Origins of the Caste in Ancient India

Rolf Heiner Koch roheko at MSN.COM
Wed Mar 25 12:39:38 UTC 1998

I would be interested for the reference to the
source where the origin of fire is described to
related with forest fire. I am reading in a Jain
text about the origin of culture  this has to be
realted with Rishabha, of course. But Rishabha
appeared a f t e r  the fire was established,
after it fell on the earth from trees which stood
to close together.
I would suggest the fire was established just by
two pieces of wood like we know this from several
aborigines. But the texts do not say this. Any
roheko at
-----Ursprüngliche Nachricht-----
Von: sudheer birodkar <sudheerbirodkar at YAHOO.COM>
Datum: Mittwoch, 25. März 1998 09:53
Betreff: Origins of the Caste in Ancient India

>Dear Readers,
>Here is an extract from my page on Origins of the
Caste System in
>Ancient India. I seek critical feedback from
Indologists on the
>hypothesis given below:
>Caste is an institution which is truely Indian in
character. So much
>so that even the Concise Oxford Dictionary
defines it as, Hindu
>hereditary class, with members
>socially equal, united in religion, and usually
following same trades
>having no social intercourse with persons of
other castes. The word
>caste itself is derived from the
>Spanish word 'Casto' which means pure or chaste.
In the Indian lexion
>we refer to caste by the words 'Varna' meaning
colour and 'Jati' which
>is derivedfrom the
>root syllable 'Ja' which means 'to be born'.
>But etymology apart what matters is that Casteism
is today still a
>living, rather festering, practice which
continues to plague our 20th
>century Indian society. Time
>and again our newspapers carry reports about
caste wars in various
>parts of our country. While reading about
Parliamentary news in
>newspapers, we come across
>references to the Jat Lobby, Maratha Lobby,
Rajput Lobby, Brahmin
>Lobby which brings to the fore the fact that even
at the highest level
>of our country's
>democratic institutions, caste as a factor is
still a living one. And
>this brought to be so as in the electoral
strategies of political
>parties we hear of caste vote banks,
>caste equations in voting patterns, caste-based
>constituencies, caste politics, ad nauseam.
>All this alongwith the recurring caste carnages
and the ongoing caste
>politics are a constant reminder to us Indians
that caste and casteism
>which we have inherited
>from our history are still active and alive
around us. Thus the
>institution and attitude both of which go into
the making of caste and
>casteism in today's India remain an
>enigmatic one for Indians as also for foreign
Indologists. The fact
>that casteist feelings are still part of our
psyche make it all the
>more relevant that we are informed
>about how the institution of caste could have
come into being.
>Possible Origins of the Caste System
>Our scriptures already have an answer to this.
The Purusha Sukta of
>the Rig Veda says that the four fold division of
society into Brahmins
>(priests), Kshatriyas
>(warriors), Vaishyas (cultivators) and Shudras
(menial servants) has
>been created by primeval man 'Purusha'. From
Purusha's brain have
>emerged the Brahmins,
>from his forearms have emerged the kshatriyas
from his abdomen have
>emerged the Vaishyas and from his feet have
emerged the Shudras.
>But to examine how the institution of caste could
have originated
>alongwith the auxiliary practices of
untouchability and endogamy we
>will have a peep into the
>society in which the composers of the Rig Veda
lived some three to
>four thousand years back.
>Caste is a gift of centuries of history whose
origin goes back to 3 or
>4 millennia in. The past when the tribal Aryans
roamed the plains of
>Central Asia before
>reaching India. In the new stone age these
tribals lived in conditions
>of savagery and barbarism. There obviously was no
room for caste
>division as each and every
>able-bodied male member had to) help in the
tribe's only vocation of
>hunting and gathering the means of subsistence.
>But with the domestication of fire, things began
to change. It became
>necessary for some members of the Aryan tribes to
undertake the task
>of tending the fire and
>prevent it from being extinguished. This was
before the days when
>humans learnt to ignite fire through friction.
Initially the fire must
>have been obtained from an
>already burning source like forest fires.
>In these circumstances, before the days of
ignition the task of
>tending the fire was very crucial. The function
of tending the fire
>became a specialised one which
>begun to be passed from father to son and this
select group came to be
>called Agni-hotras i.e. 'preservers of fire'. As
they tended to the
>fire they also roasted and
>later cooked food for the entire tribe.
>Fire was then, as it still is, an object of
worship as the tribal
>peoples had seen fire as a powerful destructive
medium in forest fires
>and volcanic eruptions. By virtue
>of being placed between the tribe and the
domesticated fire, this
>section of the tribe also performed functions
like making offerings to
>the fire and invoking it to spell
>prosperity for the tribe, victory in war, etc.,
apart from cooking
>which was their primary function. These
Agni-hotras were the prototype
>of the brahmin caste of
>The above theory of the origin of the Brahmin
caste may seem fantastic
>and unbelievable, but even today we can see that
at our weddings or
>any other social and
>religious occasions the cooks are traditionally
Brahmins. In some
>Indian languages the word for cook is Achari
which comes quite close
>to Acharya meaning a
>scholar. In Hindi and Gujarati the word Maharaj
is used to address
>both priests and cooks. Another word which we use
to designate a
>scholar viz. 'Shastri' also
>originally meant a wielder of instruments and not
a scholar according
>to the; noted Sanskritalogist P.V. Kane.
>This corollary between cooking and priestly
functions may appear to be
>outrageous and unreal but the etymological
closeness between the
>Sanskrit words given
>below also corroborates this corollary:
> Shri
> Shripati
> Shradhaa
> Shrotriya
> Sadhu (ascetic)
> Yajakaha
> Bhajana
> Pathana
>Shraa, Shraadha (Food offered to God and departed
>(Source : English-Sanskrit Dictionary by Prof.
Vaman Shivram Apte,
>Mumbai, 1920)
>But this apart, Hindu Shastras (religious texts)
have a different
>explanation to offer as per the Holy scriptures '
Brahma Janayate Iti
>Brahamana' i.e. a Brahmin is a
>person who has mastered the essence of Brahma
(Universe). In the
>Bhagavad Geeta, Sri Krishna says that the caste
divisions have been
>created by Him.
>But if the earlier theory is correct it would
justify the origin of
>Brahmins as a profession of cooks. It is quite
possible that this is
>the explanation behind the Brahmin
>insistence on cleanliness and purification which
quite logically seem
>to be a corollary of the culinary profession.
>In fact even the Yagna fire sacrifice of today is
a ritualisation of
>the original cooking function. During the Yagna;
milk, honey, grains,
>clarified butter and small figures
>of animals Pista Pashu) made from wheat flour
have to be offered to
>the fire. A Yagna is accompanied with mass
feeding of people. As
>mentioned in an earlier
>chapter in the original Yagna ritual, which is
today observed only by
>some Sadhus (ascetics) is a process in which
almost all primitive
>social life has to be recreated.
>You have to produce fire by friction of two
pieces of wood, to build a
>cottage where no iron is used but only specific
wood and grass, to
>milk cows, to make curds,
>pound corn with stone (not even a stone mill),
kill and skin animals,
>boil and cook them". This description brings out
the close resemblance
>between the original
>Yagna ritual and the function of cooking on which
Brahmin's had come
>to acquire hereditary monopoly.
>But this hereditary monopoly over the cooking
function in Vedic times
>also gave this section the priestly functions of
invoking the fire-god
>in favour of the tribe. Thus
>they came to be looked upon as representatives of
God, whose word
>carried divine sanction. This being so they also
came to acquire the
>exclusive right of learning
>(and writing) religious scriptures and virtually
of all knowledge.
>This was so as, in ancient India, most knowledge
had scriptural
>overtones. Astrology, Astronomy,
>Mathematics, Philosophy, linguistics, Law, etc.,
were the main areas
>which were developed in ancient India and all
these subjects were
>closely bound up with
>religious dogmas.
>Brahmins who had become the clergy, could thus
virtually monopolise
>the areas of acquiring and imparting education,
to the exclusion of
>other castes.
>Get your free address at

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