Beginning with the Vedic writings, a number of key concepts have come to characterize Hinduism. These concepts make up Hinduism's world view and belief system.
A. An Ordered Society: The Caste System
As you have probably observed, a recurring theme in Hinduism is the idea that society has been divinely ordered. Traditionally, the ordering system in Hinduism is known as the caste system.According to Hinduism, the caste system is a reflection of sacred reality. One of the hymns of the Rig Veda describes how the gods created the world through the sacrifice of a primeval giant called Purusha. From the body of Purusha the gods fashioned the world and the various 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 [priestly caste], his arms were the Rajanaya [Ksatriya, warrior caste], his thighs the Vaisya [artisan caste]; from his feet the Shudra [servant caste] was born.
--- --- Rig Veda
The caste system is thus a reflection of sacred reality. It is inherent in the structure of creation and reflects the will of the gods.
According to Hindu beliefs, there are four castes (social groups or classes):
|Brahmin||priests and philosophers|
|Kshatriyas||nobility and warriors|
|Vaishyas||farmers and merchants|
Another group known as the "untouchables" is 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.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. This theme is reiterated in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana.
It should be noted, that originally the caste system seemed to be more flexible that what is described in the preceding paragraph. In earliest times, the castes may have been based on ability rather than birth; moreover, the Mahabharata contains more than one example of marriages between members of different castes. After about 700 CE the system started becoming more rigid as well as more complex. In fact, after 700 CE more than 3,000 distinct castes emerged in India.