How does the persistence of the caste system demonstrate its social utility?
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Read the section “The Caste System” in chapter 3, pgs. Answer the following questions. 1. Is the caste system conceivable without Brahmanism? 2. What were the advantages and disadvantages of the caste system? 3. How is the caste system a cultural adaptation? 4. How does the persistence of the caste system demonstrate its social utility? The Caste System The janapadas developed an interlocking social order based on ethnicity and occupation. As the Vedic peoples settled into northern India, their nomadic society became firmly defined by ritual position and occupational status. There were four varnas (“form, shape”; it can also mean “color”): the first three for priests, warriors, and commoners, and a fourth that included both servants and laborers. The origin of the varnas, according to the Rig-Veda, lay in the seminal sacrifice of the cosmic being Purusha [POO-roo-sha], which gave form to the universe: his mouth became the Brahmans, or priests; his arms became the kshatriyas [k(uh)-SHA-tree-yuhs]—kings and warriors; his two thighs the vaishyas [VIE-sh(ee)-yuhs], or merchants; and from his two feet came the shudra, or peasants, servants, and laborers. The newcomers’ task of establishing themselves as an elite class over the indigenous peoples meant that the system had to accommodate everyone, but with tight restrictions placed on social mobility. Thus, it appears that intermarriage was forbidden between the new elites and the dasas, the term used for non-Aryans, and the latter were incorporated into the peasant/laborer/servant varna. By the sixth century BCE divisions between Aryans and non-Aryans originally based on ethnicity or locale were giving way to ones based on occupation. An elaborate jati, or caste, system was already developing. Based on the original divisions of the four varnas, each caste included a huge number of subcastes according to hereditary occupations. A new category of “excluded” castes—the so-called untouchables (today called Dalits)—was added, comprising people whose occupations were considered ritually unclean. The excluded castes also came to include “outcastes,” people who for various offenses had “lost caste” and were therefore placed on the fringes of society. In what was perhaps a lingering vestige of early Vedic attempts at ethnic separation, stringent prohibitions were imposed on sexual relations between shudras and members of the castes within the first three varnas. Brahmans. At the top of the varna and caste system were the priestly class of Brahmans. Note the sacred thread worn diagonally across the chests of these Brahman men in this 1913 photo. The thread indicates their “twice-born” status. The evolving jati system expanded southward as the Ganges River states pushed farther into these areas. Eventually, it incorporated villages, clans, and sometimes even entire tribal groups into their own jatis. Though highly restrictive in terms of social mobility, these arrangements guaranteed a prescribed place for everyone in society. Moreover, the idea of movement between castes became part of Indian religious traditions through the doctrines of continual rebirth and the transmigration of souls. Thus, the Indian response to the problem of incorporating a multiplicity of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups into its expanding culture was to create a space in society for each, while ensuring stability by restricting social mobility and encouraging good behavior through the hope of a higher place in the next life. The fact that the system continues today despite its dissolution by the Indian government is testimony to its tenacious cultural roots and long-standing social utility.