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Hindu Castes and the Laws of Manu

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  • 2:05 Brahmin Caste
  • 3:13 Kshatriya Caste
  • 4:37 Vaishya Caste
  • 5:49 Shudra Caste
  • 6:45 The Untouchables
  • 9:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the complex Hindu castes of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and the Untouchables. It will also highlight the Laws of Manu.

Introduction to Castes

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.

Brahmin Caste

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.

Kshatriya Caste

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.

Vaishya Caste

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.

Shudra Caste

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.

The Untouchables

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.

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