The Caste System in India
The Caste System has become a second nature to Indians, and it is not easy to eradicate the almost inborn inclinations to it. Many Catholic missionaries have tried, but in vain. It is still there, perhaps in some places completely subsided, while in other places causing havoc. Is the caste system intrinsically evil? Can we do anything about it, as missionaries, to bring people to Christ under this system? Obviously, it is a necessary question but one that involves a deeper study and prayer to obtain the right answer. These jottings on this question are not those of a scholar, but of a simple missionary priest whose mission is to restore all things in Christ.
Etymologically, the word “caste” means a breed, a race. It is from the Portuguese casta, meaning a race. Ordinarily it meant a “pure” breed from the Latin castus, pure. Caste can be defined as a group of families socially and religiously united and who follow peculiar social and religious customs, especially in matters of diet, marriage, and social association. The distinction of tribes and races was expressed in Sanskrit by the word jati in the beginning. Later on, however, the Brahmins observed that the Kshatriyas and Varsyas were losing the purity of their race through their marriages with the non-Aryans. In order that this Aryan degeneration may be checked, the Brahmins began to distinguish people according to their color or varna. It is interesting to note that in southern Tamil Nadu, it is still called “Jati,” while in northern Tamil Nadu it is termed, “Varna.”
Different Views on the Origin of the Indian Caste System
This vital element in the structure of the Indian society has been studied under many aspects; hence the existence of many theories on the matter. We’ll briefly mention two predominant ones: the traditional theory and the occupational theory.
The traditional view as elaborated by the Indian writers of the orthodox school can be expressed thus: Caste is of divine origin because it is based on Vedic literature. In the Rigveda (3000 BC) Book 10, 11-13 we read: “In order that the human race might be (created) and multiplied, the supreme being caused the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and the Sudhra to issue from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet.” (Some think that this text is a later addition intended to explain the existing caste system. For example, Professor Roth). And so, the distinction of men into four castes is ultimately divine. The characteristics of the first type of men (Brahmins) are calmness, pose, intelligence, and goodness because the satvic element (or the goodness) prevails in them; hence they are fit by nature to become thinkers, professors, priests and philosopher-statesmen. For this reason they are said to have come out of the mouth or Brahma. They were by nature entitled to certain privileges as regards occupation, food, and marriage. Hence arose the distinction of their caste based on nature and God.
The men of the second class (Kshatriyas) are active and always on the move because rajas (or the active element) predominates in them. Hence they are fit by nature to fight and defend the country. They are said, therefore, to have come from the arms of Brahma. The men of the third category (Vaishyas) are dominated by impulse and desires because tamas (or the element of darkness) predominates in them. They are fit for trade, commerce, and agriculture. Lastly, there are people who do not show any characteristic tendency; they have; therefore, aptitudes to become servants. This is the reason why they are said to have come out of the feet of Brahma. These four castes were naturally regulated by certain rules or customs as regards their food, occupation, and marriage; owing to the breach in such customs people were excluded from their respective communities who formed new castes; hence the enormous number of castes existing in India. Obviously, this is a preposterous explanation.
The occupational view has been advocated by many. They contend that particular trades and crafts gave birth to the caste system. The lowest caste does not practice a craft, while those who make use of metal, silver, and gold naturally became “high caste.” It could be argued that one can see a glimmer of similarity with the guild system of medieval Europe. This difference of occupation is probably the important factor in the formation of the caste system.
We are skipping here many other views which were proposed by many scholars. However, two things are clear: by the very fact that there are many theories, it is a question which does not have an easy solution. Also, as an institution at least 3,000 years old which has been able to withstand the shocks of ages, it deserves our serious consideration.
The orthodox Hindus started from the supposition that there should be parity between the individual and social life, and as the life of every individual embraces four stages, viz., that of boyhood, of manhood, of maturity, and of senility, so social life too, which boasts of being a living organism, has to possess actually those four stages, or at least has to be made up of people possessing the physical, moral, and spiritual characteristics of men who are in those stages. The first and lower stage of society is represented by the Sudras whose characteristic virtues should be those of boyhood, namely, obedience, fidelity, reverence, service, and industriousness. The second stage is represented by the Vaishyas whose chief characteristics, like those of manhood, should be an intense love for agricultural work, trade, and commerce thereby contributing to the common well-being of society. The third stage is represented by the Kshatriyas whose distinguishing virtues should be energy, strength, and valor in order to protect the citizens. The last stage is represented by the Brahmins whose chief duty is to guide the destinies of the nation by providing true education, sound morals, and healthy religion.
Hoping that it may be of interest to readers to know the many titles under which the caste system has been considered useful for India, we have thought it good to insert here a few important opinions given by different writers. Some have seen in this institution the essential elements of a regular, stable and well-organized society. Thus, Sir Henry Cotton writes: “The system of caste, far from being the source of all the troubles which can be traced in Hindu society, has rendered the most important services in the past and still continues to sustain order and solidarity. The admirable order of Hinduism is too valuable to be rashly sacrificed before any Moloch of progress. Better is order without progress, if that were possible, than progress with disorder.” Sir Monier Williams writes “In India, caste has been useful in promoting self-sacrifice, in securing subordination of the individual to an organized body, in restraining from vice, in preventing pauperism.” Others consider the caste system as one of the best means for Indian “national” and “social” unity.
Lastly, high is the appreciation of the caste system entertained by Abbé Dubois who had a first-hand knowledge of India and Indian things. He writes thus:
“I believe caste division to be in many respects the chef-d’œuvre, the happiest effort of Hindu legislation. I am persuaded that it is simply and solely due to the distribution of the people into castes that India did not lapse into a state of barbarism, and that she preserved and perfected the arts and sciences of civilization, whilst most other nations of the earth remained in a state of barbarism… Such an institution was probably the only means that the most clear-sighted prudence could devise for maintaining a state of civilization amongst a people endowed with the peculiar characteristics of the Hindus… I am no less convinced that if the Hindus were not kept within the limits of duty and obedience by the system of caste, and by the penal regulations attached to each phase of it, they would soon become just what the Parishes are, and probably something still worse. The whole country would necessarily fall into a state of hopeless anarchy, and before the present generation disappeared, this nation, so polished under present conditions, would have to be reckoned amongst the most uncivilized of the world. The legislators of India, whoever they may have been, were too wise and too well acquainted with the natural character of the people for whom they prescribed laws to leave it to the discretion or fancy of each individual to cultivate what knowledge he pleased, or to exercise, as seemed best to him, any of the various professions, arts, or industries which are necessary for the preservation and well-being of a state.”
These quotations seem to give a fair idea of the subject matter.
Having seen the pros of the caste system, it will not be out of place to point out its cons, which Vincent A. Smith, one of the best historians of India, sums up thus:
“Within India, caste breaks up society into thousands of separate units, frequently hostile one to the other, and always jealous. The institution necessarily tends to hinder active hearty co-operation for any purpose, religious, political, or social. All reformers are conscious of the difficulties thus placed in their path. Each individual finds his personal liberty of action checked in hundreds of ways unknown to the dwellers in other lands. The restrictions of caste rules collide continually with the conditions of modern life and are the source of endless inconveniences. The institution is a relic of the past and does not readily adapt itself to the requirements of the 20th century. Although necessity compels even the strictest Brahmans to make some concessions to practical convenience, as, for instance, in the matters of railway travelling and drinking pipe water, the modifications thus introduced are merely superficial. The innate antique sentiments of caste exclusiveness survive in full strength and is not weakened materially even by considerable laxity of practice. Further, the institution fosters intense class pride, fatal to a feeling of brotherhood between man and man. The Malabar Brahman who considers himself defiled if an outcaste stand within 20 paces of him cannot possibly be interested in a creature so despised. The sentiment pervades all classes of Hindu society in varying degrees of intensity. Such objections to the caste institution with many others which might be advanced, go far to justify, or at any rate explain, the vigorous denunciation of the system found abundantly in Indian literature as well as in the writings of foreigners.” (The Oxford History of India, p. 40)
It is a historical fact that India is, and has ever been spiritually, socially, and politically divided. None can deny that the most powerful of such unfortunate divisions is the caste system. Most of all, the missionary effort has been futile or thwarted precisely by these divisions. Any history book on the missionary work in India will speak volumes on this issue.
Will the Caste System Endure?
Those who study the social and religious history of India during these last 70 years might have observed some change for the better in the caste problem. It can be said that there has been something like a 10% improvement in this important affair. But then, with the return of a government which is bent on bringing back the “old glories of Hinduism,” we are bound to return to the stone age.
If we consider the caste system from the Christian viewpoint, it must be said that its “doctrine” as well as its “spirit” are contrary to Christianity, which does not admit distinction between Greeks and Jews, barbarians and Scythians, bondmen and freemen. There can be no question of harmonizing Christianity and the caste spirit because they are quite antagonistic to each other. In the beginning of the last century, there was, however, a sincere effort on the part of the French Jesuits to make a distinction between the religious and the social elements of caste, between its doctrinal and its practical aspects. It is a fact that in the minds of former orthodox Hindus, caste and religion were essentially connected, but at present there is a growing tendency among the educated Hindus to consider caste as a mere social institution. If this be the case, if caste is divested of its former “religious” meaning, if caste is considered as a mere “class” or hierarchical distinction, if its secular nature—like rules, laws and customs—are done away with, and, if lastly, depressed classes are not subjected to real injustices owing to their rank in society, if all these conditions are realized, then Christianity would not object to the caste system as a social distinction, because in that case it would cease to be a caste system in its former sense, and would become a mere class system or hierarchy (as such found in any “normal” society), which Christianity would welcome as an institution demanded by the peculiar conditions and races of India.