Hinduism: Social Structure | 8


Social Structure

The social organization of the Hindu tradition can be discussed in many ways. The word “Hindu” was not commonly used to describe people’s identity in India until the 19th century.

A person’s social class (varṇa, literally “colour”), subgroup or caste, sectarian community, philosophical group, and linguistic community contribute to creating the sense of “self” within the Hindu tradition.

There are many communities within Hinduism, and many of them have their own chains of leaders. In addition to these communities, there are charismatic teachers (gurus) who command large followings around the world.

Sometimes clan groups (gotra, literally “cowpen”) and the region of origin also figure in the organization of Hindus. In diaspora communities Hindus tend to congregate along linguistic lines.

The word “caste” (derived from a Portuguese word meaning “a division in society”) is used as a shorthand term to refer to thousands of stratified and circumscribed social communities that have multiplied through the centuries.

Caste” has sometimes been used to mean Varṇa (class) and other times to mean Jāti (birth group).

The beginnings of the caste system are seen in the “Hymn to the Supreme Person” in the Rig Veda, with its enumeration of 4 classes, or Varṇa:

priestly (Brahman), ruling (Kṣatriya), mercantile (Vaiśya), and servant (Śūdra) classes.

From the simple fourfold structure eventually arose a plethora of social and occupational divisions:

The texts on dharma specify the names of various sub-castes that come from marriages between the various classes. Ritual practices, dietary rules, and sometimes dialects differ between the castes.

Although the Vedas spoke of four major social divisions (varṇas), most Hindus historically have identified themselves as belonging to a specific birth group, or jāti:

In many parts of India the word jāti may be translated as caste or community, but the numerous jātis do not neatly fit into the 4-fold caste system. There are several hundred jātis in India.

It has been a matter of controversy whether a person is born into a caste or whether caste could be decided by a person’s qualities and propensities:

Although there have been many arguments in favour of the latter concept, the idea of birth group gained hold in India, and now a person’s caste in India is determined at birth.

Caste is only one of the many factors in social hierarchies; age, gender, economic class, and even a person’s piety figure in the equation. At various times the hierarchies were reversed by exalting “lower”-caste devotees, but they were seldom discarded.

Contrary to popular perceptions, there was, historically, a great deal of caste mobility in India. This was particularly true in the case of warriors:

Kings and warriors (kṣatriyas) generally traced their ancestry to either the lineage of the sun (sūrya vaṁśa) or the lineage of the Moon (Chandra vaṁśa), both of which go back to the primeval progenitors of humanity.

This harking back to the right genealogies was even done in places such as Cambodia and Java, where there were Hindu rulers.

These are classic instances of the ruling class seeking legitimacy by invoking divine antecedents; even usurpers of thrones eventually began to trace their ancestries thus.

In the Hindu tradition, both then and now, lines of claimed biological descent are all important:

The Kṣatriya (“royal” or “warrior”) families held the power of rulership and governance, and rituals of later Hinduism explicitly emphasized their connection with divine beings.

Outside the circuit of the castes, there are many other groups collectively called “out-caste” in English:

These resulted either from mixed marriages or, more often, from association with professions deemed inferior. Such occupations included working with animal hides and dealing with corpses, because dead animal or human flesh is considered polluting.

While texts and practices clearly imply hierarchy within the castes, some Hindus have interpreted the castes as a division of labour, with each caste being responsible for a particular function in society:

This concept may have been predominant historically in the practice of social divisions in Hindu communities of Cambodia:

From inscriptional evidence it seems probable that Cambodian kings awarded castes and caste names to groups of people or even to an entire village.

These names suggest ritual functions in the palace or connections with work, and in Southeast Asia the caste system seems not to be based on birth groups.

Sectarian divisions cut across caste lines and form a different template for social divisions:

Some Hindu groups are divided along lines of which God they worship; the followers of Vishnu are called Vaishnavas, Shiva’s devotees are called Śaivas, and so on.

Members of sectarian communities and castes tend to be endogamous. In addition to caste and sectarian affiliation, philosophical communities have formed social divisions in many parts of India.

There is no single teacher or religious leader who speaks for all Hindus, nor are there neatly arranged denominations or groups. There are thousands of communities and groups, each with multiple leaders.

There are several kinds of teachers in the Hindu tradition:

A religious teacher within the many sectarian Hindu communities may be called Āchārya or Guru.

Usually, the term Āchārya designates any formal head of a monastery, sect, or sub-community—a teacher who comes in a long line of successive leaders. Some of the more enduring lines of Āchārya succession can be seen in the communities that follow a noted theologian:

The followers of teachers such as Shankara (8th century), Rāmānuja (11th century), Mādhva (13th century), Chaitanya (15th century), and Swaminarayan (19th century) have long, unbroken chains of teachers.

The philosophical traditions founded by Rāmānuja and Chaitanya, among others, venerate the religious teacher almost as much as the deity they worship. In their pious writings the living, human teacher is seen to be more important than God.

Absolute surrender to the teacher is said to be a path to liberation.

In addition to these, there have been thousands of ascetics—women and men possessed by a god or spirit—who have been revered.

There have been mediums, storytellers, and sadhus (holy men) who have participated in the religious leadership of the Hindu traditions. These leaders have commanded anything from veneration to absolute obedience.

Any charismatic leader may be known by his followers as guru (teacher) or swami (master).

Some followers consider their teachers to be an avatar (incarnation) of the Supreme Being on Earth.

Others consider these teachers to be spiritual masters who are highly evolved souls—that is, beings who have ascended above the cares of human life to a state of self-realization or perfection.

In the late 20th century the Internet became an important tool of communication for Hindus:

Devotees of various traditional teachers or gurus or followers of a particular community organize cyber-communities for discussions on their teachings:

These Hindu communities have been enormously successful, mobilizing and connecting people from around the globe. Teachers from India regularly address these devotees by what are called tele-upanyasam, or tele-sermons.

I would conclude here, that the social stratification to Varṇas (Castes) in India is a great historical evil, inequality and injustice, the main reason large parts of society have converted to Islam or Sikhi.

Of course, modern European white Hindus most usually don’t consider too seriously this aspect of Hinduism as something too far away from their ordinary lives,

or maybe they have heard some very idealistic “explanations” about the “great ideal” of the future “Varṇāśrama” society, when everything would be put “correctly”...

But I would remind them about some tribes of Ancient Greeks – who one day migrated to India and were made the Mlecchas, the Untouchables and Śūdras.

Inequality can never be something good and it should be finished, it is my view. And when some Indian friends tell me – but social stratification happens quite naturally in the West too; - I say – yes, and we have to fight it in the West too;