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Is caste system an integral part of Hinduism?

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Vagisha Soni is a Research Scholar at Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, JMI whose domain is Visual Communication and Media Governance. She holds 3 Masters Degrees in Public Administration, Philosophy & Political Science respectively. She is a University Topper and also a Gold Medalist. She is also the co-founder of Dynasty Mukt Bharat Campaign.

Have you come across those people who say caste system is an integral part of Hinduism? You must have come across various articles in the newspapers where they intentionally want to highlight the caste of the victim even if the crime had nothing to do with the caste. Looking at this continuous propaganda, people have started feeling that there is something intrinsically wrong with Hinduism.

It is necessary to demolish the myth that caste system is an intrinsic part of Hinduism. Moreover, this myth has harmed relations between the so-called upper castes and lower castes. Even today, despite living in metropolitan cities if we are still talking about caste then there is some serious issue which has to be discussed. In the post truth era where its comparatively easier to push a narrative and make people believe in things which never existed, its our responsility to remind people about the truth of our heritage.

So what is Caste System?

Caste system is not just a division of labour, each ‘varna’ is associated with a type of occupation, but also a division of labour determined by birth permitting no occupational/social mobility.It is a rigid system, separating caste from caste, with restrictions on inter-dining and inter-marriage, due to a morbid fear of ‘varnasankara’ (mixture of varnas). It is a hierarchical system, one below the other in ritual (or purity) status, with several disabilities imposed on the fourth varna of shudras and even more on the untouchables known as ‘antyajas’. The whole system along with its taboos and restrictions is authenticated by religion or canon, giving it a religious sanctity. At the foundation of the whole system there is a production system, which is subsistence-oriented and locally based rather than oriented to larger market, and production relations being of patron-client type, based on mutual dependence.

Let’s argue why these features are NOT INTEGRAL PART OF HINDUISM

Gandhiji defined Hinduism as a search for truth, non-violence, compassion for all beings and tolerance. Consistent with its commitment to search for truth, it is also marked by liberalism. Hinduism is a dynamic religion, not fixed or revealed once for all, and hence cannot be identified exclusively with the religion of the Vedas and Upanishads, nor with the religion expounded by ‘Dharmashastras’, nor with the Hinduism of the three eminent Acharyas – Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva, nor also exclusively with medieval Hinduism and modern Hinduism. All these phases represent Hinduism and have contributed to its development each deriving its inspiration from the previous ones. There is both change and continuity in Hinduism. Coming to the caste system, it is accepted by all as beyond controversy that medieval Bhakti movement was a protest against caste system and the modern philosophers like Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo and others have rejected the caste system as well.

Starting from the beginning, The first reference to the four varnas comes in the tenth mandala of Rig Veda, in two verses of Purusha Sukta . The tenth mandala was chronologically the last to be composed and there was no varna system in vedic society before it and this has been acknowledged by many scholars. Actual occupations have since centuries deviated from the varna theoretical model. Dharmashastras themselves allowed exceptions under ‘apaddharma’, whereby persons who could not make their livelihood under the occupations of their own varna, could take to other occupations.

Brahmins by birth have taken not only to priesthood, which is their varna based occupation, but also to several others, including manual labour. Havyaka brahmins in Karnataka have not only owned garden lands but also have been doing manual labour in them. Shudras, apart from doing manual labour and artisan jobs, which is their varna based occupation, have traditionally served as soldiers too, making the distinction between kshatriyas and shudras quite blurred.Even as late as 12th century, Vijnaneshwara in his commentary on Yajnavalkya Smriti said ‘nrin pati iti nripah, na tu kshatriyah iti nemah’ (whosoever protects people is fit to be a king; he need not as a rule be a kshatriya’).

The Bhakti movement, both in the south and north of India, saw many saint poets coming from the so-called lower castes. They were more prominent than brahmin and upper castes in the movement. Even marriages between different varnas were not rare. It must have been because of their significant occurrence, that there is a mention of different types of marriages in Hindu texts based on which jatis were evolved. When the husband is from a higher caste than that of the wife, the marriage was called as ‘anuloma’; when reverse was the case, it was called as ‘pratiloma’. There was another type of classification also; according to it, a love marriage was called as ‘gandharva’, and a marriage where the woman was forced into marriage was called as ‘rakshasa’.

It is only in the dharmashastras (dharma sutras and smritis) that we find support to the caste system, and not in another canon. However, dharmashastras never had the same status as other canon known as shruti (Vedas and Upanishads) and it is laid down that whenever there is a conflict between the shruti and smriti literature, it is the former that prevails.

It is Manusmriti, which is particularly supportive of caste system but where it conflicts with Vedas and Upanishads, the latter would prevail.Manusmriti itself shows the way to demolish its own support to the caste system based on birth. In chapter 4,verse 176 clearly states: ‘Discard wealth and desire if they are contrary to dharma, and even dharma itself if it leads to unhappiness or arouses peoples’ indignation’. Dharma here does not mean religion in the western sense, but rules of conduct. If varna dharma, or rules of conduct governing varnas, and caste for that matter, lead to unhappiness or to people indignation, as they certainly do, Manusmriti itself says that such dharma can be discarded.

Hinduism as a religion and philosophy was against caste system based on birth, and even in practice, it opposed the system, how but it survived for so long because the system performed certain functions that were valued by the society. And later, unfortunately, few sections of society and various left-leaning politicians for their own political gain have made this so rigid that even today this evil exists. A North Indian when asked to introduce himself/herself casually mostly talks about his/her caste. This is the major issue, here actually the problem lies – deriving one’s identity from his/her caste which has been structurally institutionalized by the caste-based politics and certain social groups. And then comes the role of media which keeps adding caste angle to every possible crime which it reports bringing us back to square one. India can only be a growth story at the economic front when we are united at the societal front.

P.S. Hinduism here refers to Sanatan Dharma.

Nadkarni, M. (2003). Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism? Demolishing a Myth. Economic and Political Weekly,38(45), 4783-4793. 
SHARMA, K. (2012). Is there Today Caste System or there is only Caste in India? Polish Sociological Review, (178), 245-263. 

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Vagisha Soni is a Research Scholar at Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, JMI whose domain is Visual Communication and Media Governance. She holds 3 Masters Degrees in Public Administration, Philosophy & Political Science respectively. She is a University Topper and also a Gold Medalist. She is also the co-founder of Dynasty Mukt Bharat Campaign.
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