Why is that humans were able to practically “take over” their environment and leave all other animal species far behind in the race of survival? Not many would argue that we were able to do so just because we can walk upright and we have unspecialized teeth. In fact, humans are capable of many things that separate us from the animals. Our far most important trait is the ability to analyze and comprehend complex subject matters. From that we can learn, understand and communicate with one another so we could accomplish things as a group, a group which one day became so complex that without structure and laws, chaos would preside. In our times, we see many distinct cultures where each has its own way of organizing and way of keeping its people in harmony. Although most of the world is leaning towards democracy, there are few nations who believe in the ancient ways. One of the most controversial civilizations studied is the Indian civilization, which developed and flourished as early as 7000 B.C.E. The controversy rises from a harsh though well-thought classification of people due to their skin color and other physical characteristics. To democratic America this may sound a bit horrifying although some even argue that the United States maintains some sort of a caste system perhaps even as harsh as the one in India. This idea can surely be proven wrong through a close comparison of the Indian social structure and the American freedom. A false conclusion should not be made that there is no sort of a caste system in America, but one that is not as rigid nor providing social importance as the one in Ancient Indian culture.
The way a culture develops and evolves plays a major role of how the system would stand. As explained later, there are few theories of how and why a caste system is created, but all studied caste systems have common foundations. One common issue is that there are physical differences between each caste whether they associate with the way a person can perform activities or not. However, a major difference is how the separate classes serve and correlate with one another. Manu, one of the earliest rulers of India, wrote a description of the Indian social structure. The Law of Manu consists of a brief explanation of what are the objectives and duties of each Indian class, also know as Varna. Even though the lower castes were involved in more physical obligations, it clearly shows that the upper classes were also involved in someway of serving the lower classes:
Teaching, studying performing sacrificial rites, so too making others perform sacrificial rites, and giving away and receiving gifts- these he assigned to the Brahmins.
Protection of the people, giving away of wealth, performance of sacrificial rites, study, and nonattachment to sensual pleasures- these are, in short, are the duties of the kshatriya.
Tending to cattle, giving away of wealth, performance of sacrificial rites, study, trade and commerce, usury, and agriculture- these are the occupations of the Vaisya.
The lord has prescribed only one occupation karma for a Sudra, namely, service without malice of even these other three classes.
Within the Indian culture, there is a great level of interaction between the different classes, unlike in the early United States, where Americans imported an entire society and forced them to serve as their lower class. The slaves were treated with unbearable conditions, which made them develop hate and the need to revolt. The aftermath of the civil war included the abolishment of slavery though racism still plays a major role. Just the fact that there was a need for a revolution shows how negatively based the American system became. Lower classes wanted to climb the social ladder and are now able to do so.
In Indian societies the movement up the hierarchy is not as simple as getting your education and working a good job. In fact, the concept of changing one’s Varna during his lifetime was unheard of. In order to “get bumped up” the Indians had to follow the
Dharma which is described as “a law regulating human behavior and imposes different requirements on different individual depending on their status in society.” Living by the Dharma creates good Kharma, which is measured with death. Good Kharma could be vaguely compared to money, not in a sense of buying materialistic objects, but in a sense of gaining in order to have a better life. If the good Kharma had been obtained through the person’s life, he would have the opportunity to reincarnate and achieve higher status in the next lifetime. This is also a reason why Indians seem to live and accept their status since they have the constant belief that things would be better after death. Revolting, would just create bad Kharma and “ruin” the person’s future life. The degree of Social mobility, as Vijai Singh points out, is inversely related to the extent of the association between status of parents and status of children. Because of the strong relation of one’s class to his parents, social mobility is very difficult to achieve. In contrast, in the United States, there are many institutions, which help lower class people (those with low financial means) to break the patterns of their parents, receive an education, and obtain a career, which would grant them a brighter future. When comparing how rigid different social structures are, we must examine how easy it is to achieve mobility between the classes. There are two perspectives when examining social mobility; as a society, the progress towards perfect social mobility, would eventually eliminate the caste structure. As an individual, the advance towards social mobility comes with the accepting of the existence of the individual’s place in the caste system. Political movements toward social mobility in the United States show how the caste system is becoming more and more malleable as time goes by. Unlike other ancient societies, India’s Caste System did not change much through the years. A cause could be in the human’s nature of the need for belonging to a whole.
There are two main approaches that could break the firmness of a social structure. One comes from outside the system by enculturation, and attacks the un-fairness of the structure with compare to other ones. A second approach could be made by the lower classes demanding for better conditions. In India, there seems to be a form of harmony and peace within the lower classes. The “Herd Theory” explains this phenomenon by going back to the nature of human behavior. As other animals, people seem to think that a great form of self-defense is associating with ones who seem share common characteristics. By belonging to a “herd” one’s opinion is backed up by others and seem to have greater impact. If one were to leave the group, he would feel lonely, powerless and more vulnerable. A caste system cannot be more rigid than the one that its own people are happy with. In the United States, which is also known as the “Salad Bowl”, there are so many separate groups where one does not have much to loose when trying to make a change. The more diverse a society is, the more different opinions it contains, and the harder it is for people relate to one main group. If a person steps out of his group to voice his opinion, many others would follow him and create a new subgroup. This new group would shake the structure by offsetting the position on the ladder of other groups.
A lack of diversity keeps a structure solid. Although there are differences between the castes, there is still a sense of nationalism and belonging to a culture, not just a caste. In the U.S., Non-Americans have a hard time adapting a sense of belonging to a whole and therefore feel insecure. Also lack of diversity creates less of a difference between the body of religion and the body of law. In many societies, there are times where the following of religion interferes in with the way of the law. Perhaps a radical example, human sacrifice is still practiced by few religions. If it were not for the prohibition of performing such acts, maybe those religions would be more accepted and popular within contemporary societies. The incorporation of law and religion makes a system much less complex, therefore more rigid. In India, there is a major integration of both law and religion. However, it seems as though religion comes first, in the supporting of the caste system. Louis Dumont suggests in his book that the caste system was developed as a result of the corruption of the Brahmins. He says that the “philosophy of enlightenment, ‘superstition’ was an invention of the priests, for their own benefit.” This theory supports their strong belief in religion. The people of the lower castes were so ‘religiously nave’ that thoughts of corruption in this religious class were non-existent. This strong belief in religion is perhaps the backbone of the strong Indian social structure.
Although similarities between the American and the Indian Caste systems exist, an important difference emerges due to the antiquity of the system. Because of how comparably new the American system is, it is therefore more flexible and modern. The Indian structure is so old, that it’s laws seem to be carved in stone. Movement from strict adherence of religion towards objective thinking is directly caused by the development of science and technology. However, emphasis on tradition kept the Indian system in tact. From the American point of view, the Indian caste system could serve as a goal to strive for, or something it should avoid. Both views prove how rigid the Indian caste system is. If seen as a goal, it would take many years, as it took for the Indians, to develop such strict system. In contrast, if it were seen as something to avoid, then the American system would surely stray from such rigid laws and behaviors.
It is known to be a part of human’s nature to strive for superiority and power. But we should not think that this superiority would always lead to greed and corruption. From the Indian system we learn that the direct effects of outlining the requirements and power of people are peace, order, and the triumph of a unique culture. What emerged from the early Hinduism and Buddhism stays with us today. The way the Indians accept the terms and conditions already given to them is remarkable and perhaps the main reason why the Indian culture has been so successful over thousands of years. Their wants needs, and duties are outlined through a complex interaction of religion and law, but ironically they just seem to be happy with whatever they have. In America, the fact that there is such an option of creating a better life already depicts a significant difference from the Indian social structure. Freedom of making decisions is considered a basic need for an individual, but it may promote the deterioration of a strong structure. While racism still plays a major role in the American way, many Americans are fighting in order to abolish it and many changes have been introduced during that last century. Such movements are not seen in India as often since the construction of its society has little to do with money and power. It is strongly based on tradition, religion and the aspiration of living a better life in the afterworld.
Duiker, William J. and Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History Volume 1: To 1800,3rd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001
Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay On the Caste System. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970
Parenti, Michael, Power and the Powerless. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978
Singer, Milton and Bernard S. Cohn, Structure and Change in Indian Society. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1968
Strauss, Anselm L. The Contexts of Social Mobility. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1971
Vijai P. Singh. Caste, class and democracy: Changes in Stratification System. Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1976