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India’s Conjured Caste Conundrum

By: Raghbendra Jha
Dec-28-2007
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As Indians the world over mark 60 years of Indian independence there is much to celebrate and even more to ponder over, even worry about. This article is about one of the most important constants of India’s concerns through the six decades since independence - the lack of cohesion in Indian, particularly Hindu society, especially the divisions of caste. Like a hydra-headed monster India’s caste problem manifests itself in many forms – from persisting economic discrimination (the so-called Scheduled Castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) are a much larger proportion of the poor in India than their share in the total population) and social injustice manifesting itself in a myriad of forms – to the scourge of caste-based political parties that expressedly represent the interests of one or a combination of small castes – to the bane of denial of merit in the face of caste based reservations in education, employment and the like. India must be the only major country in the world where there is competition among fine young men and women to have themselves declared “backward”. This does not look promising for a country where the median age of the population is below 25 years and which aspires to be a superpower in a hurry.

Do the principles of Sanatana Dharma condemn Indians, particularly young Hindu Indians, to discriminate and be discriminated on the basis of caste? This is the central issue considered in this essay. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated for it is fundamental to the kind of societal norms that will prevail in the future. A maintained hypothesis of this essay is that it is imperative to get this question right with a dispassionate and accurate referral to the scriptures and without prejudice. In doing so I have collated some quotations from the scriptures and writings of some of the great thinkers of Hinduism into an argument and claim no originality of views. I progress towards this argument in two steps, first disposing off one of the greatest perceived banes of Hinduism.

Untouchability is Anathema to Hinduism
Untouchability has been one of the greatest perceived scourges of Hinduism for centuries and, sadly, it is practised even today albeit with sparser incidence and greater subterfuge. Concurrently, however, it is a gross injustice to Hinduism to associate it with any form of untouchability. Sanatana Dharma’s view of existence is that the Lord resides in every living creature. In the Vishnusahastramstrotam in the Mahabharata Lord Vasudeva is described as “sarvabhootanivasoasi”, i.e., as the One who dwells in all living creatures. Since that is the case – no living creature is untouchable. In fact to practice untouchability is to discriminate against the Lord Himself. Do those who practise untouchability even understand what they are doing?
The practice of untouchability is essentially alien to Hindu conception. To emphasize this point I quote Bhaktashiromani Prahlada from a passage in the Srimadbhagwatam

“Within the beings high or low, beginning with simple plantlife up to Brahmâ the foremost being; within the single transformations of the elements as well as with the totality of the material energy; with the modes of nature in a balanced state as also in their perturbation, is He the One and Only of transcendence, indeed the original source that is the Supreme Lord, the Controller who is without decay Himself. By the original of His inner position and by His personal manifestations is He the pervaded to be described and the undifferentiated all-pervading that defies description. He is the entirety pure and whole whose form is full of bliss and knowledge, the Supreme Ruler covered by the illusory energy about whose unlimited opulence one is mistaken by the modes of the creation. Show therefore mercy towards all living entities; with a friendly attitude ….” SrimadBhagwatam, Seventh Skanda, Chapter 6, Sloka 19-24.

If the same Supreme Lord is the foundation of all beings no form of untouchability can be countenanced.

In the next section I write about the foundations of the division of caste in Hindu society but here I want to emphasise that harmony among castes is an essential message of all key Hindu scriptures. Thus we have:

“As soon as Agnideva emerges from inside the world of water he enlightens the whole physical world and the subtle world (bhuloka and dvuloka). When human beings belonging to all the five varnas worship Agnideva through yagna at that time he (Agnideva) pierces the clouds like a strong mountain and facilitates the falling of rain”
Rigveda Samhita Part 4, sukta 45, sloka 6, (cumulative sloka count in Rigveda 9265).

Thus the gods are pleased only when people of all varnas work together.

Further, the last sloka in the Rigveda states:

“O humans! May your hearts (feelings) be as one, your minds (thoughts) be one, sankalpa (work) be as one so that you can be united and accomplish all that you have set out to accomplish.”
Rigveda Samhita, Part 4, sukta 191, sloka 4 (last sloka of Rigveda no. 10552)

Our heroes and freedom fighters have repeatedly set examples of the right attitude towards caste. I give here one particularly moving instance of this. When the most celebrated martyr of them all- Sardar Bhagat Singh – was to be hanged he asked to touch his mother’s feet before he was killed. The British government, it may be recalled, was hanging him a day earlier than scheduled and so did not permit this. Bhagat Singh then said that he would like to go to the gallows after touching the feet of the lady who cleaned the prison toilets for she was like a mother to him. His mother used to clean him up when he was a child because she considered him her own. But the cleaning lady was no worldly relation of Bhagat Singh but yet cleaned his toilet and hence was as venerable as his mother. He was allowed this wish of his. Such is the example that the torch bearers of our freedom struggle have left for us. We ignore it at our own peril.

There are numerous examples of this moving kind from India’s freedom struggle and from the lives of the great saints and reformers of Hindu society. Untouchability is anathema to Sanatana dharma. One should condemn it with the abhorrence it deserves.

What is Caste? Whose Caste?

It is imperative to address these questions if we are to understand India’s caste system. It turns out that the answers to these questions are inexorably linked together and go to the very basis of the conception of human existence in Sanatana Dharma. .

The genesis of caste and indeed of human existence is explained beautifully in a passage from the seventh chapter of the seventh skanda of Srimadbhagwata where the young prince Bhaktashiromani Prahlada (himself a son of an asura, Hiranyakashyap) talks to his friends about the nature of man. In doing this Prahlada narrates the knowledge acquired by him when he was in his mother’s womb. His mother was given a discourse on the nature of humans by the sage Narada.

The human identity exists at three levels – the Jiva (atman), the subtle body (called the subconscious mind in the West) and the physical body. By the rule of time, says Narada, six transformations occur to the body, viz. origin (birth), existence, growth, maturity, decay and destruction. These do not affect the Jiva just as the changes undergone in the fruit do not affect the tree. The Jiva is eternal and changeless and unchanging from one bodily form to another. One should not identify oneself with the body. Just as gold is extracted from ores, so also an expert through spiritual efforts extracts the Supreme Brahman from the body in which it is latent.

Again all physical bodies are made of the same five elements (panchtatva, i.e., prithvi, agni, vayu, jala and aakash) – hence there is no difference across humans (indeed any living creatures) in their physical bodies. What links the body and the Jiva is the subtle body (sukshma sharira) which is also termed the sub conscious mind. It records all our feelings and experiences (exactly as psychoanalysts say). In other words the subtle body is the repository of the effects of our karmas. One’s past karmas make up one’s subtle body and the subtle body, in turn, affects our present karmas. There is a strong cause and effect relation indeed a symbiotic relation between karmas and the subtle body. When a person dies the subtle body leaves the physical body but is not destroyed. According to the form and content of the subtle body the next birth is determined. The entry of the subtle body into the physical body is called “birth” and the separation of the subtle body from the physical body is called “death”. Thus there is a remarkable cohesion between birth, growth and death and the Hindu ideas of karma.

From this it follows that the only difference across living beings is in respect of their subtle bodies. Your history of karma has determined your tendencies, skills, outlook towards life and so on whereas someone else has a different history and thus a different set of tendencies, skills, outlook towards life and so on. We can use the term “inclination” as a surrogate for all these factors. In other words one’s sukshama sharir (subtle body or subconscious) or inclinations – call them what you will – determine one’s caste. Casts is an attribute of the sukshama sharir and not of the physical body or atmana.

It follows from this that such inclinations are not inherited. A learned person’s offspring may or may not be learned. Ravana was born in the lineage of the great rishi Pulastya and became a Raksha, despised to this day. Prahlada, the son of a Raksha (Hirankashyap) who had brought untold miseries to the world, is said to have attained the very pinnacle of bhakti (devotion). This illustrates the fact that caste does not arise from birth. If there can be transformations within the same lineage between devatva and rakshatava what to speak of ordinary human beings?

The way to spiritual perfection is possible only through the destruction of the subtle body attainable through work that does not result in karma, i.e., nishkama karma as the Srimadbhagwadgita calls it. Bhakta Prahlada in the seventh chapter of the seventh skanda of the Srimadbhgwat says that neither high birth nor penance or karma kanda can ensure the attainment of moskha. This is only possible through sincere and undemanding love for the Lord and treating all with respect.

But the differences in inclinations persist in most of us and lead different persons to pursue their aims, even the Lord Himself, in different ways. This does not make one superior or inferior to the others. To quote Lord Krishna from the Srimadbhagwadgita:

“In whatever way men identify with Me, in the same way do I carry out their desires; men pursue My path, O Partha, in all ways”
Chapter 4, verse 11.

Some people have argued that the Srimadbhagwadgita sanctions caste discrimination. Nothing could be further from the truth. The notion of four types of tendencies is certainly delineated in the Srimadbhagwadgita but it is explicitly stated that the differences among castes are the result of guna (as a result of past karmas) and karma (the harbingers of future gunas). Thus we have this profound sloka from Lord Krishna Himself in the Srimadbhagwadgita:

“The fourfold caste was created by Me by the different distribution of guna and karma. Though I be the author thereof, know Me to be the actionless and the changeless.”
Chapter 4, verse 13

Thus God Himself is separate from these tendencies but has classified them into these four categories.

Hence caste, referring as it does to differences among humans, is a product only of differences in inclinations and hence an attribute of the subtle body. Bhakta Prahlada says that differences in the subtle body arise because of three broad sets of factors: (a) eight fold prakriti (root prakriti, Mahattattva, Ahankara, Five Tanmatras); (b) the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas); and (c) sixteen volutes of Prakriti (the ten senses (5 physical + 5 mental); the mind, the five pranas (gross elements, i.e., Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana, and Samana). Please note that Ahankara (ego) is one attribute of the subtle body. It is Ahankara that makes one identify with oneself. To simplify the plethora of these differences the four varnas (Brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, and sudra) were conceived along with the fifth varna (nishada). But these are inclinations determined completely by the history of one’s subtle body and not by physical birth. Of course, now we have a veritable multitude of castes and sub castes built around the original varnas.

Some Evil effects of the Caste system as practised today

It is regrettable, indeed tragic, that whereas their shastras have always advocated dynamism and mobility and reliance on the power of discernment (vivek), reasoning (buddhi) and knowledge (gyana) the people who claim to follow the Sanatana Dharma have shackled their minds to crass traditions which in themselves are alien to this dharma. This has distorted their thinking and shackled their material and spiritual progress.

Our practised caste divisions are the root cause of our disunity. Swami Vivekananda has written that over the centuries such disunity allowed whoever was interested to invade and loot India. Surely in following caste discrimination many Indians have misinterpreted the meaning of caste and abandoned true dharma.

One of the worst ill effects of the caste system as practised today is the difficulty in getting young men and women married. With literally thousands of castes and sub-castes and the pressure to find a bride or groom from one’s own sub-caste, choice becomes very limited. This limited choice encourages other social evils such as dowry and many young men and women are often married off to incompatible and unqualified partners.

Another evil effect of the caste system is that many extremely qualified persons do not get the recognition that they deserve in society. In past few centuries Hindu society has been blessed with great saints like Kabir, Raidas, Dadu, Ghana, Tukaram, Namdeva and many others who were spiritual giants and way ahead of many people born in Brahman lineages in their lifetimes. But because of the caste-based narrow mindedness many of these great saints did not get the recognition they deserved. To be sure, these saints did not want such recognition for themselves. But for Hindu society it was then and still is very important that such saints be honoured since this would have the beneficial side effect of breaking down caste barriers and eliminating caste discrimination, which is the greatest curse on Hindu society even today. In the words of the saint Narayana Swami caste discrimination and untouchability are a blot on Hindu society. The spread of mutual hatred and ill-will are the ill gotten fruits of this discrimination.

It is only logical and reasonable that people of equal merit and achievement be valued equally in society as anything else would be inequitable. How can one justify valuing one person who is just as qualified as another higher just because of caste? If some great people have been born in some family lineage there is no guarantee that great people would continue to be born in that lineage. If spiritual giants like Atri, Yagvalakya, and Bhardwaj were born in Brahmin lineages so were tormentors of society like Ravana, Kumbhkarna, Mareech and Kahardushan. Indeed Ravana’s family lineage was traced back to one of the original saints – Pulasthya. On the other hand, spiritual giants like Prahlada were born in the lineage of the Rakshas. Yet in our Shastras Prahlada is revered as highly as any rishi born of Brahmin lineage. Ved Vyasa, the author of the unique epic Mahabharata and many other shatras was born of a woman who was a boatman’s daughter. Our shastras extol us to rise above caste and lineage considerations and concentrate on merit and achievement. How can we ignore this call and still claim to follow the Sanatana Dharma?

Dharma’s foundations are man’s inner self. This inner self is the cause and the books which many of us claim to follow are the effect. If people’s actions are guided by their powers of reasoning and discernment tempered with faith they will not be misguided. As Lord Rama says in the Ramayana dharma is inherently personal and very strict.

There was a time when the Vedic Santana Dharma was practised through the length and breadth of the great land of India. Until about the time of the Mahabharata this continued to be the case. There were many instances of inter-caste marriage during that period. The Valmiki Ramayana notes that Emperor Dashrath had wives born in the kshatriya, vaishya and sudra lineages. (Dashrath had more than three wives, unlike what is commonly believed). Similarly Emperor Dhritrashtra had a wife apart from Gandhari and her sisters, born in vaisha lineage and mother of Yuyutsu. He was the only Kaurava who stayed with dharma. There are similarly many instances of people born in the Brahmin lineage marrying kshatriya, vaishya and shudra partners.

Until the time the unifying message of Hinduism, its profundity, its clarity and its beauty were intact many people came from abroad to be inculcated into the principles and practices of Hinduism and even to settle in India. This raised India’s prestige and that of Hinduism to a pinnacle. Every caste had equal opportunity of attaining the greatness of rishihood. Brahmins and shudras were all proud to be called Hindus. But the caste discrimination that later became an integral part of Hindu society caused immeasurable harm and the Hindu faith which had transcended the national boundaries of India had to become confined to India. Within India itself it presents a limited and badly fragmented picture.

India’s caste conundrum is thus entirely conjured – devoid of any foundation in religious thought or conception. This deep wound is entirely self inflicted and the sooner it is understood for what it is the earlier Indian society can move towards unity and true fulfillment.


Raghbendra Jha

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