Bharat Ek Khoj

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Caste Formation
(Episode 4)

The advent of the Aryans in India raised new problems, racial and political. The conquered race, the Dravidians, had a long background of civilization behind them, but Nehru has little doubt that the Aryans considered themselves vastly superior and a wide gulf separated the two races. Then there were indigenous tribes, nomads and forest-dwellers. Out of the conflict and confrontation of races gradually arose the cast system, which in course of the succeeding centuries was to affect Indian life so profoundly.

As the drama reveals initially the tiller of the soil functioned also as priest, soldier or trader, and every one shared his problem with every one else. Indeed there was no privileged class. The caste division, originally intended to separate the Aryans from the non-Aryans, ricocheted on the Aryans themselves. Nehru figures out that, in an age when it was customary for the conquerors to exterminate the conquered races, caste enable a more peaceful solution: fitting the growing specialization of functions.

Gradually, from among the mass of agriculturists evolved the Vaishyas as farmers, artisans and merchants; the kshatriyas, as warriors, rulers; the Brahmins, as priests and thinkers. Below thwm were the shudra, as labourers (inferior to farmers) and unskilled workers, Mythologically, Brahmins came from the mouth of Brahma, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his things and Shudras from his feet. Nehru points out that this was in keeping with the spirit of the time and kindred civilization like the Iranians had a four-fold division, though not petrified into castes and the Greeks were entirely dependent on mass slavery.

That these castes must have been in a fluid condition and rigidity came in only later, is illustrated from the epics. In the Valmiki Ramayana, a Brahmin and his wife bring their 14 years old child and roundly condemn, for this event, their righteous king Ram who is inclined to accept the blame in the Mahabharata, the Pandava-guru Drona denies martial training to Ekalavya, the talented son of the hunter- chieftain, but the youth practices before the guru's status and becomes a mighty archer. Discovered later, Drona asks him to cut of his richt thumb by way of guru's "fee" to save the Kshatriya 'pride'. Probably, cast was neither Aryan nor Dravidian, but an attempt at the social organization of different race, rationalization of the facts as they existed at the time, opines Nehru. It brought degradation afterwards, and is still a burden and a curse.