Why Caste System Was A Good System
|Nepal's agriculture is still heavily reliant on human power.|
Why and how exactly the caste system (social hierarchy) in Nepal (and India) went on to be interlinked to Hinduism and religion is anyone's guess but if one had to seriously put logic to paper, it makes little sense that the religion, as the popular belief is, was the one which imposed such social strata in the society.
What makes sense though, is the other way round. A proper functioning society requires labor force in each level. We need people who clean the streets, who do agriculture, who do business, who mend shoes and do administration. We cannot have a Robin Crusoe like state where everyone does everything. It's highly inefficient so it's best that a person focuses and fulfills a particular task that benefits the society as a whole and the rest of the people take care of the other aspects that need attention. It's a good, working system.
The kings of the past understood this.
They understood that a society needs a diverse spectrum of occupation to keep the wheels rolling. Since society is formed by families, a micro level work division led to woman taking care of the household and men doing a very specific, specialized, highly skilled (even cleaning the bathroom properly requires certain skills, I argue) work outside the boundaries of home. Trading that skill would earn currency and access to other people's work and so forth, can compensate one another.
|Kathmandu. This is exactly how gas is supplied to homes.|
The kings also understood that labor force depletion at one end would affect the other. A natural method of keeping the "supply" would be train the next generation. Sons of the families would follow their fathers around, looking at what they do and learning the trade from a very young age. By the time they hit puberty, they are as skilled as their papa bear.
The king had to find a way to keep tab on the people, a way of statistics, to know how many people work in a specific area. The best way at that time was to assign a second name to the person as a family name that showed what work the person did. Chitrakars would draw pictures, Maskeys would guard the royals, Tamrakars would work with metals, Pradhans would do administration. And that's how, a spectrum of family names appeared which, even in an age of machine learning and 5G, we tend to know where a person belongs on the social strata by looking at their name.
Things turned ugly and Kings beat the shite out of other Kings, and Prithivi Narayan Shah took the helm of a country called Nepal. Ethnically diverse, with over 100 different unique languages, the system turned from a sub-cultured system to a multi-layered full-cultured system. By that I mean, the society was divided into "bigger castes" and each castes then had their own "sub-castes". This led to the modern four layered, highly simplified division of work:
Brahmins: Priests, educated through Sanskrit, Nepali as their mother tongue.
Chettriyas: Administrators, Warriors. shrewed on politics and leadership
Vaishyas: Blue collor workers . Agriculturists, Businessmen, Metalworkers, Traders.
Sudras: Also blue collor workers but on maintenance side: Cobblers, Hairdressers
Inter-caste marriage didn't make sense for a couple of reasons; the bride had to go live with an extended family of the groom. Each caste, sub caste, ethnic group had their own lifestyle, own language, own way of going about doing things. Marriage from the same caste made the transition for the girl easier. She knew what traditions and cultures to hold. Turn the table around, inter-caste marriages brought about multiple culture shock to both parties. We have this problem even today and that's why inter-caste marriages are still a debatable factor in marriages.
All in all, at least on paper, the caste system was a Win-Win for all parties involved in the society. However, as we all know, things are far from ideal. Over time a couple of things started to appear:
1) Sons received preferential treatment because they would keep the family name going, keep the tradition going. Women would have to adopt someone else's family name and work in their culture. Also economic wise, giving birth to a girl made little sense.
2) Educated upper circles leveraged religious texts that lower castes did not understand to manipulate and place them under certain control.
3) Nature of the work also meant that the currency of trade that Sudras were earning were less than that of the upper levels. They also had to do "dirtier" work which brings us to the point of untouchables.
"Untouchable" Case Study: My Three Week Stay at a Tamang Village
|Seoul National University was part of Solar Volunteer Corps|
To really understand the nature of caste system today and how it is still implemented, I shipped myself to Nepal along with Seoul National University's Solar Volunteer Corps. The idea there was to implement of Solar-Hydro-Wind hybrid rural electrification program funded by Koreans. I was assigned to the building and overseeing the penstock from the forebay. But it was also a fantastic opportunity for me to see villages in Nepal from close.
Having stayed their for three weeks and lived and worked with fellow Nepalese from Tamang community, I was able to at least hypothesize the root cause of un-touchability. They were just down right dirty. Their sanitation levels were appalling, concept of washing hands with soap was non existent AND they were touching my food.
In sharp contrast though, the Tamang community also had a few Brahmin households which were kept relatively clean. Their sanitation levels were factor times better and that specific purpose, a Brahmin was hired to cook our food in the makeshift cafeteria which was also our sleeping space.
At that point, what was clear for me was that if I was trouble handshaking Tamangs, of course, the Brahmins who think themselves as holy would find ways to impose religious excuses to avoid them all together. So for me at least, I can see that it's actually not our religion that enforces caste hierarchy, it's just that the religion has been abused to make life convenient for the people who are at the "upper" class of the strata.
Caste system might seem rather archaic, but there was extremely good logic and thinking to it in the formulation. And because people in Nepal are highly superstitious, religion made it easier to implement rules and regulations of caste system onto the society without having the need explain that very same logic. In a previous era where a few on the top could read and write, this was accepted.
But in an era where citizens are starting to read and understand and make logic, the connection between caste and religion makes no sense at all. It also brings us to the question if we really need the caste system now. That's a debate for later.