Urban India is mostly atheist

Hinduism and the caste system in India

Table of Contents

List of figures and tables

1 Introduction and objectives
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Objective

2 Hinduism and the caste system
2.1 Basics and meaning of Hinduism in India
2.2 Origin, characteristics and effects of the caste system
2.2.1 Origin of the caste system
2.2.2 Characteristics of the caste system
2.2.3 caste in social life
2.2.4 Discrimination using the example of the untouchables

3 Hinduism and casteism barriers to economic development
3.1 In agriculture
3.2 In industry
3.3 In the service sector
3.3.1 In the informal sector

4 approaches to changing the caste system and the traditional social structure
4.1 Reform and resistance
4.2 Social advancement and caste system

5 Hinduism, the caste system, and the future of India


1 Introduction and objectives

1.1 Introduction

India ranks seventh with an area of ​​3,287,263 km2 and second among the countries in the world with a population of over a billion. It is rich in culture and tradition, but also in contradictions and contradictions, which both make up its fascination and are the cause of many problems. Developments since the Age of Discovery have also made a significant contribution to this.

India owes its present form to the British colonial rulers. When Queen Elizabeth I granted the East India Company the monopoly for trade with India in 1600, the economic and military development of the country and its resources, as well as their exploitation, began. This development culminated in Queen Victoria assuming the title of "Empress of India" in 1877 and India becoming the most valuable possession of the British colonial and global empire, mainly thanks to its high level of cultural development. After lengthy and difficult negotiations, during which the prerequisites for the establishment of a stable parliamentary democracy were laid, but serious problems remained unsolved, Great Britain granted India independence in 1947. Today the state is "[...] the largest democracy in the world [...] although almost all the conditions that modern political research assumes as a prerequisite for democracy actually speak against it" (Wehling 1998, p. 1).

India, that means poverty of the masses and wealth of a small minority, agricultural country and industrial nation in need of reform, drought disasters and Green revolution, tropical rainforest and glaciated mountain regions, gods and bureaucracy, old palaces and new slums. No other country unites tradition and progress so sustainably, nowhere are past and present so close together. In its typical form, it shows historical, political, social, geographical and economic characteristics and problems of developing countries. The great divergences, especially in technical and economic, but especially in socio-cultural matters, make it a developing country par excellence.

By its very nature, India represents a real reservoir of languages, peoples and cultures. It is not just a nation, but rather a conglomerate of many different communities with their own cultural assets, historical characteristics and traditions.

The religious diversity on the subcontinent is also considerable and, in addition to Hinduism as the main religion, there are a large number of other religious communities. B. Sikhs, Jains, (neo-) Buddhists, Christians and Parsis. What is unique among all countries in the world, however, is that, in addition to this heterogeneity, the population of India is separated into caste and caste-like groups, which to this day largely include social behavior, marital partner choice, friendships and relationships, professional career and social status determine every Hindu. (see Bronger 1996, p. 25)

But it is precisely this rigid and traditionally afflicted caste system that has been the subject of controversy in India for decades. The revised and partially reformulated Indian constitution of 1950 officially abolishes the caste system, but there are regular reports in the press that complain about the presence of caste, caste thinking and caste behavior. Accordingly, the Indian constitution as the basis for a democracy, which, as we understand it, establishes general human rights, reaches its limits with regard to the caste system.

A more detailed analysis of today's caste system shows that this rigid social order system is still intact, especially in rural areas, with statistically marginal exceptions. However, the age of urbanization and globalization requires India to be able to adapt flexibly to the changed conditions. Modern standards such as For example, the division of labor in the manufacturing sector and the use of new technologies in the service sector require a change in awareness of the individual and an adjustment of the caste system, i.e. the solution to the many shackles of traditional social systems as a whole. For some time now, new socio-economic structures have emerged in the metropolitan and urban development poles of the country, which are subject to a dynamic development process, override the barriers of the rigid caste system and lead to new social patterns and stratifications. Such massive changes also require an accompanying legal basis. (see Basting / Hoffmann 2004, p. 46)

1.2 Objective

The aim of the present work is to analyze the effects of Hinduism and the caste system in India then and now and in particular to highlight the resulting obstacles to development in the country from a geographical point of view. This results in the thematization of the following thematic priorities:

- Presentation of the basics and meaning of Hinduism and the caste system in India
- Description of the main features of the emergence of the caste system
- Explanation of the main characteristics of the caste system
- Importance and position of caste in social life
- Effects of discrimination using the example of the untouchables
- Describing the barriers of Hinduism and the caste system to economic development using examples:

a) in agriculture
b) in industry
c) in the service sector

- Approaches to changing the caste system and the traditional one

Social structure in India

- Develop reform and resistance in India
- Opportunities for social advancement and opportunities for the caste system
- Hinduism and casteism and their significance for further development


Accordingly, the function of the caste system in the course of cultural and global changes should be emphasized in this work and the areas of social, economic and political development should be considered.

2 Hinduism and the caste system

This chapter aims to introduce both Hinduism and the caste system. These basics serve for a better understanding of the Indian religious and social structure and are of great importance for the subsequent chapters.

“The caste [...] is the most characteristic feature that the Indian culture has produced; Hinduism, less religion than socio-cultural system, finds form and expression in the caste system ”(Bronger 1996, p. 109).

The word we use today caste (from Latin castus = chaste) is of Spanish and Portuguese origin: Casta means something not miscellaneous. The word initially seems to have been used by the Spaniards in the sense of race, before the Portuguese probably only used it in the middle of the 15th century for something that seems strange, unique and unmistakable to someone coming from outside. They tried to use the term to describe the social system in India. (cf. Dumont 1966, p. 39)

2.1 Basics and meaning of Hinduism in India

Hinduism is probably the oldest of the major religions and with around 900 million followers (including around 825 million in India) it is the third largest religion in the world (after Christianity and Islam). In addition, it represents the most diverse religious structure known to date. The basis of Hinduism is mainly those between 1500 and 800 BC. Vedas (Veda = sacred knowledge) originated in the 4th century BC. These include hymns to the gods, offerings, ritual instructions, magic texts and incantations. As the completion of the Vedic culture of writing, the Upanishads are seen between 800 and 600 BC. Viewed. These are no longer of great importance for living religiosity today. Most Hindus follow the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (both 300 BC - 300 AD), which are also Vedic scriptures, in their spiritual ideas and cult rites.

The word Hindu is from the Sanskrit word Sindhu derived, which comes from Persian and denotes the people in the land of the Indus river, the indigenous people of India. So, according to the original meaning of the word, Hindus are Indian. (cf. v. Stietencron 2001, p. 7-8) According to Rothermund (1995, p. 144), a Hindu is therefore not a follower of a certain religion, [...], rather he is a follower of any (any) Religion of Indian origin.

Traditionally, one can only be born into Hinduism. “Consequently one is Hindu and cannot become one; in the same way, one remains a Hindu, even if one wanted to stop being one ”(Schreiner 1999, p. 10). From cradle to grave, the life of a Hindu is linked to the performance of certain rites. Fasting and mortification, daily or regular vows and meditation all serve to create good karma[1] to reach.

The term Hinduism gives the impression that this is a single religion, comparable to Islam, Christianity and so on. But so-called Hinduism is made up of many different directions, so that one can speak of a “collective of religions” (www.uni-marburg.de). These religions do not go back to any common founder. They do not have a common doctrine, have many different scriptures, and do not have a common religious center. In addition, you do not share the belief in one or more deities, but there are supposedly around 330,000 gods to choose from. Everyone is free to believe what they want and to worship whoever they want. (cf. Bronger 1996, p. 36) The deity can have many forms, names and bodies. Diagrams, plants, animals or stones can be worshiped equally.

At the top of the Hindu pantheon is the trinity of the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, known as Trimurti. (cf. Michaels 1998, p. 227f.) Brahma is seen as the creator of the world and all beings, but remains in the shadow of Vishnu and Shiva, because unlike them, he is not rooted in popular belief. Usually he is represented with four heads looking in different directions and his pack animal, the swan. Vishnu, the most important god in Hinduism next to Shiva, is considered to be the preserver of the world, who in his nine incarnations so far always appears when it is a matter of protecting the earth from demonic violence. His most famous incarnations are those as Rama, Krishna and Buddha. Vishnu's pack animals are either a snake or a garuda. Shiva is often referred to as Vishnu's counterpart, but this is only partially true, as various, extremely contradicting essential elements are united in him. According to Indian mythology, he is said to have entered the earth under no fewer than 1,008 different appearances and names. On the one hand he embodies the forces of destruction, on the other hand he is also considered to be the renewer of all things. Shiva also has a whole range of emblems, such as the trident, a skull or the ash-smeared, gray-blue skin. Its most important distinguishing feature is the Nandi bull. (see Zierer 1985, p. 44f.)

In India, therefore, monotheistic, animistic, pantheistic, atheistic and polytheistic beliefs are possible in the same way. Hinduism is not a religion, but rather different, related religions with many, quite different schools and currents. That is why there is no common creed that is equally valid for all.

However, most believers assume that life and death are in a repetitive cycle, they believe in reincarnation. The focus is on the idea of ​​the immortality of the soul. The transition of the soul to another form of existence at death is known as transmigration of the soul. Transmigration of souls and reincarnation, d. H. the rebirth of a soul in a new body are synonymous. The belief in reincarnation in Hinduism includes a long series of rebirths, during which the soul can find itself in a wide variety of human, divine, animal or even vegetable bodies. Depending on personal proof in previous life (karma), the transition into higher or lower forms of existence takes place. The Hindus thus strive for good karma in order to attain complete release (moksha) from the process of rebirth (samsara). Accordingly, the salvation of the soul is the highest goal.

In this context, the non-violent independence movements of Gandhi should also be mentioned, which belonged to those rules of life that were conducive to the salvation of the soul. Such a political weapon could hardly be repeated today.

In modern India, too, are the Adoration of the cow and called their protection from slaughter. The Hindu sees the cow as more than just a useful animal. In earlier times the cow had the function of preserving: the survival of humans depended to a large extent on it. The cow not only provided food and clothing, but also valuable fertilizer, medicine and manpower. Even today it is the only draft animal for many poor farmers in India and thus the mainstay of agriculture. For millions of Indians in the cities and villages, their dung provides the most important heating material for daily cooking and it is essential for building houses. Thus the cow is a symbol of life for the Hindu and therefore deserves religious reverence.

To many enlightened Hindus, the cow in itself no longer means much, but only a few are willing to advocate its use as slaughter animals. (see Bronger 1996, p. 35f.)

The religion itself is called Dharma (law) by the Indians. This word contains both the cosmic and the moral order and is the basis of all action. (cf. Rothermund 1995, p. 145) The Dharma therefore contains all the rules according to which a Hindu has to organize his life in his family, in his job and in the state. Ultimately, these are the rules of the castes, which are an essential characteristic of Hinduism.

Today Hinduism is not only widespread in India, but also in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bali and even in Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji, Singapore, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago. Due to the colonial rule of the English, it can be found in Europe, especially in Great Britain.

Despite many inequalities, Hindus of the various schools can today largely celebrate and pray together, even if their theology and philosophy do not match. "Unity in diversity" is an often used self-definition phrase in modern Hinduism. (cf. Fischer et al. 1995, p. 207).

2.2 Origin, characteristics and effects of the caste system

2.2.1 Origin of the caste system

The question of the origin and the emergence of the Indian caste system in the different phases of Hindu history still has different explanations to this day. However, it is a very old and specifically Indian phenomenon.

India has always been a country of immigration. The caste system is believed to have its origins in the time of Brahmanism between 1500 and 1000 BC. After the Aryans came to India over the mountain passes in the north of the subcontinent. In their new settlement area they found a population that had lived there for much longer: the Dravidae. The Aryan immigrants had more modern and superior weapons with which they could quickly defeat and suppress the indigenous population. (see Basting 2004, p. 92)

Part of the original population was henceforth used as work slaves in the fields of the new ruling people. The other part was displaced to the south of India, where their descendants still live today, e.g. the Tamils.

Against this background, the Aryans played an important role in the formation of the caste system and a hierarchically structured agricultural society emerged. They initially divided society into two groups, varnas (color, skin color):

- light-skinned population = Aryans
- dark-skinned population = Dravidae

A little later this resulted in a society divided into four classes. At their head were the Brahmins (priests), followed by the Kshatriyas (warriors and nobility) and the Vaishyas (farmers, ranchers and traders). Subordinate to them were the non-Aryan Shudras (craftsmen and day laborers).

The Aryans considered themselves a chosen, divinely inspired and pure People. Her fair skin was the main characteristic of her purity. The dark skin of the Dravids, on the other hand, stood for ungodly, impure and was regarded as unworthy, which is why they could easily be enslaved. (see Basting / Hoffmann 2004, p. 46)

This is probably the most common explanation, but one can rightly be of the opinion that such a complex system could not have been formed from a single root at all, but could only be explained by a whole series of factors. (Bronger / v. D. Ruhren 1997, p. 23)

Thus, another attempt at the emergence of the caste system is to be undertaken.

The division into four caste groups that appears today in India is based in the mythological conception on a divine primordial being called Purusha , the forefather of mankind. The value of his body parts corresponds to the hierarchical status from which they arose:

“His mouth has become Brahmana, the arms are made into Ryjanya, the Vaishya from the thighs, from the feet of the Shudra at that time was produced. (Rigveda 10.90) "(Bronger 1996, p. 109)

The Aryans consider the head to be the most valuable part of the body, as the soul of a person is located directly below the skull. For this reason, the highest caste of priests and teachers, the Brahmins, were created from the head of the Purusha, while the lowest caste of the Shudras were formed from the feet. Already in Manu[2] -Smriti around 1500 BC It was written: “In order to protect this whole creation, the being with the great splendor of men, depending on whether they emerged from his mouth, his arms, his thighs or his feet, assigned different activities. He commanded the Brahmin to teach and study, to offer sacrifices for himself and for others, to give and to take; the kshatriyas, in short, to protect the people, to give, to make sacrifices for oneself, to study, not to cling to sensual things; the Vaishyas to raise cattle, to give, to offer sacrifices for themselves, to study, to trade, to borrow money for interest and to till the land; But the Lord commanded the Shudras only one thing: to serve the other three castes without envy ”(Bronger 1996, p. 273).

A population group that is classified even below the Shudras are the so-called Untouchables. These were not taken into account in the varna model and are considered completely impure and far from any divinity. (see Basting / Hoffmann 2004, p. 46)

So in the beginning there were only four main groups of castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The four traditional varna, which have already been mentioned in the Vedas, i.e. in ancient times, were occasionally able to connect to one another through marriage. Later, however, the walls became insurmountable. Anyone who tried it was banished from their caste and lost their soul. (cf. Zierer 1985, p. 34) In addition, another important element of the caste system, the purity regulations and the associated hierarchy, can be demonstrated for the late Vedic period (900-600 BC).

Around 100 BC The Brahmin Manu listed around 50 castes in his code of law, which have emerged as subgroups of the four original castes, mostly according to social class, occupation or descent.

The report of the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien around AD 400 provides further evidence of the existence of the caste system. He describes details of the ritual purity regulations for this time, including the caste-specific feature of untouchability: “The Candlas (the lowest caste) are isolated ... and when they come to a town or market they hit a piece of wood to attract attention. Then people know who they are and avoid coming into contact with them ”(Bronger 1996, p. 119).

With increasing economic development, there was a finer differentiation of society by dividing the professional groups into sub-castes. The state now has around 3000 superordinate jatis and around 25,000 subgroups. These latter play the most important role in the social fabric of the villages and cities in today's India. (cf. v. Stietencron 2001, p. 97)

2.2.2 Characteristics of the caste system

The structure of society in India, which has developed over the millennia, has been shaped by the rules of the castes.

At the word caste it is a term that is often misunderstood - and that up to the present day - since the Sanskrit words varna and jati indiscriminately with caste have been translated. (see Bronger 1996, p. 109)

The term varna denotes the four classes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras and represents the hierarchical concept of society (see Fig. 1). The Indian name jati means: "Birth and thus a certain form of existence, rank and belonging to a class or species" (Zierer 1985, p. 34).

Figure not included in this excerpt

Fig. 1: Conventional caste system

(Source: Fischer, P. et al. (1995): Geographie. Mensch und Raum, p. 202)

Today the four varnas are not caste, but general terms or ranks: There is not only one Brahmin caste, but hundreds, the untouchables also fall into many hundreds of subgroups and the Shudras, by far the most numerous varna into about two to three thousand castes. On average, a community with 1000 inhabitants has around 20 castes or groups similar to castes.

The members of the three upper varnas are considered 'Aryan' and become twice-born through a youth consecration with the transfer of the brahmin cord. The Shudras, on the other hand, are not Aryan and therefore only born once. Even below the Shudras stand the casteless, untouchable, pariah, harijans, or as they have recently called themselves Dalits. (cf. Bronger 1996, p. 109f., cf. Bronger / vd Ruhren 1997, p. 23ff.) “The variety and strong differentiation of this fifth stratum of the casteless corresponds to the term most commonly used today as“ scheduled tribes and other backward castes ” , so the officially recorded trunks and other backward castes ”(v. Stietencron 2001, p. 97). But they, too, disintegrate into numerous castes, some of which consider each other to be unclean. The principle of purity - impurity defines the ritual status of a group within the jati model. It determines the degree of purity and which avoidance strategies are used towards others. Anyone who violates the behavior exemplified by Brahmins is considered unclean. Above all, these are people from a lower jati who are in a constant state of impurity. (cf. Rothermund 1995, p. 120) This includes, for example, killing animals, eating meat or distilling and drinking palm schnapps. Anyone who violates ancient ethnic taboos, such as B. walking around with cut hair and toenails or coming into contact with menstrual blood. People who remove the feces of the higher caste and the animal carcasses, or those who process leather, are also considered unclean. The degree of impurity depends on the rank of the jati. (see Jürgenmeyer / Rösel 1998, p. 27)

Bronger (1996, p. 110) writes that Indian sociologists describe the traditional varna concept as “ideological” and “unrealistic”, and that it produced “a false and distorting image of the caste. It is necessary ... to free oneself from it if one wants to understand the caste system. ”Steche notes in this connection that“ there are analogies for the structure in varnas in all countries, jatis, i.e. H. Boxes only exist in India ”(Steche 1966, p. 67, quoted in Bronger 1996, p. 110).

For the everyday life of a Hindu, the fine division of the jati is far more important than the varna.

The jati concept is mainly reflected in the professional orientation and the rules of ritual cleanliness through dutiful behavior; it also includes, for example, your marriage rules or the preparation of food. (cf. Betz 1997, p. 24) This designation clearly indicates that every Hindu is born into a jati, lives and dies in it. (see Basting / Hoffmann 2004, p. 48)

The caste system, a unique system on earth, is characterized by the following characteristics, which are still applicable today:

1. The castes divide society into self-contained, relatively autonomous groups into which the individual is born.
2. The castes are ordered hierarchically to form a system in which each cast has its fixed, traditional place.
3. This hierarchical structure corresponds to different religious, social and, as a result of the caste - job-related conditions (see point 6), also economic rules, prohibitions and privileges, which further fix the different status of the caste.
4. With this, each individual is already socially established at birth, in that clear behavioral patterns of classification and subordination are prescribed for him (Dharma; see point 9).
5. One of the most drastic rules of conduct is that the social contacts of members of different castes are very limited and regulated; in other words, relationships at this level are largely confined to members of the same caste. Codified norms and commandments serve this purpose, such as endogamy (compulsion to marry within the caste), dietary regulations (vegetarianism, rules regarding table community and food acceptance), purity regulations, etc.
6. These predefined norms of behavior, to which the individual is subject, also include the hereditary occupation determined by the caste belonging to the caste, which largely excludes a free choice of occupation or a change of occupation. With this strict assignment of duties, the caste system often results in a differentiated division of labor.
7. In contrast to social contacts, the individual is basically not restricted in his economic relationships, although here, too, certain rules must be observed.
8. The caste represents a primary group, with an independent and, especially among the lower ranking jatis, tight organization with a head at the top. Monitoring customs, regulations and privileges, d. H. The observance of the Dharma within the caste and its preservation towards the outside world against the other castes falls within the competence of the caste panchayat, which, in order to ensure compliance, has its own jurisdiction with extensive competence, in the event of serious violations up to Excommunication. The individual is thus the institution caste subjugated in toto, by birth he is in an indissoluble collective bond. Such a caste organization usually includes several neighboring settlements.
9. The functioning of this system, which appears totalitarian and authoritarian to us, with its so obvious inequalities, is based primarily on two principles or views of Hinduism as a religious and social system: a) the belief in the law of karma, d. H. the natural law determination of the nature of the present existence through the deeds of the previous existence and b) the fulfillment of civil and religious duties (Dharma). These two laws of belief, accepted by the pious Hindu as a fixed moral order, neutralize individual motivation for advancement and make vertical mobility in the social sphere irrelevant for the individual. (based on: Bronger / v. d. Ruhren 1997, p. 24f.)

Another difficulty arises when differentiating the hierarchy of the many castes, since the individual characteristics are not judged equally by all castes and can also be varied in the different regions.

So there is no uniform caste system for all of India. Rather, the caste structure only ever applies to a specific, sometimes very small region. (cf. Bronger / v. d. Ruhren 1997, p. 25) However, it remains constantly in motion because certain castes gain or lose power, income and prestige due to their own efforts or a change in the economic, political and cultural framework. According to these changes, the castes acquire a higher or lower social status and degree of purity.

2.2.3 Caste in social life

To a European raised on the principles of individuality and self-actualization, the caste system may seem unjust. Nor are the castes of India to be compared with the classes of Western society. In the light of the social and cultural reality of India, the caste system takes on a completely different meaning, because it represents a social network for the Hindu population. (Cf. Barkemeier 2001, p. 101) In India everyone bears the signs of his area of ​​life to which he belongs , per se.

An Indian caste usually consists of family groups, the members of which are allowed to marry, dine, socialize and work with one another without becoming polluted. An Indian becomes a caste member at birth and no one can change his caste. Compliance with certain commandments is monitored by the caste by exercising jurisdiction over its members. (see Bender et al. 1984, p. 195)

In their original way, the boxes are arranged hierarchically among each other. The rank of the caste and thus of the individual in the social system is still the guideline for the extent of social, but also economic relationships within the community. However, it is wrong to imagine a clearly defined ranking scale that is valid for the whole of India. (cf. Bronger 1996, p. 113ff., cf. Bickelmann / Fassnacht 1979, p. 67ff.)


[1] Karma is understood to be a spiritual-esoteric concept, after which every action - physical as well as mental - inevitably has a consequence that does not necessarily become effective in the current life, but under certain circumstances only in one of the next lives. In Hinduism, the teaching of karma is closely related to belief in the cycle of rebirth. (see www.wikipedia.de)

[2] "Manu is more of a mythical than a historically tangible figure; the orthodox Hindus consider him the progenitor of humanity" (Schweizer 1995, p. 97).

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