Yoga and the Caste System

Indian society is complex and colorful Photo: Maxime Bhm

What has Yoga got to do with the caste system? Nothing! Yoga originated and developed outside the bounds of society.

While the Hindu society placed great importance on the group, spiritual seeking always emphasized the individual. Salvation and knowledge of the Truth were always open to all, irrespective of caste or sex. Vedanta, Yoga and Tantra developed outside of mainstream Hindu society in forest retreats and cave monasteries. The seeker renounced family, community, caste and was free from all social obligations to seek salvation. Seeking of salvation is an individual journey and no dogmas were attached to the seeker. 

Ancient Hindu Society

The organization of society in India was called the caste system or "varnas". There were four main castes or groups in the Hindu society. The Brahmins were the custodians of knowledge, the ancient equivalent of a modern white collar worker. The Kshatriyas were the warrior ruling class, a bit like the politicians today. The Vaishyas were the merchants, traders and bankers, akin to our business community. The Shudras were the manual workers, with a social status similar to the blue collar workers in a modern industrialized society.

Thus the varna system was nothing more than a stratification of society. This social stratification was not rigid and it was possible to move between varnas. This movement was unusual as it was obvious for the son of a farmer to become a farmer and the son of a carpenter to learn the trade from his father in an era when there were no vocational schools. This social phenomenon was practiced in most parts of the world.

Modern Hindu Society

However, over centuries this social structure grew rigid. Later ideas of purity and power introduced by the Brahmins to maintain their position of advantage in the society corrupted the system. The concept of "jati" or birth was introduced and linked to the caste system in order to seek validation from the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. Thus the jati system was a social evil and not a religious one.

However, since independence from colonial powers in 1947, the political system of democracy, wide spread education and the recent economic developments have removed the ills of the jati system from modern India. There are still pockets in remote areas of India where the jati system as a social phenomenon is observed. This is a socio-economic problem masquerading as a religious problem.


Scott from L.A.:
That's interesting! That is the best and most simple explanation I have read. I teach yoga and I get this question occasionally. So, I finally know what to say. Thanks.

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