PROLOGUE ON COMPLEX HINDU CASTE SYSTEM
Vincent a Smith in his Oxford History of India elaborating on present day Caste System in India says: "Most of the misunderstanding on the subject has arisen from the persistent mistranslation of Manu's Varna as Caste whereas it should be rendered as class or order". He also says that Manu was well aware of the distinction between Varna and Caste. He further says: "It is absurd to treat the symbolic language of a poem (Purushsookta) as a narrative of supposed facts. The verses are highly figurative and imaginative theory of creation. Thus he dismisses Purushasookta which is the part of Veda as a master-piece of poetic fantasy.
Some-how he tumbled upon write conclusion that present day caste system has nothing to do with Varna classification mentioned in Vedas but his analysis and understanding of Purushasookta was wrong. Purushsookta is a Vedic Mantra and Mantrapushpa and Divine Voice called Shruti. Veda means true knowledge. No Hindu would dismiss it as fantasy or imagination. Vedic language was hard for foreigners to understand who had however good knowledge of Sanskrit. The picture as presented by other historians is biased and prejudiced with vested interests and attached motives unlike that of Smith who had limitations in understanding Vedas.
There is yet another confusion as to the Sanskrit word Varna which also means color. There are many references to Vedas conveniently interpreting the original Sanskrit word Varna to mean caste system based on the color of the human race. It is even interpreted that Agni mentioned as Brahmin in Vedas is white in color because of the natural color of flames. Bhoomi, Soodra of the Vedas (Pooshan) was attributed black color due the color of the black cotton soil as well as the dark color of the soil, generally attributed to Soodras by historians. Scriptures sometime attribute these colors to Satva, Rajas and Tamas (Trigunas).
In the recent Vishnu Exposition in Nashville Vishnu was described as blue-skinned savior. But in Puri Jagannath though the deities are from Vaishanavism none of the deities are seen with blue color. They are all painted with white, red, yellow, brown and black. Local religious experts also explain these colors as the only colors found in the human race all over the world and Lord Jagannath being the Lord of the world is represented only in these colors as Jagannath and his Vyahritis, Subhadra, Balarama and Sudarshana. Protogonists of Color theory of Varnas have also drawn support from these. It is only here that Vishnu is not shown in blue color in paintings.
Those of you who are interested may go to the website (indoaryans.org)which refers to the Book, March of the Titans, that deals with the history of the White Race—Aryans in Afghanistan and India making reference to National Geographic Magazine's article on Afghanistan. They also go to the extent that the strong Aryan ancestry in modern India is evident from well known cine-artists like Preity Zinta, Pooja Bhat, Aisvarya Roy and Aamirkhan and the Dravidian from black tribes from the South though this dark color is due to hot humid sea coast regions. Many still think Kashmiri Brahmins coming from cold region are the only pure Aryans today. It also says blue and gray eyes are to be found in the Indian upper class which tends to concentrate in the Northern part of India where the original settlement took place; the dark elements of Indian society are more numerous in South India. Thus it is easy to visualize how far the historians have twisted facts to suit their theories of race and color. This trend still continues even today amongst Indian politicians and in Governmental concessions to backward classes to catch votes and continue in power.
Even after going through Brihadaranyaka Upanishad some authors feel four orders of human beings are quite ancient. They feel that the explanations given in the Upanishad are allegorical. They feel that the Upanishad's contention is that the society is complete and perfect on account of the existence of all these four divisions but much more so on account of the law (dharma) which binds all and which all ought to obey. But Brihadaranyaka Upanishad does not prescribe Jaati Dharma, Kula Dharma and Svadharma etc which finds place later in Smritis. It only says that all human beings should study Vedas, acquire knowledge and meditate on Brahman without compartmentalization. Liberation should be the aim of all human beings.
It is therefore necessary to go deep into our holy-scriptures rather than drawing conclusions by casual references to Purushsookta and Bhagavadgeetaa without understanding their deeper message as well as references to other Upanishads and Brahmodyas that carry the true message of Vedas. Vedic language is difficult to understand even to Sanskrit scholars and needs the help from Vedantins. An attempt has been made here to make an integrated study as far as possible drawing help from well known Vedic scholars. Probably more can be revealed if further studies are made by Vedantins and spiritual authorities.
The entire universe within the body of Purusha (Viraaj or Prajaapati) was undifferentiated from him. He desired a companion. With his will, he projected himself to another entity. This got split into two—a male and female. The male part was Manu and the female part was Sataroopaa. By their union the entire animates were created, from man to ant. He was not affected by all these changes. He then realized that the universe he created was he alone as he had entered into all of them as inner Self (antaryamin). This antaryamin in individuals is known as Jeevaatama. Lord Krishna later explained in Bhagavadgeetaa Jeevaatman as follows; "Mamaivaamso Jeevaloke jeevabhootah sanatanah" –Jeevatman is a tiny part of me (Paramaatman) alone. Purusha then created other gods.
Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad then describes the creation of four Varnas, as described also in Purusha Sookta of Rigveda but with more details:
"Sa mukhaaccha yoner –hastaabhyaam
cha agnim srijata" (1-4-6)
churned thus and created the Agni (Fire God).
Brahma vaa idamagra aaseed ekam eva | tad-ekam sanna vyabhavat | tac-chreyo-roopa-matyasrijata kshatram yaan-yetaani devatraa kshatraanee-indro varunah somo rudrah parjanyo yamo mrityur-eesaana iti | Tasmaat-kshatraat param naasti | tasmaad braahmanah kshatriyam-adhastaad-upaaste raajasooye | Kshatra eva tadyaso dadhaati| saishaa kshatrasya yonir-yat brahma | tasmaad-yadyapi raajaa paramataam gacchati brahmaivaa-ntata upanisryati svaam yonim ya u enam hinasti svaam sa yonimricchati | sa paapeeyaan-bhavati yathaa sreyaasam himsitva || (1-4-11)
In the beginning it was indeed Brahman alone. It did not flourish being alone. It created Kshatriyas of excellent forms. Indra, Varuna Soma, Rudra, Parjanya, Yama, Mrityu and Eesaana were the Kshatryas among gods. Therefore there is none higher than Kshatriyas. Hence the Brahmana (who is already in existence) honored the Kshatriyas from a lower seat in the Rajasooya Yajna (sacrifice). The Brahmana is the source of Kshatriya. Therefore the king resorts to Brahmin only in spite of attaining supremacy in the sacrifice at the end of the Yajna. He who insults Brahmana digs his own grave. By doing so he becomes the sinner as one who slights his elder.
[Knowledge is respected most and so the Brahmana who had that knowledge. The creation of Agni was described earlier in 1-4-6. Therefore it should be concluded the only creation before was a Brahmana, that is god Agni. Throughout the text it says only Brahmana in singular form meaning Agni only. Kshatriyas therefore outnumbered Brahmana. Chaturmukha Brahma is also said to be the first Brahmana somewhere else. Therefore the king respected Brahmana their elder.]
Sa naiva vybhavat | sa visama-srijata Yaan-yetaani devajaataani ganasa aakhaayante vasavo rudraa aadityaa viswaadevaa marutaa iti ||
Brahman was not happy even after creating Kshatriyas. So, he created the Vaisya class (Varna). Those species of gods now are designated in groups—the Vasus, Rudras, Adityas, the Visvedevas and the Maruts.
[These are groups of deities unlike the individual gods before. Evidently they outnumbered Kshatriyas.]
Sa na-iva vyabhavat | sa saudram varnam-asrijata pooshanam-iyam vai poosheyam heeda(m)sarvam pushyati yadidam kincha ||
Still he did not flourish (he was not happy). He created then Soodra class (Varna) Poosha. Indeed this is Poosha (earth) alone. It is called Poosha for it nourishes all that exists.
[The earth alone is called Poosha.]
Tadeta brahma kshatram vit-soodrah | Tadagninaiva deveshu brahmaaabhavat | Brahmanoe manushyeshu kshatriyena kshatriyo vaisyaena vaisyah soodrena soodrah | tasmaad-agnaaveva-deveshu lokam-icchante brahmane manushyeshu-etaabhya hi roopaabhyaam brahmaabhavat ||
Thus this Brahman became the four Varnas--Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Soodra. He became a Brahmana amongst gods as fire and amongst human beings Brahmana through fire, a Kshatryiya through the Kshatriya gods like Indra, a Vaisya through the Vaisya gods like Vasus and others and a Soodra through the Soodra goddess like the Prithvee.
[It is clear from the above Brahman of the form of Agni became the Brahmana class. Brahman characterized by the form of Indra became the Kshatriya class. Brahman characterized by the form of Vasu, Rudra and others became Vysya class. Brahman characterized by the form of the earth became the Soodra class. This only implies that divines were created with different aptitude and temperament, so also later humans but no where it says that a child is automatically or genetically born as a Brahmin to Brahmin father or Brahmin mother. Even amongst husband and wife both may not ideally have the same temperament and aptitude to bring forth a child of same quality!]
The next mantra says that if a person departs from this world without realizing Brahman, that Brahman being non–realized by him does not protect him, even as the Veda not studied, or any other work not undertaken does not protect. It thus implies that everyone should study Veda and do such works to protect oneself. It does not say that only Brahmins should study Vedas, Kshatriyas only should fight, Vaisyas should only do honest trading and Soodras should only serve. Born with different temperaments everyone should strive to realize Brahman some needing more efforts than others. Nowhere we see the reasoning Varna to be a birthright as is assumed to-day. Therefore Varna concept in Vedas has nothing to do with the present day caste system based on birth. We have also Puranic examples Vidura though born a Soodra was a Brahmin; so also Vedavyasa born to a fisher woman. Viswamitra though a born Kshatriya was a Brahmin. Thus a Varna status is acquired and not in-born in a person.
Upanishads talk about three worlds as Bhoo, Bhuvah and Suvah. It is also said Suvar (svarga) loka is that of gods; Bhuvar(pitru)loka is that of manes (pitrus) and Bhooloka (earth) is that of humans. Sraaddha mantras repeatedly refer to Pitrus as Vasu-Rudra-Aaditya svaroopaaya, wanting the Pitrus(manes) to elevate to the status of the last group of deities by their oblations. That means they belong to the Vaisya group. It is therefore obvious here also that Bhuloka of humans has only the Varna Soodras as per the definition of divine Varnas. On attaining the status of manes (pitrus) they attain the status of Vaisyas.
Lord Krishna says in Bhagavdgeeta: "Chaturvarnyam mayaa srishtam gunakarma-vibhaagasah | tasya kartaaramapi maam vidhy-akartaataaram avyayam ||
The order of the four Varnas was created by me (Supreme Being) in accordance with the differences in their qualities and actions. Though its creator, know me as the non-doer, and immutable (eternal). He does not mention four Varnas (Chaturvarnaah) but Order of the Varnas
(Chaaturvarnyam) in the sloka.
Here Lord Krishna makes no reference to human society. Is he then talking of this creation by him as that of Supreme Being in the beginning of creation? Bhagavadgeeta echoes quite often Upanishadic thoughts as we have seen in many places. Even some times Upanishadic mantras are repeated as slokas in Bhagvadgeeta. Therefore it may be proper to assume the creation of Varnas referred by him in Geetaa should be the one described above, that is among the divines. We also know from Puranas that these deities are not exempt from Laws of Karma. You all know the story of Nahusha. Therefore he says "know me as the non-doer". He is silent on when these four Varnas of human beings started. He means though I am their creator, they are answerable to their actions. But he also stresses in Bhagavadgeetaa Svadharma and Kshatriya Dharma etc., reflecting the latter Varna system created by Vedic society inspired by the Divine Varna Classification and prevailing at that time. Later Smritis could have also fixed the dharma for each Varna as we understand. But we have also the mandate that Vedas (Srutis) are the final authority. It is therefore wiser to follow directives of the Vedas. Bhagavadgeetaa accommodates all views as we see. It elaborates on Sankhya System which is silent on Brahman and glorifies it though Vedanta strongly criticizes it. Again in 18:41 Lord Krishna says that the division of labor into four Varnas is also based on the qualities inherent in people's nature thereby implying that it is based on natural propensities, and not necessarily as one's birth right.
By the time Lord Krishna arrived on scene man-made Varna system was well established coming from one's birth by convention. But these Varna groups maintained their characteristics by and large then, practicing their developed skill of profession unlike in later days. Even at that time there were also many exceptions deriving inspiration from the incarnations themselves. Parusurama though a Brahmin by birth was a Kshatriya by practice. Krishna though a Soodra was a Kshatriya later. Drona, Kripa, Aswatthaama were all Kshatriyas in practice but were Brahmins by birth. Karna though a soota (Charioteer class) was a Kshatriya as king of Angadha for he did not know his birth identity then. Vidura was a Brahmin though a Soodra. Vyaasa though born to a fisher woman and brought up by her was a Brahmin by practice. This mobility and freedom got lost later and Varnas became water tight compartments by birth alone. Krishna only said that whatever skill one has developed he should only follow it instead of treading on untrained fields which may prove disastrous. Krishna had high respect for Vidura who was not following Dharma of his birth and so also for Drona and others. Arjuna was a Kshatriya by birth, a well trained Kshatriya by practice also. Krishna therefore advises him to follow his Svadharma or individual Dharma. His duty was to protect the society getting rid of evils as well as those who supported those evils. Neglecting one's duty is a sin. Again this cannot be equated with the present day caste system claimed by birth alone.
Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad also states in the next mantra that Supreme Being created Dharma making it binding on his creations. This is binding on all the inhabitants of the three worlds and does not compartmentalize. Nowhere in Srutis we come across Dharma compartmentalized for individual Varnas. It is all in Puranas and Smritis.
It is therefore not wrong to conclude the caste system amongst humans has nothing to do with the Divine Varna classification. Therefore it is no surprise that Manu said that every human being is born the same when he said "Janamana Jaayate soodrah" everyone is born as Soodra being an animate on earth. It is only by Karma he can change his status even in the man created Varna concept. Varna is not a birth-right. Obviously choosing this title Soodra for human beings to begin with is logical though born with different aptitudes and temperaments as humans are the creations on Earth; Earth (considered to be mother of all animate beings) alone was classified as Soodra in God's creation (Pushaan).
It is therefore not clear who started these classification of Varnas for human beings in the Puranaic Age and also when from. Of course Puranas contain lot of fallacies as pointed out in many discourses. Further to blame that Soodras have been pushed to be the last category in human society by Vedas seems to be not justifiable. It is also not fair to put the blame on Vedas that Soodras were not given an honorable place in creation. Just like Agni (sometimes Indra inclusive) was the only deity under Brahmin category (Purusha sookta says "mukahaad –indrascha-agnischa" though Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad mentions only Agni in the Brahmin category) Earth was the only deity under Soodra category under Divine creation of Varnas. Amongst all the deities under classification of four Varnas, only Earth was glorified, as the one who provides nourishment to all that exists and they depended on her. Earth is also the other consort of Vishnu as stated even in Purushasookta, "Hreescha Lakshmeescha Patnyau". (Hree is often translated as Bhoodevi and rarely as goddess of Modesty).
Purushsookta has been vehemently criticized by many as it said that Soodra was born out of the feet of Virat Purusha ignoring the fact that most celebrated Earth also came out of the feet of the Virat Purusha. These critics feel that the Creator was partial and gave Brahmins an exalted position. Feet represents stability and but for the support of earth with its gravity and flora and fauna no human activity including that of other animates as such would have been possible. Contrary to the high level of criticism, Vedas glorify Mother Earth, the divine Soodra on equal footing with Agni the divine Brahmana if one understands the mantra properly.
It is therefore probable somewhere during the Puranic period Human society wanted to model after divines their own society to establish Varna system and in the process got confused went on multiplying them as castes, sub-castes and Jatis attributing them to birth-right. This has become political ammunition for our politicians to-day. Vedas are very clear as to the Varna classification. Supreme Being created his council of divines under different categories to sustain the world he created fixing responsibilities. Supreme Being endowed these divines with characteristics like heat, light, coolness, breeze, all pervasiveness, fluidity and nourishment of water etc., these being their characteristics or Gunas. For example Agni is the deity in the Varna Brahmana who carries our prayers and offerings to the Supreme as he is the sacrificial medium. We still continue with this practice in rituals and show our highest respect to him. He is often addressed as Vyahriti of Brahman and also addressed Jaataveda. Indra is the celebrated king of devas. Vritraasura (dark cloud) whom he killed (for release of water) is mentioned in Upanishads. Similarly, all other deities mentioned in Varna classification have their allotted jobs.
Closely associated with the concept of avataras is the concept of Vyahriti. While every creature possesses a spark of the Supreme Being only those who fully express the divine potential come to be identified with the Lord and become worthy of worship like the Lord. They include: the most resonant vibration AUM, the perfect Hymn Gayatri, the bravest God Indra, the prime element Fire (Agni), the most luminous body Sun (Aaditya), and the most glorified element Earth. Hence these are meditated upon as Brahman.
There is one other topic which needs clarification. Historians and critics often blame Vedas for making the knowledge secret and exclusive and also blame Vedas for making it the privilege of Brahmanas. This would also be clear if one goes through the following Mantra:"Chatwaari vakparimitaa padaani taani vidu brahmanaa ye maneeshinah | guhaa treeni vihitaa nengayanti tureeyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti || (Rigvedic Brahmodaya (1:164; 45)—Words (wisdom of Vedas) are measured in four quarters; the Brahmins who are knowledgeable and insightful do know these. Three quarters were kept secret; they would not let that circulate; human beings only speak the fourth part (or the last part) of these words (Wisdom of Vedas), implying thereby they had no knowledge of other three quarters. It is also very clear here that Brahmins were not human beings at that time. They were all divines as stated in the above Upanishad. Brahma was the first Brahmana in creation say our scriptures and then Agni. It is also clear the later humans had no Varna as Brahmins and they all belong to the class of Sudras being the sons of the soil.
With the human classification of Varnas later Vedic knowledge was kept secret by human-made Brahmin groups. But still many Azhwars (Vaishnava saints) and Nayanmars (Saivite saints) mastered Vedas and propagated them in Tamil language understood by common people of their region. Most of them are not Brahmins by birth. They all went through the samskara of Upanayana and their idols are consecrated and worshipped in Hindu Temples. Thus restricting Samskara of Upanayana and study of Vedas seems to be designed and man-made by some religious authorities. Even here concession was made that first three human created Varnas and girls went through Upanayana ceremony and Vedic studies for a long time. Girls gave up as they got confined to the house by early and child marriages due to historic reasons. Soodras could not afford to be away for 12 or more years in Gurukula for study of Vedas as they had to help the family in raising cattle and crops to sustain the society. The practice of study of Vedas weaned away from Kshatriyas and Soodras and even from Brahmins of man-made Varnas with the passing of time and foreign invasions, with the exception of few.
In the light of the above, how our Vedas which are our authority on Dharma be blamed for mistaken and misunderstood lapses? We should go deep into things before drawing wrong conclusions. Probably our neglect of study of Vedas and their understanding may be the root cause. Probably later influence of Srutis (Puranas etc.) over the Smritis (Vedas) might have led to the creation of Varna Dharma rules instead of following Dharma as stipulated in Vedas for all humans and also restricting the study of the Vedas amongst human Varnas? Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad also mentions about the creation of Dharma after the creation of Divine Varnas, for all. It does not categorize dharma Varna-wise. Stagnation of Sanatana Dharma during the middle period and later may be due the over importance given to Smritis over Srutis. Srutis went to the back ground and Smritis guided the society in the observance of Dharma.
How did so many foreign scholars study Vedas, may be not perfectly, also Tamil scholars who provided scriptures containing the essentials of Vedic Message (Divyaprabhandam, Tirumoolam, Tiruppugazh etc)? Divyaprabhandam in Tamil by Non-Brahmin Aazhwaras mostly, is considered almost as Veda in its message. Whom shall we blame for our neglect of Study of Sanskrit which is so difficult to replace and which is the root cause of all our misunderstandings? The divine spell Vedic Mantras in Sanskrit cast is hard to replace by any other language.
It may be of interest to know even amongst Hindus Arya-samajists who are solely devoted to Vedic sacrifices and Veerasaiva community founded by Basaveswara in Karnataka, believe and practice classless society. They do not believe in caste system. Sanyasis do not have any caste affiliations. Even amongst very orthodox Hindus Sanyasis (Azhwars, Nayanmars, and saints like Surdas, Meera, Shirdi Saibaba, Kanakadasa etc.) are worshipped without any caste considerations. I believe Saibaba believed in classless society like Dayanand Saraswati and Basaveswara.