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.
According to the
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
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 one?s
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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).
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
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 one?s place in the caste system as determined by one?s 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)
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 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 Breman?s 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 Brahmin?s 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).
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 group?s 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).
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 person?s body has a single code
within, a set of rules, which dictates what is appropriate for them.
The code programmed into the person?s 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).
Inden explain one?s 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.? One?s jati-dharma (the
duty of one?s jati) is also encoded into one?s bodily substance, as
are the duties for one?s 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?
Ideas from this
theory explain why Hindus believe that pollution can be transferred
between people. Every person?s 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?
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).
D. THE GUN
Marvin Davis has
taken Marriott and Inden?s 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
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)
with Marriott and Inden?s 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).
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 women?s purity; for
daughters to marry down jeopardizes the rank of the entire jati and
is, therefore, vigorously opposed by all jati males? (Wong).
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
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).
E. Angry Gods
A less abstract
theory of caste is Edward Harper?s 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 everyone?s
best interests. ?A Havik [Brahmin] should be ritually pure because
this state is intrinsically good, not because it is enjoyable?
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.
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)
that man?s 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 Brahmin?s 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?
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.?
does not come automatically; it must be achieved with great effort,
and it cannot be attained solely by one man?s 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.
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.
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
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