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III. Essential Concepts in the Vedas

A. The Caste System

According to Hindu beliefs, there are four castes (social groups or classes):

Brahmin

priests and philosophers

Kshatriyas

nobility and warriors

Vaishyas

farmers and merchants

Shudras

manual laborers

Another group known as the "untouchables" are virtually outside the caste system altogether.

These castes are hereditary; there is no way to move from one caste to another, nor can on marry outside of one's caste. Within each of these four groups there are thousands of subgroups.

 According to Hinduism, the caste system is a reflection of sacred reality. When the gods sacrificed and divided the body of Purusha, different parts of its body were fashioned into the various parts of creation including the four castes: 

When they divided Purusha, how many ways did they apportion him? What was his mouth? What were his arms? What were his thighs, his feet declared to be? His mouth was the Brahman [caste], his arms were the Rajanaya [Ksatriya, warrior caste], his thighs the Vaisya [artisan caste]; from his feet the Sudra [servant caste] was born. 

Rig Veda

Click Here to see how the body of Purusha corresponds to creation. 

The caste system thus is a reflection of sacred reality. It is inherent in the structure of creation and reflects the will of the gods. 

 The castes are much more than social or economic classes. Since there are specific duties and responsibilities associated with each caste, the caste determines what its member should do. These social responsibilities are detailed in the Code of Manu which was compiled around 100 CE. One's moral and ethical duty (dharma) is  to be content with one's situation and to fulfill the responsibilities associated with one's caste. 

 

B. The Profound Unity of the Cosmos
As noted above, the Upanishads are the latest, most philosophical part of the Vedas. One of the main concerns of the Upanishads is the nature of the individual's soul and its relation to the universe.  Basically, the Upanishads demonstrate that the individual soul (the atman) is essentially identical with the universal soul, the Brahman. Although stopping short of claiming absolute unity, the Upanishads argue the the atman emanates from the Brahman, and thus the two share the same nature. Consequently, one may look within in order to discover the great soul of the universe. 

C. Reincarnation, samsara and moksha.

The three ideas are closely related in Hindu thought.

Reincarnation: After death, one's soul is reborn - not always in human form. What determines the status of one's rebirth is the law of karma. Karma is basically the universal law of cause and effect. Every action plants a seed that will sooner or later grow into a positive or negative consequence, depending on the intention of the individual when the action was committed.

 Note that the good or bad karma may not make itself known in a single lifetime. Hinduism, believes that the soul is born time after time. This ongoing cycle of birth-death-rebirth is called samsara.

The goal of Hinduism is for the believer to attain moksha. Moksha is liberation from the ongoing cycle of birth-life-death and rebirth. Through the accumulation of enough good karma (through a variety of means) the individual is absorbed into the eternal (Brahman) and freed from rebirth.

 

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