Experiencing India’s Caste System

Aryan A powerful barbarian tribe which invaded the Indus Valley from the north traveling through the Hindu Kash and the Himalayas. It is thought that these pale skinned conquerors imposed their belief system on the native people and established the caste system placing themselves above all others.

Ashrama The stages of life described in the Code of Manu. While moving through the stages a person acquires the knowledge and experience necessary for enlightenment. The four stages are study (of the Vedas), householding (having children), forest-dwelling (retreat to a place where a religious life can be followed) and renouncing (meditate and fast while traveling in preparation for enlightenment).

Avatars The appearance on Earth of a god, usually Vishnu, in human or animal form. There are ten avatars (incarnations) linked to Vishnu including Krishna and Rama. The avatars appear on Earth during evil times to help restore order and righteousness.

Bhagavid-Gita An ancient writing which summarizes the main beliefs of Hinduism through an epic story. The main message is the importance of the process of living life as a journey toward a higher level. It contains words of inspiration and guidance for all members of society. It states that there are different paths for people to follow on the road to enlightenment, searching for knowledge, performing acts of kindness or worshipping God.

Bhakti The devotion to and worship of God in the pursuit of enlightenment. This concept of devotion was promoted in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Brahma One of the Hindu Trinity of gods with Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the balance between Shiva (destructive and vengeful) and Vishnu (good and merciful).

Brahman The search for knowledge and understanding. The ultimate and absolute reality that Hindus seek to reach through enlightenment. This process is different for each person as they seek their own path to perfect clarity and Moksha.

Brahmin (brah-min) A caste of high priests. The highest level of the Indian caste system. The Vedas were compiled and guarded by the Brahmins. They created complicated rituals and procedures for worship, prayer and sacrifice that required a Brahmin to perform and were well paid for their services.

Caste The station in life or level in society which one is born into. A group within society with has different rights, privileges and duties from other groups. There are many castes prevalent in India. The highest of these is the Brahmans (the priestly caste), the Kshatriysa (the warriors), the Vaisyas (the merchants) and the Shudras (servants). Those not belonging to a caste were social outcasts known as Pariahs or “Untouchables.”

Code of Manu An ancient group of laws and rules for behavior in ancient India. The code describes what is expected of people within their station in life. The code provides support for the caste system and promotes social order. It describes four goals of humankind called Purusarthas, which are: moksha (enlightenment), dharma (duty), artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure).

Dharma Sanskrit for “duty.” The fulfillment of one’s duty to family, community and station in life (caste). The ultimate balance of all areas of one’s life: religious, social and familial. The divine order of the universe and of one’s own life. It is the belief of Dharma that requires a person to keep a promise at all costs.

Enlightenment The highest challenge and goal of existence. It is such a difficult feat that it may take several lifetimes to achieve. There are different ways to achieve this state through meditation, study, virtuous living and religious devotion.

Guru A teacher who provides spiritual and philosophical instruction in a close and special relationship with the student. A guru is thought to possess knowledge that is too complex to be written.

Hinduism Religious philosophy based on cosmic wholeness, The self, nature and society are only a temporary reality. These must be left behind as the individual develops through different lifetimes (reincarnates), eventually experiencing enlightenment and a state of bliss (Moksha.) Guidelines are provided for this process, including rules of social behavior between members of society and methods to elevate awareness in the Vedas, Hinduism embraces a wide variety of beliefs and attitudes.

Karma The belief that a person experiences the consequences of his/her own actions. The ongoing influence of past actions on the future. This carries over from past lives into present and future incarnations. The saying “You reap what you sow” is similar to the Hindu concept of Karma.

Krishna An avatar (human form of a young hero and lover) of the god Vishnu. One of the Hindu Trinity of gods with Shiva and Brahma. Krishna revealed that dedicated action, intellectual effort and spiritual devotion were the paths to truth and enlightenment.

Kshatriyas (kshat–tre-yas) The warrior caste and noblemen. This caste is second below the Brahmins. The future rulers of India were expected to come from this caste.

Maya One of the key insights found in the Vedas is the idea that the world as we see it with our senses is a world of illusion or maya. Things as they appear are misleading, unreliable and not permanent. The belief of maya is the reason things go wrong in the world – the world, as we see it, cannot be relied upon. Solving this problem of maya (illusion) can be done through enlightenment and the merging of the individual with Brahman to reach Moksha.

Moksha Moksha is the ultimate goal of all human life. A release from the cycle of Samsara (reincarnation). The state of bliss achieved by living a life of religious devotion and moral integrity without any interest in worldly things. It might be many life times before moksha is achieved through the process of enlightenment.

Pariahs The workers not admitted into the four main castes, outcasts. Also referred to as “untouchables.”

Purusarthas The four goals of humans which are considered good to seek. They are moksha (enlightenment), dharma (duty), artha (wealth and purpose) and kama (pleasure).

Rama An avatar (reincarnation) of the god Vishnu. He took the human form of a prince and was a hero.

Samsara The belief that the cycle of life, death and rebirth define our existence. This cycle continues and is also called reincarnation. The previous “life” determines the following one. An individual never dies; they are transformed from one life to another. A prince in one life might be a snake in the next. What a person transforms to in the next life depends upon the individuals’ karma (good or bad actions or deeds) in previous lives.

Sanskrit The sacred Hindu language developed by the Aryans of the Indus Valley.

Shiva One of the Hindu Trinity of gods with Vishnu and Brahma. Shiva is believed to be vengeful and destructive.

Sudras Also Shudras, (soo-dras) The fourth level of the caste system comprised of the servants. The Code of Manu suggests that a Sudra cannot achieve enlightenment before being reincarnated into a higher caste. The Bhagavid-Gita teaches that people of all castes may seek enlightenment and do not need to wait for the next life.

Upanishads A group of writings which were added to the Vedas. The focus of these writings is more on the nature of existence and consciousness and less on ceremony and ritual as described in the Vedas. They also teach that solutions to problems are not as important as rising above the problem and refusing to dwell on it. This provided support for the caste system.

Vaisyas Also Vaishyas. (vise-yas) Third in the caste system under the Brahmans and Kshatriyas. This caste contained the merchants, skilled workers and farmers who provided all of India with food and products necessary for living.

Varna The Hindu caste system divided the society by castes based on occupation. This division used the human body as a metaphor with the mouth as the Brahmin (priest), the arms as the Kshatriyas (warriors, noblemen), the thighs as the Vaishyas (skilled workers and farmers) and the feet as the Shudras (servants). The word varna also means color, which might refer to racial differences between the white Aryans from the north, and the brown native population they invaded.

Vedas Considered the world’s oldest writings that may date as early as 2000 BCE. They include hymns, descriptions of rituals (ceremonies) and magical and philosophical writings. This last portion contains the Vedic writings known as the Upanishads. For centuries the Vedas were memorized and recited until they were translated into Sanskrit and written down. Many of the ideas in the Vedas contradict each other and are interpreted differently. Traditionally, only males from the top three castes could read the Vedas, others had to wait until they were reincarnated into a higher class to have access to the writings.

Vishnu One of the Hindu Trinity of gods with Shiva and Brahma. Vishnu was worshipped as the greatest god. His role is to maintain a balance between good and evil powers in the universe. There are ten avatars (reincarnations) of Vishnu as he appeared on Earth in times of evil to help restore balance. His most famous avatars are as Krishna and Rama.


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