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Al-Biruni’s Description of the Caste System in the 11th Century

Introduction: Al-Biruni (Alberuni, A.D. 973-1048) was one of the greatest universal geniuses of his age. Born in Khwarazm (today Uzbekistan), he wrote more than hundred books in various disciplines of science and humanities. In 1017, after the conquest of Khwarazm by Mahmud he was taken as a highly honoured “state prisoner” to Ghazna where he continued his studies under the patronage of Mahmud’s son and successor. He accompanied Mahmud on his campaigns to India where he lived altogether several years, studying Sanskrit, Indian philosophy and society. His monumental work Ta’rikh al-Hind is regarded as the most comprehensive pre-modern encyclopaedic work on India. As his studies on Indian society and the caste system are based on “participating observation”, he is sometimes regarded as “father of Indian anthropology.”

(see also AHOI ch. 4, section The Destructive Campaigns of Mahmud of Ghazni)

 (Edward C. Sachau, Alberuni’s India. An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy Customs, Laws and Astrology of India, London 1888, pp. 100-102).


The Hindus call their castes varṇa, i.e. colours, and from a genealogical point of view they call them jâtaka, i.e. births. These castes are from the very beginning only four.

I. The highest caste are the Brâhmaṇa, of whom the books of the Hindus tell that they were created from the head of Brahman. And as Brahman is only another name for the force called nature, and the head is the highest part of the animal body, the Brâhmaṇa are the choice part of the whole genus. Therefore the Hindus consider them as the very best of mankind.
II. The next caste are the Kshatriya, who were created, as they say, from the shoulders and hands of Brahman. Their degree is not much below that of the Brâhmaṇa.
III. After them follow the Vaiśya, who were created from the thigh of Brahman.
IV. The Śûdra, who were created from his feet.

Between the latter two classes there is no very great distance. Much, however, as these classes differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings.

After the Śûdra follow the people called Antyaja, who render various kinds of services, who are not reckoned amongst any caste, but only as members of a certain craft or profession. There are eight classes of them, who freely intermarry with each other, except the fuller, shoemaker, and weaver, for no others would condescend to have anything to do with them. These eight guilds are the fuller, shoemaker, juggler, the basket and shield maker, the sailor, fisherman, the hunter of wild animals and of birds, and the weaver. The four castes do not live together with them in one and the same place. These guilds live near the villages and towns of the four castes, but outside them.

The people called Hâḍî, Ḍoma (Ḍomba), Caṇḍâla, and Badhatau (sic) are not reckoned amongst any caste or guild. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleansing of the villages and other services. They are considered as one sole class, and distinguished only by their occupations. In fact, they are considered like illegitimate children; for according to general opinion they descend from a Śûdra father and a Brâhmaṇî mother as the children of fornication; therefore they are degraded outcasts.
The Hindus give to every single man of the four castes characteristic names, according to their occupations and modes of life. E.g. the Brâhmaṇa is in general called by this name as long as he does his work staying at home. When he is busy with the service of one fire, he is called ishṭin; if he serves three fires, he is called agnihôtrin; if he besides offers an offering to the fire, he is called dîkshita. And as it is with the Brâhmaṇa, so is it also with the other castes. Of the classes beneath the castes, the Hâḍî are the best spoken of, because they keep themselves free from everything unclean. Next follow the Ḍôma, who play on the lute and sing. The still lower classes practise as a trade killing and the inflicting of judicial punishments. The worst of all are the Badhatau, who not only devour the flesh of dead animals, but even of dogs and other beasts.

Each of the four castes, when eating together, must form a group for themselves, one group not being allowed to comprise two men of different castes. If, further, in the group of the Brâhmaṇa there are two men who live at enmity with each other, and the seat of the one is by the side of the other, they make a barrier between the two seats by placing a board between them, or by spreading a piece of dress, or in some other way; and if there is only a line drawn between them, they are considered as separated. Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself; for if any one of the party who are eating should take of the food from one and the same plate, that which remains in the plate becomes, after the first eater has taken part, to him who wants to take as the second, the remains of the meal, and such is forbidden.
Such is the condition of the four castes.

 

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