DIFFERENT HINDU CASTES
Kshatriya Rajput Raja Ravi Varma In descending order, the four major varnas (traditional castes) are: 1) the Brahmins (priests and scholars), 2) the Kshatryas (landowners, rulers and warriors), 3) Vaisyas (commoners and merchants) and 4) Sudras (craftsmen, servants and laborers). Sometimes a fifth caste is added: the Haijuts (the lowest class). The Dalits (formally known as Untouchables) have traditionally been regarded as having such a low status they were not even considered being members of the caste system.
The first three varnas are considered "twice born" and thus higher. Their ranking is defined in the Rig Veda. Twice born is a reference to the fact that, unlike the Sudras, they are expected to go through a ceremonial rebirth when they begin wearing the sacred thread. This initiation into adulthood can takes place as early as the age of 7 and among other things means the wearer of the sacred thread is expected to follow strict taboos against eating meat.
Higher castes are usually associated with whiter skin and purer Aryan descent because the first light-skinned Aryan conquerors gave the conquered dark-skin Dravidians dirtier, lower status tasks. Even today, non-Indians are considered to be members of the lowest castes.
Over centuries the basic castes have split into thousands of separate subdivisions based usually on occupation and location. Indians often refer to the these occupational castes as jati. According to Hindu texts jati emerged out of intermarriage between the varnas. Anthropologist posit that jatis developed as social groups like tribes and were integrated into the existing varna system. The process continues today as new crafts and jobs are created.
Within the four main castes there are numerous subdivisions, including 3,000 major castes and over 25,000 sub-castes. Some have only a few hundred members others have several million. Even journalists have their own caste. Some are specific to certain areas.
In Gujarat, Brahmins make up 4 percent of the population; other upper castes, 8 percent; middle castes, 12 percent; farm laboring castes, 24 percent; lower castes, 7 percent; Untouchables 7 percent; Muslims, 8 percent; and Scheduled Tribes 14 percent.
Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures
Castes in a Typical Indian Village
Brahmin Ammakodagi Each village usually has members of 20 castes or so living there full time—farmers, bakers, tailors, merchants, tax-collectors, shoemakers, government officials, animal herders, servants, laborers, and artisans. Each caste has ties with same caste in villages nearby. Nomadic castes such as snake-charmers, bear trainers, merchants, medicine salesmen and dancers enter the villages from time to time.
The villages have a vertical unity provided by many castes and horizontal unity provided by caste alliances with other villages. Villages are typically divided into communities made up of members of the same castes, with the dominant castes living in the center of the villages, and the lower castes and Untouchables on the fringes. Towns and cities are often divided into neighborhoods made up of members of the same castes, with the dominant castes living in nice neighborhoods and the lower castes and Untouchables in the slums.
Because agriculture is the primary way of life peasants are the dominant caste. In a typical village with 600 households and 4,000 people there might be 22 Brahmin households and one Kshatryas household. Other households are identified by subcaste: 16 Banias (merchants and businessmen); 40 Mallas (fishermen); 20 Koiris (farmers); 25 telis (oil seed crushers who use bullock powered presses); 20 Lohars (blacksmiths); 15 Ahirs (cowherds); 10 Dhobis (washermen); 10 Khatiks (fruit and pig dealers); 5 Gawals (sheep herders); 3 Bhats (singers and dancers for perform at weddings); 2 Nias (barbers); 2 Doms (cremation attendants); and 1 Gond (peanut seller). In addition there are might be 50 Muslim weaver and tailor households and 200 Untouchable households. [Source: John Putman, National Geographic October 1971]
Caste position is often determined more by economic position than tradition. In some villages upper caste families and Untouchable families are kinked in master-servant relationships.
Kshatriya Rajput Caste councils are found in almost every village and town. They are made up of the male heads of the most prominent families in each caste. Their primary function is to make sure good relations are maintained between the castes by following traditional patterns of behavior. Fines and minor physical punishments may be handed down to minor infractions. The breaking of taboos is punished with pubic humiliation such as beating with sandals or worse.
The leaders of the dominant castes are often spokespersons for the village and owe their power not to legal rights derived for the state but to dominant local position in their caste. The elders of the dominant castes administer justice not only to members of their own caste but also to members other castes who seek their intervention.
Changes, Ranking and Caste
Different castes are ranked hierarchically with each caste being superior to some castes and inferior to others. Similar profession are delineated by their purity. For example goldsmiths are a higher caste than blacksmiths. The system is not uniform. Because different caste are found in different areas, one caste may be superior to one caste in one place but inferior to another in another places.
Although a person’s association with a caste is fixed at birth the positions of different castes within he caste system are changeable. Some castes become wealthy and give up manual labor and take up “cleaner professions.” Others adopt purer customs such as a vegetarian diet, holding public prayers presided over by a Brahmin priests and other high customs as a way of moving up the caste ladder.
Some Indians leave India or convert to Islam, Buddhism, or Kshatriya or pursue a Western education and Western professions to escape from the caste system. It has been argued that other religions, Westernization and secularization are aimed at getting rid of the caste system all together.
Brahmin priest Brahmins are the highest ranking caste group and are the top of the varna system above Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras. Brahmins have traditionally been priests, either in temples or to particular families and have traditionally been better educated, held high positions and had land and money. Many have worked as teachers, scribes, landowners and government clerks. Today they are employed in a number of professions. Many fulfill their priestly duties only a part time basis.
Brahmins are expected to maintain a high level of purity (See Below), be literate in Sanskrit and other languages, and possess knowledge of Hindu liturgy. They eschew menial labor and often have very soft hands to prove it. They do not eat ginger, onions of potatoes because they grow in the unclean ground. In caste terms they consider themselves superior to Mahatma Gandhi who was Vaisya.
In terms of caste the poorest and most lowly Brahmins have traditionally looked upon themselves as superior to kings, who belong to the Kshatriya caste of warriors and nobles, which is lower than the Brahmin caste. Early in Aryan history the Brahmins gained political and religious superiority over the Kshatriyas. Brahmins maintained their power over the centuries by being the only caste allowed to learn the sacred language of Sanskrit.
Brahmins and other members of high castes are now referred to as Forwards. With the introduction of quotas to give members of lower caste more power and access to education and to public service jobs, many Brahmins are leaving India and seeking their fortune elsewhere. One Brahmin man told U.S. News and World Report, "There is an unwritten rule for Brahmins in Tamil Nadu: Get out as so you can—and stay out."
Brahmins often live together is separate neighborhood. They began their day with a trip to the family prayer room, dab vermillion powder on their brow, light an incense stick or oil lamp and chant Sanskrit verses to a portrait of a Hindu deity such as Surya, the sun god.
Brahman Priests and Women
Among Brahmins only men are allowed to serve as priest; women are often responsible for the daily pujas. Brahmin women are expected to bathe their husband's feet each morning as a sign of respect.
Brahmins may act as family priests for upper castes but not lower ones. They can officiate at shrines and temples and at rituals associated with major festivals. They conduct all the rituals performed at a marriage, are present at important religious occasions and read excerpts from the vedas and other sacred Sanskrit texts and recite from the Puranas and the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Brahmins are sometimes paid for their services with cows rather than money.
See Priests, Religion
Brahmin student learning the Vedas Brahmin are expected to maintain a higher standard of purity and obey an elaborate set of taboos, which including vegetarianism (which sometimes means going without cheese, eggs or milk). Some Brahmins have long beards and shoulder-length hair. Brahmin priests are required to wash their rice in running water before eating. Priests in some places have been known to chose to die rather than eat unwashed rices. Describing a Brahmin he met, Theroux wrote, "He neither drank nor smoked...He got up at five every morning, had an apple, a glass of milk, and some almonds, he washed and said his prayers, and then he took a walk. Then he went to his office...He furnished his office sparsely."
Many Brahmins have traditionally lived off earnings from their land and occasionally presided over events and temple rituals. A large amount of their time has been spent learning and reciting Sanskrit slokas. Brahmins have also served as scholars and teachers of the Vedas and participated in sacrifices, individual worship rituals and provided training and certification for lower-caste priests. Some large sacrifices take ten days to carry out and months to prepare.
Among the Nambudiri Brahmin in Kerala only the oldest son has traditionally been allowed to marry. Sometimes marriages are arranged at birth to stay within the confines of caste rules. Sometimes The oldest son took take as many as three wives. Dowries for girls were quite high and sometimes fathers took a second wife to save on the dowry for his daughter. Younger sons either remained celibate or formed semipermanent liaisons with somewhat lower matrilineal castes.
Many business and political leaders are Brahmins. Nearly all five-star hotels and top restaurants assign upper Brahmins to attend to their rich clients. When Daimler Benz began operating in India, the company found that it needed to hire Brahmins to deal with their upper class clients.
Brahmin have traditionally been very education minded. Brahmin mothers have been expected to stay home and tutor their children
Brahmin_threads The sacred thread) is a symbol of highs status in the caste system: only the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes are allowed to wear it. It is comprised of three cotton threads that are looped over the shoulders across the chest and under the opposite arm. It signifies that the wearer is twice born: the first time by his mother and the second time when he is initiated into Hinduism and receives the sacred thread (which is known by many names, varying by region and community, including janai, janeu, lagun, yajnopavita, yagyopavit, yonya and zunnar )>
The three intertwined threads symbolize the mind, body and act of speaking The knots tied in three threads symbolize the mastery of these three things by the wearer. The wearer is expected to keep the sacred thread clean and pollution free. If it becomes frayed, dirty or polluted by contact with lower castes or menstruating women it must be replaced. The wearer goes through great lengths—often tucking it behind his ear, to make sure it doesn’t get dirty when he goes to the bathroom, shaves or washes.
The sacred thread ceremony serves as a coming of age ceremony for the castes that wear it. Traditionally, at age seven years of age a boy’s head is shaved or his hair is cut, his body is throughly cleaned and his fingernails and toe nails are cut. If the head is shaved usually a small tuft of hair is left to show the boy is a Hindu. Before the ceremony the boy eats only one meal that can not contain meat, onions or garlic. At the ceremony which can be held at a home or a temples a Brahmin priest reads scriptures, invokes Vishnu and drapes the sacred thread over the initiates neck.
After being given the sacred thread the boy is fully initiated into his caste and is regarded as a man. He is allowed to eat with the men and is given new responsibilities. The cost of staging the ceremony can be quite high. Some times several poorer families join together to reduce costs.
There are hundreds of Brahmin castes, distinguished from one another by terms of mother tongue (e.g. Tamil, Brahmins. Konkani Brahmins), philosophical sect (e.g. Smarta Brahmins, Madhava Brahmins, Sri Vaishnava Brahmins), or identification with a particular place and profession.
Each Brahmin caste traditionally had a different responsibility. The Pajarsi, for example, were called into perform rituals at marriages and other functions. The rules of purity are different for different Brahmin caste. In Bengal, for example, there are some fish-eating Brahmins.
Anavail Brahmins are grhastha, or “homeowner,” Brahmins, which means they can not perform priestly duties. Some have traditionally been landowners, some quite wealthy with large landholdings, while other have been mendicant priests called bhikshuka, who often beg for a living.
Some Brahmins are quite poor. One interviewed by the Washington Post in 2003 lived in a one-room hot and earned $60 a month as a truck driver, He complained, “We’ve lost all the clout we used to have centuries ago. The social standing is gone.” Some are very bitter about quotas that give Untouchables good jobs.
Chitpavan Brahmin are known for producing famous names that far exceed their numbers, particularly in the Marathi-speaking areas in western India. A number of people close to Mahatma Gandhi as well as famous writers, scholars, economists, freedom fighters against the British, and even terrorists have come from the Chitpavan Brahmin caste. There are only around 250,000 of them. There was nothing that special about them until the 18th century when they established a powerful kingdom and did well under the British. Said to be the descendants of seafarers, they are relatively fair skinned and often have blue or green eyes and some have speculated that they may have original;; bee Greeks, Jews, Turks or Egyptian.
The success of the Chitpavan Brahmin has been attributed to their aggressive pursuing a Western education and their traditional positions in villages as headmen and accountants. Their have also been traditionally regarded as self-assured. A 19th century Indian newspaper described them as “a very frugal, pushing, active, intelligent, well-taught, astute, self-confident and overbearing class” following “almost all callings and generally with success.” Abou they are only thing they are not now as being good at are priests, the traditional calling of Brahmin.
Kshatriya Rajput The Kshatriyas are a large group of Hindu castes, located mainly in the northern half of India. The Sanskrit term kshatra means “warrior, ruler” and identifies the second raking varna, below Brahmins. Kshatriya have traditionally been expected to maintain law and order and protect the land from attackers from the outside. Although they are supposed to be descendants of warriors who served princes or rulers or were in royal families themselves few have anything to with soldiering or royal families anymore.
In the past some rulers have legitimized their status, especially as usurpers, by claiming their lineage was Kshatriya. The most well known of these are the Rajputs, who established many princedoms in Rajasthan. Both Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, came from Kshatriya families. It has been argued that these spiritual leaders took the path they did as a reaction to excessive ritualism that was associated with their caste.
Most Kshatriyas today are landowners or follow urban professions. Many are civil servants, teachers and servants. They have many of the same customs as Brahmins but the caste restrictions they observe are not as strict as those of Brahmins. Many Kshatriya eat meat (not beef) and drink alcohol, which are denied Brahmins.
Over the centuries Kshatriya were often accused of hypocrisy. In the past they were supposed to deny themselves worldly pleasures so they could be better soldiers. But often, as was the case with the Rajputs, they spent relatively little time on the battlefield and made their homes in lavish palaces with multiple wives and concubines and enjoyed he pleasures of good food, fine horses and falconry.
The Vaisya are the third highest of the four varnas. They are ranked below the Brahmins and Kshatriyas but are higher than Sudras and Untouchables. They have traditionally been traders, moneylenders, farmers and peasants, and now work in a large number of castes with similar ranking. Vaisya are allowed to wear the sacred thread and are more well represented in northern India than in southern India.
The Vaisyas are a very ancient category. They were described in the Rig Veda (dated to the 12th century B.C.) as being Aryans not Dasas and were described in the Zend Avesta, the Zoroastrian Holy Book, as ranking third in the Zoroastrian ranking system. According to the classical 2nd century lawgiver Manu the duties of the Vaisyas were “to keep herds of cattle, to bestow largess, to sacrifice, to read the scripture, to carry on trade, to lend at interest, and to cultivate the land.” They were vital to keeping the economy going.
The Sudras are the lowest of the four varnas but are higher than Untouchables. They are generally rural laborers. The classical 2nd century lawgiver Manu defined their roles as those serving the three higher ranking varnas above them. The justification for this, offered in early Sanskrit writing, was that the three higher varnas were made of Indo-Aryam invaders while the Sudras were Dasas (dark-skinned local people who speak Dravidian languages). If there is any truth to this then they may be descendants of the Indus people.
The Sudras are not allowed to wear the sacred thread but they are allowed to enter all Hindu temples (something that Untouchables have traditionally not been able to do)
There are several hundred million Sudra. They have traditionally been self-employed farmers but now they make a living in all kinds of ways. They are found throughout India and work in hundreds of different castes.
"Untouchables" are generally defined as people belonging to castes that rank below the Sudra varna. They have traditionally been regarded as having such low status they don't even register on the caste system. There are an estimated 170 to 240 million of them, depending how different castes are counted, and they make up one sixth to one forth of India's population. The term “Untouchable” was first used in 1909 in a lecture by the Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda to describe the primary features of the group’s relationship with other castes. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, June 2003]
Untouchables don't like the being called Untouchables. They prefer to be called Dalits, meaning “ground down” and "oppressed." Mahatma Gandhi called them "Harijans" which means "children of god." Many find this term patronizing. They and members of other lower castes are often described these days as "scheduled classes" (a term introduced by the British that means they are on the schedule of castes eligible for government aid).
Other terms used to describe them include Depressed Classes, Avarna (outside the varna system), Antyaja (last-borne), Outcastes (inaccurate since they are in caste system), Adi-Dravida (meaning “original Dravidians”), external caste, backwards castes, Panchama (meaning fifth varna, a term developed to accommodate intercaste offspring into the caste system) and Pariah (a term used by the British based on the name of the major Untouchable group of Tamil Nadu).
Their low rank is based in on the general belief, often associated with Hinduism, that traditional occupations dealing with death, excrement, blood or dirt—such as butchers, leather workers, scavengers, latrine cleaners and street cleaners—are polluting to other castes and touching them should be avoided. Implicit in this construct is the belief that Untouchables deserve their lot in life because they are in the position they are in because of karma and as a punishment for sins committed in earlier lives. Untouchability is not unique to South Asia. Untouchable-like groups can be found in Japan (the Burakumin), Korea (the Paekching), Tibet (the Ragyappa) and Burma (Pagoda slaves).
Discrimination Against Untouchables
Untouchables have traditionally been forbidden from entering Hindu temples and schools, or touching members of other castes (hence their name). They have had drink from separate wells and sit on separate benches. In some places Untouchables are not allowed to use the same cups or utensils used by members of others castes at restaurants and food stalls. Sometimes they are served from coconut shells or have water poured into their hands rather than in a cup.
In some cases higher castes will not even let the shadows of lower castes fall on them and Untouchables were required to wear bells to alert upper class Hindus that they were coming. If a member of a high caste touches an Untouchable the are supposed to take a special bath and perform a ritual to regain their purity.
Untouchables in the countryside have traditionally lived in separated satellite hamlets or segregated neighborhoods. In the cities they often lived in segregated slums. In many cases they often used their own well and in some cases, their own roads, footpaths and bridges. In some places, Untouchables live in hamlets downwind from villages with non-Untouchables residents so their wind doesn't defile the higher caste people in the villages. Such segregation are regarded as necessary measures to protect others from their polluting presence.
In some cases lower castes are excluded from village wells. They are expected to collect water from muddy pools or stagnant ponds near the boundaries of their village. Often times the water they collect makes their children sick. Sometimes upper caste members charitably draw water for them and give it to them. Until a century ago there were rules in Kerala that described distances, ranging from 12 to 96 paces, which Untouchable castes could approach higher-status Hindus. In some places it it was a custom for higher class landowners to deflower Dalit brides on their wedding in front of the helpless groom.
In some places Dalits are prevented from reading or studying Hindu scriptures. Those that did were sometimes severely beaten as a punishment. Untouchable children are often prohibited from attending classes with children from higher castes. Even educated Untouchables with high level government jobs are forced at sit at the feet of Brahmins when they return to their villages. It has been said that some Untouchables are so polluting that they could pollute a corpse, which itself is regarded as polluting.
The discrimination persist even Untouchable generally have the same skin color and dress n the same clothes as other Indians. They are not dirty and do not live in unclean homes.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and the 19th century book Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011