Caste Again

Indian Mythology 23 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday (Mumbai) on 22 Nov 2009

Any discussion of caste is politically volatile. For centuries, it denied millions basic human dignity, even water. Yet, caste remains a pan Indian reality, percolating beyond the Hindu fold. One wonders, how sages who spoke of the Atma, the divine soul in all living creatures, could also institute such a cruel system. It makes no sense!

But when one delves deeper, one notices something very significant. The sages who discussed the caste system were also firm believers of rebirth.  To study caste in isolation, without considering rebirth, creates a myopic understanding on the subject.

What distinguishes Hinduism from most other religions of the world is belief in rebirth. A newborn then is an old soul wrapped in a new flesh, its caste being determined by karmic baggage. In the absence of the rebirth lens, caste system gives unfair advantages to one set of children over others. For believers of the one-life paradigm, all children are born equal, either in sin (if one believes in Fall from Eden) or with genetic differences (if one believes in science). Appreciating this difference is critical.

The ‘origin’ of caste is conventionally traced to the Purusha Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda according to which society is an organism whose head, hands, thighs/trunk and feet are made of those involved in ritual, administration, trade and service. This was varna system which later metamorphosed, due to a variety of reasons, into the jati system based on various professions. Jati was determined by birth. Jati could not be changed, even by marriage.

But for the Rishis, who sang the Purusha Sukta, caste had no ‘origin’ as it was timeless. Caste, it was believed, ensured a model social organization that ensured predictability. Every child knew his role in society at birth itself. This role changed in past and future lives. A priest in this life could be a trader in another and a farmer in another. This was made explicit in the story of Vishnu’s avatars. In one avatar God is a priest (Vaman), in another he is a king (Rama) and in another he is a cowherd/charioteer (Krishna). The point to be noted here is that each role/caste mattered in that lifetime. Nothing was superior or inferior. Every caste was just different.

How then did the caste system become hierarchical and draconian? The Left blames the Brahmins for it. The Right comes up with apologetic explanations involving corruption over time due to foreign incursions. Perhaps this has something to do with a culture turning away from the faith in rebirth.

If people continued to believe in rebirth then the Dalit would not be treated as he was, and continues to be even today. If one believed that current caste privileges were the result of merits earned in past life, then one would not spend this life exhausting merit. One would instead focus on accumulating merit. Merit is accumulated by acts of human empathy and compassion and kindness. That exploitation and indifference and even cruelty, not empathy, marks the caste system indicates a decline of faith in the notion of rebirth.

The Rishis celebrated the notion of rebirth perhaps to provoke empathy. If this life influences the next life then one would perhaps be kinder. But if this is the one and only life, why should one be kind? While one-life cultures used the God-Devil binary to inject empathy into human behavior, rebirth cultures used the karmic balance sheet to do the same. Even divinity is subject to karma and caste in rebirth cultures, which is why every avatar of Vishnu is associated with a caste.

Both in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Brahmins are killed for taking advantages of the privileged positions. In the Mahabharata, Krishna encourages the beheading of Drona, who rather than staying a priest, used his knowledge of warfare to make his own son king. In the Ramayana, Ram kills Ravan who though born in a family of priests uses military might to terrorize the world. In caste-ridden India, Brahma-hatya or killing of the Brahmin was the worst of sins. Yet we find these stories of God committing Brahma-hatya-paap for the sake of dharma.

Jain traditions say that in a future life, Ravan will become a Tirthankara. In other words, the villain who abused his caste privileges will finally understand the point of it all and attain enlightenment. He will develop a line of sight that extends beyond his current life to include his other lives in other lifetimes. When faith in rebirth is internalized completely empathy has to bloom. For then, we realize all souls are interconnected. To hurt the other is to hurt the self, if not in this lifetime then in the next.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,

    Did you read the book Nine lives it discuss about the caste system preavling still at one or another point. what do you feel about this?

  • would you not say that you tend to justify what is ancient. This article stems from an assumption: There must be a justified basis for caste system. Is it not possible that a wrong prevailed.

    I would request you to have stories if you can, which says it is wrong and let’s undo it and not it must have been correct in it’s original form and then was corrupted and so let’s correct it.

    I just hope you have stories where, the leaders of the society having made a mistake, stood up and said we made a mistake.

    Always like what you have to say.

    • Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

      Thats a very naive position, my friend…..Women were/are second class citizens in most cultures irrespective of class or caste…..Homosexuals continue to be treated as criminals in most parts of the world……..people have been wronged in all cultures throughout history….caste is but one of the many frameworks to do so….this article is trying to understand why the caste system was constructed in the first place….calling it wrong prevents us from understanding its root……no system is created ‘because it is wrong’….in hindsight every system looks wrong (monarchy, polyandry, polygamy, child marriage, conversions, animal sacrifice)…..denying or rejecting caste system does not automatically create a world without exploitation….new frameworks emerge, more subtle, more clever, that escape the “politically correct” gaze.

  • ajay shah

    so much true it is said that your own karma decides the next stage of life in which the individual will be its important to do good karmas during ones life .i once read on a pan shop which i found very true .it said “” karma tera acchha hoga to kismat teri dasi hogi man(heart) tera saaf haoga to ghar main mathura kaashi hogi”

  • Chinmay

    I think we also need to think about the word caste in this context. The word has its origin in Portuguese language and has no equivalent in any of the Indian language. It’s not Varna for sure and it’s not Jati either.

    All though it an undeniable fact that Varna system, at least, in last one thousand years was quite rigid, the British rule made the situation a lot worse. They themselves had very rigid class system and they made Varna system more rigid by neatly dividing society (through census surveys) in as many cubicles as possible.

    One thing is sure that current government policies is making caste lines more rigid. Unless, society decides to talk among themselves on this issue the situation won’t get better any time soon.

  • Dear Dev Dutt

    Firstly congrats on evolving mythology in to an engaging subject for the modern society. In the parampara of A.K. Ramanujan, Joseph Campbell and others, welcome back.

    Caste to me also seems to embody another key principle in addition to re-birth, that of diversity. While the dark side of acknowledging differences is hierarchy, the dark side of egalitarianism is the android syndrome. A friend of mine pointed out to me how difficult it is for him as an artist or a poet to survive in Capitalist America that recognizes a winner and loser in monetary terms. The idea of a Brahmin being measured only in intellectual achievements by the broader society appealed to him.

    Another practical application is allowing multiple contextual ethics to be practiced. A Vaishya is measured by his charity not his truthfulness and a Kshatriya is not measured by Ahimsa but his protecting the weak.

    Organizations today encourage diversity and surely caste system preserved diversity better than a Darwinian survival of the fittest which characterised Western Civilization ?

    Further more, one can look at organizations that have a stable technology and do not face competitive market pressures, they tend to be functional- look at Oil companies in Public Sector. Where the external environment changes a lot, organization favor product / consumer oriented generalists.

    Stable agriculture and Wars that did not threaten social structure due to foriegn tribes entering in small numbers through the Himalayas, might have solidified the caste system more than the European context where hunting ethos and constant society uprooting wars, must have resulted in much greater mobility ?

  • Priyanka Pandey

    Its all right to go and check from where the system initiated and it might even have some merit in the era it was established, however to use that to justify today’s scenario is not acceptable at all, in your article you seem to justify it and tell us if we look at the caste sytem from where it orginated we can understand and it and may practice it and we will be human to other caste as we will be paid in another life, considering that the assumption of rebirth is a myth and then try and see what a dalit would go through how much hard he works nothing comes to him in this life and then there is no other life he lives and spends entire life at the mercy of upeer caste. can we just take a stand and say whatever the origin discrimination of human being on any ground is wrong. i know it doesn’t changes everything right away however going back and getting justification for this system makes me feel we move a step forward and a 2 steps backwards

  • Jayesh

    I think caste system is not just about “Dalits”…there are so many castes in India, like Agarwals and Maheshwaris and Patels….I don’t see effigies burning when Colors is creating a serial about Brahmins/Kayasthas…I think this article is trying to understand its origin, nothing more…@Priya, she is being rather naive when she just condemns caste system and calls rebirth a myth. I don’t think she will have the courage to call Virgin Birth a myth. Typical Hindu high caste hypocrisy. Notice how Priya proudly sports her ‘pandey’ (Brahmin) surname and then shows pseudo-caring for Dalits who she will certainly never even consider marrying.

  • Gagan

    Continuation of my comments.

    I agree that hindsight gives a perspective. Your book “Pregnant King” is about what is Dharma. There we do not talk about the temporal nature of the question, we are after an ideal – static in time.

    I appreciate your approach, but what is wrong is wrong. Do we have any such stories ?

    Also I feel personally that understanding is not a necessary and sufficient condition always. That is in many cases it’s not required to understand the roots.

    My request to you is let’s have a story where the leader makes a mistake, realizes it and then goes on the rectify it and this is more social than personal.

    As usual – Like what you have to say.

  • Satish Gundawar

    Do I believe in caste system? I do. But it does not mean that I use it for oppressing others. I look at it as classification of any society anywhere in the world. There would be some people who would earn by selling their intellectual, there would some who would protect boundaries of state/nation/kingdom, there would be some businessman and there would be some who will earn by selling their craft or human power. I do not see any fifth category exists. If you mix it with caste by birth, then all problems start.

    Again each system can be good or bad at different periods. What do you think whether democracy is good today? I think it is society’s responsibility to keep each system clean.

    Devdutt, do you think that the basic instinct of a human being to dominate others, promotes corruption of any social system?

  • In layman’s terms to make you read between the lines – It’s like 5th-standard or -class outrageous students TEACHE 12th-standard or -class students and dictate/declare Engineering Students are worthless or rubbish.

    Whereas all are on the student level, and actual teachers are missing or no more in schools, colleges, universities, societies, nation or maybe on this planet earth!

    These all happenings leading to worth-vague arguments or hasty decision-makings are not surprises; this is a particular period of Universal Clock/Time when all humans or living entities are bound — They’re seeing, but actually they’re not seeing. They’re talking, but they’re not talking. They’re feeling, but actually they’re not feeling.

    These are the signs when the upper protective layer of a society or from a broader perspective a nation/world start depleting.

  • Hi,

    The four castes were born from Lord Braham’s body. Brahmin from Head; Kshtriyas from shoulders; Vaish from stomach and Shuddra from feet. But the system was based on ‘karma’. There is one story in ‘Skand Puran’ in which the Kings throws out his son from the palace because his ‘karma’ were not appropriate and was made ‘shudra’.

    Besides, in any society of the world in (E-W-S-N)in any period of time, we will find ruler, priests, army, businessmen and also people engaged in low work. So what is that?

    Every society has caste system. Period.

    Raj Arora

  • Apoorv

    Mr. devdutt,

    As per the karmic balance sheet the karmas in one birth determine the next birth, the caste one takes birth into. but it is also said that one has to reap the fruits of ones karma in that birth itself… what is correct??

  • Sunil

    No where in our Scriptures is told that one caste is inferior to another. If there is, kindly enlighten me.

    Also, caste meant the social structure depending on the job / activity of the person, which was possible to be changed. If Drona had not opted the life of a Khsatriya, why was he at the battle field as he is a born Brahmin?

    I have heard that everybody is born only as a ‘human’, then moves forward by righteous action as a ‘Dwija’ (a person born into a second life like warrior, business man, servant, CA, doctor etc.), and by attaining knowledge of Brahman (the ultimate formless God) a ‘Brahmin’.

    Remember Krishna being born a Yadava, in today’s world would have been an OBC. But does any purana / scripture mention him an OBC?

    Krishna, born human, rose to the level of Brahman and that is why we consider him none other than Vishnu.


  • Ridhi Sundar

    Varnashrama system today which we call as cast system are not exactly same. Today’s cast system is a detoriorated form of the original Varnashrama system. Varnashrama system is one of the greatest gieft of the Aryans to the human society.

    Actually the Varnas are created by the god himself. In Vagabat Gita Lord Sri Krishna says ” Chaturvarna Maya shristam” ( I have created the 4 Varnas).

    All the human being are having some special charecteristics . These charecteristics are collection of the gunas. The gunas are classified into 3 types.

    1. Satwa
    2. Rajah
    3. Tamah

    All the beings in this world are collection of these three characteristics. SOme one having some gunas more and some thing less. Accordingly all the human beings classified to 4 main catagories.

    1. Bipra ( Don’t confuse bipra with Bramhan Bramhan is a different concept)
    2. Kshyatriya
    3. Vaisya
    4. Sudra

    Bipra were the persons having more satwa guna. Kshyatrya were having more Rajah guna. Baisya were having Rajah guna as well as tamah guna. And Sudra were the persons with more tamah guna. Let me make one thing clear all the people having all the gunas but some guna dominates some other guna. No guna is again bad. All the guna can be utilised to serve the society. So there is no way any Varna is superior or inferior.

    As all varna were associated with different gunas the karma ( Wrok) done by the people of different varna were different. Bipra were associated with intelect. THey were the head of the society. THey used to teach the society how to live and grow. Bipras used to know all the work but they cannot take any work as their profession. They give their knowledge to the other people to get their work with more skill. For example a Bipra can do research on how the quality of a pot be better. How it can be made better. But he can not make pots to sell. He will then teach this to the potters. The Bipras were having the knowledge on economics, politics all aspects. So they were the advisers to the king.

    Kshytriyas were responsible for the protection of the contry or society. So they were the arms of the society. With the advice of Bipras they used to rule the contry.

    Vaisya were the merchants. They were the economic center of society. They were like stomach of the society. They used to merchandise the objects and earn mony and give the mony for social developement.

    Sudra used to fulfill the need of all the previous three Varnas. The society was running due to these people. SO they were the Leg of the society.

    So all the Varna were integral part of the society. Without one part other can not survive.

    The question arises then why was it made by birth? This is just a minute science. Genetic science. The characteristics ( Gunas) gets transfered through generations. So these characters gets evolved generation to generation when one again practises the same kind of work and the society grows.

    The rule in varnashrama was no one can take over the job of any other varna. It was considered as a great sin. Only in disasters when there is no other way to survive the life one can do the job of other varna. By this social balance was maintained. There were no question of unemployment.

    The system got detoriorated when Vaisya and Kshyatriyas misused the mony and power. The system got broken. The Vipras who used to respected for their intelects got humilited as they were always poor and sudras did not get proper value for their service and treated badly.

    Varnashrama iss a great scientific system gifted by the law makers of ancient times. If this can be revived it would be great.

    Ridhi Sundar

    • rahul

      do u hv any idea abt the origin of bhumihar? they belong to which class

      • Devdutt

        bhumiar is a caste or jati, not class….no idea of origin though

  • Rajendra Kumar

    I am sorry to say that we are having here quite ignorant people.
    Has Karma theory passed any tests?
    Will somebody please tell me?
    What about the causes for non-transferability of occupation across the caste or Varna?

    • Ridhi Sundar

      “What about the causes for non-transferability of occupation across the caste or Varna?”

      1. Stability of society.

      Let me try to explain…

      If people will start to take others occupation without considering their Varna then people will go for few occupations where there is more money. Though you can argue some people go on their interest that is negligible..
      And the consequence is before you today every body is going for business or trying to become doctor or engineer. No one is there to cultivate land their are no good teachers.

      2. Genetic transfer of occupational qualities:

      When generation after generation people will work on a perticular occupation they will get more and more expertized on that occupation.

      Ridhi Sundar

  • Pravin

    “Women were/are second class citizens in most cultures irrespective of class or caste”

    I think it’s just widely accepted perception in today’s time.

    As everyone in cast system plays equal(important) role.

    Gender too play equal role in symbols. Nothing like first class or second class.

    • Ridhi Sundar

      This is a wrong concept. There is no first class or second class. They are equivalent not equal. Male and female have different qualities. A man can not give birth to a child. Man and woman are given with their natural qualities from nature and they have to work accordingly.


  • Jayant

    I have always beleived that caste was based on what work an individual is doing. And since till just about a few decades ago – when there was no scope for higher education – the profession was inherited so was the caste. You learnt your trade from your father/uncle – so a warriors son became a warrior, a preist’s son became a priest & a doctors son became a doctor.
    Also untouchabilty which was carried on to ridiculous heights by the so called ‘orthodox’ keepers of tradition is required by a pure hygenic necessity. Very few people know that a medical doctor (vaidya) might be a vaishya or bramhin profession but a surgeon is a shudra profession. It is a practice that the surgeon becomes untouchable before, after and during surgery. Also he will not touch anything. Science will call this as aseptic behavior – we can also equate this with untouchability. So that means that a shudra performs your bypass surgery then clenses himself by whatever antiseptic means – becomes a bramhin, comes out and meets your family & educates them about the outcome of surgery 7 post operative care – then becomes a vaishya and charges you for his services. Three varnas in say 6 hours!!!
    It is my firm belief that with opening up of educational & professional barriers caste as practised in medeival times has lost its significance. It is only significant to self seeking politicians who use it for votebank purposes.
    Mayawati might scream herself hoarse about being a ‘Dalit ki beti’ – but her position, ambition and demeanor makes her a kshatriya – that is if you discount her pechant for horse trading and moneymaking which would make her a vaishya!!