Caste system – Spiritual equality Amidst material diversity
Caste system is probably among the most talked and most misunderstood current social controversies; misunderstood because it is based on a false premise – caste determination by birth. .
The social body – discrimination or cooperation?
Interestingly, the original Vedic scriptures don’t consider birth – the basis of casteist discrimination in modern Hinduism – as the criterion of social classification. The Bhagavad-gita (4.13) declares that this social division, known as varnashrama, was based on qualities and activities (guna-karma). The Rig Veda (10.90.12) compares society to the human body. The brahmanas (thinkers and teachers) are compared to the head, the kshatriyas (governors and protectors) to the arms, vaishyas (producers and traders) to the belly and shudras (workers and general assistants) to the feet. In our body, one part may be positioned higher than the other, but that is just to facilitate its optimum contribution to the body. Ultimately all parts need nourishment and are necessary for proper bodily functioning. If any part is neglected or malfunctions, the whole body suffers. Similarly, in the social body, brahmanas (determined by qualities, not birth) are higher in the social hierarchy, but that is just to ensure optimum social utilization of their intellectual abilities. Ultimately, every class is valued for its contribution to society. If any class is exploited or is lethargic, the entire society is adversely affected. Importantly, these four social classes, known as varnas, are not discriminatory man-made divisions. Essentially they are four human types found in every human society. Most people exhibit qualities that reflect an overlapping of these categories, but one occupational inclination eventually predominates. Interestingly, we find similar divisions in a modern MNC – researchers, managers, financers and workers. This division is not discriminatory, but fair, because people are classified not forcibly, but as per their abilities.
Intriguingly the Greek philosopher Plato in his The Republic echoes this principle. Though he mentions three classes instead of four – philosopher-kings, warriors (called as auxiliaries), and merchants and workers together as one, his basis for classification is the same – natural propensities. He compares rulers to gold, auxiliaries to silver, and those in the third class to brass and iron.
Engaging people as per their psychophysical natures has several benefits:
1. Provided individual job satisfaction and security
In Vedic times, experienced elders would identify the natural inclination of a child and train him accordingly, thus empowering him to excel in his vocation and thus become emotionally satisfied and economically secure.
2. Avoided needless competition and maximized social productivity
When people are trained according to their natures, all members of society – teachers, administrators, traders, artisans – pursue their respective professions without having to compete with each other and contribute constructively to society.
Nowadays, when certain professions – engineering and medicine, for example – are glamorized, everyone chases after them. This leads to:
- Students in those fields undergo intense, often maniac, competition.
- Even successful students fear unemployment as too many candidates vie for too few jobs.
- When students are educated contrary to their natures, they are unable to develop the competence expected of their profession, leading to harm or even havoc. Most of have heard of incompetent doctors prescribing wrong medicines.
- Dearth of talent in other fields leads to decreased overall social productivity.
3. Satisfies everyone’s material needs in an efficient and uncomplicated manner.
Communities whose members specialize in different fields can trade internally and become self-sufficient, thus avoiding the complications attendant with external dependence.
Sir Sidney Low in his book, A Vision of India refutes the stereotyped portrayal of varnashrama as an elitist, exclusivist social order:
“There is no doubt that it (caste) is the main cause of the fundamental stability and contentment by which Indian society has been braced for centuries against the shocks of politics and the cataclysms of Nature. It provides every man with his place, his career, his occupations, his circle of friends. It makes him, at the outset, a member of a corporate body; it protects him through life from the canker of social jealousy and unfulfilled aspirations; it ensures him companionship and a sense of community with others in like case with himself. The caste organization is to the Hindu his club, his trade union, his benefit society, his philanthropic society.”
How did varnashrama avoid exploitation?
1. All people – irrespective of their social position – were spiritually equal as servitors of God
The lower castes would serve the upper castes, but the upper castes would serve God – visibly. The brahmanas – the socially most powerful class before whom even the kings would bow down and offer handsome charity – would prefer voluntary material poverty to not be distracted from their absorption in devotional service to God, studying and teaching of scriptures and performance of sacrifices. A well-known example is Chanakya Pandit, who was instrumental in installing Chandragupta Maurya as the monarch of Northern medievalIndia, lived in a simple hut. Similarly the kings would understand and demonstrate that the kingdom belonged to God and they were servitor-caretakers on his behalf. For example, as per time-honored traditions, many kings would personally sweep the streets in front of the processions carrying the Deities. When people would see, “Our masters are as much servants as we are, albeit serving in a different role”, they would unhesitatingly execute their role, decided according to their God-given talents. Envy and conflict arises only when people see, “I am being deprived and another is enjoying at my expense.”
2. The most powerful social classes had to be the most renounced
It was imperative for the upper castes – the brahmanas and kshatriyas – to renounce the world at around fifty and focus fully on self-realization. This not only ensured that they successfully achieved the spiritual goal of life, but also checked them from becoming exploitative.
Thus the seemingly discriminatory varnashrama system functions by enlightened cooperation. Throughout history, thinkers have tried various means to organize human society to maximize individual and social satisfaction and growth. In our times, the left attempted – at least in principle – to bring about social equality by fiat. But the differences vis-à-vis attitudes and aptitudes among people are inescapable. The communist attempt at artificial equality failed as it choked the talented by rewarding them no more than the mediocre. The right provided an open field for the resourceful, leading to industrial and economic growth – and cutthroat competition, untrammeled greed and exploitation of the needy by the wealthy. The varnashrama system ingeniously reconciled and integrated the absolute spiritual equality of all people with their relative material differences. Gerald Heard in his book Man, the Master calls varnashrama as “organic democracy” – “the rule of the people who have organized themselves in a living and not a mechanical relationship; where instead of all men being said to be equal, which is a lie, all men are known to be of equal value, could we but find the position in which their potential contribution could be released and their essential growth so pursued.”
Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent in New Delhi, explains the superiority of varnashrama over the current seemingly equal social system in his book No Full Stops in India, “The alienation of many young people in the West and the loneliness of the old show the suffering that egalitarianism inflicts on those who do not win, the superficiality of an egalitarianism which in effect means equal opportunities for all to win and then ignores the inevitable losers. For all that, the elite ofIndia have become so spellbound by egalitarianism that they are unable to see any good in the only institution which does provide a sense of identity and dignity to those who are robbed from birth of the opportunity to compete on an equal footing – caste.”
Birth-Right Made It All Wrong
The caste-by-birth idea – the bane of Hindu casteism – is decidedly non-Vedic. The Vedic texts abound with examples of qualified people, even if low-born, being elevated to respectable places in society.
- The Chandogya Upanishad narrates how Gautam rsi declared a maidservant’s son, Satyakama Jabali, to be a brahmana as the boy was unhesitatingly truthful – the hallmark of a true brahmana.
Furthermore, Suta Gosvami, Kanaka, Kanchipurna, Tukaram, Thiruvalluvar, Sura dasa and Haridasa Thakura were all revered as saints, despite being low-born.
Vedic aphorism reiterates: janamana jayate shudra samskarad bhaved dvijah veda-pathanat bhavet viprah brahma janatiti brahmana “By birth everyone is a shudra, meaning everyone is unqualified. By spiritual initiation, one becomes a twice-born, that is, one begins his spiritual life. By study of Vedic scriptures, one becomes a learned scholar. By realization of the Absolute Truth alone does one become a brahmana.”
Plato adds an interesting dimension to his social classification: golden parents will tend to have golden children, as silver parents will naturally have silver children, and so on. Similarly in varnashrama often the occupation of a person would turn out to be the varnaof his birth – partially due to the childhood upbringing and training. So, a child born in a brahmana family would generally become a qualified brahamana. Consequently the varnawould normally be determined by birth, but it could be retained only by behavior. So if a son of a brahmana did not develop brahminical qualities, he would no longer be accepted as a brahmana, but as a brahma-bandhu, unqualified relative of a brahmana. Conversely if the son of a shudra exhibited brahminical qualities, he would be accepted as a brahmana. Plato also recommends this flexibility. If an iron parent has a golden child, then, says Plato, we must acknowledge that a golden child born to an iron parent, for example, is indeed golden—his birthright should be disregarded in favor of his natural quality.
Then how did the widespread perversion of caste-by-birth originate? In medieval times, a coterie of brahma-bandhus, wanting to hold on to brahminical privileges without developing the required character, started claiming that caste was decided by birth and was unchangeable. Further they misused their social influence to deprive lower castes of access to the practices of self-realization. And thus began the unfortunate history of casteist discrimination. Genuine Vedic teachers categorically disown this caste-by-birth system as non-Vedic and label it as asuri varnashrama, the demoniacally-conceived system. Author Micheal Pym echoes in his book The Power of India: “Caste is the secret of that amazing stability which is characteristic of the Indian social structure. It is the strength of Hinduism. Naturally, it can be abused. The moment a Brahmin treats a sweeper cruelly because he is a sweeper, he departs from his Brahminhood. He becomes a usurper and a social danger. And in due course, he will have to pay for this mistake. Because men are imperfect, and because power is a deadly intoxicant, such abuses may and do occur, but they are not inherent in the institution – they are contrary to its principles, though they may be inherent in the make up of the individual.”
Spirituality Is The Solution
The ultimate purpose of the original varnashrama, known as daivi varnashrama, the divinely-ordained system, was not just material social organization, but systematic spiritual elevation. As eternal souls, beloved sons and servants of God,Krishna, we can attain eternal happiness only in His devotional service. This selfless divine love enables us to live as happily as is ever possible in this world and finally transports us to our original home, the spiritual world, where we live in eternal ecstasy, reciprocating love withKrishna. Varnashrama offers the best springboard to catapult us to our spiritual birthright. Hence cultivating genuine spirituality –Krishna consciousness – and returning back to the spiritual world is the only real solution to all problems, including the problem of discrimination and exploitation.
Undoubtedly in this world, discrimination must be prevented and redressed. But is varnashrama its cause? Untouchability and similar Hindu inequities are portrayed as the ultimate horror, yet racial groups like American Indians or Australian Aborigines in modern societies were treated worse than untouchables; they were isolated, crowded into reserves, where they could only atrophy and disappear.
Many countries today are witnessing xenophobia. And discrimination, if I may use the word, based on economic power is ubiquitous in the current consumer economy.
What causes discrimination? Almost always materialism. When people imagine that material things – wealth and comforts, power and prestige, positions and possessions – are the only way to happiness, they seek to acquire these by any means. As we live in a world of limited resources and unlimited wants, plenty for one causes scarcity for another. When the powerful become materially-minded, they encroach upon the quota of the weak, leading to social inequities. Depending on time, place and circumstances, this materialistic agenda masks itself in racial, nationalistic, religious – and casteist rationalizations.
The antidote for materialism is spirituality, which provides inner fulfillment and cures the exploitative mentality. And varnashrama is the best social order to foster spiritual enlightenment and experience. Therefore, while striving to remove the cataract of casteism, let us ensure that we don’t pluck out the eye of Vedic spiritual wisdom. When the whole world is recognizing the value of ancient Indian wisdom in the form of yoga, meditation, vastushastra and chanting of holy names, let us not reject the profound and universal spiritual teachings of ancientIndiawhile correcting the social evils of Hinduism. Late British historian Dr Arnold Toynbee reminds us, “It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”
Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, remarked, “Without the awakening of divine consciousness in the individual, there is no use of crying for world peace.” Therefore Srila Prabhupada declared his mission to the West to be “finding brahmanas.” Far from reviving the demoniac caste-by-birth perversion, he wanted to revitalize the modern social body with its missing head. He wanted to create, among the so-called lowborn Westerners as well as everywhere else, a class of genuine spiritual intellectuals, by education, culture and training. Hundreds of such spiritually transmuted intellectuals are pioneering a non-sectarian spiritual revival all over the world. When these detached devoted leaders guide society, their examples, words and policies will eradicate the material greed that causes all inequities. Hence practicing and sharing Krishna consciousness constitutes egalitarianism in its most pure, potent and practical form, the panacea for all forms of discrimination.