The Caste System
by Prof. Koenraad Elst
In an inter-faith debate, most Hindus can easily be put on the defensive with a single word-caste. Any anti-Hindu polemist can be counted on to allege that "the typically Hindu caste system is the most cruel apartheid, imposed by the barbaric white Aryan invaders on the gentle dark-skinned natives." Here's a more balanced and historical account of this controversial institution.
Merits of the Caste System
The caste system is often portrayed as the ultimate horror. Inborn
inequality is indeed unacceptable to us moderns, but this does not preclude
that the system has also had its merits.
Caste is perceived as an "exclusion-from," but first of all it is a form of "belonging-to," a natural structure of solidarity. For this reason, Christian and Muslim missionaries found it very difficult to lure Hindus away from their communities. Sometimes castes were collectively converted to Islam, and Pope Gregory XV (1621-23) decreed that the missionaries could tolerate caste distinction among Christian converts; but by and large, caste remained an effective hurdle to the destruction of Hinduism through conversion. That is why the missionaries started attacking the institution of caste and in particular the brahmin caste. This propaganda has bloomed into a full-fledged anti-brahminism, the Indian equivalent of anti-Semitism.
Every caste had a large measure of autonomy, with its own judiciary, duties and privileges, and often its own temples. Inter-caste affairs were settled at the village council by consensus; even the lowest caste had veto power. This autonomy of intermediate levels of society is the antithesis of the totalitarian society in which the individual stands helpless before the all-powerful state. This decentralized structure of civil society and of the Hindu religious commonwealth has been crucial to the survival of Hinduism under Muslim rule. Whereas Buddhism was swept away as soon as its monasteries were destroyed, Hinduism retreated into its caste structure and weathered the storm.
Caste also provided a framework for integrating immigrant communities: Jews, Zoroastrians and Syrian Christians. They were not only tolerated, but assisted in efforts to preserve their distinctive traditions.
It is routinely claimed that caste is a uniquely Hindu institution. Yet,
counter examples are not hard to come by. In
Coming to the Indian tribes, we find Christian missionaries claiming that "tribals are not Hindus because they do not observe caste." In reality, missionary literature itself is rife with testimonies of caste practices among tribals. A spectacular example is what the missions call "the Mistake:" the attempt, in 1891, to make tribal converts in Chhotanagpur inter-dine with converts from other tribes. It was a disaster for the mission. Most tribals renounced Christianity because they chose to preserve the taboo on inter-dining. As strongly as the haughtiest brahmin, they refused to mix what God hath separated.
Endogamy and exogamy are observed by tribal societies the world over. The question is therefore not why Hindu society invented this system, but how it could preserve these tribal identities even after outgrowing the tribal stage of civilization. The answer lies largely in the expanding Vedic culture's intrinsically respectful and conservative spirit, which ensured that each tribe could preserve its customs and traditions, including its defining custom of tribal endogamy.
Description and History
The Portuguese colonizers applied the term caste, "lineage,
breed," to two different Hindu institutions: jati and
The Mahabharata defines the
A person's second name usually indicates his jati or gotra. Further, one
can use the following
Below the caste hierarchy are the untouchables, or harijan (literally
"God's people"), dalits ("oppressed"), paraiah (one such
Untouchability originates in the belief that evil spirits surround dead and dying substances. People who work with corpses, body excretions or animal skins had an aura of danger and impurity, so they were kept away from mainstream society and from sacred learning and ritual. This often took grotesque forms: thus, an untouchable had to announce his polluting proximity with a rattle, like a leper.
Untouchability is unknown in the Vedas, and therefore repudiated by neo-Vedic reformers like Dayanand Saraswati, Narayan Guru, Gandhiji and Savarkar. In 1967, Dr. Ambedkar, a dalit by birth and fierce critic of social injustice in Hinduism and Islam, led a mass conversion to Buddhism, partly on the (unhistorical) assumption that Buddhism had been an anti-caste movement. The 1950 constitution outlawed untouchability and sanctioned positive discrimination programs for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Lately, the Vishva Hindu Parishad has managed to get even the most traditionalist religious leaders on the anti-untouchability platform, so that they invite harijans to Vedic schools and train them as priests. In the villages, however, pestering of dalits is still a regular phenomenon, occasioned less by ritual purity issues than by land and labor disputes. However, the dalits' increasing political clout is accelerating the elimination of untouchability.
In the Mahabharata, Yuddhishthira affirms that
Veer Savarkar, the ideologue of Hindu nationalism, advocated intermarriage to unify the Hindu nation even at the biological level. Most contemporary Hindus, though now generally opposed to caste inequality, continue to marry within their respective jati because they see no reason for their dissolution.
Racial Theory of Caste
Nineteenth-century Westerners projected the colonial situation and the
newest race theories on the caste system: the upper castes were white invaders
lording it over the black natives. This outdated view is still repeated
ad-nauseam by anti-Hindu authors: now that "idolatry" has lost its
force as a term of abuse, "racism" is a welcome innovation to
demonize Hinduism. In reality,
Finally, caste society has been the most stable society in history.
Indian communists used to sneer that "