The Caste system is the social hierarchy in India. It is not limited to ancient India, it is still prevalent today. According to S. A Nigosian in World Religions, the caste system, “Is its (India) system of social stratification”(Nigosian 136). Jati and Varna are classifications of the traditional Indian Society. Jati and Varna are two classifications that are very different, but both play a vital role in the life of a Hindu. The system of classification, Varna is a system that existed in the Vedic Society that divided the society into four classes Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (skilled traders, merchants), and Shudras (unskilled workers). (The Chalandalas or “untouchables” is not considered part of the Varna system) Varna literally translates to color, but the system has nothing to do with an individual’s skin color, but has everything to do with classifying individuals based on their characteristics and attributes. The Varna system was originally created to give structure to Indian society based on each individual’s qualities, not based on one’s birth right which is what it has developed into. Social order in Hindu society comes from Post- Vedic times, Jati system, or the sub-castes within each Varna, gives a sense of identity to each member of a specific Varna. A Jati is considered a community that has a particular profession. You used to be able to determine someone’s trade or profession by their surname, but because of the modern education system, and lack of discrimination by the state, the Jati system is currently quickly deteriorating.
The Caste System represents a division of labor based on birth right justified by moral and religious concepts. The Brahmins held the most power in Hindu society , they were priests, otherwise known as the spiritual and intellectual leaders of the society. “They devoted their time to studying, teaching, performing sacrifices, and officiating religious services” (Nigosian 136). The second Varna in the social hierarchy are the Kshatriyas who are the rulers and warriors of the society. Their job was to “Protect, administer, and promote material welfare within the society” (Nigosian 136). The third in the social hierarchy are the Vaishyas who are the farmers, merchants, and traders who really contribute to the economy of India. The fourth and last of the Varnas are known as the Sudras who are laborers that supply the manual labor needed for the economic well-being of India. Later as the development of the caste system continued a fifth group was formed; although not officially considered a Varna, the Chalandalas or “untouchables” had status so low that they did not belong to a caste at all.
The justification of this “social stratification” is linked to the justification of Karma and Samsara. Karma refers to action, each person’s birth is directly related to the past karma from the previous life of that individual, birth into the Brahmin Varna is a result of good karma. “Those who’s conduct here has been good will quickly contain some good birth – birth as a Brahmin, birth as a kshatriya, or birth as a vaisya. But those who conduct here has been evil will quickly attain some evil birth – birth as a dog, birth as a pig, or birth as a chandala” (Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.7). According to this, Karma determines birth into a class, which in turn defines one’s social and religious status, which in turn describes one’s duties and obligations to that specific status. Samsara refers to the “wheel of life, the circle of constant rebirth” (Molloy 87). Hindus believe in reincarnation and that the Karma from one’s previous life leads to where that individual is placed into in society.
Origin of the Caste System:
The Caste System today is a result of the end of the Mughal era and the British colonial government in India. The Mughal empire was ruled by a Persianate Dynasty of Chagatai Turco-Mongol origin and was prominent throughout large areas of the Indian subcontinent. The end of this era caused there to be an increase of men who deemed themselves powerful and associated themselves with kings and priests. The British colonial government later continues this development in 1860 and 1920 by separating Indians into castes. They only allowed individuals in the upper castes to hold professions and trades of importance. In 1920 that policy changed and the colonial government started a policy that reserved a certain percentage of government jobs for the individuals in the lower castes. When India gained its independence in 1947 from the British Empire new policies were enforced that helped to improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. In 1950 many affirmative actions initiatives were taken by the Supreme Court of India. Discrimination against the lower castes is now considered illegal in India under Article 15 of its constitution.
The word Brahmin translates to “Supreme Self” or the first of the gods. Brahmin is the highest Varna in Vedic Hinduism. The population of India that is considered a member of the Brahmin caste according to the article “The Joshua project” is about 60,481,000 people. That’s approximately 4.3 percent of the total Indian population. The Brahmin Varna consists of priests, and individuals of this specific Varna are separated into sub-castes called gotras. Because of the religious and cultural diversity Brahmins are divided into these sub- castes. Only some members are priests, other members have held professions as educators, law makers, scholars, doctors, writers, poets, land owners, and politicians. According to Nancy Auerbach in her book Living Hinduism the Brahmin is associated with Sanatana Dharma which was in early Hinduism and is a code of ethics, or a way of living in order to achieve “mosksha” a sense of liberation and enlightenment. As the developments of the caste system continues, Brahmins became an influential Varna in India and discriminated against the other lower castes.
Most Brahmins are located in the Northern states of India which includes Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, and small concentrations in the southern states which includes Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. This territorial division led to the creation of two groups among the Brahmin: the Panch Gour (northerners) and the Panch Dravida (Southerners). These two groups are separated by the central Indian Vindhya mountain range that almost bisects the country into two parts.
Brahmin came from the term Brahman, which is a magical force. The name Brahmin was given to the first trained priest who held a sacrifice. After the end of the Vedic period in 1000 BC, the term “Brahmin” became universally known as the term for all members of the priestly class. Around 900 BC the Brahmins were divided in to exogamous clans that restricted matrimonial choice and dictated ritual. This system is still intact today where it is frowned upon to marry someone of another caste. The Rig Veda is one of the most sacred Hindu scripture, and it contains the mythological origin of the Brahmin. The god Prajapati (Lord of beings) is identified with Brahma who is the creator in the Hindu trinity and was later sacrificed by his children. This sacrifice is said to have produced the universe and that the Brahmin originated from his mouth.
Traditionally the Brahmin are supposed to become priests, but in actuality they hold a wide variety of occupations. Many members practice agriculture, while others hold white collar jobs. The Brahmin are allowed to follow any profession, but no one except a Brahmin can become a priest. Members of this Varna tend to be strict vegetarians. It is a socio-spiritual obligation to feed Brahmin at ceremonies. Brahmin men have more freedom then Brahmin women. Men try to avoid alcohol and smoking whereas for women it is strictly forbidden. The socially acceptable age for marriage also varies between the sexes. Women can get married starting from as young as 18 whereas men get married at an older age. Marriages tend to be arranged by parents and monogamy is expected. Widows are not allowed to remarry whereas widowers are allowed to. Although Brahmin women are second to men, they do hold a higher level of education than other women in Indian society.
Overall Brahmins hold a high status in Hindu society, and are considered to be smart and influential. They set the standard of social conduct and morality due to their leadership in society. Hindu priesthood is dominated by Brahmins, but other castes due in fact have “sacred specialists” but their status does not compare to that of a Brahmin.
The term Kshatriya comes from kshatra which means authority and power. This authority and power is not based on successful leadership, but more on sovereignty over certain territories. Kshatriya is the second Varna within the social hierarchy. The Brahmin and the Kshatriya make up the upper castes, 20 percent of India’s population is within this category. The Kshatriya constitutes the ruling and military elite, the warriors. Their purpose in the society is to fight as warriors during war and govern in time of peace. They had a duty to protect the citizens from harm, to ensure that each individual performed their prescribed duty and advanced spiritually in their specific Varna. In addition to that they are responsible for the protection of the political cosmic order (dharma). Kshatriyas initially achieved their status on merits of their aptitude (guna), conduct (karma), and nature (swabhava). As the caste system later developed, merit became irrelevant status became hereditary.
It is said that when Brahma was procreating, a “negative energy” emerged from him. The negative energy took the form of Rakshasas also known as devils who started to torture Brahma. Brahma asked Lord Vishnu for help, who later killed them. Lord Vishnu then explained to Brahma that when positive energy is used, negative energy will also emerge. Because of this Lord Vishnu tells Brahma that a special race of humans should be created to protect the entire human race. The Rig Veda contains a different story of origin for the varnas. In this Hindu scripture, Brahmin originated from the mouth of Brahma, while Kshatriya originated from the arms.
The two primary roles of the Kshatriya Varna were to govern the land and to wage war, which led to professions as rulers and soldiers. The male children in Kshatriya were considered symbols of masculinity whereas the female child needed to be gentle and well behaved. Like Brahmin and the rest of the Varnas, men and women were not allowed to marry outside their specific Varna. Kshatriyas also hold a high status of power, second only to the Brahmin. They make sure everyone stays within their Varna.
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