Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Origin of Castes

Alice C. Linsley

The evils of the caste system are regularly expounded in contemporary writings. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper argued that Plato’s ideal state, with it three-tier structure, is totalitarian. Yet, as others have noted, Plato's ideal represents an improvement upon the rigid caste structure that characterized ancient societies. Plato suggested that some particularly gifted individuals should be trained to work outside of their caste. This was a radical idea for his time (BC 428-347).

The egalitarian nature of American society makes castes anathema. We react strongly to perceived or real limitations of our freedom of choice. On this matter we find agreement among such disparate groups as feminists, the National Rifle Association, gay activists, and libertarians.

Rarely do we consider the benefits of the caste system. It lent stability to ancient societies. The castes represented line of work: tanners, potters, metal workers, warriors, etc. Members of a caste were proud of the work they did and this pride extended to their family's heritage.  A young man stepped into the occupation of his father and the caste protected the occupation against intruders. This worked better than modern labor unions.

People knew their place in society. This is literally the case, since the cities of the ancient world reflected the social hierarchy and that hierarchy was reflected in the location of residences. Nobles, priests and temple staff lived more centrally. The lower castes, such as potters and tanners, lived on the edges or outskirts.

Caste identity provided a strong sense of duty. The Bhagavad Gita states, "By devotion to one's particular duty, everyone can attain perfection... By fulfilling the obligations he is born with, a person never comes to grief." (BG 18:44-48) This idea is found in Judaism also. Baba Batra wrote, "All appointments are from Heaven, even that of a janitor." (Talmud, Baba Batra 91b)

Members formed stable marriages with partners within their caste and received support from their kinsmen. The caste also lent job security similar to that provided by Medieval guilds and modern trade unions.

Castes as reflection of the heavenly hierarchy

As Mircea Eliade noted, ancient social structures and religious rituals are patterned on celestial archetypes. The ancient Horites believed that their ruler-priests were deified "sons" of God. They are often called "gods" (elohiym) as in Exodus 22:28:

"Thou shalt not revile the gods (elohiym),
nor curse the ruler of thy people."

In this view, rulers are appointed by God to restrain evil, to establish justice, and to reward those who do good. Not only do they act on God's behalf; they act as “gods” on earth, patterned upon the Horim (Judaism) or Houris (Islam) who comprise the divine council in heaven. This is evident in Psalm 82:1:

"Elohim has taken his place in the divine council
In the midst of the elohim he holds judgment."

The divine council is a central theological (and Christological) image in the Old and New Testaments. A later expression of the celestial hierarchy is the fascination with the ranks of angels. Often it is unclear in Biblical texts whether the writer has in mind deified rulers or angels. Consider, for example, how the terms "priests" and "angels" are interchanged in St. John's Apocalypse.

In the Rig Veda (c. 1000 B.C.) four castes are elaborated as the representation of the divine body.

When they divided the Supreme Being,
how many portions did they make?
What did they call his mouth? What his arms?
and what his thighs and his feet?

The Brahmin was his mouth, and
his arms were made the Kshatriya,
his thighs became the Vaisya, and
from his feet was the Sudra born.
(Rig Veda 10:90.11-12)

Paul likewise describes the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. His analogy of arms and legs, with Christ as the head, draws on ancient tradition. The Church is the Body of Christ, a new creation ushered in by the Messianic age. This body has many parts, but four in particular are named. In I Corinthians 12:27-30, Paul explains, “Now Christ’s body is yourselves, each of you with a part in the whole. And those whom God has appointed in the Church are…

First – apostles
Second – prophets
Third – teachers
Fourth – workers of miracles and so on

The caste system as it developed in India has five classes:

The ruler-priests or Brahmin caste performs Vedic rituals and provides guidance

The warrior-nobles or Kshatriya caste which protects society and keeps the peace

The merchant class or Vaishya caste which includes the landed families, farmers with large holdings, bankers, and merchants

The Sudra which includes artisans, peasants, servants and manual laborers

The Dalit or "untouchables" who the Aryans subjugated and forced to do the basest work.

The Sudra and Dalit are descendants of the Har-appan peoples who built the great temples of southern India with the falcon-shaped fire altars. In Vedic tradition the Shulba Sutras teach that "he who desires heaven is to construct a fire-altar in the form of a falcon." Har-Appa means "Horus is Father" in Dravidian, and the falcon was Horus' animal totem. Gandhi called the Dalits "Harijans" and Pakistani Dalits are called "Haris."

Tracing castes back to Africa

Evidence from linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and molecular genetic indicates an African point of origin. People in the ancient world were born into their caste and married within their caste. Among the Nilo-Saharans, one's occupation was determined by the caste to which one belonged and the caste members protected their trade secrets. The Biblical Kenites did their metal work outside the towns (I Sam. 15:6) where the artisans' secrets could be protected.

The protection of trade secrets and metal working prerogative is evident today among the Inadan smiths of Niger. When a Taureg overlord attempted to do metal work, an Inadan prerogative, the Inadan smiths launched a mock attack on his home to warn him against further attempts to make jewelry (See image below. Photo credit: Michael Kirtley).

Inadan metal worker attacks Taureg 's house with bellows
National Geography, Aug. 1979 (p. 289)

As many subcastes exist, it is difficult for a Hindu to know who is one’s equal or one superior. Many Hindus are concerned with who they may marry and with whom they may eat. Similar concerns are found among observant Jews.

Although the origin of castes is disputed, castes characterized ancient societies well before the Vedic Age (c. 1700-800 BC). One of the oldest known castes is that of the Hapiru or Habiru (Hebrew). This was a caste of priests and priest attendants who served at the water shrines and temples of the ancient world beginning as early as 4000 BC. They are sometimes called "O-piru" because they reveranced the Sun as the emblem of the Creator. The O in O-piru is a solar symbol.

Within this priest caste there emerged a cult devoted to Horus as early as 3500 BC at Nekhen in Sudan. These are called Horites. The Horites were a Proto-Saharan caste who later were found among the Kushites. The Kushite marriage and ascendancy structure speaks of the promised Son to whom God will deliver the eternal kingdom. Abraham's people were Horites. Even today Jews call their ancestors "Horim" which is a variant of "Horite."

While the term "caste system" is generally associated with the Vedic culture in India, this social organization can be traced back to neolithic Africa. Although not all lines of work were along caste lines, as John W. May has demonstrated, the Horite priesthood shows evidence of having been a caste in the strictest sense of the word. The Horites practiced endogamy whereby they preserved their bloodlines in anticipation of the coming of the Deified Ruler who would be born from one of their chaste Horite virgins.

In the Bible the Horites are associated with the Edomites (Genesis 36). Their ruler-priests (the ha'biru) were renown for a high standard of sexual purity and morality. Before their terms of priestly service they shaved their bodies and did not consume wine. Plutarch wrote that the “priests of the Sun at Heliopolis never carry wine into their temples, for they regard it as indecent for those who are devoted to the service of any god to indulge in the drinking of wine whilst they are under the immediate inspection of their Lord and King. The priests of the other deities are not so scrupulous in this respect, for they use it, though sparingly.”

The southernmost state of India, Tamil Nadu, is well known for its caste system. The languages spoken here are related to ancient Egyptian and Proto-Saharan languages. Genetic studies have linked the people to Africa rather than to Asia.

The distribution of deep-rooted Indian-specific Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial lineages suggests an initial settlement of modern humans in the subcontinent from the early out-of-Africa migration. Most of the extant mtDNA boundaries in south and southwest Asia were likely shaped during the initial settlement of Eurasia by anatomically modern humans. The genetic heritage of the earliest settlers persists both in Indian tribal and caste populations. Polarity and temporality of high-resolution y-chromosome distributions in India identify both indigenous and exogenous expansions and reveal minor genetic influence of Central Asian pastoralists. (From here.)

The Indian archeologist B. B. Lal's contends that the Dravidians came from Nubia and Upper Egypt. Lal writes: "At Timos the Indian team dug up several megalithic sites of ancient Nubians which bear an uncanny resemblance to the cemeteries of early Dravidians which are found all over Western India from Kathiawar to Cape Comorin. The intriguing similarity extends from the subterranean structure found near them. Even the earthenware ring-stands used by the Dravidians and Nubians to hold pots were identical." According to Lal, the Nubian megaliths date from around 1000 B.C." (From here.)

Herodotus referred to the Sudra as the “eastern Ethiopians” and described them thus: “The Eastern Ethiopians differed in nothing from the other Ethiopians, save in their language, and the character of their hair. For the Eastern Ethiopians have straight hair, while they of Libya are more woolly-haired…” (Herodotus VI.70, The History, trans. George Rawlinson, Dutton)

Related reading: The Low Castes that Live Among the HawiyyaEvidence of Castes in the Book of RuthAfrican Religion Predates Hinduism; A Tent for the Sun; The Afro-Asiatic DominionWine Use in Antiquity; The Hapiru Were Devotees of Horus; Religious Tradition; Stone Work of the Ancient World


Auriel Ragmon said...

"As many subcastes exist, it is difficult for a Hindu to know who is one’s equal or one superior. Many Hindus are concerned with who they may marry and with whom they may eat. Similar concerns are found among observant Jews."

One could add Old Ritualist Orthodox Christians, and possibly Old Order Amish to this mix.
I have a friend who is Old Rite and he had a little discussion with me once about going to a Mexican restauanat, since 'we aren't supposed to eat with other people'. We had a good meal together! I hope he didn't have to go to confession afterwards.

Rdr. James Morgan

Alice Linsley said...

That's interesting, James!

This puts Holy Communion and the great Wedding Feast at the eschaton in perspective, doesn't it. Partaking is to be part of the new order, the new creation in Jesus Christ.

Arimathean said...

The notion that one should be content with membership in the caste into which one was born is typical of Indian thinking. But they take it much further than that: They also believe one should remain content with the religion into which one was born. For a Hindu, the concept of religious conversion seems like rebellion against God, who chose the situation into which you would be (re)born, including your religion. That is why most Hindus who come to love and worship Jesus would never think of converting to Christianity.

Alice Linsley said...

Yet there are many Christians in India. My great grandparents founded a seminary and nurse training center there. That is where my paternal grandmother was born and lived until age 16.

R said...

According to Brahminical texts the social orders which form the caste system was created by the Hindu god Brahman. The arrival of these god group replaced the old gods of the Vedas;
Olders gods comprised (Indra, Agni, Dyaus, Mitra, Varuna...,) Indra also called Śakra, is lord of the gods, the First of the 33, the god of rain and thunderstorms.He wields a lightning thunderbolt and rides on a white elephant known as Airavata. His home is situated on Mount Meru in the heaven, is also the abode of Lord Brahma and the Demi-gods.

Brahma in the Kūrma Purāṇa, in 1.6 Brahman is worshipped as Trimurti; ‘three forms’ comprising Brahma Vishnu and Shiva or "Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara." These three gods have been called "the Hindu triad"or the "Great Trinity". Barhma is depicted holding a sceptre, a book, also holds a string of prayer beads called the 'akṣamālā' (literally "garland of eyes")

The functions and character of some of the Indian gods are identical to those of ancient Greece, Romans Egyptians and those that are recorded on the Sumerian clay tablets.

Caste, like the class system appear to have a similar origin. In the old testament the Hebrews are classified by clans, Numbers1:1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai ... He said: 2 “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families”. Anthropologist who did a study of African societies at the beginning of the last century found that Most African societies were organised around clans and the status of any individual was set by age. Order and social protocol was organised around age-sets; hence status of any one person increased by age and not by profession or material acquisition.

Class and Caste system are discrimination ideas and often aspire to eradicate the humane nature of those at the bottom. In all the states of India, the lower-castes constitute majority in terms of population. The two social system organise a subset of people to abuse another, to exclude a large fraction of the populace from economic participation. It is likely that this initial set-up of the caste system was to organise the society to function in a harmonious way and may have been subverted along the way; in any case many evils morph from good intentions.
Class-Caste-Cartel: organise to create barriers and enforce negative exploitation.

A new genetic study says India's caste system, may have been firmly entrenched about 2,000 years ago. The study was carried out by Harvard Medical School and the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. The study adds that people from different genetic populations began to mix with each other about 4,200 years ago but that the mixing stopped about 2,000 years ago. Question? What happened 2000 years ago elsewhere, i.e. events in the Christian Calender.

Mahatma Gandhi spent much of his life working to bring the Untouchables equality. It was Gandhi who first named the Untouchables "Harijans," meaning "children of God." -THE EMPIRE'S AGE AND SCOPE.