The corruption of the original purpose of the caste system has led to a lot of strife in India.
Stephen Knapp(Sri Nandanandana Dasa) grew up in a Christian family, during which time he seriously studied the Bible to understand its teachings. In his late teenage years, however, he began to search through other religions and philosophies from around the world and started to find the answers for which he was looking. He also studied a variety of occult sciences, ancient mythology, mysticism, yoga, and the spiritual teachings of the East. He continued his study of Vedic knowledge and spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Casteism in India has gotten a lot of criticism, and rightly so. The way casteism is at present should not even exist. How we find it today is now nothing more than a misrepresentation and misinterpretation of a legitimate and progressive Vedic system known as varnashrama. However, we need to know the difference between the two, then get rid of present-day casteism to again utilize the genuine and liberal form of social organization, known as varnashrama.
What Casteism is Today
The casteism that we find today is the materialistic form of designation that has become a way of oppressing the lower social orders of people. It says that if you are born in a family of a certain classification, then you are of the same class with little possibility of changing. In casteism, birth is now the major factor in determining one’s social standing. It dictates that your social order, occupational potential and characteristics are the same as your parents, which is a label that may have been placed on a family hundreds of years ago.
In the Vedic system, there were four basic classifications. There were the Brahmanas (priests and intellectuals, those who practiced and preserved the Vedic rituals and processes of spiritual realization), the Kshatriyas (warriors, military, government administrators), Vaishyas (the merchants, bankers, farmers, etc.), and the Shudras (common laborers, musicians, dancers, etc.). Casteism says that if you are born of a Brahmana family, then you are a Brahmana, no matter whether you truly exhibit the genuine characteristics of a Brahmana or not. And if you are also born in a Kshatriya family, or a Vaishya or Shudra family, then that is what you must be. It is as if when one is born in a doctor’s family, the child is also considered a doctor. However, anyone knows that to become a doctor requires the proper training and perception to see if the child will be a qualified doctor or not. Just being born in the family of a doctor does not mean that the children will also be doctors, although this may help. But they surely are not doctors merely by birth. Training and intelligence must be there. And before training, there also must be the proclivity, tendency, and attraction to even be a doctor. Without that, no amount of training will be of much use because the student will still not want to be, or qualify to be a doctor. Therefore, this form of modern day casteism is useless.
This form of materialistic casteism was practiced five hundred years ago, during the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who was considered an incarnation of the Supreme Being. However, Sri Caitanya paid no mind to these social customs. He saw them as a way that the hereditary Brahmanas were merely protecting their own position and privileges and not spreading spiritual well-being, which is their duty. Even during that time the Brahmanas had the idea that if they ate with or touched anyone outside the Brahmana caste, they would risk losing their own social rank. Sri Caitanya, however, ignored such restrictions and readily accepted invitations to eat with the sincere devotees of the Lord, or also embrace them, even if they were of the lowest social position. To Sri Caitanya, it was their devotion that gave them whatever qualification they needed. In this way, He dismissed the materialistic method of casteism. By this action He also showed that it was not birth that was important, but one’s consciousness, intentions, and spiritual awareness that was the prominent factor, which superseded the rank of one’s body or family. It is this which actually determines one’s personality, character, and abilities, not merely one’s birth. This is actually how we should see people and treat them equally as spiritual beings inside material bodies.
Original Vedic system of Varnashrama
The original Vedic system called varnashrama was legitimate and virtuous. It was meant for the progressive organization of society. Varnashrama is the Vedic system that divides society into four natural groups depending on individual characteristics and dispositions. Everyone has certain tendencies by their own natural inclinations and choice. These inclinations are also seen in one’s occupational preferences. These activities are divided into four basic divisions called varnas. Varna literally means color, relating to the colour or disposition of one’s consciousness, and, thus, one’s likelihood of preferring or showing various tendencies for a particular set of occupations. This would be determined not by one’s birth, but by one’s proclivities as observed by the teachers in the school that the student was attending.
For example, there are those who prefer to offer service to society through physical labor or working for others, or through various forms of expressions like dance and music (called Shudras); those who serve through agriculture, trade, commerce, business, and banking or administrative work (Vaishyas); those who have the talents of leaders, government administration, police or military, and the protection of society (Kshatriyas); and those who are by nature intellectuals, contemplative, and inspired by acquiring spiritual and philosophical knowledge, and motivated to work in this way for the rest of society (the Brahmanas). It was never a factor of whether a person had a certain ancestry or birth that determined which class was most appropriate for him or her, although being born in a particular family or tribe would give a natural likelihood to continue in the same line of activity.
Ashramas divided society for spiritual reasons. These were Brahmacharya (students), Grihasthas (householders), Vanaprasthas (the retired stage, at which time a person begins to give up materialistic pursuits and focus on spiritual goals), and Sannyasa (those who were renounced from all materialistic affairs, usually toward the end of their lives, and completely dedicated to spiritual activities). This provided a general pattern for one’s life in which people could work out their desires and develop spiritually at the same time.
In this way, the system of varnashrama came into existence according to the natural tendencies of people, and to direct them so that everyone could work together according to the needs of society. The ashramas divided an individual’s life so that a person could fulfill all of one’s basic desires as well as accomplish the spiritual goals of life. Only according to one’s qualities, tendencies, and traits, usually as one grew up in school, was it determined which varna was best for that person. And then he would be trained accordingly to do the most suited work that fit his qualities, much like the way counselors work with students in schools today. Thus, he or she would have a suitable occupation which he would enjoy, and make a respectable contribution to society.
Its real purpose was that the system of varnashrama was not to label or restrict someone. It was actually part of the means for self-discovery and development. It was to assist a person to find their place in life where he or she would be most comfortable in terms of functionality and occupation. It was to allow the means for everyone to work according to their own nature, which helps bring happiness to the individual and society. Thus, a person could study what was most suited for him or her rather than pursue a type of work that was not really in line with that person’s character, and in which he would soon be dissatisfied. So, it would help guide one to more efficiently complete one’s life and reach fulfillment. In this way, the varnashrama system is based on the natural divisions within society and is not meant to establish forced distinctions or restrictions.
However, beyond this it was meant to help raise the consciousness of humanity from materialism to a higher state of devotional regard for God in spiritual life. It would help one in managing the physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual energy for improving one’s health, mental and physical development, and productivity, along with spiritual awareness. Thus, it was meant for helping society to become spiritually harmonized and make the everyday tasks into a means of spiritual progress and growth.
To explain further, in Bhagavad-gita (4.13) Lord Krishna says,
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are distinguished by their qualities of work in accordance with the modes of nature.” (Bg.18.41)
Herein we can see that there is no mention of birth as a determining factor for one’s varna or classification. They are ascertained by their qualities of work. Furthermore,
“By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. . . By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, man can, in the performance of his own duty [or occupation], attain perfection.” (Bg.18.45-6)
Herein we can understand that these divisions are created by the Lord so that everyone can be rightly situated in the work and activities that are most suitable for each person, and in which they can feel most comfortable. Whatever occupational tendency a person may have is determined by the modes of material nature one has acquired, or in which he or she associates. Beyond this, these classifications are to organize society in a way that can help in the systematic development of the spiritual consciousness of all mankind.
In the Vishnu Purana (3.8.9) Lord Parasharama also says,
“The Supreme Lord Vishnu is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varna and ashrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Lord.”
So, by engaging in this varnashrama system the Supreme Lord can be satisfied with one’s occupation. It is a way of making one’s work and activities into devotional service to the Lord. However, it may be pointed out that a person in pure spiritual consciousness is above all such designations, even though for his service to God he may act in any one of these divisions at any given time. Devotional service to the Lord is never restricted by any classification of actions. Any activity becomes completely spiritual when it is an expression of one’s devotion or love of God.
Now we can understand how the Vedic arrangement of varnashrama provides the means for each person in each varna to be able to make spiritual advancement by offering one’s activities to the Lord. It is the way a person can directly engage in bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Supreme. Thus, in whatever position one is in, all of one’s duties can become an offering of love to God, which becomes the highest level of meditation, intention, or activity.
If everyone engages their talents and tendencies in his or her particular occupation with the idea that it is a service to God, then that occupation becomes the means for one’s worship and thoughts or meditation on the Supreme. If one thinks like this always, then, by the grace of the Lord, he will be delivered from material existence. This is the highest perfection of life. In whatever occupation people may be engaged, if they serve the Supreme Lord, they will achieve this highest level of success. It is by this means that the spiritual form of varnashrama can satisfy the Lord, and everyone makes spiritual advancement. As society progresses in this way, all working together for the satisfaction of the Lord, they forget who is in what position, or that there seems to be a difference, because spiritually they are all transcendental. Thus, everyone rises above the material platform by dint of their spiritual work in devotional service. Then the harmonious and advanced nature of the mode of goodness, as found in the age of Satya-yuga, can be invoked even in this dark age of Kali-yuga.
The system of varnashrama exists naturally everywhere because people will always have the tendencies for what they want to do, or have particular qualities for occupational skills. And these can invariably be divided into the four above-mentioned groups. This is natural, and, as we have seen the evidence here, it has been formed by the Supreme Creator. Therefore, it will always be in existence in some shape or form.
Degeneration of the system
This system, however, was never meant to divide people according to materialistic classifications. It was meant to unite people in a cooperative society in the service of God. In Vedic times, even the Shudras had the same rights as those of the other varnas, and their dignity was preserved without discrimination. In this way, everyone would be satisfied materially and work in a way for the Lord’s pleasure. The Vedic culture, ultimately, was for the well-being and spiritual advancement of the whole society. Forced designation or untouchability was never a part of the Vedic process. The materialistic system of the present-day casteism has deteriorated into a means of dividing society according to mere parentage to control certain groups, while protecting or expanding the worldly happiness of the privileged. Thus, additional groups have been manufactured to accommodate this, such as those who are described as outcastes or “untouchables”. Actually, there is no word as “untouchable” in any of the Vedic scriptures. This is merely a modern invention.
Logically speaking, if a person is not performing any unhygienic activities, then why should he be called a Dalit, or an untouchable, simply because of the family in which he was born? Even after performing something dirty, one need only wash oneself properly to be clean again. Likewise, to raise one’s consciousness to a higher awareness or frequency of activity, one need only participate in the Vedic methods of spiritual advancement, which must be done regardless of one’s rank or varna, whether Shudra or Brahmana.
On the other hand, I have seen Brahmanas in India who ate eggs, ate meat, and drank alcohol, all considered to be dirty or contaminating things. How does one clean oneself from that if he is considered a clean and pure Brahmana? It means that such a person is hardly a Brahmana at all, even if he is born in a Brahmana family. So classification is to be judged by qualities, habits, and the content of one’s character, not by mere title and birth.
So, as it stands today, the present form of casteism is a great curse on Hinduism. It attacks the core of its spiritual philosophy, and has resulted in large numbers of Hindus converting to other religions in an attempt to become free of it. Therefore, it needs to be replaced by the genuine system of varnashrama, or simply thrown out completely. However, there are groups or spiritual institutions of Vedic followers who have set the proper example and are open to everyone, and do not divide people or consider them according to their birth. The members all view each other as equals working together for spiritual cooperation and advancement.
In the Bhagavad-gita (18.42), Lord Krishna explains that the natural qualities of the Brahmanas are peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, and knowledge. The Mahabharata (1) also explains that a Brahmana must be perfectly religious. He must be truthful and able to control his senses. He must execute severe austerities and be detached, humble, and tolerant. He must not envy anyone, and must be expert in performing religious sacrifices and giving whatever he has in charity. He must be fixed in devotional service and expert in Vedic knowledge. These are the twelve qualifications for a Brahmana. The Mahabharata (Vana Parva, Chapter 180) also goes on with a quote from Yudhisthira, that a Brahmana possesses truthfulness, charity, forgiveness, sobriety, gentleness, austerity, and a lack of hatred.
So the point is that, unfortunately, in today’s form of casteism, when we see Brahmanas who are proud of their position, or who desire material benefit, or look condescendingly at those of lower castes, they are not really elevated but are materialistic. This means that they have lost the true qualities of Brahmanas. They actually help promote contempt throughout casteism. Thus, for those that act this way, and not all of them do, only by birth are they called Brahmanas, but the necessary qualifications are not found in them. In fact, the very people that may pride themselves for their high social classifications, and are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of society (the Brahmanas), only indicate their lack of qualifications by focusing on the temporary material designations when they are supposed to be above such things.
A final point in this regard comes from Suta Gosvami who says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.8) that such occupational duties a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This means that the modern materialistic form of casteism that we find today is no longer connected with the Vedic system of varnashrama. It misses the point of helping everyone make spiritual advancement by focusing on our spiritual identity of being the soul within the body, or to please the Supreme Lord. Thus, the caste system has become simply a materialistic, useless, and destructive system.
The earliest references to the Varna
The earliest reference to the varnas is found in the Purusha Sukta verses of the Rig-veda (Book Ten, Hymn 90). There are those who refer to these verses as justification for the modern caste system. But let us take a closer look at them.
In these verses, the great sages worship the Purusha, or the Supreme Soul, Lord of immortality, and from whom the universe is created. In worshiping the Purusha, whose form is completely spiritual and transcendental, the sages can see how all other aspects of the creation are also manifest. Within Him are all other Deities and demigods and rishis. From this ritual, all other Richas and Sama hymns are born from the Purusha, and from Him come all other creatures, and animals, and so on. Then this hymn explains that from the Purusha’s mouth, arms, thighs, and feet come the human beings. The Brahmana was His mouth, the Rajas or Kshatriyas were both of His arms, His thighs became the Vaishyas, and from His feet the Shudras were produced.
After that it is described how the Moon was gendered from his mind [connecting its affects with mental activities], and the sun came from His eye [providing vision]. Indra and Agni also came from His mouth and Vayu [the wind god] came from His breath. From His navel came mid-air, sky from His head, Earth from His feet, and regions from His ear.
Thus, we find that a variety of items are identified with parts of His body. However, this does not mean that there is a classificational difference between what is lower and what is higher. It mostly distinguishes the different functions of each entity in its association with the various parts of the Purusha. The Purusha’s or Lord’s body is completely spiritual. For those that do not understand this point, it means that there is no difference between His head, hand, thighs, feet, mind, breath, eye, ear, and so on. They are made of the same spiritual qualities, and one aspect can perform the same function as any other aspect. They are all pure consciousness. Thus, it does not mean that the Brahmanas are necessarily a higher classification than the Vaishyas or Shudras, but that they naturally have different functions. However, the point is that every living being is considered a part of the Lord’s body. As verse three of the Purusha Sukta explains, all creatures are one-fourth of Him. In other words, they all have a place, they all belong, and they all have a duty to perform, and should be respected as such. It means that they all have a purpose, in that all parts of the body must work together. In the same way, the social body of society must all work together in order for it to function properly and harmoniously. Being parts of the spiritual body of the Purusha, all living beings are also ultimately completely spiritual in essence. That essence is what we must understand, for that essence is of the same essential spiritual quality as the Lord. That is what connects us all together and with God.
Another aspect of this is that in the Second verse of the Purusha Sukta Prayers, it explains that the Purusha expands with food. This food is indicative of the worship, the sacrificial offerings or meditative devotions of mankind. Thus, for society to reach its zenith of spiritual potential, they must all cooperate in working together in devotion to God. This means that society, being different parts of the body of God, must all act while having God as the center, just as our own body must work to serve the central part of it, which is the stomach. If the feet, legs, arms, and head do not cooperate to feed the stomach, then the whole body, including all its parts, get weak and dysfunctional, and then dies. It does not matter which part may be considered the most important, if they do not all work to make sure the stomach is fed, then they all get weak and die. In the same way, the different parts of the body of society must all work together or it becomes weak and begins to die out.
So, as explained in this prayer, the body of the Purusha expands and grows strong when all of its parts, namely mankind, work for the common cause, which is to cooperate together, seeing each person as part of the body of God, and act in devotion to the Lord. That is the ultimate goal, as emphasized in the Vedic tradition. In other words, you cannot please God if, by perceiving our differences, we do not act harmoniously together with God as the center. These are but a few of the lessons we can get from the Purusha Sukta Prayers in the Rig-veda. Now we must act on them and recognize each other in the proper perspective.