The Human Being in the Eye of the Hindu

How the Caste System Works in Hinduism

Prayer beads, a man meditating, Varanasi, India
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Ancient Hindu texts, particularly the Upanishads, perceived the individual self or "atman" as the immortal pure essence of each being. All human beings are positioned in the all-embracing "Brahman" or the Absolute, frequently linked with the cosmic dimensions of the universe.

Hindus have great devotion for the Brahman and their locus in the caste system and associated duties to God and society are inherent components of their existence and spiritual pursuit. Ultimately, all human beings are Divine and each being has the power of awareness, sacrifice, and adherence to the divine order. Thereby, Hindus, having the responsibility to actively represent their respective and God-given caste, community, and family, consciously attempt to uphold the purity of their eternal atman.

As a concluding text of the Vedas, the Upanishads incited intense philosophical speculation of religious and ritualistic practices and the universe. In these divine texts, God was defined one as Brahman (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad III.9.1.9). The concepts of atman and Brahman were differentiated through discussions between students and teachers and a particular deliberation between a father and his son. The atman was described as the supreme universal self and the deepest essence of each being while the overarching Brahman pervades the individual. The physical portion of the human being is conceptualized as the human body, a vulnerable vehicle within the ceaseless atman.

Duties According to Caste System

Carefully elaborated in the Vedas and principally produced in the Laws of Manu, the divinely ordained duties of human beings in accordance to the caste system or "varnashrama-dharma" were identified in fours distinct orders (varnas). In an ideological framework, the castes were defined as priests and teachers (Brahmin), rulers and warriors (Kshatriya), merchants, craftsmen, and farmers (Vaishyas), and servants (Shudras). The heart and very definition of the Hindu society is the varnashrama-dharma model, a balanced institution of substance welfare, education, moral or dharmic pursuits. Regardless of caste, all beings have the ability to move towards enlightenment by their life actions or karma and progression via cycles of rebirth (samsara). Every member of each caste is written in the Rig Veda to be a manifestation or derivative of the universe symbolized by the embodied human spirit Purusha:

The Brahmin was his mouth,
Of both his arms was the (Kshatriya) made.
His thighs became the Vaishya,
From his feet the Sudhra was produced.

As the longest epic poem in the world, Mahabharata depicts the actions of Hindu human beings in times of dharmic conflict in a power struggle between two groups of cousins. The incarnate Lord Krishna states that although he has absolute authority over the universe, human beings must perform the duties themselves and reap the benefits. Furthermore, in the ideal Hindu society, human beings ought to accept their "varna" and live life accordingly. Krishna's dialogue with the people of different varna in the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the Mahabharata, instructs self-realization and reaffirms "varnashrama-dharma". It describes the human body as a suit of clothes on the atman, for the atman merely inhabits the body and assumes a new one after the death of the first. The precious atman must be cleansed and maintained pure by abiding by regulations set forth in the Vedas.

A System of Dharma

The God of the Hindu tradition selected human beings, their own creations, to uphold a system of dharma and thus Hindu life. As a direct consequence, Hindus benefited from their obedience to such social order. Under the guidance of the Vedas, the creation of a prosperous society with members incited to act by the bounds of law, justice, virtuousness, and all-embracing dharma could achieve liberation. Human beings with spiritual guidance by direct prayer, readings of the Vedas, guru lectures, and familial observation, have a divine right to accomplish "moksha" or liberation.

The atman component of the being is part of the entire Brahman, the infinite cosmos. Thus, all abiding human beings are comprised of the atman self and are revered as Divine. Such definitions and position of the human being have led to the creation of the Hindu ideal of human rights. Those that become immensely impure and literally "untouchable" suffer from the worst abominations. Though the system of caste is constitutionally outlawed in modern India, its influence and seemingly perpetual practice have yet to disappear. However, with the Indian government's institution of "affirmative action" policy, caste will never cease to be a Hindu identifier.