The Caste System in Hinduism: Knowing Varna system


If there is one issue that is used to discredit and stain Hinduism, it is the caste system. Critics are quick to throw out all the ancient wisdom of the tradition, they are content to disregard the teachings of the great Rishimunis and write off Sanatana Dharma as an evil social enterprise that discriminates whole sections of society.

One cannot deny the existence and indeed the horrific incidents of current caste discrimination. Dalits or others, in particular, have suffered. Consequently, they have been crippled by the vile mindset of others in their society. The question that is most relevant to Hinduism is how much does caste have to do with Hindu dharma and how much of it is simply a product of centuries of social development? This is a hotly debated issue, with scholars on both sides putting forward their case. 

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Defining  The Term Caste:

The first thing is to do is define the term correctly. The word 'Caste' is a foreign imposition and is a blanket term that is used to describe two ideas: that of 'Varna' and 'Jati'.

So let's take 'Varna' first,

The word 'Varna' essentially means color, and the concept of 'Varna' is found throughout Hindu scripture. It is first introduced in the 'Rig Veda', in the Purusha Sukta hymn. The great Purusha or divine personality is described as having the 'Bhramins' class who form the head. 'Bhramin' are the people dedicated to God and responsible for the upkeep of traditional rituals and enlightening or teaching others. The 'Kshatriyas' come from the arms, they are the rulers in charge of governance and defense of the society. The 'Vaishyas' come from the thighs and are responsible for trade and economy, while the 'Sudras' are born from the feet and are the laborers and workers of society.

Some have argued that the feet of Purusha (Sudras) have a lower status than the head of Purusha (Brahmins). But the reality is the 'Purusha' has always been envisaged lying down (as shown in the picture below).

In the same way that every part of the body works to serve the whole, every class is designed to work for benefit of society as a whole. The underlying principle is that everybody is equal since every individual has a divine self or 'Atman', but at the same time, not everybody is the same. We all have different abilities and different temperaments which is suited for different tasks. Not everyone has the qualities to be 'Bhramins' surrendered to God, not everyone should be allowed to be a leader and rule, there are some who are hard-wired to step out and start business ventures, and there are others who are content to have a simple life of work. This division of society is seen to be in tune with the natural tendencies of the people and when the 'Varnas' failed to work in a complementary way, injustice and chaos results. 

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If we look at things today on the global level we can see, we do not have a recognizable 'Bhramin' class who live selflessly for the welfare of everyone. The 'Kshatriyas', who are the government, are therefore not guided and as result, instead of leading 'Vaishyas', we find it is the 'Vaishyas' - the corporations and banks who dictate policy. Consequently, the 'Sudras', who are the hard-working individuals, suffer trying to make an honest living. 

The Hindu 'Varna' system was not unique to Hindus. In ancient times, societies around the world were also organized into similar social divisions. We have to remember these were agricultural civilizations, with far fewer options for work and career. There was no central education system, where individuals studied for 18 years before figuring out what to do. There was no welfare state. Children were the economic assets who had to learn the trade of their family as quickly as possible. As a result, it was of paramount importance to maintain these classes to ensure the success of the nation. The only difference was in Nepal, it was codified. The insistence on the 'Dharma' or duty of each 'Varna' is repeatedly stressed in scriptures. If people in the different classes start to forget their role, then inevitably the whole setup begins to crumble.

If 'Bhramins' started becoming business-minded if warriors started to renounce welfare if merchants started giving up their trade, and if servants stopped working, the very survival people be at stake. 

[Note: This is series of articles, Next article for this series will be 'The Caste System of Hinduism: Varna System according to scriptures']


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