COMPLEX CASTE SYSTEM OF HINDUS
(Discourse by N.R. Srinivasan, Brentwood, TN)
July 1, 2011
Existing institution of castes of Hindus in India is peculiar to India and is the most vital principle of Hinduism, dominating Indian social life, morals and thoughts. It consists essentially in the division of Hindu Mankind into about 3000 hereditary groups each internally bound together by rules of ceremonial preference and purity and externally separated by the same rules from other groups. The word caste is of Portuguese origin, 'casta'. It is a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy and social barriers sanctioned by custom.
Vedic Society-Functional hierarchy in Vedic society was called Varna which is now wrongly identified with the caste system. The original word Varna means profession or social order. Varna also means color and therefore Varna was perversely translated to signify caste system, depending on the color of the people.
The Myth of Aryan and Dravidian races being separate entities was created by historians of vested interests and British rulers to use it as a strong base exploiting mass sentiments and adopting divide and rule policy. The theory of color of the people and race does not fit into this separation, though the term 'Dravid' exists even in National Anthem and has been smuggled into holy texts.The term was cleverly coined from the words like 'dasyus', 'druids' etc. who went out of Sanatana Dharma fold protesting against stringent ritualistic practices. This has been fully exploited to divide South from the North and the wide spoken North Indian language Hindi was used as a ready tool, failing to draw color of the people as the basis. Varna Classification is an intelligent division of the available manpower in the community on the basis of intellectual and mental capacities of the individuals. We clearly see that the human beings are distinguished by functional evolution into four great classes. Those capable of offering service to the society through their body-labor are called Sudras. Those that serve through mentality, skill, agriculture, trade and commerce and business life in general are known as Vaisyas. Those persons whose talents are administrative, executive and protective are said to be Kshatriyas. Finally, those of contemplative nature, spiritually inspired and inspiring are called Brahmins or Brahmanas. Their activity is determined by their love and wisdom, and not by rules. Neither birth, nor sacraments, nor study, nor ancestry can decide whether a person is twice born that is Brahmin. Mahabharata declares, 'character and conduct' only can decide Varna. Inclusion in one of those four classes originally depended not on birth but on the basis of individual's natural capacity as demonstrated by the goal in life that the person selects to achieve. This goal could be: 1) Kaama, desire --activity of the life of the senses (Sudra stage); 2) Artha, gain--fulfilling but controlling the desires (Vaisya stage); 3) Dharma, self discipline--the life responsibility and right action (Kshatriya stage); 4) Moksha, liberation--the life of spirituality and Vedic dharma (Brahmin stage).
These four classes render service to humanity by 1) body; 2) mind; 3) will power; 4) spirit. These four stages correspond to the eternal gunas or qualities of nature, which are: 1) Obstruction; 2) Activity and Expansion or Mass; 3) Energy; 4) Intelligence. The four natural classes are marked by the gunas: 1) Tamas (ignorance); 2) Tamas-rajas (mixture of ignorance and activity); 3) Rajas-sattva, mixture of right activities and enlightenment 4) Sattva, enlightenment. Thus nature has marked every individual with his class by the predominance of one or a mixture of the two of the four gunas. Of course, every human being has all the four gunas in varying proportions. The mother and guru can only correctly determine a person's varna or evolutionary status at an early stage.
The idea of fourfold Varna system goes back to the Rigveda samhita (vide 184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11) itself. To make a living by choosing a profession as per one's desire and aptitude is a common phenomenon seen in all civilized societies. It is the duty of the society to provide suitable opportunities for its members to choose and pursue those vocations that agree with their nature. This is the philosophy behind Varna system. The Vedas including the Purushasookta of Rigveda have mentioned it in a different context.
To describe Varna Classification as an idea or in actual practice would require volumes. But we can describe a few of its characteristics. The nature of difference, for example, between Sudra and Brahmin is indicated in the view that a Sudra can do no wrong because of his ignorance. This view makes an immense demand upon the patience of the higher classes and is the absolute converse of the Western doctrine that "the King can do no wrong". These facts are well illustrated in the doctrine of legal punishment in Vedic days. (Manudharma Shastra). The punishment for Vaisya should be twice as heavy as that of the Sudra; that of Kshatriya, twice as heavy; as again, that of the Brahmin, twice or even four times heavy again in respect of the same offence because the responsibility rises with intelligence status. The Sudra is also free of innumerable forms of self denial (vratas and rituals), that is self imposed upon by the Brahmin. Nitya karma (day's rituals) and Naimittika karma (specific rituals) are more elaborate and stringent for Brahmins including fast, yagna, ceremonies etc. The Sudra may indulge for instance in coarse food (meat eating) and the widow may remarry. In fact, Manu says, that by birth everyone is a Sudra— "Janmanaa jaayate Sudraha"; because at birth we are basically the raw material of life from which anything can be made. Also one should observe that it was strongly held, that Sudras should not by any means outnumber other classes. If there are too many Sudras, as was the case in ancient Greece where the slaves outnumbered the free individuals, the voice of the least wise may prevail by mere weight of numbers. Vedic society kept a watch to keep the balance of Varna.
The learned priestly and intellectually superior class who were called Brahmins gradually framed extremely strict rules to guard their own ceremonial purity against defilement through unholy food or undesirable marriages. The voluntary enforcement of such rules on themselves by the most respected members of the Vedic society attracted the admiration of the more worldly classes of society, who sought to emulate and initiate the virtuous self-restraints of the Brahmins. It being clearly impossible that ordinary soldiers, business men, peasants and servants could afford to be as scrupulous and saintly or at least professedly religious Brahmins, a separate standard of Dharma for each section of society necessarily grew up by degrees.
The theory of Vedic Brahmarishis has also a far reaching bearing on the education. Garuda Purana says that 'reading to a person devoid of wisdom is like showing a mirror to the blind'. Brahmins attached no value to uncoordinated knowledge or to unearned opinions but rather regarded these as dangerous tools in the hands of unskilled craftsman. The greatest stress was placed in the development of character. Proficiency in hereditary aptitudes is assured by pupils' succession within the class. But it is in respect of what we generally understand as higher education that the Brahmin's method differ most from modern ideals because it is not even contemplated as desirable that knowledge should be made accessible to all. The key to education should be found in personality. There should be no teacher for whom teaching is less than vocation. No teacher should impart knowledge unless the teacher finds the pupil ready to receive it. The proof of this is found by asking right questions. Manu says "as a person who digs well with a spade obtains water, even so an obedient pupil obtains the knowledge from the teacher". I presume these are later thoughts to regulate the society.
Fluidity of Varna system in vedic days
Performing Vedic sacrifices was an integral part of a Brahmin's professional life. He could not refuse to eat, when invited at the houses of sach-sudras (good sudras who followed saamaanya dharmas or the basic moral code in their life) especially if they were his employees or family friends. During national emergencies he could take to the vocations of other Varnas. He was relegated to the group of Chandaalas (lowest amongst Sudras) if he gave up Brahminical way of life without valid reasons.
Many Brahmins went to foreign countries such as Egypt, Greece and Mexico as also South-east Asian countries to preach religion, philosophy and various aspect of Hindu culture, which was later prohibited.
Many of the Kshatriyas were not only good kings but also experts in the field of Vedic lore and saintly in their personal life like king Janaka.
Vaisyas were generally divided into two groups, the Grihapatis and the Shrestas. The former lived by agriculture and dairy forming. The latter were devoted to trade and commerce. They established trade links with foreign countries such as China and Java in the East and Egypt, Greece and Rome in the West.
The Sudras were divided into two classes—the Sach sudras(the good) and Asach Sudras(the not so good). The former, who led a good life, honoring the general moral principles, had been permitted to even undergo Upanayana ceremony and perform certain kinds of yagnas or sacrificial rituals. They could learn and teach religious truths except Vedas which required serious study for long under a learned Guru. They could adopt various professions such as fighting, agriculture, mat making, fishing, laundry, hair-cutting and so on.
Asprityata or untouchability was unknown in Vedic days. It gradually started during eighth century. Even they were given enough scope for moral and spiritual development by exhorting them to follow the Saamaanya dharmas as also the worship of gods like Vishnu and Bhairava.
It was from the sons of Vyasa that the Pandavas and Kauravas descended. Their great grand mother Satyavati, belonged to a fisher tribe and their great grand father Parasara, was a Brahmin sage. Yet because they were princes of the royal house of Hastinapura, they were considered as Kshatriyas. In actual fact they were not so by birth but by occupation only, once again showing that Varna was purely occupational. A servant woman of the palace approached Vyasa in a spirit of great devotion and to her was born Vidura, considered again one of the greatest of Brahmin Sages (in view of the wisdom and knowledge of the Dharma Sastras) in spite of his mother being a servant woman of the lowest Varna.
As late as in the eighth century, an untouchable could be considered a Guru by one born as a Brahmin like Adi Sankara as seen amongst the Naayanmar (Saivite saints) and Azhwars (Vaishnava saints) in South India.
Shakuntala, the daughter of a Brahmin sage, chose Dushyanta, a Kshatriya prince and married him with her father's consent. Santanu, a Kshatriya prince, married Satyavati, a fisher woman. Women could undergo the Upanayana ceremony and pursue Vedic studies. Those who chose this path were called Brahmaavadins.
Divorce and remarriages of women were allowed under very special conditions. Shaving the heads by widows, wearing red saris by widows or the sahagamana (sati) was never compulsory.
Prostitutes were allowed to make a living in the society but were regulated by a conduct specially made for them.
Formal conversions to Sanatana Dharma from alien regions do not seem to have existed. Foreigners like Hunas, Sakas, Yavans etc. just adopted Sanatana Dharma and were absorbed into the Society. However Patita Samskara, expiations and purification of those fallen from Hindu way were very much prevalent and appropriate rites, praayaschitta, had been prescribed for the same.
Rules and regulations were set about food and eating; what to eat and what not to eat, how to eat and how not to eat and so on.
Mamsabhojana, meat eating was common during Vedic period. However, it was later on discouraged--though tolerated--due to the influence of Jainism and Buddhism.
Drinking of wine was severely condemned as a heinous crime. Soma juice was not an intoxicating drink.
Dhumrapana (smoking of fragrant substances) and use of snuff (special medical powders only) for curing diseases have been mentioned. Smoking and taking snuff as known to-day did not exist. Tobacco was introduced by Westerners during the 15th century.
From all this we can easily understand that the basic scriptures of Hinduism-- of all hues and views--never ignored the social aspects of life even while constantly stressing the ultimate spiritual goal. From the foregoing portrayal of the Vedic society one thing stands supreme: Life is not a curse but a great gift of God. It must therefore be lived well.
All nations and races observe in practice, if not in theory, the features of class system, to certain extent. All races and nations where social customs discourage intermarriages between social classes practice certain aspects of the caste system, whether or not they understand the theory. Where there is a great license or the so called liberty, particularly in intermarriage between extremes in the natural classes, the race dwindles away and becomes extinct. Puraana Samhita compares the off springs of such unions to barren hybrids, like the mule, which are incapable of propagation of species. Artificial species are eventually exterminated. History offers abundant proof of numerous great races that no longer have any living representation.
As a society grows in size and civilization, there has got to be a division of labor, since all persons cannot do all things. In the early Vedic period, the division of labor took place on a voluntary basis, even as the members of the family do so on any important occasion affecting the whole family. Some chose the occupation of acquiring knowledge, wisdom and culture and training the younger generation in them. They became the 'Brahmins'. Those who were physically sturdy and strong took to protect society from external aggression as also to maintain law and order. They were 'Kshatriyas'. A great majority of the rest devoted themselves to the production and distribution of wealth and goods through agriculture, dairy farming, trade and commerce. They were called the 'Vaisyas'. The others who could not fit into any of these vocations, made a living by supplying manual labor and serving others. They became 'Sudras'. In course of time, each of these Varnas acquired hierarchal superiority over the succeeding ones.
Nobody can understand the caste system until he has freed himself from the mistaken notion based on the current interpretation of Geeta, Purushasookta and the so called Institute of Manu, that there were four original castes. No four original castes ever existed at any time or at any place and at the present moment the terms Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra have no exact meaning as a classification of existing castes. Nobody uses these names to indicate their belonging and therefore do not use them as suffixes or affixes to their names. Most of the misunderstanding has arisen from the persistent mistranslation of the Vedic term 'Varna' as caste, where it should be rendered class or order or by some equivalent term. The compiler of the Institute of Manu was well aware of the distinction between Varna and Caste (Jaati). While he mentions about fifty different castes, he lays stress on the fact there were only four Varnas. The only passage that enumerates the four Varnas in the Vedas is in Purusha Sookta. The sage Taittireya proceeds to expound the creation of human race and finally the sun, the moon and the elements. Out of Purusha's mouth came the Brahmana (priest) and the fire. Out of his arms came the Kshatriya (soldier). Out of his thigh came the Vaisya (husbandman). Out of his feet came the earth and Sudra, to mean the son of the soil. The moon was produced from his mind; the sun sprung from his eyes; the sky from his head; air and breath from his ear; the subtle elements from his navel—thus did He frame worlds. The verses give a highly figurative, imaginative theory of creation. No suggestion of the existence of caste group is made. Mankind is simply and roughly classified under four heads according to occupation, the more honorable profession being naturally assigned the more honorable symbolical origin. It is absurd to treat the symbolical language of the mantra as a narrative of supposed facts.
"Divisions of society into various categories or rather types have been there from ancient times. Hindu scriptures prescribe four types of people (Varṇa) in society, differentiated by the ‘color’ of each individual. This ‘color’ does not indicate the color of the skin, but the inherent inclination in choosing the type of Karma for achieving one’s ends (4.13 of Gīta). Therefore, this classification finds expression in one’s Karma that he opts when left with many options. For this purpose, Karma(s) are divided into four categories, respectively dealing with education and learning, security and protection, food production and commerce, and finally, rendering manual assistance for the above three categories (For details see Gīta 18.42, 43 & 44). A close look will reveal that this is an “inner to outer” classification. Those who are naturally concerned with the inner-most aspect of existence are termed as the Brāhmaṇa (ब्राह्मण) and those concerned with the outer-most aspect as Śūdra (शूद्र). In between these two, come the Kṣatriya (क्षत्रिय) and the Vaiśya (वैश्य), according to each one’s closeness to the inner or outer aspects. Kṣatriya comes next to Brāhmana and Vaiśya comes before Shūdra.
The society is a collective entity consisting of all these types. Each type is so important that without it the society will not prosper. (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.11 to 1.4.14). Therefore, mutual respect and understanding and also joint efforts by these four types are essential for the stability and progress of the society. So, what is required is not antagonism among the types, but their peaceful co-existence; for, nature’s diversity is not for contradiction or antagonism, but for ensuring physical existence. The scriptures, on account of their declaration that the whole universe emerged from and is possessed by a single ever-existent entity, cannot think otherwise. They recognize the diversity and at the same time go beyond it and see the unity that projects the diversity.
Since the said inherent inclination in choosing one’s Karma differs from person to person, even belonging to the same family, the classification based on Karma cannot be hereditary. For the same reason, caste has nothing to do with this classification. Castes are innumerable, but types (Varṇa) are only four. There is no scriptural instruction classifying the various castes into the four Varṇas. Moreover, the scriptures do not limit the applicability of this classification to any religious group; instead, they encompass the whole mankind. Since the actual occupation that one is forced to take up for earning a livelihood may not always coincide with his inherent inclination in choosing Karma, his Varṇa cannot be determined by his occupation either. So, the four-fold classification as per Hindu scriptures has nothing to do with caste or occupation, though religious miscreants, born of ignorance, practice discrimination in Varṇa structure and surreptitiously and dishonestly arrogate to themselves, favored positions therein, on the basis of caste and heredity"writes Dr.Karthikeyan in his article Ancient Western Philosophy and Hindu Wisdom--a Bird's Eye view.
The Jatis (sects) in time became more important than the four main classes. These were mainly occupational (like the goldsmith jati, the weaver jati, the carpenter jati etc) and served the purpose of guilds which protected the interests of their members, trained the young and saw to it that no outsider entered the fold. In time, these Jatis or sects grouped themselves under the main classes, which is why we talk of four "castes" to-day. However, it is not the caste of the man but his sect that is important to this day. Even to-day these sects often do not permit fluidity of movement, even where the old occupations have broken down and new ones have come in. Though Varna dharma based on 'guna' (aptitude) and 'karma' (vocation) chosen as per the aptitude as stated in Geeta, it was more a general rule, and an ideal one at that. Hence, birth in a Varna became an easier and a more practicable principle to fix up the Varna of that individual. This has happened only in the last several hundred years, when people with Brahmin qualities for instance began to marry only those with similar qualities. Children born into such a family were then called Brahmins. However this was neither the original intent nor the basis upon which Varnas were actually divided. This was also the beginning by which the caste system got automatically fixed by birth (jati=birth). There is no religious sanction whatsoever in Sanatana Dharma for this birth right. It was purely a social practice.
A caste in modern context in India may be defined as a group of families internally united by peculiar rules for the observance of ceremonial purity or exclusivity especially in the matters of diet and marriage and certain special customs of their lives. The same rules serve to fence it off from all other groups, each of which has its own set of rules. Admission to an established caste in long settled territory can be obtained now -a-days by birth only and transition from one caste to another, which used to be feasible in ancient times, are no longer possible except in certain regions like Mizoram, Nagaland and other areas in Manipur region in India. The families composing of a caste may or may not belong to one stock. Race, that is to say, descent by blood has little concern with caste. The individual members of a caste may or may not be restricted to any particular occupation or occupations. The members may believe or disbelieve any creed or doctrine, religious or philosophical, without affecting their caste position. Each caste has its own Dharma, in addition to the common rules of morality accepted by Hindus generally and considered to be the Dharma of mankind.
Every caste man is expected to observe accurately the rules of his own group and to refrain from causing violence to the feelings of other groups concerning the rules. The essential duty of the member of the caste is to follow the custom of his group, of which diet and marriage occupy important considerations. Violation of the rule on those subjects, if detected, usually involves unpleasant and costly social expiation and may result in expulsion from the caste, which means social ruin and grave inconvenience.
The Hindus do not have any name for the caste institution, which appeals to them as part of the order of nature. It is almost impossible for a Hindu to regard himself otherwise than a member of some particular caste species of mankind. Everybody else who disregards Hindu Dharma is 'Mlechcha' no matter how exalted his worldly rank or how vast his wealth may be. The closest Sanskrit and vernacular term for a caste is 'Jaati' 'species' although the members of a Jaati are not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Indeed, as a matter of fact, they are rarely, if ever, so descended. Their special rules make their community in effect distinct species, whoever their ancestors may have been.
The untouchables or outcastes were originally those who had broken certain caste rules. For example, 'Nayadis' who were considered outcastes of the lowest order were originally Brahmins who were ex-communicated for some reason. Those who ate beef or the meat of certain proscribed animals came to be considered as outcastes or untouchables. The cow had come to be regarded akin to mother, the people being largely rural, having to depend on the cow's products for sustenance. (That is why cow is given the reverence due to a mother in Hindu society to this day even by the meat eaters). The cow is a symbol of divine love and grace. With no thought of itself, but only love, like the Divine Mother, it produces milk which nourishes other creatures. Respect for the cow is meant to instill the virtue of gentleness and respect into the human mind. Hindus do not worship cows. The cow is a great symbol of cosmic beneficence.
There is no religious sanction whatsoever in Sanatana Dharma to the concept of untouchability, although later additions on the subject were inserted into the earlier scriptures to justify its existence. It was purely a social practice introduced by the upper castes to provide themselves with menial labor to perform certain tasks repulsive to themselves such as those of cemetery keepers, scavengers and cleaners.
As said earlier, asprisyata or untouchability was unknown during the Vedic days. It might have gradually started during the 8th century B.C. Certain vocations considered as unclean and a health hazard, committing of heinous crimes, people of certain countries whose ways of life radically differed from those of the people here, certain cults considered as heretical and hence dangerous—these seem to be the various reasons for the origin of untouchability over centuries. But even they were given enough scope for moral and spiritual development by exhorting them to follow the samanya dharma as also the worship of forms of god like Vishnu or Bhairava. Work for their emancipation, even by the spiritual teachers of devotional schools has gone on for centuries, though the results achieved are not commensurate with the efforts put in.
Hindu Society has much to answer for the inhuman treatment of a whole section of its own people, but the Sanatana Dharma or the so called Hindu Religion has nothing to do with it.
The disciples of the great scholar, Adi Sankara, once asked a Chandala (outcaste) to move away from his path. 'Who are you and who am I? Is the Self within me different from yours?' questioned the Chandala (believed to be Siva in disguise). Sankara realizing the wisdom of these words, prostrated before the Chandala, saying, "One who is established in the Brahman, be he a low born Chandala or twice born Brahmin, verily I declare him my Guru. As we all know Sanyasis (recluses) are beyond caste considerations.
The fact remains, untouchability was in practice in low key even at the time of Sankara. It is also a fact even they were respected and venerated for their knowledge of Brahman, like some of the Azhwars. It is interesting to note that throughout India's long history a large number of Hindu saints have come from castes other than the so called Brahmin designated castes of present days, including some from the so called untouchables.
Evolution of caste –The geographical isolation of interior India favored the evolution of distinct and peculiar social system. It can be reasonably presumed that Indus basin where Sanatana Dharma has its origin became the holy land of Hinduism. This is evident from the never tired singing of the praise of mighty Indus and its tributaries by rishis (sages). But Brahmins of interior India, at an early date, came to regard the basin of Indus beyond Sutlej as impure land. Orthodox Hindus are still unwilling to cross the Indus and the whole Punjab between the Indus river and Sutlej as unholy ground unfit for the residence of strict votaries of Dharma. The reason is that the Northwestern territories continued to be overrun by successive swarms of muscleman from central Asia who disregarded Sanatana dharma rituals and followed their own customs. To the east of Saraswati and Sutlej followers of Sanatana dharma were safe from outside interference. They proceeded to create Hinduism with its inseparable institutions and caste. Internally Indian Territory was broken up into a multitude of small units, each of which had a tendency towards an exclusive, detached way of living within the framework of Sanatana Dharma.
The effects of Ahimsa on Caste_-_The propagation of Ahimsa necessarily produced a sharp conflict of ideas and principles of conduct between the adherents of the doctrine and the old fashioned people who clung to animal sacrifices and meat eating. Communities which had renounced the old practices and condemned them as revolting impieties naturally separated themselves from their more easy-going and self-indulgent neighbors and formed castes bound strictly to maintain the novel code of ethics. Especially the Brahmins and Vaisyas were influenced by the early Jainism and Buddhism and changed their eating habits to vegetarianism. Those who ate beef and certain proscribed animals came to be considered as outcastes.
Effects of Muslim conquest.-The Hindus, unable on the whole to resist Muslims in the field, depended themselves passively by the increased rigidity of caste association. The system of close caste brotherhood undoubtedly protected Hindus and Hinduism during many centuries of Muslim rule. The change in the attitude of the Hindus towards foreigners seems to be mainly due to the Muslim conquest. We may take it that from 11th to 12th centuries the caste institution has subsisted substantially in its modern form. Minor local and superficial modifications are taking place continually. But the institution as a whole remains unchanged and unshaken.
The Hindu-Buddhist culture which dominated Asia, during the 2nd phase of Sanatana Dharma, began to decline with the Islamic invasions of India around 700 AD, and came to an end around 1500 A.D. with the Islamic conquest of India and Indonesia, which involved massive destruction of temples, genocide of people and a policy of forced conversion to Islam that made caste system more compartmentalized and rigid in order to preserve itself and which incidentally eliminated Buddhism from India as it did from Central Asia.
Demerits of a caste system –Anybody can perceive that it shuts off Hindus from free association with foreigners and even among themselves, thus making it difficult for the Hindus to understand the foreigner and the stranger to understand the Hindus. It often extends to Indian community as a whole irrespective of their religious leanings. Within India, caste breaks up into thousands of units, frequently hostile to one another and always jealous. The institution necessarily tends to hinder active hearty cooperation for any purpose, religious, political or social. All reformers are conscious of the difficulties thus placed in their path. The restrictions of caste rules collide continually with the conditions of modern life and are the source of endless inconveniences. The institution does not really adapt itself to the requirements of present days. Powerful Poets like Vemanna and Bharati, in their powerful writings strongly denounced the caste system, but the system continues with minor changes. The conflict between caste regulations and modern civilization is incessant, but the caste survives. Further the institution fosters intense class pride fatal to the feeling of brotherhood between man and man. Foreigners vehemently criticize caste system. Among Indians there is a strong and persistent move supported by government to put an end to it. Of course, in the context of modern life, the rules are not practiced as strictly as before.
The main argument against caste is that it has led to conflicts. Conflicts of castes are of comparatively recent origin. The conflicts in the past have not occurred on the basis of caste. Interested persons or parties have prompted those conflicts. More violent than caste hatred has been religious hatred. Religious animosities have a long history. This has led some people to conclude that caste and religion lead to fighting and bloodshed and so we should work for the abolition of caste and religion altogether! A similar dispute has cropped up recently about the forms of government. The fight between kings of ancient days has now been replaced by ideological conflicts with more terrible consequences. But the question is whether because of controversies range over forms of government, we should have no government at all, and, let humanity revert to law of the jungle? The same is the case with the linguistic controversies. Language is an instrument for human intercourse. Each language is suitable to the needs of the people who speak it. There need to be no language problem if we think about the same way. But, people quarrel over language considering one to be superior and another to be inferior or insist on majority role. Is it then wise to abolish languages altogether? Evidently, some evil has flown into our caste system. Caste system cannot also be removed from the society without repercussions. The sane thing is to retain the same for its good and eliminate the root cause of evil.
Merits of the Caste system- Caste system has been in vogue for thousands of years. An institution that has lasted for thousands of years and has forced its passage through the peninsula all the way to Kanyakumari in the face of strongest opposition must have merits to justify its existence and universal prevalence within the limits of India. The most ardent defenders of course, must admit its unsuitability for other lands or Hindu migrants abroad. We must beware lest the vast and elaborate social structure that has arisen in the course of thousands of years of valuable experience should be injured or destroyed without anything to substitute or with a far worse structure to replace it. The institution of Caste is an integral part of Hinduism, that is to say, of the Hindu social and economic system. It is intimately associated with Hindu philosophical ideas of Karma, rebirth and the theory of the three gunas. The Hindu mind clings to custom and caste rules are solidified custom. That stability, although not absolute, has been the main agent in preserving Hindu ideas of spiritual pursuit, morals, art and craftsmanship. One should also be impressed by the services that the institution renders to social order. The caste has been useful in promoting self-sacrifice in securing subordination of the individual to an organized body, in restraining vice and in preventing pauperism.
In India, members of society are tied together in a number of cohesive bundles called castes and then all bundles are tied together with common bond of Sanatana dharma. Caste and religion are meant to keep society together so that all the component parts would strive for the general welfare of the community as a whole, in an atmosphere of cooperation and not to create hatred and conflicts. No one should pride himself over his caste or status. We should think only of the duties of our respective castes without any consciousness of superiority or inferiority. Whatever one's caste be, if one has devotion to God, one can become divine in essence. Caste consciousness can be eradicated only if one is filled with Bhakti and has acquired Jnana like some of the Azhwars and saints. A holy man, a sage or a wise man has no caste consciousness since he is full of Bhakti and Jnana. When Dharma, Bhakti and Jnana take deep root, the caste differences will recede to the background. We adore great Jnanis and Bhaktas irrespective of their castes. Arrogance of caste superiority is a sin according to our saastras. Men should do their duties that pertain to their castes with humility and devotion and not pride themselves on their caste.
There is one other aspect of the caste system that deserves to be emphasized. In times, when it was strictly observed, it was an effective instrument to keep people in the path of righteousness. If a person belonging to a particular caste violated the rules of the caste or committed any immoral act, he was made to lose his caste. He was ostracized and expelled (banished) from community (outcaste). This practice had a deterrent effect on the people and hence the moral tone of the community was very high. Now, however with the loosening of restrictions, we have to adopt other legal means to keep people on right path and they are not very efficacious as the dread of losing caste in times of yore. It is also our duty to correct the evil that has flown into the caste system and eliminate the root cause of evil by various methods to keep orderliness in Hindu society.
Behind the caste system was originally a great idea that became distorted. The Hindu Social system (Varna Classification), which degenerated into caste, gave people who developed their minds, the learned, preeminence in society over the warrior and merchant classes. Unfortunately people became judged by their family of birth rather than by the real qualities of their character, which turned this great idea into a misleading appearance.
In the modern world it is the merchant (commercial) class or nation that rules the world, including dictating religion. The warrior class or nation (those with the most guns or best weapons) also has much power. Spiritual people, the Brahmins, generally have neither money, nor power, nor respect. In this regard we should not think that our modern social order is humanitarian but should look back to an orderly society that reflects what is of highest value in each of us, which is not our property but our awareness.
Future of caste system-The institutions of Varna and Caste which have formed well over 5000 years or more are deeply rooted in the most ancient stratum of India's culture. Modern education, social consciousness, present political systems and organizing ability of the depressed classes do have considerable impact on these institutions. Customs that are obsolete or becoming obsolete like Sati, untouchables, human sacrifices, animal sacrifices, widows forced to shave their heads in Brahmin community and lead a life of seclusion as well as practicing of severe ritualistic performances (yagnas) are rapidly vanishing. Caste prejudices will be gradually on their way out, though some part of it will remain for many generations, predominantly in the rural areas, but the caste-culture will not disappear.
Various wild tribes and also communities like sweepers and scavengers, whose occupations were obviously unclean, were standing outside the four orders of Varna having been separated from the service class (sudras) who separated their lives from main stream developing apathy to the principles of Sanatana Dharma, being abused victims of some arrogant pseudo Sanatanists. Fortunately these occupations are dwindling or changing phase and many wild tribes are coming into the fold of civilization. Peculiarly such communities also initiated the Hindu caste organization amongst them and developed an elaborate system of castes of their own which may be described by the paradoxical term "outcaste castes". With right modern education and social consciousness in the prevailing democratic form of government, these groups are trying to join the main group, maintaining still many of their cultural heritages. The movements like Ramanuja's spread of Vaishnava cult, Sai Baba movement, Neo-Buddhism, Gandhian Harijan movement and cosmopolitan outlook etc., are helping them rapidly in joining the main stream of Indians and entering into the fold of Sanatana Dharma. Within India, the Dravidian movement (DK and DMK) in the South and classless communist movement all over India had very little impact in spite of their political muscle in some States of India, to create a caste-ridden and religion free (atheistic) society as a political stunt. More caste feelings grew up and more temples were built and more hatred and chaos still continue. Although caste distinctions still remain rigidly determined by birth, some progress has been made restoring the system to its original intent since independence in 1947. Political power is flowing increasingly to the lower castes.
Old habits however die hard and laws by themselves are not enough. The hearts of the people must change which will only happen when the self ascertaining upper classes understand the origin of the caste system, the facts of the fluidity of Varna in ancient times; the intermixing of races within each one of us and the reasons for the later-day rigidity of the caste system.
Old Four Varna classifications are almost extinct today in India. Kshatriyas are almost extinct since princely states and Zamindari system no longer exists. Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Soodras are identified as Non-Brahmins for official purposes. Brahmins identity is kept distinct based on birth in order to keep them off the state benefits in the field of education and employment. However poor or however uneducated they are they are considered as privileged class by the State as well as Central government. Small fraction among them still practice priesthood as there is nobody else to take it up and it is neither attractive nor remunerative. Neo-Varanas have sprung up amongst Hindus and Jatis have multiplied. To-day Varnas can be broadly classified as Brahmins, Non Brahmins, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Neo Buddhists, Aryasamajists and Harijans. Within them they have innumerable Jatis. These groupings persist as they enjoy special privileges and enjoy political favor. Situation is more complex when other religions are included.
Amongst migrant Hindus, Varna and Caste are losing their significance as minority community, which is binding itself culturally. Basic principles of Sanatana Dharma remain the main binding force amongst migrant Hindus and rich cultural heritage amongst Indians drawn from different religious and cultural backgrounds from India. A common form of worship and prayer and active participation in different cultural activities are slowly evolving out as focus points for Hindu Sanatana dharma and Indian cultural assimilations as unifying forces, moved away from the complex practices of their Mainland. They are also able to blend themselves with the general stream of social life based on their rich training and tradition to live together amidst diversity. Rich educational background is also helping them in the process and to propagate the same to the future generation and to the general public. They will be able to carry on the essence of caste-culture and Varna culture with them in the new surroundings but at the same time able to understand and appreciate continuance of such things in India, which is a part and parcel of socio-economic and deeply involved religious practices of the vast majority in India.
We are now in the 3rd phase of Sanatana Dharma which began with the dissemination of Hindu teachings to the West through the 18th and 19th centuries. This phase started in earnest with Swami Vivekananda's trip to the West in 1893. It is one of the important spiritual movements of modern times – the expansion of the Eastern Meditation teachings and Yoga throughout the world. With the migration of Hindus to different countries with significant population in Canada, USA, the Caribbean, South America, Africa and Europe, there are now various Yoga, Vedantic, Vedic, Tantric and Buddhist centers in most major countries and most major cities. This movement is likely to last for many centuries to come. This trend is also replacing the rigid caste system and Varna Classification practices in migrated countries.
Lord Krishna says in Bhgavadgeeta: The four divisions based on aptitudes and vocations of Human Society were created by me. Though I am the author of this system of the division of labor, one should know that I do nothing (directly) and I am eternal (4:13).
At the same time he clarifies that these divisions are not based on one's birth. So he says: The division of labor into four categories—Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Soodra is also based on the qualities inherent in people's nature (or the natural propensities, and not necessarily as one's birth right (18:41).
In favor of the merits of the caste system Will Durant writes:
"Much can be said in defense of the caste system, what must be the most abused of all social institutions. The caste system had the eugenic value of keeping the presumably finer strains from dilution and disappearance through indiscriminate mixture. It established certain habits of diet and cleanliness as a rule of honor which all might observe and emulate; it gave order to the chaotic inequalities and differences of men and spared the soul the modern fever of climbing and gain; it gave order to every life by prescribing for each man a dharma or code of conduct for his caste; it gave order to every trade and profession, elevated every occupation into a vocation, not lightly to be changed, and, by making every industry a caste, provided its members with a means of united action against exploitation and tyranny. It offered an escape from plutocracy or the military dictatorship, which are apparently the only alternative to aristocracy; it gave to a country shorn of political stability by a hundred invasions and revolutions a social moral and cultural order and continuity rivaled only by the Chinese. Amid a hundred anarchic changes in the State, the Brahmins maintained through the system of caste, a stable society, and preserved, augmented and transmitted civilization. The nation bore with them patiently, even proudly, because everyone knew in the end they were the one and only indispensable Government of India".
About the future of the caste system Will Durant has to say: "When the caste culture dies, the moral life of India will undergo a long tradition of disorder, for their moral code in the past has been bound up almost inseparably with caste system—the rule of life for each man as determined by his caste.
To be a Hindu meant so much to accept a creed as to take a place in the caste system, and to accept a dharma or duties attaching to that place by ancient tradition and regulation. Each post had its obligations, its limitations and rights; with them and within them the pious Hindu would lead his life, finding in a certain contentment of routine, and never thinking of stepping into another caste".
"Better your own work is, though done with fault" said the Geeta "than doing other's works, even excellently". "One's own dharma (code), imperfect though it may be, is better than the dharma of another, however well discharged. It is better to die engaged in one's own dharma, for it is risky to follow the dharma of another" (3:35).
Dharma is to the individual what is normal development is to a seed—the orderly fulfillment of an inherent nature and destiny. So old is this conception of morality that even today it is difficult for all, and impossible for most, Hindus think themselves except as members of a specific caste, guided and bound by its rule. "Without caste" says an English historian, "Hindu Society is inconceivable"
We as Hindu migrants to this nation registered our names with caste and sub-caste affiliations as per the records and practices in India. We have the opportunity to change our names at the time of taking citizenship of this country. Some do so by changing names to Kris, Joe etc., looking at the practices of some Asiatic migrants like Chinese and looking at some of the anglicized names in India like Paul, Banarjee, Chaterjee etc. But most of us carry our caste name as last name. Some of them are race based like Yadav, Parihar, Pandyan etc. Some of them are based on descendents of Sanatana dharma practices like Vajapeyi, Shastri, Agnihotri, etc. Some are based on Rishis from whom they might have descended like Kashyap, Bhargava etc. Some are based on family profession that may or may not be practiced in actual life like Patel, Shanbogh, Kumbhar, Dandekar etc. It is too complicated to enumerate the whole list. Caste names of those whose forefathers followed Varna Dharma of Brahmins are easily identified from their surnames and are dubbed as Brahmins in India. It is not easy to find out the origin of the other three Varnas followers from the surnames. They are all dubbed as Non-Brahmins to separate them from the other group for political reasons. Brahmins are morally bound to be lacto-vegetarians, while some Brahmins in Bengal and Konkan are fish eaters too besides. The outcastes and semi hill tribes are all dubbed as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes irrespective of their socio-economic status. The profession of priesthood comes from the Brahmins by choice as well as convention. It is also not lucrative enough for others to be attracted to this profession. Women are also barred from this by convention. It is therefore very complicated and confusing to practice caste system in the migrated country.
As immigrants, we are trying to preserve our religious cultural and language background and pass it on to the future generation. It seems however logical for migrants to drop off their caste symbols from their names at the time of citizenship or naming their progeny.
USA insists on mother's maiden name as identity in many cases. Most of us are well aware of our Gotra that gives the hint as to the origin of the Rishi from whom we had the descent. This system is prevalent even amongst many Non-Brahmin communities. Many of us also carry the village name, we hail from, or the place of birth in India. Mother leads all living gods before your eyes as per Sanatana dharma--mother, father, guru and others in the order.
It would be logical therefore to keep the mother's name as the middle name. This would also take care of the divorcees and gotra (lineage) or the place of origin as the last name. This would also keep the Indian heritage and identity for all future generations.Example: Chiraag Rekha Kaushik (RK)
Srinivasan Rukmini Nadipuram(RN)
Sanjiv Rita Goregaun(RG)
It may not be out of place to mention here that carrying the name of the mother along with one's name was in practice in Vedic period also. In Chandyogya Upanishad it is said that Satyakama who did not know his lineage, announced his name as Satayakama Jaabaali to his Guru Haridrumata Gautama which was accepted by his Guru and took him as his disciple without any reservation. Satyakama's mother was Jaabaali.
Considerable assistance has been drawn in preparing this lecture for the Vedanta class at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville from the different sources given in the Bibliography which is gratefully acknowledged.
- Swami Prakashanand Saraswati, True History and Religion of India, International Society of Divine Love, Basradam, Texas.
- Professor Lakshmikantam V., Origin of Human Past, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
- Viswanathan Ed., Am I A Hindu, Delhi Publication.
- David Frawley, Hinduism, Voice of India, New Delhi.
- Swami Tejomayananda, Hindu Culture, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai.
- Shakuntala Jagannathan, Hinduism, Vakils, Feffer and Simons Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai.
- Vincent A Smith, Oxford History of India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi,
- R.R. Diwakar, Aspects of Our Religion, Translation from the Speeches by H. H. Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam in Tamil on ' Some of our Religious Institutions-Caste system and Temple Worship, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
- Swami Harshananda, Introduction to Hindu Culture, Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore.
- Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. I., Simon & Schuster, USA.