Monday, September 3, 2012




The Caste System: the Hindu’s Imaginary Achilles’ Heel -- George Augustine

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The Caste System: the Hindu’s Imaginary Achilles’ Heel

George Augustine

2 September 2012

The BBC commemorated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible last year in a special edition of the TV programme “The Big Questions” debating just one topic: “Is the Bible Still Relevant?” The chief participants were, inter alia, the former Anglican bishop Michael James Nazir-Ali and biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulos. The debate can be watched here. Though the debate was about Christians and the bible, replying to an assertion by bishop Nazir-Ali that people would be savages without the ten commandments, Ms. Stavrakopoulus mentioned that people of other religions also live a moral life, and that they don’t need a book for that.

No sooner had she spoken these words did Nazir-Ali, a Christian fundamentalist from Karachi who had to run away to England to escape the wrath of fellow Islamic fundamentalists back home, retorted: “Are you talking about Hindus and the caste system? … Have you ever lived as an untouchable in a Hindu society”. It was enough to shut up Ms. Stavrakopoulus, and the bishop looked triumphant, as if scoring a point against the Hindu was enough to salvage the gobbledygook that has become of his faith!

The mention of ‘caste system’ is enough to shut up even the most eloquent advocate of Hinduism. In a way, this response is reminiscent of the German guilt that becomes active the moment somebody utters the word, “Jew”. I’ve never understood why present-day German humanists should feel guilty of a crime committed by their forefathers motivated by Christian prejudice, of which they have had no part. And it is a wonder why the word “gypsy” never causes such an uncomfortable German response, though the Gypsies too have had a thick slice of the holocaust share.

The ‘caste system’ in India at its worst was caused by a social prejudice rather than a religious prejudice and I’ve yet to hear of the Brahmans sending anybody to the gas chamber, or even imprisoning them in a concentration camp. Still, the Hindu hangs his head in shame if you mention the ‘caste system’.

The ‘caste system’ is a naturally evolved social system that existed and still exists in all parts of the world in one form or another, though it was and is most evident in the Indian subcontinent. Caste is defined as “any group of people that combine some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, and status in a hierarchy” [1]. According to social scientists, it develops “when the worth difference within a society sharpens to such a point that the social superior shuns fellowship and intermarriage with the inferior, thus creating a society made up of closed hereditary classes” [2].

When caste relations become extreme and infringe upon human dignity and the fundamental freedom of the individual, that is the point when the caste system becomes bad or termed evil, viewed through the lens of the modern moral sensibility. On the other hand, the social organisation based on occupation makes business sense even today, and more so in ancient times when the family craft was not imparted in a polytechnic but in the household, and the teachers were your own parents from whom you learnt your trade. Every member of the family, male or female, was a capital in the trade and it made sense to marry a trained member of a family engaged in the same trade. It is a natural phenomenon and occurs overarching religion and ethnicity.

Caste is no monopoly of the Hindus, but then why are they held hostage by this notion? The obvious reason is that it is generally believed, even by Hindus, that the “caste system” as defined above is mandated by their religion and was therefore institutionalised. Let us examine the verity of this belief.


The line chāturvarnyam mayā srushtam guna karma vibhāgasha / tasya kartāram api mām viddhy akārtaram avyavam is spoken by Krishna (Gita 4-13) and means “I created the four varnas according to quality, activities and aptitude; although the creator of this, know me as the non-doer being immutable” [3]. The four varnas or divisions of human order are brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and shudra and are not at all the ‘caste’ spoken of earlier, though out of ignorance many people misunderstand them merely as occupational or trade classes ordained by birth.

According to an authentic source [4], the Mahabharata of which Bhagavad-Gita is a part, was written by Maharishi Vyasa for the benefit of certain sections of society at a time when their circumstances did not allow them to pursue the study of the Vedas. Vyasa’s effort was to make available the essence of the Vedas to the less privileged, which would enable them to follow the path of dharma.

In the Gita, for this very reason, Vyasa’s Krishna assumes superhuman dimensions that reflect the vision of the supreme reality of the Vedas. In Vedanta philosophy, this phenomenal vision of brahman is generally known as saguna brahman, the brahman endowed with qualities. In Advaita Vedanta Isvara, or the creator of universes, of the Upanishads is a reflection of (nirguna) brahman (supreme reality without quality) in māya or the phenomenal world. Therefore, the dissociation of Krishna from the act of creation of the four varnas is consistent with Vedanta.

In the four Vedas, there is no account of an almighty “God” who created the universe and everything in it. The narrative of Mahabharata being designed for those who were ignorant of the Vedas, Krishna (characterising saguna brahman) means by his aforementioned utterance merely that the four varna system is a natural phenomenon. This is easy to understand when one considers gunas as the scientific basis of the four varnas as described in the Vishnupurana. [5]

The physiological and psychological traits of people are ruled by gunas or qualities like satva, rajas and tamas. People are disposed to the various combinations of these gunas for various reasons including genetic inheritance, diet and discipline and it is the dominance of a certain guna or a combination of gunas that predisposes a person to certain qualities that are suitable or unsuitable for a certain activity or a job. Thus a brahmana is predominantly ruled by satva guna, whereas a kshatriya has predominantly rajas. The vaisya has both rajas and tamas and the shudra is dominated by tamas. It is actually the guna that makes them what they are and not vice versa.

The balance or imbalance of these gunas can be influenced by diet and discipline [6] and as such indicates a biological fact. Therefore the maintenance of the guna balance can also be cultivated through breeding, for example, by inter-marrying from the same group which follow the same diet and discipline. And the ensuing progeny will be predisposed to possess the dominant guna of the parents and the community. This process can also lead to the formation of a ‘caste’ as defined earlier.

Thus, we see that there are biological, social and economical factors involved in the formation of ‘castes’ and were not created by Krishna or his author Vyasa. The Gita is only stating a natural phenomenon and not ‘caste’, which is a social development arising from many different factors.

Purusha Suktam

Another text that is often cited to stick the ‘caste’ on the Hindu’s forehead is stanza 13 of Purusha Suktam, which says the purusha’s mouth became the brahmana, his arms the kshatriya, his thigh the vysya and his legs shudra. For the blame game, that is to beat the Hindu with the ‘caste’ stick, one needs to pre-assign lower points in the social scale for purusha’s lower limbs to make up an unequal hierarchy. For example, if purusha was considered a tree, its leg (roots) cannot be judged inferior in any way to the top, fruit-bearing branches.

Written by Rishi Narayana, Purusha Suktam [7] is a lovely hymn and a beautiful poem that describes organic evolution leading to human consciousness in the metaphor of a Vedic yajna. The main subject of this poem is purusha, which term is almost always mistranslated into English as ‘God’, but the purusha is beyond all definitions of ‘God’ in the dictionary and have no resemblance whatever to the hero of the Christian bible. In a dispassionate analysis of the hymn, however, purusha comes through as the unifying basis of organic life.

The first stanza describes an entity that has multiplied and spread beyond the earth. This entity is organic, because it has eyes, head and feet, indicating perception, intelligence and movement. The second stanza confirms it by stating that this entity sustains its perpetuity and grows enormously by consuming food. Later, the purusha takes on a variety of forms (virat purusha). The devas (natural elements) then perform the yajna (sacrifice) sprinkling celestial waters on purusha after laying him on the darbha grass.

At the end of the yajna, various things emerge, among them animals of all sorts including domestic animals like horses, cows, goats and sheep as well as the four Vedas. After this, in the aforementioned 13th stanza, is described the evolution of human society, whereby the purusha’s body becomes a metaphor for the organic body of society, and the various parts of his body become each of the four varnas.

The 14th stanza describes perception through the senses. In the 20th stanza the level of cognition has evolved to such an extent that the Self (I) is identified with the purusha. In the 22nd stanza, the light that shines in all including the devas alike is identified with brahman, the supreme reality. Is there anything false or socially evil in the depiction of this aspect of reality?

Cultural Changes

There are various factors responsible for the distortion of concepts and meanings in the Hindu texts, among which I would name the dominance of the Judeo-Christian thought and sensibility among Hindus as the foremost. It has become a fashion among Hindus today to portray themselves as more irrational than they really are by competing to be like Judeo-Christians in their worship, which really is a superstitious myth. In their ignorance, many still think that they have to go beyond common sense and intelligence in order to be considered religious or moral. Nothing can be further from the truth.

There is a new trend in the Hindu ‘caste’ criticism, especially by Christian missionaries worldwide, by naming it a ‘racial discrimination’. The accusation is that the Aryan invaders of yore, who are called Brahmins, consider themselves a superior race and the Hindu ‘caste’ has been created on the basis of racial categories. This myth can be exploded by just one instance. The Brahmin ‘castes’ in India as a rule did not intermarry with another Brahmin ‘caste’ in another language area, just like they didn’t with any other ‘caste’ in their own language area. This wouldn’t have been the case if the Aryan race was a fact or indeed the cause of the ‘caste’. The Aryan invasion theory has been dismantled since long, but the idea is still utilised by Christian missionaries in South India and by Tamil politicians to good effect.

The real victims of modern ‘caste’ discrimination are termed “untouchables”. Most of these people were originally outside the ‘caste’ society because from time immemorial they inhabited remote geographical zones (such as forests), where they had complete autonomy over their land, culture and society. Though interactions between the different groups were minimal, they were regular and recognised and accepted by Hindu kings and all caste groups. However, the old system and traditions broke down after the establishment of colonial laws.

The numerous traditional festivals [8], which have almost become extinct today, involving these groups indicate points of interaction between these societies on equal terms. Most of the “untouchable” groups enjoyed their own geographical space, occupation, customs and rituals, which were not violated under all circumstances by tradition and were accepted by all communities and the local Raja.

The violation began when European colonialists started clearing forests and encroached upon the geographical areas of the so-called ‘untouchables’ to preach Christianity to the forest dwellers. The rabid increase in the Indian population in the last 50 years combined with the import of European morality also compelled these vulnerable groups to also lose their dignity, forcing them to forsake their own land and traditions and learn the new language and culture of the Europeanised plains to become a servile class.

The significant number of dignified personalities (Vyasa, Visvamitra, Parasurama, Dronacharya, etc.) in ancient Hindu history who changed their ‘caste’ occupation indicates that the alleged features of the modern-day Hindu ‘caste system’ marked by extreme rigidity and inequality evolved later on in history. Foreign invasion was a major factor that rigidified social strata. A new study [9] shows a direct link between colonial practices and policies to the development of social inequalities in India. No doubt lots remains to be done not only in India but all parts of the world to get rid of social discrimination based on ethnicity, occupation and religion. This discrimination is not a monopoly of the religious group known as Hindus.

[1] See
[2] See
[4] Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto I, chapter 4, verse 25. See
[5] See Pandharinath H. Prabhu, Hindu Social Organisation, A Study of the Socio-Psychological and Ideological Foundations, in the chapter “Four Varnas” (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 2010) pp. 319-320. See in Google Books.
[6] For more details, consult a learned ayurvedic physician or Hindu acharya.
[7] See the ‘Simple English’ translation by Sri Kotikanyadanam Sreekrishna Tatachar:
[8] The Mannarkadu Pooram in Palakad District, Kerala, which took place for the last time in 1972, was the last of such festivals to have disappeared in India. It was a joint festival of the Attapady tribes and the people of the plains, which was a traditional venue for goods and cultural exchange.
[9] See Arvind Kumar, How British socialism created poverty and caste inequality:

The author is a professional translator

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