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Religion and the Conflict Theory:

Hinduism and the Caste System



Religion is a group of beliefs, practices, and philosophical values shared by a group of people. Thousands of religions exist in the world today. Hinduism is one of the major religions and it is primarily practiced in India. Many of the texts sacred to Hindus have been used to support the rigid caste system of India. To the conflict theorist, this use of religion to justify the caste system demonstrates one more attempt of the upper class to suppress the lower class.

1. What is the caste system?

The caste system is a rigid social system, a hierarchy that determines occupation, marriage partners, rank, and communal responsibilities. In India position is determined by parental position, and it is impossible to move up in class.



2. How did it originate?

The caste system frames the moral and religious obligations of Hindus. Scholars believe that Hinduism began as early as the 3rd millenium BC. It was during this time period, around 1500 BC that the Aryans of Persia invaded the Indus valley civilization of the Dravidians. The Aryans came from Persia (now Iran) and they brought with them their class system.

3. How is it divided?

Originally, the Aryans divided their society into 3 classes according to occupations:

1. Brahmins - priests

2. Kashatriyas - warriors

3. Farmers, craftsmen, and business men

When the light-skinned Aryans took over, they made the dark-skinned Dravidians the fourth class - slaves. To justify their hierarchy, the Brahmin priests then enforced their class divisions when they wrote their religious books - the 'Vedas'.

Basically, it began as an elaboration on the Vedic system of ‘varnas’ (colors).

"Hinduism." Dictionary of the History of Ideas. vol 4.

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4. What did the priests write to justify the caste system?

"When they divided the Purusa, into how many parts did they arrange him? What was his mouth? What his two arms? What are his thighs and feet called? The brahmin was his mouth, his two arms were made the rajanya (warrior), his two thighs the vaisya (trader and agriculturalist), from his feet the sudra (servile class) was born."


5. What is the conflict theory?

Karl Marx, the founder of the conflict theory, believed that the rich/powerful (Bourgeoisie) used social institutions (i.e. religion) to keep the lower classes (Proletariat) suppressed. The Marxists Theory consists of a system where the Bourgeoisie who own production exploit the Proletariat who only own their own labor.

6. What does the conflict theory say about religion?

According to the conflict theory the upper classes instituted religion in such a way that they kept control while at the same time they pacified the lower classes by promising a better life.

7. How does the conflict theory tie into Hinduism?

In the early stages of the present day caste system, birth had nothing to do with the class you were in it was all based upon occupation. Later, after conquering the Dravidians, in order to prevent mixing with their lowly subjects, the Aryan caste system evolved into a hereditary system. Because the origin of the present day caste system was a product of the Aryans sense of racial superiority, and it became ingrained in the beliefs of Hinduism, it does support the conflict theorists’ belief that religion is used to suppress the lower classes.

8. How does Hinduism support the caste system as a position determined by birth?

One of the main beliefs of Hinduism is that of Karma. Karma is a doctrine that holds that the fate of a person has been determined by the deeds of a past life. Therefore, if you are born into a prospering life it is a merit from good deeds of your past, however, if you are born into suffering in this life you deserve it as a punishment for deeds of your past.

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9. How does Hinduism support the idea that one cannot move up in the caste system?

Inability to escape your caste is supported by combining the belief in karma with that of dharma. Dharma is the moral code, or duty, that each caste has. It stipulates the duties of the members of its caste, among which are maintaining the family, and ceremonies. It is the concept of dharma that maintains that the correct behavior for a warrior is not necessarily the correct behavior for a priest. An example of the role of dharma in the caste system can be exhibited by punishments. In ancient times the punishment for crimes was adjusted by caste. A thief who was a Brahmin was punished eight times severely as a Sudra thief. To be a good Hindu one is supposed to follow their karma and dharma, and by doing this it is impossible to escape their position in life.

Culture Shock

"Better is one's own dharma, though imperfectly performed, than the dharma of another well performed.

"Men who commit adultery with the wives of others, the king shall cause to be marked by punishments which cause terror, and afterwards banish. For by (adultery) is caused a mixture of the castes; thence (follows) sin, which cuts up even the roots and causes the destruction of everything."

10. What is the recent condition of Indian society?

Marxists would call the modern day groups the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the underclass.

Intelligentsia - priests - Brahmans

Bourgeoisie - warriors - Ksatriya

Petty-Bourgeoisie - merchants, traders, farmers - Vaisya

Proletariat - laborers servants - Sudra

underclass - untouchables - Harijans

11. What are the untouchables?

The untouchables are the lowest of the Indian groups. Originally they had the darkest skin and were suspected of being pure Dravidian. Today they are the people born into the worst type of poverty. They are given occupations such as butchers, executioners, undertakers, tanners, grave diggers, sweepers, and scavengers. Often the untouchables live in isolated villages outside towns and are required to use their own temples and wells. Because of their station in life they are required to be extremely careful in avoiding "polluting" members of the other castes by any sort of physical contact or sometimes even sight. These untouchables account for 1/7 of India’s population.

12. Have their been any attempts to end the inequalities of the caste system?

Many Indian reformers have attacked the caste system.

The modern industrial society of India has begun its reforms, the first of which has been outlawing the concept of the untouchables by abolishing it in a separate clause in India’s constitution. Although this has helped the situation a little, the problem of caste prejudice still exists. To escape the caste system many Indians of today, as well as in the past, have converted to Christianity. Unlike the doctrines of Hinduism, those of Christianity hold that all men are equal. Although these Indians have escaped the caste system within their religion they still have not escaped the discrimination of their society.

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