07-27-00 —02-19-21     


Site Map




Vishnu depicted as Purusha; “Vishnu Vishvarupa,” artist unknown, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy

Hinduism: The Caste System and Reincarnation

  1. The Caste System — As practiced, social groups are assigned by birth not by aptitudes.

    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 varna in Hinduism forms the framework of moral duties according to personal characteristics of individuals (not necessarily by the social class entered at birth).

    1. Historically the caste system dates back to the Aryan invasion of India around 2,000 BCE.

    2. 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 as follows:
      “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.

      1. Brahmin: the seers, the reflective ones, the priests.

        1. The intellectual and spiritual leaders.

        2. In Western society, this group would correspond to the philosophers, religious leaders, and teachers.

      2. Kshatriyas--(pronounced something like “kshot ree yahs”) the born administrators (formerly nobles, rajahs, and warriors).

        1. The protectors of society.

        2. In many Western societies, the politicians, police, and the military.

      3. Vaisyas: (pronounced something like "vy sy us") the producers, the craftsmen, artisans, farmers.

        1. The skillful producers of material things.

        2. In most societies, the artists, merchants, and farmers.

      4. Shudras — (pronounced something like “shoo drrahs”) the unskilled laborers or laboring class.

        1. The followers or the maintenance people.

        2. The so-called menial workers or hard laborers.

    3. Advantages of the Caste system: The heritability of intelligence and factors of personality raise some interesting philosophical questions.

      1. What we would like people to be is not usually what they are. Many persons would be more comfortable in their own social class.

      2. 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.

      3. 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.

    4. Reincarnation: the philosophical basis of this belief stems from the question that if an individual soul jiva is eternal, how did how did it emerge within this transient world?

      1. The spirit is independent of both the body and the situations within which the spirit exists.

        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.]
        1. At the subhuman level the passage is almost automatic up the chain of being.

        2. At the human level comes consciousness which implies freedom, responsibility, and effort.

        3. The consequences of your past decisions have determined your present state.

      2. Law of Karma — the moral law of action and reaction.

        1. The present condition of your soul (confusion or serenity) is a product of your past decisions. You have made yourself what you are.

        2. Your present thoughts and decision are determining your future states. (“Unsettled state” = “bad karma.”)

        3. 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 indeterminism.

        4. We will not change the world in any significant way — the world is the training ground for Atman-Brahman.

        5. There is no chance or accident in the universe. “There are no lost traces.”

    Mahatma Gandhi, South Africa, 1906 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), 99.

    See also: Edward J. Thompson, Reconstructing India (New York: Lincoln MacVeagh, Dial Press, 1930) 143-144.

Hindu Stages of Life  Top of Page  Hinduism: Topics

Relay corrections or suggestions to
Read the disclaimer concerning this page.
1997-2021 Licensed under GFDL and Creative Commons 3.0

The “Copyleft” copyright assures the user the freedom to use,
copy, redistribute, make modifications with the same terms.
Works for sale must link to a free copy.

The “Creative Commons” copyright assures the user the freedom
to copy, distribute, display, and modify on the same terms.
Works for sale must link to a free copy.

  Introduction |  Siddhartha  |  Hinduism  |  Confucianism  |  Buddhism  |  Zen  |  Taoism