Religion 100 Q
25 Wednesday 2015
Hindu Project: Caste System (Vaishyas, Sudras, and Untouchables)
The Hindu Caste system is based of lineage and occupation. It is divided into 4 distinct categories: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras. There are also the Untouchables whom are considered the “caste-less”. The Caste system greatly affects the life of many individual who live a society where the system is used, whether you’d be in one of the four castes or be an untouchable. This research essay will cover the origins and the lower half of the Castes including Vaishyas, Sudras, and the Untouchables.
In Hindu texts, Varna is understood as idealistic human callings. Varna can represent many things such as character, quality, nature, color, and class. There was no higher or lower Varna, originally people were assigned to do what they were most qualified for or what ever matched their personal characteristics (but later on people were assigned certain job based on birth) (Philosophy). Varna is not the origin of caste, but it did give the framework of thought to the Indian society. Ironically, Varna emerged from tolerance and trust and it did not promote cruel competition or rivalry, rather it promoted harmony and cooperation. “Though it may now have degenerated into an instrument of oppression and intolerance and tends to perpetuate inequality and develop the spirit of exclusiveness, these unfortunate effects were not the central motives of the varna system” (Jain).
There are people who think that castes largely correspond to race or physical type. Sir Herbert thinks that the nose is the primary feature in determining the different social ranks using the “average nasal index”. He didn’t mean that each caste had a distinctive physical feature, but he is implying that castes can be distinguished in this way to determine who is of higher and lower rank (Rao 4). “The biological theory claims that all existing things inherit three one of three categories or qualities. Varna means different shades of texture or color and represents mental temper. There are three Gunas:” (Deshpande) Sattava (white), Rajas (red), and Tamas (black). These three Gunas are also classified to have their own characteristics. Sattava are wise, intelligent, honest, good, and other positive things. Rajas have qualities such as passion, pride, and valor. Tamas are dull, stupid, not creative, and other negative things (Deshpande).
The religious theory states that according to the Rig Veda (ancient Hindu book) the Purush (primal man) destroyed himself to create a society where the different parts of his body represented the four Varnas. Brahmins came from his head, Kshatriyas came from his hands, Vaishyas came from his thighs, and Sudras came from his feet. Examples of what this represents are “Brahmans, who were derived from the head of Purush, are considered the intelligent and most powerful varna because of their wisdom and education and are a representation of the brain. In the same way, Kshatriyas, considered the warrior caste, were created by arms, which represent strength” (Deshpande). Another theory states that the Varnas came from the body organs of Brahma (creator of the world in Hinduism).
Historically, the caste system is believed to have begun with the arrival of the Aryans in India around 1500 BC. The Aryans contained the first mention and a background of the elements that make up the caste system. The Aryans came from southern Europe and northern Asia with fair skin that distinguished them from the native Indians. The Aryans completely ignored the cultures of the Indian people and conquered regions in the north. The Indians were forced to move down south where the mountains were (Deshpande).
The Vaishyas are third in the Caste System, otherwise known as the common people. According to Yanjur Veda “Vaisya among men…brutes from the belly. As they have been created from the storehouse of food (belly) so they are the food (or inteneded to be enjoyed by others). Therefore, they (Vaisyas) are more numerous than others (among men) because many gods were created” (Rao 54). Some also say that the Vaishyas are from the thighs of the Purush. The Bhagavad-Gita further supports the claim that “Agriculture, breeding cattle, trade, (this) is the natural duty of the Vaisyas” (59). The duty of the Vaishyas is sacrifice, giving gifts, agriculture, breeding, and trade. However, later the Sudras take over agriculture and breeding and the Vaishyas become traders, merchants, landowners, and money-lenders. They became strong economically because of their close relation to commerce. They also helped with the construction of public facilities such as hospitals and temples. The Vaishyas placed importance on artisan and technical education; merchants helped India industrialize and created major corporations that became economic powerhouses. The Vaishyas also focused on religious education, because they wanted to be “twice-born”. They shared dvjia status with the upper two castes, Brahmin and Kshatriya, which is being “twice-born”. They achieve their spiritual rebirth during the Upanayanam ceremony. Vaishyas played an important part of the society, but were still considered a part of the lower caste. They were not classified as high social class because of the two upper classes; this provoked hostile feelings towards the upper classes. They started to support anti-Brahmin sects such as Buddhism and Jainism, which are reformist religious beliefs (Vaishyas).
The Sudras are the lowest rank of the Caste System. They are normally artisans and laborers. A large portion of this caste is a product of the mating of an upper caste and an Untouchable or a Sudra. Ancient texts support the claim that Sudras exist to serve the other three castes. “The duty…That of a Sudra is the serving of twice-born, agriculture and cattle-breeding and trade, profession of artisans and court-bards” (Rao 61). It says in the Bhagavad-Gita that “And the natural duty of the Sudras, too, consists in service” (59) further supporting the claim that the Sudras are given a purpose of service. The Sudras are not as harshly discriminated against as the Untouchables, but they still deal with a lot of discrimination from the upper castes. The Sudras are not permitted the same rights and privileges as the three upper castes. For example, they do not have the same access to temples and they are prohibited from the public facilities that the upper castes commonly use. According to Yanjur Veda “Sudra among men… brutes from his feet. Therefore the Sudra… are dependent on other (castes). As no god was created from the feet, so the Sudra is not competent to perform sacrifice. As the Sudra… were created from the feet, so they live by exerting their feet” (54). They were also unable to be “twice-born”, so they couldn’t share the dvija status with the other three castes. Since, they weren’t able to be “twice-born” they weren’t able to part take in Upanayanam. Due to the inequality of the Caste System, many Sudras converted to egalitarian faiths such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
Based on the Hindu law codes, the Untouchables were the product of a Brahmin mother and a Sudra father. However, this theory is not validated by historical facts. The Untouchables came into existence around the end of the Later Vedic Era. “During this era the Aryans, who have been mainly herders, advanced into upper and middle reaches of the Ganga basin and formed an agrarian society…There is a very close relationship between the establishment of Untouchability and the formation of agrarian society” (Kotani 11). This era was also a time when the Brahmins secured their position at the top of society with “their monopoly of the priesthood” (11). The Brahmins legitimized their position by emphasizing their purity. The Ksayriyas living in the upper and middle reaches of the Ganga basin, used the Brahmin’s ideology of purity to their advantage to create the Untouchables. “The existence of untouchables functioned to displace the dissatisfaction of the direct producers, vaisyas and sudras, with the varna-based society, this ensuring stable social order” (Kotani 11). Thus, the Untouchables were placed outside the Varna framework. They became targets of social discrimination and existed to do the impure (but needed) work in the Aryan society. Also, the Untouchables were prohibited to perform religious practices of the “twice-borns” (12). They lived in the outskirts of cities and villages, segregated from the rest of the community. Their material wealth was of the lowest standard, which led to many ill or crippled people. Some of the occupations that the Untouchables had include hunters, arrow makers, woodworkers, executioner, dead animal disposers, scavengers, and earth workers (13).
In the end the Caste System cannot exist without the role of each and every caste including the Untouchables. Mobility within the Caste System is rare and not likely to happen throughout one’s lifetime. Most people stay in the same caste their whole life and marry within their caste. It was rare to see an individual leave his or her caste to take on his or her own path. However, in contemporary society people are becoming more caste aware. Castes can interact more and it is more common to leave the occupations of one’s ancestors. This does not mean the discrimination and inequality doesn’t exist, there is still a long way left for equal rights and equal treatment. Many people are rising to support liberation movements for the Untouchables and the Sudras.
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