|Watch the videos, read the material, and then respond to the questions at the bottom of the page.|
The Varnas seem to date back to the Vedic age. ... Over time,
Vedic religion was increasingly controlled by the Brahmins,
and contact between castes was limited. Varna membership became
caste system became a significant aspect of Indian life, although many
Hindus questioned its rules, particularly with respect to spiritual
capabilities. Many medieval bhakti poets of low caste challenged the
restrictions that kept them out of temples, asserting that the gods
accepted sincere devotion even from those of the lowest status. Since
the nineteenth century, many Hindu leaders and groups have challenged
and rejected caste distinctions. Mahatma Gandhi renamed the lowest caste Harijans,
“the children of God.” Finding this designation condescending, a
segment of this population who are pressing for better status and
opportunities now refer to themselves as Dalits (oppressed).
In 1948 the stigma of “untouchability” was legally abolished, though many caste distinctions still linger in modern India. Marriage across caste lines, for instance, is still usually disapproved of and families typically try to maintain Jati endogamy when arranging marriages. ... The division of labor represented by the Varnas is part of Hinduism’s strong emphasis on social duties and sacrifice of individual desires for the sake of social order. The Vedas, other scriptures, and historical customs have all conditioned the Indian people to accept their social roles. These were set out in religious-legal texts such as the Code of Manu, compiled 100-300 CE. In it are laws governing all aspects of life, including the proper conduct of rulers, dietary restrictions, marriage laws, daily rituals, purification rites, social laws, and ethical guidance. It prescribed hospitality to guests and the cultivation of such virtues as contemplation, truthfulness, compassion, nonattachment, generosity, pleasant dealings with people, and self-control. It condemned “untouchables” to living outside villages, eating only from broken dishes. On the other hand, the code proposed charitable giving as the sacred duty of the upper castes, and thus provided a safety net for those at the bottom of this hierarchical system. (Living Religions, 93-5)
At the level of spiritual ideals, the female is highly venerated in Hinduism, compared to many other religions. Women are thought to make major contributions to the good earthly life, which includes dharma (order in society), marital wealth (by bearing sons in a patriarchal society), and the aesthetics of sensual pleasure. ... Women were not traditionally encouraged to seek liberation through their own spiritual practices. A woman’s role is usually linked to that of her husband, who takes the position of her god and teacher. For many centuries, there was even the hope that a widow would choose to be cremated alive with her dead husband in order to remain united with him after death.
In early Vedic times, women were relatively free and honored members of Indian society, participating equally in important spiritual rituals. But because of social changes, by the nineteenth century wives had become like servants of the husband’s family. With expectations that a girl will take a large dowry to a boy’s family in a marriage arrangement, girls are such an economic burden that female babies may be intentionally aborted or killed at birth. There are also cases today of women being beaten or killed by the husband’s family after their dowry has been handed over — an atrocity that occurs in various Indian communities, not only among Hindus.
Nevertheless, many women in contemporary India have been well educated, and many have attained high political positions. As in the past, women are also considered essential to the spiritual protection of their families, for they are thought to have special connections with the deities. Married women carry on daily worship of the deities in their homes, and also fasts and rituals designed to bring good health, prosperity, and long life for their family members. (Living Religions, 106-7)
Reflection Paper 24
Choose one of the following two topics: