Archive for August 28, 2018

Varna and Jati aka ‘Caste’ System Was Hugely Damaging to Indians: 2

August 28, 2018 6 comments

In the previous part of this series, I wrote about how many of seemingly peculiar but extremely damaging problems seen in India, even today, can be traced back to the Varna and Jati system. In that post, I also hinted that the ‘caste’ system as we know if today is not much more than a thousand years old in most parts of India. In case you wondered how I came to that approximate date, you will find out by the end of this post (at least partially).

So let me start by asking a peculiar question. Was (what we today call) ‘Hinduism’ ever a normal proselytizing religion? While the connection between that question and the topic of this series is not obvious right now, it will be as we go along. But why did I ask that question in the first place? Well.. because almost every single Indian you might pose this question will either say that it was never a proselytizing religion or it might have been in some very distant past. And they then will also claim that ‘caste’ system is somehow linked to that religion or is an integral part of it.

But is that really the case? Well.. let us look at the history of regions and countries adjacent to India. The world’s largest Hindu temple complex, Angkor Wat, built in 12th century AD is in present day Cambodia. It commissioned by a local king called Suryavarman II and completed by Jayavarman VII. Which begs the question- why is there no evidence of anything similar to the Indian ‘caste’ system in Cambodia either then or now? Sure.. the Khmer empire had a priestly class, warrior class, merchant class, everyone else and perhaps slaves. But that sort of social stratification is seen in almost every single pre-industrial society regardless of race or location.

So why didn’t the hideously complex ‘caste’ system co-migrate to other regions in Asia along with worship of Hindu deities? Before converting to Islam sometime in the 15-16th century, Indonesia was (for the lack of a better term) a region that worshiped Hindu/Buddhist deities. But for some mysterious reason, its ‘caste’ structure too never came to resemble its Indian counterpart and basically stuck to the priest, warrior, merchant and everybody else formula. Something similar is seen in what is today Thailand, in that worship of Hindu and Buddhist deities for many centuries somehow did not result in the establishment of anything approaching the ‘caste’ system in India.

Even the ‘caste’ system in a country as geographically and culturally close to India as Sri Lanka never reached anything close to what it did in India (especially among the majority Sinhalese). So what is going on? Why didn’t the ‘caste’ system in India co-migrate with worship of Indian deities and religion outside its geographical boundaries. How come it could not even cross over into present day Myanmar (Burma) even though a lot of Indian cultural and religious influence evidently did. To stretch it further, how is it that Indian cultural influence on Japan through a syncretic version of Hinduism and Buddhism did not also transfer the idea of its ‘caste’ system.

To make a long story short, what we today recognize as ‘Hinduism’ was once a proselytizing religion- just like any other. Furthermore, it remained so as late as the 7th-8th century AD (at least in some of the far-eastern and southern parts of modern-day India). Perhaps more relevantly- the worldview, belief systems and deities of Indic religions spread much further than the ‘caste’ system, even though most Indians today believe them to inseparable. And this brings us how the ‘caste’ system might became so closely intertwined with Hinduism in India.

Let us look at the first and chronologically earlier part (and version) of the ‘caste’ system aka Varna. The elevator pitch version of that system is as follows: There are four groups: Priests, Warriors, Merchants (and perhaps farmers with large holdings) and everybody else. Sure there is some bullshit about relative social position of each group in certain older texts which few people ever read, but overall it sounds very similar to that of almost every other proto-feudal and feudal society. One can therefore make an educated guess that it functioned in a similar manner.

Indeed, accounts of the Varna system in older Buddhist texts (~ 300 BC- 500 AD) suggest that it was fairly flexible and people did change their birth Varna, usually because they wanted to do something else or make more money. In that respect Varna operated, for many centuries, in a manner similar to class in our society- where for example, it helps to have university educated parents to attend university or rich parents and their social network to be successful at business. But we also have accounts starting in the 4th and 6th century AD which suggest that the ‘caste’ system, as we know it today, was getting firmly established in North Indian kingdoms.

So why and when did things start their terminal descent in the region of present day India? More interestingly, why didn’t this incredibly stupid idea (aka the full-blown ‘caste’ system) spread beyond the borders of present day India, even though other ideas (both religious and secular) did? What is the role of thoughtless ritualistic “vegetarianism” and other self-defeating dietary proscriptions in the caste system? Why are religions such as Islam and Christianity whose followers later conquered and ruled India for centuries far more egalitarian at their core- at least in theory? Why did Buddhism disappear from India at around the same time as the full-blown ‘caste’ system came into being? I will tackle these questions in an upcoming part of this series.

What do you think? Comments?