The caste system in Nepal remains an integral aspect of societal structure which dictates the authority, status, and ultimately the feudalistic economic framework. Basically modeled upon the orthodox Brahminical system, originating from the Hindustan (the Indian subcontinent), the caste system in Nepal still exists as for most if not all ethnic groups, most precisely for those following Hinduism. Owing to the crippled political commotion, a lingering democracy, and stereotypical disposition of the public, Nepal’s caste system is very much active and defines everyday life in the country.
What is a Caste System?
A caste system generally refers to the classification of several hierarchical social classes based particularly on the foundation of the society’s culture. In Layperson’s terms, depending on your families’ hereditary line (including their power, status, occupation, ethnicity, education, etc.) you will be placed into a group within the society that further predicts your future status, education, income, lifestyle, social standing, and power dynamics.
Basic Understanding of Nepal’s Caste System
Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the Shah dynasty that ruled Nepal for over 240 years, has divided Nepalese into four Varnas (race/tribe) and thirty-six castes. However, the Muluki Ain (the first written code of Nepal) codified the caste system of Nepal into five major categories, principally based on their occupation and adherence to Hindu norms. Muluki Ain was introduced by the first authoritarian Rana prime minister Jung Bahadur Rana and it laid the cornerstone of the legally proclaimed caste system in Nepal.
- Tagadharis, Wearers of the holy thread i.e. Janai: Brahmins, Chhetris, Rajputs, and various Newar Castes
- Non-enslavable Matwalis, Liquor drinkers: Magar, Gurungs
- Enslavable Matwalis: Limbu, Kirat, Tharu, Sherpas, Tamang, and others
- Paani Nachalne, Impure but touchable: Muslims & Foreigners
- Achhuts or Dalits, Impure and untouchables: Cobblers, Blacksmiths, tanners, tailors, fishermen
The Matwalis of Categories 2 and 3 are sometimes referred to as one, thus making the total subcategories four. These four tiers or Varnas are often also referred to as Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriya or Chhetri (rulers and warriors), Vaisya (merchants and traders), and Shudra (farmers, artisans, and laborers), especially in India. The fifth class of untouchables are socially excluded in this division and are outcasted citing their social impurity.
The Rig Veda, an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, is one among the four sacred canonical texts in the Hindu religion.
Compiled by Veda Vyas at around 1500 B.C., the Rig Veda also records and mentions such four Varna systems. Among the 10 mandals (chapters) of Rig Veda, the tenth chapter deals with Purusa Sukta. From the body of a primeval being Brahma (Purusa), the four Varnas were created. Purusa is a rather complex term meaning the cosmic being or self, consciousness, and universal principle. In many concepts, it also refers to Brahma, the creator of the universe and one of the three main deities of Hinduism.
The hymns narrate how Brahmins came from the mouth of this divine Purusa, while Kshatriyas came from the torso. Vaishyas and Sudras came from thighs and knees respectively. However, Rig Veda highlights no mentions of the outcastes, i.e. the Dalits.
Another celebrated Sanskrit text – Manusmriti (‘The Laws of Manu’ or ‘The Remembered texts of Manu’) also shares this four-tier Varna system. Manu was the mind-born son of the god Brahma, one of the three main divinities of Hinduism. This text often claimed as the most authoritative of all Hindu codes also ranks and prescribes occupation to the four Varnas. While Manu grants privileges to the Brahmins, he imposes restrictions and penalties on the Shudras
These illustrations further endorse the fact that the Varna system in Nepal, and the Indian subcontinent in general, dates back to prehistoric times. Although multiple times in Nepal’s history, reigners including Prithvi Narayan Shah, Ram Shah, Jaystithi Malla tried capitalizing through this Varna system. However, the foundation of this system dates well before any of these names.
Illegal Caste System of Nepal
The four-tier caste system of Nepal guaranteed social power, status, wealth, and rights to the Brahmins and Kshatriya, while Vaisyas, Shudras, and Dalits were entirely denied even fundamental rights. These outcasts were not allowed to enter temples, educate their children, or attend festivals. Dalits, the group which evidently has been oppressed the most, could not own land or any form of property whatsoever. Physical contact with lower castes supposedly would sully the purity of high castes. A Brahmin would not eat with a Dalit or even accept water from him.
Jung Bahadur Rana’s Muluki Ain even established an isolated code of conduct and penalties for the low-castes. If found sexually harassing a woman, a Brahmin would be fined in cash, degraded to a “lower” caste, or forgiven at the discretion of the judge. On the contrary, if a Dalit man was found having consensual sex with a woman of a “higher” caste would be sentenced to the death penalty. This is only one of numerous such discriminatory legal provisions in the first Muluki Ain.
In the light of such unjust legal provisions and practices, generations of Brahmins or Khastriyas exercised supreme power, while dominating the other Varnas, only to build up overindulgent wealth. Even though Muluki Ain has been made illegal since 1962 and any sort of caste-based discrimination is punishable, the perpetuation of Nepal’s caste system is still very much palpable throughout this third-world nation.
The Struggle & The Future
“The Rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, Nepal probably is the perfect illustration of this Western epigram. Here, Brahmins and Kshatriyas, who exercised power and privilege, are now associated with immense wealth and status. Sudras and Dalits, who were oppressed since the dawn of Hinduism, on the other hand, are poor.
Nepal’s caste system not only defined the economy but also authority and social status. It also influences who gets what job, who gets to study where, and who associates with whom. “Lower” castes, therefore, to this day are struggling to escape the daldal (quicksand) of this prejudicial Varna and caste system.
The fight against a system so old that its roots can be traced back to the times of Budhha is certainly not easy. The caste system in Nepal though lacks official existence is still alive and active. The caste system is often seen replaced with “caste-culture”.
A 19-year-old from Jajarkot, on 23 May 2020, accompanied by 18 of his friends, went to neighboring Soti village in the hopes of marrying his girlfriend. The boy and five of his friends were killed by the mob and tossed into the Bheri river just because he was one of the “lower” castes. The caste system is still very much prevalent in Nepal when a Dalit boy is stoned to death for wanting to marry the love of his life.
However, with the dawn of “global village” and the accelerating activism from marginalized caste including Dalit rights movement, the credibility of Nepal’s caste system is gradually eroding. Youth of the nation, following exposure to education and equity-based-ideology, are challenging the status-quo of the unethical and unjust caste hierarchy of this Himalayan nation.
The decade-long civil war leading to the promulgation of Nepal’s “revolutionary” constitution too has transformed the image of the caste system in Nepal. It is now high time we perhaps embrace one of Budhha’s many famous sayings “Birth does not make one a priest or an outcast. Behavior is what makes one either a priest or an outcast.”