Caste Development and Religious Response in Ancient India
This paper will provide a brief explanation of the development of the caste system in ancient India, and the stances and responses of Hinduism and Buddhism to the concept and practice of caste. Caste is a method of social organization in which people are divided into categories of purity in breeding and risk of pollution, based on occupation, family heritage, skin color, diet and other clustered elements, and then discriminatory rules and privileges, or the lack thereof, are assigned and enforced (Rai). In India, this system has evolved over thousands of years, originally with four and now with thousands of caste categories (Rai). Hindus (80 of India’s people) support the caste system. Buddhists do not support it, theoretically (Kawasaki and Kawasaki), but to some extent are drawn into it with their two-tier system and social pressure (hotathrandom.com). The Government of India has outlawed negative discrimination, based on caste, yet they practice positive discrimination and protect those who practice negative discrimination (hotathrandom.com). Law does not quickly change thinking and belief.
There are several theories about the origin of the caste system in India. Religious theories explain that castes were made from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of Brahman, or from his bodily organs. The origin of the Untouchables is not explained in scripture (hotathrandom.com). Biological theories explain that castes, and the rules and restrictions governing caste, depend upon the purity or ratios of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas qualities present in all beings and objects (hotathrandom.com). Social historical theory explains that caste began with the arrival in India of fair-skinned Aryans, who displaced and disrespected the local people, seized authority and divided themselves into three caste categories. Dark-skinned, conquered locals were seen as demons and, along with off-spring of Aryans and locals, became the untouchables, the most dangerously polluted ones (hotathrandom.com).
The Aryans used religion and scripture to secure their privilege and to harass and restrict untouchables. Their most powerful caste was the Brahmins, priests. This system was absorbed into Hinduism, from Brahmanism (buddhanet.net). There emerged a class of homeless mystics who held debates on spiritual matters. They represented various religious persuasions, but all had in common a profound resistance against the authority of Vedic scripture and Brahmin priests, who claimed to be gods. Buddhism emerged from the influence and experience of this group (Kawasaki and Kawasaki).
Buddha denounced the caste system and taught that a person’s actions are the measure of who a person is, whether a priest or outcast. He denounced the authority of Brahmin priests, their scripture and their rituals. He welcomed outcasts and some of the greatest tantric adepts were from the lowest caste (buddhanet.net). Unfortunately, there are Buddhists in India and Buddhist governments in nearby Sri Lanka and Nepal which still confirm and support the caste system (buddhanet.net). It is not an easy system to abolish, even with the force of law. It requires a deep change in thinking and belief.
buddhanet.net. “Dharma Data: The Caste System.” 2011. Buddhist Studies Glossary of Buddhist Terms. Web. 18 November 2011 <http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/dharmadata/fdd53.htm>.
hotathrandom.com. “Indian Caste System.” 2011. hotathrandom.com. Web. 18 November 2011 <http://www.hotathrandom.com/IndianCaste.htm>.
Kawasaki, Ken and Visakha Kawasaki. “Buddhism in India: Lifting the Curse of Untouchability.” 2011. Home. Web. 18 November 2011 <http://home.earthlink.net/~brelief2/bud_ind.html>.
Rai, Jaswant. “origin and Development of Caste System in India.” April 2011. Institute of Sikh Studies. 18 Web. November 2011 <http://sikhinstitute.org/april/jaswantrainew.html>.