Origins of the Indian Caste System: Part – 1

February 18, 2010 at 00:30 10 comments

Disclaimer: I’m not going to talk about the vices of the caste system nor the oppression that arose from it. I will only be exploring the origins of the caste system. I may probably blog later about the impact of the caste system. I have used Hindu and Indian interchangeably throughout the post because, I haven’t had the time to explore the stratification of society in other religions (it does exist, from whatever little I have read) and most of the philosophical thought in modern India is still influenced by the Hindu philosophy. You are welcome to correct me, if I have taken too much liberty in quoting something not trustworthy or if I have erroneously made assumptions.

Our society has been and continues to be based on a division of classes. Be it social or economic, we the people of India are taught to respect that division. We think of ourselves as global citizens and yet somehow, we have not been able to break the shackles off, of our stratified society. Why? How did this division come into being? And why is that every Indian subconsciously at some level or the other feels that it should be respected?

Before we anxiously protest that the second question is too generalized and that it includes everyone in the same boat; let me ask this, “How far have we gone, to step over the boundaries imposed around us?” My honest answer is, not very far. Yours might be different. But, then again you would have seen the resistance and friction that envelops you, even as you reach for the boundary and this should have been good enough reason to ask yourself, why?

The answer to why we accept the stratification, is however surprisingly simple; the boundaries have been around for a few hundred years and we have been made to accept them, via administrative seasoning, as a part of our life. Only, in the last few decades have we been seriously probing this rigid framework called the caste system. There is a reason, for the debate to have started only a few decades ago. We will explore that in a later post.

As for the How?, the answer is a little tricky as it involves, following the development of our civilization and a little about the evolution of its philosophy. Let’s see the evolution of the philosophy first. The most common misconception is that the whole of Indian philosophical thought that forms the fundamentalist basis of the Hindu religion was born from the Vedas. To me, the Vedas are just an amassment of knowledge, Knowledge gained from observation, experimentation and formulation of logical theories, which was passed down from generation to generation verbally. So, they do not put much emphasis on a stratified social system.

So, where did the Indian philosophical thought originate from? The philosophical thought, actually draws a lot from the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanishads and Aranyakas.  These are actually texts primarily discussing philosophy, meditation, rituals and the nature of God; these form the core spiritual thought of Hinduism. To put, it in a simpler way; these texts are discourses about the Vedas and what they meant to each teacher. And hence, are an individual’s interpretations of Vedas. Interestingly, even these later texts lack any serious mention of a hereditary caste system but, some later texts do contain the division of society based on the jobs undertaken by a person. The first mention of this is found in scriptures like Bhagvad-Gita and Manusmriti, which talk about the four Varnas, as being part of God’s creation. Even these scriptures emphasize that the Indian caste system was originally non-hereditary. The general idea was always that the migration from one caste to the other was possible by switching jobs or changing ones guna. For example, Bhagavad-Gita says that varnas are decided on the grounds of Guna which is basically the union of the five elements and Karma.

Among the above texts, the Brahmanas are commentaries on the four Vedas, detailing the proper performance of rituals. Since, they were just instructions on how to properly perform rituals; they were available to all.

Entry filed under: Candidly Speaking, Human Nature, Religion, Society. Tags: , , , .

Life on the otherside Break Up

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Indian Homemaker  |  February 24, 2010 at 06:39

    I left a comment on one of these Hindutva sites, on a post against conversions to Christianity. I had simply suggested that either we allow all Hindus to choose their own caste or we atleast ensure when we reconvert (in Orissa for example) a dalit to Hinduism, we give them a choice to convert to Brahmins or whichever caste they prefer.

    The suggestion was not welcomed, one excuse was that in today’s times, with reservations and all, no dalit would agree to be a brahmin, so they should have no such options.

    Today it does not matter how the system originated, today it deserves to be dealt with very firmly, instead it is politicised.

    • 2. guruzee  |  February 26, 2010 at 00:15

      That was lame on their part. That sort of escapism needs to be dealt with an iron hand. But, sadly the hand (our government) is always on the bottom begging for votes.

      This post was more like my journey to understand the origins of the caste system in India and why the stratification is so deeply embedded in our psyche. Sometimes, in-order to reach the end you have to re-visit the beginning.

  • 3. Hari  |  February 27, 2010 at 06:42

    Well written and thought provoking article. I believe stratification in India is partially a result of successive waves of migration. The new immigrants are the upper class. Unfortunately not much DNA analysis has been done on indigenous population in India to understand this more clearly. I tested my DNA in 2004 (National Geographic Genographic Project) and found that my forefathers were very new to India compared to test results from other Indians (the difference in some cases was almost 40,000 years)

    • 4. guruzee  |  February 27, 2010 at 12:46

      Interesting thought there. I was exploring the social status assigned to castes and how it came into being for the second part. The information you gives me more food for thought.

  • 5. prophet666  |  March 23, 2010 at 13:39

    lets not look into the past,we have to look into the present and what the future will be like.What a vast majority of Hindus really love is being ruled by others,who so ever the other may be Muslim,British or Italian

  • 6. cryptic clues  |  March 27, 2010 at 10:16

    The very fact that you begin by equating the terms Hindu and Indian. the entire discursive politics, on which dalit resistance hinges relates to this equation. The colonisation was a large economic project, that sought to create internal divisions and stratification which found profound, yet grave expression in the hegemonic yet unitarist identity of being an Indian and a Hindu. In fact the ‘Indian’ project gained foothold post-Independence with the need to create a single unified cultural/political/religious model. Hinduism, on the other hand never existed as ‘a’ set of distinctive practices, it was at best, a panoply of largely deviant, distinguishable and very dissimilar rituals, deities, cultural practices. These were lumped together, first to understand the diversity (critical to establishing a foothold), and then to subdue it.

    And I am guessing that you aren’t a dalit yourself, and hence don’t see the subtle yet forceful cultural subjugation that dalits are subject to, to this day! Who do you think cleans the toilets in the fancy malls we take a leak in?

    • 7. Hemanth  |  March 28, 2010 at 08:53

      No, I’m not a Dalit a. But, it would have been nice if you had given some links or cited where you have learnt about these things.

      Every-time, someone talks about Hinduism and caste in a post; the replies are usually cryptic and talk about subjugation and some conspiracy to keep the Dalits where they are. Maybe in my pigeon-holed existence, I have not seen enough to actually see the subjugation around me. Or maybe, I’m not very well informed. Either which way, how is anyone supposed to get educated if all that is left are cryptic clues?


      • 8. cryptic clues  |  March 30, 2010 at 16:35

        Well, I have been blogging fairly seriously about some of these issues, relating to identity politics. Which, by the way, I do not see as community divisive, but as a wonderful gift, that gave those ‘invisible’ an identity. As for resources, try, it has some interesting posts on contemporary caste and maoist struggles. You could also try the IIDS website, which has a number of free research reports which discuss substantively and systematically, the marginalisation that dalits are subject to. Visually, try India Untouched by Stalin K, its available for free in about nine parts on You Tube. For books, try Navayana Publishers, it is India’s first dalit publishing house. Additional reading resources, apart from the seminal text by Ambedkar and DuMont, would include Ghanshyam Shah, Kancha Illaiah, Gail Omvedt and Sharmila Rege.

        The dalit movement is a vibrant movement, that has found its centrestage and continues to present meaningful resistance to governments, markets and even NGOs. Welcome to this world, and may I suggest, bracing yourself, because if you are serious about it, you would need to subject your own life, family and actions to gut-wrenching scrutiny.


  • 9. set_elwak  |  April 6, 2010 at 16:59

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
    And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! 🙂

  • 10. Zellcorp  |  April 18, 2010 at 22:52

    It is useful to try everything in practice anyway and I like that here it’s always possible to find something new. 🙂


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