Water, Hindu Mythology and an Unequal Social Order in India


This paper analyses Vedic philosophy, the structural basis of currently practised Hinduism, to identify that water and the human body in the Hindu social system are not merely physical entities. Water has, since the Vedic periods, been recognised as a primordial spiritual symbol (Baartmans, 1990). Similarly, Vedic philosophy describes the symbolic division of Purusa, or the Eternal Man, into four varnas or classes, Brahmans, Rajanyas (Kshatriyas), Vaisyas and Sudras. The social hierarchy of the caste system in Hindu society is said to have originated from this four-fold class system (Prabhu, 1939; Das, 1982; Murray, 1994). The caste system, a product of post-Vedic philosophy, ascribes states of ritual purity and pollution to the human body on account of caste or rather caste-based occupation and gender. Water has since then been recognised as an instrument to determine the rigours of socio-ritual purity and pollution of the human body. This paper shows, through field research on water use in a rural Hindu society, that caste based socially hierarchy is determined locally through notions of purity and pollution. These notions are used in local culture in determining and reinforcing an inequitable access to, control over and distribution of water and water use rights. It is argued that popular policy visions of restoring the community's supremacy in water management can be counter-productive and reinforce existing inequality if the basis and reality of social inequality is ignored and the existence of a 'unitary, egalitarian and altruistic' community is assumed.


Second Conference of the International Water History Association, Bergen, August 2001, 20 pp.

Water, Hindu Mythology and an Unequal Social Order in India

Published 1 January 2001