Back To CourseReligion 101: Intro to World Religions
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Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.
My high school was privileged to have one of the best World Cultures teachers of all time! I say this with confidence because several decades after leaving his class, I still remember his unit on the caste systems of Hinduism. The man was amazing.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, I've decided to transport us back to the late 80s (the very, very late 80s, I might add!) and use my high school experience to teach you about the rather foreign concept of Hindu castes. As we do this, remember this is a true story with just a few names changed in order to make it easier for us to grasp.
For starters, Mr. Scote would begin his unit by giving us a lecture on the intricate nature of the Hindu caste system. We'd take notes as he explained it was a complex system of boundaries and stratification within Hindu society.
To be honest, we'd all start getting a little bored as he wrote the words Laws of Manu on the board and told us it was the ancient Hindu text from which the castes were formed.
When he listed the Hindu castes on the board, slowly writing out the words Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, we all hoped beyond hope that the test would be multiple choice since we couldn't even pronounce the words, let alone spell them for an essay! Just when we thought all was lost, he wrote the word Untouchables under the four castes and then told us to put our pencils down. What came next was the stuff of legend.
Mr. Scote pulled out a decorative Hindu hat and had each of us to reach in and grab a slip of paper. On each was written a Hindu caste. As we pulled it out, he said, 'Welcome to your new caste!' He then spent the remainder of the class explaining to us that the whole high school would be under the rules of the ancient Hindu culture for the entire week. With a smile, he then added that which caste we drew would have lots to do with how much we liked or despised the next week of our lives.
My friend, Bart, became a Brahmin, while Kirk became a Kshatriya. Vince joined the Vaishya, and Sam was a Shudra. I, most unfortunately, drew the title of Untouchable. Once all our hands had reached into that fateful hat, our lesson began.
We soon learned that Bart the Brahmin had the best seat in the house, literally! As a Brahmin, Bart was allowed to bring in a bean bag from home and comfortably lounge during class.
It didn't take us long to figure out that to be a Brahmin meant you were at the top of the system! In fact, we learned that Bart's Brahmin class was the priestly class of Hindu society, and they were the only class allowed to teach the sacred Hindu texts, known as the Vedas. Obviously, this gave them lots of clout. These guys were considered the best of society!
To get this point across, Mr. Scote made all of us stand and listen while Bart the Brahmin sat comfortably on his bean bag chair and read translated excerpts of the text! It was torture.
After about five minutes into Bart the Brahmin's recitations, Mr. Scote told Kirk, our Kshatriya, that he could sit down next to Bart and listen as he continued to read. He then informed us that as a member of the Kshatriya caste, Kirk would have been a king or a ruler in Hindu society.
As a member of this caste, Kirk the Kshatriya was allowed to learn but not teach the Vedas. In other words, Kirk was also a big shot. This became very obvious when Kirk and Bart were actually allowed to eat in the teacher's lounge for the whole week. They even got to use the teachers' private bathrooms!
Making matters worse, the rest of us were told we must yield to them in the lunch lines and the halls! Again, it was torture. The only saving grace was when Mr. Scote informed Kirk the Kshatriya that he should never abuse his power. As a member of the ruling class, it was his duty to protect the people of his culture. We learned this duty was known as dharma.
As the week unfolded, we learned more and more about the Hindu caste system, and the cafeteria held some of our biggest lessons. As I said before, being members of the upper Brahmin and Kshatriya castes, Bart and Kirk got to eat in the teachers' lounge.
The rest of us weren't quite so lucky. When we got to the cafeteria, the first thing I noticed was Vince was running the cash register at the end of the lunch line. Next to him was Mr. Scote, explaining that as a member of the Vaishya caste, Vince would have engaged in money-making activities as a businessman, tradesman, or farmer. This tie to money gave them their value in society. To get this point across, Vince and his fellow Vaishya would be running the lunch line and the school store. If we needed any school supplies or if we wanted extra cheese on our sandwich, they'd be the guys we'd have to go to.
As we started shuffling into the lunch line, Mr. Scote let the upper caste, Bart the Brahmin and Kirk the Kshatriya, cut in line. When we saw that Vince the Vaishya didn't make them pay for their ice cream, the rest of us were ready to mutiny. However, Mr. Scote calmly raised his hand and reminded us we were no longer democratized Americans. We were members of the Hindu caste system. From there, the day got worse.
When Sam the Shudra finally was able to get his lunch, he moved to sit at his regular table. There he was stopped by the teacher on lunch duty and informed that as a member of the lowest caste of Hindu society, he would be sitting on the floor to eat his lunch. Of course, Sam the Shudra looked around for someone sane to step in, but he soon realized all the teachers were in on it.
Dejected, Sam took his place on the floor with the other Shudra. When he was informed that as a Shudra he was pretty much a servant to the higher castes, we all thought he was going to lose it. When Bart the Brahmin and Kirk the Kshatriya came out of the teachers' lounge and made Sam the Shudra take their trays back up to the counter, I think he may have hit them if it weren't for the watchful eye of Mr. Scote.
Watching all of this, I felt pity for Sam and his Shudra class. This pity soon evaporated when I learned what it meant to be an Untouchable.
As an Untouchable, I wasn't even given the honor of a caste. In fact, I was so low, I was outside of the caste system, a true outcast of society. As an Untouchable, I was either a product of a mixed marriage between castes or I held a job that was considered forbidden. For instance, I may have worked with leather. Since it was forbidden for Hindus to touch dead cows and since leather comes from the hide of dead cows, my job would make me an Untouchable.
No matter what had landed me in the Untouchables, I soon learned it was a horrible place to be. For example, while Sam the Shudra was considered a servant of the society, at least he was still part of society. I, on the other hand, was not. When I went to pay Vince the Vaishya for my lunch, Mr. Scote told me I wasn't allowed to eat with anyone else because no one in Hindu society would ever dine with an Untouchable. Instead, I had to wait until the cafeteria cleared out, then I could take my lunch to the janitor's closet and join the rest of the Untouchables for a quick meal.
While we were all crammed in that tiny space, Mr. Scote came and informed us we were hereby prohibited from using the main stairs, the water fountains, and the main bathrooms. If we needed to relieve ourselves, we could use the bathrooms at the rear of the gym. Adding insult to injury, he added that we were no longer permitted to talk in any common areas nor would we be conversing with any members outside of the Untouchables. He then handed each of us a huge black sign to hang around our necks; on it in big red lettering was the word Untouchable.
As we hung the sign around our necks, Mr. Scote turned to leave but then turned and impactfully said, 'Did you know it wasn't until the mid 1900s that laws were passed against the discrimination of Untouchables? But even then, it didn't really stop. Just imagine if this were real.'
And with that, Mr. Scote cemented the Hindu caste system into our young minds, teaching us more than a textbook or lecture ever could.
The Hindu caste system is a complex stratification of Hindu society. Formed from the Laws of Manu, it has governed much of Hindu history.
At the top of Hindu society were the Brahmin. As members of this caste, Brahmins made up the priestly caste of Hindu society. For them was reserved the right to both study and teach the Hindu sacred texts, known as the Vedas.
Next, were the Kshatriya. As members of this caste, the Kshatriya were the kings or rulers of Hindu society. Although they were very powerful, it was their duty, or dharma, to protect the other members of their culture.
Speaking of the other members of society, there were the Vaishya and the Shudra. The Vaishya were those who engaged in money-making activities, while the Shudra were basically considered servants to everyone else.
Last, and so low they were outside of the caste system, were the Untouchables. As either products of a mixed marriage between castes or holding a job that was considered forbidden, Untouchables were truly outcasts of Hindu society.
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Back To CourseReligion 101: Intro to World Religions
9 chapters | 99 lessons | 8 flashcard sets