The Caste System and
the Stages of Life in Hinduism

The pattern of social classes in Hinduism is called the "caste system." The chart shows the major divisions and contents of the system. Basic caste is called varṇa, , or "color." Subcaste, or jāti, , "birth, life, rank," is a traditional subdivision of varṇa. Sometimes "caste" is avoided as a word for varṇa. Whether or not that is done, it is common for "caste" to be used for the subcastes. Combined with the four "stages of life," the āśramas, , the system becomes the varṇāśramadharma, , the "dharma of classes and orders." One's duty, or dharma, , in life depends on the variables of caste, sex, and stage of life.

The Bhagavad Gita says this about the varṇas:

[41] The works of Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, Vaiśyas, and Śūdras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.

[42] The works of a Brahmin () are peace; self-harmony, austerity, and purity; loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision and wisdom and faith.

[43] These are the works of a Kṣatriya ():  a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership.

[44] Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaiśya (). And the work of the Śūdra () is service.

[chapter 18, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin Books, 1962; spelling of castes altered]

There are literally thousands of subcastes in India, often with particular geographical ranges, occupational specializations, and an administrative or corporate structure. When Mahātmā Gandhi wanted to go to England to study law, he had to ask his subcaste, the Modh Bania, for permission to leave India. "Bania", means "merchant," and "Gandhi" means "greengrocer" -- from gandha, "smell, fragrance," in Sanskrit -- and that should be enough for a good guess that Gandhi was a Vaiśya.

Sometimes it is denied that the varṇas are "castes" because, while "true" castes, the jātis, are based on birth, the varṇas are based on the theory of the guṇas (the "three powers" mentioned in the Gita). This is no more than a rationalization:  the varṇas came first, and they are based on birth. The guṇas came later, and provide a poor explanation anyway, since the guṇa tamas is associated with both twice born and once born, caste and outcaste, overlapping the most important religious and social divisions in the system.

Nevertheless, the varṇas are now divisions at a theoretical level, while the jātis are the way in which caste is embodied for most practical purposes. Jātis themselves can be ranked in relation to each other, and occasionally a question may even be raised about the proper varṇa to which a particular jāti belongs. As jāti members change occupations and they rise in prestige, a jāti may rarely even be elevated in the varṇa to which it is regarded as belonging.

An example of that are the Chettiars, who are Tamils who rose to particular local prominance in Singapore, where they arrived in 1824. The Chettiars became private bankers and moneylenders, serving the Indian, Chinese, and Malay communities, whose members mostly didn't seem to interest or impress British bankers. This resulted in prosperity for all. The Chettiars may originally have been Śudras. But banking is not really a Śudra occupation, more a Vaiśya occupation; so the sense seems to be growing that the Chettiars are properly Vaiśyas.

The urge to deny that varṇas are "castes" is part of a larger apologetic that we can understand as a project to reform the more disturbing characteristics of traditional Hinduism. Given the eternity of the Vedas, it should be, strictly speaking, perplexing why and impossible that they need to be "reformed." If it can be denied, however, the morally objectionable practices were ever proper parts of Vedic religion, then we get both reform and eternal truths at the same time.

Thus, the theory of varṇas was descriptive of individual talents and vocations, not of social station by birth. And, since, indeed, things like Untouchability are not even mentioned in sacred texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, their illegitimacy is self-evident. Satī, ("suttee"), was not a traditional sanctified practice of burning widows, but a desperate measure by women to avoid rape by British soldiers. "Thugee" was not a plague of murder and terror by devotees of Kālī but a fiction invented by the British to discredit Hinduism. All of this may not seem entirely honest as history; but as a strategy for reform, its point may be sympathetically well taken. The habit of such creative interpretation, however, elicites less sympathy when it merely serves a nationalistic mythology, as discussed elsewhere [note].

Associated with each varṇa there is a traditional color. These sound suspiciously like skin colors; and, indeed, there is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin -- although there are plenty of exceptions (especially in the South of India). This all probably goes back to the original invasion of the Arya, who came from Central Asia and so were undoubtedly light skinned. The people already in India were quite dark, even as today many people in India seem positively black.

Apart from skin color, Indians otherwise have "Caucasian" features -- narrow noses, thin lips, etc. -- and recent genetic mapping studies seem to show that Indians are more closely related to the people of the Middle East and Europe than to anyone else.

Because Untouchables are not a varṇa, they do not have a traditional color. I have supplied blue, since this is otherwise not found, and it is traditionally used for the skin color of Viṣṇu and his incarnations. Chief among those is Kṛṣṇa (Krishna), whose name actually means "black" or "dark," but he is always shown blue rather than with some natural skin color.

The first three varṇas are called the twice born -- dvija, . This has nothing to do with reincarnation. Being "twice born" means that you come of age religiously, making you a member of the Vedic religion, eligible to learn Sanskrit, study the Vedas, and perform Vedic rituals. The "second birth" is thus like Confirmation or a Bar Mitzvah. This understanding may be interestingly compared with the assertion of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa that:

Unborn, indeed, is a man so long as he does not sacrifice. It is through the sacrifice that he is born, just as an egg first burst. [Patrick Olivelle, The Āśrama System, Oxford, 1993, p.39]

But sacrifice is performed by a householder, not by a student. The Brāhmaṇa posits three births, first from the womb (which is compared to a fire and even to an altar in its own right), then from sacrifice (on the household fire altar), and finally in the cremation fire.

But if we compare this to the four stages of life, there is a curious parallel. The student is born again but actually labors in preparation to become a householder, who is characterized by sacrifice (which cannot be done without marriage). This parallels the stage of the wandering ascetic, who ritually dies at the moment of renunciation but then labors in preparation for actual death and cremation. So, if cremation is a form of rebirth, then renunciation is the rehearsal for this as studenthood is for sacrifice. I am not aware, however, that much is ever really made of this comparison.

According to the Laws of Manu (whose requirements may not always be observed in modern life), boys are "born again" at specific ages:  8 for Brahmins; 11 for Kṣatriyas; and 12 for Vaiśyas. A thread is bestowed at the coming of age to be worn around the waist as the symbol of being twice born. The equivalent of coming of age for girls is marriage -- although women are not always considered part of the āśrama system at all. Nevertheless, the bestowal of the thread is part of the wedding ceremony. That part of the wedding ritual is even preserved in Jainism.

Ancient Iran also had a coming of age ceremony that involved a thread. That and other evidence leads to the speculation that the three classes of the twice born are from the original Indo-European social system -- the theory of Georges Dumézil. Even the distant Celts believed in three social classes. The three classes of Plato's Republic thus may not have been entirely his idea. Although there must have been a great deal of early intermarriage in India, nowhere did such an Indo-European social system become as rigid a system of birth as there. The rigidity may well be due to the influence of the idea of karma, that poor birth is morally deserved.

According to the Laws of Manu, when the twice born come of age, they enter into the four āśramas, , or "stages of life." I notice that dictionaries I have, both of Sanskirt and Hindi, say that these apply to Brahmins. But there is no doubt, from the Laws of Manu and from the history, that all they apply to all the twice born. Nevertheless, various anomalous constructions of the system occur.

Thus the Vāmana Purāṇa confines the stage of wandering ascetic to Brahmins, denies studenthood to Vaiśyas, and allows householdership to Śūdras. Denying studenthood to Vaiśyas and allowing any āśrama to Śūdras contradicts almost every authority on dharma, including other parts of the Vāmana Purāṇa itself. These provisions apparently result from the kind of systematizing beloved of the tradition, i.e. that Brahmins live four stages, Kṣatriyas three, Vaiśyas two, and Śūdras one. An element of that may reflect the actual debate that, since marriage defines householdership, and since Śūdras do legitimately marry, then they legitimately become householders. Nevertheless, the āśramas were only rarely allowed to include the once born, and at times Śūdras were sanctioned with death for ascetic practices. More orthodox but still anomalous is the version in the Vaikhānasa Dharmasūtra, which allows all four āśramas for Brahmins, the first three for Kṣatriyas, and the first two for Vaiśyas. This excludes Śūdras and provides studenthood for Vaiśyas, but it limits or abolishes the ascetic stages outside the Brahmin varṇa.

Less systematized was how long the stages should each last, and various versions can be found. The Nāradaparivrājaka Upaniṣad specified 12 years for a student and 25 years for both householder and forest dweller. Adding the 8 years of childhood for a Brahmin, this adds up to 70 years -- coincidentally the Biblical "three score and ten." The ideal Indian lifespan, however, was more like between 100 and 116 years, which leaves a very long time for the Brahmin to be a wandering acetic. I suspect that it would have been unusual, however, for a Kṣatriya or Vaiśya to have lived with a teacher even as much as the share of the first 20 years allowed by their later coming-of-age.

  1. The first is the brahmacarya, , or the stage of the student (brahmacārī ). For boys, the student is supposed to go live with a teacher (guru, ), who is a Brahmin, to learn about Sanskrit, the Vedas, rituals, etc. The dharma, , of a student includes being obedient, respectful, celibate, and non-violent. "The teacher is God." The student is supposed to be respectful of the teacher even behind his back. A comparable status of the teacher, without quite the same religious dimension or obligation, can be found in China. For girls, the stage of studenthood coincides with that of the householder, and the husband stands in the place of the teacher.

    Since the boys are supposed to be celibate while students, Gandhi used the term brahmacāri to mean the celibate practitioner that he thought made the best Satyagrahi, the best non-violent activist. There may be an echo in this of the provision in the Laws of Manu that a student, a Brahmin in particular, may remain with his teacher's family for his entire life. This is one of the points in the tradition that conflicts with another proposition in Manu, that "if a twice-born seeks renunciation without studying the Vedas, without fathering sons, and without offering sacrifices [i.e. discharged the "three debts"], he will proceed downward [The Law Code of Manu, translated by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford, 2004, 6:37, p.101].

    In completing his time with a teacher, the student takes a ritual bath, and thus becomes a , snātaka, a "bath-graduate." This may be regarded as the equivalent of becoming a householder, but it is distinct both from the ritual return to the parents, the samāvartana, and from the marriage that genuinely establishes a householder. These ritual separations are also consistent with the practice of disfavored alternatives, such as continuing as a student for life or renouncing ordinary life as a forest dweller or wandering ascetic. Because of this possibility, one dharma authority called the pre-graduate student a vidyārtha, , "desirous of knowledge," and only the post-graduate student a true brahmacārī. This distinction, however, did not catch on.

  2. The second stage is the gārhasthya, , or the stage of the householder, which is taken far more seriously in Hinduism than in Jainism or Buddhism and is usually regarded as mandatory, like studenthood, although debate continued over the centuries whether or not this stage could be skipped in favor of a later one (especially with Brahmins). Being a householder is the stage where the principal dharma of the person is performed, whether as priest, warrior, etc., or for women mainly as wife and mother. Arjuna's duty to fight the battle in the Bhagavad Gita comes from his status as a householder. Besides specific duties, there are general duties that pay off the three Ṛṇa, , "Debts":

    1. a debt to the ancestors, the Manes in the comparable and probably related Roman practice, that is discharged by marrying and having sons. One may not be regarded as a true householder until married;
    2. a debt to the gods that is discharged by the household rituals and sacrifices, which in general cannot be performed except by man and wife together; and
    3. a debt to the teacher and the seers that is discharged by becoming a student and then appropriately teaching one's wife, children, and, for Brahmins, other students.

    The three debts are sometimes associated with the three Gods of the Trimūrti -- the ancestor debt with Brahmā, the gods debt with Viṣṇu, and the teacher debt with Śiva. One way the debts were discharged is through the five daily Mahāyajña, , or "Great Sacrifices":

    1. the pitṛyajña, , offerings of food and water to the ancestors, without which the Manes were originally believed to suffer in the afterlife, a reference to which still occurs at Bhagavad Gita 1:42;
    2. the devayajña, , sacrificial offerings to the gods, as a fire oblation, requiring that a sacred fire be kept in the house (like the Persian fire altar), a ritual act that, again, can only be performed by husband and wife together;
    3. the brahmayajña, , Vedic recitation or study as devotion;
    4. the bhūtayajña, , offerings to all beings, the bali, , offering, which may be food thrown into the air and largely consumed by birds; and
    5. the manuṣyayajña, , human (manuṣyā) offerings, through charity or hospitality.

    What we do not see in these specific practices it anything that would discharge the debt to the teacher, unless it is the brahmayajña. Nevertheless, while the number the debts is all but universally given as three, there are texts that add a debt of hospitality as a fourth. Thus, there is a curious connection between the three debts and the five sacrifices, which is reminiscent of that between the three guṇas and the five elements, seen elsewhere. The original three elements clearly match up with the guṇas, but later expand, while the sacrifices may easily be seen as discharging particular debts -- hence the temptation to posit a debt of hospitality. The two systems, however, have resisted complete systematization and identification.

    The burden of the debts and the sacrifices addresses the first and socially most important of the four aims or values of life, the puruṣārtha, . While it has become common to link the puruṣārtha to the āśramas, this is a recent occupation that is based on no classic texts. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to wonder how the aims and the stages of life do relate to each other.

    1. dharma, , the manner of one's duties, determined by caste, sex, and stage of life. Dharma applies in being a student, a householder, and, in attenuated form, a forest dweller. The wandering ascetic is beyond dharma and beyond caste but, however, is restricted to men.
    2. artha, , is material success in life, and the word can mean business, work, profit, utility, wealth, money, and also political experience and knowledge. It can involve practical wisdom at both the personal and public level, like οἰκονομία in Greek. As such, it is a concern only for householders, and not in the least for students, forest dwellers, or wandering ascetics. The householder, indeed, surrenders his possessions to his sons on becoming a forest dweller. However, the wisdom of the forest dweller or even the wandering ascetic sometimes may have application in public affairs. The study, theory, or text on artha is arthaśāstra, . Although previously including works that might be compared to Machiavelli's The Prince, in Hindi, arthaśāstra now just means "economics." For politics, Hindi has a new word, rājtantra, , which is the tantra, the "basis, chief doctrine, theory," of rāj, "kingship."
    3. kāma, , is pleasure, which is a concern that also may be confined to the householder, but it can also exist in attenuated form, or as a matter of yogic practice, in the forest dweller.
    4. mokṣa, , is liberation or salvation, which in Hinduism (as in Jainism and Buddhism) will mean leaving the cycle of rebirth. This is the primary concern and occupation of the forest dweller and the sole concern of the wandering ascetic. The doctrine of karmayoga, , expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, means that liberation can be obtained by the householder in the course of practicing his dharma. Also, we would expect that the life long student, who never becomes a householder, would also have this as an exclusive focus, even while fulfilling his duties to his teacher. Karmayoga, however, has not been a popular practice in modern religion, and is sometimes not even regarded as a means to salvation.

  3. The third stage is the vānaprasthya, , the stage of the forest dweller, or vaikhānasa, , the anchorite. This may be entered into optionally, according to Manu, if (ideally) one's hair has become gray, one's skin wrinkled, and a grandson exists to carry on the family. Husbands and wives may leave their affairs and possessions with their children and retire together to the forest as hermits. A hermit cannot step on plowed land. This does not involve the complete renunciation of the world, for husbands and wives can still build a shelter, a kuṭi, , have sex (once a month), and a sacred fire still should be kept and minimal rituals performed. This stage is thus not entirely free of dharma.

    The Forest Treatises were supposed to have been written by or for forest dwellers, who have mostly renounced the world and have begun to consider liberation. I am not aware that forest dwelling is still practiced in the traditional way. The modern alternatives seem to consist of the more stark opposition between householding and becoming a wandering ascetic. Forest dwelling is an institution that doesn't really develop as such in Jainism and Buddhism, although we do have the Buddha repairing to a forest outside the traveling season -- a practice that will develop into Buddhist monasticism. Hinduism, which might be said to now lack true monasticism -- i.e. there are no monasteries or convents -- nevertheless has mendicants and hermits, where the hermits include these forest dwelling married couples. The idea that husbands and wives would engage in ascetic practices together, without celibacy, would appear extraordinary. In those terms, it is an unfortunate loss if the institution does not continue in modern Hinduism.

    We see a good deal of forest dwelling in the Mahābhārata, where Paṇḍu, who himself is on a kind of retreat with his wives in the forest, hoping to overcome his strange reluctance to consummate his marriages, accidentially kills an adept and his wife, who have assumed the form of animals, in the very act of their copulation -- and so is cursed. Paṇḍu and his wives had previously accepted (non-sexual) instruction from this very couple. Such an episode not only illustrates various uses for forest dwelling, but it reveals that specifically sexual practices can be among them.

    It is ironic that forest dwelling should have become obsolete, when the term āśrama, , originally meant a "heritmage" -- and might consist of the dwellings of multiple couples, other hermits, and an instructing teacher -- and when it continues in modern usage, as Hindi āśram, to mean a spiritual retreat, not unlike the original forest dwelling. The modern Ashram, however, is not seen as part of traditional life and is often associated with non-standard or even disreputable teachings and practices from popular and sometimes heterodox gurus.

  4. The fourth stage is the sannyāsa (sãnyāsa), , or the stage of the wandering ascetic, the sannyāsī (sãnyāsī), , sādhu, , or bikṣu, . If a man desires, he may continue on to this stage, but his wife will need to return home; traditionally she cannot stay alone as a forest dweller or wander the highways as a mendicant ascetic, begging for food. The sannyāsī has renounced the world completely, is regarded as dead by his family (the funeral is held), and is (usually) beyond all dharma and caste. He (usually) surrenders the sacred thread he received when he came of age, and all the sacrifices and rituals of daily life are abandoned.

    Not just ritually but legally the sannyāsī is released from debts and contracts, cannot enter into legal transactions or be a witness in court, and is supposed to be immune from fines, tolls, and taxes. Indeed, with no possessions, it is not clear how an ascetic could be responsible for the latter. When a sannyāsī enters a Hindu temple, he is not a worshiper but one of the subjects of worship. Not even the gods are sannyāsīs (they are householders), and so this is where in Hinduism, as in Jainism and Buddhism, it is possible for human beings to be spiritually superior to the gods.

    It has long been a matter of dispute in Hinduism whether one need really fulfill the requirements of the Laws of Manu (gray hair, etc.) to renounce the world. The Mahābhārata says that Brahmins may go directly to Renunciation, but it also says that the three debts must be paid -- and the debt to the ancestors could only be paid with husbands and wives living together either as householders or, if renunciates, as forest dwellers (indeed, the Pāṇḍavas are all born in that way). There are definitely no such requirements in Jainism or Buddhism. The Buddha left his family right after his wife had a baby, to the distress of his father, which would put him in the middle of his dharma as a householder (today there would be lawsuits). Buddhism and Jainism thus developed monastic institutions, with monks and nuns.

    For a while, it looked like something similar might develop in Hinduism. By the 8th century AD, a Brahmin might enter a monastery, a maṭha, ; but such institutions seem to have died out, and the dharma authorities never recognized a renunicatory way of life apart from mendicancy. Today, while wandering ascetics are rather like mendicant monks, we lack monasteries and nuns, and the Hindu ascetics are, ideally, supposed to have already lived something like a normal, lay life. Of course, there is no certification or enforcement of this, as historically it has been often disputed. Chapter Three of the Bhagavad Gita embodies a debate of just such an issue. Even now, some attempts are made to introduce some kind of Hindu monasticism.

    What if someone renounces the world and changes their mind? Having abandoned caste and dharma, he does not get them back. The authorities regarded an ascetic "apostate" as an Outcaste; and if he marries, his children will also be Outcastes. However, the Mahābhārata contains the extraordinary feature that an ascetic is invited in to sire children on two queens whose husband has just died, leaving no heirs. This is how Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Paṇḍu were themselves conceived. The first is blind because his mother closed her eyes to the frightening aspect of the ascetic, while Paṇḍu is "pale" because of the fright his mother experienced for the same reason.

The four stages of life may, somewhat improbably, be associated with the four parts of the Vedas: the saṃhitās with the stage of the student, who is particularly obligated to learn them; the brāhmaṇas with the stage of the householder, who is able to regulate his ritual behavior according to them; the āraṇyakas with the stage of the forest dweller, who regulates his ritual behavior according to them and who begins to contemplate liberation; and finally the upaniṣads with the stage of the wandering ascetic, who is entirely concerned with meditation on the absolute, Brahman.

The twice born may account for perhaps 18% of Indians -- with Brahmins alone counting for about 4.3%. The Śūdras, perhaps 50% of Indians, may represent the institutional provision that the Arya made for the people they already found in India. The Śūdras thus remain once born, and traditionally were not allowed to learn Sanskrit or study the Vedas -- on pain of death. Their dharma is to work for the twice born.

But even below the Śūdras are the Untouchables, (aspṛśya), "not to be touched," 16.6% of Indians, who are literally "outcastes," (jātibhraṣṭa), without a varṇa, and were regarded as "untouchable" because they are ritually polluting for caste Hindus. Having much the same status are "scheduled tribes," who were overlooked in the original caste classification, about 8.6% of Indians. So Untouchables, as "scheduled castes," and the "scheduled tribes" add up to 25.2% of the population. Some Untouchable subcastes are regarded as so polluted that members are supposed to keep out of sight and do their work at night:  They are called "Unseeables."

In India, the term "Untouchable" is now regarded as insulting or politically incorrect (like Eta in Japan for the traditional tanners and pariahs). Gandhi's Harijans, ("children of God"), or Dalits, ("downtrodden"), are prefered, though to Americans "Untouchables" would sound more like the gangster-busting federal agent Elliot Ness from the 1920's. Why there are so many Untouchables is unclear, although caste Hindus can be ejected from their jātis and become outcastes and various tribal or formerly tribal people in India may never have been properly integrated into the social system. When Mahātmā Gandhi's subcaste refused him permission to go to England, as noted above, he went anyway and was ejected from the caste. After he returned, his family got him back in, but while in England he was technically an outcaste. Existing tribal people as well as Untouchables are also called the "scheduled castes" or "scheduled tribes," since the British drew up a "schedule" listing the castes that they regarded as backwards, underprivileged, or oppressed.

The Untouchables, nevertheless, have their own traditional professions and their own subcastes. Those professions (unless they can be evaded in the greater social mobility of modern, urban, anonymous life) involve too much pollution to be performed by caste Hindus:

  1. Dealing with the bodies of dead animals (like the sacred cattle that wander Indian villages) or unclaimed dead humans. The caste charged with conducting cremations on the ghats (ghāṭ, ) at Benares, the most sacred place for a funeral in India, nevertheless is itself of Untouchables -- castes dealing with corpses may specifically be called cāṇḍāla (cãḍāla), , castes [note];
  2. Tanning leather, from such dead animals, and manufacturing leather goods. India exports many leather products, which are then identified as from India, but not necessarily from Untouchable tanners; and
  3. Cleaning up the human and animal waste for which in traditional villages there is no sewer system. Mahātmā Gandhi referred to the latter euphemistically as "scavenging" but saw in it the most horrible thing imposed on the Untouchables by the caste system. Latrines might be cleaned out by hand, or with no instrument more modern than a piece of cardboard. Gandhi's requirement on his farms in South Africa that everyone share in such tasks, certainly with better tools, comes up in an early scene in the movie Gandhi [1982], where Gandhi insists that his wife join in the work, and she refuses.

Since Gandhi equated suffering with holiness, he saw the Untouchables as hallowed by their miserable treatment and so called them "Harijans" (Hari=Viṣṇu). Later Gandhi went on fasts in the hope of improving the condition of the Untouchables, or at least to avoid their being politically classified as non-Hindus. That Untouchables have over time had recourse by conversion to other religions, most recently Buddhism or the Baha'i Faith, but historically mostly to Islām, has added an element of caste prejudice to Hindu-Muslim relations.

Today the status of the Śūdras, Untouchables, and other "scheduled castes," and the preferential policies that the Indian government has designed for their advancement ever since Independence, are sources of serious conflict, including suicides, murders, and riots, in Indian society. Meanwhile, however, especially since economic liberalization began in 1991, the social mobility of a modern economy and urban life has begun to disrupt traditional professions, and oppressions, even of Untouchables. Village life and economic stasis were the greatest allies of the caste system, but both are slowly retreating before modernity in an India that finally gave up the Soviet paradigm of economic planning. However, in such a large country, with much of the population still in rural areas, and with some jurisdictions, such as Bengal, still celebrating Communist ideology and economics, Indian society still has a long way to go.

The most complete treatment of the āśramas that I know of is in The Āśrama System, The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution, by Patrick Olivelle [Oxford, 1993]. Much of the information here is now from this source, even when it is not specifically referenced. Earlier sources include The Philosophical Traditions of India, by P. T. Raju [University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971], which I had in a course while obtaining my Masters degree in Philosophy at the University of Hawai'i, 1972-1974.

The images of representatives of the four varṇas above are taken The Horizon History of the British Empire, edited by Stephen W. Sears [American Heritage Publishing/BBC/Time-Life Books/McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973]. Occasionally I receive inquiries about the source of the images or requests for permission to reuse them. Without holding the copyright, I cannot give permission for their commercial use; and I don't think that the quality of the reproductions here warrants their inclusion in more polished productions. They are featured on this page under the rubrick of the "fair use" of copyrighted material, since they represent very little of the original work, are not used here for sale or profit, and their inclusion can involve no financial loss or harm to the original publisher and copyright holder. Since the original work was published more than 40 years ago, the original copyright should have lapsed, except that they keep extending the duration of copyright, and I have not kept up with the new numbers. The provenance of the images themselves is not given in the original work, in line with the more casual attitude of the time; and if they are actually reproductions from some traditional Indian source (as they look, or are made to look), then they have always been in the public domain and their inclusion in The Horizon History constitutes no claim on them.

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The Caste System and
the Stages of Life in Hinduism; Note 1; Suttee

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853), History of General Sir Charles Napier's Administration of Scinde [i.e. Sindh], and Campaign in the Cutchee Hills, by William Francis Patrick Napier (1785-1860), Chapman and Hall, London, 1851

The idea that suttee, , was just a way of protecting widows from rape by British soldiers was seriously asserted to my wife by an Indian woman, an academic, at a conference. I expect it is something widely believed. However, suttee is attested long before the British arrived in India, or even existed. Thus, the practice was observed among the Hindus of Java in 1407 by the Chinese who sailed there under Admiral He. Most remarkably, we have an extended account of it by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus.

As it happened, there was an contingent from India in the army of Eumenes, one of the Successors of Alexander the Great. At the battle of Paraetacene in 317 BC, the leader of this group was Ceteus, Κητεύς, and we get this account from Diodorus:

Ceteus, the general of the soldiers who had come from India, was killed in the battle after fighting brilliantly, but he left two wives who had accompanied him in the army. One of them a bride, the other married to him some years before, but both of them loving him deeply... the Indians... established a law that wives, except such as were pregnant or had children, should be cremated along with their deceased husbands, and that one who was not willing to obey this law should not only be a widow for life but also be entirely debarred from sacrifices and other religious observances as unclean. When these laws had been established... they not only cared for the safety of their husbands, as it were their own, but they even vied with each other as for a very great honour.

Such rivalry appeared on this occasion. Although the law ordered only one of Ceteus' wives to be cremated with him, both of them appeared at his funeral, contending for the right of dying with him as for a prize of valour. When the generals undertook to decide the matter, the younger wife claimed that the other was pregnant and for that reason could not take advantage of the law; and the elder asserted that more justly should the one who had the precedence in years have precedence also in honour, for in all other matters those who are older are regarded as having great precedence over the younger in respect and in honour. The generals, ascertaining from those skilled in midwifery that the elder was pregnant, decided for the younger. When this happened, the one who had lost the decision departed weeping, rending the wreath that was about her head and tearing her hair, just as if some great disaster had been announced to her; but the other, rejoicing in her victory, went off to the pyre crowned with fillets that her maidservants bound upon her head, and magnificently dressed as if for a wedding she was escorted by her kinsfolk, who sang a hymn in honour of her virtue... she was assisted to mount the pyre by her brother, and while the multitude that had gathered for the spectacle watched with amazement, she ended her life in heroic fashion... stirring some of those who beheld her to pity, others to extravagant praise. Nevertheless some of the Greeks denounced the custom as barbarous [ἄγριος, "wild, savage, fierce, brutal"] and cruel [χαλεπός, "harsh, grievous, painful, severe"]. [Diodorus of Sicily, Volume IX, translated by Russel M. Geer, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1947, 1962, pp.319-323]

This extended and detailed passage, which I have abbreviated, is remarkable in several respects. Like what the Chinese observed on Java, this event does not even occur in India, but in Persia. Nevertheless, the women are among their own countrymen and family and are not acting out of any concern beyond their own customs. We also might note that if a widow were being killed to be protected from rape, it is odd that only one out of two should benefit from that protection. And then there is the date, which is in the 4th century BC, contemporaneous with the reign of Chandragupta Maurya in India. This probably antedates even the great epics, the and the , in which the practice is attested.

Although a correspondent has denied this, in the Rāmāyaṇa the virtuous follows her husband , the 7th Incarnation of Viṣṇu, to the funeral pyre. However, there are versions of the Rāmayana where Rāma outlives Sītā because she has vanished into the Earth, whence she had been born. So one could deny the suttee of Sītā in good faith.

However, of the two wives of in the Mahābhārata, the younger, , follows her husband in death, as in the story from Diodorus. The older wife, , stays with the children.

Other references to suttee can be found in "Hobson-Jobson," A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, by Henry Yule & A.C. Burnell [1886, 1985, Curzon Press, 1995]. Yule and Burnell cite Strabo (c. 20 BC), St. Jerome (c. 390 AD), Marco Polo (1298), Ibn Batuta (c.1343), and many others referring or attesting to the practice of suttee [pp.879-882]. There can be little doubt that the practice was of ancient and venerated observance and had nothing to do with modern imperialism or the British.

Why it occurred at all is a good question. According to the Laws of Manu, widowers can remarry, and are expected to, but widows cannot. As even reported by Diodorus, widows cannot engage in religious rites. However, this is also true for widowers, until they remarried. Vedic household rites require a married couple. In turn, widows cannot return to their birth family and are thrown on the mercy of their in-laws. Without children, it will not be obvious to the in-laws why such a woman should be supported, even minimally, the rest of her life. And in arranged marriages, the normal tensions and estrangements between young brides and their in-laws are liable to go beyond even the lore of such things familiar in the West. The motive to be rid of the widow will be strong, and everything from forceful encouragement to force itself is to be expected. Recent cases of suttee in India, initially investigated as suicides (with the attendant crime of "assisting in a suicide"), evolved into murder cases. The British, having nothing to do with the origin of suttee, are the ones who made it illegal.

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The Caste System and
the Stages of Life in Hinduism; Note 2; Benares

The name of the sacred city of Benares in Hindi is Banāras, . In Sanskrit the name is Vārāṇasī, . The appearance of a Hindi "b" for Sanskrit "v" is something we also see elsewhere, as in the Hindi name of the month for Sanskrit . We also see this "b/v" correspondence in the name of the Beas River.

Curiously, the Sanskrit name has become the standard politically correct name for Benares, despite the perfectly good name in Hindi, and despite the Sanskrit name containing a letter for a retroflex sound that does not exist as an independent phoneme in Hindi. For anyone not deliberately pronouncing the name as Sanskrit, the is pronounced like an ordinary dental .

I am intrigued about how something like this happens. The English name "Benares" is simply based on the name in Hindi, which is the dominant language of the region. Yet people seem to think that names like this get changed in order to reject the history of British imperialism. But the British had nothing to do with it. Restoring a Sanskrit name would seem to involve a rejection of most of the history of India. And if "imperialism" has any relevance, perhaps this would be a rejection of the Empire of the Moghul Emperors, under whom the modern form of Hindi developed. This does not seem to be candidly admitted.

Even stranger is when I see the name "Varanasi" given in Urdu, using the Arabic alphabet, i.e. as . I have examined elsewhere how Hindi and Urdu are in origin the same language, previously called "Hindustani." Hindustani from the beginning contained an element of Arabic and Persian, which persists even in Hindi. The languages diverge when Hindi borrows or substitutes words from Sanskrit, and Urdu continues to draw on Arabic and Persian. Urdu does not borrow words from Sanskrit. Its speakers would have no reason or inclination to do so.

Thus, I find it incredible that "Varanasi" would actually be used in Urdu; and given the Muslim origin of Hindustani, it is preposterous that Muslims would have an interest in losing the history of their own language in order to adopt a name from Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. This is at a whole different level of values, if not conflict, from the State of Maharaśtra rejecting the English and Hindi names of Bombay on behalf of the name "Mumbai" in the Marathi language. My suspicion, therefore, is that the Urdu version of the name "Varanasi" has been hopefully produced and offered by someone trying to introduce political correctness into the usage of Urdu speakers, i.e. Muslims. For all I know, this may be succeeding; but I would be astonished.

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