Caste through the sands of time
A. Caste labels and castes in Hinduism
Caste system is nothing but a collective name for ancient vocations (castes) which, as mentioned in the Gita (ch. 4 – v. 13), used to be based on qualifications (guna) of people and the work (karma) performed by them. Many surnames used by people these days and relating to brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra etc. basically signify the caste labels or family vocations long ago (1). As regards to the origin of caste labels or vocation based surnames long ago, note for example that a person trained and working on a farm would be called a farmer, just like these days. Similarly someone trained and working with loha (iron) would be called a lohar (blacksmith or smith), and another person training, teaching and performing duties related to Brahman (God) would have the title of a brahmin (priest and teacher). Note also that in spite of having certain caste labels or vocation based surnames, caste or caste labels by themselves have not posed a problem to people in pursuing vocations (2) or acquiring knowledge and education (3). People by and far seem to have been free to pursue vocations which appear to be different from their caste labels and they are even able to marry out of caste. The choice to pursue or not pursue other vocations to earn a living is usually one’s own and family’s, mostly from economic considerations. Similarly, the preference to marry in a caste similar to one’s own is mainly for seeking and ensuring vocational, economic and social compatibility after marriage as a husband and wife.
There are many examples in ancient Hindu texts (from 3000 years ago and earlier) which show that education and learning of Vedas (books of knowledge) were not limited to brahmins alone. It seems many non-brahmins used to keep themselves out of education and from acquiring knowledge and becoming brahmins because getting education was a lengthy and strenuous process. Anyone wanting to get educated long ago would normally have to leave his home at a relatively young age and go, live, work and study in a remote gurukul (hermitage-cum-school) for decades to complete the course work. Moreover, in spite of hard work for so long to get educated, the economic prospectus afterwards (as a learned brahmin) would be often uncertain and quite bleak. Thus people in non-brahmin families (farmer, carpenter, blacksmith etc.) usually did not send their sons to get educated in gurukuls to become Brahmins, but instead preferred to keep them at home and make them learn the family trade (farming etc.) quickly and easily in just a few years. This would lead to the son of a farmer or a carpenter etc. becoming a fully earning member of society by the age of sixteen or so and then take over his parents’ responsibility and business immediately, get married and start his own family. A brahmin on the other hand would normally return home, after finishing his education in the gurukul, when he was about twenty five years old. He would then try to settle in his priestly vocation and start earning money which normally would not be much different, often even less, than that for a farmer or a carpenter etc. living in the same area. As a result, by the time a brahmin was able to get married and have a family of his own after starting to earn money, he would normally be well past the age of twenty five years which would put him far behind others (in other vocations -- farming and carpentry etc.) where a person would be able to start earning money, get married and have a family by the age of sixteen or so. Thus there was no incentive for others to get educated and become brahmins.
Note also that the opportunities for employment as a brahmin were quite limited. A village or a tribe would normally need only one brahmin (priest) in spite of having several farmers, carpenters and laborers etc. Due to limited opportunities as brahmins, the sons of a brahmin (priest) wound often end up doing other things (farming etc.) to earn their living even after acquiring education. But that type of thing did not usually happen to people in other vocations. For example, a farmer’s or carpenter’s son did not have to go out of his family’s vocation to earn money to survive because there would be enough opportunities for work in his own profession. Thus, because of a shorter and easier training (while staying at home) followed by economic safety and security as a farmer and carpenter etc., versus lengthy and strenuous education initially (usually in a remote gurukul) and uncertain employment and economic opportunities afterwards as a brahmin, led many parents in non-brahmin families to not send their sons to get educated and become brahmins. They instead preferred to keep their sons in non-brahmin vocations. Brahmins, on the other hand, even though fully aware of the limited nature of opportunities in their profession, kept sending their sons for education to keep the family tradition of learning alive. But many of the brahmin sons often had to engage in other activities later, after acquiring education and holding the brahmin caste label or surname, to earn their living. Incidentally, the same type of thing also seems to happen these days -- many people with brahmin surnames (caste labels) now happen to make their living as farmers, mechanics, factory workers, cleaners, tailors, taxi and bus drivers, etc. Considering that the choice of vocations long ago was mostly people’s own, it is clear that brahmins did not discourage others in acquiring education and joining their profession (3) and that caste as the basis for quotas in education and jobs is wrong (4).
B. Flexibility in caste system: from Sudra to Brahmin and vice versa
There are several examples in ancient texts which show people pursuing vocations different from their parents and even marrying out of caste. Note the examples of Valmiki in the Ramayana, Satyakama in the Chandogya Upanisad, and Satyavati and Vyasa in the Mahabharata. Valmiki, Satyakama and Vyasa had their origins as sudras yet they were able to learn the Vedas and become brahmins and famous sages. Moreover, besides Valmiki et al., there were other people who started as sudras etc. and they became brahmins after acquiring education, but now their sudra origins remain unknown and they are considered now only as brahmins (their caste or acquired vocational title, after receiving education).
Valmiki, in addition to being from a sudra family, was also known as a chandala due his bad temper. One day he came in contact with a sage who convinced him to give up his violent lifestyle including hunting of animals for meat and robbing people for money. Valmiki felt convinced with the advice from sage and decided to change his life. He gave up his old lifestyle. He also approached a guru to teach him Sanskrit and the Vedas. When he had finished his education he came to be known as a brahmin. Later he composed the great epic Ramayana in Sanskrit and was eventually recognized as a great sage. Satyakama’s life started in a similar way as a sudra. His mother was a poor maid servant and worked in many houses. She also had numerous illicit sexual liaisons with strange men. When Satyakama was born, she did not even know who his father was. But later when young Satyakama wanted to learn the Veda from a guru and become a brahmin, he approached sage Gautama to accept him as his student. Gautama, in spite of knowing fully well about Satyakama’s mother and his origin as a sudra, accepted Satyakama as his student in his gurukul. Thanks to Gautama, Satyakama became a brahmin and a sage.
Sita, as indicated in the Ramayana, was a brahmin girl but she married a kshatriya prince, Rama. Satyavati, in the Mahabharata, also had sudra parents, but she married kshatriya king Shantanu. She became the matriarch and grand-queen of Kuru dynasty. Her descendents (Pandavas and Kauravas) were considered kshatriya (the Gita: ch 2 – v. 31, 35) even though they had come from a sudra woman. Moreover, Vyasa (Satyavati’s eldest son) acquired knowledge in Sanskrit and Vedas and became a brahmin. He also became a famous sage and composed in Sanskrit the epic Mahabharata. All these examples of Valmiki, Satyakama and Vyasa show that sudras could get educated, learn the Vedas and become brahmins and sages, and society used to accept and honor them as brahmins in spite of their sudra origins.
In any case, as indicated above, the choice to get educated and become a brahmin was difficult and risky and did not always lead to financial well-being and security afterwards. Problems and economic uncertainties faced by Dronacharya, Eklavya and Karna in the Mahabharata are well documented (5, 6). Drona or Dronacharya (the teacher Drona) was a brilliant brahmin and a great martial arts expert, but he could not find any work initially to support himself and his family (wife and a young son). He was so poor that he was unable to buy even milk for his young child. After getting tired of hopeless condition, Drona decided to seek help from king Drupada who used to be his classmate and a friend during their earlier days as students in gurukul. But when Drona went to Drupada’s palace for help and tried to remind him of their friendship during student days, Drupada scolded him with these words, “O’ brahmin, how dare you address me familiarly as your friend? What friendship can there be between a throned king and a wandering beggar? What a fool must you be to presume on some long past acquaintance to claim friendship with a king who rules a kingdom? How can a pauper be the friend of a wealthy man, or an ignorant boor of a learned scholar, or a coward of a hero? Friendship can exist only between equals. A vagrant beggar cannot be the friend of a sovereign.
” Then Drona was turned out of the palace with scorn ringing in his ears (Ref. 6: p. 49-50). What a humiliating experience that must be for poor Drona!
But Drona’s woes did not end in Drupada’s palace. His misery continued even after he returned home. One day his wife scolded him for being worthless in spite of his credentials as a great brahmin and martial arts expert. He could take it no more. He left home, wife and child and went to many places looking for work. He finally reached Hastinapur where he was able to secure a job as teacher of Pandava and Kaurava princes. As part of exclusive service to Hastinapur’s royals, Dronacharya was required to teach only royal princes and protect them from any danger. This made it necessary for him to not accept and train anyone else, especially any commoner, as his student in archery, because that would be like creating a competition, and possibly a future threat, against his royal wards. This eventually led to the rejection of Eklavya, a commoner, as a student when he approached Dronacharya to learn archery. Eklavya, after being rejected as a student by Dronacharya, went ahead and learnt archery anyway by using Dronacharya’s name without his knowledge and permission. Unfortunately, this led to Eklavya being eliminated later as archer with the removal of his archery thumb. This sad result for Eklavya was basically due to his status as a commoner which did not go well with the requirements of Dronacharya’s employment as an exclusive teacher for royal princes, and it had little to do with Eklavya being a sudra and Dronacharya a brahmin. Thus, as expressed in king Drupada’s rebuke and rejection of Drona (a brahmin) on the basis of his poverty mainly, rejection and elimination of Eklavya also seems due to economic and political reasons and not his caste (as a sudra). Unfortunately, same types of problems and restrictions are faced unofficially today in many places by the children and families of poor and ordinary people. There are numerous educational institutions (schools and colleges having famous teachers and professors) and other organizations (e.g. hospitals and medical centers with good doctors and medical facilities) these days which seem to cater a top level education and health care etc. mostly to the well-off, e.g. royals, businessmen, rich people, government officials, politicians, ministers, prime ministers, presidents, military officers, etc.
Karna, a great warrior and archer, was also unlucky initially in not being able to get proper respect and recognition from Hastinapur’s royals. They ignored him because he was just a charioteer’s son or suta-putra (5; Ref. 6 – pp. 46-47). This kind of slight of Karna by Hastinapur’s royals (Kauravas and Pandavas) was ironic considering they themselves had descended from a sudra woman (Satyavati). In any case, there was nothing trivial and lowly about the profession of suta (charioteer) at that time. Krishna himself worked as the charioteer for Arjuna in the battle of Mahabharata. Moreover, when Kauravas later needed Karna’s help and services as a warrior, they immediately appointed him as Anga Naresh (king of Anga) enabling him to join them as a royal. This indicates that being suta-putra (Karna’s birth as a charioteer’s son) could not keep Karna from becoming a royal (king), and he eventually even led Kaurava’s army as Senapati (commander) in the battle of Mahabharata. Moreover, at Karna’s request as Senapati in the Mahabharata battle, the great warrior King Salya, queen Madri’s brother, decided to be Karna’s charioteer (Ref. 6 – pp. 177, 284, 288). Later Salya, after Karna was killed in the battle, assumed the command of Kaurava’s army. These examples show that even the learned brahmins and royal kshatriyas were doing different things and manual tasks including working as suta (charioteer) and sudra (servants). The example of Pandava royals living and working as sudra during their exile is shown in Ref. (7).
This shows that throughout history there have been examples which demonstrate considerable flexibility in caste in matters of education and vocations. People have made choices according to their own capabilities and considerations (e.g. earning potential in future). Society usually has shown resilience and accommodation towards people seeking education (8). Thus, as in the case of Valmiki, Vyasa and Satykama long ago (sudras becoming brahmins), there are also the latest examples of people (e.g. Jaisi Ram and Janardan Manjhi in Ref. 9) showing sudras (dalit, scheduled castes) learning the Shastra (scriptures) and becoming brahmins. Conversely, there are many examples (e.g. in Ref. 2) involving people with brahmin surnames and caste labels trying to earn their living by working as farmers, mechanics, bus drivers and conductors, taxi drivers, private cooks, gardeners, farmers, restaurant and tea-stall owners / runners, shop keepers, tailors, cleaners, pottery makers etc.
C. Prevalence of castes and caste labels since the beginning
Castes and caste labels, such as brahmin (priest, teacher). Kshatriya (prince, leader), vaishya (merchant, farmer, artisan) and sudra (outsider, service provider), are not unique to India and Hinduism. Even in other countries and cultures people long ago seem to have had castes and caste labels which are still used by people as surnames (e.g. Priest, Prince, Merchant, Farmer, Cobbler, Schumacher, etc.) signifying probably their ancestors’ vocations long ago. Incidentally, Indians (Hindus) to their credit are still in possession of ancient texts, written / compiled 3000 years ago or earlier, which continue to depict details about customs, traditions, rituals, castes and caste labels long ago. The availability of such information on castes and caste labels makes them appear as a continuous phenomenon in Hinduism from the beginning. Unfortunately, the same type of detailed and written information on ancient customs and traditions (including vocations and duties for priests, princes, commoners and slaves) cannot be found in other places and it seems to be forgotten, lost and even destroyed deliberately as part of ancient or Pagan knowledge, likely after the appearance of newer religions in the last two millennia. Whatever limited knowledge about ancient customs etc. (from 3000 years ago or earlier) in other places exists now is sketchy and sporadic. It is either based on indirect references (e.g. in holy texts of newer religions) related to the ancient and forbidden customs, or derived from the study of ancient stone carvings or hieroglyphic records found in a few archaeological sites (e.g. Egyptian pyramids etc.). Thus, unlike in India where ancient information about castes and caste labels (including surnames for brahmins etc.) can still be found, similar information (background material and stories) behind surnames (e.g. Prince, Priest, Farmer and Schumacher etc.) used in other countries is absent. In any case, whether or not ancient information on castes or caste labels exists anymore, the use of caste based surnames in many places does indicate that caste or caste system has existed for a long time and in many places. Moreover, just like in India where people belonging to a certain caste or having a certain caste label do the work which is not reflected by their caste or caste label (e.g. a brahmin or Sharma doing farming or working as a tailor), same thing is true people in other places, i.e. people doing work which is not indicated by their surname (for example, a person named Priest or Leder working on a farm or in a factory).
Incidentally, even though castes and caste labels in the form of surnames still exist in many places, they have not been revived out of obscurity and irrelevance in other countries through politicization (for vote banks) and granting of quotas (in education and jobs etc.). Governments in other places have not grouped manual work type surnames as OBC or other backward castes (including Smith, Carpenter, Gardener, Farmer, Tailor, Potter, Rockefeller, Cadman, Milkman, Waterman, Barber, Mason, Carter, Thatcher, Spinner and Cook etc.) and SC or scheduled castes (including surnames Schumacher, Cobbler, Fisher, Skinner, Weaver etc.). Moreover, these two categories of surnames (OBC and SC) are not labeled as “lower” castes or classes, implying people in them as poor and backward and therefore automatically in need of government assistance in the form of quotas in education and jobs. In addition, people having non-manual work type surnames (Prince, Leader, Leder, Preacher, Sargent, Teacher, Trainer, Priest, Merchant, Seller etc.) are not called “upper” castes (classes), thus not needing officially any government assistance in education and job etc. no matter how poor they might be or what type of manual and menial work they might be doing in order to survive (2). Thus, while In India some policy makers mistook manual work as a sign of backwardness and poverty and instituted quotas in education and jobs for people of “lower” castes (having manual work type surnames) to learn new things and find other kind of jobs etc., nothing similar was done in other places to grant benefits to people on the basis of their surnames (caste labels). Therefore, in America and Europe the children and descendents of U.S. vice president N. Rockefeller, U.S. president J. Carter, British prime minister M. Thatcher and Germany’s race car driving champion M. Schumacher would not automatically qualify for government assistance in education and jobs because their surnames (Rockefeller, Carter, Thatcher and Schumacher) reflect manual type vocations in their families long ago (e.g. felling of rocks, use of carts, thatching of roofs and making of shoes, respectively). Needless to say, it seems that by not politicizing the castes (surnames) through vote banks and government quotas etc., caste in other places has been left mostly as a socially obscure and irrelevant thing.
D. Concluding remarks
The use of caste labels and vocation based surnames these days in many places and cultures indicates that castes and caste system have existed all over and were not exclusive to India and Hinduism. Moreover, even among Hindus the choices in education and vocations by people used to be according to their own capabilities and future prospects. Thus granting of quotas by government on the basis of caste, favoring some and discriminating against others, is unfair. There is no justification for any kind of reverse discrimination, even in the name of righting the historical wrongs which mostly reflect misinformation and misinterpretation related to ancient texts (10, 11). Moreover, if anyone these days feels that he is facing discrimination or unfair treatment in society, then the solution to his problems should be through proper anti-discriminatory laws (12) and not caste or religion based quotas in education and jobs from government.
Finally, as indicated earlier, to make castes and caste labels less relevant in society, politicians and government should stop using caste for vote banks and quotas. If government needs to give help to the needy it should be on the basis of their economic condition and not caste or religion. Similarly, to get over the untouchability concerns related to certain vocations and tasks in society, politicians and officials need to demonstrate to public that they themselves are ready and willing to do the same type of work and tasks. Moreover, instead of giving quotas in education etc. to people so that manual and menial workers can train and seek other kinds of work, government should increase the remuneration for work they already are doing. This way the value and importance of their work will increase in the eyes of others in society. Moreover, when they get more money for the effort they are already putting into their work, they will become rich and their standard of living will improve. They will also be better able to pay for their own expenses, including for their children’s education, without needing any outside help (from government etc.).
(1) Subhash C. Sharma, “Hindu Caste System & Hinduism: Vedic vocations (Hindu castes) were not related to heredity (birth)”, March 2, 2008 (originally 2001), http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2008/03/hindu-caste-system-hinduism-vedic-vocations-hindu.htm
(2) Subhash C. Sharma, “A ‘dalit’ not eligible for Govt. benefits because of brahmin surname”, Nov. 5, 2009, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2009/11/a-dalit-not-eligible-for-govt-benefits-because.htm
(3) Subhash C. Sharma, “How old are the Vedas and who can read them?”, Aug. 23, 2006, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2006/08/how-old-are-the-vedas-and-who-can-read-them.htm
(4) Subhash C. Sharma, “Politicization of caste system”, December, 31, 2009,
(5) Subhash C. Sharma, “The tragic heroes of Mahabharata”, June 28, 2009, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2009/06/the-tragic-heroes-of-mahabharata.htm
(6) C. Rajagopalachari, Mahabharata, Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 1996, 33rd Edition.
(7) Subhash C. Sharma, “Sudra in the Purusha Sukta (Pandavas traveling and working as Sudra)”, Aug. 13, 2008, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2008/08/sudra-in-the-purusha-sukta.htm
(8) Subhash C. Sharma, “The myth of brahmins discouraging education and literacy for non-brahmins long ago”, June 26, 2009, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2009/06/the-myth-of-brahmins-discouraging-education-and-literacy.htm
(9) Subhash C. Sharma, “Brahmin priest from a sudra, dalit or scheduled caste”, July 3, 2007, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2007/07/brahmin-priest-from-a-sudra-dalit-or-scheduled-caste.htm
(10) Subhash C. Sharma, “Manu, smriti and the medical paradox”, Mar 2, 2008 (originally May 29, 2004), http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2008/03/manu-smriti-and-the-medical-paradox.htm
(11) Subhash C. Sharma, “Compatibility of a text with the Srutis”, Sept. 2, 2006 http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2006/09/compatibility-of-a-text-with-the-srutis.htm
(12) Subhash C. Sharma, “Discriminatory policies, practices and attitudes”, July 1, 2009, http://seva.sulekha.com/blog/post/2009/07/discriminatory-policies-practices-and-attitudes.htm
Seva (Dr. Subhash C. Sharma