Hindu Caste System Essay, Research Paper
At first appearance, the Hindu class structure and the social laws pertaining to religious rights based on one’s class seem to be prejudicial, demeaning and exclusive to the point of abuse. The lowest Varna, the Shudra, is not even allowed to hear or study the Vedas based solely on their inescapable station in life as servants to the higher three classes. However, when one looks at their class system from a purely religious standpoint, you discover that the class system is not abusive in itself, and that the abuse that may take place comes from aspects of humanity outside their religious practices.
Sanatanadharma breaks down society into four classes (Varnas), and the untouchables. The highest class is the Brahmans, the priestly class. Their Dharma is to study and understand the Vedas, and bring this knowledge to others. The second class is the Kshatriya, the warrior class. The Kshatriya class acts as the protectors of the peace. Vaishya, the producing class, work as business people providing economic stability to the society. The servant class, the Shudra, serves the higher three classes. They are not allowed to read or hear the Vedas, but they are allowed to participate in Bhakti Marga, the path of devotion. It may seem degrading to keep them away from the religious texts that at the same time are keeping them from raising their station in this lifetime, but as a Hindu, they were placed in that class for a reason. Karma, which follows you throughout your many lifetimes, determines which class you will be in for any given lifetime. You may be demoted to an animal, reallocated within the class structure, or even elevated to a deity. Your actions in each lifetime affect your karma, and if a Shudra does his dharma it will have a positive effect on his/her karma, perhaps elevating him/her into a class in which he/she will be allowed to study the Vedas and progress along his/her spiritual path.
There are two other sections of humanity, one of which whose station in life is so low that they are not considered a class. These are the untouchables. They are outcast from society to the point that if they come in contact with one of the four classes, the class member must be purified. The other cross section of society, that although it is not a class, it does have it’s own strict religious rules and confining boundaries. From a western perspective, the treatment of women seems atrocious, and there are organizations whose sole purpose is to empower Hindu women. The Law-code of Manu states
Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brother, husbands, and brothers-in-law who desire good fortune…
Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth, her sons protect her in old age – a woman does not deserve independence.
The father who does not give away his daughter in marriage at the proper time is censurable; censurable is the husband who does not approach his wife in due season; and after the husband is dead, the son, verily, is censurable, who does not protect his mother. (Ludwig, pg. 111)
The woman is viewed not as an object to be had or collected, but as an object of adoration. As this quotation describes, the father must give her away early, so that she may have a husband when he is no longer around to provide for her. In turn, the husband’s duty is to provide her with sons so that after he is no longer able to provide for her, she will be taken care of by her sons. The series of men protecting her from independence is not done to prevent her from independence as in western thought; she is not prohibited from independence, she is protected from it.
The caste system provides many benefits to its followers. It provides humans with the main desires that a religion provide. It gives the people of this religion a social structure that encourages closeness with other members from your class and Jati . It gives the individual a meaning in life, even if that meaning is in the act of being a servant. There is a goal and a purpose. It also dictates what is right and wrong. The human condition lends itself to searching for the answer to what is ultimately right, and the caste system lays it right out for them. The system gives them a place in society that they don’t have to fight for. It enables them to spend their energy doing their dharma to the best of their abilities, to help improve their karma so that perhaps next time they will move up to a higher class. “Since it is accepted that one’s caste is determined by one’s past karma, there is no reason to be bitter about one’s lot or envy others” (Ludwig, pg. 109).
Due to the flawed nature of humans the caste system has not been implemented as the Vedas instruct. The system has come to be a hierarchy wherein the lowest levels, including women, are not given the respect commanded in the religious texts. Humanity’s inability to adhere to the social constructs is not a fault of the construct; it is a fault of humanity.
Ludwig, Theodore M. The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001.