Hindu Caste System: Main Peculiarities and Characteristics

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Words: 3873 |

Pages: 9|

20 min read

Published: May 7, 2019

Words: 3873|Pages: 9|20 min read

Published: May 7, 2019

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
  3. Dicussion
  4. Origins
    Modern Evidence
    The Gun Theory
    Angry Gods
  5. Conclusion


Are you really what you eat? Why are people born with certain unique tendencies? Are matter and spirit separate, or the same? Although seemingly unrelated, these questions are unified by the subject under consideration in this paper: the Hindu caste system. The caste system itself is unified by the concern of ritual purity.

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According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

the caste system has been a dominating aspect of social organization for thousands of years. A caste, generally designated by the term jati ("birth"), refers to a strictly regulated social community into which one is born. In general, a person is expected to marry someone within the same jati, follow a particular set of rules for proper behavior (in such matters as kinship, occupation, and diet), and interact with other jatis according to the group's position in the social hierarchy. ("India")

Among Hindus, the thousands of jatis are grouped into four large clusters called varnas, which is loosely translated as color. Whether this refers to skin color or to attributes of character depends on ones perspective. Kelly Ross, a non-Hindu college philosophy instructor, believes that these sound suspiciously like skin colors; and, indeed, there is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin. In contrast, a Hindu web page asserts that this is not a reference to skin color, but to the fact that colors are associated with types of personalities (The Caste System). For instance, if warriors are referred to as red, this implies their passionate nature, and not their skin color.

Each varna has a traditional function to fulfill for the good of the whole society. Brahmins, the priests, are at the top of the social hierarchy, followed by Kshatriyas, the warriors; Vaishyas, originally peasants, but later merchants; and Sudras, the serfs. The particular varna in which a jati is ranked depends, in part, on its relative level of "impurity," determined by the group's traditional contact with any of a number of "pollutants," such as blood, menstrual flow, saliva, dung, leather, dirt, and hair. Restrictions between the castes were established to prevent the relative "purity" of a particular jati from being corrupted by the "pollution" of a lower caste.

This paper first outlines how the caste system is likely to have been formed over time, and then briefly describes three theories from anthropology that attempt to explain its ideology. In all three, the theme of ritual purity is strongly apparent. The goal of this paper is to provide this information in a condensed format for fellow classmates.



Hinduism and the Hindu caste system emerged from a blending of the culture of the Aryans and the native people already living in northern India. The Aryans were nomadic, pastoral warriors, organized into tribes, who entered northwestern India in the second millennium BC, their forebears having come from Northern Eurasia (Wasson 209). The Aryan tribes were already split into two social classes before invading India: the nobility and commoners, similar to the ancient Greek patricians and plebeians. The chief was primarily a war leader. He was aided by a general and a priest, who was the predecessor of the later priesthood known today as the Brahmins (Basham 34). Since then, the worldly and spiritual powers have been in the hands of different specialists: worldly power in the hands of the king, spiritual power in the hands of the priest.

A critical development during this time was that the ritual power of the priest became more important than the secular power of the king, who was expected to protect and depend upon the priest (Dumont 72). The Brahmins were eventually placed at the pinnacle of the social ladder, probably influenced by their claims to superior purity. Quoting the French missionary Abbe Dubois, Bougle writes, The Brahmins strive most to keep up appearances of outward purity . . .It is chiefly to the scrupulous observance of such customs that the Brahmins owe the predominance of their illustrious caste (58).

The oldest religious justification for the division of society into the four varnas is found in the tenth mandala (circle) of the Rig-Veda, the oldest and holiest Hindu scripture. This passage describes the creation of the universe as the sacrifice of a gigantic original man, Purusa, whose mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the

Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born. . .(Fieser and Powers 8). Because the Brahmins came from his mouth, they were the keepers of the holy word and law, and therefore the most prestigious. The Kshatriya are warriors because they came from the part used for fighting, the arms; Vaishya are the tradesmen because they came from the legs; and Sudras are servants because they came from the lowest part of the cosmic body, the feet.

These four classes seem to have actually existed in the ancient Aryan society in northern India. The members of the three higher varnas were probably mostly Aryans, while the fourth and lowest varna was probably mostly darker-skinned, conquered peoples (Basham 137).

However, the original varnas were not the castes that exist today, for there is evidence that people could, and did, change their varnas, and inter-marriage between persons of different varnas was allowed (Basham 146).

The rigidity of the caste system came about later, possibly due to the development and acceptance of such religious ideas as karma and reincarnation. Neither of these concepts were Aryan ideas, and it is possible that they were the indigenous tribes contribution to the religion that became Hinduism (Glucklich 28). If one believed in reincarnation, one saw ones place in the caste system as determined by ones character in a previous life. If one was reborn an Untouchable, one had obviously been more sinful than if one was reborn a Brahmin:

The status of a Brahmana is incapable of acquisition by a person belonging to any of the three other orders. Travelling through innumerable orders of existence, by undergoing repeated births, one at last, in some birth, becomes born as a Brahmana. The status of a Brahmana is incapable of acquisition by persons begotten on uncleansed souls. (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, XXVIII)

Concerns about purity seem to have developed during the same time period as the caste system. The Laws of Manu, a holy Hindu book that contains rules for personal conduct, which date, at the latest, in the third century AD, refer to impurity from outcasted persons, as well as from death and menstruation (Dumont 53). The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-hsien, who traveled to India during the reign of Candra Gupta II (ruled 376-415 AD), refers to pollution on approach; that is, pollution from coming close to an Untouchable or outcast (Basham 66). During these early times, leather workers (who are impure because they work with dead animal skin) were already disliked, as evidenced by their being heavily taxed (Basham 107).

Modern Evidence

A well-known modern study of the formation of castes was one overseen by Jan Breman during the 1960s in two villages in India that focused on the integration of tribal people into the Hindu caste system. The tribal peoples are poor natives of India who were not integrated in the past into Aryan society or Hinduism because they lived in remote areas. During Bremans period of observation, they became agricultural workers for the land-owning, higher caste Brahmins. Breman quotes J.A. Baines, who suggested that the migration of Brahmins into new regions, previously occupied by tribals, created a system of land servitude. Because the Brahmins own religion did not allow them to touch plows, the tribal people became their farming servants (39). Besides doing work in the fields, the tribes also did other kinds of work that only Untouchables would do (Breman 40). Their willingness to do so is presumably accounted for by the absence, in their tribal culture, of the pollution complex of Hinduism. Once settled in Hindu villages, however, they are treated as Untouchables because of the pollution attitudes of their Hindu employers (Breman 256).

This study illustrates that castes likely developed from immigrants, tribal groups, or groups with a newly developed craft becoming integrated into one social system. Both Hinduism and the caste system then spread from northern India to the southern part of the peninsula, absorbing, and eventually defeating, the rival religions of Buddhism and Jainism (Sastri 28). In this way, the indigenous tribes of India were gradually Hindu-ized. Those tribes closer to the newly established towns of the Aryans were integrated into the Hindu social order first, those further distant being integrated later (Stein 185 and 206). Each, as a closed group, was then ranked in a local hierarchy of jatis. Integration into a hierarchy was the price that a group had to pay in order to settle in an agricultural village. As Dumont has said, In the hierarchical scheme, a groups acknowledged different-ness, whereby it is contrasted with other groups, becomes the very principle whereby it is integrated into society. If you eat beef, you must accept being classed among the Untouchables, and on this condition your practice will be tolerated (191).


McKim Marriott and Ronald Inden have tried to explain Hindus own understanding of the caste system, in an attempt to avoid influencing the native understanding with Western or academic ideas. What they call their ethnosociology of the caste system includes what other anthropologists have called the Hindu pollution concept, but they give this concept a different interpretation. It focuses on such questions as: What is it that actually defiles water for a higher-caste person when it comes from the hands of an Untouchable?

What they find is that, unlike Westerners, who think in terms of the duality of body and spirit, Hindus think monistically. Hindus believe that a person physically inherits a coded-substance (Marriott 110), i.e. matter comes with morality built in. Each persons body has a single code within, a set of rules, which dictates what is appropriate for them. The code programmed into the persons body influences his or her varna, jati, gender, and personality: code and substance cannot have separate existences in this world of constituted things, as conceived by most South Asians (Marriott 110).

Marriott and Inden explain ones varna-dharma (the code for members of each of the four varnas) by referring to the sacrificial superman Purusha discussed above. In their interpretation, he is a Code Man (Marriott 114), each varna receiving its particular code from a different part of the body of the Code Man. Ones jati-dharma (the duty of ones jati) is also encoded into ones bodily substance, as are the duties for ones gender and personality, which explains why women could not . . . participate in sacrifice to the gods; their presence at the sacrifice was considered a source of pollution (Mayer).

Ideas from this theory explain why Hindus believe that pollution can be transferred between people. Every persons body is made up of little particles that can be loosened, separated, and then combined with other kinds of coded particles (Marriott and Inden 233).

This theory of inherited coded substances, which can break up into tiny particles and then recombine with other kinds of particles, can explain how pollution transfers from a polluted person to a pure person. These particles (in hair, sweat or saliva) can mix into food, water, and other things exchanged in inter-personal transactions. Carried to the extreme, even the sight of some untouchable groups was once held to be polluting, and they were forced to live a nocturnal existence (Untouchable).

Thus, one gives off coded particles and gains coded particles from others. One should try to gain appropriate or superior coded particles (those coming from gods or higher castes), not worse coded particles (those coming from lower castes or defiled persons). One may get better particles through right eating, right marriage, and other right exchanges and actions (Marriott and Inden, 233). This idea is reflected in the famous Hindu epic the Mahabharata, which states that, The status of Brahmana, once gained, should always be protected with care by avoiding the stain of contact with persons born in inferior orders . . . (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, CXLIII).

The Gun Theory

Marvin Davis has taken Marriott and Indens concept of coded-substance and used it to help him construct a similar theory from the viewpoint of Hindus from West Bengal. Davis learned of this folk theory largely from interviewing Bengali Hindus, but the theory is also drawn from Hindu holy books, including the Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, Purusukta, and Manu Dharmasastra (7). Since these works are widely known in India, it is likely that his findings apply in other areas besides West Bengal.

The Hindus of West Bengal believe that, from the god of creation first emanated purusa the male, cultural principle of the universe in which is embodied hard, structuring but relatively inert matter. Then prakriti the female, natural principle of the universe in which is embodied soft, energetic, but relatively unstructured or undifferentiated matter . . .all creation depends on the continued union and reunion of purusa and prakriti through time, and the resulting mixtures and products of the three modes in which primordial matter is constituted. (Davis 8)

When compared with Marriott and Indens coded-substance, there is an obvious parallel of purusa with code and prakriti with substance.

The three basic materials formed by the union of prakriti and purusa are sattvagun, rajogun, and tamogun. Sattvagun, a white substance, generates goodness and joy and inspires all noble virtues and actions. Rajogun, red, produces egoism, selfishness, violence, jealousy, and ambition. Tamogun, black, engenders stupidity, laziness, fear, and all sorts of base behavior (Davis 9).

Thus, the gun theory offers a unique interpretation of purity and impurity, as sattvagun may be equated with the former and tamogun with the later, with rajogun functioning as a material mode that activates the other two gun (Davis 9).

According to this philosophy, the hierarchy of beings is composed of Brahma, the creator, at the top, followed by the gods, then humans, demons, animals, plants, and objects at the bottom (Davis 10). In Brahma, the three guns are present and in balance. In all the other beings, one or the other gun predominates. The gods are largely sattvagun; human beings mixture of guns depends on the varnas they were born into. In the sacred words of the Bhagavad Gita,

The works of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature. The works of a Brahmin are peace, self-harmony, austerity and purity . . .[the works of a Kshatriya] are heroic mind, inner fire . . . courage in battle . . .[the works of a vaishya are] trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle . . .the work of the Sudra is service. (qtd. in Ross)

The gun theory, like the coded-substance theory, asserts that people and jatis do not have fixed coded-substances. They should try, through marriage, to maintain or improve the coded-substance of individual and jati: Jati purity and ritual rank are intimately tied to womens purity; for daughters to marry down jeopardizes the rank of the entire jati and is, therefore, vigorously opposed by all jati males (Wong).

Another aspect of the caste system that this theory elucidates is the practice of endogamy, which can be understood by examining the Bengali Hindus theory of conception. Food changes into digested food, which changes into blood, which changes into flesh, which changes into fat, which changes into marrow, which changes into semen in the male and uterine blood in the female (19-20). In the conception of a child, the semen of the male and the uterine blood of the female unite. As Marriott and Inden explain, the inborn qualitative ranks of the later genera are...thought to derive from the syntax by which they originated first, by the syntagm of consistency, and second, by the syntagm of homogeneity (234).

The theory also offers insight into Hindu beliefs about the roles of food and eating. Cold foods (milk, clarified butter, most fruits, vegetables) make one sattvagun. Hot foods (meat, eggs, onion, mangoes) make one rajogun. Spoiled or stale food make tamogun, as do beef and alcohol (Davis 20). Thus, Brahmins are expected to be vegetarians, while the Sudras and Untouchables will eat anything. Foods, then, are substances that carry the capacity to affect and transform the person who consumes them: One is always likely to become what he eats, and he may also be atomically involved in what he feeds to others, especially if and when the food is hot, (Marriott and Inden 233). This would explain why of all the restrictions of the caste system, the prohibition of accepting food from a person of lower, and therefore less pure, caste is one of the strongest (Wong).

Angry Gods

A less abstract theory of caste is Edward Harpers claim that the central concern in Hindu ritual is to make offerings to the gods to prevent natural disasters. Anyone making an offering to the gods must be ritually pure, however, or else the gods will not be pleased. Because the intermediary between the general society and the gods is the priest, typically a Brahmin, he must be pure in order to communicate with the gods, and satisfactory communication with the gods is in everyones best interests. A Havik [Brahmin] should be ritually pure because this state is intrinsically good, not because it is enjoyable (Harper 174).

This idea goes back to the ancient Aryan, pre-Hinduism idea of Rita (order), the belief that the sacrifices made by the priests were a necessary part of the natural order. If such offerings were not made, or if they were not made correctly, nature would go awry rain would not fall, epidemics might prevail, and so on (Basham 241). Thus, the threat of supernatural punishment constantly reinforces concepts of ritual purity (Harper 185).

In Hindu belief, all living things have a rank in the hierarchy of purity (Wong). Among these living these are included devates, deities, and devarus, gods. Devates can either help man or harm him, depending on if they are kept ritually pure or if they are polluted. Devates are honored by being given offerings by those who are ritually pure, but if defiled, they retaliate by causing injury, usually in the form of illness, to the offender, to his cattle, or to members of his family (Harper 188). Devarus [gods] are higher than devates on the scale of purity, and need to be protected from sources of impurity. This is done, in part, by secluding them by building a temple around them into which lower castes are not allowed.

The elevation and purity of the soul of a being have both spiritual and physical correlates. Contact with impure matter even, for some of the purest individuals, with the shadow of impure matter defiles or pollutes the pure and necessitates cleansing that takes both physical and spiritual forms. Pure individuals must, therefore, eschew contact with impurity . . . . (Wong)

Hindus believe that mans major source of control over the malevolent aspects of spirits comes from mantras, a syllable, word, or phrase used in meditation and believed to possess spiritual powers (Mantra). But mantras work only when contained within a field of purity. If a powerful devate . . . is attempting to harm a Brahmin, the protective mantras that he needs can be made effective only if he is in madi [ritual purity] . . . (Harper 191). Similarly, temples can be conceived of as fields of purity, into which even a Brahmin cannot enter unless he is in a ritually pure state (Harper 188), which explains why Brahmins have vehemently resisted allowing Untouchables into their temples.

Because it is of supreme importance for the Brahmins to remain pure, the lower castes plow the fields (which results in the accidental killing of insects), give animal sacrifices to certain blood-demanding deities, sweep the public roads, and dispose of the Brahmins dead cattle. People who work with corpses, body excretions, or animal skin had an aura of danger and impurity, so they were kept away from mainstream society and from sacred learning and ritual (Elst). All of these services are necessary to keep the town functioning, but they bring one degree or another of impurity to the performer. A Brahmin would not be able to perform one of these actions and maintain sufficient ritual purity to be able to worship the gods, and catastrophe would soon follow. The lower castes direct the flow of impurity to themselves, which creates the firm and eternal chasm between the clean and unclean castes.

The higher states of purity, then, fundamentally depend upon a division of labor among castes, which are arranged according to a hierarchy of purity. According to anthropology professor Michael Moffat, Caste is fundamentally holistic. What you do, and what you are, is defined in relation to the social whole.

Ritual purity does not come automatically; it must be achieved with great effort, and it cannot be attained solely by one mans own efforts. For a Brahmin to remain sufficiently ritually pure so that, through his own efforts, he can attain his personal maximum purity potential, he needs the assistance of other castes. Harper summarizes: The relationship between castes requires specialization in occupations in order for other castes to be more pure, so that these may attain sufficient purity to purify the gods (196).


The evolution of the caste system is difficult to clarify, but it probably originated in India as the Aryans invaded from the northwest. They brought with them their religion, which, in the Rig-Veda, declared that society was divinely divided into four parts. Gradually, as the Aryans moved southwards, the native tribes were incorporated, and barriers between castes hardened. Its main concern was with purity and impurity, which involved food, death, marriage, and the body. This was supported by the belief that morality is the same as matter, and therefore physical matter can make you a nobler or baser person. Every individual was born with a unique physical body that had its own unique morality, and one could make it better or worse by contact with pure or impure matter.

Therefore, since people, like everything else, were not just physical bodies but spiritual as well, the clean spirits avoided the unclean so that their spirit could accumulate morality, and thus be reborn in the next life in a purer existence. Purity also meant that prayer and sacrifice to the gods required special priests that were purer than the average person. This arranged society so that its main goal was the protection of the priests, at the expense of the commoners.

It is clear, even from the brief descriptons in this paper, that the caste system is very complex. The underlying philosophy turns out to be deeper than what appears on the surface. However, one must not get lost in the labyrinth of ideas.

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When dealing with the living social reality, what counts is not the fine metaphysical concepts embodied in great religious works of a people, but the home-spun ideas that have percolated into the consciousness of the masses and become a part of their world view. (Cunningham and Menon 10)

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