restricted access CHAPTER TWENTY: The Hindu Social Order: Caturvarṇāśramadharma
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288 CH APTER T W ENT Y The Hindu Social Order Caturvarṇāśramadharma In order to protect this universe He, the most resplendent One, assigned different occupations and duties to those who originated from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet. —Manusmṛti I, 87 Caste has been seen as an essential institution of Hinduism from the very beginning—both by Hindus and by outsiders. A great many studies have been devoted to this phenomenon either in its entirety, or to particular aspects of it. L. Dumont observed: It has often been said that membership in Hinduism is essentially defined as the observance of caste rules and respect for the Brahman. T. Parsons, following Max Weber, states categorically: ‘Hinduism as a religion is but an aspect of this social system, with no independent status apart from it’ (The Structure of Social Action, 557). More subtle is the following judgment: ‘in some regards, [Hinduism] is inseparable from philosophic speculation; in others, it is inseparable from social life’ (L. Renou, L’Hindouisme, 28).1 The historic development and the theory of caste has been expertly described and analyzed in such classics as H. Hutton’s Caste in India2 and more recently in L. Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus.3 It has been both defended as the best and most natural functional division of society, of model value for the whole world and also attacked as the root cause of all social evil and economic backwardness of India. Whatever one’s judgment may be, there is no doubt that caste has shaped Indian society throughout the last several thousands of years and that it is still of large practical significance. R. Inden rightly warns against isolating caste THE HINDU SOCI A L OR DER 289 from the context of Indian civilization, “substantializing” it, and in general conceiving it as “India’s essential institution . . . both the cause and effect of India’s low level of political and economic ‘development’ and of its repeated failure to prevent its conquest by outsiders.”4 Caste in contemporary India has lost much of its economic importance, but it has gained immensely in political significance. In contrast to a centuries-long process of fission that produced more and more subcastes, who for one reason or another had separated from the major body, a process of fusion has recently been noticed: clusters of castes unite behind a political candidate, who in turn becomes their spokesman and representative. These developments have enormous practical consequences, which we cannot fully explore in the context of this book. However, it should be clearly understood that the caste structure of Hinduism is much more flexible in many more ways than previously assumed and that the meaning of caste in India has changed, but its importance is not diminished. THE FOUR OR IGINAL DI V ISIONS: C ATURVA R ṆA The word caste, derived from the Portuguese casta, is not really an adequate translation of the original Sanskrit term varṇa and is apt to generate wrong associations connected with the traditional Indian social structure. We have to keep this in mind when using it. In ancient Indian literary documents the origin of the traditional Indian social structure is associated with the creation of humankind: the puruṣa-sūkta of the Ṛgveda5 dramatically explains the origin of humankind out of the sacrifice of the primeval puruṣa and his dismemberment ; out of his mouth originated the Brāhmaṇas, from his chest came the Kṣatriyas, from his belly issued the Vaiśyas, and from his feet the Śūdras. From as far back as we know the distinction of varṇas, and later the further division of jātis, based upon it, had multiple aspects. Varṇa originally means “color,” not “caste.” It was for a long time understood by Western scholars to refer to skin color, a differentiation between the supposedly fairer skinned “Aryan invaders” and the darker skinned earlier inhabitants of India. D. Bernstorff in a carefully argued study suggested that varṇa originally did not refer to skin color but designated the four directions identified by white, black, red, yellow according to which the participants were arranged during the Vedic yajña.6 As the Ordinances of Manu imply, the division was also occupational. The Brāhmaṇas, as custodians of ritual and the sacred word, were to be the teachers and advisors of society. The Kṣatriyas as defenders and warriors were to be the kings and administrators. The Vaiśyas comprised farmers...