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The Caste System
Transcript of The Caste System
Tracking Down the Origins of the Caste system
Since ancient times, travelers from Greece, China and Persia have long noticed a social stratification in the indigenous society. However, there is no empirical proof of its origins. The Indian subcontinent has been politically active for more than 5000 years because of its topographic strengths: Himalayas protecting from the north and the ocean protecting the harbors. Thus, much of its history is lost in time. The only answers lie in folklore and genetic studies. However, folklore is not reliable as much of it is biased and changed over time.
In 2001, a genetic study led by Michael Bamshad concluded that genetic affinity to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank; the more the genes resembled Europeans, the higher their castes were. This led researchers to believe that when Indo-Europeans entered India and took over the proto-Dravidian speaking population, they may have established a caste system and put themselves in higher castes. This theory is likely the most correct since the caste system also has roots in Hinduism, a religion that the Indo-Europeans added to.
Then, a study conducted in 2006 led by Ismail Thanseem concluded that a prototypical version of the caste system had already existed before the Indo-Aryan invaders. They believe that these social divisions may have arose within the tribal groups of Neolithic agriculturalists.
Thus, there is no surefire way to pinpointing the exact origins of the caste
system, but it is safe to assume that it had originated and continued to
along with Hinduism. So, to track the origin of the caste system
we need to look at the history of Hinduism.
We know that the caste system arose as a part of Hinduism, but where did Hinduism itself originate from? Perhaps the oldest major religion in the world, Hinduism is unique among its contemporaries in that it has no single founder. It is believed to be originated among proto-Dravidian agriculturalists, and then mixed with beliefs brought in by Aryan-speaking Indo-European invaders from the North. Excavations in the Indian subcontinent reveal that a prototypical version of Hinduism existed during the Indus Valley Civilization.
Indus Valley Civilization
Through the different sections of Indian history, from the early periods throughout the Persian/Greek conquests, Maurya and Mughal empires, colonial era and the British Raj, the caste system has survived in India as an important part of Hinduism. For example, Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador during the Maurya period, wrote of the Indian society being divided into social levels that parallel the caste system.
The caste system is a way of organizing people in Hindu society into hierarchical groups called “castes,” namely Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. People can only be born into a certain caste - and since people can only marry within their own caste, they pass their caste on to their children. Each caste has specific occupations, religious status and margins of social interaction. Traditionally, it was believed that people of higher castes were more spiritually pure. As a result, people of higher, purer castes prevent interaction with lower, impure castes to avoid polluting their spirituality.
The Brahmins occupy the highest rank among the castes. Known as the priestly class, Brahmins take on the professions of being religious scholars, warriors and business people. They are the most spirituality pure.
The next caste under the Brahmins are the Kshatriyas. Traditionally, they have been known to be the ruling and military elite of the ancient Hindu social system. They were in charge of protecting the society during wartime and ruling during peacetime.
The third group, the Vaishyas, are the merchants. They were assigned roles in agriculture and eventually became landowners, traders and money-lenders.
The Shudras are the lowest in the caste system. They are the laborers, artisans and servants. They are the subservient class.
There is another group of people who are excluded altogether from the four castes. They are the dalits, or the “untouchables.” They have been historically associated with “impure” occupations such as leatherwork, butchering, sewage removal and washing corpses. This pollution was believed to be contagious, so Dalits were removed from Hindu society and could not even enter temples and schools. They were even forced to live outside the villages.
The concept of the caste system is deeply connected with Indian philosophy. In Indian philosophy, it is believed that life is full of suffering and there is nothing we can do about it. (So, if you were born in the lowest caste, or as a Dalit, there was nothing you could do about it, except live with it.) The best one can hope for is to be released from worldly existence through karma. Karma is the belief that what one does in the present will affect him in the future. According to the Vedas, if you do enough good in your current life, you will be born again to a higher caste. In this way, mistreatment of the lower castes was justified because it was believed that they had been bad people in their past life. In fact, one of the main reasons the Buddha felt the need to change Hindu beliefs and establish his own philosophy is because he defied the caste system.
The first time the caste system appears in Hindu scriptures is in the oldest Veda, the RigVeda, Vedas are a body of texts containing hymns or verses that talk about mythology of the deities. In the Rigveda, a story is told of when the first man, Purusa, was sacrificed in order to give rise to the four varnas, which would later go on to become the four castes.
“The Brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the Rajanya [Kshatriya, king and warrior], his two thighs [loins] the Vaishya, from his feet the Sudra [servile class] was born.”
However, even though the Rigveda is believed to have been composed around 1500-1200 BC, it is important to remember that the oral traditions had been passed down for much longer than that, meaning the caste system existed before the Vedas were written down.
The Indus Valley Civilization is one of the oldest known civilizations, believed to have been existed from 3300 BC. Settled around the Indus River, the people of this civilization were the first to build houses from bricks, paved streets, and a sewage system. Surplus in food allowed its population to grow up to a million!
Not much else is known, however, but it is safe to assume that the caste system had its roots here. Many artifacts and excavation sites support the theory that people of this civilization were the forerunners of Hinduism and the caste system,
Some terracotta female figures have been found with red hair applied to the partition of their hair. This practice is an exclusively Hindu tradition that is still observed today.
Seals and Symbols
Seals have been found with figures sitting in a yoga-like pose. This figure, called Pashupati, has a resemblance to the Hindu god, Shiva. Also, some seals show the swastika, a Hindu symbol and a Shiva lingam, a symbol that represents the Hindu god Shiva.
Discovered cemeteries show that people in the Indus Valley Civilization cremated their dead and put the ashes in burial urns, a Hindu tradition that still lives.
Homes discovered from the Indus Valley Civilization have been noted for their egalitarianism; they were the same size and everyone had the same facilities. There is no proof to support that a single ruler existed. Thus, it is likely that the only social system that existed was a religious one, possible the caste system. The residential units were bigger than other buildings, because people stressed kin relationships. Kin relationships a major aspect in the caste system. Lastly, since everyone had access to water and sanitation systems, it shows how much importance they gave to “purity,” which is another big thing in the caste system.
As Hinduism spread East with traders and migrations of people, so did the caste system. For example, the Indonesian population is observed to be divided into four groups that were almost identical to the four varnas. Also, Indian communities of other religions who had converted from Hinduism retained their caste identities, such as Muslim Indians and Sikhs. As a result, the caste system continues to influence not only the society and economy of India, but also of the neighboring countries as well.
The caste system has been a defining characteristic of the Indian society since time. For example, lower castes like the untouchables find themselves out casted and degraded by the rest of society and unable to educate themselves or improve their status. Even though “untouchability” is outlawed today in India, prejudice against them still exists. Many people say that it is the reason that Indian economy cannot change, as it divides everyone and perpetuates the poverty problem - Dalits are believed to take up much of the slum population.
The caste system is also connected to the “colourism” that is so prevalent in India today. “Varna” literally means “color,” and the highest castes are depicted as the “whitest” while the lowest caste is “black.” Lighter-skinned Aryan invaders who used the caste system to put themselves above the rest of society and as a result, lighter skin is associated with high status and purity. Dark-skinned people, the Dravidians, were put below and today, dark skin is associated with impurity and low societal status. For example, in India’s movie industry, the protagonists almost always possess European-looking features, while antagonists are dark-skinned. Thus, people who have high status but dark skin still suffer an inferiority complex. This phenomena is especially common among women and skin-lightening creams make up a multi-million industry in India.
There have been many reforms that seek to abolish the caste system, or at least “untouchability” among the Dalits. A prominent opponent of the caste system is Mohandas Ghandi, who protested against the caste system in the 1920s (among other things). Overtime, the caste system lost its prevalence in urban communities and in 1997, India had its first Dalit president. However, the caste system continues to be strictly observed in rural communities.
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