Hindu Creation Myth and the Caste System
About the Document
The Aryan invasion of the subcontinent around 1,500 B.C.E. brought with it a new religion that featured a pantheon of gods that the Aryans worshiped through ritualism and with burnt sacrifices. Over the next thousand years, the religion matured, probably incorporating some elements of Harappan theology and certainly establishing a rigid social structure. Centuries later, Europeans would dub this five-tiered social structure "the caste system."
The caste system became a central element of both Hindu theology and Indian society. The brahman, or priest class, followed by the kshatriya, or warrior class, and the vaishya, or merchant class, were at the top of Indian society. The bulk of India's population were shudra, peasants and artisans. A fifth element of that society, one not even acknowledged in religious writings but certainly existing, were the pariahs, or untouchables. These menials labored at jobs considered demeaning or taboo for the four classes. To understand the future development of India and Hinduism, one must recognize and understand the caste system.
Around 500 B.C.E., Indians began to record their extensive oral religious traditions in what has become known as the Vedic literature. The oldest of the four Vedas is the Rig-Veda, and it is there that the Hindu creation myth and the basis for the caste system can be found. Another glimpse of the origins of the Hindu caste system can be seen in The Law of Manu, written around 200 C.E., viewed as a guide to proper behavior for Hindus. Selections from both texts are included below.
From the Rig-Veda
Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it.
Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food.
Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven.
With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not.
From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.
When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.
The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers].
From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.
From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep.
When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called?
His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born.
The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.
From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds.
Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim.
With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.
Source: The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.
From The Law of Manu
But in the beginning he assigned their several names, actions, and conditions (created beings), even according to the words of the Veda.
He, the Lord, also created the class of the gods, who are endowed with life, and whose nature is action; and the subtile class of the Sadhyas, and the eternal sacrifice.
But from fire, wind, and the sun he drew forth the threefold eternal Veda, called Rik, Yaius, and Saman, for the due performance of the sacrifice.
Time and the divisions of time, the lunar mansions and the planets, the rivers, the oceans, the mountains, plains, and uneven ground,
Austerity, speech, pleasure, desire, and anger, this whole creation he likewise produced, as he desired to call these beings into existence… .
Whatever he assigned to each at the (first) creation, noxiousness or harmlessness, gentleness or ferocity, virtue or sin, truth or falsehood, that clung (afterwards) spontaneously to it.
As at the change of the seasons each season of its own accord assumes its distinctive marks, even so corporeal beings (resume in new births) their (appointed) course of action.
But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds, he created the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, and the Shudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet… .
To Brahmans he assigned teaching and studying (the Veda), sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).
The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures… .
The Vaishya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.
One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Shudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.
Source: Manu, The Law of Manu, in The Sacred Books of the East, vol. XXV, ed. F. Max Müller (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1886), pp. 12-14, 24.
- Compare caste to your society.
- Describe the Hindu caste system as given in the two passages.
- In your own words, describe the Hindu creation myth. Why are creation myths important?
- The word "sacrifice" appears several times in the first passage. What could this tell us about Hinduism?
- What hints that the caste system will be integral to Hindu society?
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