed seven classes of people in the Mauryan empire, namely

  • philosophers,
  • husbandmen,
  • shepherds,
  • artisans,
  • military,
  • overseers and
  • councilors or assessors.

Within each of these classes there were further sub divisions. Megasthanese identified two distinct divisions with in the philosophers group, the priests and the ascetics.

In the Satavahana empire, society was organized into four classes10.

  • The first class consisted of high ranking officials and feudatory chieftains such as Maharathis, Mahabhojas and Mahasenapatis.
  • The second class consisted of officials such as ministers and treasurers (Amatyas, Mahamatras and Bhandagarikas) and non-officials such as merchants, traders and heads of guilds (Naigama, Sarthvaha and Sreshtin).
  • The third class consisted of professionals such as scribes (lekhakas), physicians (vaidyas), cultivators (halakiyas), goldsmiths (suvarnakaras) and chemists (gandhikas).
  • The fourth class consisted of carpenters (vardhaki), garderners (malakaras), blacksmiths (lohavanija) and fishermen (dasakas).

The Guptas patronized Hinduism and revived many ancient Vedic traditions. They enforced the caste system throughout their empire with religious zeal. They implemented many traditions of Vedic religion as a part of the king's duty to uphold and protect religious laws (dharma) and safeguard the caste system from the unlawful inter mixture of castes. The Brahmins, who enjoyed many privileges under their patronage, were known for their austere lives. There were many groups within the priestly class, each performing specific duties. They studied the scriptures, practiced contemplation, devotional worship and observed austerities such as tapas and penance. They received lavish gifts and land grants from kings, often entire villages in return for their services. People venerated the saints and regarded the places where they lived as sacred places. The kings employed royal priests whom they consulted frequently. Brahmins of this period belonged to many lineages or gotras.

The Guptas brought peace and prosperity to the Indian subcontinent and contributed to the emergence of new classes of aristocracy. Their period witnessed the development new elite groups, as in the Roman empire, in the form of urban bourgeoisie consisting of wealthy traders and merchants and landed gentry owning vast tracts of agricultural lands, which precipitated a new power struggle requiring compromises within the social structure. While the priestly classes had their religious authority over the sudras or the landless peasants, the landed gentry assumed feudal and administrative authority over them.

The assimilation of foreign groups such as the Hunas in the declining phase of the Gupta rule resulted in some social unrest and imbalances within society. According to Havell, the infusion of Huna blood lowered the high ethical standards of Indo-Aryan traditions and caused the growth of many vulgar superstitions which were never contradicted by the great teachers of India. The intolerance of the Hunans only added to the rigidity of the caste system in the subsequent period as a defensive reaction, just as the intolerant attitude of Muslim rulers contributed to rigid caste system during the medieval period.

Hiuen Tsang who visited India during the reign of Harshavardhana noticed that the caste system dominated the Hindu society. He described the four distinct classes as described in the Hindu law books. The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas observed decency and decorum in their dress and eating habits. The higher castes were very particular about cleanliness. After eating food they destroyed the wooden and stone vessels in which they ate food and cleaned the metal ones thoroughly. They lived upright and honest lives and dreaded the retribution of bad karma. There were no inter-caste marriages and marriages with in the same caste among close relations. The caste distinctions and restrictions in food and marriage, however, did not prevent various castes from interacting socially with people from different castes.

Despite its universal appeal and emphasis on Muslim brotherhood, Islam could neither destroy the caste system nor the Vedic religion nor the related beliefs and practices. Caste system actually helped Hinduism to maintain its integrity and inner strength during this turbulent period. Some Muslim rulers made attempts to humiliate higher caste Hindus by forcing them to work in Muslim households as servants after reducing them to penury through unjust taxation. They also managed to convert to Islam some low caste and a few high caste Hindus. Some Muslim rulers made it a policy to kill a certain number of Hindus each year to humiliate and destroy followers of native faiths. These developments made the caste system even more rigid and uncompromising. Those who switched their loyalties to the new religion (usually the lower castes) became despicable and loathsome in the eyes of those who suffered silently. Interestingly the newly converted Muslims maintained some sort of caste system among themselves based on their old caste affiliations and added a new social dimension to the community of Muslims in the country.

The British respected the Indian caste system in formulating their civil and criminal laws and in enforcing their military and government policies regarding governance, military administration, civil services, trade and commerce, education and employment. They did not attempt to abolish the caste system as they saw in it a great opportunity to maintain their hold upon people by keeping them divided on caste and religious lines. The Christian missionaries who enjoyed their covert patronage found in it a convenient means to convert people to Christianity and keep the Hindu organizations on the defensive. Educated Indian middle classes sensed the threat the missionaries posed to the integrity of Hinduism and felt the need to reform the caste system and some outdated practices in the interests of preserving and safeguarding Hinduism and Hindu community. Indian scholars used religious themes and ancient legends to instill feelings of pride and nationalism in people.  Leaders like Baba Saheb Ambedkar demanded equal status for the low castes, while Gandhi advocated complete abolition of untouchability and equal rights to all Indians.

After India's independence, the Indian constitution guaranteed equal status and fundamental rights to all classes of people. The practice of untouchability was officially declared as a serious crime, punishable with severe penalties. Provisions were made to identify and protect the lower castes from exploitation and ill treatment. A reservation policy was created to establish a level playing field in matters of employment and education and protect them from unfair competition from higher castes. Today, due to these efforts the lower castes are able to occupy positions of authority and leadership and assert themselves in every profession. While a lot of improvement is still required to improve their lot and bring a social change in people's thinking and attitude, the Indian government established through constitutional guarantees many built in safeguards for the lower castes and considerably improved their status in society so much so that the high castes often complain of being discriminated and put to disadvantage in receiving welfare and economic benefits. By granting constitutional guarantees to the lower castes and protecting them from unfair competition, the Indian government averted a major disaster for independent India by minimizing the possibility of a civil war or civil strife or the mass conversion of lower caste Hindus to other religions.

Justification of Caste System

Caste system was rationalized in ancient India on various grounds. Some of them are discussed below.

  • Justification in the Vedas: No Vedic tradition is valid unless it is found in the Vedas. The caste system would not have found approval among the Vedic people unless there was some reference to it in the Vedas. The Purusha Sukta in the 10th Mandala of the Rigveda describes how the castes came into existence, from different parts of Purusha, the Cosmic Soul, at the time of a grand sacrifice performed by the gods. The brahmins came out of his mouth, the kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaisyas from his thighs and the sudras from his feet. Many scholars believe that concepts and the imagery of Purusha Sukta 11 belong to later Vedic period rather than the Rigvedic period and so it was probably a later day interpolation. It is interesting that this hymn is quoted even today by many orthodox brahmins to justify the system, despite the inconsistencies in the logic employed. Firstly the one indivisible and unchanging Brahman does not have a body like humans. Secondly even if he has, his feet cannot be unclean compared to his mouth. Judging by the human physic, the mouth should more unclean than the feet unless God has a tendency to wallow in mud. Thirdly, among the bodily parts, it is the feet of God that is usually worshipped in the temples and rituals rather than any other part of His body.
  • Justification in the theory of Karma: The concept of karma perfectly justifies the caste system based on birth. It favors the argument that people of lower castes have to blame themselves for their plight because of their bad karma in their past lives. Their pitiable plight is a stern warning to the rest of the humanity that the wheel of dharma operates inexorably, sparing none and favoring none. This line of argument is found in many scriptures, including the Bhagavadgita, according to which people of good merit and those who had developed detachment or dispassion were born in pious families12. In the fourth chapter of the book, Lord Krishna declared that the fourfold varna system was created by him based on the triple gunas and mechanism of karma 13. By combining the belief in karma with the caste system, the ancient law makers prescribed different vocational and occupational duties for each caste and expected people to follow them sincerely as an integral part of their religious duty. Observing these duties without questioning them was an act of merit, which entitled them to progress on the path of dharma and obtain a better life in the next birth.
  • Justification by the theory of Gunas: According to many schools of Hindu philosophy, all beings and objects in the world contain the triple gunas or qualities of Prakriti. Their dominance or suppression cause people to act and behave differently and make them fit for certain types of occupations. These three qualities are sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is characterized by purity and spirituality and manifests in men in the form of knowledge, intelligence, faith, sincerity, devotion, piousness and so on. Sattva is believed to be the predominant quality among the men of knowledge, in other worlds, brahmins. Rajas is characterized by egoism and materialism and manifests in men as ambition, pride, desire for wealth and personal power, lust, hypocrisy, attachment and so on. Rajas is believed to be the predominant quality in case of men of action, in other words, in kshatriyas and Vaisyas. Tamas is characterized by lethargy and manifests in men in the form of ignorance, lack of ambition, extreme austerities, demonical resolve, uncleanliness, negative attitude, unhealthy habits and other forms of undesirable behavior. Tamas is believed to be the predominant quality in men who are unclean and ignorant, in other words, sudras.
  • Justification by the religious laws. The caste system was justified by most of the smriti literature, Manusmriti being the most notorious among them and by such religious scriptures as the Puranas, the Sutra literature and scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita and some later day Upanishads. The law books not only justified rigid caste system but prescribed severe punishments in case of violation. The very purpose for which the law books were composed and the manner in which the information was organized in them on caste lines suggest that in ancient and medieval India they were meant to perpetuate and justify the caste system and provide clear guidelines to the administrative machinery to enforce the laws concerning social divisions with little confusion.

Critical Analysis of Caste System

The Hindu caste system had its own merits and demerits and should not be judged purely based on the social values of today. Inequalities and social divisions based on economic and family status were not unknown in other parts of the world. The Nordic races followed some form of caste system. The Greeks and Romans had freemen and slaves. The British, the French and the Russians had their landed gentry and nobility in contrast to the commoners and peasants who were subject to unjust taxes and unequal treatment. The new world had its own slave system practiced for nearly two centuries. Compared so some of these systems and practices, the Hindu caste system was more humane and gentle. Although the chandalas were excluded from social interaction, they were free men within their own world. So were the sudras. The Romans had their slave revolts. The French had their revolution. The injustices of American slave system produced deep rooted aggression, resentment and frustration in the USA. But the low castes in India never launched large scale organized revolts or violence against the upper castes because there was no physical suppression of castes but only limitations of opportunities imposed by tradition and religious beliefs. There were rigid walls among the communities but within the walls life went on as usually independent of how others lived. It is in this context one should examine the advantages and disadvantages of Hindu caste system which are listed below.


  1. Continuity of traditions: It would be unfair to say that the caste system had no merit, because if it were true it would not have survived for so long. If Hinduism survived amidst many competing traditions, religions and foreign invasions, without a central authority and with so many centrifugal forces working from all directions, a great deal of credit ought to go to the rigid caste system that discouraged people from experimenting with their faith and beliefs acting as a binding force and kept them within the boundaries established by the scriptures and the tradition. A vast majority of the Hindus were illiterate, but were not unaware of the laws of karma or the implications of violating caste rules or their commitment to their caste based family occupations and its role in ensuring their family well being and survival.
  2. Division of labor: The caste system promoted division of labor and specialization of knowledge which helped each family perfect and improve their vocational skills and continue them from generation to generation.
  3. Bonds of Brotherhood: The caste system contributed to the development of caste based guilds in the urban areas, which acted like social and labor unions. They united people together under a common purpose and provided some kind of social insurance against unfair competition and unjust exploitation of labor. They ensured fair wages to their members, loaned money to them acting like banks, helped the unemployed to find work, in addition to promoting work ethics and standards of performance among their members. In the rural areas the caste system brought together people of the same caste and promoted unity, solidarity and fraternity among them, strengthening the bonds of their relationships through marriage, friendship and other forms of social and professional interaction.
  4. Purity of lineages: Because of the rigid rules regarding marriage and physical union among the castes and prohibition of marriages with in the same gotras, many families were able to maintain the purity of their lineage.
  5. Unity in diversity: The caste system was not a system of mere division of labor. While it acknowledged birth related inequalities and karma based existential problems, it also emphasized the underlying unity of all the castes and their divine nature as products of a great cosmic sacrifice, arising from various parts of the universal being. The original purpose of the caste system, at least in theory, was not to exploit the weaker castes but establish social order, regulate the affairs of the people and preserve the sacred law (dharma). God was the protector of this order and it was also the responsibility of everyone to ensure that chaos and unrest would not ensue from the intermixture and confusion of castes.


Following are some of the disadvantages of caste system

  1. Exploitation of the Weak: The Hindu caste system had inherent weaknesses which rendered it unjust and exploitative over a period of time, giving rise to social injustices, disabilities and inequalities among a vast majority of the people. Its rigidity and continued practice exposed the weaker sections of society to unjust exploitation by the socially and politically privileged groups in the name of religion and tradition.
  2. Disunity and division of loyalties: The caste system divided the society vertically and horizontally into several groups and bred distrust and resentment. It promoted disunity, distrust and caste prejudices among the people
  3. Foreign domination: The caste system weakened people's resolve to stand united against foreign invasions. The physically strong sudras were condemned to pure agricultural labor and menial jobs, while they could have been more useful as fighters and soldiers in defending the land and the religion against foreign invaders. By relegating the physically strong population to menial labor and ignoring them in the political affairs of the country, except for tax and labor purposes, the Hindu rulers deprived themselves of able bodied soldiers who could have defended them and their empires against foreign aggression. It is interesting to note that the Muslim rulers and the British who recruited people from all castes into their armies were able to conquer the subcontinent and rule it for centuries.
  4. Preferential Treatment: The caste system was based on birth rather than individual talent and vocational choice. This created many disabilities for talented individuals belonging to the lower castes. The story of Ekalavya in the Mahabharata is a good example of how the system preferred to protect the less competent or the incompetent among the higher castes from the more talented lower caste persons in the name of dharma. This biased approach stilted the growth of the nation and contributed to its downfall in course of time.
  5. Political and military implications: The caste system placed the foreigners on par with the untouchables and prevented healthy exchange of knowledge and ideas. This worked to the disadvantage of Indians in general and the armies in particular as it isolated people from the rest of the world and prevented them from knowing about the invading foreigners, their strategic moves and counter moves and methods of warfare. The caste system also divided Indian soldiers on caste lines and created groups within groups, making coordination a difficult task for the army generals.
  6. Conversion to other religions. Caste system indirectly contributed to the decline of Hindu religion as many people belonging to the lower castes were converted to other religions to escape the social indignities and inequalities associated with their castes. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam thrived in India on the weaknesses of Hinduism rather their own merits. Speaking of this subject, Swami Vivekananda commented in the following words, "Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar country? The poor Pariah is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high-caste man, but if he changes his name to a hodge-podge English name, it is all right; or to a Moahammedan name, it is all right. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better."
  7. Instrument of oppression. The caste system became an instrument of oppression in the hands of socially privileged castes. Landlords and wealthy merchants exploited the lower castes and subjected them to inhuman treatment without fear as the lower castes did not enjoy equal rights nor the confidence of those who enforced the laws.
  8. Untouchability: Caste system created a class of individuals who were regarded as untouchables and treated as less than human beings. They were not allowed to enter the cities and villages freely. People of higher castes were advised not to touch them or let their shadows fall on them because the shadows were also treated as sources of defilement. They were not allowed to draw water from the wells or ponds used by the upper castes. In modern times, many untouchables converted to other religions because they saw no hope in sticking with their traditional castes and among those who did not opt for conversion, the educated ones are its worst critics.
  9. Low self-esteem: The caste system lowers the self-esteem of many and makes them feel bad about their social status and caste identity. Since it is based on birth, there is nothing much anyone can do about one's caste other than changing one's religion, a decision that may have other social implications such as alienation from one's own family, friends or community, accompanied by feelings of guilt and fear of divine retribution. The caste system is a blistering and festering ancient sore of Hindu society that evokes painful memories and keeps the Hindu society divided for ever.

Caste System in Modern Hindu Society

Today untouchability is a serious crime. But the idea of caste system still prevails in the minds of many Hindus. The following points are worth noticing:

1. Inter caste marriages are not approved in many traditional and rural families.

2. Caste based organizations and associations still exist in India and play a crucial role in perpetuating the idea of caste.

3. Upper caste people are unhappy with the government's reservation policy and their grievance is not entirely unfound. Some castes demand the government to recognize them as scheduled castes or tribes and from time to time resort to violent agitation over the issue.

4. Caste conflicts often lead to violence and bloodshed in the rural areas and college campuses.

5. In many educational institutions students tend to group themselves on the basis of castes, often with the tacit connivance of teaching faculty and local politicians. A similar trend is often noticeable in the work places also. Scheduled caste and tribe unions and organizations often put undue pressure on the government and managements using their protected status. Frivolous complaints of discrimination and bogus criminal cases against officers of higher castes to settle some past scores are not unknown.

6. In Indian politics, caste is a powerful factor. In many states of India political parties are identified on the basis of dominant castes that support them. During general elections many politicians appeal to the baser instincts of people using caste affiliations. They shamelessly and clandestinely seek votes in the name of caste.

7. Indian temples are still under the siege of caste chauvinism. The temple administrations, some of which are managed by government officials, do not recruit people from other castes to act as temple priests. They also often perform purification rituals for caste transgressions which invite lot of public criticism. The priesthood continues to be an exclusive privilege of the brahmins and no noticeable effort has been made to encourage people from other castes to study the Vedas and join the priesthood.

8. Discrimination continues in several states in remote areas. There are still people who would not let low castes draw water from their wells and would not let them sit in the same row to share food.

9. The lower caste people continue to be employed by the higher castes in the rural areas to perform menial and degrading jobs. We do not see the opposite happening anywhere in the country, except perhaps in companies and corporations owned by a few lower caste Hindus.


The caste system might have served its purpose in ancient times, but does not fit into the values and principles of modern times, such as democracy, fundamental rights, individual freedom, equality and non-discrimination. It does not uphold the values of modern Hinduism either, such as tolerance and universal brotherhood. It does not validate the concept that all life is a sacred expression of divine will and energy. Followers and upholders of Hinduism cannot and should not rationalize caste system if they want to maintain the credibility of Hinduism as world religion that can accommodate people of all nations, races and backgrounds.

Scholars tend to rationalize the caste system by quoting the Purushasukta and the Bhagavadgita. They ignore the fact that these verses contradict the very core values of Hinduism emphasized in the same texts and present a world view that is a negation of Hinduism. If caste system is allowed to prevail, it would do a much greater damage to Hinduism than any other disruptive force we can imagine. We have already seen its negative impact. If Hinduism lost millions of its followers to other religions and continues to lose so, it is because the lower castes were pushed to the wall and made to feel bad about themselves. It is time we consign the ancient law books such as Manusmriti to the dustbins of history and move forward to establish an egalitarian society based upon firm ethical and spiritual foundation upon which Hinduism can brace itself to meet the challenges of the coming times and appeal to the inquisitive and advanced minds of the future generations.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. A twice-born man who knowingly eats mushrooms, a village-pig, garlic, a village-cock, onions, or leeks, will become an outcast. (5:14)

A Brahmana who neither performs austerities nor studies the Veda, yet delights in accepting gifts, sinks with the (donor into hell), just as (he who attempts to cross over in) a boat made of stone (is submerged) in the water. (4.190)

2. A Brahmana who takes a Sudra wife to his bed, will (after death) sink into hell; if he begets a child by her, he will lose the rank of a Brahmana. (Manusmriti: Ch3:17)

3. Let (the first part of) a Brahmana's name (denote something) auspicious, a Kshatriya's be connected with power, and a Vaisya's with wealth, but a Sudra's (express something) contemptible. (Manusmriti: Ch2:31)

4. Manusmriti Chapter 7:35

5. Manusmriti Chapter 7:14

6. It is said that the Dravidians or those who spoke Dravidian languages and probably lived in the Indus valley and present day Rajasthan before migrating eastwards and southwards due to climatic changes, practiced some form of caste system based on vocation which was later taken up by the Vedic priests as the model along with the integration of traditions such as Vaishnavism, Saivism and Tantrism.

7. He is also considered to be the progenitor of the Andhras of the south.

8. Prof K.p. Jayaswal

9. According to H.G. Rawlinson, caste is a Portuguese word meaning purity of race.

10. The Satavahanas, who ruled in the early Christian era, patronized Brahmanism and contributed greatly to the revival of Brahmanism in southern and central India. Their empire extended from the river Krishna in the south to Malwa and Kathiawar in the north and also included large parts of present day Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat and Orissa

11. The Purusha Sukta verses dealing with the creation of castes is reproduced below

When they divided the Purusha how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thigh became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was Produced.

12. Bhagavadgita Ch6:42

13. Bhagavadgita Ch4:14

14. Fahien mentioned that when the Chandalas entered a city or a street they were required to strike a price of wood to warn others of their coming so that people moving in the streets would not be polluted by their contact.

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