The word Caste is derived from the Portuguese word casta, meaning lineage, breed or race. The term “caste,” when used in a cultural context, is usually in conjunction with the social division in Hindu society, particularly in India although a form of the caste system was prevalent in many ancient societies, and in particular feudal societies.
In ancient India there developed a social system in which people were divided into separate close communities. These communities are known in English as caste. The origin of the caste system is in Hinduism but it affected the whole Indian society later it has transmitted to Nepal. The caste system in the religious form is basically a simple division of society in which there is four castes arranged in a hierarchy and below them the outcast. But socially the caste system was more complicated, with much more castes and sub-castes and other divisions. Legally the government disallows the practice of caste system but has a policy of affirmative discrimination of the backward classes.
In Hinduism there exists four castes arranged in a hierarchy. Anyone who does not belong to one of these castes is an outcast. The religious word for caste is ‘Varna’. Each Varna has certain duties and rights. Each Varna members have to work in certain occupation, which only those Varna members are allowed. Each Varna has certain type of diet. The highest Varna is of the Brahman. Members of this class are priests and the educated people of the society. The Varna after them in hierarchy is Kshatria. The members of this class are the rulers and aristocrats of the society. After them are the Vaisia. Members of this class are the landlords and businessmen of the society. After them in hierarchy is the Sudra. Members of this class are the peasants and working class of the society who work in non-polluting jobs. The caste hierarchy ends here. Below these castes are the outcasts who are untouchable to the four castes. These untouchables worked in degrading jobs like cleaning, sewage etc. (Arora: 1998:84,The Concept of Impurity and Hindu caste System)
The first three castes had social and economical rights, which the Sudra and the untouchables did not have. The first three castes are also seen as ‘twice born’. The intention in these two births is to the natural birth and to the ceremonial entrance to the society at a much later age.
Each Varna and also the untouchables and ethnic group in case of Nepal are divided into many communities. These communities are called Jat or Jati (The caste is also used instead of Jat). For example the Brahmans have Jats called Dhakal, Bhattarai, Marasini etc. The untouchable have Jats Kami, Damai, Sarki and Doom, Chammar in the case of terai system and Pode, Chame etc in the case of Newar.But there is no such division of society on the basis of caste in ethnic group although we can find some class differences among this group. Each Jat members are allowed to marry only with their Jat members. People are born into their Jat and it cannot be changed. Once if some one is born to certain cast he/she cannot be change to another jat except in the case of women when they are married they may change to other clan but not jat.If a man is born as Kami he cannot be a Brahmin and Brahmin cannot be a Kami,so caste is a permanent attribute among the Hindu.
Religiously anyone who does not belong to the four Varnas is an outcast and untouchable. It means, all foreigners and non-Hindus are all supposed to be untouchables, in the case of Nepal all the ethnic group should fall in this categories but Muluki Ain has incorporated the entire ethnic group into Caste hierarchy. But in reality neither all foreigners nor non-Hindus were treated as untouchables.
This is the how the caste system is supposed to be in its religious form. But in reality it is much more complicated and different from its religious form.
1.1.Beginning of the caste system
There are different theories about the establishment of the caste system. There are religious mystical theories. There are biological theories. And there are socio-historical theories. The religious theories explain how the four Varnas were founded, but they do not explain how the Jats in each Varna or the untouchables were founded. According the Rig Veda, the ancient Hindu book, the primal man Purush destroyed himself to create a human society. The different Varnas were created from different parts of his body. The Brahmans were created from his head; the Kshatriyas from his hands; the Vaisias from his thighs and the Sudras from his feet. The Varna hierarchy is determined by the descending order of the different organs from which the Varnas were created. Other religious theory claims that the Varnas were created from the body organs of Brahma, who is the creator of the world.
The biological theory claims that all existing things, animated and inanimated, inherent three qualities in different apportionment. Sattva qualities include wisdom, intelligence, honesty, goodness and other positive qualities. Rajas include qualities like passion, pride, valour and other passionate qualities. Tamas qualities include dullness, stupidity, lack of creativity and other negative qualities. People with different doses of these inherent qualities adopted different types of occupation.
According to this theory the Brahmans inherent Sattva qualities. Kshatrias and Vaisias inherent Rajas qualities and the Sudras inherent Tamas qualities. Like human beings, food also inherent different dosage of these qualities and it affects its eater’s intelligence. The Brahmans and the Vaisias have Sattvic diet, which includes fruits, milk, honey, roots and vegetables. Most of the meats are considered to have Tamasic qualities. Many Sudra communities eat different kinds of meat (but not beef) and other Tamasic food. But the Kshatrias who had Rajasic diet eat some kinds of meat like deer meat, which is considered to have Rajasic qualities. Many Marathas who claim to be Kshatrias eat mutton. The drawback of this theory is that in different parts of India the same food was sometimes qualified to have different dosage of inherent qualities. For example there were Brahmans who eat meat, which is considered Tamasic food.
The social historical theory explains the creation of the Varnas, Jats and of the untouchables. According to this theory, the caste system began with the arrival of the Aryans in India. The Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BC. The fair skinned Aryans arrived in India from south Europe and north Asia. Before the Aryans there were other communities in India of other origins. Among them Negrito, Mongoloid, Austroloid and Dravidian. The Negrito has physical features similar to people of Africa. The Mongoloid have Chinese features. The Austroloid have features similar the aboriginals of Australia. The Dravidians originate from the Mediterranean and they were the largest community in India. When the Aryans arrived in India their main contact was with the Dravidians and the Austroloid. The Aryans disregarded the local cultures. They began conquering and taking control over regions in north India and at the same time pushed the local people southwards or towards the jungles and mountains in north India.
The Aryans organized among themselves in three groups. The first group was of the warriors and they were called Rajayana, later they changed their name Rajayana to Kshatria. The second group was of the priests and they were called Brahmans. These two groups struggled politically for leadership among the Aryans. In this struggle the Brahmans got to be the leaders of the Aryan society. The third group was of the farmers and craftsmen and they were called Vaisia. The Aryans who conquered and took control over parts of north India subdued the locals and made them their servants. In this process the Vaisias who were the farmers and the craftsmen became the landlords and the businessmen of the society and the locals became the peasants and the craftsmen of the society.
Later on the Aryans who created the caste system, added to their system non-Aryans. Different Jats who professed different professions were integrated in different Varnas according to their profession. Other foreign invaders of ancient India – Greeks, Huns, Scythains and others – who conquered parts of India and created kingdoms, were integrated in the Kshatria Varna (warrior castes). But probably the Aryan policy was not to integrate original Indian communities within them and therefore many aristocratic and warrior communities that were in India before the Aryans did not get the Kshatria status.
Most of the communities that were in India before the arrival of the Aryans were integrated in the Sudra Varna or were made outcast depending on the professions of these communities. Communities who professed non-polluting jobs were integrated in Sudras Varna. And communities who professed polluting professions were made outcasts. The Brahmans are very strict about cleanliness. In the past people believed that diseases could also spread also through air and not only through physical touch. Perhaps because of this reason the untouchables were not only disallowed to touch the high caste communities but they also had to stand at a certain distance from the high castes.
Some basic points to mark about caste are:
1. That caste is an institution of the Hindu religion, and wholly peculiar to that religion alone;
2. That it consists primarily of a four fold classification of people in general under the heads of Brahman, Kshatria, Vaisias and Sudras.
3. That caste is perpetual and immutable, and has been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the ages of Hindu history and myth without the possibility of change.(V.Jayaram:1997:1,Caste System is the biggest threat to Hinduism, preliminary paper posted in internet,[http://www.hindusystem.com])
2.Caste System in Nepali context
The caste system can be trace back to introduction of Muluki Ain (1854) by Jung Bahadur Rana after his return from his European tour. The Muluki Ain (1854) was a written version of social code that had been in practice for several centuries in Nepal. Its caste categories diverged from the four varnas of the classical Vedic model and instead had three categories to accommodate the tribal peoples between the pure and impure castes. These were further classified into five hierarchies with the following order precedence. (Harka Gurung 2005:3,Occational Papers in Sociology and Anthropology)
Thagadhari, (Wearer of holy chord)
Namasyane Matwali (Non-enslavable alcohol-drinkers)
Masyane Matwali (Enslavable alcohol drinkers)
Pani nachalne choichoto halnu naparne, (Impure but touchable castes)
Pani nachalne chiochoti halnu parne, (Impure and Untouchable castes)
The above mention categories implies that Thagadhari (Wearer of holy chord) remains in the highest hierarchy in Hindu caste system followed by Matwali, (Non-enslavable alcohol-drinkers) and enslavable alcohol drinkers touchable caste and lastly untouchable.
Muluki Ain imposes the caste system in Nepal in order to incorporate people of different origin to bring under one umbrella of caste system. The first categories of Thagadhari which include Parbate Brahmin and Chettri are the in the higher categories of hierarchy where as Brahmins of Terai and Newari Brahmin as per Muluki Ain do not fall under this categories.
Matwali group, salvable and enslavable falls under second categories, which include the people of ethnic origin and Brahmins of terai and Newari Brahmins. It also includes those people in the non-enslavable group such as Magar, Gurung, Rai, and Limbu etc and enslavable are Tamang, Chepang, Thami etc.
Untouchable are the categories of varnas system in ancient Manu’s Code but some people such as Musalman and foreigners as well falls under these categories Untouchables are divided into Pani nachalne choichoto halnu naparne, (Impure but touchable castes) and Pani nachalne chiochoti halnu parne, (Impure and Untouchable castes). In present day context caste system falls under Hindu varna system i.e,Brahmin,Khatria Vaisias and Sudra respectively instead of following Muluki Ain’s codification, as ethnic group do not follow the caste system because they have their own culture, tradition ,religion and values system which do not fall under caste system.
3. Purity and impurities in caste system
There are different polluting factors in Hindu caste system.
3.1 Impurity related to Death
The ceremonies are of the final life -cycle rites those considered with death are sense never really complete. (Lynn Bennett, 1983:92. Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters) When some one dies the highest rank of Sudham is the one that has to be observed while performing rituals connected with death anniversaries, which is known as Sraadha Sudham or colloquially Sudham.When a person is died son or the close relative who are eligible to perform the sradham has to debar all unpolluted food and he should not touch any one. For this function, clothes, which are worn on the earlier day has to be washed and dried the previous day worn clothes are not permitted to be worn. For performing these rituals, one should bathe in the morning in the nearby river or at home where it is feasible. Participants dip clothes in water during the first bath and spread them in the sun for drying before proceeding to Sandhyaavandanam. Only these clothes (even if only partly dried) are allowed during the ritual.This impurity continue for 13 days, on the thirteen day a purification ritual is conducted which is known as Suddhai or Sraadha Sudham.(Arora:1998:39)
2. Impurities related to birth
When a child is born in Hindu family the whole family become impure and they have to follow the rules as per Hindu ritual. The most effected is the mother of child. She is considered as impure for 11 days where she can’t touch family members and she has been placed in isolated place with her baby. Baby doesn’t consider as impure in this case. On the eleventh day the priest gives the infant its secret religious name.” The ceremony mark the end of birth pollution period” (Lynn Bennett, 1983:57)
3.3 Impurity related to menstruation
If a girl or woman menstruates, she should remain in complete isolation for four days and on the fourth day, a special function or purification has to be performed by pouring drops of water mix with urine of cow or dipping any golden ornaments in water in the traditional manner by sprinkling it. After completing bath, the women symbolically clean her and she become pure after fourth day. During this for days she cannot touch any elder male members of the family and she either able to touch any kind of fluid contain items, if she touches it is considered as impure. This is one of the shot period impurities.
1. Impurity related with funeral
When some one dies many male members follow to funeral procession to ghat (Funeral site) During this time those member who goes to ghat for funeral rite are considered as polluted and they are not able to enter the house until they perform the purification ritual. Usually purification ritual follows by having bath in nearby river or at home and changing clean dress and sprinkling water dipped in gold.
4. Caste system and untouchable
The untouchablity feature in the caste system is one of the cruelest features of the caste system. It is seen by many as one of the strongest racist phenomenon in the world.
In the Hindu societies people who worked in ignominious, polluting and unclean occupations were seen as polluting peoples and were therefore considered as untouchables. The untouchables had almost no rights in the society. In different parts of Nepal they were treated in different ways. In some regions the attitude towards the untouchables was harsh and strict. In other regions it was less strict. . (Arora: 1998:104,Concept of Impurity and Hindu caste System)
In regions where the attitude was less strict the untouchables were seen as polluting people and their dwellings were at a distance from the settlements of higher caste. The untouchables were not allowed to touch people from the higher caste. They were not allowed to enter houses of the higher caste. They were not allowed to enter the temples. They were not allowed to use the same wells used by the higher caste people. In public occasions they were compelled to sit at a distance from the higher caste. In regions where the attitude towards the untouchables were more severe, not only touching them was seen polluting, but also even a contact with their shadow was seen as polluting. It is obvious that most of the trades pursued by impure castes are some way associated with impurity. (Andras Hoffer2004: 74)
If, because of any reason, there was a contact between an untouchable and a member of the high caste, the higher caste member became defiled and had to immerse or wash himself with water to be purified. In strict societies, especially among the ‘Twice Born’ (the three top Varnas) the touched ‘Twice Born’ also had to pass through some religious ceremonies to purify him from the pollution. If the untouchable entered a house and touched things of a high caste, the members used to wash or clean the places where the untouchable touched and stepped.
In some incidences the untouchables who associated with the high caste members were beaten and even murdered for that reason. Some higher hierarchy the orthodox Hindus treated anyone who worked in any kind of polluting job as untouchable and did not have any contact with them. According to orthodox rules any one who does not belong to the four Varnas, meaning foreigners, are untouchables.
There are many reasons for the emergence of caste system as dominated social reality during Vedic era. The social compulsion of that time must have contributed to its development. The most plausible and accepted theory is that probably Vedic people found cast system as a convenient means to integrate a multicultural society into one complex system. As later in the context of Nepal, Muluki Ain 1854 has incorporated all ethnic group to Caste system.
In the later Vedic time this system has flourished more because those who are in position, power and authority got better opportunities to exploit other to make them selves to remain in power especially the priestly class and Khatiyas which result in constructing cast system more rigidly.
Caste system is one of the most exploitative systems where people of lower strata cannot rise to the higher position. With no scope for their advancement or economic independence, ever under bondage, and suffering from various kinds of disabilities, where they become third or fourth class citizens of Hindu society with out any dignity of their own and with a status comparable to that of animals, as they were the ‘once born’ in contrast to ‘twice born’.
Well it is difficult to generalize Hindu society on any particular issues since it consisted of diverse groups and communities. But we can confidently consider the caste system as bane of Hindu society from earlier times and till today has continued as one of the most complicated system, which is in practiced very rigidly in the society.
The caste system must have emerged because people of different communities have tried to raise to higher position and to monopolize the power of dominants people, the stratifications of society is done in order to remain in power permanently by them. The division of society into Varna system is the result of higher caste unwilling to work on polluted job and enforcing weaker, poor, war prisoners and slaves to do this profession.
In modern context caste system has taken another form that is class. Those who are poor, oppressed and made slave could not rise to higher position and result in stagnant to lower class citizens, for example Dalit are in the lower class in strata than higher caste Brahmins and other ethnic group in Nepal. It is because they were continuously being oppressed since ancient time. Basically when we talk about Nepal despite being the oppression is continuing, the anti-discrimination provisions contained in the 1990 Constitution, caste discrimination remains ingrained in Hindu-dominated Nepalese society. Caste discrimination constitutes a form of racism in which people are categorically relegated to subordinate social positions, and are denied equal access to social, economic, political and legal resources. Wealth and power are disproportionately distributed to favour higher castes, restricting social mobility and the possibility of intergenerational change, because caste is based on lines of descent. Cultural attitudes that perpetuate the caste system are inculcated at a young age in Nepal, and are often reinforced within the education system. Adults teach children to maintain the stratified society, and continual reinforcement of the system cement it into an unquestionable reality. Caste discrimination is frequently present in government-initiated development programmes, with many of the projects failing to benefit the lower castes.
1. Arora, D.B: 1998
Concept of Impurity and Hindu Caste System. Sultan Chand and Co. Delhi
2. Bennett, Lynn: 1983
Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters. Columbia University Press.
3. Hoffer Andras: 2004
The Hierarchy and the State in Nepal, Himal Books Lalitpur, Nepal
4. Ram Bahadur Chheti.et.al: 2005
Occasional Papers in Sociology and Anthropology, Tribhuwan University, Nepal.
5. Nicholas B.Driks: 2003
Castes Of Mind, Parmanent Black, Delhi
6. Prayag Raj Sharma: 2004
State and Society In Nepal, Himal Books Lalitpur, Nepal
7. Shrestha, Gyan Bhadur: 2061
Ain Sangra, Pauravi Prakashan, Kathmandu
8. V.Jayaram: 1997
Caste System is the biggest threat to Hinduism, preliminary paper posted in Internet, [http://www.hindusystem.com]