TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2007
Indian Caste system
INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM: A REAPPRAISAL
SUDERSHAN RAO, YELLAPRAGADA
(About the author:
Sudershan Rao, Yellapragada is a senior professor of history in the Department of History & Tourism Management, Kakatiya University, Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, India. He has been serving for over three decades in the University system holding various administrative and academic positions like, Head, Dean of Social Sciences, Chairman of Board of Studies. Currently, he is the Chairman of University Forum for Social Studies. He was awarded National fellowship by the University Grants Commission, Govt. of India, during 1993-95 for his project on ‘Understanding Indian History – Search for an alternative’ and currently nominated to the Indian Council of Historical Research, Ministry of HRD, and Govt of India. Now, he is on a visit to U.K. and U.S. He can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org)
Caste system as all other social and economic systems has come under fire in the modern times. With the changes in the political structure from at least medieval times, Indian religion, which is popularly known as Hinduism, was threatened of its very existence during the Muslim invasions at the wake of the second millennium. However, Islam could not make a heavy impact on the demographical texture of India, because after three hundred years of Muslim rule, the rulers pursuing alien religion had to strike a compromise with the Hindu subjects. Hindus at large exhibited preparedness to lay even their lives or pay heavy penalties for pursuing their Dharma as it is said in the Bhagawad Gita that even death might be preferred for being steadfast in one’s own dharma. Most of the questionable social customs in the Indian society as pointed out by the English educated Indian intellectuals and the Western scholars could be traced to this period of Muslim rule in north India spanning over seven centuries. During this period, to save the honor of their women and dharma at large, medieval Pundits rewrote sastras with some stringent conditions, which attracted the condemnation and criticism of the present intellectuals who could not see through the historical reasons for such interpolations,
The ancient Rishis have given us the law codes to suit to the prevailing conditions of those respective periods of time. But these Smrithis were not the legal codes enforceable by law of the land. They were supposed to guide the people in matters of the personal, family and societal conduct of an individual like the present day Directive Principles of the State Policy of Indian Republic.
The questions and condemnations of the modern scholars on Indian Caste System can be classified under the following heads:
a) Caste being inherited by birth in the family where the individual has
no choice preventing upward mobility of the communities in the
b) Caste compels one to continue to take up the occupation of his
c) Restrictions connected with dining and arranging marriages with in
d) Inequalities perpetuated for generations in respect of social and
e) ‘Inhuman’ social customs like untouchability.
f) Restrictions in respect of access to ‘education’ and the Holy
Scriptures or the religions practiced by the elite sections of the
The Caste system as such is based on social classification which is a common feature of all organized civil societies round the world but not unique to India alone. The feature could be found in all ancient civilizations of the World since about 4th cen B.C as we find in the proto-historical civilizations of, Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and India. Of all these known civilized societies, only Indian and Chinese civilizations are surviving to date. Of the two, Indian civilization is much older as evident from its world’s oldest literature, which was preserved and handed down to generations in oral tradition. The ‘continuity and change’ is the underlying principle of Indian culture, which has contributed to the survival of its various social systems along with its civilization, and culture. Indian tradition is the outcome of the selfless service of the ancient Rishis. The uniqueness of Indian situation lies in the fact that Indian civilization has developed on a strong cultural base, generally known as Sanathana Dharma. (Sanathana means a system which is ‘eternal but ever fresh’ and Dharma the ‘appropriateness of action’ which has to satisfy certain parameters like, right attitude, correct perspective, unity of purpose and proper timing of action).
As all man-made institutions and systems, Indian Caste system also came into existence in the evolutionary process of the civilization to answer certain requirements of complicated living of the people based on material compulsions. The system was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class applying the Marxist jargon which has no respect for the ancient systems and philosophy whether Indian or the other. Some institutions in course of time become redundant when they outlive their need. Indian Caste system, which has evolved to answer the requirements of civilization at a later phase of development of culture, was integrated with the Varna system as enunciated in the ancient scriptures and Dharmasastras.
The Varna System classifies functions and attitudes of a human being addressing entire humanity. The basic qualities and attitudes of an individual are governed by the composition of his mental framework with different proportions of sattva, rajas and tamas, the trigunas (We do not have equivalents to these Indian terms in other languages.Sattva may indicate an attitude of peaceful disposition, rajas, an attitude of dynamism and tamas, a state of ignorance. Since these are the basic characteristics of every human being, there cannot be any change at any point of time in human nature. The institutions built on the economic or political philosophies will not last long as the political power and wealth (representing in the divine personification as Goddess Lakshmi) are unstable and migratory in nature. So they cannot build stable and lasting systems. But Indian Varna system as it is based on the general characteristics of humanity does not change according to the time and clime. However, Indian caste system, which is more connected to the social and material life of people, will undergo change on the peripherals while retaining the basic framework based on the Varna system.
The Varna classification and Caste system are not one and the same. They differ in respect of aims and functions in many ways. The caste system classifies the community while the Varna classifies the functions of an individual. Varna leads one to Moksha (the liberation of the soul) while Caste system is meant for the material and human resource management of a civilized society. There is flexibility in the interchange of Varna as we have several examples in the ancient literature of individuals born in Shudra castes acquiring Brahma Jnana (the Ultimate Knowledge). The Caste system is rigid in the sense that one does not lose his caste even after changing his profession or occupation owing to family tie-ups. Caste system retains and preserves the family culture through the generations. Caste system is further strengthened with religious bond as each family belongs to respective religious customs or traditions within the larger Hindu fold. Therefore one is born in a family belonging to a caste while Varna is acquired by the individual through his effort. Change of occupation does not entitle one to a higher Varna. No one is barred from acquiring Brahma Jnana, no matter to what cast he might belong. We have several examples from Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Vidura though a Brahma Jnani, is considered Shudra while Drona being a Brahmin was in royal service. Drona is considered a fallen Brahmin for accepting joining the service of a king but he was not considered a Kshatriya. Karna being Anga Raja was not welcome into Kshatriya fold though he was born to an unmarried Kshatriya girl, because of his antecedents and questionable birth. According to the Dharmasastras all individuals are born as Shudra and they acquire the Varna through Samskaaras or training or tapas. The modern and Western intellectuals have not properly understood and misinterpreted the Varna and the Caste as one and the same. The caste system finds no sanctity from the ancient scriptures. Indian philosophical schools only addressed the individual and through him the society. The Varna addresses the individual while caste addresses the community. Therefore, one’s caste is not lost with the change in occupation or economic status. However, one is free to choose his occupation irrespective of his caste. The foreign ruling tribes, which came to stay here for historical and political reasons, managed to acquire Kshatriya status by using force and through nominal Samskaaras. Otherwise, one has to join the Shudra fold and move upward.
The misunderstandings of the system may be ascribed to misreading of the Texts of Dharmasastras and the impact of the modern ‘democratic’ and electoral politics. Ancient system of caste organization has been turned into casteism, which negates the very purpose of the system. The matters relating to marriage, common dining and personal occupation are mainly family preferences in a Hindu society, which every member of the family is expected to honor the commitment. Individual’s disagreement is only exceptional. Indian culture aims at molding an individual psyche to surrender and sacrifice his personal preferences to uphold family traditions, customs and commitments. As far as dining is concerned, except Brahmins and Vysyas (merchant community), the rest have no difficulty to have mixed common dining since the Brahmins and Vysyas prefer vegetarian food. Demand for cleanliness and choice of food, choice of company to dine together cannot be curtailed in a civilized society. Though there are no specific injunctions preventing common dining among the members of the same caste, individual’s social and economic status and personal choices would not allow all of them to mix freely, Similarly, marriage is considered vital to maintain and continue the family as a basic unit of the society. A disciplined family honoring the unity of leadership of the eldest of the family and to secure the protection and general interests of each member of the family is a prerequisite for a disciplined society and the well being of every citizen. Even within the caste, a father wants to get satisfied on many counts and family considerations outweigh personal choices in fixing a match. That is only in the larger interests of his family. Indian marriage is not an affair of likes and dislikes of two individuals irrespective of their gender whether they are homosexual or heterosexual (since we see in the modern times legalizing marriages between the same sex as the pinnacle of individual freedom). In Indian system one is not just married to another but one is married into another family. It is not matching of two individuals but in a marriage two families with their respective bandwagons of relatives and friendly families are matched. But in the ancient times, there were eight kinds of marriages and inter-caste marriages, known as anuloma and viloma(low caste groom marrying the higher caste bride and vice versa) were not uncommon. If such marriages were not permitted, how could there be more than 300 castes (or sub-castes) during the Kautilya’s period.(4th cen B.C).Mahabharatha tells us that there were no injunctions prohibiting inter caste marriages. Even a great Kshatriya like Bhima had married a tribal woman Hidimbi and got a son through her who had also fought in the Great War with all the honors of a great warrior. We come across only post-puberty marriages in ancient Indian literature. Even selection of groom by a girl of marriageable age, known asSwayamwara was in vogue. Sati (self immolation of widow) prevalent only among the Kshatriya ruling families was also optional. but not compulsory. Madri, second wife of Pandu Raja committed Sati more out of guilt for causing her husband’s death than out of compulsion while Kunti, the first wife of Pandu, opted out to live. A careful study of scriptures and the ancient literature of Itihasaas and Puraanaas would help understand the nuances of Indian culture. Most of the present day social evils in the Indian society are not deep rooted but their origin can be traced only from the historical period, more from the historical developments of the last millennium when Indian culture received rude shocks under the unsympathetic alien rule.
With the radical changes in the production sector resulting in dominating commercialism and growing consumerism, the world is seemingly transforming into a single and uniform mode of cultural pattern. Indian society is also rapidly changing outwardly to suit to the times, which would help the society to lose what was thrust on it in the recent past. The social evils connected to Indian society as ascribed to it by modern intellectuals are fast fading. But the roots of positive aspects of Indian culture are so deep that the merits of ancient systems would be rejuvenated. This would not only benefit Indian society but also help the world community to live a meaningful and purposeful life, which is, of course, not a distant future.