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 and Purdah 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.”

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 ]

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.

Last updated June 2015

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