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Origin of the Indian Caste System
Inequality based caste system is an unique feature of Indian society. The assumption of the various scholars, normally, is that the caste system is ancient and always was rigid, immobile and unjust as it is now. The very assumption has to be corrected because it is not true, it cannot be true. Also there is no relationship between Varna system of Vedic religion and caste system of Hindu religion, though both begun to plague each other in later course of the time. The assumption that the invading Aryans defeated aboriginals of the India and enforced lowly Varna status and caste system upon them also is not true because Aryan invasion theory that was propagated by western scholars and followed by Indian thinkers is proven to be preposterous on account of the various archeological and genetic evidences.
The number of castes in India is more than four thousand today. Many of the castes did not existed couple of centuries ago. If we go back in the human history we find the number of castes were far less in India. They go on reducing as we go back in the history. The castes could not be that much as they are today because simply there weren’t that many professions then. The main feature of the caste is every caste has ancestral profession. To form a caste the first prerequisite is to have a profession that could be continued traditionally for livelihood. And if we go back to the prehistory of the humankind, we will find there were no professions except foraging and some other work to be conducted jointly for the tribe. Division of labor was not at all required for there was no need.
When early human society began to form with the couple of inventions at hand to make life safe and easier, its division of labor was simple. Humane race has traversed long way from food-gatherer-hunter man to pastoral man. His life became semi-nomadic as his territorial conscienceless grew and he started owing the regions. Here we can find the division of the labor to some partial extent. Early wool-weavers, tanners, stone-masons would have formed the professions for their skills and the needs of their tribes. But this is not called as permanent division of the labor/skills but mostly it must have been a joint task conducted under leadership of the most skilled men/women.
The invention of agriculture made the nomadic man to settle changing revolutionarily his attitude towards the life. The transgression from nomadic man to settled man forced him to change his life style and social philosophy. Early professions were limited. There was no need to have well organized social order.
However, the agrarian life needed new innovations. Right from agricultural implements to permanent settlements were necessary to accommodate the new way of livelihood. With new inventions new professions emerged to serve the society. Exchange of the innovations and trade of the surplus products are seen from the era of 7000+ BC. From excavations we find rise in the specialty products from almost every region and traded across the known civilizations of those times. We can surmise from this that the specialty professions emerged gradually in the sedentary societies those helped them to prosper and lead better life.
The service class too emerged to fulfill the ever growing needs of the society. The people those joined new professions naturally were from the same human stock. It was not the rigid system. People were free to choose the profession of their like and choice. The excavations at Indus sites show the division of labor but it doesn’t show discrimination based on the profession. However, still the number of professions was not as many as they were till recently.
The social orders of the civilizations across the globe are almost similar. Still, we do not find birth-based caste systems anywhere.
The blame normally goes to Purushsukta of Rig Veda that the Varna system is created from the sacrificed body of the Lord himself. It suggests that the Brahmin was first to born from the head of the Lord and the Shudras were last born from his legs. This is a myth that has haunted Indian social system at the least from thousand years as it gave sanctity to the notion of birth based inequality. However whatever Purushsukta or later Smritis command, the social facts surprisingly are contrary to that.
Shepherds, cowherds, stone masons, farmers, leather workers, masons etc. were the earliest professions. The need of the early society was to survive from the odds while trying to make the life comfortable. The early states, whether democratic or monarchist, were made of small tribes consisting of few thousand citizens. The religion then was commanded by the King or head of the state of those times. Social order was changing from matriarchal to patriarchal society with invention of agriculture. In many societies the King was the Chief priest. The need of priestly class was not felt then because the state itself constituted of moderate population. It does mean that the Purushsukta’s declaration about Brahmin being born first is incorrect.
Brahmin or priestly class must have emerged with the expansion of the states and its requirement to appoint some people from the society to look after the ritualistic tasks of the religion those had special qualities or inclination. The founders or philosophers of the religion do not necessarily hail from the existing priestly class; rather they follow to the new ideas as they come to them. Buddha or Mahavira were not from the priestly class. Priestly class, across the globe, emerged quite later to fulfill the religious and cultic needs of the people. Hence the declaration of the Purushasukta (10.19 RV) is thus goes against the social journey of the human being.
The ancient religion that people of those times followed was shamanic in kind and pagan in nature. The rituals were less complicated. The Vedic sacrificial rituals too were too simple in its early times. They shares similar ritualistic and linguistics traits the Zoroastrians share for their close geographical proximities. None scholar dates both the religions prior to 1500 BC, when the Indus and other contemporary civilizations had declined owing to the global climatic changes. The priestly class has more antique origin than the Vedic religion. No civilization suggests that the priestly class was a hereditary profession. Even the composers of the Rig Veda did not belong to any priestly class. Rather whole Rig Veda, except Purushasukta, do not mention anywhere that the social classification ever did exist. Also except Purushsukta we do not find the term Shudra appearing anywhere in the Rig Veda. It also is agreed by all the scholars that the Purushasukta is later interpolation in the extant body of the Rig Veda. We will discuss on this issue in more detail later. However, it is clear that the Brahmin or priest was not the class that appeared in any human society first and others later. Rather the chronology is quite opposite.
The facts are, as we have seen, the settled society tends to division of labor. The skills are learnt and used in the productions. New inventions occur or they are borrowed from others and the manufacturing begins when trained people jump in it sensing the opportunities. There cannot be bondage to stick to the birth based profession. Had it been the case from where new people could have been brought to carry on new professions?
With further specializations in the same business people do divert into it. We can see in India every caste and sub-caste has ancestral profession, either in production or in services. Caste is nothing but the profession and from ample of examples we find in India that the people could change their professions and no profession was treated lowly except of those who dealt with the dead or filth.
Most importantly the professions could be changed. One could enter in reputed or disrepute professions depending upon his skills or choice. The great poet of India, Kalidas, belonged to the shepherd community, now considered to be a menial caste. From the play Mricchakatik” we find the hero of the play, even being Brahmin by birth, is in the profession of trader which was preserved by Smritis for Vaishya Varna. Shudraka, a great playwright belonged to Shudra varna and yet he was king and writer. Yadavas ruled Maharashtra for over 350 years those belonged to Gavali caste (cowherds). There are many examples that show clearly that the though the laws of social order were already codified by the Vedic people they were not actually practiced by either Vedic or non-Vedic societies.
Rather we have ample proofs that even the leather workers (Charmakar) had their nation-wide trading guilds and earned significant reputation in royal courts till 8th century AD. We also find that certain products were mass manufactured in the villages dedicated to the certain specialized productions and the goods used to be distributed in the various market places, domestic as well foreign. The centralized production system prevailed till end of the tenth century AD. The independent village system is not as ancient as it is thought to be. It was invented to survive from the adverse times but continued till recently as there never a chance occurred to get rid of it.
We must not forget that the caste system never ever was rigid, inflexible as is commonly thought. The Aryan theory has classified the lower castes as the defeated and enslaved aboriginals. There is no slightest evidence to prove this hypothesis. Then how come that the caste system persists even today with its evil sense of inequality, dividing the people those belonged to the same stock of the people?
Caste system originally was profession based and was not unjust or enforced by the priestly class for their benefit. Ruling classes too could not force any profession on their subjects. Slaves only could be exception, forcibly used for the labor work. How and when caste system became birth based and senses of inequality plagued the Indian society is a crucial question we have to deal with. Whether the religious commands were forced casteism on the people and they accepted it without any protests or was it the outcome of the peculiar circumstances? This has to be discussed at great length to know the roots of castes and its evil that has haunted Indian people from centuries.
However we have to leave behind the misconceptions those have been nourished by us for reasons or for the theories of the scholars of past to understand why our society is so casteist even today and why our attempts to eliminate caste system are utterly failing.
First we should know that the birth based caste system is not as ancient as it is thought to be. Emergence of birth based caste system has its roots in entirely different circumstances those we are going to discuss in the next chapters.
(To be contd.)