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Images from the manuscript ‘Seventy-Two Specimens of Castes in India.’

Dalai Lama Publicly Denounces Ancient Indian Caste System

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The Dalai Lama has spoken out about the discriminating caste system in India, which can be traced back around 2,000 years and is still practiced in some regions today.

The New Indian Express reports that the Tibetan spiritual leader told a group at the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex in Mcleod Ganj, India, that they should shun the caste system in the interest of unity.

“Too much emphasis on differences – nationality, religious faith. Even within the same religious faith or nationality, we make distinction – wealthy family, poor family,” the Dalai Lama told over 1,000 foreign tourists visiting the temple.

“In India, I think the caste system is very bad. At a young age, they don’t care, but gradually we show our young brothers and sisters the differences of caste system.”

India’s Ancient Caste System

In broad outline, the caste system dictates that marriage only occurs within caste, that it is fixed by birth, and that each caste is associated with a traditional occupation, such as weaving or barbering. Hindu religious principles underlay the caste hierarchy and limit the ways that castes can interact.

A study of genetic populations in India conducted in 2013 revealed that the Indian caste system has been prevalent in the South Asian society for about 2000 years. The researchers discovered that different populations began to intermix in India about 4200 years ago, but stopped intermingling approximately 1900 years ago. These results were supported by clues found in ancient texts which suggest class distinctions have existed since about 3000-3500 years ago. Caste divisions became strong approximately two millennia ago.

Three principal groups of people – priests, nobility, and common people – were identified in the 3500-year-old collection of Sanskrit hymns known as the Rigveda. A fourth group, called the Shudra (the lowest class), was mentioned by 1000 BC. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 100 BC that the holy text Manusmruti mentioned direct prohibition of marriages across castes. This restriction reflects the results of the genetic analysis.

A 1922 stereograph of Hindu children of high caste, Bombay, India. (Public Domain)

A 1922 stereograph of Hindu children of high caste, Bombay, India. (Public Domain)

The ‘Untouchables’

The caste system is linked to a Hindu belief in the four varnas - ordering and ranking people by their “innate” spiritual purity. At the highest position are the priests, Brahmins. The warriors, Kshatriyas, are next and the Vaishyas, merchants, follow them. The lowest caste belongs to Shurdas (laborers, artisans, and servants doing ritually “unclean” work.) A further group of people existed outside the caste system. These were the ‘Dalits’ or “untouchables” and they were heavily discriminated against –  being unable to drink from wells used by higher castes, participate in religious rituals, or even have their shadows fall on Brahmins.

Today, the Indian constitution prohibits the use of “untouchable” to describe members of a class or discrimination based on caste. However, it remains important to religious practices and continues to be a divisive area of life in India today.

An ‘Untouchable’ woman of Mumbai, according to the Indian Caste System, 1942 (public domain)

An ‘Untouchable’ woman of Mumbai, according to the Indian Caste System, 1942 (public domain)

Dalai Lama Calls for Caste System to be Discontinued

The Dalai Lama praised India for thousands of years of history which respects all religious traditions.

"India is home to all of the world's major religious traditions and also respects non-believers. This is really wonderful and something to be proud of," he said.

He added that the caste system is the only backwardness left in India and divides it.

“It is high time to give up this old notion of caste system,” he said.

The Dalai Lama added that one way to accomplish this is for children to be taught about inner values and moral principles in schools, instead of a self-centered attitude.

Top image: Images from the manuscript ‘Seventy-Two Specimens of Castes in India.’ (Public Domain & Public Domain)

Editors note: Article updated 8-11-2021 to correct the name of the ‘untouchables’ class to ‘Dalits’.

By April Holloway



'Decennia' should have been 'centuries' obviously (if not millennia).

Indian students boast about hiring 'lower caste' girls to service them one after the other at their dormitories. (Male friends who have traveled through India have told me about this.) No doubt this kind of stuff has ben going on for decennia. I have read about certain rural parts where the 'lower caste' men simply flee when the 'higher caste' men arrive to rape their womenfolk: Generations of abuse have taught them that resisting will only get them killed.


That interesting 2013 DNA research: Did it distinguish between dna transmitted from father to child and dna transmitted from mother to child when it claimed intermingling stopped about 2000 years ago? Yeah, I bet you there will be close to zero evidence of high caste women mating with lower caste men, but the other way around...
If Brahmin status were based on male parentage DNA, I guess a lot of untouchables could move to the highest caste.

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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