Is Hinduism Casteist?
By Swami Abhayananda Tirtha
The Vedic society is often criticized by the modern intelligentsia for its apparently discriminating stand against a certain section of the society. The detractors claim that the Vedas directly support racist and feudal dominance by brandishing a certain group of people as ‘shudras’, or low born. India has witnessed social upheavals on this issue, and today caste system has become a sensitive subject with serious ramifications on the national political scene. However the Vedas present a view contrary to the modern zealots’ interpretation, and is actually egalitarian in outlook, a point totally ignored by the critics.
Birth v/s qualification
Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita, the most authorized book for the Hindus, that a person’s position in the society is based on his qualifications and work, and not on birth (BG 4.13). Thus a person, although born in an apparently higher caste, has to qualify himself. Similarly if a person born into a ‘lower’ caste displays qualities of a person of the ‘higher’ order, he shouldn’t be discouraged. We cannot assume that a child of doctor parents automatically qualifies himself/herself to be a doctor on the basis of birth in one such family. Similarly no one can claim to be a brahmana without qualifying himself by the necessary training.
The Chandogya Upanishad illustrates this point with the story of Satyakama, a young boy who approached a spiritual master for enlightenment. The guru enquired about his father and the boy said he was unaware of his father’s identity. He was then told to go and ask his mother. He soon returned and candidly confessed that his mother had known many men, and is herself unsure about his father’s identity. The spiritual master, being pleased with this honesty, declared to the boy, “You are a real brahmana”.
Need for social divisions
However a question arises on the need to have such a system in the first place, because this categorization threatens to alienate certain groups from the mainstream. Moreover a classless society assures freedom from these artificial barriers, and promises equal opportunity to all.
The Vedas declare that this kind of division exists in the society naturally. A balanced and healthy body has the brain, arms, belly and legs working in good condition. Similarly the symptom of a healthy social body is the peaceful coexistence of teachers and intelligentsia, the administrators, the business class and the laborers. The brahmanas in Vedic society refers to the ‘brain’ of society, i.e. they provide the intellectual capital and spiritual and moral direction. The Kshatriyas, or the administrators are compared to the arms and they have a crucial role to protect the citizens. The Vaishyas, or business class are compared to the belly, and the worker class or shudras are the legs which support the other three orders. This division is natural in any society as different people adopt different occupations based on interest and inclinations. To say the arms are needed but the legs are unimportant for the body is foolish. Likewise to condemn a certain occupational class within the same society is disastrous. Needless to say all the orders have to work with dignity of labor, mutual respect and in harmony with each other. Cause of modern problems
The problems in the Vedic society arose primarily due to getting these basics wrong and rampant exploitation taking place on the basis of one’s birth in a particular caste. In a human body, although all parts are important, the brain is undoubtedly most vital. Without the brain’s working, a physically perfect body is considered unproductive. Similarly for the society to run smoothly, the brahmana class has to be of impeccable character and integrity. With the corruption of this class, influenced by false pride and arrogance, the social order became chaotic. Sadly today in India there are many smarta- brahmanas, or caste-conscious brahmanas who insist that one cannot be elevated to brahminical status unless he is born in a brahmana family. This brahmana by-birth conception is non-Vedic, and has justifiably agitated the other sections. Little surprise then, that the politicization of this issue and the resultant violence is eroding the social fabric.
The solution- Rising ‘above’ the caste system
Lord Krishna reveals in the Bhagavad Gita, the identity of each person as distinctly different from the body (BG 2.13). Presently the ‘soul’ or the real ‘I’ is covered by this body and identifying with this perishable body, we claim to belong to a particular caste, nationality, race etc. Although this occupational division helps one to progress gradually by encouraging us to dovetail our propensities, Krishna extols the intelligent to transcend these temporary designations. He declares the highest religion is to render loving devotional service to God, and when we engage in our activities with a desire to serve and please Him, we immediately go beyond these petty classifications. When the society is trained to be God conscious, each member then performs his/her duty in a purified consciousness and considers himself as a servant of all others in the society. Thus the Srimad Bhagavatam declares:
“O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead.” (SB -1.2.13)
The Vedas thus declare that the perfection of this institutional framework is to cooperate jointly for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord. Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON writes, “This system exists not for artificial domination of one division over another. When the aim of life, i.e., realization of the Absolute Truth, is missed by too much attachment for sense gratification, this institution is utilized by selfish men to pose an artificial predominance over the weaker section. In the Kali-yuga, or the age of quarrel, this artificial predominance is already current, but the saner section of the people knows it well that the divisions of castes and orders of life are meant for smooth social intercourse and high-thinking self-realization and not for any other purpose.”
A Global revolution since mid 15th century
Five hundred years ago Lord Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who appeared in Navadwip, West Bengal (1486-1534), preached the dharma of Kali-yuga, namely chanting of the holy names of God. Widely distributing this message, he induced all to take shelter of God, irrespective of caste and religious barriers. Some of his closest associates were not even Hindus, yet by their unflinching faith in chanting the Holy Names of God, they proved to be more glorious than the ritualistic priests and brahmanas. One of Lord Chaitanya’s closest associate was Haridas Thakur who had taken birth in a Muslim family and was a reject according to the conventional Hindu caste system. However Lord Chaitanya recognized him as the greatest devotee of Lord Krishna of that time (16th century).
Following this tradition, Srila Prabhupada also preached this message of Krishna consciousness in the Western countries. Starting from New York in 1966, he created a revolution by initiating Americans, Europeans and Africans as Vaishnava brahmanas and sannyasis. For all the criticism by the orthodox Hindus, it is these apparently ‘low born’ who have contributed to spreading the Vedic culture all over the world. Ironically the narrow minded champions of Hindu dharma on the other hand have done little to glorify the supreme Lord and His Holy Names. Of course Srila Prabhupada clarified that this awarding of brahmana and sannyasa to individuals should not be done indiscriminately but rather by careful examination and training in highest standards of purity and God centered principles. Today many other ‘Hindu’ societies like Art of Living, Chinmaya mission, besides many others are demonstrating this principle through their world wide preaching of the real Vedic/Indian spirituality.
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