Jaffna at Secular Right muses on a “radical reinterpretation” of Hinduism and the caste system. In a sentence, the gist of his thoughts: Hinduism has never condemned a truly spiritual person on the basis of caste. The people he cites–from Valmiki right up to Thiruvallavur, all from the lower castes lived such noble lives and for that reason are revered even now. In his words:
Hinduism cannot be reduced to a mere caste-centered tradition as it goes on to include a sense of the aesthetic, a method of statecraft and an approach to the secular.
Practised in its purest form, the caste system is really one of the best forms of social organization. The way it is practised today shows it in its most degenerate form, and is therefore despicable. This shouldn’t prevent us from examining its role in sustaining societal harmony in the past.
The four castes were never watertight compartments–people of the “upper castes” were free to assume the duties and lifestyles of the “lower castes” and vice versa. A careful reading of the society during the Mahabharata times reveals that caste was decided based on inclination, taste, temperament and occupation. Logically, if a person born into a specific caste changed his temperament/occupation, he was free to adopt the lifestyle of another caste. A verse in the Mahabharata says this: from the perspective of occupation, a man’s birth is important, from the perspective of achivement, character is important. Character therefore decides caste.
Organizing society on the basis of occupation/temperament is also rooted in reality. Broadly, we have people who dedicate their lives to acquire knowledge (scientists/researchers), others to rule/lead people, yet others to make money, and still others who are content being employed in the service of any (or all?) of the preceding three categories of people. There you have, the four castes. This system provides a means for survival and improvement to everyone in the society with little or no scope for conflict. The scope for disparity–economic or social–is almost nil in such a system. The caste system thus was based on cooperation not competition; in the latter, victory is always at the cost of another person/organization.
The caste system–indeed, the central tenets of Hinduism are based on the concept of rta; loosely translated this means the “cosmic order.” Here’s an evocative explanation of Rta which states that the:
… universe is not conceived as a haphazard mass of elements and events, but is an ordered whole, in which each part inheres the whole and the whole is balanced by its parts. The ordering principle of nature, the inflexible law of harmony, the universal cosmic flow which gives to everything from the vast galaxies, down to the nucleus of an atom, their nature and course, is Rta.
Ancient Indian sages are worshipped even today because they discovered the principles of rta and applied it in almost all spheres of (human) life. Rta is the cause for the fabled Hindu “tolerance” (a weak word for Sarvadharma Samabhava). Rta is the reason why despite a multitude of warring kings, the same Gods, the same rituals, worship, etc was preserved for hundreds of years throughout India.
The caste system is definitely one of the central facets of Hinduism. The point is not to feel apologetic about it. It worked brilliantly at a different time; it might work even in our time with necessary reform, or it might not work at all. In which case it probably is good to discard it. While we are at it, isn’t it worth pondering that never in Hinduism’s history have so many castes existed as now?
I have a bone to pick with Jaffna’s otherwise insightful article.
Upanishads question ritual and ceremony. These texts emphasize reason as against priest craft. One Upanishad likens the chants of the priests to frogs croaking in twilight…
This is true but Jaffna’s context is misplaced. The Upanishads’ questioning of ritual and ceremony is at a different level. In fact, some Upanishads emphatically prescribe and endorse ritual and ceremony. Shikshavalli in the Taittriya Upanishad says,
…speak the truth (satyam vada); follow dharma (dharmam chara); from study swerve thou not. Having offered dear wealth to the teacher cut thou not the progeny’s line. From the true it will not do to swerve, nor from Dharma nor from welfare. Neither will it do to swerve from well being, nor from study and teaching, nor from duties to Devas and Pitrs (ancestors).
The Upanishads recommend doing away with ritual and ceremony to a person who has transcended them, moved beyond needing them. Rituals are the necessary tools/aids to attaining enlightenment. Once you’re there, you simply cast them away; like a swimmer who first learns using floating aids and then casts them away.