Demystifying Caste

by SAHF Team

A debated topic in Hinduism and South Asian culture is the ‘caste’ system. Even today, there are many people who fallaciously believe that Hinduism has an unfair, dogmatic system of hierarchy. This is far from the truth, as will be explained below (feel free to skip to the conclusion for a summary – – but you will miss out on important details!).

What is “Caste”?

First, let’s discuss what “caste” is. We know that caste is not a Sanskrit word; rather, it’s a Portuguese word defining a lineage. The correct term in Hinduism is Jati. Jati refers to a clan or a community you are born into. These communities often acquired an identity because of a certain skill or task they did, mastered, or were proficient in. Sometimes this identity formation is also attributable to geographical or cultural reasons. In ancient civilizations and religions (note: Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world), skill specialization was important for the survival of a society, and every jati (community) had their own role to play, although these roles were also very flexible. What is the meaning of this flexibility? People (irrespective of their birth) can select whatever employment path they choose, as was seen in various Hindu kingdoms like the Kakatiya Empire and the Vijayanagara Empire.

Confusion Between Jati and Varna

People often confuse Jati, which refers to a birth-based identity, with Varna. Varna is not based upon someone’s birth. It refers to one’s inherent nature and qualities. For example, the son of a doctor is not automatically a doctor; he has to go through medical school and learn the content and skills needed to be a doctor if he chooses to do so. In the same way, someone born in a Brahmin family may not have the qualities of that varna and hence cannot be classified as a Brahmin.

The Varna system was created so that mankind can work in the world with their fullest potential. Here is the traditional Varna system and some of the qualities and skills of someone in that varna:

Brahmin: Knowledgeable, Teacher, Self-Controlled, Reflective, & Adviser

Ksatriya: Leadership, Communicator, Upholder of Laws, & Political

Vaisya: Business-minded, Investing, Banking, Interested in Economics & Property

Sudra: Employee, Artists, Skilled, & Working for someone else

  • Note: Hindus from South India, Bengal, and other regions of India do not follow this exact varna system, although the tiers are relatively the same. In their system, the Ksatriya and Vaisya Varnas are replaced with a varna called the Sat-Shudras. This Sat-Shudra Varna has individuals with the same skills and qualities attributed to the Ksatriya and Vaisya Varnas.

 

Historically, varna was flexible in Hindu society, and there are many instances of individuals and even whole-communities, like the Komatis, who had their varnas altered based on their skills, nature, and qualities.

What about Dalits?

Dalits are traditionally Hindus, and there is certainly no denying that Dalits often face/faced discrimination, but it is important to note that this discrimination is a societial practice found throughout South Asia (people of every religion in the subcontinent unfortunately used to/some still do practice it). It is not supported by Hinduism, and discrimination against Dalits was challeneged by many non-Dalit Hindus like Annamacharya, Basavanna, and Ramanujacharya. Moreover, Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, one of the most prominent Hindu gurus, points out that Dalits have an important place in Hinduism. He notes how the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text, was written by a Dalit Rishi named Valmiki, how Rishi Shaabara, a Dalit whose commentary on the Vedas is extremely popular, is honored, and how there are many rishis and sacred texts of Hinduism who are/were written by Dalits. In fact, there is a 2,700 year old Hindu tradition called the the Muni Vahana Sena, where priests of temples carry Dalit devotees on their shoulders to the inner temple sanctum for worship.

Is Jati or Varna Important to Hinduism?

The answer is no. The goal for every Hindu, when we look deep into the texts, is to exit the cycle of reincarnation and attain liberation/mukti/moksha to join the Divine. This liberation is available to everyone from every walk of life, regardless of their birth circumstances. Here are some example verses from texts supporting this:

Brahmanah ksatriyo vaisyah sudro va yadi vetarah visnu-bhakti-samayuko jneyah sarvottamas ca sah (Skanda Purana, Kashi-Khanda 21.63).

Meaning: Whether one is a Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaisya, Shudra or a Dalit, if one has taken shelter of Vishnu-Bhakti, they are considered superior to all.

From this verse, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter what “caste” or creed you are. All that matters is that if you faithfully follow a path (there are many options you can choose from, such as bhakti yoga or karma yoga) prescribed by Hinduism, you will attain liberation (moksha).

Here is another example from a Hindu text to highlight the flexible nature of “caste” and how it is not birth-based:

Sidan vipro vaṇig-vṛttyāpaṇyair evāpadaṁ taretkhaḍgena vāpadākrānto.

Meaning: If a brāhmaṇa cannot support himself through his regular duties and is thus suffering, he may adopt the occupation of a merchant and overcome his destitute condition by buying and selling material things. If he continues to suffer extreme poverty even as a merchant, then he may adopt the occupation of a kṣatriya, taking a sword in hand . . .  (SB 11.17.47)

Conclusion

There are 4 main things to conclude from this article.

  1. Hinduism does not have a birth-based varna system, varna being what people often refer to when they talk about the caste system. Your varna is dictated by the skills, qualities, and nature you have.
  2. Jati refers to a community you are born into. Regardless of what jati a person is born into, Hinduism allows one to select/pursue any occupation they desire based on the skills, qualities, and talent they have.
  3. Caste, Jati, or Varna are not important in Hinduism. Any Hindu, from any background, can attain spiritual liberation (moksha), which is the ultimate goal for all Hindus. This can be done through a variety of paths that you can choose from.
  4. Caste discrimination is not supported by Hinduism, and people from all walks of life, including Dalits, have played important roles in crafting the rituals, texts, and commentaries involving Hinduism.

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