Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy
Hinduism: The Caste System and Reincarnation
- The Caste System
— As practiced, social groups are assigned by birth
not by aptitudes.
”[The term ‘caste’], generally used in the West, was first used
by the Portuguese traders to denote the system of social, religious and political
distinctions peculiar to India.”
Margaret and James Stutley, A Dictionary of Hinduism (1977 London: Routledge,
2019), Vol. 2
The Hindu conception of the social order is that people are different, and
different people will fit well into different aspects of society.
In contrast to caste, social order or social class according to
in Hinduism forms the framework of moral duties according to personal characteristics of
individuals (not necessarily by the social class entered at birth).
“[S]ocial classes which divide individuals in a society, according to
one's nature and aptitudes.”
John Grimes, A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in
English (Albany: State University of New York, 1996), 337.
- Historically the caste system dates back to the Aryan invasion of India
around 2,000 BCE.
- Society is divided into four main groups (with a fifth, “the
untouchables,” outside of the caste system).
The following passage from the Rig Veda describes the origins of
the groups where the world was formed from Purusha whose body is described
“The brahmin was his mouth, his two arms became the rajanya
(kshatriya), his thighs are what the vaisya are, and from his feet
the shudra was made.”
Each part has its proper function and contribution to a society.
- Brahmin: the seers, the reflective ones, the priests.
- The intellectual and spiritual leaders.
- In Western society, this group would correspond to the philosophers,
religious leaders, and teachers.
- Kshatriyas--(pronounced something like “kshot ree yahs”)
the born administrators (formerly nobles, rajahs, and warriors).
- The protectors of society.
- In many Western societies, the politicians, police, and the military.
- Vaisyas: (pronounced something like "vy sy us") the producers,
the craftsmen, artisans, farmers.
- The skillful producers of material things.
- In most societies, the artists, merchants, and farmers.
- Shudras — (pronounced something like “shoo drrahs”)
the unskilled laborers or laboring class.
- The followers or the maintenance people.
- The so-called menial workers or hard laborers.
- Advantages of the Caste system: The heritability of intelligence and
factors of personality raise some interesting philosophical questions.
- What we would like people to be is not usually what they are. Many persons
would be more comfortable in their own social class.
- Unless persons of unequal aptitudes are separated into different groups, many
persons would be “born losers” if they would have to compete with
persons with matchless innate abilities.
- This form of egalitarianism is the belief that privileges are
proportional to responsibilities, and so, in a sense, the "tyranny" of the
majority is denied. Each soul is the same, although existing within different
circumstances of samsara.
- Reincarnation: the philosophical basis of this belief stems from the
question that if an individual soul
is eternal, how did how did it emerge within this transient world?
“Life; also the individual, conscious soul as distinguished from the universal
soul or the Absolute.”
Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy (Littlefield, Adams, 1962), 156.
- The spirit is independent of both the body and the situations within which the
The following passage occurs in the Gita:
“Worn out garments are shed by the body; worn out bodies are shed by the
dweller.” [§ 2.22.]
- At the subhuman level the passage is almost automatic up the chain of
- At the human level comes consciousness which implies freedom, responsibility,
- The consequences of your past decisions have determined your present state.
- Law of Karma — the
of action and reaction.
“It is in action alone that you have a claim, never at any time to the
fruits of such action. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; never let your
attachment be to inaction.”
Bhagavad Gita trans. Graham M. Schweig, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2010),
- The present condition of your soul (confusion or serenity) is a product of
your past decisions. You have made yourself what you are.
- Your present thoughts and decision are determining your future states.
(“Unsettled state” = “bad karma.”)
- Every person receives what that person “deserves.” Even though
decisions are freely arrived at, there is no chance in the universe. Karma is
the middle way between determinism and
- We will not change the world in any significant way — the world is
the training ground for Atman-Brahman.
- There is no chance or accident in the universe. “There are no
Mahatma Gandhi explains:
“To one like myself, who believes in the four Varnas
, human life, during
this present birth on the planet, is only one of a series. … Our present
existence is a discipline which has to be lived within certain rules suited to this
special stage. We cannot choose at this stage, for instance, our own parents, or our
own birthplace, or our own ancestry. Why then, should we claim as individuals the right
during this present brief life-period to break through all the conventions wherein
we were placed at birth by God Himself. … [O]ne's own religious duty …
connotes our seeking to live in harmony with those birth conditions and not rebelling
against them, or seeking to overpass their limitations, either for individualistic
or selfish reasons.”
C.F. Andrews, Routledge
Revivals: Mahatma Gandhi's Ideas (1929 New York: Routledge, 2016),
See also: Edward J. Thompson, Reconstructing
India (New York: Lincoln MacVeagh, Dial Press, 1930) 143-144.