The term “Hinduism” originated from the word “India” and it refers to variety of religious traditions and philosophies that have developed in India over thousands of years. It is known that the Indian society was based on the caste system, but according to one of the leading world historians William H. McNeill it is still unknown how or when Indian society became organized this way.
According to McNeill the Indian society turned with time from an organized grouping society into a more personal tradition of self-recognition through caste, reincarnation and karma.According to McNeill, the Indian caste system was a system of divided society. Thus, the Indian society was divided into where each group had its own symbols and codes of behavior. Within the caste, the people ate together, and intermarried with other members of their group. When strangers came around one caste they would become a separate/different caste. “When an entire society comes to be organized on those principles, any group of strangers or intruders automatically becomes another caste, for the exclusive habits of the rest of the population inevitably thrust the newcomers in upon themselves when it comes to eating and marrying. (page 85) The origins of the caste system in India remain unclear, but they certainly made an impact on modern Indian society. Some of the caste principles were preserved through time.
One of those principles was the ceremonial purity, which meant that people didn’t want to get involved in other “unclean” castes. Some of the castes immerged from poor and humble people who were primitive, and had an interest to preserve some of primitive forest life, those people formed castes which preserved their old traditions.Moreover, the Indus believed that all men were naturally divided into 4 main castes: the Brahmans, the Kshatriyas, the Vaisyas and the Sudras. The first 3 were considered Aryan and the last as non-Aryan. The Brahmans were considered as the “elite” class and the best caste to be born in to. All the rest were lower classes and less desirable than the Brahman caste.
People could leave or join the caste only through the cycle of death and birth through reincarnation and karma. Through time, people in the castes took their religion a little further and challenged the power of the castes.They made religion a more personal duty than a group practice. The Hindus believed and still believe in reincarnation, which is the mechanism of being re-borne into a better or worse caste (class).
Reincarnation is believed to occur when the soul or spirit, after the death of the body, comes back to life in a newborn body. Yet, in order for a person to be re-borne into a better class he or she had to completely dis-attach from their desires. “Now the man who does not desire. – He who is without desire, who is freed from desire, whose desire is satisfied, whose desire is the soul – his breaths do not depart.Being very Brahman, he goes to Brahman. ” (page 94) The practice of reincarnation probably had created rules and codes of “right” behavior that enabled some control over people’s behavior in the castes.
Moreover, people who didn’t follow the rules and were unable to clear themselves of desires could reborn in a lower class or as an animal or anything that would be considered as unpleasant new life. The key concept that controlled the mechanism of reincarnation was the karma. According to McNeill, the idea of karma is the sequence of cause and effect. Karma meant: as you sow, so shall you reap. Good karma would be enhanced; bad karma would lead to more bad karma.
” Because the universe was perceived as a complete justice system, the destiny of a good soul was to re-borne into a higher class and a better life, and the destiny of a bad soul was exactly the opposite. Karma was a very personal concept, because everyone had his own belief on the way it occurred. Some people believed that karma was a process which involved gods such as lord Krishna for example, while others considered it a natural law of cause and effect.
Furthermore, every single thing a person did, said or thought was affecting the karma at that same moment exactly. Therefore, people in this society might have been very restrained in their minds and actions. Therefore, the Indian society in its notion today, had been greatly affected by the ancient believes. Further, it had not only affected the Indian society, but it had also spread outside of the Indian borders and many people all over the world practice reincarnation in notion of balancing desires.Moreover, many people in the world believe that good actions and thoughts will bring more good things into their lives.
Thus, even though the origins of the caste system still haven’t been traced, the evolution of the castes from a shared group religion and perception into a more private and personal belief is clear throughout written history. Although McNeill provides interesting information about the caste system, he fails to bring other aspects of Indian life which might have also influenced the evolution of this society.