Hindus and Caste System

For a long time Hindu religion has been associated with what is described by the Western academia as `Caste System among Hindus’. It is alleged that the practice of caste system among the Hindus originates from Hindu religion. Texts on comparative religion and anthropology continue to make this assertion.

The ancient Hindu scripture *1 describes four classes of work performed by human beings and gives titles to the people who carry out such activities:

  1. Brahmins – those who engage in learning and teaching;
  2. Kshatriyas – those who perform the duty of defence of society and state
  3. Vaishyas – those who engage in trade and other activities to create wealth; and
  4. Shudras – those who perform all other jobs essential for the maintenance of society.

The shrutis, the sacred scriptures, do not state that `caste’ has to be inherited. On the other hand, it is made clear that `one makes one’s caste through aptitude and achievements’. *2

There are abundant references in the scriptures to people changing their castes through a change of vocation. It is recorded that many became Brahmins through study and teaching having previously followed non-Brahminic vocations. These include the authors of Raamaayana and Mahaabhaarata. Similarly those who had been Brahmins lost their title after indulging in non-righteous activities.

Nowhere is it stated that `upper caste’ human beings should practice untouchability against those belonging to the `lower castes’.

Manu Smriti has frequently been quoted to link `caste system’ and `untouchability’ with Hindu religion. It is, however, not a primary scripture but a legal codebook that was relevant to the times in which it was written. Since then, sixteen more smritis have been written superseding many codes contained in Manu Smriti. Finally, the Constitution of independent India incorporated new laws for the Hindu community that constitute the most recent update of the `Hindu Legal Code’.

The beliefs that one is born into a caste and that the lower castes are `untouchable’ have evolved over the millennia within the society in the Indian subcontinent. It must be remembered that caste system is not restricted to those in India of Hindu faith alone. *4,5

Over the centuries Hindu reformers, Mahatma Gandhi the most recent and the most famous, have worked actively to eradicate these beliefs and the practices that are clearly a social evil. Some progress has been made, but clearly there is a lot more to be done in this respect.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad, from its inception in the 1960s has been utterly opposed to these negative aspects of the `caste system’, in particular to the practice of `untouchability’. It has been working at the grassroots to educate the public that the practice has nothing to do with religion. In recent times, VHP is training people from non-Brahminic castes, including the dalits, as priests and temple-priests. It is noteworthy that Poojya Swami Jayendra Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamokshi Peeta recently offered worship at a temple which has a priest of dalit background.

References:

  1. Purusha Sooktam
  2. Bhagavad Geeta
  3. Manu Smriti
  4.  State Of Dalits Converted To Christianity http://www.vikatan.com/jv/2002/jul/24072002/jv0304.shtml [Original article in Tamil, appeared in Junior Vikatan dated 24/7/02.]
  5. Muslim Dalits demand parity with other Dalits – By Andalib Akhter http://www.milligazette.com/Archives/15102002/1510200258.htm