The Vedic peoples used the term varna to describe the rigid status distinction built on one’s complexion and culture that consisted of four social groups: Brahmas (priests and religious figures), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (commoners), and Shudras (laborers and servants). This distinction of four separate classes brought rise to the social and political stratification of the Vedic peoples, where powerful clan members controlled the land built upon the toil and labor of less powerful clan members (Herbst Video, Wk 4 “Vedic Worldview”, 4:33). Socially, the Brahmans claimed the highest status due to their ability to perform rituals, understand complex religious principles, and commune with the gods. Politically, the Brahmans and Kshatriyas engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship to reinforce each other’s high status and remain on top. For example, Brahmans performed sacrifices that converted warriors into kings, while the kings gave gifts and fees back to the Brahmans in return. Naturally, the social and political domination of the Brahmans and Kshatriyas forced the Vaishyas and Shudras to submit to their inevitable purpose and track of life: ensuring the sustenance of the elite through hard labor. The Varna system served as the justification for a highly stratified society where people were born into their rank where they continued to remain for the rest of their lives, keeping the dominators on top and the dominated on the bottom in both a social and political regard (WTWA Ch 4, p. 157).
2. According to the Rig Veda text: Creation as Cosmic Sacrifice: The Myth of Divine Self-Immolation and Its Sanction of the Caste System, the world and all of its inhabitants originated from the self sacrifice of the divine being, Purusha. Purusha was a mighty god possessing the immense power to create all things – creatures of air, animals, and even human beings. It is believed that Purusha himself developed the four distinct social classes, as the Brahmans emerged from his mouth, the Kshatriya from both arms, the Vaishya from his thighs, and the Shudra from his feet. Here, the divine creation itself represents the purest manifestation of the god-mandated social stratification that justifies the division of people based on class and power. This predestined separation of people therefore heavily influenced the Vedic society, creating a system rooted in its religious and ancestral justification of strict social order. Here, the Indian creation narrative shaped not only the Vedic peoples’ significant reverence for the divine sacrifice, but also their perspective on social and political distinctions (WW Ch 1, Section 6). This text can contrast with the creation narrative of early North America. This civilization believed in the vast capacity and power of Wakonda, who retained in his mind the spirits of all things, including man. Wakonda served as a vessel that carried man as he sought out a place to come into bodily existence (WW Ch 8, Section 2). Both Wakonda and Purusha are praised god-like figures who are deemed as the “maker of all things”. However, they differ in the sense that Purusha engaged in a physical self-sacrifice of his mind and limbs to bring humans into creation, whereas Wakonda merely thought up humans into existence and carried them into the world. By comparing the creation narratives of two unique societies at different points in history, we can better understand the evolution of religious and cultural thought.
3. The Axial Age was a pivotal moment in humanity’s overall outlook on life and its possibilities. During the Axial Age, thinkers began to ponder deep and profound topics such as the notion of the self, ethical standards, the meaning and purpose of life, new avenues of thought, human consciousness, and greater individual awareness. It was a period of intellectual and spiritual enrichment that facilitated the transition of social, political, and economic aspects to align with the changing times (Herbst Video, Wk 4 “Axial Age”, 3:25). An example of this “expansion of the mind” was the developing prominence of the Upanishads, who focused on meditation and introspection. The Upanishads were the possessors of supreme knowledge and wisdom who explored questions of deep concern and revolutionary thought that formulated the basic principles of faith. According to the Upanishad text of Atman: The Universal Self, Atman guarantees the gift of true eternal life and hope after death. Therefore, man must surrender his human will to leave his sorrows behind and reach the deep knowledge of Atman , abandoning all evil ways. The Upanishads focus on the prospect of peace, concentration, and self awareness to attain spiritual unity and enlightenment (WW Ch 1, Section 9b). The Upanishads and their school of thought provide insight into the intricacies of deeper and more meaningful thinking that flourished during the Axial Age.