I made a presentation about this a few months ago where I basically explained what I think about caste system. It has been bothered me for a long time. However, as much as I am interested in history, I am in no way an expert or eligible enough to claim truth of what I am saying. Nevertheless though, I am a Hindu, have been affected by caste system, and do think a lot about it, so I guess I know what I am saying.
Let’s just ignore what happened in the society and history and just focus on what is dictated by the Vedas. The caste system the way people think it is was never mentioned; we do have Catur Varna though, which is division of people based on their duty in society. There were four groups people can fall into (think about it like Hogwarts houses): Brahman (scholars, teachers; intelligent people the bearer of knowledge), Kshatriya (warriors, soldiers, people in the government, ministers; basically brave people who fight for the country), Vaishya (businessman, vendors, traders; people with business skills and responsible for the economy), and Shudra (the rest; farmer, artists, sculptor, and other miscellaneous).
It was long ago, so we can imagine that the society were pretty simple that every person can be roughly put into one of these categories. Since it was based solely on skills, it was not rigid at all. Vedas suggested this, and even without referencing to that, the existence of some important people definitely shows it. The composer of Ramayana, Valmiki, was from a lower caste. Siddharta Gautama was also a Kshatriya (he was a prince) before became a wandering monk later in his life (Brahmin). Some mythological characters also exhibit the permissive nature of Varna system. Ravana was born to a Brahmin father before becoming a King of Srilanka, as well as Parashurama. On the contrary, Visvamitra was born a prince but became a Brahmin. If the so-called caste system was supposed to be that rigid, these stories would be prohibited to be told.
As we all know, religion can say whatever, but how people apply it and what happens in society can be a whole other case. Yes, I am looking at you, all religions in the world. Just like the caste system; how come these divisions become a hierarchy then? It was The British. The widely proven and accepted argument by modern scholars and historian is that the division started to grow in rigidity during the time of British colonial. The British were there to rule almost 1 billion of indigenous people, what’s better way to keep them in control other than not letting them have a sense of unity? What’s better way to destroy a nation for their benefit other than favoring one group while oppressing the other? They would not mess up with the Brahmin who was looked up to by a lot of people, and they also give a special treatment to the Kshatriya and Vaishya with whom they cooperate to exploit India. The rest is the Shudras; easy slaves and rough labor, right there. The British knew they can use the system for their benefit, and they made sure to keep it that way.
Same thing happened in Indonesia, with the Dutch colony and their devide et impera policy. Well, it was more of putting one influential persona against the other, but a lot of tension also happened (a.k.a. created and exploited by the Dutch) between the patrician and plebeian.
Well, that was the widely accepted theory, but I also have my argument. First of all, I present you the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
It is “a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ in Psychological Review” (shameless Wikipedia copy-pasteing). This hierarchy is represented as a pyramid. The four bottom and biggest layers are the basic and fundamental needs, while the top layer is the need for self-actualization. Accordingly, the shape of the pyramid depicts how our basic needs are the ones that we have to fulfill first, most frequently and with the biggest amount, before we can even think about fulfilling the top ones.
In my opinion, this explain a lot of people’s behavior; from a student who can’t do her homework while hungry to a person in a third-world country who can’t give a damn about climate change with their children tailing them crying for food; from a feminist and animal right activist in Germany to a street vendor putting borax in his meatball in Indonesia. That also explains why arguments about climate change and gay rights are practically useless in Indonesia. I actually read a facebook comment using word ‘heteronormative’ one day and seriously I want to strangle that person; get your elitist argument out of Indonesia, our broken economy and starving street children ain’t got no time for that.
Oh, and me, of course. I cannot think and write about statistical literacy if I don’t have caffeine in my system (IT IS BASIC NEED I SWEAR).
But I pretty massively digress. Back to the point at hand, I strongly believe this is the root of the hierarchy. Religion, culture, tribes and nation may emerge and vanished only to re-emerge again throughout the history, but one thing that stays is our basic instinct as a human. I think what happened is that people simply had needs and they went a little overboard trying fulfill it, that is all. People liked being respected, being treated as special, being above others. When one a group of people being on the top part of the society and benefit from it, they will try to keep it that way. Similarly, people on the bottom may not like it, but if they are hungry or cold or unsafe, they do not care about that. I think that was what happen between the upper and lower caste back then; well, frankly speaking, that was happen between the upper and lower class of society everywhere and every period of time.
It was even worse because the Vedas and most of other scred text are not accessible to every people, only to the Brahmin, so it was really easy for them to twist the knowledge to satisfy their needs. It became really problematic because it happened on such a gigantic scale through decades that the faulty system became really solid and gradually was accepted as the correct one. And there, we have the caste system.
Seems familiar? Yes, because like I said before, it is human basic needs. Hierarchy happens everywhere, in every society, in every period of history - it is not only in India. India just have really fancy name of it called 'the caste system', so it is really easy for people to single that out. Our basic needs as a human, unfortunately, does not care about religion, regions, race, language – whatever (see Babel). Religion is the result of culture; it is the result of the higher levels of the hierarchy of needs (so many people are going to slap me for this). Unfortunately not all people are on this level of self-actualization, hence they ignore or modify it because they are still struggling with more basic needs, or even if they do follow it, they do it out of fear, which is the need for safety or reward, which is again, a basic need.
What the hell, this is so philosophical I want to vomit.
Regardless though, this whole case of ‘religion can say whatever, but what happens in society is another case’ thing do happen across time and space as far as religion exist. The oppression of women in Muslim countries, for example, which think is just the Arab culture, not the religion. Also the terrorism, gendercide, sexism, war, slavery – I can keep going on, but I think my point is clear. It is not about religion, guys, but more like social and historical phenomenon. So if you want to attack Hinduism, leave out the caste system because it has nothing to do with it. Also, times change. Sudras are even richer than the Brahmin right now, and a lot of people can’t even be classified into only four groups so no one really care. And guess what, another hierarchy emerge, but it is based on clans instead of caste. Like I said, it is the basic needs; it is unavoidable, and it will keep happening. Just be sure to self-actualize yourself enough to not get caught in it.