Caste System In India - A Unique Perspective

Caste System In India - A Unique Perspective

Discover a fresh take on the caste system with this thought-provoking article


 

The caste system has received a great deal of criticism from those who don't make an effort to understand it. Despite its flaws, it still stands as a wonder of the world and has sparked intense interest in how long it has persisted. The caste system is a complex social structure that divides individuals into different groups based on their nature and occupation. It has been in place for thousands of years and has evolved over time, incorporating various religious and cultural beliefs. While it has been criticized for perpetuating inequality and discrimination, it has also been praised for providing a sense of identity and community to its members.

This article sheds light on some aspects of the caste system that haven't been discussed before.

 

Caste system - an extension of family ideal

The caste system based on the four Varnas is an extension of the Hindu family ideal. In a family, the elders get respect but they have more obligations and responsibilities. Children get lesser recognition and respect but they have greater freedom. Each member of the family has his right place and privileges. 

The higher castes have the chief responsibility for the welfare of the whole, and have to go through many disciplines from which the lower castes (like children) are exempt. Like all other Hindu institutions, the caste-system was also based upon the ideal of spiritual culture. It grew naturally as their civilization grew, adapting itself to race and nation, it developed as they developed. 

Now, what is it that has kept the Hindu race so intact ? Storm after storm has swept over, but the Hindu race remains, and the Hindu is still Hindu. Where are the other ancient civilisations ? In Europe the Roman Eagle has fallen, the Byzantine Empire dwindled to pieces, ancient Greece and Carthage are no more. But India lives and renews her youth treasuring the jewel of her ancient heritage in the strong-hold of caste. In fact, the caste system has preserved the life and ideals of the Hindu race; and the institution of caste was evolved for the efficient organization of the country, and proved itself fitted for this purpose better than any social system yet discovered in any part of the World. 

 

The twice-borns

Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas—these were the three twice-born (dwija) orders, belonging to the original Aryan stock. They had practically the same rights and privileges. But it is natural for a group of people who work together for a certain time to become to a certain extent a fixed group with fixed ideals. These ideals grow amongst them to such an extent that they become practically the very life and breath of that group.

In ancient India, those were the days of discovery of spiritual truths amongst our forefathers, unequaled, unsurpassed, by any nation of the world. It was natural for the group of people who were involved all the time in spiritual matters in the forest-universities of India, to think only of the Absolute and to forget the world. It was natural to honor them and ensure that they were not disturbed in their spiritual studies and were protected from the surrounding enemies. 

It was important that both those who were busy in matters of spiritual discovery, and those who were protecting them, should be fed, and fed properly. So there arose a class whose duty was to look after the economic needs of the society. 

The first class who were busy in spiritual discovery were the Brahmins, the second or fighting class, the Kshatriyas and the third, the Vaisyas or the wealth-creators. The fourth class called the Sudras comprised the manpower essential for all the activities of the societies, communities and the nation.

The Sudra had his own rights and privileges and was respected by all the other castes.

 

Higher caste was not about power

It should be noted that the higher caste was not about power or material gains. The Brahmin was above the Kshatriya because of his sacrifice, renunciation and discipline. Right from the Vedic age, he never earned any money. His vocation is teaching. His house is a simple house, his wife is a humble woman. She devotedly serves her husband and the students that surround him. The teacher does not take money, but he feeds hundreds of disciples. He is supported by the king and the people because it is considered a sacred duty and privilege to sustain those who are preservers of spiritual learning. He doesn't save for tomorrow. By culture and tradition, he lives by faith. He trusts in God, and God feeds him.

There is a story of Sree Krishna which illustrates this beautiful faith, that God cares for his devotees more than we can ask or think. 

A Brahmin was reading the Gita. When it came to the shloka -

अनन्याश्चिन्तयन्तो मां ये जनाः पर्युपासते।

तेषां नित्याभियुक्तानां योगक्षेमं वहाम्यहम्।।9.22।।

which means - Those who worship me perpetually without thinking about anything else, I myself carry to them what they lack and protect what they already have.

वहाम्यहम् means - I carry.

The Brahmin felt that it was not proper to use the 'I myself carry' in the case of Bhagavan. Saying that Bhagavan would personally carry something for you was disrespectful. So instead of 'carry' he changed the shloka to mean 'send'.

Very soon, one day, the Brahmin's wife came to him agitated saying that there was no food left in the house. The Brahmin said, 'The Lord has promised in Gita that he will take care of our yogakshema; trust him'. Then he went to the river to take bath.

When the Brahmin returned, he found plenty of food in the house. He asked his wife where it came from.

She said, 'A handsome boy came and delivered it'.

'He said that he was 'sent' with the food.'

'But I was shocked to see that he was wounded and bleeding from his heart.'

'When I asked him what happened, he said that you hurt him.'

'I told him that my husband would not harm even an insect.'

'He said that you hurt him when you doubted his promise that he would 'personally carry' to you what you need.'

The Brahmin went and restored the shloka to as it originally was.

 

Why are Brahmins respected?

The Brahmin is respected, not because he is born a Brahmin, but because of the renunciation and sacrifice that he has lived up to and placed before the country. He keeps the spiritual fire burning around him from the ancient days. He teaches his students the spiritual truths.  He never taught them to make guns, nuclear bombs, or poison gas. His one message was the message of spirituality.

Kings have stood in awe before such an ideal of sacrifice and renunciation. The King sends food and clothing regularly for thousands of students.The king serves the students with his material resources as the Brahmin serves with his resources of learning. 

Brahmins used to live in the forest and on the river banks. They made sacrifices and offerings with fire and water, the sacred symbols of their life and culture. When a Brahmin comes to any social function, he comes barefooted, simple in dress, but all the assembled guests stand in his honor. He does not seek honors, but honors seek him. 

India has caste, the West has class. Caste is internal, class is external. Caste is cultural and spiritual; its ideal, mutual obligation and service. Class is creedal and material, based on arbitrary ideas of superiority

and material power. Class-feeling dominates everything in the West. In India, even with the caste system, there was never either class-feeling or race antagonism. These have come with Western influence. 

The Hindus have in their midst an ordered society which is a real brotherhood. The Brahmin looks to the interest of the Kshatriya, the Kshatriya to that of the Brahmin; and the same holds true between all the castes. Sudras are not in any way neglected; they are also invited for all the festivals and ceremonies. One caste is indispensable for the other, and in all Hindu religious observances the injunctions are such that the Brahmin cannot perform them without the Sudra. 

The Brahmin must feed the Sudra, must love him as his own child. A Brahmin at the time of dinner may not touch a Sudra; but it is not only a Sudra, his own son may not touch him. Eating is a sacrament to a Brahmin, to be sacredly performed. He realizes in the sacrament that he is consuming the very breath of God. It is not hatred, it is on the other hand, realization; it is not for division, but for higher union. 

Every function of daily life to a Hindu is his devotion, through which he tries to realize his God. Although the Brahmin does not eat with Sudra he does not love him less; in fact the Sudra is a very part and parcel of the family. Caste in our country has never brought any class-division; and division between one caste people and another is not due to any distinction between man and man. The Brahmin has never quarreled with his Sudra neighbor, nor has a Kshatriya ever made any attempt to thrust his sword into his neighbor’s chest.

If hatred has come between caste and caste at any time it has sunk into the ideal of brotherhood again. All the religious reformers who have appeared in India from time to time have proclaimed this ideal of brotherhood. They have sought not to do away with caste, but to purify it, to bring it back to the ideal. These reformers have come from all ranks and grades of classes. They are equally respected by all our people. 

'Sages look equally upon a Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, and a dog', Says the Gita (V, 18).

India is full of songs and stories expressing the truth, 'There can be no distinction between man and man because it is the same divine spirit which is there in all.' 

 

The caste system is 'unity in diversity'

The great Shankaracharya, teacher and reformer, was one day coming from his bath in the holy Ganga. A Chandala came his way. 'Move away, move away', said Shankara. The Chandala replied, 'Who should move away, my body or my soul? How will you become impure if you touch me? Both our bodies are made up of the same five elements. The same atma resides in us both.'   Shankaracharya humbly acknowledged that he was wrong. The Chandala revealed himself as Lord Shiva. Acharya fell at his feet. Caste is, thus, unity in diversity. It has brought out a spirit of brotherhood, the ideal of which is to sink all differences of passion and prejudices, to work in one’s own guild, yet contribute to the nation, an ideal of federation. 

 

Faults in the caste system

Whatever faults exist in the caste-system today are due to a loss of its true spirit partly from foreign influence, and largely due to the discontinuation of Vedic system of education. Changes will come, as they have always done. When our forefathers immersed themselves in the sacred rivers they always thought and prayed that the waters of their nation might enter into their very souls. They did it with the ideal of linking themselves with all the people that inhabited their motherland. 

The Hindu never built hatred. Hatred was never his foundation. It was always One-ness. He has adapted his social ideal to the progressive genius of his race. He is unique in that. His growth is from within, and from within he will today and in the future build his ideal for the coming generations. Whatever is the form of Hindu civilization, the spirit expressed therein has always been that of brotherhood, of harmony, and of one-ness!  

 

Was the caste system there in the Vedic period?

The Seers of the early Vedic period knew nothing of caste. Delve as much as one may into the literature of the period, one discovers only orders and not castes. The elements which go to form castes were, however, there, so that gradually a gulf was created between one order and another. For a long time, however, the conception of social segregation and untouchability was repugnant to the genius of the people, who sought unity in diversity and dissolved diversity in unity. Each order was regarded as an integral part of the fabric of society.

If the Vedas provide no authority for the caste system, in what way is it connected with religion? 

It is true, all Smritis take caste for granted, all the Puranas assume the existence of caste and look upon it as divinely ordained. But where is the authority for this theory of the divine ordinance of caste ? 

Gita says -

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः।

तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम्।।4.13।।

- I created the four-fold caste system based on gunas (nature) and karma (duties).

Isn't this a clear repudiation of the caste system based on birth as its degraded version that exists today?

The idea that Hindu religion gives sanction to inequality based on birth seems to be untrue on the face of this statement in the most sacred of all Hindu texts outside the Vedas. The Vedas, as we have seen, give no justification to the theory either. 

 

Caste system as an economic order

 Hindu Caste-System is an ancient economic order, where society was divided into four main groups - 

  1. The intellectuals and planners who designed the functioning of the society.
  2. Rulers and protectors who implemented and executed the design.
  3. Wealth creators and employment providers.
  4. The routine manpower.

In the first group falls the Brahmin, who gets respect, but no property. He gets even his food by charity.  They are sterilized economically from misappropriating the fruits of their natural endowments for their selfish ends. Their purpose in life is the service of the community through pure means. 

The Kshatriya of the second group loses and sacrifices himself in seeking the welfare of society. His glory is the service of his fellow men, and his reward, social honor and status.

To the third in order belongs the Vaishya, the materialistic merchant and entrepreneur who amasses wealth but gets no social honor or position other than what he may secure by dedicating his possessions for the use of the community. 

The last in the order is the Sudra, who is happy with his wages and has no need to take the risks that the other groups have to take.  

This is the core of the caste system. It curbs devastating cut-throat competition as a factor in social alignment and emphasizes co-operation and obedience as the basis of all law and order. It is graded on a cultural standard of values almost unknown to money-economy. Material considerations sink into insignificance when human needs claim our attention.

Duty and not our rights, determines our position in society. Once these conditions are firmly established, there will be peace and prosperity. Therefore, it is important for individuals to fulfill their duties towards society in order to maintain a harmonious and prosperous community. It is through fulfilling our obligations that we can earn respect and recognition in society, rather than simply asserting our rights. Ultimately, a society that values duty over entitlement is one that is more likely to thrive and succeed.

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Ramayana happened in the 24th Treta yuga. We are presently in the 28th Kali yuga.

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In this world, everything is perishable. How can they ever take you out of worldly delusions and troubles? It is only Bhagavan who is eternal and omnipotent. It is only Bhagavan who is dependable.

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Where did Lord Krishna spend his childhood ?
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