I received several comments from a poster Prasad in response to my article analysing a “Christian conversion” text. It appears that Prasad converted to Christianity after being denied entry into the Hindu temples as an untouchable. He is obviously a sincere and intelligent person, and loss of someone like him is a loss to Hinduism. Why then is there a caste system, and to what extent is it a problem of Hinduism? It seems to me that there are three important questions that relate to whether the caste system is a problem for Hinduism:
- Do Hindus observer the Caste System.
- Do non-Hindus practice the Caste System.
- Is the Caste system central to Hindu beliefs
Caste Jati, and Varna
The term caste is often used to describe two different systems. First there is the division of humanity into four varnas, basically a priestly caste (Brahmin), soldiers and kings (kshatriyas), traders (vaishyas) and servants (shudra). In adition there are the untouchables, seen as not belonging to any varna. Secondly there are the jati, or occupation group.
Do Hindus Observe the Caste System?
The answer to the first of these questions is obviously yes, in that there are Hindus who observer the caste system. It should be noted that there are many Hindus who are opposed to the caste system. There are some schools that will now train dalits (untouchables) as priests. Gandhi came to believe that the caste system and the system of Varnas was wrong. There are some Hindus who believe that the classification into hereditary varnas is correct, but that jati are just now outdated social constructs.
Do non-Hindus observe the Caste System?
If the Caste System is observed by non-Hindus this would point to it being a social construct rather than a religious phenomenon. In fact the caste system is observed by some Indian Christians. In 2000 an Indian Archbishop complained about the “inappropriate” promotion of a dalit to a Bishop. Indian Moslems also practce the caste system, as do many secular Indians.
Is the Caste System Central to Hindu Beliefs?
The earliest Hindu writings, the Rig Veda show that Caste was not considered hereditary.
“I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother’s job is to grind the corn……” (RV 9.112.3)
The Rig Veda also supports the division of Humanity into four Varnas
“What became of his (the Cosmic Spirit’s) face or mouth? What became of his two arms? What became of His two thighs? What were (the products of) the two feet called? From His face (or the mouth) came the brahmanas. From His two arms came the rajanyakshatriyas). From His two thighs came the vaishyas. From His two feet came the shudras.” (RV 10.90)
, and the jati are also not mentioned. Is the apparent support for the division of humanity into varnas contradictory to the idea of mobility between the varnas? I don’t believe that it is. In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira is asked by a snake (Yaksha in disguise) “who is a Brahmin?”:
The python asks the Pandava brother, “Tell me, oh king, who is a Brahmin ?”
Dharmaraja’s answer is clear. He says, “He who speaks the truth, who is patient, and is compassionate, whose character is without any blemish, who gives alms – he is a Brahmin.”
The Python continues, ” What if a Shudra has these qualities?”
Without any hint of hesitation, Dharmaraja replies, “A Shudra who has these qualities is not a Shudra. if a Brahmin does not have these qualities, he is certainly not a Brahmin.”
The python is not satisfied. It asks further, “If it is the character which makes a man a brahmin, what is the use of the caste system? What role does birth play?”
Dharmaraja continues calmly: “These days castes are very mixed. Therefore the caste cannot be determined by birth alone. ..
So it appears to me that what the Rig Veda is saying is that for society to function people need to perform different roles. People may be suited to one role, but this is down to nature, not birth. It is a statement about the perfection of creation. It also underlines that everyone is valuable to society and to God.
Seen in this light, the varnas are no more objectionable than any other classification. Would it be wrong to classify people by personality type tests? I believe that the true intention of the varnas is no more than this.
The caste system was never intended as a rigid restriction by birth. Discrimination by birth is always wrong. If someone shows the abilities and inclinations for a profession they should not be barred. The varnas are a useful model of the perfection of society, but no more.
I believe that Prasad has been dealt a double injustice. First, nobody who believes the basics of Hinduism should be denied access to the temple, regardless of caste. race or nationality. Secondly, as you say the varnas should be decided by a person’s qualities, abilities and disposition. It is clear to me that Prasad, and probably many more like him, is by nature one of the higher castes.