Hindu concepts about piety and the avoidance of pollution also lie at the heart of caste system. Karma itself is often defined as the purity or impurity of past deeds, with the idea being that one will be reincarnated at a lower level if they have been polluted in any way. A verse from the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text, reads: "Those whose conduct on earth has given pleasure can hope to enter a pleasant womb, that its, the womb of a Brahmin or a woman of princely class. But those whose conduct on earth has been foul can expect to enter a foul and stinking womb of a bitch, a pig or an outcast."

Anything dealing with death, excrement, blood or dirt is regarded as impure. All bodily fluids are regarded as pollutants: urine, excrement, sweat, spit, blood, even tears. They feet are regarded as impure because the touch they ground. Devout Hindus not only avoid meat because it is associated with blood and death but also avoid potatoes, carrots, onions and ginger they are grow in the dirt.

The higher the caste the higher the levels of purity required of its members.

Caste Rules

Although castes are usually defined by occupation, there are usually distinct styles of dress, behavior, language, religious customs, celebrations. and diet that are associated with each one. Caste determines who an individual can marry, where they can live and which job they can take. There are caste restrictions for smoking, drinking, eating and socializing with other castes. The rules are set up to define the inter-relations between castes based on concepts of purity and pollution (higher up castes are regarded as more pure and interacting with lower castes defiles this purity and is regarded as polluting). Sometimes it seems the rules ignore the needs of different castes to interact to provide goods and services for one another.

The Laws of Manu, compiled at least 2,000 years ago by Brahmin priests, describes rules for each varna on eating, marrying, making money, maintaining piety and what to avoid. The Dharma shastras, the Hindu books of law written between A.D. 100 and 500, defines how each caste is supposed to act according to an established a set of rules on dictates how different castes should treat one another.

Caste rules are very strict. Members of different castes are not even eat with one another. Marriages generally take place only between members of the same caste. Even things like the length of a sari, the details of the marriage ceremony, the ornaments a women can wear, whether or not a person can carry an umbrella, when water is drawn from a well and which door of a temple a person can enter are determined by caste rules.

What is acceptable for one caste system may be taboo for another. The study of the Vedas is expected of Brahmin but is a sinful pursuit for members of lower castes. Conversely, drinking alcohol is generally okay for low caste members but is a great sin for Brahmins.

Within the caste system it is impossible to change your caste. All you one do is try to win merit to improve one’s station is the next life. That partly explain why so much energy is put into rituals and festivals and pilgrimages, which are designed to win merit.

Caste Rules, Racism and Pollution

Some have argued that the caste system is not supported by Hinduism but that it endures because of high caste racists. The customs says reader "have evolved beyond mere prohibitions and taboos into notions that members of one caste could be physically and even spiritually polluted by contact with the members of another, supposedly inferior caste. The anthropologist John Reader said "social barriers can be as difficult to cross as geographical boundaries."

Hindus believed that contact with a person of a lower caste was almost the same as contacting someone with a contagious disease. The lowest of lows were the Untouchables whose touch brought defilement and contamination to the person touched.

Different castes drink from different wells. Some temples have two doors. One is for menstruating women and people from lower castes. In some cases higher castes are not even the shadows of lower castes fall on them.

Some Indians go through great lengths not to touch their lips to a drinking cup (they pour the water into their mouth) so as not pollute the water consumer by other castes. Since rice is cooked with water there are special rules on who can eat with whom. Some upper castes only eat rice they prepare themselves.

Because of concerns of pollution being transferred from not only Untouchables but also menstruating women, people with recently deceased relatives or people who have touched sweat or other body excretions, tea sold from street vendors is often served in a clay cup and disposed of afterwards because of high caste don't want to risk drinking out of the same cup as some one of a low caste. Food is often served on a disposable banana leaf for the same reason.

Every Indian language has word to expression purity and impurity. “Pure” usually means “clean, spiritually meritorious” while “impure” means “unclean, defiled, polluted” and even “sinful.” The distance between castes in measured in term of purity and impurityintemperate and not only are higher castes regarded as more pure than lower castes so too are their professions, diets and lifestyles. Caste rules are often defined by the distance between castes in terms of purity and impurity.

Another important concept of the caste system are the ideas of giving and receiving and serving and being served. Castes can often be ranked by the transactions between castes in terms of o’s being a giver and one receiving goods, services, gifts, ad spiritual blessings.

Never enter the kitchen of someone of high caste. If you touch something there you may effectively pollute the entire kitchen and a special cleansing ceremony is required by a Brahmin priest to purify it again. Before that time no food can be prepared there.

Breaking Caste Rules

What happens if you break the systems of caste. If the rules of contact are broken the penalties among strict Hindu followers can be quite severe. Breaking caste brings pollution for which requires penances even if it is incurred accidently. In extreme cases people are excommunicated. Hindus believe that the world and human society are divine structures. The are reincarnated through this structure until they reach a state of total divinity. Disruptions of the process can cause great alarm. In ancient times Hindus was forbidden from "crossing the waters" (traveling abroad) out of fear they would lose their caste rank and have to begin again at the bottom.

The word outcast is said to be derived from people who were thrown out of their caste group for breaking caste rules. According to Carol Pozefsky, entomology expert at “Outcast stems from the Scandanavian word casten which first appears in a 13th century book called Ancrene Riwle . Casten meant 'throw' and was related to the Old Icelandic word 'kasta' also meaning to throw. The word 'castaway' as a noun appears before 1475 and 'outcast' simply one who is cast out (or thrown out) is first noted in 16th century English literature. The prefix 'out' stems from the Old English word 'ut' The Middle Dutch uut, the Old High German uz and the Swedish and Norwegian ut and Danish ud. They all mean the same thing, OUT!”

Women Customs in India

A family’s honor is closely tied to the honor of their women, as reflected in the virginity of unmarried girls and the fidelity of married ones. Any hint of scandal can bring shame to an extended (joint) family, which can have dozens of members. This explains in part why a woman’s actions and movements are so closely monitored. A man who is brazen enough to kiss a young girl in a field can get the shit kicked out of him and or even sometimes be killed. Rural women who deviate from the strict social codes are sometimes stripped naked in public or even gang raped.

Hindu women are expected to be shy and demure and not to speak unless they are spoken to. Indian women have traditionally kept their voices low, looked downward when speaking and never looked a man in the eye. Men look down on women smokers even though men smoke everywhere and sometimes snub their cigarettes out on the floors of people’s homes.

All moral codes say that women are to be treated with respect and kindness, mothers particularly so. In many homes there are separate areas for men and women. Sometimes men and women drive in separate cars.

In cases of adultery the man is often let off lightly and regarded only to take a ritualized purifying bath while the woman is regarded as polluted for the rest of her life. Other punishments might be imposed depending on the caste of the man and woman involved.

One woman told National Geographic, “As a child, I was very fond of dancing but when I told my mother, she slapped me and said, ‘Don’t even think of it; girls from descent families don’t dance and sing. Don’t ever speak to me about it again.”

Dot on an Indian Woman’s Forehead

A puju (Hindu offering) ends when worshipers take red powder ( kumkum) and place a dot on the middle of their forehead. This is a representation of a third eye located on the sixth chakra, said to be the seat of "concealed wisdom" and a source spiritual energy and concentration. This is different from the dot many Indian women have on their forehead, which indicates they are married. Both kinds of marks are called bindis or tikas or various other names although those terms or more properly applied to marks that have religious meaning. 'Bindi' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'bindu' or a drop.

Married women in India often have a dot between their eyes or at the parting of their hair. A widow is not supposed to have such a dot. Only married women, or in some cases women or girls who have never been married, can wear it. These many women wear dots of various colors, shapes and sizes. They are worn for fashion not religious reason and often are designed to match the clothes they are wearing

In southern India, girls choose to wear a a mark on their forehead, while in other parts of India it is the prerogative of the married woman. According to “A red dot on the forehead is an auspicious sign of marriage and guarantees the social status and sanctity of the institution of marriage. The Indian bride steps over the threshold of her husband's home, bedecked in glittering apparels and ornaments, dazzling the red bindi on her forehead that is believed to usher in prosperity, and grants her a place as the guardian of the family's welfare and progeny.” [Source:]

“A traditional bindi is red or maroon in color. A pinch of vermilion powder applied skillfully with practiced fingertip make the perfect red dot. Women who are not nimble-fingered take great pains to get the perfect round. They use small circular discs or hollow pie coin as aid. First they apply a sticky wax paste on the empty space in the disc. This is then covered with kumkum or vermilion and then the disc is removed to get a perfect round bindi. Sandal, 'aguru', 'kasturi', 'kumkum' (made of red turmeric) and 'sindoor' (made of zinc oxide and dye) make this special red dot. Saffron ground together with 'kusumba' flower can also create the magic!” [Ibid]


Millions of Hindu and Muslim women in northern and central India, particularly in rural areas, practice purdah, a complex set rules for veiling and excluding women that some say has been followed for over 1000 years. Women according to purdah may not be seen by any men other than her husband and in some cases some of his in laws. She may not even talk to her husband in public when other people are around; notes have to be given to children acting as messengers. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977 ?]

Purdah rules of veiling the body and avoidance of public appearance, especially in the presence of relatives linked by marriage and before strange men, are inextricably linked to patterns of authority and harmony within the family. Rules of Hindu and Muslim purdah differ in certain key ways, but female modesty and decorum as well as concepts of family honor are essential to the various forms of purdah. In most areas, purdah restrictions are stronger for women of high-status families. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The importance of purdah is not limited to family life; rather, these practices all involve restrictions on female activity and access to power and the control of vital resources in a male-dominated society. Restriction and restraint for women in virtually every aspect of life are the basic essentials of purdah. In India, both males and females are circumscribed in their actions by economic disabilities, hierarchical rules of deference in kinship groups, castes, and the larger society. But for women who observe purdah, there are additional constraints.*

Purdah is derived from the Hindi word “parda,” literally meaning “curtain.” It implies high status. Brahmans favor strict interpretations of the purdah dictums. Some old timers lament how things have changed: how some young brides, who are supposed to sequestered, are even talking to their father in laws. ?

Hindu rules enforcing feminine modesty became stricter after the Muslim invasions so that Hindus could protect their women from the conquerors. Some scholars believe the custom of purdah was introduced by Muslims. There is little evidence of it existing before the arrival of large numbers of Muslims in the 12th century. Others have suggested that Hindus introduced the custom to Muslims.

Veiled Hindu Women and Extreme Purdah

Hindu women who follow the customs of purdah cover their bodies and wear veils just like conservative Muslim women. Women are even veiled at death. At a funeral the only people that can lay eyes on the face of a deceased woman are those who saw her in real life. Women practicing purdah learn to recognize other such women by their children. At their wedding only women and male relatives of the groom were allowed to attend. In some places where purdah is practiced to an extreme level women travel around in cloaked vehicles. When they step out from the vehicle they are covered by a tent-like umbrella called a chattri that conceals her completely. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977 ?]

Purdah customs are also practiced by Muslim women in India. Mimkera, once part of Bhopal state, was governed for more than 80 years by Muslim queens. One former queen told anthropologist Dorane Wilson Jacobson in 1977, "When I was married in 1905 I was only five years old; my husband was only 11. I spent the rest of my childhood in this palace observing purdah in the strictest sense. My husband and his older brothers and their sons were the only males I met with; the only man I saw outside the family was the old, white-bearded cook. I went to school here but always behind a curtain. the teacher sat on the other side and we never saw each other...On trips I wore a burka, rode a bus owned by a relative, then was driven the last mile in a horse-drawn carriage completely enclosed by a curtain." Now the queens drive sports car and wear blue jeans and their children get to look at their teachers. ?

For almost all women, modest dress and behavior are important. Clothing covering most of the body is common; only in tribal groups and among a few castes do women publicly bare their legs or upper bodies. In most of the northern half of India, traditionally dressed women cover the tops of their heads with the end of the sari or scarf (dupatta ). Generally, females are expected to associate only with kin or companions approved by their families and to remain sexually chaste. Women are not encouraged to roam about on pleasure junkets, but rather travel only for explicit family-sanctioned purposes. In North India, women do relatively little shopping; most shopping is done by men. In contrast to females, males have much more freedom of movement and observe much less body modesty. [Source: Library of Congress *]

See Purdah Under Women

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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