Hindu Religion and Caste System
Thanks to our present Indian political leadership and sociological environment, we, the people of India, have become very conscious of our religion and caste. It can even be said that never before there was so much of discussion and division due to this awareness. Any Government document, be it an application for school admission or for a job or even for observing the last rites for the dead comes with a question regarding the religion and caste of the person filling up the form. So is the case for getting a tuition fee waiver or a scholarship for further studies
or to obtain any social service benefit. Caste comes first in our present day society. The Government of India or for that matter, any State Government in the Union of States of India, talks of its people only in terms of Scheduled Castes (known in the Indian Government parlance as SCs), Backward Castes (BCs), Economically Backward Castes (EBCs) and/or Other Backward Castes (OBCs). In such an environment, with the struggle for existence being a matter of utmost importance, many caste organisations have mushroomed in the country. Next came their urge for political power. No wonder, now, the elections in the country are being fought on the planks of castes, with party tickets for contesting the elections being distributed mainly on the criterion of caste of the applicants seeking party tickets to fight the elections. So much so, one is not allowed to forget the caste at any point of time.
Though classified as belonging to one of the few FCs - Forward Castes- the Brahmins are facing numerous problems because of this caste dominance in the Indian society. It is, in this context, all the more necessary for Brahmins to understand where they stand and what they stand for. Before that they all should have - if not comprehensive - at least a concise knowledge of their story and history.
Society can be defined as an amalgamation of communities. Communities are made up of different people coming and living together. Just as it is natural for a family to have differences within its own members, so it is for a community. When such differences crop up, it is but natural either to register a protest or to walk on a different path, gathering a few more to follow on the new path. All the religions have come into existence in this fashion.
Be it Buddhism or Christianity or be it the Islam. A prophet, a saint or a messenger of God sees things differently and starts on a journey in a newly chosen path. People may see reason in his proclamations and follow him.
And, lo, a new religion comes into existence!
Hinduism... A way of Life or A Religion?
But the case of ‘Hindu Religion’ is a lot different compared to other religions in the world. Whereas almost all religions can be traced back to a messenger or a prophet, Hindu religion has no such roots. It is called ‘apourusheyam’ meaning to have not born out of a human being (similar to the origin of Vedas, the first known religious books in the world, the origins of which cannot be attributed to any single person or a group of people). Hinduism is said to have evolved by itself over a period of time. Probably the first of the earliest religions, Hinduism has its roots deeply entrenched in its followers. There are no missionaries to propagate the religion; no religious wars are fought for the cause of spreading it. No crusades are taken to spread its good word. The belief in Hinduism continues from generation to generation through family traditions, passed on from parents to the children to the next generation children. There is no single God for Hindus to look upon; there are a few hundreds of them,
330 million gods to be correct in number, always ready to help the needy, or always ready to listen to the woes of the devotees. And, strangely, no single God ordains that He alone be prayed; and that is the reason one can see an array of Gods lined one after the other, in that particular corner of any devotee’s house, the holy corner is called ‘pooja mandiram’ meaning place of prayer or worship. And there are no fights among these Gods. Further among the members of the same household also, everyone is at liberty to pray to their own selected God, called
ishta daivam’, meaning God of own’s own choice, though the family as a single entity may pray to a single God.
Such is the unique freedom afforded to the followers of Hinduism. Throughout the history, numerous efforts have been made to uproot the religion from the land of its origin. Still presently, at least one fifth of the population of the entire globe follows Hinduism. We see Hindus not only in India, but across the four corners of the world.
There are Hindu temples in the east, west, north and south corners of the globe. Hindu Gods are offered prayers in the many islands of South Eastern countries of Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia. Many a new Hindu temples are being constructed in the plains of United States. Hindu festivals are being observed in the Great Britain. So, Hinduism is stretching its influence in faraway lands, without any visible effort to that effect.
The words ‘Hindu Religion’ and ‘Hinduism’ are freely inter-mixed and used in this book, meaning Hindu Religion only. In the opinion of this author, there is no difference between these two words, though some people may differ with this view. It is assumed by this author that ‘Hindu Religion’ is the name of the religion, and the term ‘Hinduism’ is devoted to the way of the followers of this great religion. However, some people feel that Hinduism is the way of life followed by all Indians, irrespective of their caste, creed and religion. I beg to differ.
A Christian, a Jain or a Muslim in India may never accept that he follows Hinduism as a way of life in India.
Religion, Hindu and Hinduism
There have been numerous arguments whether Hinduism is, in fact, a religion or a way for people living in India. For many a people, Hinduism is a concept that encompasses a way of life, a set of beliefs, an idea of belonging to one particular land, that is India. Again, the word ‘India’ means so much to so many people. One has to understand this concept or the conceptual confusion to be able to steer further. Let us start at the beginning.
‘The English word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin word ‘Ligare’ meaning to bind. ... Indeed it is the set of fundamental ideas and practices that bind people together in a cosmos, an ordered world and that link them in community. In some religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam, this sense of belonging is economical, transcending culture and land. In some traditions, such as Judaism and Hinduism, the sense of being bound together in a highly locative, generating a complex rootedness in the land’ says Diana L. Eck, in her book
‘India: A Sacred Geography’ (p. 48, published by Harmony Books, New York, 2012).
The word is also said to have derived from the Latin words - ‘religore’ or ‘relegere’, meaning ‘to pay attention or to observe’. That being so, we can understand that religion is a matter that one has to pay attention to, and not to ignore or not to frown upon.
The book ‘World Religions - The Great Faiths Explained and Explored’ by John Bowker, traces the word ‘Religion’ to the Latin word ‘religio’, which means ‘something done with over-anxious or scrupulous attention to detail, and from that use it was applied to what we call religion, because of the way in which people performed sacrifices in those early days. The word may come from a verb ‘religare’, meaning to bind things closely together, which tells us something very important about religions’. (DK Books, 1997, p.6). The book ‘Religion and Everyday Life and Culture’ mentions ‘religio’ as conveying a meaning of ‘binding together’ (p. 549). John Bowker also defines that ‘religions are organised systems for protecting information and for passing it on from one generation to another’.
The ‘religion’ is defined as ‘a set of beliefs and practices, often associated with a supernatural power that shapes or directs human life and death, or a commitment to ideas that provide coherence for one’s existence. Adherence to a religion implies a belief in a divine force, as well as offering moral guidance for believers. Religions also bind people into communities with common goals and values’ (Illustrated Dictionary of Religions, DK Books, London, 1999, p. 8).
Karen Armstrong, an authority and author of many books on Religious affairs, makes it clear that ‘religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart’ (The Case for God, Pub. by Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2009, p. xiii).
The Greeks had neither a word for ‘religion’ nor any vocational priesthood.
Described as one of the many ancient civilisations on the earth, the Romans, like the Greeks, have had no word for ‘religion’. The nearest equivalent is ‘cultus deorum’, meaning ‘worshipping of gods’ (World Religions,
Ed. John Bowker, p. 15). From this word ‘cultus deorum’, has derived the word ‘culture’ in English, which may mean to describe many things to many. The book ‘World Religions’ proclaims that ‘religion has more the sense of scruple and strict observance’ (p. 15). Elsewhere in the same book, it is said that ‘religions are organised systems for protecting information and for passing it on from one generation to another’ (p. 6 and 8).
We in India refer ‘religion’ as ‘Dharm’ in the North and ‘Math’ in the South. The word ‘Dharm’ means that what is justified, the law or the judicious. When we utter the word ‘Math’ in the North, they connote that word to mean ‘opinion’. In fact, religion is a way of expressing one’s own opinion, may be about the traditions and practises that the individual or his family observes or follows.
One British Officer, Sir John Strachey, in 1888, while explaining to an audience at the University of Cambridge the concept of the country of India, commented that ‘There is no such country and this is the first and most essential fact about India that can be learned. India is a name, which we give to a great religion including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds to it’. (Ref. ‘India: A Sacred Geography, Diana L. Eck, pub. Harmony Books, New York, 2012, p. 62.) And that is the fact. India, as a country, has never existed in any of the sacred books including Vedas.
There are many assumptions as to how the word ‘Hindu’ or ‘India’ came into being.
Historians are of the opinion that some Persian travellers after their return to their native land have referred this land as ‘that land beyond River Sindhu’. While mentioning so, due to the some phonetic problems, they referred to it as ‘Hindu’. The people living there became ‘Hindus’. And the same river is called ‘Indos’ in Greek, giving another word ‘Indos’ that is ‘India’. But the fact remains that they were referring only to people and their religion.
Thus, we can assume that the word ‘Hindu’ is either a corrupted form of, or derived from the word ‘Sindhu’, the name of the river that flows in the north-west parts of India. ‘Sindhu’ means ‘Sea’ or ‘a large body of water’. Since almost all the civilisations have blossomed near large bodies of water, it is no wonder that a mighty river like Sindhu has lent its name to a mighty religion like ‘Hindu’.
‘Hindu’ religion is also referred to as the ‘Vedic Dharma’ (Vaidik Dharm) because the followers of Hinduism owe their allegiance to the four great scriptures, or Four Vedas, namely Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. It is also called ‘Sanatan Dharm’, meaning ‘eternal religion’. It can also be said as ‘the perennial religion’, emphasizing the fact of its being not traceable of evolving from a particular point of time.
Sri Aurobindo in his book ‘India’s Rebirth’ (pub. Institut de Recherches Evolutives, Paris, 3rd Edition, 2000) elaborates and emphasises ‘Hinduism... gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole fallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of Godward endeavour of the human spirit. An immense many-sided and many staged provision for spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, Sanatana Dharma...’.
This Sanatana Dharma, or the loosely called Hindu religion has varnasraya dharma (four caste system) and vedas (the fundamental books) as the basic tenets which all Hindus follow.
Often, the caste system in Hindu religion is blamed for all the ills in the Indian society. Though many shun and criticise the prevailing caste system in the society, they are blind to see the fact that the same caste system was able to bind the people together, rather than disintegrating them. We will have a thorough discussion on this aspect elsewhere in this book.
In an attempt to define Hinduism that exists in India today, the Constitution Bench of The Supreme Court of India, in Sastri Yajnapurusha Dasji and Others Vs. Muldas Bhudardas Vaishya and Another, 1996 (3) SCR 242 held: "Then we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God: it does not subscribe to any one dogma: it does not believe in any one philosophic concept: it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more." The Supreme Court further opined "Hinduism had originally a territorial and not a cradle significance. It implied residence in a well-defined geographical area. Aboriginal tribes, savage and half-civilized people, the cultured Dravidians and the Vedic Aryans were all Hindus as they were the sons of the same mother. The Hindu thinkers reckoned with the striking fact that the men and women dwelling in India belonged to different communities, worshipped different gods, and practised different rites." Thus Hinduism is a group of religions, decides an essay on the Religion in the website www. vepachedu.org
Nobody knows when the society started to shape itself. The caste system evolved, but slowly to progress further with a coordinated effort, everybody doing his duty, small or big, depending on their stamina, either physical or intellectual.
Lord Sri Krishna says in his famous ‘Srimad Bhagawat Geetha’ (Song of the God) that
‘Chathurvarnyam maya srustam guna karma vibhagasah
Thasya Karthara mapi mam viddhya karthara mavyayam’ (4.13).
He emphasises that He has created the four castes, depending on the qualities (Gunas) and deeds (Karmas).
We see the first ever reference to the four caste system in the Purusha Suktha (Poetry of the Man) of the RigVeda, the first ever spoken book on the earth. In the 10th Mandala of the RigVeda also (10-90-12), we have a mention of the names of all the four castes, which includes the Brahmins.
Apsthamba Suthras (The Dharma Suthras of Apasthamba) also make a mention of the four castes (1-1-4).