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Switch to Forum Live View Origins of caste system and its many forms
3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 9:53PM #1
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For some the origins of the caste system are found in the poem, Purusha Sukta, in the 10th book of the Rig-Veda, whose ten books are generally judged as dating back to the second half of the second millennium b.c.e. In the Purusha Sukta, the four chief castes -- the Brahmin (essentially, the religious/philosophical/teaching/scholarly sector), Ksahtriya (essentially, the political governing and warrior sector), Vaishya(sp.?) (essentially, the commercial/economic sector), Sudra (essentially, the service sector) -- are pictured as having come from the Lord's mouth, arms, middle and feet, respectively.

Some view this as carrying the message that the current caste system in all its forms is validated by scripture, and that includes its most developed hierarchical form, in which some castes are viewed as literally superior to others, great stress, for instance, being put on the superiority of one caste's emerging from the Lord's mouth -- the Brahmin caste -- over the inferiority of another caste's emerging from the Lord's feet - the Sudra caste -- and so forth.

Others view this poem as having been badly misunderstood. They read the poem as simply presenting the four castes in society as being each equally indispensable instead of reflective of any implicit or explicit hierarchy, the same way in which each of us would be unable to function with only our mouth, or only our feet, or only our arms, etc. We need all of these to function, and these parts of our body complement each other, neither being superior over the other.

Read this way, great stress is laid on the apparent fact that it is only in much later times, after the age of the Vedic scriptures, that we eventually see castes being pegged to blood lines by heredity rather than pegged to natural aptitude, the latter clearly facilitating much better social mobility and clearly the original model found in the Rig-Veda. Pegging the caste system to heredity instead is thus viewed as the real source for the abuses in the caste system and a betrayal of the scriptures, thus exculpating the scriptures entirely from any culpability in the suffering that has been consequent from the caste system as known and practiced in later centuries.

Finally, another reading of the Purusha Sukta is that its whole poetic style in the original is wholly alien to the poetic linguistic style of the rest of the Rig-Veda. Certain statistical tests have been run on its vocabulary and its turns of phrase, and what seems to emerge is a much later product, a product that could be as late as the first half of the first millennium c.e. Read this way, the poem is indeed a wholesale defense of the caste system as later practiced, blood lines and heredity ghettoization included. But it is not genuinely scriptural, being a cynical interpolation placed in the scriptures by unscrupulous writers out to foist a false scriptural rationale for the caste system on their readers.

These three different takes on the Purusha Sukta beg the question as to whether one views the caste system as having originated simultaneously with genuine scripture or post-scripturally instead. They also beg the question as to when and why the caste system morphed into an hereditary system of virtual ghettos determined by blood lines, rather than by aptitude. The caste system as implicit in scripture -- and there are scriptural references to it outside the Purusha Sukta, including one reference at least in the Bhagavadgita -- is more specifically referenced as "varna", and for many readers, the caste system and "varna" are two separate things, "varna" being the scriptural form of this institution and the caste system being what we know today, warts and all. There appears, in fact, to be no explicit reference anywhere in scripture to the castes -- or more accurately, the varnas -- being determined by bloodlines or heredity at all. This makes the distinction between varna and caste yet more critical than ever in the minds of many.

In showing that it was the hereditary angle that was both later and non-Vedic, a number of questions arise.

Do we know precisely when and why the caste system became hereditary?

And since both Mahavira and Buddha were already critics of the caste system in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e., do we know why they found it flawed?

Was it the hereditary aspect that offended them? Or was it something different that offended them?

Had the change to a hereditary system already happened when they came along in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e.? Or had it not happened yet?

If the hereditary system was not already in place in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e., then what was it that so offended Mahavira and Buddha? If it was something different than heredity that so offended Mahavira and Buddha, then can one determine precisely

1) what it was that did offend them,

2) precisely when those aspects of the caste system that did offend Mahavira and Buddha first appeared, and

3) under what circumstances and precisely why those aspects of the caste system that did offend Mahavira and Buddha first appeared.

I'm hoping that some here may have the requisite knowledge to address these queries.

Many thanks,

Walther
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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 10:11PM #2
gangajal
Posts: 835

We are now back to the dreaded c word. I am posting 2 references from the Mahabharata that should make it clear if the Jati system (translated as the caste system; unfortunately varna is also translated as caste) is scriptural or not.


Reference 1:


Sage Pulastya's views on how to become a Brahmana

16.Sage Pulastya said,"..by vows, by investiture of the sacred, by fasts,
by rites, and by Mantras, one becometh a Brahmana." (Aranya Parva LXXXIII)


TO BE CONTINUED

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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 10:16PM #3
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Posts: 180

Aug 17, 2011 -- 10:11PM, gangajal wrote:


We are now back to the dreaded c word. I am posting 2 references from the Mahabharata that should make it clear if the Jati system (translated as the caste system; unfortunately varna is also translated as caste) is scriptural or not.



Just to be certain, by "Jati system", are you referencing strictly the birth/heredity model?


Thanks,


Walther


Aug 17, 2011 -- 10:11PM, gangajal wrote:


Reference 1:


Sage Pulastya's views on how to become a Brahmana

16.Sage Pulastya said,"..by vows, by investiture of the sacred, by fasts,
by rites, and by Mantras, one becometh a Brahmana." (Aranya Parva LXXXIII)


TO BE CONTINUED





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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 10:16PM #4
gangajal
Posts: 835

Reference 2:


Yudhisthira's views on Varnasramdharma

17. The serpent said," O Yudhisthira, say - Who is a Brahmana and what should
be known? .."

Yudhisthira said," O foremost of serpents, he, it is asserted by the wise, in
whom are seen truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence,
observance of the rites of his order, and mercy is a Brahmana. And, O serpent,
that which should be known is even the supreme Brahma, in which is neither
happiness nor misery ---- and attaining which beings are not affected with
misery; what is thy opinion?"

The serpent said," O Yudhisthira, truth, charity, forgiveness, benevolence,
benighnity, kindness and the Veda which worketh the benefit of the four orders
, which is the authority in matters of religion and which is true, are seen
even in the Sudra. As regards the object to be known and which thou allegest
is without both happiness and misery, I do not see any such that is devoid of
these."

Yudhisthira said," Those characteristics that are present in a Sudra do not
exist in a Brahmana; nor do those that are in a Brahmana exist in a Sudra.
AND A SUDRA IS NOT A SUDRA BY BIRTH ALONE - NOR A BRAHMANA IS BRAHMANA BY BIRTH ALONE. He, it is said by the wise, in whom are seen those virtues is a
Brahmana. And people term him a Sudra in whom qualities do not exist, even
though he be a Brahmana by birth. And again, as for thy assertion that the
object be known (as asserted by me) doth not exist, because nothing exists
that is devoid of both (happiness and misery), such indeed is the opinion, O
serpent, that nothing exists that is without (them) both. But as in cold, heat
doth not exist, nor in heat, cold, so there can not exist an object in which
both (happiness and misery) can not exist?"

The serpent said, "O king, if thou recognize him as a Brahmana by characteristics, then, O long-lived one, the distinction of caste becometh futile as long as conduct doth not come into play."

Yudhisthira said, " In human society, O mighty and highly intelligent serpent,
it is difficult to ascertain one's caste, because of promiscuous intercourse
among the four orders. This is my opinion. Men belonging to all orders (promiscuously) begat offspring upon women of all the orders. And of men,
speech, sexual intercourse, birth and death are common. And to this the Rishis
have borne testimony by using as the beginning of a sacrifice such expressions
as -- of what caste server may be, we celebrate the sacrifice. Therefore,
those that are wise have asserted that CHARACTER IS THE CHIEF ESSENTIAL
REQUISITE. .... WHATSOEVER NOW CONFORMS TO THE RULES OF PURE AND VIRTOUS CONDUCT, HIM HAVE I, ERE NOW, DESIGNATED AS A BRAHMANA." (Aranya Parva CLXXIX)


 TO BE CONTINUED

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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 10:22PM #5
gangajal
Posts: 835

Hindus do not follow the Varnashram dharma mentioned in the Gita. They follow the Jati system. There is a confusion here because both the Varnashram dharma and the Jati system are known as the caste system.


Varnashram dharma says that people are of 4 basic types and these types can be ascertained by conduct.


The jati system followed by Hindus say that the last name and the area where the person is born determines one's Varna. There is no scriptural support for this position but this is the system actually followed by Hindus.


What is the meaning of Purusha Sukta? There is now no ancient commentary available on the Rig Veda. All of these have been lost. So we have to depend on the Gita to understand the meaning of Purusha Sukta. So whatever Purusha Sukta might mean it must mean Varnashram dharma defined in the Gita.

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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 11:01PM #6
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Posts: 180

Aug 17, 2011 -- 10:22PM, gangajal wrote:


Hindus do not follow the Varnashram dharma mentioned in the Gita. They follow the Jati system. There is a confusion here because both the Varnashram dharma and the Jati system are known as the caste system.


Varnashram dharma says that people are of 4 basic types and these types can be ascertained by conduct.


The jati system followed by Hindus say that the last name and the area where the person is born determines one's Varna. There is no scriptural support for this position but this is the system actually followed by Hindus.


What is the meaning of Purusha Sukta? There is now no ancient commentary available on the Rig Veda. All of these have been lost. So we have to depend on the Gita to understand the meaning of Purusha Sukta. So whatever Purusha Sukta might mean it must mean Varnashram dharma defined in the Gita.




Succinctly put.  Thank you. -- Which leaves the question: What precisely are Mahavira and the Buddha objecting to, and when and why and how did those practices that Mahavira and Buddha are specifically objecting to actually start?


Thanks much,


Walther

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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 11:11PM #7
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Posts: 180

For the most part, it seems clear that this passage is referencing the idea of merit and aptitude being primary.  But one passage here is startling ============>


Aug 17, 2011 -- 10:16PM, gangajal wrote:


Reference 2:


Yudhisthira's views on Varnasramdharma

17. The serpent said," O Yudhisthira, say - Who is a Brahmana and what should
be known? .."

Yudhisthira said," O foremost of serpents, he, it is asserted by the wise, in
whom are seen truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence,
observance of the rites of his order, and mercy is a Brahmana. And, O serpent,
that which should be known is even the supreme Brahma, in which is neither
happiness nor misery ---- and attaining which beings are not affected with
misery; what is thy opinion?"

The serpent said," O Yudhisthira, truth, charity, forgiveness, benevolence,
benighnity, kindness and the Veda which worketh the benefit of the four orders
, which is the authority in matters of religion and which is true, are seen
even in the Sudra. As regards the object to be known and which thou allegest
is without both happiness and misery, I do not see any such that is devoid of
these."

Yudhisthira said," Those characteristics that are present in a Sudra do not
exist in a Brahmana; nor do those that are in a Brahmana exist in a Sudra.
AND A SUDRA IS NOT A SUDRA BY BIRTH ALONE - NOR A BRAHMANA IS BRAHMANA BY BIRTH ALONE. He, it is said by the wise, in whom are seen those virtues is a
Brahmana. And people term him a Sudra in whom qualities do not exist, even
though he be a Brahmana by birth.



In that last sentence, the words "a Brahmana by birth" show that the notion of one's birth determining status, though rejected in this passage as a whole, is still acknowledged as an occasional practice of the day.  Evidently, the writer here is already aware of such a concept even though he himself subscribes to other means of determining status instead.


Walther


Aug 17, 2011 -- 10:16PM, gangajal wrote:

And again, as for thy assertion that the
object be known (as asserted by me) doth not exist, because nothing exists
that is devoid of both (happiness and misery), such indeed is the opinion, O
serpent, that nothing exists that is without (them) both. But as in cold, heat
doth not exist, nor in heat, cold, so there can not exist an object in which
both (happiness and misery) can not exist?"

The serpent said, "O king, if thou recognize him as a Brahmana by characteristics, then, O long-lived one, the distinction of caste becometh futile as long as conduct doth not come into play."

Yudhisthira said, " In human society, O mighty and highly intelligent serpent,
it is difficult to ascertain one's caste, because of promiscuous intercourse
among the four orders. This is my opinion. Men belonging to all orders (promiscuously) begat offspring upon women of all the orders. And of men,
speech, sexual intercourse, birth and death are common. And to this the Rishis
have borne testimony by using as the beginning of a sacrifice such expressions
as -- of what caste server may be, we celebrate the sacrifice. Therefore,
those that are wise have asserted that CHARACTER IS THE CHIEF ESSENTIAL
REQUISITE. .... WHATSOEVER NOW CONFORMS TO THE RULES OF PURE AND VIRTOUS CONDUCT, HIM HAVE I, ERE NOW, DESIGNATED AS A BRAHMANA." (Aranya Parva CLXXIX)


 TO BE CONTINUED





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3 years ago  ::  Aug 17, 2011 - 11:43PM #8
gangajal
Posts: 835

Buddha and Mahavir were objecting to Hindu practice. No one knows how and when the Jati system originated


Yes, even during the time Mahabharata was being written some Hindus used to practice the Jati system.


It is my theory that statements like Yudhisthir in Hindu scripture reflect an attempt to morph the Jati system into Varnashram dharma which is a conduct based system.


Unfortunately all these attempts seem to have failed. It is only in the last 100 years that there has been some loosening of the jati system but that loosening has been achieved by urbanisation and secular education.

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3 years ago  ::  Aug 18, 2011 - 12:50AM #9
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Posts: 180

Aug 17, 2011 -- 11:43PM, gangajal wrote:


Buddha and Mahavir were objecting to Hindu practice. No one knows how and when the Jati system originated


Yes, even during the time Mahabharata was being written some Hindus used to practice the Jati system.


It is my theory that statements like Yudhisthir in Hindu scripture reflect an attempt to morph the Jati system into Varnashram dharma which is a conduct based system.


Unfortunately all these attempts seem to have failed. It is only in the last 100 years that there has been some loosening of the jati system but that loosening has been achieved by urbanisation and secular education.





Evidently, Buddha's and Mahavira's objections to Hindu practice would appear to show that Jati, the keying of status to the last name and location, was already practiced then before the middle of the first millennium b.c.e.  Although the exact moment when Jati became established is not known, is it possible to spot the earliest extant reference to it?  I know that in the 7th century b.c.e. -- and I appreciate that this can be a delicate topic -- roughly a century or so before Buddha/Mahavira, we see apparent references to the caste system from a few Lokayata adherents (including, possibly, Brihaspati the Lokayata founder?).  Do these extant references, although all second-hand since primary texts are lost, appear to reference Jati, or is that unclear?


Again, thanks.


Walther

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3 years ago  ::  Aug 18, 2011 - 5:53AM #10
gangajal
Posts: 835

Yes, it is possible that the jati system is quite old. The only question is whether the ancient Jati system was as rigid as the system seen in more recent times. As Plato's Republic shows the ancient world did think somewhat like the jati system practiced in India.

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