The Indian Caste System and Karma Theory

Hi folks, this is a perennial topic of great interest and an important and inevitable part of Indian social fabric. That is why I was so shocked, when one of my Hindu friends feigned ignorance of the actual out-working of these, that of karma theory and the caste system in India. I realized that, may be in India and elsewhere, people are not really aware of the implications of such a system and may have taken it for granted. May be the opening up of Indian economy to the Multinational Corporations and in the after math of technological surge and the triumph of IT revolution, and the job market it has created, especially in the urban area, such things as caste and karma have been either diluted or relegated to the margins. The youth and not so young have been swallowing what the Indian Gurus dish out as the Great Indian Traditions and how ‘Mahan Bharat’ is, sweeping these uncomfortable aspects of Indian culture under the carpet. This becomes more significant, as the West has swallowed the modernized version of Hinduism, hook and line and incorporated it in its New Age teachings.

This I thought calls for some introspection and explanations. After all caste and karma have not disappeared from the land of their birth, India. Caste is still a force to reckon with in the rural areas of the country, where 60 % of the people still live and also in urban cities like Hyderabad and Chennai, which are still traditional, and not as sophisticated and culturally advanced, as some other cities like Bangalore or Mumbai or New Delhi. It is very much relevant in Indian polity even today, where every election is fought on caste basis and on caste calculations.

There is a vital link between Karma theory and the caste system. Karma theory is based on Law of Karma, where an act or deed done by a human being, good or bad, accompany the dead soul and determine the soul’s destiny in its future births. A soul will get reincarnated as human being or animal or insect, according to the accumulated good deeds or bad deeds done in the previous lives. The position a soul occupies in the hierarchy of the caste system closely correlates to the accumulated deeds of the past. A person of good deeds will be reborn in the higher caste, for eg., as a Brahmin, and a person of bad deeds, as a dog or a Chandala (a lower caste). Please refer to Kaushitaki Upanishad or Chandogya upanishad to get more information on this.

A human soul keeps getting into repeated births and deaths, which is called ‘samsara,’ until it gets liberated (attains moksha), from the cycle of births and deaths, when it’s accumulated karmas are completely exhausted and good karmas outweigh the bad karmas. That is liberation for a Hindu, escape from repeated cycles of births and deaths. These are the major tenets at the core of Hinduism. These are based mainly on Upanishads, which are called the Vedanta literature, written during the end of Vedic age.

The society itself was divided based on birth and occupation into four Varnas (mainly based on the color of the skin) and thousands of castes or jati, since the time of Rigvedas, which indicate the time when Aryans were supposed to have poured into India through the northern Himalayan passes and spread out in the Gangetic valley, pushing the indigenous people, the Dravidian, southwards. Rigvedas are taken to have been written during 1500 BC. The four Varnas were Brahmins, the priestly class, Kshatriyas, the warrior (also rulers and administrators) class, Vaishyas, the merchant class (also the tradesmen, farmer and artisans) and the Shudras the labor class. Outside these varnas lay the out-castes, commonly known as untouchables (presently called Dalits) and the Tribals people (the Adivasis or original settlers). The first three classes are the upper classes and the last one the lower caste and the Dalits are outside the caste.This is the infamous caste system of India.

It was the ingenuity of the priestly class that they incorporated the karma theory into this stratified caste system, thus placing the Brahmins on the top, along with Kshatryas and Vaishyas as the upper castes, as those who have accumulated good deeds in their past births and the Shudras as those who have done bad deeds in their past lives. The out-castes are the worst offenders of all, of course in their past lives, thus are born in such low status in this life and had to suffer untold miseries. This not only justified the ill-treatment of the Shudras and the Dalits by the upper castes, from ages immemorial, but also gave the low castes a cushion to absorb the insults and ill-treatment meted out by the upper castes, and it was all legitimized by the Hindu religion. It was their fate to be born thus and suffer. May be, if they suffered thus in this life, in the next life they can improve their status and be born in the next higher caste. There was strict segregation between the castes and restriction on eating and marriage. Lower castes were segregated and could not even live in the main village, but in the outskirts of the village only. They could not own property and could only survive as laborers, at the mercy of the land owning upper castes. This hierarchical ordering of the society, based on karma theory and caste system, was unjust and heartless, bringing untold sufferings to the lower castes and out castes, for thousands of years. Treaties like Manusmriti codified such unjust rulings, by prescribing the works for each of the castes/classes and differential treatments to be meted out to each of the castes, all based on birth and their place in the hierarchy..

Only after the British rule, rule of law was made applicable to all and education and government jobs were thrown open to all castes. This has grown into positive discrimination in the independent India, leading to many Dalits and backward classes (then Shudras), to come up in life. Today in the 21st century the city dweller might have forgotten these hard facts of life, but in the villages caste and discrimination are still very much the reality and people still suffer.

Well, this has become a lengthy blog, but I needed to start with the basics.

You can get more information and a good bibliography from my book, “Values and Influence of Religion in Public Administration,” SAGE, 2011.