Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Truth About Caste System in India

  • It was commonly believed by the British that according to Hindu scriptures caste was hierarchical, determined by birth and could not be changed.

  • However, an overwhelming number of religious texts suggest quite the contrary, that caste was not determined according to an individual's parentage but according to his attributes.

  • Since Vedic times, caste has never been hereditary and in fact, even members of the same family pursued diverse vocations as the author of this verse from the Rig-Veda.

  • All Hindus, including those of low birth and even unknown lineage, had the choice of pursuing any occupation, including that of a Brahmin.

  • The word 'caste' is not of Indian derivation at all but is a derogatory epithet, meaning race or breed ('casta'),introduced to India by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century to incorrectly describe 'jati' or the Hindu community network.

  • Portuguese wrongly assumed the priestly class or Brahmins commanded the same authority and power as the Christian clergy did at that time in Europe. The reality is that the Brahmins in India have never commanded comparable authority and power to the Christian clergy. They controlled neither the economy nor the army, both of which the clergy did in Medieval Europe. Believing however in this authority, they developed contempt for the Brahmins – contempt that continues to this day within Christian evangelical circles.

  • As early as the eighteenth century successive British administrators attempted to categorize the Indian population, in addition to other parameters, according to religion and caste.

  • The question of caste became more specific in the 1901 Census, because by and large the Indian population did not understand what was meant by 'caste' and gave their occupation, religion and education, as their caste. This time the British insisted on compartmentalizing the population into the four varna categories, even if it was a loose fit.

  • Caste then became an important element in Indian politics after the British imperialists used caste-based taxonomy as the basis of classifying the colonized Indian inhabitants, particularly the Hindus, in the population census of 1872.

  • Gross misinterpretation of Sanskrit religious texts by some European scholars led to the assertion that the four categories of the 'varnashram' are based on skin colour. This contradicts Hindu scriptures, which depict Hindu icons Lord Rama and Lord Krishna as having dark complexions (shyama varna). The celebrated Brahmin sage and vedic scholar Vyas was himself of dark hue. The Brahmin sage Kanva, who contributed richly to the Rig-Veda, is too described as a dark skinned person vide.

  • Thus the British succeeded in binding the empirical reality of jatis (communities) with the Vedic theoretical construct of varna (categorization of occupations), as 'caste' (inherited social status),causing the popular contemporary perception of Indian society having been consistently divided into the four hereditary caste groups from time immemorial.

  • According to Rig-Veda (X.90.11-12) When they immolated Purusha, His mouth became the Brahmana,his arms became the Rajanya, his thighs became the Vaishya, and the Shudra was born from his feet.'

  • Foreigners commonly misinterpret these verses as meaning that because the feet are the lowest extremity of the body, the 'Shudra' must be inferior to other caste. Yet a verse in the same chapter (X.90.14) declares that Earth was born from the same feet of Purusha, thus implying that Shudras are closest to nature and mother earth (Prithvi Mata).

  • No one part of the human body (society) is inferior or superior to any other part of the body; each is dependent on the other, complementary to the other, there to support the other. Purusha Sukta commands Hindus to understand that none of the four classes is inferior or superior to the other but that each is dependent on the other for its survival.

  • Purusha is analogous to society, the message is clear: each member is integral to 'the body' as a whole; that acting singularly, as little more than severed limbs, we are ineffective. Crucially, these texts also demonstrate the principle that whenever synchronization between the different parts of the community is disturbed, that community becomes paralyzed and inoperative.

  • Rishi Narayan said that society can be empowered only if its intelligentsia (Brahmins), government (Rajanya/Kshatriya), mercantile and farming community (Vaishya) and laborers (Shudra) amalgamate and collaborate just as the components of a healthy body.

  • The celebrated authors of the foremost religious scriptures of the Hindus, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Valmiki and Vyas respectively, were Dalits. The narrator of the Puranas, Suta Maharishi, was a Dalit.

  • Maurya dynasty of ancient India was from the Muria tribe, whose primary profession was to gather peacock feathers. Likewise, the heroic King Ashoka was the son of a female servant.

  • Therefore, Dalits have always been an integral part of Hindu society and did not 'sprout from the earth;' neither are Dalits the remnants of a primitive race. The very word "Dalit" is a derogatory epithet for untouchables meaning 'broken' or 'crushed' eagerly used by some politicians, Christian missionaries and media corporations. The term is both offensive and inaccurate, even resented by those ascribed this label.

  • The Hindu faith has never condoned or supported slavery, unlike the Abrahamic faiths, and this is why, historically, India is distinctive in its ability to assimilate and tolerate migrants of diverse faiths and backgrounds, seeking sanctuary in its territory, simultaneously allowing them to live and practice their beliefs as free and equal citizens. Caste is a result of this spirit of freedom and pluralism allowing diverse communities to coexist rather than sacrifice their cultural identities and join the melting pot; quite a contrast to European colonization techniques resulting in the cultural and often physical extermination of diverse identities by one intolerant and powerful group.

  • It should be remembered that the policy of Christian invaders to the Americas, Australasia and South Africa has been to suppress and sometimes annihilate the host and their cultural practices, subsequently imposing their own regimen and colonizing the host's country with its own race.

  • Although the science of crosscontamination and the spread of disease is a relatively modern concept in western countries, the Vedas documents how disease proliferates through microbes. In order to avoid contracting life threatening diseases, some castes such as Brahmins, in order to maintain physical purity and remain functional, would shun physical contact not only with such persons engaged in ‘polluting’ work, but society as a whole.

  • Many westerners are highly critical of this behaviour, however are quick to comment on such practices and ignore them in their own countries. There are now record levels of homeless people in the UK, who are analogous with the outcastes of Indian society.

  • British menial workers seldom interact socially with those of the higher echelons and food and hygiene legislation strictly governs how food is handled, prepared and served to the public. Even in restaurants, chefs habitually wear disposable gloves when preparing food and more frequently, vendors handle fruit,vegetables and other produce, which are to be consumed with gloves. The discerning UK public would not tolerate anything less.


  • The Cast System, Dr. Raj Pandit Sharma, Executive Member Hindu Council UK

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