Saturday, October 16, 2010

India’s Caste System – A Type-Caste for India - Part 1

I have been brought up in a system where the text books in my school spoke quite negatively about the the Caste system. I was, therefore, brought up in an environment where such classification of humans was looked down upon. Surely, a good thing for India, but as I grew up, I felt a need to understand the subject in greater detail.

Question was why would the people who gave this world some very intellectual and spiritual learning, classify men like this and then cause curses upon the lives of people who belonged to specific castes? In other words, why would some of the most brilliant people, across all millennia, known to this world, commit such totally stupid thing as dividing men into categories and then put some to humiliations and make them under-privileged?

This enquiry into this “caste” system began many years back and I started articulating my views, based on observation and contemplation, almost as early as 1999. Reading over a period of time has added more light and added more shape to my own thoughts on this subject.

Before I begin, let me express it clearly and in advance that this statement of my views on this system doesn’t mean I got the gist, please read it as a view from a fellow human being. Others may have a more informed view on this subject.

Caste System – First Observations

My first observation was that there were privileged people and there were less or under privileged people. Nobody is equal, nobody wants to be equal, and everybody wants to be better than the next person. When we talk of Equal Rights, we are actually talking of Equitable Rights for all human beings. Whether its East or West, we have devised ways of classifying men in different categories – Either on the scale of Intellect, Emotion or Spirituality. IQ, EQ and SQ tests are clear examples of this desire.

There are colleges, good colleges, the best colleges and IVY League. There are marks to be obtained to get an admission into different colleges and different streams of education. There are ranks and grades in schools. There are Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in sports. There is Top Management, Senior Management, Middle Management, Junior Management, Trainees and Peons etc in the Corporate Sector. There are Bright people and there are Dumb people.

So there is an inherent need in the humans to be better than the rest and this state of mind is visible even amongst animal where we have observed that Males fight for the Dominance of a Group of Animals. What we also observe is the Dominance of a group brings privileges – Food and Sex (right to mate and create progenies that might be full of qualities as the Victor Male)

So, there’s a President, Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Governors, Chief Ministers who rule this country with the help of Law Enforcement Agencies and protect this country from external aggression against our country with the help of Armed Forces.

Then we have a large group of advisors, consultants, scientists, social scientists, teachers etc. from various fields like Economics, Military, Politics, Diplomacy, Science etc.

Then we have Industrialists, Businessmen, traders, shopkeepers, exporters, importers and a whole range of people who indulge in economic activities

Then we have a whole range of poorer people who do some very menial job that doesn’t require much application of mind, just basic skills, like Factory Workers, Housekeepers etc.

This is roughly how this nation runs. I think this is roughly how almost any nation runs. This is how an entire society is running today.

Then, I imagined what would happen if, for e.g. a Roadside Beggar touched Ratan Tata or even me or you. I visualized the same reaction from the majority of the people. Everyone will object to him touching them as he’s unhygienic.

All of this I tried to view in its most natural setting. There is no background of Caste or a test to see how people react to a Caste System.

I also opined that whether we call it a caste system or not, people can easily be classified in different sets of capabilities and, therefore, different jobs.

Etymological Sense – Jati Vs. Varna Vs. Caste


I wondered that Caste is an awful word. What is the Hindi/Sanskrit equivalent for the same? The news channels and Politicians generally referred to Jati. So for some years I stuck with that.

But after few years, I came to realize that Jati means something else altogether. Jati means Birth. For example, when Lord Buddha attained Complete Enlightenment, he came out of his meditation reciting the following Verse:

Anek Jati Sansaram, Sandhavissam Anibbisam|
Gahkarakam Gavesanto, Dukkha Jati Punappunam||

Gahkarak Ditthosi, Puna Geham Na Kaahasi|
Sabba Te Phaasuka Bhagga Gahkootam Visanghitam|
Visanghargatam Chittam Tanhaanam Khayamajhhaga||

The meaning for the same is:

For many lives, I kept on running non-stop in this world|
Searching for that Home-Maker, I was born again and again in this sorrowful world||

Oh Home-Maker! You’ve been found, You will not be able to make your Home again|
All your links have been destroyed; the central column has also been destroyed|
My Chitta is now without Sanskar, my Trishna has been uprooted||

If you see, the word Jati has in both instances been used to denote Birth.

So the next thing was that while I discarded the usage of the term Jati for Caste, I was looking for the correct term to represent Caste, I figured the correct term would be “Varna” because of the primary usage Vedic Varna.


Well, the word is all over the place. It is indeed the Vedic Varna system, but heavy usage of the word Jati tends to take the space that duly belongs to Varna. That brings us to the point of revealing the famous four:

a. Brahman (Intellectuals)
b. Kshatriya (Rulers and Protectors)
c. Vaishya (Businessmen and Traders )
d. Shudra (People indulging in Menial Jobs like sweeping, shoe-making, skilled/unskilled labour)

These are revealed in the following RgVedic Verse:

Brahmano.asya Mukhamasid Bahu Rajanyah Krtah |
Urutadasya Yad Vaishyah Padbhyaam Shudro Ajayata ||
(Rgved 10.90.12)


In this Conception of Human Society as a Man, the highly intellectual Brahmans were regarded as the mouth, while the Kshatriyas who were the Administrators and Warriors represented the Arms, The Vaishyas who were Artisans, Traders and Agriculturists corresponded to the abdominal region and the thighs While the Shudras of the society were associated with the feet of this Man-Conception society.

To understand the Man-Conception of the society, one has to refer to the preceding verse:

Yat Purusham Vyadadhuh Katidha Vyakalpayan|
Mukham Kismasya Kau Bahu Ka Ooroo Paadaa Uchyete||
(RgVed 10.90.11)


The entire Human Race was visualized in the form of one Human Being. Some of the questions were: Into how many parts was this Man-Conception Society divided? What was his mouth? And what were his Arms? What represented his Thighs? And what were his Feet?

So, Varna indeed is the correct word that denotes the classification of society. It also seems to denote the Hierarchical sense of society’s classification. But does Caste reflect the true meaning of Vedic Varna? That needs a thorough enquiry. Let’s see what it means.

Caste gives sense of something rigid. I mean by the very definition of it. The Oxford English Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says, “Caste means, each of the Hereditary classes of Hindu Society, distinguished by relative degree of ritual purity or pollution and of social status.”

The Operative words, unfortunately, are “Hereditary, Ritual purity and pollution and Social Status” for most of the listeners.

The origin of the word Caste lies in Spanish/Portuguese words Casta/ Casto – meaning, Lineage, Breed/Pure, Unmixed and the Latin word Castus – meaning, Chaste. Yet the word – Caste - has been used exclusively for “Hindu Society” only. The origin of the word, however, seems primarily for discussions related to Races within Europe.

Spanish Language seems to have been developed in around 10th Century AD, Portuguese seems to have been developed between 9th and 12th Century AD and Latin in its earliest form seems to have been formed around 3rd Century BC and evolved thereafter over a period of time.

The political changes within the European continent and their contact with people of various races like Celts, Gauls etc in those ages seems to have given the need for this word.

That being the origin, the addition of “Hereditary, Ritual purity and pollution and Social status” to the meaning of Caste seems little out of place and specially designed.

One cannot, though, say that this didn’t reflect the situation when this word – Caste – was formed. Through many accounts, actions of Indian social reformers and still existing practices in many villages of India, the Varna System appears to have acquired three visible aspects:

1. It has indeed become hereditary. All Government records seem to be accepting this as the basis for a person’s Varna. Even traditionally, for centuries this appears to have become the criteria
2. The Hierarchical nature and the one time prevalent and now disappearing practice of ‘Untouchability’ of those lower in the Varna hierarchy, was indeed a part of the system
3. It’s hierarchical nature undoubtedly reflected the Social Status of the person belonging to a certain caste at one time in India, in not so distant past

So while it’s very easy for Indians and traditionalists to be an Anglophile, I prefer being unbiased and accept the ills that indeed existed and still exist partially in the society.

But the larger question is if this is what one of most brilliant set of people, to have lived on Earth, meant to say. This is a Vedic Varna system, something that has come out from the Vedas. Vedas are reputed as one of the most advanced Spiritual and Intellectual text spanning over subjects like Quantum Physics, Astronomy, Astro-Physics, Social Science, Medicine etc., in addition to matters of Spirituality, meaning finding the truth within our own Physical Body. This raises few important questions in my mind.

1. Could the Authors, who added to Vedas over generations, be as misguided or ill-intentioned as the current meaning of Varna suggests?
2. Could such an addition be allowed into a Text that has only contained addition of the highest form of knowledge?
3. Could those who have otherwise displayed such intellectual consistency, over generations, have allowed admission of such a concept that means to bring misery upon people?

To me this looks highly unlikely. This is not to say that the system is not reflected in Vedas. The point is that this probably formed a part of a much more advanced understanding of Social Science.

I continued my search for a clearer meaning, and I must concede at this stage that my mind was more or less pre-determined. So one can accuse me of a bias, but I can honestly assure the readers that even as I write this, I am ready to consider any additional material that concludes differently from the direction that is already set in this Post.

Wait for Part 2.