India's history is remarkable. It boasts one of the oldest continuous civilizations on Earth, and its earliest religion, Hinduism, has its roots 2500 years before the birth of Christ, evolving gradually over time. For much of that time, one of the cornerstones of the Hindu religion was the concept of "caste," or the place an individual held in relation to others. Each person's place within the caste system was determined at birth, with no chance of moving out of it during one's lifetime. The word "caste" is Portuguese and means race or family.
The concept of caste, or Varna, permeated all aspects of Hindu life. Caste decided not only one's position in the larger culture, but what jobs the person could and could not do, who the person could and could not socialize with, and of course, who the individual could and could not marry. There were rules of behavior for every caste and even for the thousands of subcastes that developed. Over time, the caste system became perverted into an efficient method for conquering nations to control the indigenous people. Instead of stabilizing the society and providing for efficient operation, it became a serious source of division and strife between subgroups who would have been well-served to work together. This paper will outline how the caste system developed, and the effects it had on the caste members as well as those who belonged to no caste.
The original residents of the area we now call the country of India were the Dravidians. They developed a civilization that was advanced for its time, including well-built sewer systems, planned cities based on the "city block," and stout homes built of brick that were sometimes several stories in height. In the beginning, the roots of Hinduism included the worship of gods of nature, such as a god of rain, and a god of the Sun. Over time, the religious beliefs became more specific and organized, and they developed the concept of Brahman. They came to believe that many gods were part of this group, which included Brahma (creator), Vishnu (protector) and Shiva, its destroyer. Unlike the Christian religion, which forbids the worship of the evil entity (Satan), it was a respected practice for Hindus to worship Shiva, as he represents a real part of life (such as death as well as birth).
In 1500 BC, the dark-skinned Dravidians were invaded by the lighter-skinned Aryans to the north. They were conquered and subjugated. The Aryans took the Dravidian religious beliefs and superimposed the caste system on it as a way to control the conquered people. Over time, the Aryan's caste system was incorporated into the Hindu faith and was made part of important religious writings. The Manu Smirti, or "Code of Manu," explains the caste system and its rules.
There are five large divisions within the caste system, and four of those divisions have many subcastes. Of the five divisions, four are actual castes, and the last group consists of those who have no caste at all. The caste system was originally based on skin color, and thus put Aryans at the top of society, and the dark-skinned Dravidians at the bottom. The rules for behavior within caste are highly discriminatory.
The individual's role in society and his duty to his family and culture, was determined by his caste. The top caste was called Brahmans. They were the priests and scholars, and it was their sacred responsibility to spiritually lead all Hindus. It was their job to interpret the holy scriptures, and only Brahmans could become priests.
Below the Brahmans were the K'shatriyas, or warriors. This role was extended to providing punishment for criminals, although Brahmans determined the punishment. Brahmans determined justice, but the K'shatriyas meted it out.
Below them were the business people and trained artisans (ex: stone carvers), called Vaisas. They also included farmers, merchants, and those who raised cattle, which was the main work of this caste.
The lowest caste was called the Sudras. They held the most menial jobs allowed to those in any caste, such as laborers and servants. They were virtual slaves, as anything they owned was considered to belong to their master.
However, below all these castes were the Dalit, or Pariahs. They were below any caste, and were called "untouchables." The Hindu belief was that they were so unclean that they must not ever touch anyone of any caste. A person's caste determined the work he must and must not do, and Pariahs were required to do the work considered unclean, such as tanning hides.
The Brahmans, K'shatriyas and Vashyas are considered "high caste," and the Sudra "low caste." The Sudra and Dalit came from the original dark-skinned Dravidians. The caste system is explained in Hindi scriptures, which states that the Brahmans come from Brahma's mouth, K'shatriyas from his arms, Vashyas from his thighs, and Sudra from his feet. By extension, the Dalit are below the feet, not from any part of Brahma's body. Over time, the four major castes divided into subgroups, which divided the people further.
The caste system allowed the Aryans to maintain their superior position with the force of the indigenous population's religion behind them. The Dravidians put not only their current life but also future lives in peril if they defied this rigid system, and it encouraged the Aryans to refrain from mixing with the local population. It was a remarkable system of management that has profound effects on Indian life to this day.
While the influence of the caste system is somewhat lessened today in the major cities, in rural India, it remains in place and governs much of everyday life. In its broadest sense, caste determines who a person may eat with and marry. However, the many rules cover many mundane details of life including dress and facial hair. This makes a person's caste immediately apparent and facilitates the separations among people. Length and color of clothing and how it is wrapped or tied and even what accessories a person can carry -- all are determined by caste. In addition, the person's caste is part of his family name, further identifying his caste status.
Inequities existed throughout Indian law. When someone committed a crime, his punishment was partly determined by his caste. A crime committed against a fellow caste member was not as serious as if it were committed against a higher caste. For instance, if A Sudra man had intercourse with a Brahman woman, he could be put to death, but a Brahman was never put to death for the same offense. Similarities can be seen between this practice and the treatment of the Blacks vs. The Whites before civil rights legislation in the United States. Until that occurred (and some say to this day to some extent), Blacks were treated more harshly by the law than Whites, but especially so if a Black committed a crime against a White.
The beliefs of the Hindu religion combined with the practice of caste gave the Aryans excellent control over their conquered population. As many religions do, the Hindi believe that the soul never dies, but they believe further that the soul will be reborn into a new life, or reincarnation. They also believe that all living things have souls. The body one's soul receives for the next life depends on how one conducted oneself in the previous life. The religion also teaches the concept of Karma, meaning that everything one does for good or evil is taken into consideration when determining what the soul's next body will be. If a person lived a good life and performed its duties as required by its caste, its soul might be reincarnated into a higher caste. Living a good life, which including living within the…