It's definitely important to have a debate about the caste system. I am glad that you have initiated it. Since it's likely to be a long drawn one, assuming that the moderator does not stop it as not being connected so much to discussing about Jharkhand, I'd like to have my say many times rather than trying to write all I think at one go. I hope this debate you have called for continues long enough to help us change our positions if we are convinced by the rationale of the other side rather than sticking on to our views like we do in a college debate, as if it's a loss of honour to acknowledge the gains in one's knowledge.
I have many questions and many hunches. All questions are correct, as no question can ever be wrong; it only depends upon the answer giver to frame the most appropriate response. Many of the hunches, perhaps most, could be wrong and that's okay I guess as I have not learnt them through the kind of debate that you have proposed. To get to the topic, I believe the Caste System when it originated was superior to the other systems of social hierarchy that existed at that time. It was definitely better than the Greek Democracy that was based on a large underbelly of slaves who had no rights to speak of. It was definitely better than the annihilation of the defeated as was practiced as recently as the Invasion of the Americas by the Europeans. It was better than the Slavery that was thrust on the Africans by the Europeans, something that existed at significant levels till the late 19th century. In comparison to the other system, the caste system provided greater freedom and security to the lowest rung of the society. It even provided a certain livelihood security to the poorest and the lowest in the society. Even the wars we fought were regulated by superior norms. Even when Ashoka won over Kalinga and the war killed more than 100,000 people who'd be residents of what is today called Orissa (over my ancestors perhaps - unless my ancestors were those Brahmins who were brought in from the North by Kings in Orissa), he did not massacre the non-combatants. The Mahabharata war was fought on well laid out norms and principles of warfare. There were violations of these norms (Bhima breaking Duryodhan's thigh, Arjun fighting Bhisma from behind Sikhandi, Krishna creating temporary darkness-a total eclipse of the sun perhaps- to get Jayadratha killed, Yudhishtir's half lie to Drona, Ashwatthama's killing the five sons of the Pandava by the night and directing an arrow at the womb of Uttara, Abhimanyu's widow) but Indian society managed to prevent the kind of butchery of non-combatants, including women and children that we have seen associated with many other civilisations of that time.
In defining the Brahmin in a certain way, it had made austerity and poverty an essential part of belonging to the highest social class. Obviously the highest social class was not the highest economic class, rather it seems that more often than not, Brahmins were very poor and lived through begging. Search for knowledge was fostered through such a system and this must have been the reason for the wonderful achievements of the Indian knowledge seekers vis-à-vis the others of that time, be it in mathematics or astrology or medicine... It is quite clear also that the society at some stage was far more progressive than European society at the time of Galileo, which is not that far back. Aryabhatta and Bhaskara were not punished for saying things that were not in line with the accepted religious beliefs, but Galileo was. Does it not speak of the superiority of our system compared to other systems of that time? Having said that, it is also a little surprising that the creativity of the Indian civilisation dried up before the end of the first millennium. Looking at our achievements in the past, one sees that for a long time, we were ahead of other civilisations of the time in both spiritual as well as material achievements. But by the early part of the second millennium we had started losing this advantage. For almost a millennium we were left behind by the middle-eastern civilisations. For the last 400 years or so we have been behind Europe not only in terms of material achievements but also often in terms of intellectual achievements. It's only in the recent times that we have been catching up.
By the time the British came to India, we had piled up inequitable practice upon inequitable practice and were left with, among many others, the evils of Sati, child marriage, Purdah, and the ever present practices of untouchability. Fortunately there was also a reawakening among Hindus and great Hindu leaders like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo emerged to reform Hinduism as well as to reawaken a genuine pride in being from this great religious stream. But although these people were the major reformers during modern times, the real groundwork for these reforms was laid by generations of Hindu saints. One of the first of these was Buddha, being to Hinduism what Jesus was to Judaism. Then of course there was an endless stream of saints. With my little knowledge about Hinduism I can take the names of Sankara, Ramananda, Kabir, Ramdas, Dadu, Tukaram and Tulsidas, Nanak and Chaitanya. But the orthodox Hindu society accepted all of them as saints and rejected all their teachings as impractical. Of course similar things happened with most other religions. Both organised Christianity as well as Islam shunned the ideas of their saints and reformers.
By the end of the 19th century Slavery had been abolished throughout the world. By the 1960s' US had gone through the struggles of the Black Americans demanding equality. But unfortunately we remained more or less stuck in time. Even today there is practice of untouchability on the basis of caste. It is more likely that a Black will marry a White in USA than it is that a Brahmin will marry a Dalit. The difference in terms of educational opportunities and job prospects in the private sector is higher between the Dalits and the Brahmins than between the Black and the White. The practice of Manual Scavenging continues with only token reduction in places. And we face constant challenge as a society from large numbers of people (including all the castes as even some Dalits practice untouchability with other Dalits) who refuse to accept that all human beings are essentially equal.
The Caste System in the first millennium was perhaps a better and a more humane system than many other practices prevalent at that time such as slavery and annihilation of the defeated. But the caste system in the 21st century is essentially a living fossil. It should have died long back ensuring equality among all Hindus. Death of the caste system would also have led to a resurgence of Hinduism. But we ended up having a resurgence of Hindutva instead; a dogma that hurts Hinduism more than it hurts anyone else. Many of us, when faced with choosing between Mahatma Gandhi (a devoted Hindu) and Savarkar chose the later. Again here too we alone did not make that mistake. Among the Muslims when faced with choosing between Maulana Abul Kalam Azaad (A devoted Muslim) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah many chose the later. How one wishes all this had not happened? How one wishes People had heed Gandhi and Maulana Azaad, truly religious people who were also non-communal living the message of all great religious leaders. How one wishes even now people heed those who want to make Hinduism a great religions followed by equals rather than a Hinduism to which people run away to other religions at the slightest incentive or even without that and can be brought back only by coercion.
It has been rather long a mail. Thanks everyone who has read along all this. Sorry for any factual incorrectness that must have crept in due to my ignorance. Also sorry for repeating many many things that are already well known and getting in to territory that perhpas does not fit in to the original mandate of the egroup.
With warm regards