This article put another perspective on a phenomenon that no-one usually dares to mention without putting on a grimace of horror and uttering shrieks of indignation: Chaturvarna, usually mistranslated as the caste system.
Let me state from the outset that I am a firm believer in the Vedic verse “All men are brothers; no one is big, no one is small. All are equal” (Rig Veda 5.60.5). The four categories of society (varnas) were not originally intended to be hereditary categories. If we look at the matter carefully, they are in fact natural functional groups that exist in all societies. The varnas were originally fluid categories that allowed for mobility between groups.
So before anyone begins fuming about Brahmin tyranny and the “wretched condition of the downtrodden“, let me clarify that what I mean is not hereditary caste, but the distinction between four functional groups in society: Brahmin (intellectual and spiritual), Kshatriya (military and administrative), Vaishya (commercial) and Shudra (service), devoid of any hereditary aspect, which was a much later phenomenon.
It is a fact of life that many children have a tendency to resemble their parents, not only in appearance but also in aptitudes – whether you put it down to genetic or environmental factors or both. For example, this trend is strengthened by the traditional social setting, in which children would automatically receive training in their parents’ professional skills, in the family business or vocation. Nevertheless, the relation between parents and children’s aptitudes is not absolute: there are plenty of cases where people have a genuine inclination towards a different kind of profession to their parents. Therefore, the Bhagavad Gita says (apparently against a swelling trend to fix profession on birth) that not birth, but aptitude or quality (guna) determines one’s varna. Yuddhistir and later on the Buddha said that moral conduct and mental disposition, not birth, determined who is a Brahmin. Neither should there be any bar to a person changing their field of work later in life.
The question is: does the classification of society into four groups or classes still have any relevance or offer any insight into modern issues?
If we examine the nature of the interrelationship and interdependency between these four classes of society we can see that they are quite natural, and exist in all societies. All the functions support each other, yet there is a natural hierarchy. The Shudra (the worker who serves an employer, the artist who pleases an audience) is subordinate in the sense that he is employed by the other varnas. The Vaishya (business and entrepreneurial class is subordinate to the public order enforced by the Kshatriya. And the Kshatriya rulers are, in framing their policies, subordinate to the Brahmin realm of literate culture and ideology, because a policy necessarily stems from a political and social philosophy, which is produced by the intellectuals of society.
Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo have sometimes described social and political developments in varna terms. Thus, feudalism over-emphasised the role of Kshatriyas, capitalism is currently over-emphasising the Vaishya element in human nature, and communism was an attempt at Shudra rule and suppressing of the Vaishya. A healthy society needs to balance all four groups, giving honour and the freedom to develop to each. All four groups need to act out of a sense of duty towards the entire society.
Another important component of the varna ideology, is the strict separation between the activities of the varnas. An important example in the context of Secularism is the separation between the two authority-wielding varnas, the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmin is the man of knowledge, whose domain is intellectual and universal. The Kshatriya is the man of action, whose authority is political and temporal.
The idea of separation between these two varnas can ideally be understood as a separation between the secular domain of action and politics, and the non-secular domain of knowledge and spirituality, similar to the separation of ‘Church and State’.
The Brahmin and Kshatriya functions have to be kept separate to the greatest extent possible. While it is inevitable that a general framework of values and ideas influences the leadership of a country, rulers should never wage ideological or religious campaigns, they should govern the country with justice, allowing philosophers, intellectuals and religionists the freedom to develop and expound their ideas.
Another example of the importance of the separation between the activities of the varnas can be seen in the field of Pharmaceutical research. Pharmaceutical research is an endeavour of expansion of human knowledge, which is a Brahmin activity. However, in the present day it is very profit orientated. For example, more research is done to develop treatment for illnesses that are present in Western populations, even if only very small numbers of people suffer these illnesses or if they are not life-threatening conditions. On the other hand serious diseases that affect huge numbers of people in the developing world are given much less attention. The reason is that there is much more money to be earned in developing treatments for wealthy patients. So the integrity of pharmaceutical research is compromised or even corrupted by purely profit based considerations. This can be understood as an unhealthy mixing of the Brahmin (intellectual) and Vaishya (entrepreneurial) spheres of human activity.
Thus it can be seen that even in those countries or situations where no ‘caste-system’ exists, varna categories can be meaningfully applied. For most Hindus talking about caste has become an untouchable subject but if we get over the prejudices and distortions of our teachings that exist today (in western textbooks as well as amongst Hindus themselves), we can find that Hindu ideas and thought can be meaningfully applied to problems and issues we face today and will face in the future. I hope that this short piece has gone some way to demonstrate that.
(Originally written in 2006)