by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the May 2003, A.S. XXXVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
One of the things that mystify westerners about India is the caste system, that interlocking set of beliefs and customs that defines ones place in Indian society. The reason this is so stems from two sources. The first is the seeming complexity and detail by which the castes are defined. The second is the seeming arbitrariness of the basis of these castes. This essay will attempt to pull back the obscuring veil by looking at the essence of the system. The descriptions given are generally that of conditions before the coming the Europeans, under whose influence the strictures of the caste system have been weakened.
The word caste is actually Portuguese meaning race. The Hindu word is jatis through the word Varna, which means color is also used. In this case, color means not skin pigmentation, but the symbolic colors associated with the four main castes: white, red, yellow and black.
There are four fundamental castes. They are, in nominal order of distinction, the Brahman, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and the Sudras. In addition there are those who are outside the caste system known as the Pariahs, often known as the Untouchables. Roughly speaking the Brahmins are the priests, the Kshatriyas are the rulers and warriors, the Vaisyas are the merchants and craftsmen, and the Sudras are the farmers and general labor. To the Pariahs are left those occupations which are universally considered ritually unclean. A topic to be touched upon later.
However, it should not be regarded that these occupations are exclusive to these castes. Further complicating the issue is that the four main castes are broken up into numerous subcastes, which are often further divided. It is these subdivisions which specialized in particular professions which they jealously guard. Moreover, these subdivisions are not universal across the sub-continent. Thus it is possible two groups of otherwise identical people assert that they are of two different castes. In addition, the relative ranking of all these castes is not fixed. Further complicating the situation are the sects of Vishnu and Shiva with cut across caste lines. Adding to the mix are the Buddhist, Jains and the Muslims. It is impossible to create a consistent hierarchical tree of social standing.
The reason does not seem to make sense is that unlike more familiar class systems based on economics or military might, the caste system is rooted in the Hindu religion. The actual origins of the system are lost in the mists of antiquity, it can found in the earliest Vedas. The mythological origin has the castes arising, like Athena from the head of Zeus, from the body of Brahma. The Brahmans came from the mouth, the Kshatriyas from the arms, the Vaisyas from the thighs, and the Sudras from the feet. There have been many theories, but none have accounted for all aspects of caste. The best that can be said is that caste is the result of various tribes, races, and guilds maintaining their individual identities.
The overarching principle that governs caste is maintaining purity. That certain acts, people, foods are to be avoided lest a person may become unclean by being in contact with them. Contact not only means directly touching, but also by handling, eating or drinking that which had been touched by the impure. Just being sufficiently near or even seeing certain castes is sufficient to become polluted. Everything so contaminated must be washed immediately, or discarded if not capable of being returned to its ritually clean state. If a person can not be ritually purified, then he is outcasted.
What constitutes unclean varies across the castes. But the most common denominator is animal life, particularly within the higher castes. Thus anything involving animal products is unclean such as meat and leather as well as those who deal with it: butchers, tanners, cobblers. Menstruating women and childbirth are also unclean. Even pets and fish.
This sense of purity also drives the selection of marriage partners. Since cooking and housework is the strongest source of uncleanness, who it is possible to marry is largely confined to members of one’s own caste. Mixed caste marriages are not unknown, but the acceptability is dependent on the relative ranking of the two castes, and whether the man is of the higher caste. Further constricting the marriage pool are the consanguinity customs which are a mixture of paternalistic and materialistic, again depending on the caste.
There is no single method of denoting the various castes. While the higher castes generally have more wealth, wealthy and poor members can be found in all castes. Each caste has its own customs, rituals, manners, laws and appearance. But these differences are extremely localized.
Caste is central to the very identity of a person. It not only informs how he makes a living, but where he lives, where he can go, whom he marries, socializes with, eats, drinks. There is no greater punishment than to be cast out of one's caste, for it strips one of all identity, and joining another caste impossible. An elaborate ritual must be endured to regain one's caste, assuming the offense was sufficiently minor for such a thing to be considered. And even then one remains tainted for the rest of his life.
In the end, the caste system is really no different then any other system people have used to socially differentiate themselves. Its complexity is no worse than the Scottish clans and their septs, saved that it encompasses a much larger population. If its strictness seems harsh to us, it is only because their acts are govern by taboos, while ours are merely influenced by prejudice. If its distinctions seem confusing, it is only because we value things differently.
Dubois, Abbe J.A. Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. 2nd. ed. Trans. Henry K. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.
Hutton, J.H. Caste in India: Its Nature, Function, and Origins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.