Myths, meaning and purpose of the Caste system
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Myths, meaning and purpose of the Caste system
The Caste System or varna-ashrama has been one of the most misrepresented, misinformed, misunderstood, misused and the most maligned aspects of Hinduism. If one wants to understand the truth, the original purpose behind the caste system, one must go to antiquity to study the evolution of the caste system. Caste System, which is said to be the mainstay of the Hindu social order, has no sanction in the Vedas. The ancient culture of India was based upon a system of social diversification according to SPIRITUAL development, not by birth, but by his karma. This system became hereditary and over the course of many centuries degenerated as a result of exploitation by British rule, some priests, and other socio-economic elements of society.
Caste system has been exploited against the Hindus, for the last two centuries by the British, Christian Missionaries, Secular historians, Communists, Muslims, Pre and Post-Independence Indian politicians and Journalists for their own ends. One way to discredit any system is to highlight its excesses, and this only adds to the sense of inferiority that many Indians feel about their own culture. Caste system is often portrayed as the ultimate horror, in the media, yet social inequities continue to persist in theoretically Egalitarian Western Societies. The Caste system is judged offensive by the Western norms, yet racial groups have been isolated, crowded into reserves like the American Indians or Australian Aborigines, where they can only atrophy and disappear.
I am not going to give any justification of the abuse of caste system, rather provide a collection of interesting information.
“The seers of the early Vedic period know nothing of caste. Delve as much as one may into the literature of the period, one discovers only classes not castes” (Garrot, 2005). Caste is a word which in most minds is most strongly connected with Hindu social order but this practice did not exist in the ancient India (Nadkarni, 2003; Basham, 2008).
Alain Danielou, French historian and Indologist, says: "Caste system has enabled Hindu civilization to survive all invasions and to develop without revolutions or important changes, throughout more than four millennia, with a continuity that is unique in history. Caste system may appear rigid to our eyes because for more than a thousand years Hindu society withdrew itself from successive domination by Muslims and Europeans.”
How is Varna (social order) determined?
Lord Krishna says, “The four fold division of castes’ “was created by me according to the apportionment of qualities and duties.” “Not birth, not sacrament, not learning, make one dvija (twice-born), but righteous conduct alone causes it.” “Be he a Sudra or a member of any other class, says the Lord in the same epic, “he that serves as a raft on a raftless current , or helps to ford the unfordable, deserves respect in everyway” (Bhagawad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, sloka 29, Chapter 9).
The modern Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo says in his book India’s rebirth "Caste was originally an arrangement for the distribution of functions of society, just as much as class in Europe, but the principle on which the distribution was based in India was peculiar to this country.”
What is the necessary to make such divisions?
India’s first spiritual and cultural ambassador to the west, Swami Vivekanantha explains the reasons…
"Caste is a plan we want to follow- - .There is no country in the world without caste. The plan in India is to make everybody a Brahmin, the Brahmin being the ideal of humanity. Indian caste is better than the caste that prevails which prevails in Europe or America."
"Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan.
According to modern sciences, the Universe is made up of basic physical particles that include electrons, protons, neutrons, mesons and quarks. At a spiritual level, however, the Universe is made up of something even more basic. These basic particles are known as the three subtle basic components (trigunas) namely Sattva, Raja and Tama. These gunas are not inherited. They are based on one’s inherent nature and one’s karma. Therefore one’s “varna” was also not supposed to be based on heredity, and in the past it was not. It is only in relatively modern times that the strict, rigid, heredity-based “caste” system has come into existence (Jones, 2012).
As there are three basic components sattva (Spiritual quality), rajas (active quality) and tamas (material/inert quality) - one or other of these gunas more or less present in every man, so the qualities which make a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or a Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at time one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees and is manifested accordingly (Swami Vivekananda, 1985; Jones, 2012). It follows, therefore, that for his own salvation as well as for social efficiency an individual should be allowed to develop along the lines best suited to his natural endowments and that he on his part should perform the duties assigned to him in accordance with the predominant quality of the strand in his nature (Haldane, 1958). The well-known episode of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita is a typical illustration of this philosophy of life. Dismayed, he refuses to fight; but Lord Krishna, the preacher, prevails upon him to discharge the duty proper to his Kshatriya caste" (Garrot, 2005).
In simple terms, the Mahabharata defines the varna qualities thus: "He in whom you find truthfulness, generosity, absence of hatred, modesty, goodness and self-restraint, is a brahmana. He who fulfills the duties of a knight, studies the scriptures, concentrates on acquisition and distribution of riches, is a kshatriya. He who loves cattle-breeding, agriculture and money, is honest and well-versed in scripture, is a vaishya. He who eats anything, practises any profession, ignores purity rules, and takes no interest in scriptures and rules of life, is a shudra." The higher the varna, the more rules of self-discipline are to be observed. Hence, a jati could collectively improve its status by adopting more demanding rules of conduct, e.g. vegetarianism (Elst, 1994). The ancient Indians who planned society on the basis of varna understood human nature better and planned a pattern of society in which there would be less chaos, less struggle and less dissatisfaction. They found out that all people fall naturally, into four types. No other civilization saw, appreciated, and classified so precisely the full spectrum of human personality types and once again honored them all (Smith, 2009).
The Varna- class system illustrates the spirit of comprehensive synthesis, characteristic of the ancient Indian mind with its faith in the collaboration of races and the cooperation of cultures. Paradoxical as it may seem, the system of varna was the outcome of tolerance and trust (Jain, 2011). The division of caste into different varnas is the stepping-stone to civilization, making one rise higher and higher in proportion to one's learning and culture. In Europe, it is everywhere victory to the strong and death to the weak. In the land of Bharata (India), every social rule is for the protection of the weak. Such is our ideal of caste, as meant for raising all humanity slowly and gently towards the realization of the great ideal of spiritual man, who is non-resisting, calm, steady, worshipful, pure and meditative. In that ideal there is God. "
The Indian caste system is not a hierarchy with some who are privileged and others who are despised; it is a natural ordering of diversity, an organizing principle, of a society wherein differences are embraced rather than ignored (Danielou, 2013). Each class was regarded as an integral part of the fabric of society. Each submitted cheerfully to the special functions and duties assigned to it (Haldane, 1991; Garrat, 2005). It is in the nature of society to form itself into groups; and what will go will be these privileges! Caste is a natural order. I can perform one duty in social life, and you another; but that is no reason why you are greater than I, for can you mend my shoes? Can I govern the country? I am clever in mending shoes, you are clever in reading Vedas, as simple as that (Swami Vivekananda, 1985). In the caste system it is up to the individual to achieve perfection in the state to which he or she is born, since to a certain extent that state also forms part of a person's nature. All people must accomplish their individual spiritual destinies while, as members of a social group, ensuring the continuity of the group and collaborating in creating a favorable framework for all human life--thereby fulfilling the collective destiny of the group (Haldane, 1958, 1991; Danielou, 2013). Caste system provided for positive Social Networking and support the rule of the people who have organized themselves in a living and not a mechanical relationship; compared to the total alienation of Young people in the West (Heard, 1942; Danielou, 2013).
Caste is only natural way of solving life. There appeared to have been a tacit understanding that different classes of individuals stood at different stages of evolution and that, therefore, the duties, modes of life, and rules of conduct applicable and helpful to each must necessarily differ. The differentiation was, however, regarded only as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It assigned to each individual his due position in the social order; it regulated his relation with other members of the community, and provided means for his orderly development, eliminating possibilities of a clash of interests between master and servant, landlord and tenant, capital and labor, state and subject (Haldane, 1958, 1991; Garrot, 2005). And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the Divine is within, and everyone will work out his own salvation (Swami Vivekananda, 1985). The whole body of Sanskrit literature shows that the caste system was deliberately devised as a means to attain the coveted end of realizing the divine within man (Garrot, 2005).
It is the caste system which holds Indians together and has allowed eternal India to endure. "So long as the Hindus hold on to the caste system, India will be India; but from the day they break from it, there will be no more India” (Robinson, 1980; Sorman, 2001; Basham, 2008).
"Caste is not intrinsic to Hindusim (Nadkarni, 2003), jaati, kula and varna are not only intrinsic to Hinduism, they are in fact the cornerstones of our society” (Radha Rajan, editor of vigilonline). Without them, we would be just another intolerant monotheist culture. Hindu society remains largely autonomous, power is broad-based and culture is diverse only because of jati, kula and varna. To melt them all down to Portuguese ‘caste’ and then destroy it is Abrahamic evil intent (Jones, 2012).
Sir Sidney Low (1857-1932) in his book, A Vision of India: with a frontispiece says that Caste, in a fundamental way, has been a reason for the longevity of Indian civilization from the shocks of politics and the cataclysms of Nature for centuries (Sorman, 2001). It is a system theory axiom that a centralised, monolithic system is vulnerable to a single-point failure. But a distributed system, which has many smaller, independent, nodes, is far more difficult to destroy. Castes have functioned as these distributed nodes, and thus no attacker could overthrow the system (Robinson, 1980; Srinivasan, 2007). The caste system is undeniably a valuable social capital, which provides a cushion for individuals and families to deal with society and the state. But the Western model of atomising every individual to a single element in a right-based system and forcing the individual to have a direct link with the state has destroyed families and erased communities. Every person stands alone, stark naked, with only rights as his imaginary clothes to deal directly with the state. 'Caste' is now a Dangerous Geopolitical Game. Caste is a stick to beat India with and for the West to interfere in her internal affairs (Elst, 1994).
Caste is perceived as an "exclusion-from," but first of all it is a form of "belonging-to," a natural structure of solidarity. For this reason, Christian and Muslim missionaries found it very difficult to lure Hindus away from their communities. Sometimes castes were collectively converted to Islam, and Pope Gregory XV (1621-23) decreed that the missionaries could tolerate caste distinction among Christian converts; but by and large, caste remained an effective hurdle to the destruction of Hinduism through conversion. That is why the missionaries started attacking the institution of caste and in particular the brahmin caste. This propaganda has bloomed into a full-fledged anti-brahminism, the Indian equivalent of anti-Semitism.
Every caste had a large measure of autonomy, with its own judiciary, duties and privileges, and often its own temples. Inter-caste affairs were settled at the village council by consensus; even the lowest caste had veto power. This autonomy of intermediate levels of society is the antithesis of the totalitarian society in which the individual stands helpless before the all-powerful state. This decentralized structure of civil society and of the Hindu religious commonwealth has been crucial to the survival of Hinduism under Muslim rule. Whereas Buddhism was swept away as soon as its monasteries were destroyed, Hinduism retreated into its caste structure and weathered the storm. Nineteenth-century Westerners projected the colonial situation and the newest race theories on the caste system: the upper castes were white invaders lording it over the black natives. This outdated view is still repeated by anti-Hindu authors: now that "idolatry" has lost its force as a term of abuse, "racism" is a welcome innovation to demonize Hinduism (Elst, 1994). Since the 19th century both Indian and European reformers have not stopped harping on the social ills of the caste system. But nothing, neither socialism nor nationalism nor republican egalitarianism nor any other doctrine of Western origin, has managed to replace it (Sorman, 2001). Caste has given Indian society stability and protection from Foreign Invaders and today's corrupt Government. Caste is our social capital. We don't have to become apologists.
Peter D. Ouspensky a Russian esotericist, said that "Whether people wish it or not, whether they recognize it or not, they are divided into four castes”. There are Brahmans, there are Kshatriyas, there are Vaishyas, and there are Shudras. No human legislation, no philosophical intricacies, no pseudo-sciences and no form of terror can abolish this fact. "The caste system (varna vyavastha) is a natural division of society and the normal functioning and development of human societies are possible only if this fact is recognized and acted on" (Basham, 2008)
Danielou, Alain 2013 - India: A Civillization of Difference
Basham, 2008 - The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent Before the Coming of the Muslims
Elst Koenraad, 1994 Why the Christian missionaries attack the institution of caste and in particular the brahmin caste? - September 1994 - Hinduism Today Magazine
G T Garratt, 2005 - Legacy of India, Oxford At the Clarendon Press, p. 132 – 140
Haldane JBS 1958 - A passage to India
Haldane JBS 1991 - Science and Indian Culture, p.19 & p.24
Heard, Gerald 1942 - Man, the Master, p. 129
Jain, Pankaj 2011 - The Caste system of the Hindu Society - huffingtonpost.com
Jones, William 2012 - Understanding Caste System: Anatomy and Anomaly
Londhe, 2009 - A Tribute to Hinduism: Thoughts and Wisdom spanning continents and time about India and her Culture
Nadkarni M V, 2003 - Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism? Demolishing a Myth - Economic and Political Weekly - November 8' 2003
Robinson, William 1980 - By Temple Shrine and Lotus Pool, wrote on p. 66
Smith Hudson, 2009 - The World's Religions
Srinivasan Rajeev, 2007 - Nothing wrong with caste: Birth and berth - http://rajeev2007.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/in-defense-of-caste/#more-33
Sorman, Guy 2001 - The Genius of India ('Le Genie de l'Inde') Macmillan India Ltd, p. xiii - 56-58
Swami Vivekananda,1985 - On India and Her Problems and The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Kolkata, Vol V, pp 215