36.) Is the Caste System Only Bad News For Hinduism and India?

The caste system of India has been much denounced as not only institutionalizing inegalitarianism but also providing it with religious sanction. One dimension of it consists of the concept of varṇa, supposedly four in the number: the brāhmaṇa, the kṣatriya, the vaiśya and the śūdra. The system of cāturvarṇya however does not merely imply an occupational division of labour.

The caturvarṇa system also embodied a religious hierarchy; combined with the universally accepted dogma of karma it implied meritoriousness. Brahmins were born into the highest caste on account of karma accumulated over past lives. Lesser karma resulted in lesser births. The birth as a śūdra was designed to atone for sins past. The three upper castes were eligible for initiation and the other samskāras. They had a degree of purity not to be attained by the śūdras. Within the dvi-jātis, the twice-born, again a hierarchy obtained that was important in the regulation of intermarriage and commensality: on principle, the higher caste was the purer, and the lower caste member could accept food from a higher without incurring pollution.[1]

Another dimension of the system is represented by the concept of jāti. In this respect it is worth noting that

Most of the misunderstanding on the subject has arisen from the persistent mistranslation of Manu’s term varṇa as ‘caste’, whereas it should be rendered ‘class’ or ‘order’, or by some equivalent term.

The compiler of the Institutes of Manu was well aware of the distinction between varṇa and jāti. While he mentions about fifty different castes, he lays much stress on the fact that there were only four varṇas. The two terms are carelessly confused in one passage (x.31), but in that only. Separate castes existed from an early date. Their relations to one another remain unaffected whether they are grouped theoretically under four occupational headings or not.

Enormous number of existing castes. My statement that 3,000 distinct castes, more or less, exist at the present day is made on the authority of an estimate by Ketkar. Whether the number be taken as 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 is immaterial, because the figure certainly is of that order. Many reasons, which it would be tedious to specify, forbid the preparation of an exact list of castes. One of those reasons is that new castes have been and still are formed from time to time. But the intricacies of the caste system in its actual working must be studied in the numerous special treatises devoted to the subject, which it is impossible to discuss in this work.[2]

A third dimension is provided by the concept of untouchability. Klaus K. Klostermaier writes indignantly:

Theoretical and theological the caturvarṇāśrama scheme may have been. But it also translated into Indian reality so that socially, and quite often also economically and physically, nobody could survive outside his or her caste. Basically, the Brahmins did not develop ‘human rights’ but ‘caste rights,’ which had the side effect that in the course of time about one fifth of the total population, as ‘out-castes,’ had virtually no rights. They were treated worse than cattle, which even in legal theory ranked above them. People became casteless by violating the rules, or by committing other acts punished by expulsion from the caste. Some books give then the appellation fifth caste, but that may leave a wrong impression: they were cut off from all the rights and privileges that caste society extended to its members, ritually impure and ostensibly the product of bad karma coming to fruition.[3]

It is obvious from all this that caste is really bad news for Hinduism. It gets worse. It is bad news not just for Hinduism but for India as well. For in India the notion of jāti, sometimes including that of untouchablity, spread “even among Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and others, so ingrained is this concept.”[4]

The caste system then it seems, has been an unmitigated disaster for Hinduism, and for India specially when viewed in terms of modern ideals such as egalitarianism.

If the point, however, is probed further the complexion of the situation changes somewhat. It is true that caste system seems to be the polar opposite of such modern concepts as egalitarianism, and nationalism for instance. So let us then ask: what makes India a nation?

National identities typically hinge on shared language, religion, territory or race. In the case of present-day India, however, many of these criteria are difficult to apply. Take language – India is nothing if not multilingual. Take religion – India is nothing if not multi-religious. Take territory – India was partitioned in 1947. Take race – India is multiracial by perhaps any definition of race. Then what are we left with?

Amazing though it sounds, we are left with caste as the common marker of Indian identity! Note that it is not just a marker of Hindu identity, for the typically Hindu construct is varṇa, not jāti. Thus Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists do not subscribe to the idea of varṇa, but have jātis among them. Many of these other religions do not accept untouchability – but still have jātis among them. Why even the varṇas and the untouchables have jātis among them!


[1] Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994) p. 335.

[2] Percival Spear, ed. The Oxford History of India (fourth edition) (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994) p. 63-64.

[3] Klaus K. Klostermaier, op. cit., p. 343.

[4] Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 112.

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