The origins of the caste system in India and Nepal are unknown, but appear to have originated over two thousand years ago. With this system, which is associated with Hinduism, people have been classified based on their occupations. Although originally depended on a person’s work, it soon became hereditary, and each person was in fact born in an unalterable social condition.
The classification includes four main castes which are: brahmans the priests; Kshatriya the warriors and nobles; Vaisya farmers, traders and craftsmen; and Shudra, sharecroppers, and servants. Some people were born outside or below the caste system, and these are called the untouchables who in the twentieth century were often referred to by the term Dalit to translate “the oppressed”.
The caste system
The first three castes, brahmans, kshatriya and vaisya are called “twice born” Dvija, because metaphorically their exponents are born a second-time thanks to the investiture with the sacred upanayana cord.
Those belonging to the fourth caste and a large number of Dalit or Harijan outcasts are instead called “once-born” because they are excluded from the upanayana and from all the ceremonies.
The reason behind the caste is reincarnation, understood as one of the fundamental beliefs in Hinduism; after each life, the soul is reborn in a new material form. A new particular form of the soul depends on the virtuosity of the previous behavior. Thus, a truly virtuous person from the Shudra caste could be rewarded in the next life with rebirth as a Brahmani, a higher caste level. Souls can move not only between the different levels of human society, but also in other animals – hence the vegetarianism of many Hindus. Within a life cycle, people have little social mobility, and have had to fight for virtue during their present life in order to reach a higher caste level next time.
Today, practices associated with the caste system have changed over time and across India, but some characteristics have remained common. The three key sectors of life dominated by castes are marriage, meals and religious worship.
Marriage between subjects of different castes was and is strictly prohibited, indeed most people are married within their sub-caste or jati.
At mealtimes, anyone can accept food from the hands of a brahmin, but for a brahmin, it would be considered “polluted food” if he or others of the same caste received food from a lower caste person. At the other extreme, if an untouchable had the courage to draw water from a public well, in fact, he or she polluted the water and no one else can drink it.
In terms of religious cults, brahmins as a priestly class have and still continue to conduct religious and rituals. This included preparing for the holidays and vacations, as well as weddings and funerals. The Kshatriya and Vaisya castes had full right of worship, but in some places, the Shudras (the servant caste) are not allowed to offer sacrifices to the gods. The Untouchables are completely excluded from the temples, and sometimes it is not even allowed to set foot on the ground of the temple. If the shadow of an untouchable touches a brahmin, the latter would have been polluted, so untouchables had to lie face down at a distance when a brahmin passed.
A bit of History
When the British Empire began taking power in India in 1757, they exploited the caste system as a means of social control. The British allied themselves with the Brahmin caste, restoring some of its privileges that had been repealed by Muslim rulers. However, many Indian customs regarding the lower castes seemed discriminatory to the British and were outlawed.
Within Indian society, a movement began between the 19th and 20th centuries that advocated the abolition of untouchability. In 1928, the first temple welcomed the untouchables or Dalits “the oppressed” to pray with its members of the upper castes. Mohandas Gandhi also supported the emancipation of the Dalits, coining the term Harijan or “children of God” to describe them.
On August 15, 1947, India became independent and the Republic of India was born. The new Indian government immediately went on to establish laws to protect and classify castes and tribes, including both untouchables and other groups who live traditional lifestyles. These laws include quota systems to ensure access to education and government posts. In fact, by law, in the application of articles 341 and 342 of the Indian Constitution of 1950, the “Schedule Caste” and the “Schedule Tribes” have been created, that is the lists of the castes of the untouchables and tribes.
Volunteering opportunities in India
These volunteering programs give volunteers the possibility to learn more about the caste system in India.