The Origin of Caste System
People who follow the Hindu religion can probably best explain the caste system, which is how Indian society used to be structured. He or she might tell the story of Brahma, a god. Brahma had four heads and four hands and was worshiped as the creator of the universe.
According to ancient texts, Brahma divided Indian society into four separate groups.
Priests and teachers were created from Brahma’s mouth, rulers and warriors from his arms, merchants and traders from his thighs and workers and peasants from his feet.
Others believed India’s caste system was based on biology. This is the idea that all living things are born with a particular set of qualities. Some inherit wisdom and intelligence, others get pride and passion and others are stuck with less fortunate traits. The traits you are born with remain with you throughout life.
What Does “Caste” Mean?
Today, the term “caste” is used to describe societies that are “layered.” These layers are based on hereditary groups. The caste you are born into will determine whether you are seen as a privileged person or as unclean. The term “caste” is used not only in South Asia but throughout the world.
There are different beliefs about how the caste system began. One theory says the Aryans, a group of people from central Asia, invaded South Asia and introduced the way of life. They did this as a way of maintaining control. The Aryans decided which people would be in which castes. People were born into, worked, ate, married and died within these castes. They could not move up in society.
In the 1800s, some Europeans said that they were descended from the Aryans. They also said that Aryans were really from Europe before they spread around the world and mixed with other people. These Europeans said the Aryans were a race and that proved that European languages and cultures were superior to others. This idea was later supported by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. He believed light-skinned people from Europe were racially superior to dark-skinned people from the rest of the world. This is how Hitler justified killing millions of people.
Other scholars believe there was no Aryan invasion from the north. Today, it is unclear who the Aryans were or where they lived. However, it is generally agreed that they alone did not create South Asia’s caste system.
In ancient India, people were grouped according to their jobs. These groups were known as varnas. Hereditary groups within the varnas were known as jatis. Some people believe the existence of these groups was racist. But this is not true. Varnas are not racial groups. They are classes. They are groupings based on a person’s job.
Four varna categories were created to organize society. Spiritual leaders and teachers were called Brahmins. Warriors and rulers were called Kshatriyas. Merchants and producers were called Vaishyas. Laborers were called Sudras.
In addition to the varnas, there is a fifth class in Hinduism. It was made up of outcasts. These were people who did all the dirty work. They were referred to as “outcastes” or “Untouchables” because they carried out the miserable tasks associated with disease and pollution. These tasks included cleaning up after funerals, dealing with sewage and working with animal skin.
Brahmins were considered symbols of cleanliness. Untouchables were symbols of pollution. Physical contact between the two groups was prohibited. Brahmins followed this rule completely. They felt they needed to bathe if even the shadow of an Untouchable fell across them.
The political and social force of the caste system has not disappeared completely and caste is still a strong part of some people’s identities in India. However, the Indian government has officially outlawed caste discrimination. Indian leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi were a big part of this effort. They urged the government to loosen rules that prevented contact between the castes.
Gandhi renamed the Untouchables Harijans. This means “the people of God.”
In recent years, the Untouchables have become a politically active group. They have adopted the name Dalits, which means “those who have been broken.”
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