Scriptural basis of varna/caste system in India

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Let us see how the Hindu scriptures paved the way for the caste system. There are many important ingredients in the varna system that gave rise to the caste system. The following passages from Hindu scriptures will demonstrate how varna/caste system originated in ancient times and how inequality, discrimination and untouchability were intrinsic to this system.

1. The creation of the four orders (varnas) of human beings by God:

God creates human beings under four categories or orders. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures describe the creation of the four orders of human beings, viz., Brahmin, Kshatrya, Vaishya and Shudra. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says that the fourfold caste has been created by Him according to the differentiation of Guna and Karma (Ch. 4, Verse 13). 

2. Distribution of varna duties by God:

Each order of human beings is assigned distinct duties by the creator. In another verse of the Gita Krishna tells Arjuna that the duties of the four castes are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature (Ch. 18, V.41).


In the Mahabharata (Udyoga Parva, Section XXIX), Krishna spells out the respective duties of each caste:

A Brahmana should study, offer sacrifices, make charities, and sojourn to the best of all holy places on the earth; he should teach, minister as a priest in sacrifices offered by others worthy of such help, and accept gifts from persons who are known.

A Kshatriya should protect the people in accordance with the injunctions of the law, diligently practise the virtue of charity, offer sacrifices, study the whole Veda, take a wife, and lead a virtuous householder’s life. If he be possessed of a virtuous soul, and if he practise the holy virtues, he may easily attain the religion of the Supreme Being.

A Vaisya should study and diligently earn and accumulate wealth by means of commerce, agriculture, and the tending of cattle. He should so act as to please the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas, be virtuous, do good works, and be a householder.

The following are the duties declared for a Sudra from the olden times. He should serve the Brahmanas and submit to them; should not study; sacrifices are forbidden to him; he should be diligent and be constantly enterprising in doing all that is for his good.

3. Distribution of duties according to the differentiation of Guna or the qualities born of nature:

In the Gita Lord Krishna says that the formation of each caste and the distribution of duties to each caste are in accordance with the gunas or the inborn nature of each caste. There are three gunas – Sattva (Goodness), Rajasva (Passion) and Tamasva (Darkness). These gunas determine the duties of each caste. Each caste has a distinct nature or a mixture of nature according to which duties are prescribed.

According to the Hindu view as frankly accepted by Hindu gurus, the basis of the caste system is the self-evident truth of inborn inequality in all spheres of life, be it physical, spiritual or intellectual.

4. Distribution of duties according to Karma:

The Gita also informs us about the role that Karma plays in determining one’s caste and assigned duties. One is born in a particular caste, whether high or low, according to one’s actions performed in one’s previous life. One is responsible for one’s own caste. One has to accept karma and rebirth in order to understand inequality in society. The inequality of the lower castes cannot be explained otherwise.

5. Creation of Dharma to uphold varna/caste system:

How Sanatana Dharma is closely linked to the caste system can be seen from an interesting passage in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.14) which says that after creating the four castes, the Creator was not satisfied. Therefore, He created Dharma or the Law. The apparent purpose of Dharma is to bind all varnas and keep them in their places. It is the duty of the Kshatriyas to exercise Dharma, also known as justice, and maintain the social order of divisions based on the varna system and enforce varna duties so that society functions smoothly and harmoniously. 

Characteristics of varna/caste based social order

1. Superiority of Brahmins and inferiority of Shudras:

According to the Mahabharata, the characteristics of a Brahmin are purity, good behaviour and compassion to all creatures.

In Tulsi Ramayana (Aranya Kanda 32-33), Lord Rama tells Gandharva that he would not tolerate an enemy of the Brahmins. One who serves a Brahmin sincerely will win over Brahma, Shiva, himself and all the gods. He goes on to say that a Brahmin must be respected even if he lacks virtue and does any vile thing since he is worthy of adoration. Was Tulsi Das’s account of Rama’s avatar meant to re-establish Brahminic influence in society after the onslaught of Buddhism?

According to Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.15), Brahmins had a pre-eminent place among the castes and the people of other castes desired to have a place among the Brahmins.

On the other hand, a Shudra even if he were very virtuous need not be respected. In order to reassert Caste Dharma, Lord Rama killed Shambuka, a Shudra, who in violation of caste rules practiced austerity and taught the Vedas.

2. Intermingling of caste forbidden:

In the Bhagavad Gita (Ch I, verses 40 to 43), Arjuna complains to Lord Krishna while refusing to kill his kinsmen that with the ruin of family, lawlessness prevails and women become corrupted. With the corruption of women, confusion of castes arises and the immortal laws of varnas or castes are destroyed. Purity of caste depends on the women of the family.

The Mahabharata in Shanti Parva, Section LIX also talks about the duty of the Kshatriyas to protect the world from the intermixture of castes. The purpose of dharma as justice and truth was to keep each varna in its place (Brhadaranyaka 1.4.14).

3. Untouchability:

The Mahabharata (Santi Parva, Section CLXXXVIII) describes a Shudra as one who takes pleasure in eating every kind of food, who is engaged in doing every kind of work, who is impure in behaviour, who does not study the Vedas, and whose conduct is unclean. According to Anusasana Parva (Sec XXVIII) since Shudras are begotten on unclean souls, they can never attain the status of a Brahmin.

According to the Anusasana Parva , Section CXXXV of the Mahabharata,  Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas must not accept food from Shudras who  are addicted to evil ways and who partake of all manner of food without any scruple. Brahmins who take forbidden food from Shudras will suffer terrible consequences including descending to the position of dogs.

According to Section CXLIII of Anusasana Parva, the food of the Shudra is disallowed to high-souled deities and a Brahmin should never consume such food. If a Brahmin consumes food offered by Shudras or marries a Shudra woman may lose his status of Brahminhood.

4. Hindu social order based on discriminatory laws:

By the time of the Arthshastra and Manusmriti, Indian society was strictly organised on the basis of the unchanging rules of the varna system. Just to give one example of how Shudras were treated under varna based society: according to Arthshashtra, “That limb of a Sudra with which he strikes a Brahman shall be cut off.” Laws were extremely lenient towards Brahmins and severely severe towards the Shudras. Modern notions of equality before the law were unthinkable.

Scriptural ambiguities regarding varnas

(1) Sometimes God is said to have created all human beings equal, but due to conduct, human beings divided into four varnas.

(2) Sometimes it is said that in the beginning God created all human beings as Brahmins, but gradually Brahmins degenerated into four orders of human beings.

(3) Sometimes it is said that all the four varnas were equal.

(4) Sometimes it is said that varnas were not based on birth but by conduct. But Brahmins formed the top varna and other varnas could become Brahmins through their right conduct.

Why the varna system should be rejected

1. An unjust system: Varna system is unjust as it is based on graded inequality. The Brahmin is superior to the other three Varnas lower to it, the Kshatriya is inferior to Brahmin but superior to Vaisya and Shudra, the Vaisya is inferior to Brahmin and Kshatriya but superior to Shudra and the Shudra is inferior to all the three Varnas above it. By its very nature the Varna system is unjust. It is an ascending order of respect and a descending order of contempt.

The Mahabharata while spelling out the duties of each caste says of the Shudras: “The following are the duties declared for a Sudra from the olden times. He should serve the Brahmanas and submit to them; should not study; sacrifices are forbidden to him; he should be diligent and be constantly enterprising in doing all that is for his good.”

2. Institutionalisation of inequality: People are unequal by nature and upbringing and achievements. Inequality is natural and real in any society. But to institutionalize social inequality as a permanent divine principle through religion is obnoxious and sinful. The Varna system along with the guna, karma and rebirth components is a typically and specifically Indian aberration and has nothing to do with the rest of the world. There is inequality everywhere, but nowhere is it institutionalized and then justified as in India. Hindus are forced to defend this abhorrent aberration only because it is found in their scriptures. 

If the four varnas were like four football teams with level playing fields which were more or less equal to one another and were able to compete with each other in a free and fair manner or they were complement to each other in functions and services, one could accept them as a desirable arrangement useful for society as a whole. But as four pillars of society, these varnas are highly inadequate and unequal. Under these pillars, one cannot have an ideal society where everyone can be happy. No wonder, in world happiness and wellbeing index, India does not fare well.

3. Division of labour does not require varna system: Division and organisation of labour or choice of one’s profession does not require the Varna system. There are any numbers of professions in the world, and to fit all kinds of professions within four Varnas is silly and unnecessary. A person of a particular profession need not be known by a Varna name, but by its own name. For example, a person who teaches will be known as a teacher; one who does carpentry will be known as carpenter. By allotting different Varnas to different professions, you are clearly discriminating among them according to their worth that is determined by you. If every labour has the same dignity, why do you need different Varnas to distinguish them? Why should a teacher be called Brahmin and a carpenter a Shudra? Are not both equal as human beings and their labour same value?

Did God really create the varna system with four orders of human beings as a division of labour(ers) for the smooth and harmonious function of society? If varnashrama dharma is natural, universal and eternal, why don’t we see such inimical phenomenon in other parts of the world? The fact seems to be that people with power and dominance organized the Hindu society for their vested interests and gave religious sanction through the use of scriptures.

4. Least rational system: The Varna system, the doctrine of the three gunas, karma and rebirth etc. are the least rational laws propounded by the Hindu scriptures. Compared to the four Varnas of the Vedas, the four categories of government servants in modern India make more sense though they too are hierarchical but they are free from dogmatism. Depending on one’s qualifications and aptitude one can be employed in a particular category. Your category of employment is not preordained by birth and it is not labelled by Varna names. But the Varna system that gave birth to the caste system with its untouchability, purity and pollution concepts has destroyed our country.

5. Violation of human rights: The Varna system is meant to prove that people are not born equal as human beings. Which means people have no equal rights and dignity and worth as human beings. No wonder the United Nations have termed the caste system as a violation of human rights.

6. Gunas make no sense: The conception of gunas makes little sense. The creation including the natural world and the human race is characterized by many qualities, features and natural instincts both good and bad, but to say that a particular society is organized into permanent groups on the basis of these qualities and characteristics is farfetched. It is simply not true. Reducing human nature and that of the world to mere three qualities is really ingenious. The Vedic rishis who invented these gunas are to be commended for their insights and inventions. But to treat these gunas to be the eternal yardsticks of human nature and potentialities is to resist the progress of time and the expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge. The Charvaka school talks about seven gunas and the Samkhya school talks about twentyfour gunas. Modern psychology talks of many personality types. Assigning the best guna to the best group and the worst guna to the worst group smacks of racial prejudice.

To think that there are only three gunas in nature or to shove all human qualities and characteristics under three categories is against findings of modern knowledge systems. According to psychology, there are many personality types and character types. Fitting everything into three gunas or their combination flies in the face of modern understanding of the world and human beings.

7. Varnas based on karma and rebirth to justify social injustice: When the first human beings were created, how could they be subject to karma and rebirth? As we have seen earlier, the doctrine of karma and rebirth is untrue. The plausible reason for subjecting the varna system to karma and rebirth is to compel people to accept the patently unjust Brahminical system and to prevent dissent and revolt among people who suffered injustice and discrimination under this system.

8. Poor understanding of human nature: The varna system exhibits a very poor understanding of human nature. One does not have to be a learned scholar or ascetic to understand that according to ordinary human nature the powerful will dominate over the weak, the rich will exploit the poor, stronger groups subordinate weaker ones, and the strong and powerful profit from inhuman and unjust laws and injunctions. Though it is easy to make the weaker groups to serve the stronger groups, such oppression cannot go on forever. For it is also part of human nature that the weak and the poor who are exploited and ill-treated will also one day rise against their oppressors and exploiters.

9. Sanatana Dharma to defend the caste system: It is interesting to note that after the four varnas are created, God creates Dharma as a binding force to keep the varnas in line. Each varna is expected to abide by its assigned duties and not depart from its department. Dharma is meant to perpetuate the varnavyavastha as though it were God’s everlasting will. Now one understands why Hinduism is called Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma is all about the preservation and perpetuation of the varna system.

10. The real test of the varna system is this: Would anyone opt for such a system today? If the varna system is valid for all eternity, it should be valid and desirable today also. But it is not. That’s why this is not a system designed by God Almighty but by people with vested interests.

Conclusion

Are varna and caste same? They are one and the same. In the beginning the term varna was used and later the term jati (caste) was used. May be varna system in the beginning was less severe, but it had all the seeds of the oppressive caste system.

I understand the dilemma of many Hindus who take their religion seriously. If they acknowledge the mistakes of our forefathers, their entire edifice of their religion may collapse. But that need not be. Nobody wants Hinduism to collapse. But as long as the blot of varnavyavastha and jativyavastha remains, Hinduism will remain a big problem. The best things that Vedanta teaches, the caste system undoes. 

Blaming the Muslims or the British for the caste system is an utter and shameless lie. The Manusmriti, the Arthshastra, etc. were written and followed long before the Muslims or the British came to India. Lord Buddha rejected the Vedas and the caste system long before the birth of Christ. If the Varna system was such a nice thing, Buddha would not have rejected it.

There is no doubt that the present day caste system had its origin in the varnavyavastha of our forefathers. The defence that the caste system developed later and has nothing to do with the original varna system does not pass muster. Glorifying the varna system as a very useful division of labour needed for the harmonious functioning of society only conceals the fact that the varna system was not really a division of labour but a cynical division of human beings (labourers according to Ambedkar) based on imaginary yardsticks and thereby condemning a particular category of people forever to menial occupations and to a life of degradation.

D. Albert, S.J– I am a Jesuit priest interested in social issues, particularly the caste system which has played havoc on our people for ages. Though we are born into different castes, we must not die in our castes, but we must die as human beings.

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