Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
The Origin Of Caste System In Hinduism And Its Relevance In The Present Context
by Bal Krishna Sharma, Kathmandu: Samdan Publishers 1999 Rs. 95.00 197 pages.
Reviewed by John D. Pettit

Bal Krishna Sharma clearly states in his introduction that the book will "make an attempt to understand the original meaning of caste, the deviated form of its meaning, the caste in the Nepalese context and the relevance of the original meaning of caste for the people of Nepal today" (p. xi).

Sharma lays his book out in two parts. Part one covers caste in Hinduism with chapter one looking at the caste system in the Rigvedic times and chapter two focusing on caste in the Brahmanas, Upanishads and Smriti literature. Part two concentrates on caste in the present Nepalese context. He dedicates four chapters to this section; Nepal and Hinduism, Caste system in Nepal, Caste system in Nepal today, and The relevance of the original meaning of caste for the present Nepalese context.

Careful attention was given to the table of contents and to the composition of the book. Sharma clearly lays out his outline detailing each chapter and sub-heading throughout. All his work is well footnoted and he provides an extensive bibliography for the interested reader to look into for further reading on the subject. There are however a number of typographical errors which prove distracting to the reader. Of particular note is in the table of contents where the book begins with Part Two: Caste In Hinduism. Where it should read Part One: Caste in Hinduism. Hopefully these will be corrected in a future edition.

While many various scholars have wrestled with the issue of caste there is still considerable debate on how the classifications should be made, and several theories have been put forth. On page four the author states "The word caste (Latin castus) meaning pure, was used by the Portuguese to denote the Indian social classification because they were of the opinion that this system was intended to preserve the purity of blood." The Portuguese use of the word is used in the context of breed or race denoting the term species, not purity of blood. Sharma also spends some time discussing the fact that the varna system of caste is not adequate to define the system but goes on to say that caste will be taken in the sense of varna for practical purposes throughout the book. It is disappointing that he did not put up a fight for a different approach to understand the caste system in Nepal utilizing the term jat for different groups of people.

The first two chapters focus on the fact that in the Rigvedic times the sense of caste was flexible and occupation was based on ones capability not birth. During the Brahmanas, Upanishads, and Smriti literature the caste system was becoming more rigid. He discusses the struggle between the brahman and the kshatriya over dominance and the relegation of the other two varna castes as subservient to them.

Chapter three concentrates on the particular attributes of Nepal and its particular breed of Hinduism. He provides a breakdown of the physiography, people, and religion of Nepal, including a brief narrative on the interrelationship of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal, focusing on syncretism in Newar society. Sharma talks about the "introduction" of the caste system to Nepal and suggests that it resulted in virtually no difference between the Buddhist and Hindu societies (p. 101). He further states that both religious groups view the same deities in their own perspectives with no controversy. This statement is surprising at best. True there are no riots over the differences, but there is controversy.

Chapter four is dedicated to presenting the development of the caste system in Nepal from ancient times to the present. In chapter five Sharma details the results of a survey that he conducted in which 75 people were selected to respond to a questionnaire. Of the 75, 50 were "common people" and the other 25 were religious and secular leaders. The results cannot be taken as representative of Nepal as "Among the respondents, 7 were illiterate, 3 were under S.L.C., 16 were S.L.C. and others acquired higher education, some up to Ph.D" (p. 137). Only ten percent of the sample were illiterate compared with the national average of 39.6 according to the Nepal census figures of 1991.

In conclusion, Sharma says the need of the hour is to bring the original meaning and purpose of caste system before the masses. It is the author’s opinion that if the people are educated about this "fact" then they will be enlightened and acceptability and human dignity will be restored. But what of the greater society at large–can simply educating the masses on what the system was thousands of years ago readily change their way of life today? Must we not look to God and the future and seek for Him to bring redemption to the culture, and the caste system. Sharma’s conclusion is at best an idea that can be discussed in theory only. What system do we have of educating the masses? If we did we are still faced with the present reality. Caste is interrelated with every part of a Hindu’s life, from their identity, to their family, to their rites of passage from birth till death.

Bal Krishna Sharma is to be commended on his work in attempting to dialogue with the issues of caste in Hinduism and in Nepal in particular. It is imperative that more Christian authors take up this issue and discuss its relevance to our present context. How should caste be viewed in the Christian community and in the wider society at large? What relevance does it have to our faith, our families, and our communities?

Voice of Bhakti welcomes interaction with its readers. If you have a comment please email the editor at the address below. Mark Johnson, editor

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty