The Caste System
Manu, according to Hinduism was the first man on earth. Around 1500BC, Manu wrote the code of conduct by which Hindus should live their lives. This code is a set of rules and is called Manusamhita which Hindus have followed for centuries.
Manu divided human beings into four types called ‘varnas’ or castes. The brahmins were the highest class, consisting of scholars, next came the kshatriyas, the warriors, then came the vaishyas or the traders and finally the lowest class, according to Manu, were the shudras or the menials.
Varnas were created for the benefit and steady progress of society. A person belonged to a particular caste based on his abilities and skills. For example, if a brahmin’s son was not scholarly but was good at trade, he would belong to the vaishya varna or if he was maybe born with stronger physical attributes, he would be considered a shudra and could still find a place for himself in society.
It is important to note that varnas or castes were not inherited like we consider them to be now. Castes were created so that all members of society could find a useful and rightful place in society according to their abilities.
HOW CASTE BECAME UNCHANGEABLE
Over the years, the so-called higher castes began discriminating against the lower castes. Those who had learned to read and write misled people into believing that castes were inherited and therefore- fixed. Children of brahmins remained brahmins and a shudra’s son, however brilliant, could not ever hope to rise above his caste.
To ensure that they remained high-class, brahmins prohibited inter-caste marriages and for centuries people accepted this hierarchy. The higher castes would often treat the lower castes unkindly. They were made to work very hard, given miserable and unclean tasks to do and kept at an arm’s length by others. This gave rise to untouchability.
HARIJANS AND DALITS
The shudras or the untouchables became the downtrodden section of society. In the 20th century, Gandhiji realized that caste discrimination is a sin against humanity and he decided to call the untouchables ‘Harijans’ which means ‘people of God.’ He worked for them and with them.
The author of the Indian constitution, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, himself belonging to the ‘untouchable’ caste, began the use of the term ‘Dalit’ or the downtrodden. He himself was the victim of caste based injustice and worked hard to remove it. Dr Ambedkar encouraged Dalits to embrace a religion where there was no caste discrimination. To this day, a large number of Dalits convert to Buddhism every year.
THE CONSTITUTION PROTECTS
Since it was created, the constitution has had many amendments to safeguard the interests of Dalits and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of India. In 1984 the Mandal Commission, a group of important people appointed by the government, decided that these communities must get equal opportunity to education and have social equality.
As a result places of higher education ‘reserve’ seats for Dalits and are given admission even if they do not make the cut-off. There are also jobs reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes in government organizations. Interestingly, several Dalits are political leaders today. They are also doctors, engineers and government officials.
As you can see, the government is taking steps to provide equal opportunities for the people who have been sidelined for centuries. However, the social situation is a little different, especially outside the big cities. Intercaste marriages are still discouraged and brahmins who preside over pujas and religious functions sometimes refuse to marry people of different castes. We have only just begun the long journey towards a completely equal society regardless of caste or gender.
Find out some of the steps taken by Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar that helped the Harijans and Dalits get a better foothold in society.