Origin and Development of Caste System in India
India is 7th largest Country (area wise) in the world.1 It has many states. It is impossible to know India without understanding its religious beliefs and practices. The religions have a deep influence on the personal life of most Indians. This is the main reason that India is known as the land of spirituality and philosophy and is the birthplace of some world wide religions like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, existing today also in the world. Those religions which started elsewhere found fertile development in India like Islam and Christianity. Indian religions have deep historical roots. The most leading and oldest religion in India today is Hinduism. About 80% of Indians are Hindus. Caste system is a unique feature of Indian life. It is believed that originally there were only four main castes but over the last two thousand years, these four castes have been astronomically sub-divided into thousands of castes and sub-castes. The origin of the caste system is in Hinduism, but it affected the whole Indian society.
What is the Caste
The word ‘Caste’ is derived from the Latin word castus and implies purity of breed. A caste may be defined as a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine; professing to follow the same hereditary calling; and regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community. The name generally denotes or is associated with a specific occupation. 2 A caste is almost invariably endogamous in the sense that a member of the large circle denoted by the common name may not marry outside that circle, but within the circle there are usally a number of smaller circles each of which is endogamous.
The Origin of Caste:
Caste system in India has a long history dating back to the ancient past. To explain the mechanism of the creation and preservation of caste in India and its genesis is always an annoying question. There are different theories about the establishment of the caste system.
1. Religious Theory:
According to a religious thought given in the famous Hindu Sacred book Rig-Veda, the four castes have been created from the body of the great god Brahma; it is the earliest of all accounts.
The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made;
His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.3
As per this slok Brahman, the Rajanya (Kshattriya), the Vaisya and the Sudra to proceed from his (Brahma) mouth, his arms, the thighs, and the feet respectively, and allotted to each of these their distinctive duties. The Brahman was enjoined to study, teach, sacrifice, and receive alms, the Kashtrtriya to protect the people and abstain from sensual pleasures, the Vaisya to tend cattle, to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land, while for the Sudra was prescribed the comprehensive avocation of meekly serving the other three groups. The slok further explains, consequently, any mixture of blood, or cross-marriage, or even any contact of the members of different caste to be the greatest crime, and the social status of every individual entirely determined by the “blood” of his parents. “Twice-born men (of the higher castes) who, in their folly wed wives of low caste, soon degrade their families and their children to the state of Sudras.”4
2. Indo-Aryan Theory
According to general Indian legend, the Aryans arrived in north India somewhere from Iran and southern Russia around 1500 BC. There is a lot of controversy regarding the theory of the Indo-Aryan migration. It is believed that the Ayran came to India in different groups and migrated at different time periods due to climactic and demographic reasons and started disregard of the local customs and traditions. The local residents became the servants of the Aryans. Before the Aryans, the Dravidian people resided in India. The ‘Bharata’ Tribe was the most powerful tribe of the Aryan who migrated somewhere from Central Asia and occupied the territory of Saptsandhu (Modern Hindustan) “The Bharatas were an Aryan tribe mentioned in the Rigveda, especially in Mandala 3 attributed to the sage Vishvamitra. They appear to have been successful in the early power-struggles between the various Aryan and non-Aryan tribes so that in post-Vedic (Epic) tradition, the Mahâbhârata, the eponymous ancestor becomes Emperor Bharata, conqueror all of India, and his tribe and kingdom is called Bhârata.”5
Therefore, O thou of Puru’s race, cherish thy high-souled son born of Sakuntala and because this child is to be cherished by thee even at our word, therefore shall this thy son be known by the name of Bharata (the cherished).
The fair skinned Aryans who occupied northern part of India established the caste system, which allowed only themselves to be the priests (Brahman), aristocracy (Kshatria) and the businessmen (Vaisia) of the society. Below them in hierarchy were the Sudras, most of them were the original inhabitants of India. The Aryans disregarded the local cultures. They began conquering and taking control over regions in north India and at the same time pushed the local people southwards or towards the jungles and mountains in north India. Though there is a general faith that the earliest settlers on this land, the Aryans might have actually established the caste system.
The reason to accept this theory is that if we analyse the history of the original inhabitants of India before the Aryans, we will find some different facts about caste system. If we go through the history of the Harrappa and Mohanjondro civilization we will find that there is no sign of untouchability. It is assumed that the Vedas had been written by the Aryans. Aryan divided the Indian society into two parts. One of them was the Aryans and the other was original inhabitants of India. The Aryan were very fair in colourwise, good fighters, tall and strong; and the original inhabitants were black and lived peacefully and had no experience of war. The Aryan worshiped the fire and believed in sacrifices and the original inhabitants of India worshiped Shiva.
“In Greater India, more than one thousand five hundred years before the foundations of Greece and Rome, proud and industrious Black men and women known as Dravidians erected a powerful civilization. We are referring here to the Indus Valley civilization – India’s earliest high-culture, with major cities spread out along the course of the Indus River. The Indus Valley civilization was at its height from about 2200 B.C.E. to 1700 B.C.E. This phase of its history is called the Harappan, the name being derived from Harappa, one of the earliest known Indus Valley cities. ...... The decline and fall of the Indus Valley civilization has been linked to several factors, the most important of which was the increasingly frequent incursions of the White people known in history as Aryans–violent Indo-European tribes initially from central Eurasia and later Iran. Indeed, the name Iran means the “land of the Aryan.”6 This period might be the beginning of caste system. In this period Aryan retained the money, property. The right to compensation of wage for labour became a punishable offence for the slave.
After establishing themselves Aryans started different occupations to earn their livelihood. In Rig-Veda, some sloks indicates that the Aryan seek the blessings of Almighty for Brahmin, Kashtari and Vaish for prosperity which was known earlier as Brahm, Rajneej and Vish. Reg Veda has described only 3 categories of society. It is believed that the fourth category i.e. Sudra added very lately.7 Dr S S Anmol writes that:
ਉਸ ਵੇਲੇ ਤੱਕ ਆਰੀਆਂ ਵਿੱਚ ਤਿੰਨ ਸ਼੍ਰੇਣੀਆਂ ਬਣ ਚੁਕੀਆਂ ਸਨ ਜਿਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਨੂੰ ਅੱਜ ਅਸੀਂ ਬ੍ਰਹਾਮਣ, ਕਸ਼ੱਤਰੀ ਤੇ ਵੈਸ਼ ਆਖਦੇ ਹਾਂ । ਬੋਧਿਕ, ਸੈਨਿਕ ਤੇ ਖੇਤੀਬਾੜੀ ਦੇ ਹੀ ਤਿੰਨ ਮੁੱਖ ਕੰਮ ਉਸ ਵੇਲੇ ਸਨ ਇਹ ਕੋਈ ਜ਼ਰੂਰੀ ਨਹੀਂ ਸੀ ਕਿ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣ ਦਾ ਪੁਤਰ ਹੀ ਬ੍ਰਹਾਮਣ ਹੋਵੇ ਜਾਂ ਕਸ਼ੱਤਰੀ ਦਾ ਪੁਤਰ ਹੀ ਸ਼ਸਤਰਧਾਰੀ ਹੋਵੇ । ਪੁਜਾਰੀ ਲਈ ਸ਼ਬਦ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣ ਹੀ ਨਹੀਂ ਸਗੋਂ ਕਾਰੂ, ਵਿਪ੍ਰ, ਕਵੀ, ਵੈਦਾ ਆਦਿ ਭੀ ਹਨ । ਸੈਨਿਕ ਲਈ ਵਧੇਰੇ ਸ਼ਬਦ ਰਾਜਨਯ ਹੈ ਅਤੇ ਕਸ਼ੱਤਰੀ ਸ਼ਬਦ ਘੱਟ ਵੱਧ ਹੀ ਆਉਂਦਾ ਹੈ । ਇਉਂ ਹੀ ਵੈਸ਼ ਦਾ ਭਾਵ ਸਮੁਚੀ ਭਾਰਤ ਆਰੀਆ ਨਾਗਰਿਕ ਹੈ ਨਾ ਕਿ ਕਿਸਾਨ ਜਾਂ ਵਪਾਰੀ ।. 8
If we go through the literature based on Vedas we can easily find that when the Vedas had been written the caste problem was not so complicated nor any rules had been made for any caste. People were free to perform the work of another caste. If we explore Rigvedic and other literature of that time carefully, we can find many examples to understand that caste system was not so rigid. The stories of the poor old bhilini ‘Shavri’, whose already tasted fruits were eaten by Lord Ramchander Ji without considering her lower caste, Lord Krishan was a Kashtrya who was composer of the “Bhagwat Gita” which should have been composed by a Brahmin, Guru Droyanacharia was a Brahmin but he was an expert of military warfare like a Kashtrya, Maharishi Balmiki belonged to Lower caste but he had done a great work like a Brahmin as he composed “Ramayana”, Karan of Mahabharta was supposed to be a Sudra but was the king, Bhim married a giantess Hidimbi and produced a son named Ghatotkacha, Sudama belonged to a very poor family but was a dearest friend of Lord Krishna, When Guru Dronacharya denied teaching archery to a Sudra boy Eklavya, then Eklavya practised the art everyday and became greater archer of that time and worshipped Dronacharya as a Guru who asked for Gurdakshna even. These are some famous and clear examples which show that the caste system was prevalent but still had not crossed limits.
Manu and Manusmriti
Many people have believed that Manu gave the caste system to India. It is not true. Caste system existed long before Manu. Manu created a law-book called Manusmriti for this caste system to preserve it under the control of the Priest Class. Smritis mean “that which has to be remembered”. Manu Smriti is one of the 18 Smritis and one of the oldest and probably the most important of the Smritis which contain the laws (conduct in life) that need to be followed in various orders of life and by persons of various varnas. It is believed that the Manusmriti was written between 500 B.C. to 100 B.C. Manu is considered a law giver in the Hindu tradition. The caste system mentioned in this Smriti is unbelievable that it gives the feeling as though caste system had something to do with Hinduism. An English historian, Mountstuart Elphinstone stated in his book regarding the Manu, “The first feature that strikes us in the society described by Manu is the division into four classes or castes (the sacerdotal, the military, the industrious, and the servile). In these we are struck with the prodigious and sanctity of the Brahmins, and the studied degradation of the lowest class.”9
He further stated, “A view of the religion of the Hindu is given, and some light is thrown on their attainments in science and philosophy, by the Vedas, a collection of ancient hymns and prayers which are supposed to have reduced to their present form in the fourteenth century before the Christian era; but the first complete picture of the state of society is afforded by the code of law which bears the name of Menu (Manu – writer of Manusmriti), and which was probably drawn up in the ninth century before Christ. With that code, therefore, every history of the Hindus must begin.”10
“The question of the spread of the castes all over India has suffered a worse fate than the question of origin. And the main cause as it seems to me is that the two questions of spread and of origin are not separated. This is because of the common belief among scholars that the Caste system has either been imposed upon the docile population of India by a law-giver as a divine dispensation, or that it has grown according to some law of social growth peculiar to the Indian people.”11
Actually the Manusmriti becomes the main problem of the so-called lower castes. The laws written in this Smriti degraded the so-called Sudra worse than an animal. There are many provisions set down for the purpose of excluding Sudra from places of worship. Some extracts from the Manusmriti are being given below which Manu set down for so-called Sudras. Regarding marriage between Brahmin men and Dalit women, the Manusmriti pronounces, “from the moment of consummation they and all their progeny shall forever be of the Sudra varna” or “be damned to hell.” Heavy punishments, including sentences of death, were to be pronounced for Sudras violating the rights of higher Varnas, and the king was strictly directed “to ensure that Sudras stay in a servile position (dasya) to the Brahmins.” At another place, it is stated that “neither an untouchable, nor a pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, or an impotent man should be watching the priests dine.”12 “The dwellings of untouchables and dog-cookers should be outside the village; they must use discarded bowls, and dogs, and donkeys should be their wealth.”13 The next verse stated, “Their clothing should be the clothes of the dead, and their food should be in broken dishes; their ornaments should be made of black iron, and they should wander constantly.”14 “They should carry out the corpses of people who have no relatives; this is a fixed rule.”15 “They should take for themselves the clothing, beds, and ornaments of those condemned to death.”16 “If a priest unknowingly has sex with untouchable women or very low caste women, eats (their food) or accepts (gifts from them), he falls if knowingly, he becomes their equal.”17
These laws of Manu gave a terrible set-back to the Sudras who were regularly being tortured under the tyranny by their compliance. The Priest class accepted and implemented these rules very quickly to make their influence on the rest of the Indian society. Even, without the permission of a Brahmin, a king (the Kashtrya) was not able to perform any religious rituals. The priest class filled these laws in the mind of the people that if anybody disobeyed these rules, it would be a dishonour to God.
This complicity of the caste became the cause for the emergence of two new religions namely Buddhism and Jainism. The Buddhist and Jain texts openly challenge the Caste System and the Supremacy of Brahmanas. “Secondly, the rise of Buddhism and Jainism and other heterodox religious sects was a great challenge to the old Vedic faith and practices and, as a result, there underwent an almost complete transformation in the society. As a result, the picture of the caste system underwent a radical change.”18 Lacs of so-called Sudras converted to Buddhism and earned a respectful and dignified living in the society. The patronship of the Mauryan Empire was a boon for the development of the Buddhism. Buddhist and Jain did not believe in Hindu Gods. There was no space for caste system. After the end of the Mauryan Empire in around 1st Century BC many other invaders like Alexander (2nd Century BC), Kushans (1st BC- 3rd A.D.), Guptas (3rd A.D. to 6th A.D), Harsharvardhana (6 AD to 9th AD) and Cholas (9th AD to 10th AD) came to India and established their rules and Buddhism faced many ups and downs during their rules but the popularity of the Buddhism was never impedimented. In 10th A. D. came the Turks invaders. They led raids deep into India and plundered temples. The Turks were able to conquer large parts of Northern India and they created a powerful state – the Delhi Sultanate. This period was a turning point for downfall Buddhism and Hinduism prevailed once again over the Buddhism. In the absence of state support Buddhism was gradually overtaken by the Hindu Religion. By the end of the 12th Century the so-called Sudras were pushed once again to the deep darkness from where they were pulled by Mahatma Budh or Lord Mahavir. During turmoil of these days Sudra gained some awareness about fundamental rights. Saints like Shankaryacharya (788-820), Ramanuja (1017-1137), Ramanand (1360-1470), Vallabhacharya (1479–1531), Jaidev started preaching of the Hindus religion once again. Similarly, the Bhakti movement originated in ancient Tamilnadu and began to spread to the north during the late medieval ages when North India was under Islamic rule. The Islamic rulers were pressing public to convert to religion from Hinduism to Islam. The Bhakti movement had its own importance to save the Sudras from the clutches of useless burden of heavy religious rituals.
Bhakti means staunch love or devotion to God. The devotees or Bhagats of God do not believe in Caste distinctions and class hatred and believe in the brotherhood of all humanity. They believe in the unity of God and discard all sorts of ceremonies and rituals. The Bhakti reformers preached equality and brotherhood of man. They let hard on the caste distinctions, rituals, sacrifices unnecessary religious rites etc. It gave a great set back to the superiority of the Brahmins and priestly class in the society.19 Among these great saints of the Bhagti movement were Namdev, Kabir, Ravidass, Tarlochan, Guru Nanak, Tukaram, Dadu, Ghasidas, and many more, who came forward for the protection of Sudras. Many of them were Sudras themselves. These saints did their best through their teachings to remove the untouchability. But these medieval Bhaktas never made some organised system for the removal of caste system neither had they presented any social model to bring equality and unity at all castes. It was only Guru Nanak the founder of Sikhism who totally rejected the caste system and organised social institutions based on the equality of all castes in the northern India.
The concept of the unity of man and unity of God was supplemented by these institutions where people from all castes and creed, high and low were equal participants in the worship and in social activities. The Institution of Dharamsal established by Guru Nanak was perhaps was the first social organization in India where people from all castes sat together, worshipped together, ate together and shared social responsibility equally. The rejection of caste in Sikhism is not only social oriented but it had economic implications also. Along with naam-simran, sewa, langar, pangat the teachings and practices introduced by Guru Nanak were followed by the later Sikh Gurus consequently the Caste System at ideological level was totally discarded in the Sikh society.
However, once again under the influence of Brahmanism the Sikhism too has astrayed from its path. The period of the last 2 or 3 decades can be counted as another turning point in the Sikh history where the caste seems is once again intruding in the Sikh society. Besides following the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Sikh scripture) the Sikh society is entertaining many Brahminical rituals. It was a good opportunity for Sikh community to bring so-called Dalits into their fold as taught by Guru Nanak and other successor Gurus but now it seems that Sikhs are also losing this opportunity and in a mistaken notion posing to be the upper caste like the Hindu society.
2. The People of India, Sir Herbert Risley, Thacker Spink & Co, 1908, p. 67
3 Rig-Veda, Chapter X, hymn 90, verses 11-12
4 Caste, Class and Race – A Study in Social Dynamics by Oliver Cromwell Cox, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Lincoln University.
7 SS Amol, Bharti Samajik Sansthawan, published by Punjabi University, Patiala, p. 31
8 SS Amol, Bharti Samajik Sansthawan, published by Punjabi University, Patiala, p. 28-29
9 History of India, by the Hon’ble Mountstuart Elphinstone, Fifth edition, published by London John Murry, Albemarle Street, 1866, p 13
10 The History of India, published by John Murry, Albemarle Street, London in 1866 on its pp 11-12,
11 Caste System in India: A Historical Perspective by Ekta Singh, p. 134
12 Manusmriti, Chapter 3, 239
13 Ibid, Chapter 10, 51
14 Ibid , Chapter 10, 52
15 Ibid., Chapter 10, 55
16 Ibid., Chapter 10, 56
17 Ibid., Chapter 11, 176
18 Untouchability and Caste System in India by A. R. Naronakar, published by Anmol Publication Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2003, p 25.
19 History of Medieval India by Radhey Shyam Chaurasia, Altantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2002, p. 127
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2011, All