Casteism in India has gotten a lot of criticism, and rightly so. The way casteism is at present should not even exist. We should throw it out. Casteism as 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 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. 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), the Kshatriyas (warriors or Soldiers), Vaishyas (the merchants or businessman), 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. 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.
WHAT IS THE ORIGINAL VEDIC SYSTEM CALLED 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 color 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 likedance 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.
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.
The real purpose 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 meant for helping society to become spiritually harmonized and make the everyday tasks into a means of spiritual progress and growth. In this way, the varnashrama system is based on the natural divisions within society and is not meant to establish forced distinctions or restrictions.
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.” Then He continues, “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.
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. 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. 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.
Even Guru Nanak denounced the caste system and taught that everyone is equal, regardless of caste or gender. Guru Nanak said “Worthless is caste and worthless an exalted name, For all mankind there is but a single refuge.” (AG 83).
“Recognize the Lord’s Light (Spirit) within all, and do not consider social class or status; there are no classes or castes in the world hereafter.” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 349)
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. 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. Thus, additional groups have been manufactured to accommodate this, such as those who are described as outcastes or “untouchables”. 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The caste system has become simply a materialistic, useless, and destructive system. Casteism started developing in India at the begining of Kali Yuga after the End of Mahabharata war. However, 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. British used divide and rule policy for dividing the Hindu majority. 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 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. Therefore, it needs to be replaced by the genuine system of varnashrama, or simply thrown out completely.