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An Historical Sketch

Part 3

The vast and complicated organization of caste is mainly a post-Vedic growth and in the Buddha's time was only in the making.[1] His order was open to all classes alike, but this does not imply that he was adverse to caste, so far as it then prevailed, or denied that men are divided into categories determined by their deeds in other births. But on the whole the influence of Buddhism was unfavourable to caste, especially to the pretensions of the Brahmans, and an extant polemic against caste is ascribed (though doubtfully) to Aśvaghosha.[2]

On the other hand, though caste is in its origin the expression of a social rather than of a religious tendency, the whole institution and mechanism have long been supported and exploited by the Brahmans. Few of them would dispute the proposition that a man cannot be a Hindu unless he belongs to a caste. The reason of this support is undisguised, namely, that they are the first and chief caste. They make their own position a matter of religion and claim the power of purifying and rehabilitating those who have lost caste but they do not usually interfere with the rules of other castes or excommunicate those who break them.[3] That is the business of the Pancayat or caste council.

Sometimes religion and caste are in opposition, for many modern religious leaders have begun by declaring that among believers there are no social distinctions. This is true not only of teachers whose orthodoxy is dubious, such as Nânak, the founder of the Sikhs, and Basava, the founder of the Lingâyats,[4] but also of Vallabhâcârya and Caitanya. But in nearly all cases caste reasserts itself. The religious teachers of the sect receive extravagant respect and form a body apart.

This phenomenon, which recurs in nearly all communities, shows how the Brahmans established their position. At the same time social distinctions make themselves felt among the laity, and those who claim to be of good position dissociate themselves from those of lower birth. The sect ends by observing caste on ordinary occasions, and it is only in some temples (such as that of Jagannath at Puri)[5] that the worshippers mix and eat a sacred meal together.

Sometimes, however, the sect which renounces caste becomes itself a caste. Thus, the Sikhs have become almost a nation and other modern castes arising out of sects are the Atiths, who are Śivaites, the Saraks, who appear to have been originally Buddhists, and the Baishnabs (Vaishnavas), a name commonly given in Bengal to those followers of Caitanya who persist in the original rule of disregarding caste regulations within the sect, and hence now form a separate community. But as a rule sect and caste are not co-extensive and the caste is not a religious corporation. Thus the different subdivisions of the Baniyas belong to different sects and even in the same subdivision there is no religious uniformity.[6]

Caste in its later developments is so complex and irregular, that it is impossible to summarize it in a formula or explain it as the development of one principle. In the earliest form known two principles are already in operation. We have first racial distinction. The three upper castes represent the invading Aryans, the fourth the races whom they found in India.

In the modern system of caste, race is not a strong factor. Many who claim to be Brahmans and Kshatriyas have no Aryan blood, but still the Aryan element is strongest in the highest castes and decreases as we descend the social scale and also decreases in the higher castes in proportion as we move from the north-west to the east and south. But secondly in the three upper castes the dividing principle, as reported in the earliest accounts, is not race but occupation.

We find in most Aryan countries a division into nobles and people, but in India these two classes become three, the priests having been able to assume a prominence unknown elsewhere and to stamp on literature their claim to the highest rank. This claim was probably never admitted in practice so completely as the priests desired. It was certainly disputed in Buddhist times and I have myself heard a young Rajput say that the Brahmans falsified the Epics so as to give themselves the first place.

It is not necessary for our purpose to describe the details of the modern caste system. Its effect on Indian religion has been considerable, for it created the social atmosphere in which the various beliefs grew up and it has furnished the Brahmans with the means of establishing their authority. But many religious reformers preached that in religion caste does not exist—that there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the language of another creed—and though the application of this theory is never complete, the imperfection is the result not of religious opposition but of social pressure.

Hindu life is permeated by the instinct that society must be divided into communities having some common interest and refusing to intermarry or eat with other communities. The long list of modern castes hardly bears even a theoretical relation to the four classes of Vedic times.[7] Numerous subdivisions with exclusive rules as to intermarriage and eating have arisen among the Brahmans and the strength of this fissiparous instinct is seen among the Mohammedans who nominally have no caste but yet are divided into groups with much the same restrictions.

This remarkable tendency to form exclusive corporations is perhaps correlated with the absence of political life in India. Such ideas as nationality, citizenship, allegiance to a certain prince, patriotic feelings for a certain territory are rarer and vaguer than elsewhere, and yet the Hindu is dependent on his fellows and does not like to stand alone. So finding little satisfaction in the city or state he clings the more tenaciously to smaller corporations.

These have no one character: they are not founded on any one logical principle but merely on the need felt by people who have something in common to associate together. Many are based on tribal divisions; some, such as the Marathas and Newars, may be said to be nationalities. In many the bond of union is occupation, in a few it is sectarian religion. We can still observe how members of a caste who migrate from their original residence tend to form an entirely new caste, and how intertribal marriages among the aborigines create new tribes.

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- Footnotes:


See especially the Ambaṭṭha Sûtta (Dig. Nik. 3) and Rhys Davids's introduction.


See Weber, Die Vajrasuchi and Nanjio, Catal. No. 1303. In Ceylon at the present day only members of the higher castes can become Bhikkhus.


But it is said that in Southern India serious questions of caste are reported to the abbot of the Sringeri monastery for his decision.


The modern Lingâyats demur to the statement that their founder rejected caste.


So too in the cakras of the Śâktists all castes are equal during the performance of the ceremony.


Some (Khandelwals, Dasa Srimalis and Palliwals) include both Jains and Vaishnavas: the Agarwals are mostly Vaishnavas but some of them are Jains and some worship Śiva and Kâlî. Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects, pp. 205 ff.


The names used are not the same. The four Vedic castes are called Varṇa: the hundreds of modern castes are called Jâti.

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