I have reasons to believe that Caste system is more of a socio-economic phenomenon than part of the Dharma.
How castes were institutionalised
First we observe that CASTE system is found not only in India, but it is found throughout in South Asian countries deep rooted in the non-urban & tribal lives. In any village or tribal society, predating industrialisation, we see that individual’s identify comes with identifying with his clan or group.
For millennia, the whole social fabric was based upon co-operation with others in the pecking order. An individual’s first loyalty was with his immediate family and then with his clan, group.
Division of labour gave rise to hereditary jobs. The people who held jobs deemed to be particularly contaminating were stuck into these for generations and became outcasts. These included sweepers, leather workers and crematorium attendants. These developed into strict social orders, restricting upward social mobility.
Do Hindu religious scriptures allow caste system in Hinduism?
I can’t find any Hinduism scriptures where they have supported the caste system. The caste system survived in South Asia because of factors that ranged from the socio-economic to the ecological. It helped sustain and preserve balance among communities in a non-modern world.
Caste is not merely the decision to restrict or expand the marriageable pool; it is characterised by the language, customs, faith, cooking, clothing, moral values, region, and so many other things that create the intense ‘with-us vs against-us’ kind of sentiment that are the prime movers of the caste system.
I reason that for the CASTE SYSTEM TO BE SOLELY A HINDU LEGACY, other Indian religions like CHRISTIANITY & ISLAM must NOT practice it. However, I find that South Asians of ALL religions identify with caste system.
Casteism in Muslims of India
Muslims have it in a very elaborate and well defined form of Ashraaf and Ajlaaf. Ashrafs were the light-skinned Muslims who had come from Central Asia while the term Ajlaf was used for native converts who were generally darker skinned mostly from the lower Hindu castes. Largely , this term was reserved for converts to Islam from occupational castes such as Darzi (tailors), Hajjam or Nai (barber), Julaha (Weaver) , etc. Pakistani Biradri system is a social and ethnic segregation system still strong at the grass roots level in villages.
Castes in Christians of India
Christian converts in Kerala, Goa, UP, Punjab, Tamil Nadu who converted from Hindus has retained their Caste prejudices. Sikhs, even after Guru Gobind Singh abolished castes in 1699, have some Caste divisions although in a diluted form.
Dilution of casteism in Hindus
It is seen that when Hindus move away from the village and / or into other countries, their attachment to the caste system dissipates accordingly. Among urbanites, the likelihood of inter-caste marriages is more than non-urban societies. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that Non-Indian origin Hindus and Hindu converts don’t practice it.
Is caste based system fundamental of Hinduism?
I find that Hindus do not identify themselves with caste as a critical feature of their religion to follow. When questioned, the features of Hinduism that most Hindus identify as being of great relevance and importance to their spiritual practice is the Bhagavad Gita, Ashtanga yoga, Karma, Seva, Meditation, Bhakti, Ahimsa, Pluralism, Vedanta. None of which has something to do with caste.
The most fundamental Hindu scriptures do not speak of caste at all. In the Medieval period, many Hindu religious leaders, tried to give divine sanction to caste-based discrimination. But the reformists rose against it and so Casteism could not become the ethos of Hinduism.
The liberals and the western world denounce the caste system in theory. In practice, they all do it but camouflage it by attaching more neutral words like “community” to it.
The next time it is claimed that Hinduism is solely associated with caste, it is worth recalling that;
1- all South Asians practice caste,
2- Hindus themselves are less caste-oriented when they leave the villages and much less so when they join the religion by conversion, and
3- Hindu scriptures don’t associate with caste.
I believe that as the Indian society would move towards post-industrial stage, the economic progression will accelerate the processes that will bring caste-based discrimination to an end.
Khalid Umar lives in UK and describes himself as a secular humanist, supporting freedom of speech as a Universal Right.