Outline the significant features of the Caste system (14) B) Comment on the criticisms made on the Caste system (6) The caste system, or caturvarna, as K. K. Klostermaier describes is “religious hierarchy; when people are born into their respective castes on account of the karma that they had accumulated in previous lives. “1 It is a key feature of life in India and has been for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, and for just as long it is has been a controversial system (Criticisms coming from Ghandi in 1947 and the Bhakti movement in the middle ages.)
The Caste system is a relatively simple idea on the surface, but when one delves more deeply the idea becomes more and more complex. It is a system that reflects one of the more profound ideas in Hinduism: the attainment of Moksha and atonement with Brahman. In order to understand the key features of the caste system, indeed its very existence, it is necessary to examine the key idea underpinning it. It is the ultimate aim of the soul to gain Moksha, thus breaking the reincarnation cycle, and join Brahman.
2 The reincarnation “cycle”3 is a term that describes the order of life forms on Earth and how close they are to gaining Moksha, for example a Brahmin is closer to realizing Moksha than a flower. Movement through the cycle is determined by karma in a previous life, for example if one has good karma then one moves up the cycle, however if one has bad karma then one moves down the cycle. The reincarnation cycle extends to the composition of society: the caste system. Hence, being a Brahmin is the highest level one can be in the reincarnation cycle, for this is the level at which one can understand Moksha and thus attain it.
Therefore the caste system affects the interactions between Hindus. But can the caste system be a mere invention of the Brahmin in Vedic society, for this reason it is necessary to examine its origins, yet another key feature of the caste system. All societies through history have developed social hierarchies, which have almost always derived from occupation. As society progress from hunter-gatherer to settled agrarian systems to industrialization new occupations are created and shift in status occur, id est. warrior status being replaced by wealthy merchants.
The caste system is the longest surviving hierarchy, and is subject to changing economic and political requirements of evolving society, id est the recent protests against caste will eventually result in a change in the system. The caste system has appeared to have reached a static and inflexible state, a product of ancient times incompatible with “modern life”; it is perhaps from this reason that within the caturvarna are thousands of Jatis. The caste system’s evolution began with nomadic tribal people of the Aryans.
In its nomadic state Aryan society was divided into the priests, warriors and “the rest”, but with agrarian development, after the collapse of the Indus valley civilization, a new caste developed: the town workers. It was during this period that the Sanskrit Vedas was written by the Brahmin. It is from the Vedas that the essential caturvarna were established. In the Rig Veda the Purusashutra myth conveys the origins of the caturvarna: – “When they divided man, into how many parts did they divide him?…
The Brahmin (priests) was his mouth, the arms were made the Kshatriyas (princes/warriors) His thighs the Vaisyas (common people) and from his feet the Shudra (serfs) were born” However, as scholars it is important to understand the motive of the Brahmin writing this myth. Possibly due to the new social situation, id est settlement and the conquered Indus people, it was necessary to establish a system in society that will enable authority.
Indeed Varna is Sanskrit for colour, therefore it is possible to infer that the Caturvarna was created to prevent the suppressed Indus people from reaching a position of authority in Aryan society, id est the Shudra’s colour is black, the possible skin colour of the Dravidian Indus people. Furthermore, each Varna is supposedly thought to have belonged to an age of the Earth: the Brahmin to the “pure” first age the Krita Yuga, the Kshatriyas the second Treta Yuga, the Vaisyas to the Dvapara Yuga, and the Sudra to the Kali Yuga.