|March 08, 2002 |
It was asked, "Where did India's class system come from, especially the practice of mistreating the lowest class?"
The system historically consists of four classes: brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (businessmen/traders), and shudras (laborers). The classes are described as varna in Shrimad Bhagavat 7/11 and referred to in Bhagavad Gita 4/13.
The first category, the brahmin class, was supposed to be the knowledge carriers of the culture and religion. Brahmins had wide scriptural knowledge and were assigned the task of spreading it amongst society members. By today's occupational classifications, preachers, teachers, and researchers can be considered as part of this first category.
The second category was the warrior class. Its function was to uphold the law and protect society from invasions. Kings in India belonged to this class, but respected and took advice from the first class. They also protected brahmins so that society flourished in the correct direction. Today, we have a military system, and many world leaders also have a military background.
The third category was the class of businessmen/traders. The class consisted of anyone who earned their own living, including merchants, farmers, and all other such occupations. Today, we have a greater expansion of this class.
The last category consisted of laborers or service personnel. Within the fourth class were those that performed janitorial duties as well, such as street cleaning or making shoes from the leather of dead animals.
The idea of a class system is not limited to Eastern thought; in fact, Plato/Aristotle outlined a similar class structure. Further, though sometimes defined differently, a similar set of categories can be found in every government or corporation today.
The original intent of the system was not to create prejudice or inequality (as inferred when "the caste system" is used negatively), but to bring balance and advancement in society. In time however, instead of classifying those who did religious activities and carried knowledge as brahmins, the label became attached to one's birth. So the children of brahmin parents were also known as brahmins. Since the children of brahmins were exposed to such activities since their childhood, it was generally easier for them to learn the rituals, but the system was not intended to be limited by bloodlines.
Second, the problem that arose was that the people that handled unsanitary things became immune to such conditions. Repeatedly being exposed to unclean situations, they carried bacteria that did not adversely affect them, but whoever came in contact with them would become sick. Thus, the prevailing idea was that their contact should be shunned. Instead of instituting procedures of universal sanitation, people made arrangements such as having the laborers stay at the outskirts of the city. In time, they became ignorant outcasts because they had no access to education and limited financial support. They ended up becoming the poorest and most uneducated group of the classes. Further, without money and education, they became the victims of insult and harassment. For example, if they accidentally touched the upper classes, there would be resentment. The result was a mistreated, lowest class called untouchables.
Dinkar Uncle recollected that when he first came to America in 1966, he would see the school janitors driving home in nice cars, while the students only had bicycles! Because of the system of sanitation here in America, diseases were not spread from those working in dirty environments. Today, with the spread of education, negative lines are fading.