Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The Hindu world is a world of multiple and complex layers of social and communal categories and classification. There is the caste system, which lays out the four social and religious categories—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra—into which people are placed according to their birth; there is the ashrama system, which articulates four different stages that a Hindu (male) is to pass through during the course of his life; there are sectarian affiliations, defined by the god or goddess one follows, and the rituals one performs in service to this deity.
| Four major sects of |
It is important to recognize from the outset, however, that the internal divisions in these "systems" are not nearly so neat as they are often represented in the West. For example, there are thousands of different subcastes, which often have very subtle shadings and distinctions. One may identify oneself as a follower of Shiva, a Shaiva, but also worship forms of Vishnu and the goddesses.
The caste system is one of the most contested issues in Hinduism and one of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of Hinduism. The origins of the caste system are disputed. Many have suggested that it is rooted in the Purusha Shukta hymn of the Rig Veda, the so-called "Sacrifice of the Primal Man," a text that describes creation in terms of a sacrifice of the first being. Four classes, or varnas, are described in this text. Out of this system seems to have developed the concept of jati, or birth, which is a more accurate description of caste: Hindus (and all humans) are born into particular socio-religious categories, castes (jatis), according to their accumulated karma. Over the centuries, the jatis have subdivided and multiplied, producing a complex network of thousands and thousands of different castes.
|(priestly caste) |
(traditionally warrior caste)
(traditionally caste of merchants and farmers)