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CAN INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM SURVIVE 
IN MODERN LIFE? 



A. S. WOODBURNE 
Madras Christian College, Madras, India 



This article gives a careful description of important social regulations of the 
caste system in India. Various influences in modem life are then considered in their 
effect on the system. The criticisms of Indian leaders of thought, the influence of 
education, the exigencies of trade and travel, and the political ambitions of the men 
of lower castes are compelling a reconsideration of the traditional prejudices. 



At the time when the Aryans migrated from their homes 
in the northwest into India, there is no evidence of such a rigid 
stratification of society as characterizes the caste system. 
The Rigveda and Avesta both portray the life of the people of 
that age, and they give no indications of any divisions beyond 
the ordinary classes of priests, nobility, and peasantry. How- 
ever, the migrations into a country already populated gave 
rise to a new line of social cleavage, namely, between the 
Aryan invaders who were white, tall, and cultured and the 
aborigines who were short, dark, and primitive. This division 
was expressed as Aryas or kinsmen and Dasa or friends, a 
word which subsequently came to mean slaves or servants. 
Again the classification was made on the basis of color (varna) 
because the aborigines were so much more black (krishna) 
than the invaders. 

Toward the close of the period of the composition of the 
Rigvedic hymns, a hymn was introduced which indicates a 
classification on the basis of the original threefold Aryan 
division plus the aborigines. The classes were referred to as 
Brahmans or priests, Kshatriyas, Rajanyas or nobles, Vaisyas 
or common people among the Aryans, and Sudras or the 
conquered aborigines. In this passage the four classes are 
sharply defined and said to be created from parts of Purusha, 

525 



526 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

the creator. "The Brahman was his mouth; the Kshatriya 
was made from his arms; the being called Vaisya, he was his 
thighs; the Sudra sprang from his feet." 1 Yet even in this 
passage it is doubtful whether caste has yet begun. Evidently 
it was the beginning of that classification which later became 
so well defined and involved such rigorous exclusiveness of 
function. In the earlier times it was possible for a member of 
one class to become a member of another class, and there 
was also a great deal of intermarriage because the origin of 
certain subclasses is traced to such combinations. 

In the Laws of Manu, we have another reference to the 
creation of classes, paralleling the Rigvedic pronouncement, 
references to the origin of certain sub-castes, and a delineation 
of the occupations and duties of the various castes. Manu 
gives his approval to Brahmans and other caste men marrying, 
in addition to a first wife from their own castes, another from 
each of the lower castes. He then proceeds to illustrate by 
showing the resultant castes from intermarriages of this kind. 
In the code of Yajnavalkya it is laid down that the twice-born 
may have one wife from each of the first three classes, but they 
must not marry Stidras. The castes of Aryan origin are 
known as twice-born, and Manu permits all of them to study 
the Veda, though the duty of teaching it belongs to the 
Brahman only. 

The Brahmans are the priestly class and, by virtue of their 
origin from the mouth of Purusha, are above the others in 
authority and sanctity alike. The Brahman (masculine) 
who aspires to union with the Brahman (neuter) must faith- 
fully perform the six works, study the Veda, sacrifice on his 
own behalf, make gifts, teach the Veda, sacrifice for others, and 
receive gifts. If a Brahman is not able to obtain a livelihood 
within the regulations prescribed for his own caste, he has the 
alternatives of adopting the pursuits of the Kshatriya or 
Vaisya, or of becoming a mendicant. It is by means of the 

1 Rigveda, X, 90, 12. 



INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM AND MODERN LIFE 527 

mouth of the Brahman that the gods are said to consume the 
sacrificial food, and that the spirits of the departed ancestors 
consume the offerings made to them. When a Brahman is 
born there is a fresh incarnation of the divine law. His 
superiority is so profound that when one of another caste gives 
to him food or clothes, the giver is presenting to him that which 
is really his own, so that receiving a gift is equivalent to 
bestowing it upon himself. No matter what crime a Brahman 
commits, he must never receive capital punishment, for the 
killing of a Brahman is the most heinous of sins. His sin 
will bring about the divine order of punishment through the 
operation of karma and transmigration. For example the 
Brahman who consumes intoxicants will be reborn as an 
insect, an unclean bird or as a destructive animal. And a 
Brahman who neglects the duties assigned to his caste may 
look forward to rebirth as an evil spirit that lives on what 
others vomit. On the other hand, the Brahman alone can hope 
for deliverance from karma and the eternal round of rebirths if 
he be faithful to his duties, for he alone has the true knowledge 
which is the basis of deliverance, realization that the atman 
(individual soul) is identical with the Brahman (world-soul). 

The Kshatriyas or Rajanyas are the second of the Aryan 
classes, originally the warriors or protectors of the people. 
The Law makes it incumbent upon them to protect the people, 
offer sacrifices and gifts, study the Vedas, and abstain from 
sensuality. Kings must be of the Kshatriya caste, and they 
are exempt from purificatory rites such as are required of 
ordinary Kshatriyas and members of other castes on occasions 
of ceremonial pollution. It is particularly meritorious for one 
of this caste to be slain in battle, and thereby he is considered 
as having performed a sufficient sacrifice. "The Kshatriya 
who dies fighting goes to heaven," says Manu. At the same 
time members of this caste are constantly reminded of their 
inferiority to the Brahmans, an inferiority evident both in 
origin and function. A Brahman of ten years is to be con- 



528 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

sidered as the father of a Kshatriya centenarian. If he comes 
to the house of a Brahman, the Kshatriya may not be con- 
sidered as a guest, and he is only permitted to eat after the 
Brahman guests have all been fed. Ceremonial impurity 
demands a longer period for its removal in the case of the 
Kshatriya than a Brahman. Moreover the prince who 
exhibits generosity in offering gifts to Brahmans thereby 
acquires much merit, particularly if the Brahmans be learned 
in the sacred lore. It is especially the prince's duty to attend 
to the physical requirements of Brahmans, just as he would 
for his own sons, for nothing can bring to him prosperity com- 
parable to the blessing of the Brahman. 

The Vaisyas were originally the farmers and artisans 
among the Aryan invaders, and were said, as we have seen, 
to have sprung from the thighs of the creator, Purusha. 
Like the Kshatriyas, they also were permitted to study but 
forbidden to teach the Vedas. The code of Manu prescribes 
their duties as caring for cattle, plowing the land, buying 
and selling, lending money, and offering sacrifice. The 
Vaisya and Kshatriya are enjoined to give alms, and promised 
that in so doing they will acquire merit equal to presenting 
their Brahman teacher with a cow. When a judge is about 
to hear evidence in court, if the witness be a Brahman, he 
need only say, "speak"; if it be a Kshatriya he must say, 
"speak the truth"; but if he is addressing a Vaisya he must 
warn him by dwelling on the guilt of stealing cattle, grain, or 
gold, or warn him of the danger of losing what he holds dear 
should he resort to perjury. Thus is the inferiority of the 
Vaisyas to both Brahmans and Kshatriyas recognized. Just 
as a Brahman in distress may follow the occupation of one of 
the two lower castes, and a Kshatriya of the Vaisya, so the 
Vaisya may take refuge in the manner of life of the Sudra, 
but he is warned to get out of it as quickly as possible and to 
avoid all practices forbidden to his own caste. As in the 
case of the Brahman, so with the Kshatriya and Vaisya, 



INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM AND MODERN LIFE 529 

unfaithfulness to the caste entails rebirth as an evil spirit 
which feeds on carrion and other filth. Of the twice-born, 
the Vaisya is essentially a servant, everywhere made conscious 
of his inferiority to the other Aryan castes, his one consolation 
being in his superiority to the subdued aborigines. 

The Sudras are the fourth or servile class in ancient Hindu 
society. They were the original inhabitants who were reduced 
to servitude by the Aryan invaders. In the Institutes of 
Manu they are contrasted with the Brahmans, as being at 
the opposite pole of the social order. The Sudra is declared 
to be unable to commit an offense involving loss of caste, to 
be unworthy to receive a sacrament, and unqualified to hear, 
learn, recite, or teach the Veda. The only occupation open 
to him is that of humble service to the three higher castes. A 
Sudra, whether bought or unbought, may be compelled to 
serve a Brahman. For a Brahman to slay a Sudra is but a 
minor offense, comparable to killing a flamingo, a crow, an 
owl, a lizard, or a dog. Should a Brahman die with the food 
of a Sudra in his stomach, he will be reborn as a village pig. 
If a Sudra touch a Brahman while eating, the latter must cease. 
On the other hand, if a Sudra should insult one of the twice- 
born, his tongue may be cut out, and for many kinds of 
offenses to the higher castes, like debasing penalties are 
prescribed. Even the touch of a Sudra to the corpse of one 
of the twice-born is regarded as polluting, and hindering the 
passage of the soul to heaven. A Sudra's duty, first and last, 
is to be a servant. By serving a Brahman he makes the best 
of both worlds. If he be pure, a faithful servant, gentle in 
speech, and humble, always seeking the protection of 
Brahmans, he will be reborn in the next life in one of the 
higher castes. "The self-existent one created him to be the 
slave of the Brahman. Even though his master sets him 
free, he is still a slave, a slave by nature and by birth." 

The Hindu population of India includes, besides those 
who are ranked among the four main castes mentioned, fifty 



530 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

millions of non-castes. It is evident from the ancient litera- 
ture that these classes were not in existence in the early Hindu 
period. Their origin has been a matter of much conjecture and 
investigation. At the time of Aryan migrations, as we have 
already noted, the aborigines were assimilated into the social 
order. By the time the Laws of Manu were codified, we have 
reference to a class (the Chandala) who were of mixed origin 
and were regarded as holding a definite place in the society 
below that of the Sudras. The present out-caste communities 
include those despised servile peoples who occupy a position 
parallel to that assigned by Manu to the Chandalas, including 
the leather-workers of North and South India and the Pariahs 
of the South; and also those who have been expelled from the 
caste communities for breaches of Hindu social law. For ex- 
ample, intermarriage with one of the out-castes and acceptance 
of food from one of them are regarded as offenses against 
social regulations. These peoples are sometimes referred to 
as the Panchamas, or fifth class. They are of all people in 
India the least privileged, the most despised, their touch 
or even their shadow falling upon a man of high caste being 
considered a source of pollution. The regulations which 
determine the association of non-castes with the castes, the 
occasions of pollution, and the ceremonials of purification vary 
in different parts of the country. 

It is well to remember that the word caste is inclined to be 
misleading, because it is not an Indian word. It originated 
from the Portuguese casta, meaning race or class, and began 
to be used by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century to 
describe the class divisions which seemed so curious to them. 
The Hindus use such other words as varna which means color, 
jati which means birth or descent, kula which means family, 
and gotra which means race. It is only necessary to make the 
statement for one to appreciate the meanings of the Hindu 
concepts. Evidently the beginning of class divisions was 
purely functional, and the element of exclusiveness, carried 



INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM AND MODERN LIFE 531 

even to the point of hereditary distinctions and separations, 
is a matter of gradual evolution. Moreover, along with the 
hereditary rigidity there still persists the functional distinctions 
to a very large measure. The Brahman fulfils the priestly 
and clerical offices. The Kshatriya is the prince. The Vaisya 
is the trader. The Sudra is the laborer. And the various 
sub-castes among the Sudra peoples are marked by occupations. 
Doubtless one of the reasons that the system has persisted 
throughout the centuries has been the measure of functional 
stability which it has accorded to Hindu society, permitting a 
wide range of differentiation and specialization without impair- 
ing the social fabric. By it the professions and trades have 
been assured of new recruits, because birth or descent pre- 
determined the individual's occupation as well as his status. 
At the same time the religious basis given to the system has 
enabled the higher castes who enjoyed its advantages to per- 
petuate the differences, and even to gain the assent of those 
lower in the scale to the existing order. The profound belief 
of the whole people in karma and samsara (metempsychosis) 
has undoubtedly been one of the sustaining foundations upon 
which popular assent has been built. 

The great criticism of the caste system is that it is such a 
rigid organization that it does not permit enough free play and 
adjustment to the human factors. Its virtual motto is "Man 
was made for caste, and not caste for man." And when any 
organization becomes the master instead of the servant and 
instrument of humanity, it has ceased to serve its best use- 
fulness. The very conservative tendency of caste is quite 
deadening to human initiative, and numbing to social progress. 
Its primary concern is the preservation of the established 
order rather than any effort at the improvement of human 
welfare. The only possibility of progress is within the caste, 
unless it be in the hope for rebirth higher up in the scale. On 
the other hand, there must be constant vigilance in the keeping 
of approved regulations, or regress to a lower status is inevitable 



532 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

both in this life and in the next. Neither individual ability 
nor personal character count for anything. It is taken for 
granted that the accident of birth must be the sole determinant 
of occupation and of status. Personality is subordinated to 
system. Value is judged in terms of origin within rather 
than service to the community. Of course the limitations of 
the caste system work more hardship on the depressed classes, 
though the higher suffer to some extent. As Professor Mc- 
Dougall says, it deprives men of the potent motive, "the 
desire to rise in the social scale and to place one's children at a 
more advantageous starting point in the battle of life." 1 

While it is quite true that caste still retains a grip upon 
the Hindu consciousness, yet indications are not wanting that 
the caste hold is in some small degree weakening. It is 
possible to indicate the movements that are at work in the 
direction of disintegration. The first of these influences is 
education. An educated man usually demands the right to 
enjoy the comradeship of other educated men, without respect 
to differences of birth. Moreover, he insists on freedom in the 
manner of choice of occupation, whether his choice happen 
to fall within the prescriptions of caste or not. The educated 
man declines to be bound by the orthodox regulations in 
regard to food. The old taboos have lost much of their hold. 
Even the old prohibition against caste men crossing the ocean 
or having to undergo prayachitta (a ceremony of atonement 
in which the subject has to partake of the five elements of 
the cow) on their return, is becoming a dead letter, and 
students who return from Europe and America, where they 
have quite disregarded caste, are received into Hindu societv 
without prejudice. 

But education is undermining caste not merely in the case 
of the educated, but also in the matter of treatment accorded 
to the less fortunately born. For education is inducing the 
spirit of social reformation and human brotherhood. Prohibi- 

1 The Group Mind, p. 289. 



INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM AND MODERN LIFE 533 

tions against certain foods, against interdining and against 
intermarriage are declared to be contrary to progress and 
humanity. Organizations such as the Depressed Classes' 
Mission are definite attempts on the part of the caste communi- 
ties to extend the privileges of education to those to whom it 
is forbidden by the regulations of caste, and this is but one 
phase of the tendency to accord as well as to demand social 
justice for all alike. 

A second influence that is working toward the corrosion of 
caste is the economic. India under the British Raj has become 
vitally a part of a larger world. Trade with Europe, America, 
and Japan has meant the introduction of commodities from 
these lands, enlarging the possibilities of the Indian market, 
and forcing competition upon some of the Indian industries. 
This has resulted on the one hand in a demand for broader 
economic opportunities than caste permits, and on the other 
hand in a necessity to choose other than caste-determined 
occupations through industrial rivalry. Even the Brahman, 
with his inherited abhorrence of certain occupations of tra- 
ditional pollution, will engage in the leather or any other 
business whereby he can be assured of a good income. Thus 
the old economic taboos are gradually but surely disappearing 
from the social consciousness. The expansion of transporta- 
tion facilities within the past half-century has also stimulated 
the tendency toward disintegration. The railroad has on the 
one hand steadfastly refused to take cognizance of caste, 
and the low-caste man who pays for his ticket has the same 
right to a seat in any compartment where there is room as the 
high-caste man. On the other hand, this increase in trans- 
portation has made possible a great deal more movement 
among the people, and travel and new associations tend to 
break down conventions and to stimulate the spirit of freedom 
and adventure. 

Another influence tending to undermine caste is the reli- 
gious. The presence of Christianity has been more potent to 



534 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

that end than Islam. Mohammedanism recognizes no caste, 
but has neither emphasized education nor human brotherhood, 
so that its centuries in India have had little effect on the caste 
system. But Christianity has at once spread the light of 
science and the doctrines of equality and fraternity. Un- 
fortunately there is an occasional community of converts which 
perpetuates its pre-Christian class consciousness; but for the 
most part Christians from all communities freely mingle in a 
common brotherhood. Moreover, Christianity has accom- 
plished what orthodox Hinduism claimed to be the impossible 
in the elevation of the depressed classes. One of the by- 
products of this influence is to be seen in the reforming move- 
ments within Hinduism which seek the material betterment and 
the enlightenment of the out-castes in the interests of revitaliz- 
ing Hinduism, and redeeming India from her social injustices. 
Today there is a growing movement in opposition to caste 
from the political angle. For the past quarter of a century 
India's political leaders have been holding before themselves 
and their fellow-countrymen the ideal of self-government. 
Increasingly these leaders of public opinion are expressing 
their conviction that political liberty cannot be attained 
without social liberty. Lala Rajpat Rai, the Punjabi leader, 
has declared caste to be "a disgrace to our humanity, our 
sense of justice, and our feeling of social affinity." Sir K. G. 
Gupta says that "the caste system had served useful purposes 
in the past, but it has not now a single redeeming feature." 
Dr. Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and prophet of 
internationalism, has said in frequently reported words: 

This immutable and all-pervading system of caste has no doubt 
imposed a mechanical uniformity upon the people, but it has, at the 
same time, kept their different sections inflexibly and unalterably 
separate, with the consequent loss of all power of adaptation and read- 
justment to new conditions and forces. The regeneration of the Indian 
people, to my mind, directly and perhaps solely depends upon the 
removal of this condition of caste. 



INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM AND MODERN LIFE 535 

So there is a movement among the educated leaders in the 
direction of a direct repudiation of the old sanctions for the 
sake of a bigger, better India. 

Still others are saying that the caste system must remain, 
but needs to be purged of its iniquitous features, and in the 
main of the doctrine of untouchability as applied to the out- 
castes. These men do not always define very clearly which 
features must go and which remain. Notably among the 
advocates of the inner reformation of the system is " Mahatma" 
M. K. Gandhi, the present leader of the Nationalist party. 
One of the insistent elements of Gandhi's program is the 
necessity of removing untouchability in the interests of attain- 
ing a solidarity, social and political. This is quite essential 
to the attainment and the maintenance of self-government. 
He further insists that social distinctions between Hindus, 
Mohammedans, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and 
Jews must give way, so that all the communities may make 
common cause the attainment of political liberty. In this 
effort Gandhi has a very influential following among Hindus 
and Mohammedans. The significance of this movement is 
far reaching. Never in her history has India attained so large 
a measure of national self-consciousness. And she is realizing 
in the person of her recognized leaders that one of the greatest 
barriers to the attainment of her national aspirations is this 
rigid social system. The long historical associations of the 
system with all that is Indian, and its religious associations 
with all that is Hindu make it very difficult indeed for the 
Hindu to declare himself against it. Such a declaration, more 
especially where it is seconded by practice, demands great 
moral courage and determination. But men of moral insight 
are beginning to realize that the issue is clear. They stand 
faced with the alternative of caste reformation or abolition 
and national progress on the one hand, and orthodox adherence 
to tradition and the stifling of a national Ssprit de corps on the 
other hand. For no nation that shackles its personality by 



536 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

a system of social bondage can hope to achieve the possibilities 
of an unfettered life of progress. 

There is another phase of the present political movement 
that is telling against caste. The progress of education has 
involved the training of a growing number of men from the 
lower castes who are able to take their places abreast of the 
Brahman, and who resent the operation of any system which 
would rob them of the privileges they have earned. More 
especially from the great Siidra communities a large number 
of such men have arisen, and the community of their interests 
has given them a group consciousness. Within the last 
decade this group mind has asserted itself in a definite political 
party, called the Non-Brahman party. In South India the 
party has attained more strength than elsewhere as yet. It 
publishes a newspaper under the name Justice which is the 
medium of its platform. Sometimes it is known from the name 
of its organ as the Justice party. The avowed aim of the 
party is to put an end to the Brahman ascendancy which has 
existed for centuries, and to place Non-Brabmans instead of 
Brahmans in office as rapidly as possible. Under the Reform 
Scheme which came into operation a year ago the Non- 
Brahmans captured the majority of seats in the Madras 
Legislative Council, and the Council is led by Non-Brahman 
ministers. Hitherto the Brahman community, though only 
constituting about 3 per cent of the total population, has held 
90 per cent of government positions. But the Non-Brahmans 
have determined that this shall cease. Since they have come 
into power they are seeing to it that whenever possible vacan- 
cies that occur shall be filled with men of other than Brahman 
castes. The success of the party in the Madras presidency is 
being watched and admired by other parts of India, and there 
are indications that it will spread as time passes. To be 
sure the movement is political rather than designedly social 
or religious. But the influence upon the social and religious 
life is unavoidable. Occasionally one hears of a Brahman 



INDIA'S CASTE SYSTEM AND MODERN LIFE 537 

priest being deposed, and a lower-caste man elevated to the 
priesthood. In the political arena, the Non-Brahmans regard 
those of other religions as their allies. The continuation of the 
movement will in all likelihood involve much more far reaching 
effects than any yet realized. Many Brahmans feel that 
they see "the handwriting on the wall," and are beginning to 
prepare themselves for an inevitable change in the social 
order in which their ascendancy will be a matter of history. 

Yet we must be guarded against hasty conclusions. The 
caste system is still a vital force in Indian life. It is still the 
recognized social organization for orthodox Hinduism. It 
took centuries to evolve, it may take centuries to devolve. 
The reforming movements are very powerful in the larger 
cities, but scarcely noticeable in the smaller towns and villages 
which hold the masses of India's peoples. But the reforma- 
tion has begun and is gaining in impetus. We may well believe 
that India's final judgment on the caste system lies with the 
future rather than with the past.