Friday, April 3, 2015

Origin of the Indian Caste System

Inequality based caste system is the unique feature of the Hindu society. It widely has been assumed by most of the scholars that the caste system is ancient and always was rigid, immobile and unjust from the beginning. The assumption has to be corrected in the light of evidence because it is not true, it cannot be true. Also, we can see that the scholars have confused Varna system with the caste system which has led them to the wrong interpretation of the caste system. In fact, there is no relationship between Varna system and caste system though both begun to plague each other in the later course of the time. The assumption that the invading Aryans defeated aboriginals of the India and enforced lowly status and caste system upon them also is not true because Aryan invasion theory that was propagated by western scholars and followed by Indian thinkers is proven to be preposterous on account of the available various archeological and genetic evidence.

Let us not forget here that the Varna system is part of the Vedic religious order which commands descending order of the classes based on the birth. Varna (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) system is rigid and there cannot be any mobility from one to other. However, the caste system is entirely profession based, horizontal in nature and is a flexible system. Till 1000 AD, people were free to change or enter into the new professions of their like. Caste system was part of the Shaivait religion, which is distinct from Vedic religion.
The number of castes in India is above five thousand today. If we go back in the human history we find the number of castes were just a handful. There were not that many professions to form that many castes. Let us not forget here that every caste or sub-caste in India has its ancestral profession. When the human society began to form with a couple of inventions at hand to make life safe and easier, its division of labor was simple. The human race has traversed from food-gatherer hunter man to pastoral man. The invention of agriculture made the nomadic man to settle thus changing his attitude towards life as well. The concept of ownership over land (and woman) changed his social order.The transformation from nomadic man to settled man forced him to change his lifestyle and social philosophy. 

Early professions were limited and so the castes. With new inventions, new professions emerged to serve the society and earn the livelihood. The people joining new professions naturally were from the same human stock. The service class too emerged to fulfill the ever growing needs of the society. It was not the rigid system. People were mobile. They could easily change professions from one to another depending on their skills and choice. The excavations at Indus sites show the division of labor but it doesn't show discrimination based on the profession.

The blame goes to Purushsukta of Rig Veda that the Varna system is created from the sacrificed body of the Lord himself. It suggests that the Brahmin was first to born from the head of the Lord and the Shudras were last born from his legs. This is a myth that has haunted Indian social system at the least from last thousand years as it gave sanctity to the notion of birth based inequality. However whatever Purushsukta or later Smritis command, the social facts were contrary to that.

Shepherds, cowherds, stone masons, farmers, leather workers, masons etc. were the earliest professions. The need of the early society was to survive from the odds while trying to make the life comfortable. The early states, whether democratic or monarchist, were made of small tribes consisting of just a few thousand citizens. The religion then was commanded by the King or head of the state of those times. Social order was changing from matriarchal to patriarchal society with the invention of agriculture. King was the Chief priest. The need of priestly class was not felt then because the state itself constituted of the moderate population. It does mean that the Purushsukta's declaration about Brahmin being born first is incorrect.

Brahmin or priestly class must have emerged with the growing population and society's requirement to appoint some people  to conduct  the ritualistic tasks on behalf of them. The founders or philosophers of the religion do not necessarily hail from the existing priestly class; rather they follow the new ideas as they emerge. The ancient religion that people of those times followed was shamanic in kind and pagan in nature. The rituals were less complicated.  Rig Vedic seers too did not hail from the original priestly class. They had their independent and varied professions. The caste system was not emerged in Vedic society as well. Except Purushsukta, we do not find the existence of Varna (Class) system prevalent in the Vedic tribes. Rig Veda mentions only three categories, Brahma, Kshatra and Vish those are not birth based and are interchangeable with the same person. Brahma in Rig Veda means Mantra. (Chant) whoever can compose it is Brahmin and whenever he wields the weapon against the enemy is Kshatriya. In a way, too was a loose concept. Formation of fixed classes had not begun even in Vedic religion for a long time as its spread was limited. Same applies to the other religions those were practiced by the societies of those times. Hence, Brahmin first is a misconception preached by Rig Veda's Purushsukta.

The settled society tends to the division of labor. New inventions occur or borrowed and the manufacturing begins when trained people jump sensing opportunities. There cannot be bondage to stick to the birth based profession. Had it been the case from where new people could have been brought to carry on new professions?

With further specializations in the same business, people do divert into it. We can see in India every caste and sub-caste have the ancestral profession, either in production or in services. Caste is nothing but the profession and from ample of examples we find in India people could change their professions, there were no bindings on it and no profession was treated lowly except those who dealt with the dead or filth.

Most importantly the professions could be changed. One could enter the reputed or disrepute professions depending upon his skills or choice. The great poet of India, Kalidas, belonged to the shepherd community, now considered to be a menial caste. From the play "Mricchakatik," we find the hero of the play, even being Brahmin by birth, is in the profession of trading which was preserved for Vaishya Varna. Shudraka, a great playwright belonged to Shudra varna and yet he was king and writer. Yadavas ruled Maharashtra for over 350 years those belonged to Gavali caste (cowherds). There are many examples that show clearly that the though the laws of social order were already codified by the Vedic people they were not actually practiced by either Vedic or non-Vedic societies. Though the caste system in India is depicted in the form of a pyramid, descending order of the classes on birth base, though it is correct for the Vedic Varna system, not for the caste system. caste system was horizontal and not pyramid like vertical. We will see in the next chapters that the caste system did not belong to Vedic religious order but to non-Vedic social order that was based on the principle of equality.

We have ample proofs that clearly shows even the leather workers (Charmakar, later treated as untouchables) had their nation-wide trading guilds and earned significant reputation in royal courts and society till 8th century AD at the least. We also find that certain products were mass manufactured in the villages dedicated to the certain specialized productions and the goods used to be distributed in the various marketplaces, domestic as well foreign. The centralized production system prevailed until the end of the tenth century AD. The independent village system is not as ancient as it is thought to be. It was invented to survive from the adverse times but continued till recently as there never occurred a chance to get rid of it.

We must not forget that the caste system never ever was rigid, inflexible as is commonly thought. The Aryan theory has classified the lower castes as the defeated and enslaved aboriginals. There is no slightest evidence to prove this hypothesis. Then how come that the caste system persists even today with its evil sense of inequality, dividing the people those belonged to the same stock of the people? How the once reputed castes/professions lost their eminence and were degraded socially?

Caste system originally was profession based and was not unjust or enforced by the priestly class for their benefit. How and when caste system became birth based and senses of inequality plagued the Indian society is a crucial question we have to deal with. Whether the religious commands were forced casteism on the people and they accepted it without any protests or was it the outcome of the peculiar circumstances? This has to be discussed at great length to know the roots of castes and its evil that has haunted Indian people since last many centuries.

However, we have to leave behind the misconceptions those have been nourished by us for reasons or for the theories of the scholars of past to understand why our society is so casteist even today and why our attempts to eliminate caste system are utterly failing.

First, we should know that the birth based caste system is not as ancient as it is thought to be. An emergence of birth based caste system has its roots in entirely different circumstances those we are going to discuss in the next chapters.

(To be contd.)

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