Saturday, November 27, 2010



(Part III)
(For Part II see posting of 04 11 2009)


Dr. Seshachalam Dutta

Edited and partially modified by Shree Vinekar, M.D.

The institution of “caste” (more precisely “varNa”) is the most explosive subject of discussion for “Hindus”. Among the modern Hindu religious leaders, there had been profound ambiguity in expounding the caste system, often leading to defensive posture, especially when challenged by Western critics. I shall presently outline their dilemma in this article. The word “caste”, most people do
not realize is not indigenous to India, nor what it stands for. It is derived from the word “caste” in Portuguese. The medieval Portugal along with the rest of the Europe and the British Isles was practicing “serfdom” (a lesser form of slavery but discrimination of a large population indeed very much based on birth, to be considered a lower class, lower than the nobility and commoners) for several centuries, nearly two millennia, during this era.


Theological basis of Varna was presumably based on the Purusha Sukta of Rigveda . The “gods” sacrificed HiraNyagarbha in a Yajnya and the creation came forth from His body. (A nearly parallel version of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe). The Purusha is described as “infinite, formless, without any differentiated qualities, ananta, niraakara, nirguNa” yet, anthropomorphizing “HIM”, the mantra 13 says

Braahmano yasya mukhaasit
Baahoo raajanyah kritaah
Ooroo tadasya yad vaishyaah
Paadaabhyaam shoodro ajaayata

Meaning, as popularly translated in concrete literal terms: Brahmins came from his face, raajaas (kshatriyaas) from his arms, Vaishyaas (merchants including other entrepreneurs) from his thighs and finally the servant class, Shudras, from his feet.

This Vedic authority was accepted unchallenged in concrete terms by orthodox Hindus throughout history. Brahmins pursued intellectual enterprise, Kshatriyas warfare and they became rulers; whereas Vaishyas agriculture and trade, and the rest were a servant class. While some argue this was a flexible system moving from one “caste” to another, there is absolutely no evidence for that conjecture either from tradition or from history with only a few exceptions. However, there was harmonious relation in this division almost until modern times. Occasional challenge to the Brahmin supremacy came from the next highest caste, the warriors. A Vaishya on the other hand cared less for Brahminical scriptures and was perfectly happy with his profits from trade. Shudras accepted their position and gradually acquired agriculture, thus the bulk of Indians even at present are farmers. Earlier we have analyzed how the caste sectarianism evolved into political struggle undermining secular democracy that has been tearing apart the Hindu Society (see of 04-24-2009. This article is considered the Part I of this topic). Here in “Part II” we shall examine the scriptural authority for the classification.

More precise definition of caste system took place in Hindu society by Sutra period, perfecting sociological structure dictated by codified laws. Sutra period was the time when orthodox Hinduism faced Buddhist challenge (600 BCE to 300 CE). Ancient Hindus were ruled by the laws dictated in later years by Smrutis, the social and religious laws. These codes changed with times and, therefore, there arose in time many Smrutis, like Parashara Smruti, Yajnavalkya Smruti, Devala Smruti and Manu Smruti. Whereas Smruti governed the contemporary, religious, political and personal life, whenever there was a conflict between Smruti and Shruti, the latter embodied in Vedas and Vedangas, prevailed (akin to constitutional law or preamble to the constitution in modern times) which was considered superior to legislative action, giving flexibility in application of the laws. Thus many practices in Parashara Smruti became outdated and abandoned as unfit for later ages (Kalivarjya).

In the matter of caste, its preservation was by strict rules for occupations or professions to be practiced and informally enforced by the laws for marriage. Although, eight forms of marriage were recognized, marriage was strictly restricted within the same caste. If ever transgression occurred, downward union of a man with lower caste woman was tolerated (Anuloma marriage) and man’s marriage with women higher up the gradient (Pratiloma marriage) was prohibited. Keechaka in Mahabharata was a case in point. He was described as the son of a Brahmin woman and Kshatriya father and hence was assigned the status of a Vaishya (3rd level). Vyasa and Vasishta were born of lower caste women, but their fathers were Brahmins and thus of anuloma descent.

Historically, there appears to be conflicts between top two higher castes. Legendary Parashurama enraged by the killing of his father, killed every Kshatriya king, conquering most part of the earth which he gave to Kashyapa prajapati, from whom the earthly princes re-acquired their kingdom and thus the kings of this earth derived their kingdoms by gift, and therefore, were forever obliged to heed the Brahmin and respect his counsel. However, Kshatriyas maintained near equality in spiritual learning and creativity. In this regard, Vivekananda makes a point that Upanishads were largely written by Kshatriyas whereas Bramhanikas were written by Bramhin Rishis.

Most egregious code written that brought infamy to Manusmriti is the role assigned to women and Shudras in Society as though they are compelled to live by this code. Manusmriti lV: 413 states Shudras should serve the Brahmin first and others, if only they do not find employment with a Brahmin. Serving a Brahmin with reverence and submissiveness elevates him to a higher level in the next life- not so when he serves others!

In the education of these classes, the distinction was maintained by Manu. A Brahmin boy had initiation into studies by upanayanam at age five, Kshatriya at age eleven and Vaishya at 12. There were slight variations in different traditions with the order being maintained. There was recognizable uniform; Brahmin carrying a danda to the length of the top of his head. Kshatriya to the level of forehead and Vaishya to the level of his nose. Brahmin was initiated with Gaayatri of Vishwamitra, Kshaktriya with Trishtub attributed to Hiranyastupa, Vaishya with Jagatti of Vamadeva. Their sacred threads were also different. Recognizable differences between these classes were maintained in the materials of girdle, upper cloth, lower cloth and their colors (mekhala, ajina and vasa). Caste was thus maintained by creating separate identity from the very childhood.

Professionally, Brahmins followed intellectual pursuits commanding highest respect, Kshatriyas were warriors and rulers, Vaishyas were in pursuit of trade and agriculture. Shudras were relegated to servant class who were forbidden in trading with the exception of selling only what they make, as for instance, a potter could sell pots and then only pots. They should serve the Brahmin first, and if employment was not available, he could serve Kshaktriya, and Vaishya last. Needless to say this division of labor was long gone as we know. The bulk of Indian population is farmers and not Vaishyas anymore. Nevertheless, the divisions of the castes persisted to modern times.

Even though Shudras were servant class, there was no slavery in ancient India in contrast to the ancient Western world. Sutrakaras were both liberal and conservative. The treatment of Shudras was more generous by Bhodayana than Aapastambhaa. Chariot makers (Rathikaras) were given Upanayana initiation by Bhodayana, considering them as the progeny of Vaishya and Shudra, whereas Aapastamhaa admitted no exceptions. Initiation into Vedic education was limited to the upper three castes, perhaps leading to wide spread illiteracy among Shudras which is the bulk of the population of India now. Treatment of Shudras, untouchables (chandalas) and women under Manu’s law had been the issue of contention for religious scholars and sociologists. So although much highly touted as an available option in ancient times to indivuduals of using the covenant of “guna-karma-vibhagashah” meaning one’s true nature and chosen occupation is to determine his/her caste, there is no historical evidence that such was a
prevalent practice.


The caste system of ancient times broke down with the invasion of northern tribes and internally by the social reform and challenges from Buddhists. Buddhist Aaramas and educational centers with the same curriculum as traditional brahminical disciplines with the exception of jyothishka (astrology), unlike single teacher gurukulas, transformed the landscape of India allowing wide spread education regardless of the caste. Over the centuries (mainly during the second millennium) there were many reformers who challenged caste system and finally, the only character left of caste was marriage within the same caste – endogamous marriage. Semblance of caste functions remained with few sections of Brahmins if not all, who were keeping alive the traditions of Vedic learning, observing ancient culture and following intellectual pursuits. Other segments of the Brahmin society, who were not engaged in administering sacraments, because of the head start in intellectual pursuits, became scholars both during Muslim and British rule and materially prospered relative to other communities. These scholars migrated to many parts of the world outside India as teachers. While Vaishyas mainly practiced trading, agriculture became the vocation of the rest of the masses. In some states, as in Andhra, Kshatriya community, if ever existed, nearly or totally disappeared. A few called Rajus are a small community which was brought from Bihar, along with others, by Shatavahanaas at the time of expansion of their empire.

Finally without any other meaning left in the domain of social order and occupational hierarchy, caste tribally divided India. Is there any justification in modern India for this system to exist? Answers to this question come in different shades. One superb achievement of caste system, however, was in segregating the incoming foreign elements into their own respective castes and to protect the purity of mainstream Hindu society from cultural and ethnic hybridization. This was before the paradigm for the departments of Immigration and Naturalization existed. India provided “amnesty” to many refugees and invaders and absorbed them in the society and enriched itself socioeconomically without disrupting its own social infrastructure. This was an ingenuous way of creating a melting pot, or rather a salad, that permitted diversity while maintaining separate identities but gave the larger cultural identity to all as “Hindu,” to both indigenous and immigrant populations.

We shall consider various defenses of the system by Hindu leaders. There are protagonists of the system who argue that there is “no such problem as caste”. It is the western educated mindset that discovers any such problem. The Hindu society is perfectly in harmony with the caste division as it only represents division of labor, and the institution is very healthy at best. Also, the inbreeding in each caste is a natural phenomenon, as lawyers’ sons tend to be lawyers and plumbers’ sons tend to be plumbers. There was no concerted effort to keep them segregated, they argue. Vivekananda gives an example, poor Brahmin is respected by rich Vaishya unlike in a Western class ridden society. While Vivekananda was not defending against Western criticism, he sees the problem differently. When a great person is elevated to higher caste by his qualities, the lower community is deprived of his/her presence among them. Conversely, the worst elements in the higher caste are dumped into lower castes resulting in further deterioration of their newly acquired caste, causing a ghettoing effect (italics mine). The mentally ill and incapacitated drifted downward in the lower socioeconomic classes. Division of labor argument is still most popular among the defenders of caste system. Swami Vivekananda when once asked about reforming caste system, himself a former Bramho, reportedly said that there were two sub-castes of Kayasthas in Bengal and asked them to try to unite them first! He wanted to stay out of the debate. In this respect, it is interesting to note that RSS which is open to all castes and is egalitarian in its philosophy has had no impact in reforming the caste system among the Swayamsevaks in Hindu community. Swayamsevaks are not able to reject their caste and most belong to one and privately carry the identity in their personal life, though not in the social context of the Sangha where there is ostensibly no discrimination on the basis of caste. This in itself is a significant progress which impressed Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan when they visited RSS camps.

Presented with the problem of defending caste to the Western Audience, some leaders attempt to skirt it cleverly. Thus Prabhupada , the Founder of Hare Krishna Movement, translating Gita (first chapter) defines caste as family (Kula). Accepting this definition Lord Rama belongs to ”Raghukula” (Raghukulaanvaya Ratnadeepam) ( as if not a Kshatria!) Mahatma Gandhi totally avoided the question and concerned with the problem of untouchability, which was steadfastly defended by all Shankaracharyas until its defense was outlawed. Gandhi saw more of a political problem with untouchable leaders, Jogendranath Mandal and Ambedkar who began opposing Congress. On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru, a self-proclaimed agnostic and not much for the preservation of even an iota of Hindu identity, saw that without caste there was no structure for Hindu society and that dismantling caste would create chaos without replacing it with something for social identity, although he recognized the caste must go eventually. He had no idea what it should be that replaces it and what should be done to make it go away! He, however, vigorously defends the system against the Western critics saying that it is a natural institution not specifically designed to discriminate and enslave certain class. According to him, it is, in fact, one of the three pillars of Hindu society. Thus caste can be understood as grouping of people with common culture, subculture, language and dialects, food habits, customs, and even sampradayas meaning religious beliefs, like flowers with different fragrance and colors in a garden, if Hindu society is viewed as a garden.

Argument that there was a long standing harmony and acceptance of inferior social position by lower caste Hindus, which is characterized as division of labor is weak at the outset. Simply that there was no uprising by a permanent underclass does not justify the morality of the system. After all the slaves had full employment and many instances might have been treated generously by their masters, but that could not justify slavery (Dinesh D’Souza sees it differently). They, indeed, sang, danced, fell in love, raised families and accepted their condition as divine ordinance. This was true for the slaves, serfs, and all “lower” classes in the West as also in the East. The concept of social revolution and rebellion could not be viable with limited communication and unwieldy distances between scattered communities. . The communists and the Islamists also have failed in evolving classless societies although philosophically they and even the early Vedic philosophies and the Western democracies all recognized in principle that “all men were created equal.”


The protagonists of caste argue that the system as originally conceived was perfectly justified, but only that it became misconstrued. They tend to provide scriptural basis for it and argue caste or “varna” for a better word was a flexible system, which lost its vitality. However flexible, there are genetic differences among these groups, and therefore, the classification is still justified if only we can modify it to fit it in the modern times. This is an apologist view. There is a second group that denies that there is any such problem like caste problem, and therefore, the discussion is irrelevant. The third group, like Shankaracharyas, currently silenced by law and public opinion, advocate no change in the system, believing in the inerrancy of the scriptures. Various degrees of ambivalence can be found in the modern Hindu philosophers on this subject.

Oft quoted verse Chaturvarnam mayaa sristam gunakarma vibhagashah (Bhagavat Gita Ch 4: verse) says that Shri Krishna himself created four castes or Varnas differentiated by personal qualities and duties. This verse was commented on by various authors variously which illustrates the ambivalence on the subject of caste. Literally, the birth into a caste is ordained by “God” with no election possible for moving across the castes.

S. Radhakrishnan had varying positions on this subject at various times and places. He believed that the heredity determines the qualities of people and hence caste division and endogamy was justifiable. (Lectures at Oxford 1926). To illustrate this point he gives an example of one Civil War American soldier who, after wild romantic adventures, fell for an imbecile and married her. The subsequent six generations of this union yielded a total of 143 children all of whom were either, dullards or criminals like their mother. This soldier later married a good Quaker girl whose six generations produced professionals, judges, and governors. He was talking like an amateur geneticist long before this view of heredity was debated and trashed by professional geneticists. While commenting on the verse quoted above, he holds more benign opinion that castes of present day had nothing in common with the Varnas of antiquity, since Varnasankara took place during the times of Mahaabhaarata and the face of the Hindu society is completely changed in this domain. If we accept that view there is no point in discussing this subject further. The fear of Varnasankara was utmost in the mind of Arjuna, described in five verses of Gita in the first chapter. His fears came true and Varnaashrama indeed disappeared.

Radhakrishnan then reversed his position while commenting on the phrase swadharma nidhanam shreyam (Gita Ch. 18 verses 41 and 47). While all caste should be treated equally, he holds that, “equal opportunity” does not entail “identical opportunity”, a fine distinction indeed! In support of keeping the castes separate he quotes Herald Heard (Man and Master 1942) who admires Hindus for four fold division of society and deplores that “we pay more attention to breeding horses than men” and need no further scriptural support! By quoting a “eugenics” oriented racist view of a “white man,” S. Radhakrishnan identifies with him and
endorses it forgetting his “swadharma” !!! Radhakrishnan maintains that Hindus were liberal and flexible in matters of caste and gives the examples of Vasishta, a son of a low class woman and Vyasa a son of a fisher woman . But, their fathers were Brahmins; the concept ( erroneously) that genetic endowment comes from man who provides the “seed” and the woman the “soil” and nourishment is outdated and unscientific! This is pointed out to illustrate how even great thinkers
among the Hindus were bamboozled in dealing with the institution of caste and
forming clear cut ideas about retaining the system versus adopting a social reform
to abandon it.

Prabhupaada takes a very sanguine view of the phrase Guna and karma on the commentary on the verse of Gita (Ch. 4 vs 13) and says that a Brahmin who behaves like a Shudra is Shudra indeed, although born in a Brahmin family. He curiously does not deal with converse situations where Shudra has the qualities of a Brahmin. However, if we treat each other as equals it has no bearing on the social structure. On commenting on the phrase Swadharma nidhanam sheyam, he maintains that a merchant (Vaishya) can lie about his business, since it is his dharma! Lying is defended by the phrase sadoshamapi (meaning even though it is wrongful). Although Prabhupaada may be referring to the situational ethics of concealing the cost and the profit margin, I wonder whether this may also apply to tax evasion. Here again one sees another great thinker or commentator getting stumped on these complex issues of caste and swadharma.

On this subject of swadharma to be followed despite imperfections, Aurobindo takes the position that all should spiritually advance to the level of a Brahmin and thus function to elevate themselves. The problem with this interpretation is that, if perfection is thus achieved, the phrase sadoshamapi (despite imperfections) in the verse loses its significance. This would not shed any light on the social organization of caste again. In modern language this truly endorses being true to one’s nature and trying to be as authentic as one can be rather than carry affectations and deceptive fake façades. “Be real!!” However, great thinker after thinker, great interpreter after interpreter of Hinduism seems to find this area of Hinduism quite slippery and seems to slide and lose his/her balance.

People are born in specific castes ordained by god is evident in Gita where Vaishyas and Shudras (and women) have lower birth — papayonah (Gita Ch. 9-32), “the worst of the humanity are thrown into inferior wombs by God (Ch. 16: 19 and 20).” The literal translation would mean the Shudras and women are born from a sinful (if papa is translated as sin) vaginal birth. This view is further supported by Ithaca’s and Purina’s. For instance, Yudhisthira in answer to one of the questions of Nahusha, who was in the form of a snake and who bound and immobilized his brothers, says a good Shudra can only become Sat-Shudra not a Brahmin, because that would upset the social organization (Mahabharata Adiparva).

There is a well known story of Satyakama Jabala in Chandogyopanishad. Jabala goes to his teacher Gautama and reveals what his mother told him about his birth that she served many men in her life and that she would not know to whom he was born. The teacher impressed with his truthfulness and honesty admits him as a student. Shankara commenting on this episode insists that, certainly, he should be of Brahmin descent and goes one step further by commenting that his mother in her devotion to serving her master forgot to ask him of his caste, but he was indeed a Brahmin! His hypothesis that qualities of character are determined at birth (and are genetically determined and honesty is limited genetically to the Brahmin caste is a preposterous position taken by a Hindu religious leader) as those of Satyakama is consistent with the overall message of Chandogyopanishad. Most modern educated individuals will recognize that Shankaracharya was hard pressed and was only human to use extreme rationalization full of fallacies.

It is the opinion of this author that the irrationalities from modern scientific and genetics viewpoint in the position adopted by the Hindu scriptures are clear. We shall accept or reject the validity and necessity for the caste system on its own merit and any other approach defending it is disingenuous or an apology for an indefensible position.

What does future hold for the traditional caste? With greater social mobility, economic development and emigration to the West the Hindu society will change in the coming years despite the resistance from the reactionary ruling political and feudal forces. This is the subject of hope for the third part of this article.


Stay tuned on for Part IV

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