People always associate Hinduism with caste classification and related discrimination. Most of the time it is thought that, this caste based classification and discrimination is integral part of Hinduism. This seems quite contradictory to the Hinduism, which also teaches “Vasudaiv Kutumbakam (whole earth is a family)”. So, lets try to understand what Hinduism really has to say about this, by going through few argument.
Is Varna System Basis for Caste System?
People who term caste discrimination as “Hindu” Evil, primarily base their argument around Varna system mentioned in Purush Sukta, given in Rigveda. Given that Rigveda is one of the primary authoritative text in Hinduism and considered absolute truth, if Varna system is really a basis of the caste based discrimination, then it is clear that caste system has deep roots in Hinduism philosophy. Before we make an judgement, first, lets try to understand the Varna system.
As per Hinduism, the ultimate goal for every person is to achieve “Self Realization”. But, there are very few people who achieve this goal, while others are either still trying or not even aware of it. So, during this process, we need to have a progressive society which helps everyone to grow with their potentials and abilities. A society which not just values power of sword, but empowers and respects everyone. A society which does not have a power center, but rather have pillars, with with distributed responsibilities and duties. For this reason, vedic literature created a work structure, where there are four pillars called Varnas.
• Brahmin : These are intellectual people in the society, supposed to provide intellectual and spiritual foundation to the rest of the Varnas. These people spend their time in studying/contemplating on various literatures. These are advisors, teachers, philosophers who guide rest of the society, making sure everyone is on correct path. They are expected to speak truth, and provide right advice, without fear of anything, including death. They are given immense respect for their intellect, and for their conviction of saying and doing right things. In order to balance out, these people are not allowed to have material possessions beyond basic needs and stay ascetic. Given that they don’t produce anything tangible, they are dependent on rest of the society for food and basic needs.
• Kshtriyas : Kshtriyas are the ruling class of the society – the people who work for governments in various capacities. Their job is protecting their locality/country from outside invasion and maintain a law and order. They have power and respect of position and sword. In order to balance out, they are required to have Brahmin advisors, who will advice on various things, and also not own their own businesses, to avoid conflict of interests. They would also be dependent on Vaishya for money and Shudras getting various works done.
• Vaishya : These are business people, entrepreneurs involved in various businesses, which would enable the society to financially sustain. These people have power of Money; and in order to balance out, they need to work with Kshtriya and Brahmins for protection and intellectual advice respectively. They need to rely on Shudras to get their work done.
• Shudras : This is working class, general people, with various skills, who work towards enabling Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishya in getting their work done using own skills and manpower. They have power of skills and volume; but they are dependent on other three three Varnas for the work, money and intellectual support.
Additionally, there is no mention that someone becomes first three (namely Brahmin, Kshtriya, Vaishya) just by birth. In fact there is a mention that everybody is Shudra (or general people) at birth, and only become the dwija (as the first three called) by a ceremony, followed by a prescribed life. While it is natural for someone to follow their parent’s path, i.e. follow activities of family they are born into, but people are allowed to move between Varnas depending upon their own abilities and efforts.
One of notable examples of moving between Varna, is Satyakama Jabala, whose story is mentioned in “Chandogya Upanishad”, one of the primary upanishad. Satyakama was born to a Prostitute, and was raised outside the city limits. From very young age he was very interested in spiritual knowledge, but given that he was a son of a prostitute, no teacher was taking him as a student. One day he saw Gautam Rishi, so he hurriedly went to the Him and put his head on Gautama Rishi’s feet and requested him to take as a student. Gautam Rishi asked him about his family lineage. In response to this the Satyakama told him that he is a son of a prostitute Jabala, and beyond that he does not know anything. Seeing that Satyakama decided to speak truth, one of the most important quality for being a Brahmin, knowing from past experience that it would cost him being rejected, impressed Rishi Gautama who accepts him as a student. Satyakama went on being a great sage by himself, and has written Jabala Upanishad, and is credited with creating Sanyasin as a ethical way of self realization. This way nothing stopped Satyakama to become a Brahmin, and contribute into Upanishad Literature.
In addition to Satyakama’s example, there are countless examples of people moving from one Varna to another in pauranik literature, most notable being Maharshi Viswamitra (Kshtriya to Brahmin) and Maharshi Valmiki (Shudra to Brahmin). During Bhakti movement, there are many saints who were not born to Brahmin parents like, Namdev, Tukaram, Meerabai, Kabir and many other, who went on doing duties of the Brahmin Varna, and were wholeheartedly accepted by people.
In short, Vedic Varna system, unlike today’s caste, doesn’t stamp on one’s forehead what he/she is capable of. It is more like everyone is born as Shudra, and depending on capabilities and efforts, one decides what path or Varna he/she wants to take. While it is natural for a person to follow their parents’s path, but if someone wants to do something different they could do it. If one is inclined to study vedas, shastras and other literature and teaching it others, they would be Brahmins. If someone wants to join the government and interested in governing, he/s he would be Kshtriya. If someone is inclined to start/run business, they would be Varishya. Everyone else, who helps these three do their job, would be Shudras. With this Vedic definitions, 99% of today’s Brahmins (the ones which are born in Brahmin families) are not doing the Job of Brahmin, so they don’t qualify to be called as Brahmins. Hinduism needs us not to be proud of born-Brahmin, Kshatriya or anything else, instead, we are expected to be proud of our abilities, hard word and decide the varna that suites us, and if needed switch between them, as we make progress in life”.
This way, Varna system is not the basis of Caste Classification in Indian society, instead it is a much comprehensive system of social structure, which has survived multiple millenniums, if not more. Even today, we can’t have a society without these four pillars. We would always needs intellectual, philosophers, teachers, advisors (a.k.a. Brahmins) who will not be afraid of telling a ruler that he/she is wrong. We will also need the ruling section (a.k.a Kshrtiayas), who will help protect the country and also maintain law and order. We also needs entrepreneurs, business people (a.k.a Vaishya) so that economy of the society/country can grow. Finally, we need working class people with various skills so that they, with the help of others create a progressive society.
What about Manusmriti:
People who blame Hinduism for caste system, also use Manusmruti as another argument. So lets try to analyze that. First of all, there is no such literature called Manusmriti, this is the term coined by Britishers, for “Manava-Dharmashstra“, to make it look more authentic, so that people think that it was written by Manu himself. Before we go further into it, let first analyze how Hinduism literature is classified. Hinduism literature is divide four section, where Shrutis, which include Vedas, Upanishads, are authoritative texts, which are binding as it is. Smritis and Shastras are written by people for a purpose, which don’t need to be always religious. For example, assume that a king decides to make new rules for his subjects; he can do so by creating his own shastras, so that people can follow. In this context, today’s current Indian constitution is also a shastras, luckily we don’t call it a Hindu Shastras, but for some reason “Arthshastra from Chanakya” is called Hindu shastra, even though, there is nothing religious about it. Not only that, all Shastras written, when Hinduism was the only philosophy in India, are called Hindu shastras, even though there is nothing religious about them. So in short, shastras, smrutis are not always religious in nature, these are written by some king or Acharya, as was thought by them, as being best rules to follow. It was very common to have multiple Dharma Shastas active at the same time, in two different kingdoms. Additionally, these documents are expected to be revised or changed with the changing times.
Coming back to Manava-Dharmashstra, it starts with it’s own version of how world was created and then goes on listing rules for various actors in the society. This does not provide any linkage to Shrutis, or any reference to how these laws are derived, these are just statements, without any religious backing. We actually don’t know who and why it was made, and it was a long forgotten, until it was given prominence by Britishers. Britishers, once got hold of it, made it a primary document to base laws on, as they wanted to “divide-and-rule” this country. If Manava-Dharmashstra, would have been indeed such a prominent piece of religious literature, as claimed by Britishers, we would have seen commentary written by Adi Shankra or other religious scholar on it, but that dose not exists. So Manava-Dharmashstra (or Manusmruti as it is called) is not a religious in nature, and has no backing from Shrutis, and not an important piece of dharma literature. It was Britishers who started to use this and created a society which is not based on Hinduism’s core principles. It’s an irony that Hindus themselves started believing on what Britishers taught, and started to think that they are required to follow the caste system, and started to act on it.
Another important point to note that, when Xuanzang, travelled to India in 7CE, in his detailed writing about Indian culture and experiences, there is no mention of caste based discrimination. While Varna have always existed in India, and would have also existed during Xuanzang’s visit, but that was more of a work distribution, rather than a tool to create discrimination in the society. Additionally, there is no proof that any major/minor dynasties from ancient to medieval times ever used Manusmriti.
Having said this, was it all that pure Varna System until Britishers came over? Was there no caste based discrimination, until Britisher found about Manusmriti? Not really, and we can clearly see that in the writing of Sant Chokha (Early 14th century, Maharashtra), who talks about not able to enter into the temple of Panduranga at Pandharpur, due to him being lower caste. At the same time, there are many abhangas which talk about how caste disappeared in annual varkari celebrations. This means, caste based discrimination at least at some places of worship to some degree, have been existing and there was “subtle” superiority feeling in Brahmins and other higher castes. Britisher used this subtle superiority complex and along with Manusmruti, could divine Indian society, and rule it for more than a century.
Current Status of Caste System in India
Even though there is no basis for caste system and associated discrimination in Hinduism, and it has been more than 70 years Britishers have left India, we still see these issues cropping up in India everywhere. Britishers were extremely successful in planting the seed of social divide and the political system after them found it useful so continued with that. Having said that, things have improved quite a lot over last century, thanks to effort of various social reformers like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr, Babasaheb Amdedkar, Jyotiba Phule and many others. But we haven’t completely got rid of it and there is still a lot of work needed.
Meanwhile, if we see how Indians react to people with the extraordinary abilities, we see that, Indians easily forget the caste and give achievers due respect irrespective of their birth caste. For example, no one talks about caste, religion, when it comes to Abdul Kalam, Swami Vivekananda or even today’s Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. We will not find a single person hating/disrespecting them due to their caste, religion. We can not say that confidently for Barak Obama in United States, where whatever he does/achieves, there will be certain percentage of people who will always hate him, just for his skin color. Compared to many societies in the world, Indian society has been very open in accepting people, for their capabilities, disregarding their caste/religion/skin-color. This could be because of the deep rooted Varna system in Indian mentality which rewards merit, and also various historical examples of people moving among Varnas. It gives an immense hope that we will overcome this evil of caste based discrimination introduced in our society by Britishers, very soon, and come back to original state, where merit is rewarded. We are the society which accepted Sant Kabir, Sant Tukaram, Namdev, Mirabai, and gave them status higher than a Brahmin for their capabilities, and I am sure we will continue to do so.
Just want to close this using one quote from Nelson Mandela.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion, People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love..” .. Nelson Mandela.