Caste System – A Historical and Analytical Overview 


In India various racial groups have found refuge and shelter. The sakas, Hunas, Kushans and Mongols even the Christians led by Saint Thomas and Jews and Parses found a refuge in India and made it their homeland. India thus became a melting pot of various groups, which merged in the main stream of Hindu philosophy. Hindus adopted a very safe and liberal course of assimilating these people without any loss to their originality. Each group was to develop the best in it but not at the cost of the other and then assimilate all the best in the larger community life of Hinduism. This brought forth a number of idols, deities, rituals and also certain distortions in the Varna system of the society. The Hindu Varna system is not at all caste -equivalent. It indicates a division. There exists all over the world one sort of division or the other in every society, as it is inevitable for social growth. Each individual is possessed of a particular ability by nature. He may well perform a physical labor, or may be a thinker, writer or an artist. Another may like trade and industry or any other material activity. According to these tendencies, the social categories have been found. Lord Krsna in Geeta (IV-13) says,’that the four varnasa have been created by Him according to differentiation of Gunas and Karmas. These four varnas are –1- Brahmin 2- Kshatriya 3- Vaishya and 4- Sudra.
Varna means different shades of texture or color. They represent mental temper. There are three Gunas –1- Sattva 2- Rajas and 3- Tamas Sattva is white, Rajas, red and Tamas is black. These in combination constitute the group or class of people all over the world with temperamental differences .The above classification is based on this assumption Vedvyas in the above couplet, says in the same breath,’ By the differentiation of the mental quality and physical action of the people ‘(1) Not by a birth is a man Brahmin, but by cultivating good intentions and noble thoughts alone, one can ever aspire to Brahminhood.’(2) The type of man’s actions, the quality of his ego, the color of his knowledge, the texture of his understanding, the temper of his fortitude and the brilliance of his happiness define one’s caste and varna.

The Brahmin is generally Sattvic. Sama and Dama are his valuable assets. He is serene and self- controlled and has the quality of austerity, (tapas). He is possessed of the qualities of purity, uprightness, and forbearance He has a will to acquire Jnan (knowledge) and vigyan (wisdom) and faith.

The Kshatriyas are the warriors, the defenders of the nation. They are possessed more of Rajas Guna with the base of Sattva Guna. They are expected to protect Dharma and worldly life of people, which is given to pelf, property, name and fame. These people are possessors of physical power and boldness, alertness, fortitude, generosity and modesty along with masterly behavior mingled with Ishwar bhava (love of god) The Vaishyas is a class of traders and businessmen possessed of a lot of Rajas Gunas with a base of Tamas. They deal with wealth and gold and strive for the material prosperity of the self and welfare of the society. The Sudras are the people of the working class, labor class, They are full of physical labor and are hard working, and possessed of Tamas qualities with Rajas base. They are indispensable to society as they are like a spiral chord on which stands all the social structure. The whole Varna system stood on the basis of Gunas and Karma of the individual. It had nothing to do with birth.

Today people have mistaken caste for varnas and treat them as identical. Varnas are God -created. They are conditioned with one’ actions and desires based on Gunas. Whereas caste is man made. It is a social institution and can easily be changed and framed according to social needs. Caste – by – birth system was never the original intent nor the basis upon which the varnas were actually divided. Sutra says,’ A person should be engaged only in a field of activity that he is capable of doing.’(3)

Today we have miserably failed to understand who a Brahmin is. Generally we believe that one is born by birth in a certain caste. This belief has keenly been propagated and protected by the west as it serves their vested interest of divide and rule or weakens a strong nation in making. Vajra Suchikopanishad tries to remove this misunderstanding. It clearly states that one cannot be a Brahmin either by its being, birth, physical equipment of body and color or by wisdom and knowledge or by religious action even. Hindus believe in rebirth and countless yonies of birth. So the very idea of a being born is one birth as Brahmin is unscientific. Even the physical body structure does not make one a Brahmin. The body is made of matter and matter acts uniformly in every clime and time. Every body is so born and there cannot be any difference.

The ill-found belief that the Brahmin is fair, Kshtriya is black, Vaishya yellow and Shudra dark black is entirely baseless. Even the cremation and last rites of all of us are the same. The possession of a super brain, knowledge and wisdom also is not the monopoly of Brahmin alone. Vishwamitra, the warrior, was a talented seer and not a Brahmin. So were Kabir, Dadu, Raidas Nabhadas, Meera and hundreds of others. We have to remember that even a wise talent loses its right path and goes astray.

Vajra suchikopanished clearly states that a Brahmin is one who lives and moves in Brahma. He stands far above the pair of opposites. In joys and sorrows, pain and pleasure, pride and prejudice, he is unmoved and he is the one who has conquered the vasana and desires and is free from ego, ‘I’ness or ‘Ido’ness. The one so equi-poised is indeed a Brahmin.

Thus it is evident that Varna is not caste. Caste is really a custom. There has been indiscriminate crossover form one Varna to the other; from Brahmin to Sudra and vice versa. There has always been a steady flow of change. The real existence of caste may be occupational, tribal, or racial or sectarian but it was never a replacement of Varna system.

It is indeed disheartening that a system, which is based on very sound principles, has come to result in such an evil. Whosoever is responsible for this, it is a sad affair. It is indeed annoying to note that the basic principles of Varna system were distorted beyond any controlled limit in due course of time. During the foreign rule, it was the caste system that stood firm like a rock in support and defense of our religion and culture. It lost its metal when the spirit of exclusiveness was perpetuated by the group of vested interests who gained political and economic mileage over their fellow beings. It soon degenerated into an instrument of oppression and intoleration, throwing to wind all norms of human behavior and fellowship. It distanced man from man with a clear- cut division of population even in small villages.

The very fact is that the degeneration is man –made. It is a social evil. Hindu religion is sound and has nothing to do with it. It is the weakness not of a religion but of the Hindu society, similar to the weakness of divorce, drug abuse, broken families and violence in other societies. No one blames the religion there but in our case, they unfortunately delight in slighting the Hindu religion. This is not fair.

Dr. Ram Bilas Sharma, an authority on Rg Veda in his book,’ Bharatiya Navajagaran aur Europe,’ says that a study of Rg Veda would reveal that the word ‘ Kavi’ ( poet, composer) was used with deep reverence and the word Brahmin does not find a similar mention. Many devas have been addressed as kavi or even as Brahmana, but no one as brahmin even once. This brahmin word has been associated with rituals and economy, away from poets. These ritualist –brahmins imagined God in their own way. ‘From mouth of Brahmana came out the wise priest brahmin, the warrior Kshatriya was born of His hands, the Vaisha from thighs and the Sudra from legs. ( Up 10-90-12 ) DR Sharma says that it should be noted that the word Sudra comes only once in the mantra and in that very mantra the word Vaisha occurs only once. When there is no use of the words Sudra and Vaisha , the Brahmin word becomes irrelevant. This word has found expression many times but never in sense of varna. Moreover the word Kshatriya is not used in that mantra. The word used is Rajanya and that too only once. The simple conclusion is that it is an interpolation and an after thought.

Needham in ‘Science and Civilization’ Vol II points at the penetrating cultural influence of Indian thoughts on Iran. We notice philosophical similarity between Rg Veda and Avesta. The Greek work Mangeeste’ and works of Iran were influenced by the conception of four Varna. They divided the human body in four parts. The Purohit was the head, the warrior was the hand, the agriculturist , the stomach, and the handiman or the artisan, leg. (Refer Bharatiya Nava jagaran aur Europe p 358).

In Pahelvi , the word used for Varna is Peshak. These peshaks ( occupations ) were Astronan (brahmin ), Auteshteran ( Rajanya ), Vastryoshan ( Vaisha )and Hutukhsan (Sudra) These Hutukhsan were artisans and not sevaks (servants ) Dasas. were called servants. Sudras stood apart from them. Gradually with the decline of social prosperity and urban life , the Sudras were dragged into as servants. This form of thought was prevalent in the 3rd, century AD. It is therefore clear that there was no division on caste by birth line.

India is a developing nation. It has to rise above discrimination and safeguard the guarantee of equal rights and treatment as enshrined in the constitution, to all its citizens irrespective of caste, creed and color or sex. India is aware of the need. In an economically prosperous and politically secure India, the boundaries among its people are bound to vanish with a ready flow and crossovers. The watertight compartments only stink. There has to be a flow and mixing as it ever was. With the spread of education and religious values, the man –made concentration of caste will fall like a sand-hill. The present day problem of caste is a social problem of Hindus and it is for them to solve it and no one else can do it. India strives for a social awakening and awareness; there are ample chances for a growth of a well- knit Hindu society devoted to understanding of fellowship and mutual respect.

The present reaction against the caste discrimination can not be easily rejected. A reconsideration of this principle in modern context, is the need of the day. The system itself is not to blame. It is pure and perfect. There is no evil motive underlying it. It is sound and healthy, provided we treat Varna as distinct from caste.

Source: Indolink