Casteism: Is It the Scourge of Hinduism, or the Perversion of a Legitimate Vedic System?
RELIGION, 11 Nov 2019
Casteism in India has gotten a lot of criticism, and rightly so. The way casteism is at present should not even exist. Casteism as we find it today is now nothing more than a misrepresentation and misinterpretation of a legitimate and progressive Vedic system known as varnashrama. However, we need to know the difference between the two, and then get rid of present-day casteism to again utilize the genuine and liberal form of social organization, known as varnashrama.
What Casteism Is Today
The casteism that we find today is the materialistic form of designation that has become a way of oppressing the lower social orders of people. It says that if you are born in a family of a certain classification, then you are of the same class with little possibility of changing. In casteism, birth is now the major factor in determining one’s social standing. It dictates that your social order, occupational potential and characteristics are the same as your parents, which is a label that may have been placed on a family hundreds of years ago.
In the Vedic system, there were four basic classifications. There were the Brahmanas (priests and intellectuals, those who practiced and preserved the Vedic rituals and processes of spiritual realization), the Kshatriyas (warriors, military, government administrators), Vaishyas (the merchants, bankers, farmers, etc.), and the Shudras (common laborers, musicians, dancers, etc.). Casteism says that if you are born of a Brahmana family, then you are a Brahmana, no matter whether you truly exhibit the genuine characteristics of a Brahmana or not. And if you are also born in a Kshatriya family, or a Vaishya or Shudra family, then that is what you must be. It is as if when one is born in a doctor’s family, the child is also considered a doctor. However, anyone knows that to become a doctor requires the proper training and perception to see if the child will be a qualified doctor or not. Just being born in the family of a doctor does not mean that the children will also be doctors, although this may help. But they surely are not doctors merely by birth. Training and intelligence must be there. And before training, there also must be the proclivity, tendency, and attraction to even be a doctor. Without that, no amount of training will be of much use because the student will still not want to be, or qualify to be a doctor. Therefore, this form of modern day casteism is useless.
This form of materialistic casteism was practiced five hundred years ago, during the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who was considered an incarnation of the Supreme Being. However, Sri Caitanya paid no mind to these social customs. He saw them as a way that the hereditary Brahmanas were merely protecting their own position and privileges and not spreading spiritual well-being, which is their duty. Even during that time the Brahmanas had the idea that if they ate with or touched anyone outside the Brahmana caste, they would risk losing their own social rank. Sri Caitanya, however, ignored such restrictions and readily accepted invitations to eat with the sincere devotees of the Lord, or also embrace them, even if they were of the lowest social position. To Sri Caitanya, it was their devotion that gave them whatever qualification they needed. In this way, He dismissed the materialistic method of casteism. By this action He also showed that it was not birth that was important, but one’s consciousness, intentions, and spiritual awareness that was the prominent factor, which superseded the rank of one’s body or family. It is this which actually determines one’s personality, character, and abilities, not merely one’s birth. This is actually how we should see people and treat them equally as spiritual beings inside material bodies.
The Original Vedic System Called Varnashrama
The original Vedic system called varnashrama was legitimate and virtuous. It was meant for the progressive organization of society. Varnashrama is the Vedic system that divides society into four natural groups depending on individual characteristics and dispositions. Everyone has certain tendencies by their own natural inclinations and choice. These inclinations are also seen in one’s occupational preferences. These activities are divided into four basic divisions called varnas. Varna literally means color, relating to the color or disposition of one’s consciousness, and, thus, one’s likelihood of preferring or showing various tendencies for a particular set of occupations. This would be determined not by one’s birth, but by one’s proclivities as observed by the teachers in the school that the student was attending.
For example, there are those who prefer to offer service to society through physical labor or working for others, or through various forms of expressions like dance and music (called Shudras); those who serve through agriculture, trade, commerce, business, and banking or administrative work (Vaishyas); those who have the talents of leaders, government administration, police or military, and the protection of society (Kshatriyas); and those who are by nature intellectuals, contemplative, and inspired by acquiring spiritual and philosophical knowledge, and motivated to work in this way for the rest of society (the Brahmanas). It was never a factor of whether a person had a certain ancestry or birth that determined which class was most appropriate for him or her, although being born in a particular family or tribe would give a natural likelihood to continue in the same line of activity.
Ashramas divided society for spiritual reasons. These were Brahmacharya (students), Grihasthas (householders), Vanaprasthas (the retired stage, at which time a person begins to give up materialistic pursuits and focus on spiritual goals), and Sannyasa (those who were renounced from all materialistic affairs, usually toward the end of their lives, and completely dedicated to spiritual activities). This provided a general pattern for one’s life in which people could work out their desires and develop spiritually at the same time.
In this way, the system of varnashrama came into existence according to the natural tendencies of people, and to direct them so that everyone could work together according to the needs of society. The ashramas divided an individual’s life so that a person could fulfill all of one’s basic desires as well as accomplish the spiritual goals of life. Only according to one’s qualities, tendencies, and traits, usually as one grew up in school, was it determined which varna was best for that person. And then he would be trained accordingly to do the most suited work that fit his qualities, much like the way counselors work with students in schools today. Thus, he or she would have a suitable occupation which he would enjoy, and make a respectable contribution to society.
Its real purpose was that the system of varnashrama was not to label or restrict someone. It was actually part of the means for self-discovery and development. It was to assist a person to find their place in life where he or she would be most comfortable in terms of functionality and occupation. It was to allow the means for everyone to work according to their own nature, which helps bring happiness to the individual and society. Thus, a person could study what was most suited for him or her rather than pursue a type of work that was not really in line with that person’s character, and in which he would soon be dissatisfied. So, it would help guide one to more efficiently complete one’s life and reach fulfillment. In this way, the varnashrama system is based on the natural divisions within society and is not meant to establish forced distinctions or restrictions.
However, beyond this it was meant to help raise the consciousness of humanity from materialism to a higher state of devotional regard for God in spiritual life. It would help one in managing the physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual energy for improving one’s health, mental and physical development, and productivity, along with spiritual awareness. Thus, it was meant for helping society to become spiritually harmonized and make the everyday tasks into a means of spiritual progress and growth.
To explain further, in Bhagavad-gita (4.13) Lord Krishna says, “According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me.” Then He continues, “Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are distinguished by their qualities of work in accordance with the modes of nature.” (Bg.18.41) Herein we can see that there is no mention of birth as a determining factor for one’s varna or classification. They are ascertained by their qualities of work. Furthermore, “By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. . . By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, man can, in the performance of his own duty [or occupation], attain perfection.” (Bg.18.45-6)
Herein we can understand that these divisions are created by the Lord so that everyone can be rightly situated in the work and activities that are most suitable for each person, and in which they can feel most comfortable. Whatever occupational tendency a person may have is determined by the modes of material nature one has acquired, or in which he or she associates. Beyond this, these classifications are to organize society in a way that can help in the systematic development of the spiritual consciousness of all mankind.
In the Vishnu Purana (3.8.9) Lord Parasharama also says, “The Supreme Lord Vishnu is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varna and ashrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Lord.” So, by engaging in this varnashrama system the Supreme Lord can be satisfied with one’s occupation. It is a way of making one’s work and activities into devotional service to the Lord. However, it may be pointed out that a person in pure spiritual consciousness is above all such designations, even though for his service to God he may act in any one of these divisions at any given time. Devotional service to the Lord is never restricted by any classification of actions. Any activity becomes completely spiritual when it is an expression of one’s devotion or love of God.
Now we can understand how the Vedic arrangement of varnashrama provides the means for each person in each varna to be able to make spiritual advancement by offering one’s activities to the Lord. It is the way a person can directly engage in bhakti–yoga, or devotional service to the Supreme. Thus, in whatever position one is in, all of one’s duties can become an offering of love to God, which becomes the highest level of meditation, intention, or activity.
If everyone engages their talents and tendencies in his or her particular occupation with the idea that it is a service to God, then that occupation becomes the means for one’s worship and thoughts or meditation on the Supreme. If one thinks like this always, then, by the grace of the Lord, he will be delivered from material existence. This is the highest perfection of life. In whatever occupation people may be engaged, if they serve the Supreme Lord, they will achieve this highest level of success. It is by this means that the spiritual form of varnashrama can satisfy the Lord, and everyone makes spiritual advancement. As society progresses in this way, all working together for the satisfaction of the Lord, they forget who is in what position, or that there seems to be a difference, because spiritually they are all transcendental. Thus, everyone rises above the material platform by dint of their spiritual work in devotional service. Then the harmonious and advanced nature of the mode of goodness, as found in the age of Satya-yuga, can be invoked even in this dark age of Kali-yuga.
The system of varnashrama exists naturally everywhere because people will always have the tendencies for what they want to do, or have particular qualities for occupational skills. And these can invariably be divided into the four above-mentioned groups. This is natural, and, as we have seen the evidence here, it has been formed by the Supreme Creator. Therefore, it will always be in existence in some shape or form.
This system, however, was never meant to divide people according to materialistic classifications. It was meant to unite people in a cooperative society in the service of God. In Vedic times, even the Shudras had the same rights as those of the other varnas, and their dignity was preserved without discrimination. In this way, everyone would be satisfied materially and work in a way for the Lord’s pleasure. The Vedic culture, ultimately, was for the well-being and spiritual advancement of the whole society. Forced designation or untouchability was never a part of the Vedic process. The materialistic system of the present-day casteism has deteriorated into a means of dividing society according to mere parentage to control certain groups, while protecting or expanding the worldly happiness of the privileged. Thus, additional groups have been manufactured to accommodate this, such as those who are described as outcasts or “untouchables”. Actually, there is no word as “untouchable” in any of the Vedic scriptures. This is merely a modern invention.
Logically speaking, if a person is not performing any unhygienic activities, then why should he be called a Dalit, or an untouchable, simply because of the family in which he was born? Even after performing something dirty, one need only wash oneself properly to be clean again. Likewise, to raise one’s consciousness to a higher awareness or frequency of activity, one need only participate in the Vedic methods of spiritual advancement, which must be done regardless of one’s rank or varna, whether Shudra or Brahmana.
On the other hand, I have seen Brahmanas in India who ate eggs, ate meat, and drank alcohol, all considered to be dirty or contaminating things. How does one clean oneself from that if he is considered a clean and pure Brahmana? It means that such a person is hardly a Brahmana at all, even if he is born in a Brahmana family. So classification is to be judged by qualities, habits, and the content of one’s character, not by mere title and birth.
So, as it stands today, the present form of casteism is a great curse on Hinduism. It attacks the core of its spiritual philosophy, and has resulted in large numbers of Hindus converting to other religions in an attempt to become free of it. Therefore, it needs to be replaced by the genuine system of varnashrama, or simply thrown out completely. However, there are groups or spiritual institutions of Vedic followers who have set the proper example and are open to everyone, and do not divide people or consider them according to their birth. The members all view each other as equals working together for spiritual cooperation and advancement.
In the Bhagavad-gita (18.42), Lord Krishna explains that the natural qualities of the Brahmanas are peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and knowledge. The Mahabharata (1) also explains that a Brahmana must be perfectly religious. He must be truthful and able to control his senses. He must execute severe austerities and be detached, humble, and tolerant. He must not envy anyone, and must be expert in performing religious sacrifices and giving whatever he has in charity. He must be fixed in devotional service and expert in Vedic knowledge. These are the twelve qualifications for a Brahmana. The Mahabharata (Vana Parva, Chapter 180) also goes on with a quote from Yudhisthira, that a Brahmana possesses truthfulness, charity, forgiveness, sobriety, gentleness, austerity, and a lack of hatred.
So the point is that, unfortunately, in today’s form of casteism, when we see Brahmanas who are proud of their position, or who desire material benefit, or look condescendingly at those of lower castes, they are not really elevated but are materialistic. This means that they have lost the true qualities of Brahmanas. They actually help promote contempt throughout casteism. Thus, for those that act this way, and not all of them do, only by birth are they called Brahmanas, but the necessary qualifications are not found in them. In fact, the very people that may pride themselves for their high social classifications, and are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of society (the Brahmanas), only indicate their lack of qualifications by focusing on the temporary material designations when they are supposed to be above such things.
A final point in this regard comes from Suta Gosvami who says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.8) that such occupational duties a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This means that the modern materialistic form of casteism that we find today is no longer connected with the Vedic system of varnashrama. It misses the point of helping everyone make spiritual advancement by focusing on our spiritual identity of being the soul within the body, or to please the Supreme Lord. Thus, the caste system has become simply a materialistic, useless, and destructive system.
The Earliest Reference to the Varnas
The earliest reference to the varnas is found in the Purusha Sukta verses of the Rig-veda (Book Ten, Hymn 90). There are those who refer to these verses as justification for the modern caste system. But let us take a closer look at them.
In these verses, the great sages worship the Purusha, or the Supreme Soul, Lord of immortality, and from whom the universe is created. In worshiping the Purusha, whose form is completely spiritual and transcendental, the sages can see how all other aspects of the creation are also manifest. Within Him are all other Deities and demigods and rishis. From this ritual, all other Richas and Sama hymns are born from the Purusha, and from Him come all other creatures, and animals, and so on. Then this hymn explains that from the Purusha’s mouth, arms, thighs, and feet came the human beings. The Brahmana was His mouth, the Rajas or Kshatriyas were both of His arms, His thighs became the Vaishyas, and from His feet the Shudras were produced.
After that it is described how the Moon was gendered from his mind [connecting its affects with mental activities], and the sun came from His eye [providing vision]. Indra and Agni also came from His mouth and Vayu [the wind god] came from His breath. From His navel came mid-air, sky from His head, Earth from His feet, and regions from His ear.
Thus, we find that a variety of items are identified with parts of His body. However, this does not mean that there is a classificatory difference between what is lower and what is higher. It mostly distinguishes the different functions of each entity in its association with the various parts of the Purusha. The Purusha’s or Lord’s body is completely spiritual. For those that do not understand this point, it means that there is no difference between His head, hand, thighs, feet, mind, breath, eye, ear, and so on. They are made of the same spiritual qualities, and one aspect can perform the same function as any other aspect. They are all pure consciousness. Thus, it does not mean that the Brahmanas are necessarily a higher classification than the Vaishyas or Shudras, but that they naturally have different functions. However, the point is that every living being is considered a part of the Lord’s body. As verse three of the Purusha Sukta explains, all creatures are one-fourth of Him. In other words, they all have a place, they all belong, and they all have a duty to perform, and should be respected as such. It means that they all have a purpose, in that all parts of the body must work together. In the same way, the social body of society must all work together in order for it to function properly and harmoniously. Being parts of the spiritual body of the Purusha, all living beings are also ultimately completely spiritual in essence. That essence is what we must understand, for that essence is of the same essential spiritual quality as the Lord. That is what connects us all together and with God.
Another aspect of this is that in the Second verse of the Purusha Sukta Prayers, it explains that the Purusha expands with food. This food is indicative of the worship, the sacrificial offerings or meditative devotions of mankind. Thus, for society to reach its zenith of spiritual potential, they must all cooperate in working together in devotion to God. This means that society, being different parts of the body of God, must all act while having God as the center, just as our own body must work to serve the central part of it, which is the stomach. If the feet, legs, arms, and head do not cooperate to feed the stomach, then the whole body, including all its parts, get weak and dysfunctional, and then dies. It does not matter which part may be considered the most important, if they do not all work to make sure the stomach is fed, then they all get weak and die. In the same way, the different parts of the body of society must all work together or it becomes weak and begins to die out.
So, as explained in this prayer, the body of the Purusha expands and grows strong when all of its parts, namely mankind, work for the common cause, which is to cooperate together, seeing each person as part of the body of God, and act in devotion to the Lord. That is the ultimate goal, as emphasized in the Vedic tradition. In other words, you cannot please God if, by perceiving our differences, we do not act harmoniously together with God as the center. These are but a few of the lessons we can get from the Purusha Sukta Prayers in the Rig-veda. Now we must act on them and recognize each other in the proper perspective.
How the Present Casteism Developed
In the Vedic times it was perfectly all right for a person to change their classification or varna by switching their profession. It provided that kind of flexibility. Thus, on occasion, the upper class Brahmanas might become warriors or kings, while the lower class Shudras could also become scholars or saints. However, only later did the divisions of the four varnas become less flexible, thus causing one’s birth to be one’s class.
Over time the fourfold varna system became divided into many hundreds and thousands of other varnas, castes or jatis. Most of such jatis are people of a particular geographical or linguistic region. Thus, each member within a varna would often act accordingly and marry amongst others within that varna. However, Kshatriyas were often excluded from such nuances.
So how did the form of casteism that we find today develop? Traditionally, it is related in the Srimad–Bhagavatam (1.18.32-50): “Once upon a time [about 5000 years ago] Maharaja Pariksit, while engaged in hunting in the forest with bow and arrows, became extremely fatigued, hungry and thirsty while following the stags. While searching for a reservoir of water, he entered the hermitage of the well-known Shamika Rishi and saw the sage sitting silently with eyes closed. The muni’s sense organs, breath, mind and intelligence were all restrained from material activities, and he was situated in a trance apart from the three [wakefulness, dream, and unconsciousness], having achieved a transcendental position qualitatively equal with the Supreme Absolute.
“The sage, in meditation, was covered by the skin of a stag, and long, compressed hair was scattered all over him. The King, whose palate was dry from thirst, asked him for water. The King, not received by any formal welcome by means of being offered a seat, place, water and sweet addresses, considered himself neglected, and so thinking in this way, he became angry. The King’s anger and envy, directed toward the Brahmana sage, were unprecedented, being that circumstances had made him hungry and thirsty.
“While leaving, the King, being so insulted, picked up a lifeless snake with his bow and angrily placed it on the shoulder of the sage. Then he returned to his palace. Upon returning, he began to contemplate and argue within himself whether the sage had actually been in meditation, with senses concentrated and eyes closed, or whether he had just been feigning trance just to avoid receiving a lower Kshatriya [meaning someone lower in varna or caste].
“The sage had a son, Shringi, who was very powerful, being a Brahmana’s son. While he was playing with inexperienced boys, he heard of his father’s distress, which was caused by the King. Then and there the boy spoke as follows:
‘O just look at the sins of the rulers who, like crows and watchdogs at the door, perpetrate sins against their masters, contrary to the principles governing servants. The descendants of the kingly orders are definitely designated as watchdogs, and they must keep themselves at the door. On what grounds can dogs enter the house and claim to dine with the master on the same plate? After the departure of Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead and supreme ruler of everyone, these upstarts have flourished, our protector being gone. Therefore, I myself shall take up this matter and punish them. Just witness my power.’
“The son of the rishi, his eyes red-hot with anger, touched the water of the river Kaushika while speaking to his playmates and discharged the following thunderbolt of words and cursed the King: ‘On the seventh day from today a snake-bird will bite the most wretched one of that dynasty [Maharaja Pariksit] because of his having broken the laws of etiquette by insulting my father.’
“Thereafter, when the boy returned to the hermitage, he saw a snake on his father’s shoulder, and out of his grief he cried very loudly. The rishi, born in the family of Angira Muni, gradually opened his eyes hearing his son crying, and saw the dead snake around his neck. He threw the dead snake away [thinking nothing of it] and asked his son why he was crying, whether anyone had done him any harm. On hearing this, the son explained to him what had happened.
“The father heard from his son that the King had been cursed, although he should never have been condemned, for he was the best amongst all human beings. The rishi did not congratulate his son, but, on the contrary, began to repent, saying: ‘Alas! What a great sinful act was performed by my son. He has awarded heavy punishment for an insignificant offense. O my boy, your intelligence is immature, and therefore you have no knowledge that the king, who is the best amongst human beings, is as good as the Personality of Godhead. He is never to be placed on an equal footing with common men. The citizens of the state live in prosperity, being protected by his unsurpassable prowess.
“My dear boy, the Lord, who carries the wheel of a chariot, is represented by the monarchical regime, and when this regime is abolished the whole world becomes filled with thieves, who then at once vanquish the unprotected subjects like scattered lambs. Due to the termination of the monarchical regimes, and the plundering of the people’s wealth by rogues and thieves, there will be great social disruptions. People will be killed and injured, and animals and women will be stolen. And for all these sins, we [the Brahmana class] shall be responsible.
“At that time the people in general will fall systematically from the path of a progressive civilization [the Vedic culture] in respect to the qualitative engagements of the castes and the orders of society and the Vedic instructions. Thus, they will be more attracted to economic development for sense gratification, and as a result there will be an unwanted population on the level of dogs and monkeys.”
This was an arrangement by the Lord, or providence if you will, so that Maharaja Pariksit would depart from home and prepare to leave his body. However, Shringi, the powerful yet immature Brahmana boy, came under the lower influences of Kali-yuga, such as pride and envy, which a Brahmana is never meant to feel. It was through this incident that the degrading age of Kali-yuga was waiting for to spoil the Vedic cultural heritage of the four orders or varnas of life. It was this incident which was the first time, through an unqualified Brahmana boy, that the higher castes felt dislike or hatred for the lower castes. Thus, the first victim of Brahminical injustice was Maharaja Pariksit.
By the influence of Kali-yuga, the son of a Brahmana, under the influence of his young playmates, became proud of the power he had and wrongly compared a qualified king to crows and watchdogs. Thus, the downfall of the Brahminical powers started as the Brahmanas began to give more importance to birthright than to culture. In this way, the protection that was provided by the King against the onslaught of Kali-yuga became slackened, and, thereafter, all of the other castes or varnas, all the people in general, began to neglect their duties and lose qualifications. Thus, the Vedic culture started to decline. And because of this, people of the lower varnas also began to be envious of the higher varnas, and then disunity, disrespect, and friction slowly increased through the years amongst the castes.
The boy’s father realized all this and explained that now because of the stupid and sinful act of his son all of society would begin to move in a behavior contrary to the spiritually progressive way of life.
In this way, through time, society began to deviate from the Vedic standards. The perverted nature of the modern caste system started to creep into the genuine Vedic system of varnashrama, even from the time of Jamadagni and Parashurama many hundreds of years ago. As the Brahmanas became more self-interested, a struggle began between them and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmanas made birth in a Brahmana’s family as the qualification for being one. Thus, one’s varna was determined by birth, which stifled people in the lower varnas. The varna system, which was absent from the Vedic literature, was included and explained only in the Dharmasastras and smriti literature, such as the Manu-samhita.
In this way, the varnashrama system degenerated in India, and all the classes gradually began to neglect their duties. Testing the abilities, tendencies, and talents of the children to determine their natural interests and character disappeared. Birth became the major factor in determining varna or caste. The Brahmanas in particular became self-centered and protective of their superiority, forgetting their duties and losing their qualities. Sacrifice, religious study, and austerity gradually became absent in the traits of many of the Brahmanas. The people in the other varnas also lost their good characteristics. Chivalry, leadership, and forbearance were no longer to be found to such a high degree in the Kshatriya spirit. As leaders, they no longer kept the welfare of the people in focus. Vaishyas lost their charity and honesty in business and became greedy and avaricious. The laborer class, the Shudras, no longer wanted to be servants, but desired that others serve them. They wanted to have position and control, without knowing what is best to do with it, and not being qualified to guide or lead people properly, and, thus, misdirecting the world. In this way, society has become disheveled and out of balance and harmony, and does not follow in accord with Dharma.
Some of the Kshatriyas rebelled and formed or joined Buddhism, which did without all varnas or castes. The Vaishyas also used Jainism. Together, Buddhism and Jainism tried to bring the end of Brahmanism. The result was actually a deterioration of the Vedic culture in general.
As society in India started to decay after distancing itself from the true Vedic system, and because of disunity and friction, it weakened to the point wherein it allowed the low-born or mleccha kings from outside India to come in and conquer and control it. This brought even further decline to the Vedic culture. Later, it was during the British reign in which the modern caste system became more widely practiced and ingrained in Hinduism. By now the caste system was completely different and separate from the Vedic system of Varnashrama. The British encouraged the practice of casteism to increase the divisions between people, thus making it easier for the British to rule over them. A disunited society will hardly have the force, cooperation, or strength to defend itself from intruders. So the British fueled casteism and kept it more ingrained in society for their own interests. In this way, it was many years before the British could be removed. In fact, the British justified their presence with promises of helping keep the peace between the growing divisions in the Indian social structure. In any case, well after the British left, the divisions and the focus on ethnic classifications that had increased during their reign have remained.
So, the British used the untouchable classes as a means for their own political purpose, and an instrument in their divide and rule policy for dividing the Hindu majority. This amplified the divisions of the caste system and made them more solid in the people’s identification with the castes. This had negative and regressive affects on the Indian society that have not gone away. However, in 1936, the Indian government made it even worse by outlining the Scheduled Castes among the untouchables and labeled a list of such classifications. The various castes would be regarded with separate status for assembly and seats of parliament, along with special benefits for education and employment. This became adopted into the Indian Constitution which has made it a practice that has endured to date, with special laws making the labeling of untouchability an offense. The Untouchability Act of 1955 provides the list of penalties for any such offense. Now, there are numerous and separate divisions amongst the Scheduled Castes to the point where it will never cease to exist, at least in a general way, especially in the villages. The cities are becoming somewhat more homogenized due to necessity of occupational fulfillment and education as opposed to merely growing out of such traditions.
As far as “untouchability” goes, it was never mentioned in any Vedic literature. This was never a part of the Vedic system, but merely a more modern invention. There is no justification for it. The earliest mention of it seems to be in the Chinese traveler Fa Hsien’s account of his journey in the 4th century CE. It also seems that this became a name for those who were not amongst the basic four varnas, and were thus without a caste or varna. They were called Panchama in some regions, which merely means the fifth varna. Later, in 1933, Gandhi gave them the name of Harijan, or “people of God”, which was accepted by many members of the Panchama class. The 1931 census used the term of “Scheduled Castes” as the proper name for identifying the Panchama class. In 1970, the term “Dalit” came to be used, which is a Marathi word based in Sanskrit which means “broken or ground down,” usually meaning one who is oppressed. This term has slowly gained usage across India.
Though Indian society has always been progressive to varying degrees, this idea of assigning a varna, caste or class of activity to someone merely by one’s birth parents has been the major failure of individual and social development in modern Hindu society.
The Dangers of Casteism as We Find It Today
As casteism continues, it furthers the fragmentation of Indian society. In fact, you could say that it has practically killed Vedic society and has brought about the numerous divisions and social quarrels that we now find in India. Even amongst the Hindus alone, there has been fighting along caste, ethnic, and sectarian lines for hundreds of years. This is one of the main reasons why the country has been weakened to such a degree that they could not properly defend themselves in a unified way from the genocide under the Muslim invasions, and now modern fundamentalism. This sort of fragmentation also forced Indians to endure two centuries of British persecutions.
Casteism today does not help society advance spiritually. In fact, it helps promote emphasis on bodily and social distinctions, contempt, and disapproval among the people of different classes and ethnic groups. For this reason, we still see today that when the Shudras and Dalits feel like they are disliked by fellow Hindus, they become Muslims, Christians, or Buddhists in the attempt to find greater acceptance and avoid class differences. The result of this has been social disharmony. Otherwise, there would have been no need for parts of India to be divided to create Bangladesh and Pakistan, which have since become nothing more than mortal enemies of India. Have any lessons been learned? Apparently not. Ethnic intolerance is on the rise in many parts of India.
Even today you can find such divisions that a Brahmana from one state does not trust a Brahmana from a different part of India. For example, the Nambudris of Kerala look down on any other Brahmanas. Even among other groups, a Jat boy from the Punjab will not marry a Jat girl from Uttar Pradesh. And a Patel from Kutch will look at a Patel from Ahmadabad as foreign. Thus, the problem of caste and ethnicity is making a society that fights like cats and dogs. In reality, casteism is killing Indian culture.
What We Can Do to Eliminate the Modern Caste System
Social revolutionaries who wanted to change the modern caste system have been around for a long time. Gandhi was a notable figure in this. However, before him was Ramanujacharya. He crusaded against the concept of untouchability. In Melkote, Karanataka, he threw open the doors to the temple and let everyone in, regardless of classification. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu also ignored the restrictions that were established by the caste system. He associated and ate with anyone who was a sincere devotee of the Lord, considering one’s intention and consciousness as being more important than the mere social classification of one’s body.
So what can be done to change this form of casteism? We can go back to the Vedic system of studying the natural tendencies of the child in its early stage of education. Then observe the child’s association, activities and intellectual interests to begin to determine his or her real varna or direction in occupation. Then, as in any western country, as the child grows, begin testing, counseling and steering it in the proper course of education to determine if the right category has been given. Then allow that person to develop him or herself to the fullest possibility without restrictions of some forced caste placed on the person. It does not even have to be called varnashrama. But the process can merely direct a person according to his or her qualities and characteristics to find more fulfillment and potential in life, and, thus, more happiness. This is only the basics of what varnashrama was and is meant to do. Other things that can be done that can help do away with the modern form of casteism include the following:
- Enforcing the Existing Laws
There have been laws passed against the practice of untouchability and discrimination toward those considered to be of lower caste, some of which have already been enacted. India’s Constitution has a specific Article forbidding untouchability (Article 17), along with Article 25(2b) to throw open Hindu religious institutions to all sections of Hindus, and Article 15 (4) to permit the state to make special provisions for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. However, this has only made the caste system more ingrained in society, making it more difficult to fix or do away with. It also has a host of other Articles in Part III to ensure Right to Equality. After all, India is a democracy with freedom for anyone regardless of race, religion or sex. And under a democracy, everyone should follow the same set of laws–a uniform code for all Indians. However, these laws need to be monitored in a way to make sure that they are implemented to see to it that this caste prejudice is not only outlawed, but stopped. After all, India still receives much criticism for this from the global community.
Is this possible? Yes, it is. Nepal, on August 16, 2001, recently made the announcement that they would put such laws into practice against the discrimination of lower-caste Hindus and the centuries-old idea that certain people are untouchable, which would become punishable by a severe sentence.
- Freedom to Enter All Hindu Temples
All people, no matter whether they are Dalits, other low-caste Hindus, or people like Westerners who have converted to Hinduism, should have the means and freedom which enable them to enter all Hindu temples and participate in the Vedic process of spiritual development. This again is merely a practice that expands and protects the rights of those who are already privileged, without showing the concern for others. It is another example of how the upper-castes suppress those of lower status. It is another example of how it is causing the disintegration of the noble standards that were once found in the traditional Vedic culture.
The point is that if everyone can equally participate in the worship and traditions that you find in the Vedic temples, which is indeed possible in most temples in India, it helps preserve, protect, and promote Sanatana-dharma, the Vedic traditions. And everyone has a right to follow and participate. This is what must be upheld. Then people will not feel inclined to convert to another religion but will remain within their own customs. Otherwise, if such things as restrictions to enter temples continue, it only helps provide a prescription for a slow extinction of the Vedic culture.
- Stop All Bonded Labor
Furthermore, the practice of bonded labor should be not only outlawed, but with stiff fines and penalties for those who still utilize it. Bonded labor is the practice of using poor villagers for cheap labor, often giving them low wages and shambles for dwellings. Then giving them loans with interest that are supposed to be paid off in exchange for labor. If the loans are not paid off, then the person’s children must also work for years in order to try to pay off the loans of their fathers or grandfathers. This can go on for generations. It is essentially financial slavery. You see bonded labor in places like textile shops, large farms, and in the carpet and silk factories, which are known to be the prominent places that use child labor. It is not only time for the government to get involved to make sure that this practice comes to an end once and for all, and see to it that all financial obligations are nullified, but make sure that all who continue this practice are penalized severely enough. It is another example of how the rich and privileged suppress and control the lower classes.
In the real system of varnashrama, everyone’s position can be respected since everyone is seen as servants of the Lord in whatever capacity they serve. The people are appreciated for what they do. Workers and laborers were never to be treated harshly, or given hellish conditions in which to live or work. They were to be treated kindly and fairly.
- Protect All Village Children
Another thing that must be stopped in this connection is the practice of bribing or purchasing tribal or poor village girls with the promise of good jobs and then taking them to places like Mumbai where they are sold and forced into prostitution. Many of the girls in Mumbai are not there by choice, but because they were kidnapped and then beaten, starved, or tortured into submission. This goes on not only for the profit, but because of the corruption in the local governments and police departments that allow it to continue. There is no reason why the government and police cannot stop this if they really wanted. There are laws against this but no one implements them. They could easily close the houses of prostitution overnight and free these girls, except for the bribes and the corruption that allows the Indian mafia to take advantage of these young girls.
This ruins the lives of many young girls and their families, helps spread HIV-AIDS throughout India, and is another point for which India receives much criticism, while the international community watches. Therefore, heavy punishment should be administered to anyone for such kidnapping or bribery, and the madams who run the houses of prostitution should be sent to long terms of prison. All politicians or police commissioners who do not carry out the laws to stop this, or who accept bribes to look the other way, should also be relieved of their position or jailed for long periods of time. This would have immediate effects.
- Stop the Dowry System
The concept of dowry should also be abolished, not merely by the laws that have been established, but by enforcement with stiff fines when it is found to have taken place. Dowry was originally a way of helping the newly married couple get off to a good start financially, and to help protect the bride if something should happen to the husband. Now it has become a perverted system in which it is the bride’s parents who must fork over a large dowry to the agreement of the groom and his family. If the dowry is not large enough, there is either no marriage, or the bride is treated terribly later on. This system helps divide the classes and puts the financial burden on the bride’s family to have their daughter get married. It is especially difficult when the bride’s family is poor, or has a number of daughters that need to get married. It also turns the marriage into a business arrangement between families rather than a sacred institution between husband and wife. It is also a big factor in the abuse of women and bride burnings in India. This system is another reason for the increased rate of infanticide and abortions when it is discovered that a woman is pregnant with a girl. The present-day system of dowry is now mostly a materialistic and shameful arrangement.
- Promote Genuine Spiritual Knowledge
Ultimately, as with all social problems, the most important action to take in order to change society is to provide the means for continued spiritual development. That is why it is important that spiritual organizations work to fulfill the above-mentioned points, and also provide the means for the uplifting of people’s consciousness through spiritual education and practice, so that people can seriously change their view of their fellow human beings. That is why temples need to be open to everyone. We all need to realize our transcendental identities, and that we are all spiritual beings, not the temporary bodies in which we reside. As spiritual beings, we are all the same. On that level, there needs to be no special treatment of one over another. Materially, there may be so many differences, but these are all temporary and only within the material vision. By recognizing this, it can help us get back to practicing the real and genuine version of casteism, which is the Vedic system of varnashrama.
My own spiritual master put it bluntly; he said that if all you see is who is a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra, then your vision is no better than that of a dog. A dog also recognizes distinctions, such who is its friend, enemy, or source of food. Our vision should be much higher than that if we are to consider ourselves human beings.
The above mentioned points, which are not many, may not completely cure this problem of caste suppression and bonded and child labor, but it could certainly take things in the right direction and begin to change how things in the social arrangement of India continue.
Many organizations have shown and teach disregard for the caste system and its materialistic designations. Spiritual organizations such as ISKCON, the Swami Narayana organization, the Swadhyaya group, the RSS, VHP, and others, have taken the path of showing the equality amongst all people without caste distinctions. They treat everyone equally while allowing individuals to pursue their own particular occupational tendencies without the stigma of being categorized into any certain social group. This is one way in which society can again be unified, especially in regard to Hindu society and India in general.
It is also of utmost importance to use every occasion to help change the social disparities into a common devotional unity. We can especially see such unity at spiritual festivals, like the Kumbha Mela of January, 2001. At this spiritual event, wherein 71 million people attended over a seven week period, everyone bathed in the rivers side by side, both rich and poor, educated and not, villagers and city dwellers alike. They all honored the sages and saints together, or sat in rows together doing puja or listening to the talks, or taking food given at the camps. Social sectarianism had no place in it. Therefore, Hindu unity is possible. Yet, we have to be ready to tear down the needless ethnic barriers and unnecessary classifications that get in the way.
We need to have more social gatherings that allow people to come together in a cooperative mood, then work or play together, and get to know each other better. We especially need to have more religious and spiritual functions, like Krishna Janmastami, Ramnavami, etc., that can bring everyone together to celebrate in a way in which we forget about our class distinctions or ethnic divisions. That way we can all be inspired and then leave the event while still holding that inspiration in our hearts. By experiencing such events and then carrying this attitude wherever we go, it will reinforce social harmony, equality and fraternity amongst all.
When you are spiritually charged, you want to share that inspiration and love with everyone. You don’t want anything to stifle your feeling of spiritual exhilaration. You want everyone else to feel it, too. That’s when you are really approaching true spiritual and God consciousness. And casteism can never be a part of that. It will only separate you from your fellow spiritual beings, and take down your spiritual consciousness and alienate you from God and from the God within everyone.
Another thing that can help in this matter is that swamis from various maths and temples should visit those who are neglected. They should put on religious functions in their communities. Or they can make sure that such people, along with everyone else, are invited to the temples for regular functions, and see to it that there is equality in matters of puja, worship, prasada and food distribution, and Vedic education and instructions. This is the common heritage of all Hindus, and, indeed, all of mankind. No one should be deprived from that, and it should be our duty to see to it that everyone has this opportunity. We must all do our part. Otherwise, if there are any who are not spiritually educated, then we are the ones to blame.
Ironing out these man-made difficulties by spreading spiritual education is, in effect, a way of invoking and showing our devotion to God. If God established varnashrama, as explained in the Bhagavad-gita, then we should work in ways to tear down the modern and materialistic caste system and reinstall the genuine Vedic process of the four main orders of society and the justifiable way to determine who is fit for which order. In this Vedic system, everyone is recognized as being spiritually equal, and everyone can work according to their occupational tendencies toward pleasing God without being subject to rigid social classification and stigma.
It is my personal vision of a casteless society, a society that focuses on unity through our spiritual identities, which are all equal and beyond bodily designations. It is my personal vision wherein everyone can work according to their own natural tendencies in a spirit of devotion to God without being categorized merely because of their birth. Like so many others, it is my vision of a society in which everyone can get along, cooperating and assisting each other in harmony toward our spiritual growth. However, we all have to work toward social reform. After all, what kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you prefer? A world divided, full of social disparities and ethnic divisions? Or a world united in cooperation and harmony, all working to encourage and help each other through life? The decision is obvious.
We should all be ambassadors to spread social harmony. We should all be ambassadors of the genuine Vedic standards and culture. We should all be revolutionaries to break the materialistic social barriers between us. We must be willing to work for the progress and uplifting of all, which then guarantees our own uplifting. We must be willing to change society, and that change starts within each and every one of us, and the way we view one another.
Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana dasa) has dedicated himself to spreading the deepest and most practical levels of spiritual knowledge about the soul–our real identity. Though this world may give us numerous challenges, when we rise above the basic materialistic view and its limited search for solutions, our evolutionary development on all levels greatly accelerates. By recognizing that we are all spiritual beings who are, basically, attempting to achieve the same essentials for our existence–namely love, acceptance, harmony, peace, and happiness, not to mention the ordinary needs of food, water, clothing and shelter–we can reach a new level of cooperation with each other. Stephen has written many books on this and related subjects and studied with A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada becoming initiated into the spiritual line of Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya. He is also president of the Vedic Friends Association. firstname.lastname@example.org
Another article of mine which can provide additional insight into this matter is Vedic Literature Says Caste by Birth is Unjust.
Tags: Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavatam, Caste System, Culture, Deep Culture, Deep Structure, Hinduism, History, India, Religion, Social structures, Solutions, Spirituality, Structural violence, Tradition, Vedas, Vedic Culture, Violence, West, World
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