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10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered

1

Is Hinduism Responsible for the Caste System in India?

Dalit activists
Dalits and their supporters stage a protest against the arrest of Dalit activists across the country on Aug. 19, 2018, in New Delhi, India. Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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There is no scriptural or spiritual basis in Hinduism for the discriminatory and oppressive caste system that developed in India, including the labeling of the very lowest social class as "untouchables."

India's birth-based caste system, later codified by the British during imperial rule, was partially the result of an unfortunate distortion of the Hindu concept of varna or personality types. The Vedas taught that individuals generally fall into four different personality types, each essential for a well-functioning society:

  • intellectuals who study and teach (brahmin)
  • government officials who protect and lead (kshatriya)
  • businessmen and landowners who make money (vaishya)
  • laborers who grow the food and make the goods (shudra)

In the Vedas, none of these personality types was "lower" or less important than the rest, but over time, the personality types got lumped together with an occupation-based social system called jati.

Jati are similar to medieval European trade guilds, where people with the same profession established their own rules and communities. In India, those rules included specific religious practices and rituals. Eventually, membership in a particular jati became a birthright passed on from one generation to the next. Every religious community in India has their own jati groups and affiliations.

Over time, many Hindus mistakenly concluded that being born into the laboring classes was a reflection of the state of one's soul — bad karma meant that you were stuck with a torturous existence. When the British arrived in India, they noted a group of people whose position in society was so low that they fell outside of both varna and jati. The British called them the "untouchables."

Discrimination on the basis of caste or class was officially outlawed in 1948 with Indian independence, but like racial bias in America it remains engrained for some Indians, regardless of religion. It's important to re-emphasize, however, that the caste system was never rooted in Hindu teachings. In fact, the Vedas teach exactly the opposite, as expressed by this ancient hymn:

"No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity."

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