Casteism has seeped into Indic culture and knowing its dangers, we should look to take the necessary steps to dismantle it.
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.
How the present casteism developed
In the Vedic times it was perfectly all right for a person to change their classification or varna by switching their profession. It provided that kind of flexibility. Thus, on occasion, the upper class Brahmanas might become warriors or kings, while the lower class Shudras could also become scholars or saints. However, only later did the divisions of the four varnas become less flexible, thus causing one’s birth to be one’s class.
Over time the fourfold varna system became divided into many hundreds and thousands of other varnas, castes or jatis. Most of such jatis are people of a particular geographical or linguistic region. Thus, each member within a varna would often act accordingly and marry amongst others within that varna. However, Kshatriyas were often excluded from such nuances.
So how did the form of casteism that we find today develop? Traditionally, it is related in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.18.32-50):
Once upon a time [about 5000 years ago] Maharaja Pariksit, while engaged in hunting in the forest with bow and arrows, became extremely fatigued, hungry and thirsty while following the stags. While searching for a reservoir of water, he entered the hermitage of the well-known Shamika Rishi and saw the sage sitting silently with eyes closed. The muni’s sense organs, breath, mind and intelligence were all restrained from material activities, and he was situated in a trance apart from the three [wakefulness, dream, and unconsciousness], having achieved a transcendental position qualitatively equal with the Supreme Absolute.
The sage, in meditation, was covered by the skin of a stag, and long, compressed hair was scattered all over him. The King, whose palate was dry from thirst, asked him for water. The King, not received by any formal welcome by means of being offered a seat, place, water and sweet addresses, considered himself neglected, and so thinking in this way, he became angry. The King’s anger and envy, directed toward the Brahmana sage, were unprecedented, being that circumstances had made him hungry and thirsty.
While leaving, the King, being so insulted, picked up a lifeless snake with his bow and angrily placed it on the shoulder of the sage. Then he returned to his palace. Upon returning, he began to contemplate and argue within himself whether the sage had actually been in meditation, with senses concentrated and eyes closed, or whether he had just been feigning trance just to avoid receiving a lower Kshatriya [meaning someone lower in varna or caste].
The sage had a son, Shringi, who was very powerful, being a Brahmana’s son. While he was playing with inexperienced boys, he heard of his father’s distress, which was caused by the King. Then and there the boy spoke as follows: ‘
O just look at the sins of the rulers who, like crows and watchdogs at the door, perpetrate sins against their masters, contrary to the principles governing servants. The descendants of the kingly orders are definitely designated as watchdogs, and they must keep themselves at the door. On what grounds can dogs enter the house and claim to dine with the master on the same plate? After the departure of Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead and supreme ruler of everyone, these upstarts have flourished, our protector being gone. Therefore, I myself shall take up this matter and punish them. Just witness my power.’
The son of the rishi, his eyes red-hot with anger, touched the water of the river Kaushika while speaking to his playmates and discharged the following thunderbolt of words and cursed the King:
‘On the seventh day from today a snake-bird will bite the most wretched one of that dynasty [Maharaja Pariksit] because of his having broken the laws of etiquette by insulting my father.’
Thereafter, when the boy returned to the hermitage, he saw a snake on his father’s shoulder, and out of his grief he cried very loudly. The rishi, born in the family of Angira Muni, gradually opened his eyes hearing his son crying, and saw the dead snake around his neck. He threw the dead snake away [thinking nothing of it] and asked his son why he was crying, whether anyone had done him any harm. On hearing this, the son explained to him what had happened.
The father heard from his son that the King had been cursed, although he should never have been condemned, for he was the best amongst all human beings. The rishi did not congratulate his son, but, on the contrary, began to repent, saying:
‘Alas! What a great sinful act was performed by my son. He has awarded heavy punishment for an insignificant offense. O my boy, your intelligence is immature, and therefore you have no knowledge that the king, who is the best amongst human beings, is as good as the Personality of Godhead. He is never to be placed on an equal footing with common men. The citizens of the state live in prosperity, being protected by his unsurpassable prowess.
“My dear boy, the Lord, who carries the wheel of a chariot, is represented by the monarchical regime, and when this regime is abolished the whole world becomes filled with thieves, who then at once vanquish the unprotected subjects like scattered lambs. Due to the termination of the monarchical regimes, and the plundering of the people’s wealth by rogues and thieves, there will be great social disruptions. People will be killed and injured, and animals and women will be stolen. And for all these sins, we [the Brahmana class] shall be responsible.
“At that time the people in general will fall systematically from the path of a progressive civilization [the Vedic culture] in respect to the qualitative engagements of the castes and the orders of society and the Vedic instructions. Thus, they will be more attracted to economic development for sense gratification, and as a result there will be an unwanted population on the level of dogs and monkeys.”
This was an arrangement by the Lord, or providence if you will, so that Maharaja Pariksit would depart from home and prepare to leave his body. However, Shringi, the powerful yet immature Brahmana boy, came under the lower influences of Kali-yuga, such as pride and envy, which a Brahmana is never meant to feel. It was through this incident that the degrading age of Kali-yuga was waiting for to spoil the Vedic cultural heritage of the four orders or varnas of life. It was this incident which was the first time, through an unqualified Brahmana boy, that the higher castes felt dislike or hatred for the lower castes. Thus, the first victim of Brahminical injustice was Maharaja Pariksit.
By the influence of Kali-yuga, the son of a Brahmana, under the influence of his young playmates, became proud of the power he had and wrongly compared a qualified king to crows and watchdogs. Thus, the downfall of the Brahminical powers started as the Brahmanas began to give more importance to birthright than to culture. In this way, the protection that was provided by the King against the onslaught of Kali-yuga became slackened, and, thereafter, all of the other castes or varnas, all the people in general, began to neglect their duties and lose qualifications. Thus, the Vedic culture started to decline. And because of this, people of the lower varnas also began to be envious of the higher varnas, and then disunity, disrespect, and friction slowly increased through the years amongst the castes.
The boy’s father realized all this and explained that now, because of the stupid and sinful act of his son, all of society would begin to move in a behavior contrary to the spiritually progressive way of life.
In this way, through time, society began to deviate from the Vedic standards. The perverted nature of the modern caste system started to creep into the genuine Vedic system of varnashrama, even from the time of Jamadagni and Parashurama many hundreds of years ago. As the Brahmanas became more self-interested, a struggle began between them and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmanas made birth in a Brahmana’s family as the qualification for being one. Thus, one’s varna was determined by birth, which stifled people in the lower varnas. The varna system, which was absent from the Vedic literature, was included and explained only in the Dharmasastras and smriti literature, such as the Manu-samhita.
Thus, the varnashrama system degenerated in India, and all the classes gradually began to neglect their duties. Testing the abilities, tendencies, and talents of the children to determine their natural interests and character disappeared. Birth became the major factor in determining varna or caste. The Brahmanas in particular became self-centered and protective of their superiority, forgetting their duties and losing their qualities. Sacrifice, religious study, and austerity gradually became absent in the traits of many of the Brahmanas. The people in the other varnas also lost their good characteristics. Chivalry, leadership, and forbearance were no longer to be found to such a high degree in the Kshatriya spirit. As leaders, they no longer kept the welfare of the people in focus. Vaishyas lost their charity and honesty in business and became greedy and avaricious. The laborer class, the Shudras, no longer wanted to be servants, but desired that others serve them. They wanted to have position and control, without knowing what is best to do with it, and not being qualified to guide or lead people properly, and, thus, misdirecting the world. In this way, society has become disheveled and out of balance and harmony, and does not follow in accord with Dharma.
Some of the Kshatriyas rebelled and formed or joined Buddhism, which did without all varnas or castes. The Vaishyas also used Jainism. Together, Buddhism and Jainism tried to bring the end of Brahmanism. The result was actually a deterioration of the Vedic culture in general.
As society in India started to decay after distancing itself from the true Vedic system, and because of disunity and friction, it weakened to the point wherein it allowed the low-born or mleccha kings from outside India to come in and conquer and control it. This brought even further decline to the Vedic culture. Later, it was during the British reign in which the modern caste system became more widely practiced and ingrained in Hinduism. By now the caste system was completely different and separate from the Vedic system of Varnashrama. The British encouraged the practice of casteism to increase the divisions between people, thus making it easier for the British to rule over them. A disunited society will hardly have the force, cooperation, or strength to defend itself from intruders. So the British fueled casteism and kept it more ingrained in society for their own interests. In this way, it was many years before the British could be removed. In fact, the British justified their presence with promises of helping keep the peace between the growing divisions in the Indian social structure. In any case, well after the British left, the divisions and the focus on ethnic classifications that had increased during their reign have remained.
So, the British used the untouchable classes as a means for their own political purpose, and an instrument in their divide and rule policy for dividing the Hindu majority. This amplified the divisions of the caste system and made them more solid in the people’s identification with the castes. This had negative and regressive affects on the Indian society that have not gone away. However, in 1936, the Indian government made it even worse by outlining the Scheduled Castes among the untouchables and labeled a list of such classifications. The various castes would be regarded with separate status for assembly and seats of parliament, along with special benefits for education and employment. This became adopted into the Indian Constitution which has made it a practice that has endured to date, with special laws making the labeling of untouchability an offense. The Untouchability Act of 1955 provides the list of penalties for any such offense. Now, there are numerous and separate divisions amongst the Scheduled Castes to the point where it will never cease to exist, at least in a general way, especially in the villages. The cities are becoming somewhat more homogenized due to necessity of occupational fulfillment and education as opposed to merely growing out of such traditions.
As far as “untouchablitiy” goes, it was never mentioned in any Vedic literature. This was never a part of the Vedic system, but merely a more modern invention. There is no justification for it. The earliest mention of it seems to be in the Chinese traveler Fa Hsien’s account of his journey in the 4th century CE. It also seems that this became a name for those who were not amongst the basic four varnas, and were thus without a caste or varna. They were called Panchama in some regions, which merely means the fifth varna. Later, in 1933, Gandhi gave them the name of Harijan, or “people of God”, which was accepted by many members of the Panchama class. The 1931 census used the term of “Scheduled Castes” as the proper name for identifying the Panchama class. In 1970, the term “Dalit” came to be used, which is a Marathi word based in Sanskrit which means “broken or ground down,” usually meaning one who is oppressed. This term has slowly gained usage across India.
Though Indian society has always been progressive to varying degrees, this idea of assigning a varna, caste or class of activity to someone merely by one’s birth parents has been the major failure of individual and social development in modern Hindu society.
The dangers of casteism as we find it today
As casteism continues, it furthers the fragmentation of Indian society. In fact, you could say that it has practically killed Vedic society and has brought about the numerous divisions and social quarrels that we now find in India. Even amongst the Hindus alone, there has been fighting along caste, ethnic, and sectarian lines for hundreds of years. This is one of the main reasons why the country has been weakened to such a degree that they could not properly defend themselves in a unified way from the genocide under the Muslim invasions, and now modern fundamentalism. This sort of fragmentation also forced Indians to endure two centuries of British persecutions.
Casteism today does not help society advance spiritually. In fact, it helps promote emphasis on bodily and social distinctions, contempt, and disapproval among the people of different classes and ethnic groups. For this reason, we still see today that when the Shudras and Dalits feel like they are disliked by fellow Hindus, they become Muslims, Christians, or Buddhists in the attempt to find greater acceptance and avoid class differences. The result of this has been social disharmony. Otherwise, there would have been no need for parts of India to be divided to create Bangladesh and Pakistan, which have since become nothing more than mortal enemies of India. Have any lessons been learned? Apparently not. Ethnic intolerance is on the rise in many parts of India.
Even today you can find such divisions that a Brahmana from one state does not trust a Brahmana from a different part of India. For example, the Nambudris of Kerala look down on any other Brahmanas. Even among other groups, a Jat boy from the Punjab will not marry a Jat girl from Uttar Pradesh. And a Patel from Kutch will look at a Patel from Ahmedabad as foreign. Thus, the problem of caste and ethnicity is making a society that fights like cats and dogs. In reality, casteism is killing Indian culture.
What we can do to eliminate the present caste system
Social revolutionaries who wanted to change the modern caste system have been around for a long time. Gandhi was a notable figure in this. However, before him was Ramanujacharya. He crusaded against the concept of untouchability. In Melkote, Karanataka, he threw open the doors to the temple and let everyone in, regardless of classification. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu also ignored the restrictions that were established by the caste system. He associated and ate with anyone who was a sincere devotee of the Lord, considering one’s intention and consciousness as being more important than the mere social classification of one’s body.
So what can be done to change this form of casteism? We can go back to the Vedic system of studying the natural tendencies of the child in its early stage of education. Then observe the child’s association, activities and intellectual interests to begin to determine his or her real varna or direction in occupation. Then, as in any western country, as the child grows, begin testing, counseling and steering it in the proper course of education to determine if the right category has been given. Then allow that person to develop him or herself to the fullest possibility without restrictions of some forced caste placed on the person. It does not even have to be called varnashrama. But the process can merely direct a person according to his or her qualities and characteristics to find more fulfillment and potential in life, and, thus, more happiness. This is only the basics of what varnashrama was and is meant to do. Other things that can be done that can help do away with the modern form of casteism include the following:
1. Enforcing the existing laws - There have been laws passed against the practice of untouchability and discrimination toward those considered to be of lower caste, some of which have already been enacted. India’s Constitution has a specific Article forbidding untouchability (Article 17), along with Article 25(2b) to throw open Hindu religious institutions to all sections of Hindus, and Article 15 (4) to permit the state to make special provisions for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. However, this has only made the caste system more ingrained in society, making it more difficult to fix or do away with. It also has a host of other Articles in Part III to ensure Right to Equality. After all, India is a democracy with freedom for anyone regardless of race, religion or sex. And under a democracy, everyone should follow the same set of laws--a uniform code for all Indians. However, these laws need to be monitored in a way to make sure that they are implemented to see to it that this caste prejudice is not only outlawed, but stopped. After all, India still receives much criticism for this from the global community.
Is this possible? Yes, it is. Nepal, on August 16, 2001, recently made the announcement that they would put such laws into practice against the discrimination of lower-caste Hindus and the centuries-old idea that certain people are untouchable, which would become punishable by a severe sentence.
2. Freedom to enter all Hindu temples - All people, no matter whether they are Dalits, other low-caste Hindus, or people like Westerners who have converted to Hinduism, should have the means and freedom which enable them to enter all Hindu temples and participate in the Vedic process of spiritual development. This again is merely a practice that expands and protects the rights of those who are already privileged, without showing the concern for others. It is another example of how the upper-castes suppress those of lower status. It is another example of how it is causing the disintegration of the noble standards that were once found in the traditional Vedic culture.
The point is that if everyone can equally participate in the worship and traditions that you find in the Vedic temples, which is indeed possible in most temples in India, it helps preserve, protect, and promote Sanatana-dharma, the Vedic traditions. And everyone has a right to follow and participate. This is what must be upheld. Then people will not feel inclined to convert to another religion, and will remain within their own customs. Otherwise, if such things as restrictions to enter temples continue, it only helps provide a prescription for a slow extinction of the Vedic culture.
3. Stop all bonded labour - Furthermore, the practice of bonded labor should be not only outlawed, but with stiff fines and penalties for those who still utilize it. Bonded labour is the practice of using poor villagers for cheap labor, often giving them low wages and shambles for dwellings. Then giving them loans with interest that are supposed to be paid off in exchange for labor. If the loans are not paid off, then the person’s children must also work for years in order to try to pay off the loans of their fathers or grandfathers. This can go on for generations. It is essentially financial slavery. You see bonded labor in places like textile shops, large farms, and in the carpet and silk factories, which are known to be the prominent places that use child labour. It is not only time for the government to get involved to make sure that this practice comes to an end once and for all, and see to it that all financial obligations are nullified, but make sure that all who continue this practice are penalized severely enough. It is another example of how the rich and privileged suppress and control the lower classes.
In the real system of varnashrama, everyone’s position can be respected since everyone is seen as servants of the Lord in whatever capacity they serve. The people are appreciated for what they do. Workers and laborers were never to be treated harshly, or given hellish conditions in which to live or work. They were to be treated kindly and fairly.
4. Protect all village children - Another thing that must be stopped in this connection is the practice of bribing or purchasing tribal or poor village girls with the promise of good jobs and then taking them to places like Mumbai where they are sold and forced into prostitution. Many of the girls in Mumbai are not there by choice, but because they were kidnapped and then beaten, starved, or tortured into submission. This goes on not only for the profit, but because of the corruption in the local governments and police departments that allow it to continue. There is no reason why the government and police cannot stop this if they really wanted. There are laws against this but no one implements them. They could easily close the houses of prostitution overnight and free these girls, except for the bribes and the corruption that allows the Indian mafia to take advantage of these young girls.
This ruins the lives of many young girls and their families, helps spread HIV-AIDS throughout India, and is another point for which India receives much criticism, while the international community watches. Therefore, heavy punishment should be administered to anyone for such kidnapping or bribery, and the madams who run the houses of prostitution should be sent to long terms of prison. All politicians or police commissioners who do not carry out the laws to stop this, or who accept bribes to look the other way, should also be relieved of their position or jailed for long periods of time. This would have immediate effects.
5. Stop the dowry system - The concept of dowry should also be abolished, not merely by the laws that have been established, but by enforcement with stiff fines when it is found to have taken place. Dowry was originally a way of helping the newly married couple get off to a good start financially, and to help protect the bride if something should happen to the husband. Now it has become a perverted system in which it is the bride’s parents who must fork over a large dowry to the agreement of the groom and his family. If the dowry is not large enough, there is either no marriage, or the bride is treated terribly later on. This system helps divide the classes and puts the financial burden on the bride’s family to have their daughter get married. It is especially difficult when the bride’s family is poor, or has a number of daughters that need to get married. It also turns the marriage into a business arrangement between families rather than a sacred institution between husband and wife. It is also a big factor in the abuse of women and bride burnings in India. This system is another reason for the increased rate of infanticide and abortions when it is discovered that a woman is pregnant with a girl. The present-day system of dowry is now mostly a materialistic and shameful arrangement.
6. Promote genuine spiritual knowledge - Ultimately, as with all social problems, the most important action to take in order to change society is to provide the means for continued spiritual development. That is why it is important that spiritual organizations work to fulfill the above-mentioned points, and also provide the means for the upliftment of people’s consciousness through spiritual education and practice, so that people can seriously change their view of their fellow human beings. That is why temples need to be open to everyone. We all need to realize our transcendental identities, and that we are all spiritual beings, not the temporary bodies in which we reside. As spiritual beings, we are all the same. On that level, there needs to be no special treatment of one over another. Materially, there may be so many differences, but these are all temporary and only within the material vision. By recognizing this, it can help us get back to practicing the real and genuine version of casteism, which is the Vedic system of varnashrama.
My own spiritual master put it bluntly, he said that if all you see is who is a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra, then your vision is no better than that of a dog. A dog also recognizes distinctions, such who is its friend, enemy, or source of food. Our vision should be much higher than that if we are to consider ourselves human beings.
The above mentioned points, which are not many, may not completely cure this problem of caste suppression and bonded and child labour, but it could certainly take things in the right direction and begin to change how things in the social arrangement of India continue.
Many organizations have shown and teach disregard for the caste system and its materialistic designations. Spiritual organizations such as Iskcon, the Swami Narayana organization, the Swadhyaya group, the RSS, VHP, and others, have taken the path of showing the equality amongst all people without caste distinctions. They treat everyone equally while allowing individuals to pursue their own particular occupational tendencies without the stigma of being categorized into any certain social group. This is one way in which society can again be unified, especially in regard to Hindu society and India in general.
It is also of utmost importance to use every occasion to help change the social disparities into a common devotional unity. We can especially see such unity at spiritual festivals, like the Kumbha Mela of January, 2001. At this spiritual event, wherein 71 million people attended over a seven week period, everyone bathed in the rivers side by side, both rich and poor, educated and not, villagers and city dwellers alike. They all honoured the sages and saints together, or sat in rows together doing puja or listening to the talks, or taking food given at the camps. Social sectarianism had no place in it. So Hindu unity is possible. Yet, we have to be ready to tear down the needless ethnic barriers and unnecessary classifications that get in the way.
We need to have more social gatherings that allow people to come together in a cooperative mood, then work or play together, and get to know each other better. We especially need to have more religious and spiritual functions, like Krishna Janmastami, Ramnavami, etc., that can bring everyone together to celebrate in a way in which we forget about our class distinctions or ethnic divisions. That way we can all be inspired and then leave the event while still holding that inspiration in our hearts. By experiencing such events and then carrying this attitude wherever we go, it will reinforce social harmony, equality and fraternity amongst all.
When you are spiritually charged, you want to share that inspiration and love with everyone. You don’t want anything to stifle your feeling of spiritual exhilaration. You want everyone else to feel it, too. That’s when you are really approaching true spiritual and God consciousness. And casteism can never be a part of that. It will only separate you from your fellow spiritual beings, and take down your spiritual consciousness and alienate you from God and from the God within everyone.
Another thing that can help in this matter is that swamis from various maths and temples should visit those who are neglected. They should put on religious functions in their communities. Or they can make sure that such people, along with everyone else, are invited to the temples for regular functions, and see to it that there is equality in matters of puja, worship, prasad and food distribution, and Vedic education and instructions. This is the common heritage of all Hindus, and, indeed, all of mankind. No one should be deprived from that, and it should be our duty to see to it that everyone has this opportunity. We must all do our part. Otherwise, if there are any who are not spiritually educated, then we are the ones to blame.
Ironing out these man-made difficulties by spreading spiritual education is, in effect, a way of invoking and showing our devotion to God. If God established varnashrama, as explained in the Bhagavad-gita, then we should work in ways to tear down the modern and materialistic caste system and reinstall the genuine Vedic process of the four main orders of society and the justifiable way to determine who is fit for which order. In this Vedic system, everyone is recognized as being spiritually equal, and everyone can work according to their occupational tendencies toward pleasing God without being subject to rigid social classification and stigma.
It is my personal vision of a casteless society, a society that focuses on unity through our spiritual identities, which are all equal and beyond bodily designations. It is my personal vision wherein everyone can work according to their own natural tendencies in a spirit of devotion to God without being categorized merely because of their birth. Like so many others, it is my vision of a society in which everyone can get along, cooperating and assisting each other in harmony toward our spiritual growth. However, we all have to work toward social reform. After all, what kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you prefer? A world divided, full of social disparities and ethnic divisions? Or a world united in cooperation and harmony, all working to encourage and help each other through life? The decision is obvious.
We should all be ambassadors to spread social harmony. We should all be ambassadors of the genuine Vedic standards and culture. We should all be revolutionaries to break the materialistic social barriers between us. We must be willing to work for the progress and upliftment of all, which then guarantees our own upliftment. We must be willing to change society, and that change starts within each and every one of us, and the way we view one another.