Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Hindu class systems vs. cultures and communities in general

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Hindu class systems vs. cultures and communities in general

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters

Hindu class systems vs. cultures and communities in general

Some, feeling that they lack any interest in Eastern religions, may have the impulse to skip this one. They would miss a thought-provoking exercise in comparing and contrasting that could be very relevant to their own communities and values.

The traditional Hindu class system is anchored in sacred scripture, and many generations of tradition. Hinduism, in part, defines itself by compliance to class distinctions, and so Hinduism fits very coherently with the class system of India. Class systems are common in most religious and cultural systems, including contemporary America.

 In Hinduism, the separation of groups helps to maintain ritual purity. An unclean interaction in society can prevent a higher class member from performing their ritual responsibilities in behalf of others. Each class (varna) has its defined and accepted role (dharma). For instance, sacred learning, community rites, and sacrifice are reserved for the Brahman (priestly) class.

Other Hindu religious classes are defined according to societal place. The warrior class (Kshatriya) serves for defense and administration. Producers (Vaishya) are responsible as businessmen, merchants, and for higher crafts. Menials (Shudra) provide
services including domestic labor. 
Another, lower, group is not even allowed the dignity of a named class. They are expected to do unclean work including anything having to do with death or waste. For instance, both hunters and funeral workers become unclean. Because they do unclean work, they remain unclean and are therefore considered untouchable and obliged to avoid polluting others.

The Hindu belief system invokes both religious and social duties. Hinduism is such an integral part of everyday conduct of life that the two cannot be separated. Hindu practice requires the support of a community, the larger the community the more effective. One’s life is properly conducted within relationships to family, community, and the gods. For traditional Hindus, these relationships conform with the enduring order of the world and are immutable. This overarching sense of identity gives meaning to life.

Tradition has superimposed an even finer division into several thousand distinctive birth castes (Jati). Traditionally, each caste is expected to keep to itself for the purposes of marriage, meals, occupations, and public congregating. The festival of Holi, popular in Northern India, is an exception. It is a period of social abandon; many usual restrictions are temporarily ignored, in symbol of destruction and re-creation.

[I have begun to use the term “culture” as distinct from “society.” In this sense, culture refers to the shared traditions of people who identify together as “us.” They often share values and traditions. Society would be the conventions adopted for relating to those identified as “not us.” In this sense, Hinduism has formed a distinctive culture among its various believers. India has formed a distinctive society, embracing its Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, etc. populations. Of course, not everybody identifies themselves with groups at the same level, so this distinction is useful but an only-partial disambiguation. While some individuals identify primarily with a family, church, school, village, or a region, others consider themselves primarily members of a nation, race, species, or planetary population.]

One conclusion about Hindu classes might be that a pervasive religion tightly regulates and directs cultures and communities. Communities are, by their very nature, intrusive and coercive. That is to say that people who group closely together, especially in more-intimate rural communities, know each other well, form independent traditions and expectations for behavior, and willingly communicate their expectations. One effect of this is evident when neighbors commonly take responsibility to redirect each other’s children as necessary.

 A shared religion can be very effective in uniting communities. Not every religion achieves high conformity to everyday social ideals at every level. In Catholicism, for instance, a tradition of indulgences, confession, and penance can allow a higher level of personal discretion in conduct as long as it does not directly impact observation of sacraments.

Communities do not need religion to maintain tight coherence. An urban gang can enforce their values, using intrusive and coercive means similar to other communities. Economist Peter F. Drucker, for one, advocates the creation of voluntary community systems within urban environments. The intent is for these social systems to promote productive and salutary values and encourage lives of commendable virtue.

For Drucker, the goal is to repair the sense of independent self-indulgence that he sees burgeoning in contemporary American urban society. I doubt whether he cared to distinguish between the uniting effects of church social halls, the Library Lovers Clubs, civic beautification leagues, or the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.

The constitution of India, produced at their independence from the British, officially abolished the caste system. Still, a system of classes is endemic in India. This should not be surprising. Both Eastern and Western religions commonly maintain a hierarchy from unbeliever, to layman, to officiate, to saint. Cultures also commonly maintain rankings based on social, educational, racial, economic, and other forms of status.