I’m still thinking about…

I'm still thinking about that Ramayana retelling call, and decided to go back and re-read some of the Ramayana. Found this bit in the Dutt translation, which is part of the opening introduction of Ayodhya, the Righteous City, a supposed haven of wealth and happiness for its populace:

Altar blazed in every mansion, from each home was bounty given,
'Stooped no man to fulsome falsehood, questioned none the will of Heaven.

Kshatras bowed to holy Brahmans, Vaisyas to the Kshatras bowed
Toiling Sudras lived by labour, of their honest duty proud,

And it's just reminding me of the similarities to the Edmund Burke piece I had my students read a few weeks ago. He was in England, talking about the glories of the monarchy and the dangers of democracy. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it, the way these caste / class ideas were so entrenched, that people really believed a) that the gods had ordained your stature in life, and b) it was immoral and just generally wrong to try to cross those caste / class lines. (Either by shifting status yourself, or by marrying outside your group.) The idea that if anyone did dare to question their state, it was a danger to society at large. Which of course it was, since society as it stood depended on those hierarchies, but still, that people at every level except perhaps the very lowest would be so invested in maintaining the system. I guess if you aren't already at the bottom, there's the fear of falling to keep you invested in propping up the structure.

I'm of Kshatriya caste, which I gather is relatively high up there. Warriors and rulers, with only the priests above us. Kevin, of course, is casteless, and I imagine my children are as well? I remember talking with my father about all this at one point -- and my dad is generally speaking an educated and liberal-minded sort of guy. But he was talking about how unheard of it would have been for a Kshatriya to marry a Sudra, for example. And how, when he was growing up, he pretty much accepted that as the way things were. My mother once told me that everyone in our family had married within caste. EVERYONE. Easier to manage in an arranged marriage system, of course, but still, some of my relatives did have love marriages. And still. I find it sort of amazing that none of them tried to buck the system. But I gather the penalties were pretty severe.

According to Wikipedia, when the whole caste system started, it was merit-based, not hereditary. Movement was possible. But over time, it became rigid. Those in power wanted to stay in power, I guess.

Initially in ancient Vedic society, this position was achieved on the merits of a person's aptitude, conduct, and nature. The earliest Vedic literature listed the Kshatriya (holders of kṣatra, or authority) as first in rank], second the Brahmins (priests and teachers of law), before the Vaisya (merchant-traders, farmers and some artisan castes), and the Sudra (labourers, some farming castes and other artisan castes). Movements of individuals and groups from one class to another, both upward and downward, were not uncommon; a rise in status even to the rank of Kshatriya was a recognized reward for outstanding service to the rulers of the day. Over the years it became hereditary.

7 thoughts on “I’m still thinking about…”

  1. i suspect that even the sudras worked very hard to keep that system in place. either this is the way it was Meant To Be and the Gods Had Decreed It, or else the rest of society was actively working to make your life that bad. and it’s just more pleasant to believe the first of those, which means that you then very much resist anyone saying that this is a changeable system, because it means you’ve bought into a lie. so you work to have it not change, not be changeable.

    a lot of systems work this way; fgm hurts women but is primarily enforced by women. the american feminine beauty standard hurts women but is primarily enforced by women. etcetera.

  2. This reminds me of an incident I read about a year or so ago when Prince Charles was interviewing a potential personal secretary. She asked him what the opportunities for advancement in the job might be. He became angry and said that some people nowadays just do not know their place. She did not get the job.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    David, that’s fascinating!

    And Betsyl, I’m sure you’re right. Human psychology is strange!

    But just to clarify, I don’t think Sudras are at the bottom — below them are the untouchables.

  4. One of my professors once said to me, “Ideology is what makes people fall in love with people of their own race, class, and educational background.” It was a disturbing and very, very convincing definition.

    I see far more interracial dating and marriage than twenty years ago, but I don’t see a big jump in cross-class relationships. Almost any, in fact.

  5. Riffing on what Jessie said: I think that a lot of this stuff, in any society, is largely invisible to anyone immersed in it.

    Despite the lack of caste per se in the US, and despite the Cinderella stories we Americans love to tell about cross-class mobility, the Not Our Kind, Dear attitude still exists. A quick search just now led me to an interesting, though perhaps only tangentially related, blog entry titled “NOKD: Class Divisions In Teenage Internet Use.”

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