Caste system in India

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Not by birth does one become an outcaste, not by birth does one become a brahman. By one's action one becomes an outcaste, by one's action one becomes a brahman. ~ Sutta Nipata

The caste system in India is the paradigmatic ethnographic example of caste.

Quotes[edit]

  • One thing I want to impress upon you is that Manu did not give the law of caste and that he could not do so. Caste existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and therefore philosophized about it, but certainly he did not and could not ordain the present order of Hindu Society [...] The spread and growth of the caste system is too gigantic a task to be achieved by the power or cunning of an individual or of a class [...] The Brahmins may have been guilty of many things, and I dare say they were, but the imposing of the caste system on the non-Brahmin population was beyond their mettle.
    • B.R. Ambedkar 1916 16, quoted from Elst, Koenraad. Manu as a weapon against egalitarianism: Nietzsche and Hindu political philosophy in : Siemens & Vasti Roodt, eds.: Nietzsche, Power and Politics (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2008).
  • The Mahomedans themselves recognize two main social divisions, (1) Ashraf or Sharaf and (2) Ajlaf Ashraf means ' noble ' and includes all undoubted descendants of foreigners and converts from high caste Hindus. All other Mahomedans including the occupational groups and all converts of lower ranks, are known by the contemptuous terms, ' Ajlaf , ' wretches ' or ' mean people ': they are also called Kamina or Itar, ' base ' or Rasil, a corruption of Rizal, ' worthless '. In some places a third class, called Arzal or ' lowest of all ', is added. With them no other Mahomedan would associate, and they are forbidden to enter the mosque to use the public burial ground.
    • B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or The Partition of India (1946) citing the Census for 1901 for the Province of Bengal [1]
  • Caste was originally an arrangement for the distribution of functions in society, just as much as class in Europe, but the principle on which the distribution was based in India was peculiar to this country.... A Brahmin was a Brahmin not by mere birth, but because he discharged the duty of preserving the spiritual and intellectual elevation of the race, and he had to cultivate the spiritual temperament and acquire the spiritual training which could alone qualify him for the task. The Kshatriya was a Kshatriya not merely because he was the son of warriors and princes, but because he discharged the duty of protecting the country and preserving the high courage and manhood of the nation, and he had to cultivate the princely temperament and acquire the strong and lofty Samurai training which alone fitted him for his duties. So it was with the Vaishya whose function was to amass wealth for the race and the Sudra who discharged the humbler duties of service without which the other castes could not perform their share of labour for the common good.... Essentially there was, between the devout Brahmin and the devout Sudra, no inequality in the single virat purusa [Cosmic Spirit] of which each was a necessary part. Chokha Mela, the Maratha Pariah, became the Guru of Brahmins proud of their caste purity; the Chandala taught Shankaracharya: for the Brahman was revealed in the body of the Pariah and in the Chandala there was the utter presence of Shiva the Almighty....
    Caste therefore was not only an institution which ought to be immune from the cheap second-hand denunciations so long in fashion, but a supreme necessity without which Hindu civilisation could not have developed its distinctive character or worked out its unique mission.
    But to recognise this is not to debar ourselves from pointing out its later perversions and desiring its transformation. It is the nature of human institutions to degenerate, to lose their vitality, and decay, and the first sign of decay is the loss of flexibility and oblivion of the essential spirit in which they were conceived. The spirit is permanent, the body changes; and a body which refuses to change must die. The spirit expresses itself in many ways while itself remaining essentially the same but the body must change to suit its changing environments if it wishes to live. There is no doubt that the institution of caste degenerated. It ceased to be determined by spiritual qualifications which, once essential, have now come to be subordinate and even immaterial and is determined by the purely material tests of occupation and birth. By this change it has set itself against the fundamental tendency of Hinduism which is to insist on the spiritual and subordinate the material and thus lost most of its meaning. The spirit of caste arrogance, exclusiveness and superiority came to dominate it instead of the spirit of duty, and the change weakened the nation and helped to reduce us to our present conditions.
    • Sri Aurobindo: Ghose, A., Nahar, S., & Institut de recherches évolutives. (2000). India's rebirth: A selection from Sri Aurobindo's writing, talks and speeches. Paris: Institut de recherches évolutives, also quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2002). Who is a Hindu?: Hindu revivalist views of Animism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other offshoots of Hinduism. ISBN 978-8185990743
  • Not by birth does one become an outcaste, not by birth does one become a brahman. By one's action one becomes an outcaste, by one's action one becomes a brahman.
  • Historically, the insistence on including caste among the criteria for Hinduism is not so innocent: it was part of the British 'divide and rule' strategy against the Freedom Movement. (...) These criteria were calculated to exclude the lowest castes and certain sects, regardless of their beliefs and Hindu practices... The aim was to fragment Hindu society: 'Given the upper caste character of the leaders of the Swadeshi movement, this 'test' was designed to encourage the detachment of low castes from the 'Hindu' category, reducing the numbers on whose behalf the upper castes claimed to speak.' The 'test' in effect implemented a suggestion by Muslim League leader Ameer Ali (1909) to detach the lower castes from the Hindu category. Ever since, it has remained a constant in anti-Hindu circles to maximize the importance of caste, and in Hindu Revivalist circles to work for its decrease in importance or even its ultimate abolition.
    • P. Datta, Elst, K. in Elst, Koenraad (2002). Who is a Hindu?: Hindu revivalist views of Animism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other offshoots of Hinduism. ISBN 978-8185990743, with quote from Pradip Kumar Datta: Dying Hindus, Economic and Political Weekly, 19-6-1993, p. 1306.
  • This social system did not exist in isolation. Thus, centuries of foreign domination must have had an impact on it. We can say a priori that when leading groups in society come to groan under the weight of foreign oppression, they themselves will weigh heavier on the lower groups.... A society that is put on the defensive, will harden and develop internal friction. Again it may sound like an easy explanation, but it is just quite plausible that a part of the inhuman traits of the caste system as recent generations found it, must be attributed to later outside influences like the impoverishing, brutalizing and demoralizing effect of Muslim rule. ... The essence of Varnashramadharma, the social philosophy that allots different duties to differently minded groups of people, as well as to the different age-groups, and that allows communities to develop at intermediary levels between individual and state, is quite the opposite of the uniformization so typical of totalitarian systems.
    • Quoted from Elst, Koenraad (1991). Ayodhya and after: Issues before Hindu society.
  • Tribal endogamy explains the Hindu caste system. As Vedic society, an advanced and differentiated society characterized by class (varna) hierarchy, expanded from the Northwest into India's interior, it absorbed ever more tribes but allowed them their distinctive traditions and first of all their defining tradition, viz. their endogamy. This way, endogamous self-contained units or tribes became endogamous segments of Hindu society, or castes.
    • Elst, K. The Sarna: a case study in natural religion [2]
  • But I am He Made the Four Castes, and portioned them a place After their qualities and gifts.
  • The early Indo-Aryans could no more have thought in modern terms of the race prejudice than they could have invented the airplane.
    • O.C. Cox in 1948, quoted from Elst, K., The strange case of Savitri Devi [3]
  • Caste, as we know it today, is not in fact some unchanged survival of ancient India, not some single system that reflects a core civilizational value, not a basic expression of Indian tradition. Rather, I will argue that caste (again, as we know it today) is a modern phenomenon, that it is, specifically, the product of an historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule. By this I do not mean to imply that it was simply invented by the too clever British, now credited with so many imperial patents that what began as colonial critique has turned into another form of imperial adulation. But I am suggesting that it was under the British that “caste” became a single term capable of expressing, organizing, and above all “systematizing” India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organization. This was achieved through an identifiable (if contested) ideological canon as the result of a concrete encounter with colonial modernity during two hundred years of British domination. In short, colonialism made caste what it is today.
  • It is held by almost all historians of this period, including those who neither swear by Marxism nor apologise for Islam, that the Hindu failure had its source in the Hindu social system, particularly the caste structure. But that proposition does not stand a deeper probe. Moreover, the proposition is preposterous because it reverses the chronological sequence. The Hindu social system became moribund and the caste system rigid only after Hindus had lost political power. There is sufficient evidence to prove that on the eve of Islamic invasions, the Hindu social system did not harbour the defects which it developed at a later stage. It is my considered opinion that it was their highly organic social system which saved the Hindus from extinction in the initial stages, and provided the powerful impetus which propelled them to victory in the long run. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa were engulfed by Islam because they did not have a social structure which could withstand the storm.
  • The effect of the Mussalman political creed upon Hindu social life was two-fold: it increased the rigour of the caste system and aroused a revolt against it.
    • E.B. Havell:The history of Aryan rule in India, from the earliest times to the death of Akbar [4], also quoted by M.N.Roy Historical Role of Islam, and quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p.408
  • 'It would be a mistake to suppose that Buddhism and Jainism were directed from the outset consciously in opposition to the caste system. Caste, in fact, at the time of the rise of Buddhism was only beginning to develop; and in later days, when Buddhism commenced its missionary careers, it took caste with it into regions where upto that time the institution had not penetrated.'
    • Sir W.W. Hunter: W.W. Hunter: Imperial Gazetteer 1907; quoted in J. Kulkarni: Historical Truths, p.27.
  • While medieval Islamic literature referred to Hindus as 'infidels' and denounced polytheism and image worship, there was no criticism of the caste system, the theory of pollution and oppression of untouchables that were rampant in medieval India. ... The attitude of the Muslims towards the caste system was by no means one of disapprobation...
    • Irfan Habib, quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p.396-398
  • It is needless to ask of a saint the caste to which he belongs;
    For the priest, the warrior. the tradesman, and all the thirty-six castes, alike are seeking for God.

    It is but folly to ask what the caste of a saint may be;
    The barber has sought God, the washerwoman, and the carpenter —
    Even Raidas was a seeker after God.
    • Kabir: Songs of Kabir (translated by Tagore)
  • However, contemporary writings of Persian chroniclers nowhere mention caste as a factor leading to conversions. Muslim historians of medieval India were surely aware of the existence of the caste system in Hindu society; Alberuni, Abul Fazl and emperor Jahangir, to mention a few. And yet no one mentions even once tyranny on the low caste people as cause for conversion. Their evidence shows beyond doubt that conversions in India were brought about by the same methods and processes as seen in Arabia, Persia, Central Asia, etc. India was not the first country where Islam was introduced in medieval times. It had spread in Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and North Africa before it came to India. There was no caste system in these countries and yet there were large-scale conversions there.
    • K.S. Lal: Indian Muslims, quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p. 396
  • Particularly the Delhi Sultanate was hardly a functioning empire... In the Mewat region south of Delhi, the Shudras led the unrelenting resistance against the Sultans, waging a guerilla operation from hide-outs in the forest. Sultans Nasiruddin and Balban had to clear away the forest before they could hunt down and forcibly convert a substantial part of this population. K.S. Lal quotes an inscription, dated AD 1345, in which the Reddi dynasty of Andhra describes how after the elimination of the Kshatriya defenders, the duty of defending cows and Brahmins fell on the Shudras, “born of the feet of Vishnu”... Another inscription for the same dynasty proudly proclaims Vema’s birth from “the victorious fourth varna”, which “sprang from the feet of Vishnu”, and which ruled “the remainder of the territory once ruled by the dwijas [before the Muslim conquest]”, and describes how his first son Anna-Vota gave agraharas to the Brahmins and how his second son Anna-Vema freed the country of the “crowd of enemies” and used his wealth to sponsor the “men of learning”. It seems that the Shudras took it as a proud duty to defend the country against the Muslims and uphold the Brahminical culture.
    • K.S. Lal, Epigraphica Indica, J. Ramayya, E. Hultzsch, K. Rama Sastri; Quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p. 402-404
  • Discussing the early Vedic period, V.M. Apte says that the Rig Veda refers to the varnas in a way that cannot be considered discriminatory or hierarchical. He concludes that the Brahmins did not constitute an exclusive caste or race and the prerogative of composing hymns and officating at the services of the deities in the age of the Rig Veda was not entirely confined to men of priestly families. Even the other vocations such as being a poet or a physician were more flexible. Apte emphasizes that in the Rig Veda, there is not even a remote hint of prohibitions of inter-dining or intermarrying among the varnas; these are the prohibitions that have been considered the most serious forms of oppression in recent times.
  • In the subsequent Smriti period... Some historians speculate that this was the period when foreign kings became established in certain parts of India, and as a result of this, or as a reaction to it, there emerged a practice to fix legal rights based on varnas. it could be that brahmins came up with such laws in order to limit the rights of the foreign kshatriya kings at the time.
  • In fact, there is no record that Indian society on a large scale decided to abandon identities based on varna or jati as a result of the teachings of the Buddha.
  • G.C. Pande, the noted Sanskrit scholar, says that only the Dharmashastra in the post-Vedic period started to pervert the original idea of varna by conflating it with jati. And this period is when the ritual superiority of the brahmins got converted into a more or less formal hereditary right of priesthood.
  • The British census by Lord Risley ... was the basis for creating the caste hierarchy on birth on a permanent basis.
  • British India... was as much infected by caste as Indian India.
  • ‘The Germanic Middle Ages was trying for the restoration of the Aryan caste order’ [...] Medieval organisation looks like a strange groping for winning back those conceptions on which the ancient Indian-Aryan society rested, – but with pessimistic values that have their origin in the soil of racial decadence.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted from Elst, Koenraad. Manu as a weapon against egalitarianism: Nietzsche and Hindu political philosophy in : Siemens & Vasti Roodt, eds.: Nietzsche, Power and Politics (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2008).
  • The taboo-based institution of untouchability, probably originating in neolithic cultures in South India (according to George Hart: The Poems of Ancient Tamil, 1975, OUP Delhi 1999, p.119 ff.), was unknown in Vedic society but was adopted throughout India well before the Muslim age.... All the same, Islam did a lot to aggravate these social problems. Marrying off your daughter at the onset of puberty became a sensible safety measure once unaccountable Muslims soldiers and rulers were on the prowl for girls. Caste reform couldn't become a priority as long as Hindu society was on the defensive and forced to focus on sheer survival. Upper-caste Hindus also didn't escape the human tendency of weighing more heavily on their subordinates when they themselves were under the boot of the Muslim occupying forces.
    • Elst, Koenraad. The Problem with Secularism (2007)
  • A budding line in Hindu Revivalist history-rewriting, rather well in touch with modem Western scholarship, is to question this alleged age-old rigidity of caste and emphasize the relative fluidity of the system before British policies and the census classifications rigidified it. Even Jawaharlal Nehru observed: 'But I think that the conception of Hindu society as a very conservative society (...) is not quite correct. In the past, changes took place not by legislation but by custom; by the people themselves changing.'
    • Nehru cited in Elst, Koenraad (2002). Who is a Hindu?: Hindu revivalist views of Animism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other offshoots of Hinduism. ISBN 978-8185990743, with reference to Nehru, Nehru talking to Tibor Mende: Conversations with Mr. Nehru, p. 107.
  • The new self-styled social justice intellectuals and parties do not want an India without castes, they want castes without dharma.
    • Ram Swarup: “Logic behind Perversion of Caste”, Indian Express, 13-9-1996.
  • An inscription of Singaya-Nayaka (AD 1368) says: “The three castes, viz. Brahmanas and the next [Kshatriyas and Vaishyas], were produced from the face, the arms and the thighs of the Lord; and for their support was born the fourth caste from His feet. That the latter caste is purer than the former [three] is self-evident; for this caste was born along with the river Ganga [which also springs from His feet], the purifier of the three worlds. The members of this caste are eagerly attentive to their duties, not wicked, pure-minded, and are devoid of passion and other such blemishes; they ably bear all the burden of the earth by helping those born in the kingly caste.” Another inscription relates how his relative Kapaya-Nayaka “rescued the Andhra country from the ravages of the Mohammedans”.
    • K. Rama Sastri: “Akkalapundi grant of Singaya-Nayaka: Saka-Samvat 1290”, Epigraphica Indica, vol. XIII (ASI reprint 1982) pp.259 ff., v.5-7. Quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa. p. 402-404
  • Brahmin writers have not only codified and justified the existing caste system, and possibly hardened it; in the final editing of many influential classics of Puranic Hinduism, they have also unnecessarily extended caste distinction beyond the social sphere, incorporating spiritual liberation in the calculus of karma and caste duties.... 'There has been an enormous shift in attitudes between the period of the former, among the earlier additions, and the latter, among the latest parts included in the text', viz. an appalling hardening of caste discrimination. The harsh caste discrimination of recent centuries is a vaguely datable innovation in Hindu social history, not an age-old conditions.... This contrast between less casteism in antiquity and more casteism in the Christian era is even proven by Buddhist anti-caste polemic itself. As Maurice Winternitz ... notes about the Vajrasûchî, a text attributed to the Brahmin-born monk Ashvaghosha: 'This work refutes the Brahmanical caste system very cuttingly. The author (...) seeks to prove from the Brahmanical texts themselves, by quotations from the Veda, the Mahâbhârata and the law book of Manu, how frail the claims of the Brahman caste are.'
    • M. Winternitz, J. Brockington, Elst K., in Elst, Koenraad (2002). Who is a Hindu?: Hindu revivalist views of Animism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other offshoots of Hinduism. ISBN 978-8185990743, with quote from J. L. Brockington: Righteous Rama, p.158. and from Maurice Winternitz (A History of Indian Literature, vol.2, p.265-66)
  • Vedic civilization acknowledges among its greatest spokesmen members of "backward" communities such as the Mahabharata's author Vyasa, the Ramayana's author Valmiki or the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. Its understanding of "Arya" is not as a racial nor even a linguistic term, but as a cultural term, a synonym for "Vedic", neither more nor less.
    • Elst, Koenraad. Return of the Swastika: Hate and Hysteria versus Hindu Sanity (2007)
  • There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody a Brahmin, the Brahmin being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmin. That is the plan. We have to raise them without bringing down anybody... Indian caste is better than the caste which prevails in Europe or America. I do not say it is absolutely good. Where would you be if there were no caste? Where would be your learning and other things, if there were no caste? There would be nothing left for Europeans to study if caste had never existed. The Mohammedans would have smashed everything to pieces.” ... “Caste is continually changing, rituals are continually changing. it is the substance, the principle that does not change... Caste should not go; but should only be readjusted occasionally. Within the old structure is to be found life enough for the building of two hundred thousand new ones. It is sheer nonsense to desire the abolition of caste. The new method is - evolution of the old.”
  • Swami Vivekananda said that the four castes, by turn, governed human society. The brahmin dominated the thought-current of the world during the glorious days of the ancient Hindu civilization. Then came the rule of the kshattriya, the military as manifested through the supremacy of Europe from the time of the Roman Empire to the middle of the seventeenth century. Next followed the rule of the vaisya, marked by the rise of America. The Swami prophesied the coming supremacy of the sudra class. After the completion of the cycle, he said, the spiritual culture would again assert itself and influence human civilization through the power of the brahmin. Swami Vivekananda often spoke of the future greatness of India as surpassing all her glories of the past.
    • Swami Nikhilananda, Swami Vivekânanda : A Biography (1975); the "vaisya" represent those primarily living at the mercantile levels of human motivation, and the sudra represent the working class, or laborers.
  • India had the start of the whole world in the beginning of things. She had the first civilization; she had the first accumulation of material wealth; she was populous with deep thinkers and subtle intellects; she had mines, and woods, and a fruitful soil. It would seem as if she should have kept the lead, and should be to-day not the meek dependent of an alien master, but mistress of the world, and delivering law and command to every tribe and nation in it. But, in truth, there was never any possibility of such supremacy for her. If there had been but one India and one language — but there were eighty of them! Where there are eighty nations and several hundred governments, fighting and quarreling must be the common business of life; unity of purpose and policy are impossible; out of such elements supremacy in the world cannot come. Even caste itself could have had the defeating effect of a multiplicity of tongues, no doubt; for it separates a people into layers, and layers, and still other layers, that have no community of feeling with each other; and in such a condition of things as that, patriotism can have no healthy growth.
    • Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897), Ch. XLIII
  • Ordinarily, the propagation of Hinduism occurs in approximately the following way. ... Native deities are rebaptized with the names of Hindu gods and goddesses. ... Some Brahman is requested to provide and take charge of ritual concerns and thereby also to convince himself and provide testimony to the fact that they—the rulers of the tribe—were of ancient, only temporarily forgotten, knightly (Kshatriya) blood.
  • Legitimation by a recognized religion has always been decisive for an alliance between politically and socially dominant classes and the priesthood. Integration into the Hindu community provided such religious legitimation for the ruling stratum. It not only endowed the ruling stratum of the barbarians with recognized rank in the cultural world of Hinduism, but, through their transformation into castes, secured their superiority over the subject classes with an efficiency unsurpassed by any other religion.

Caste system in the Indian Epics (Itihasa)[edit]

  • Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata says the following: The marks of the shudra are found in a brahmin; but a shudra is not necessarily a shudra nor a brahmin a brahmin. in whomever a brahmin's marks are found, he is known as a brahmin and in whomever they are not found, him we designate as a shudra.
  • Bhisma advised Yudhishthira that a king should have a Council of Ministers which should include "four Brahmins...; eight Kshtriyas...; twenty-one wealthy Vaishyas and four Shudras of blameless character and inner self-control".
    • Quoted from Ram Swarup: Meditations. Yogas, Gods, Religions (2000) p. 248
  • The only explanation is to be found in the Mahabharata, which says that in the beginning of the Satya Yuga there was one caste, the Brahmins, and then by difference of occupations they went on dividing themselves into different castes, and that is the only true and rational explanation that has been given. And in the coming Satya Yuga all the other castes will have to go back to the same condition.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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