Caste is a Portuguese term. The real story behind the caste system is glaringly different to what we know. Was it called the caste system then? What was its original purpose? Was the system rigid? Was it designed to breed discrimination or inequality? Was there any merit in having a so-called caste system? Could people move between these so-called castes? Caste ka real story kyā hai? Go through the historiography of the Indian caste system and you are more likely to get a head-spinning ‘chakkar’. Caste is too deep a topic and needs to be understood contextually along with expert advice. To figure out the original system of caste, one needs to dig the annals of our cultural and social history, study ancient scriptures, examine expert advice, read medieval travelogues and apply Guru Wisdom. Then one realises that ‘Caste’ is definitely not ‘Casteism’ as one accuses it to be.
What the system originally called? The Indian social order in its original form was called the ‘Varna Vyavasthā’ which meant a “macro sociological scheme”, incorrectly referred to as the ‘caste system’ (from the word ‘Casta’) by the masquerading Portuguese during their first voyage to India in the 16th century. The social order given by Indian scriptures was called ‘Varna Āshrama Vyavasthā’, consisting of two schemes, Varna Vyavasthā (social scheme) and Āshrama Vyavasthā (Inidividual scheme).
The original Varna system has been periodically exploited and maligned by cheap pundits, upholders of orthodoxy, obnoxious polity, invaders and elements outside the India-fold. And they did it for their own ego-centric and selfish needs. Add to this the mass ignorance and the implanting of a false perception by the exploiters that superiority or inferiority is based on birth (Jāti), thus getting entrenched into the psyche of the common man. Birth meant ‘Jāti’ which comes from the root ‘jan’ meaning ‘to beget’. There is a clear contrast between the classical four-fold Varna Vyavasthā of ‘Brāhmana (Brāhmin), Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shūdra’ and how it is practiced in modern times.
Today’s caste system: Today’s caste system is a story of milk turned into an unpalatable sour cream. Today it’s nothing but a social crime. Gladly this nasty practice of caste seems to be dying out especially in large cities. But do knowledgeable people on this subject bother to educate or to bust this myth? In fact, lots of open minded educated groups don’t care or aren’t even aware of their caste. For many it matters very little.
Some say that they descend from a Saptarishi (sage) but are totally ignorant of that sage anyway and more importantly their teachings. My friend claims to be a descent of Lord Krishna’s clan but admits he has never read the Bhāgavatam or the Holy Gita of Lord Krishna. So where’s the advantage of this claim to the lineage. Isn’t it a case of a lost opportunity? It is like claiming to belong to an army regiment (by birth) but not following the rules or adorning the army uniform. Can a Doctor’s son be a born doctor?
With the help of the scriptures and expert advice, the Varna system is not difficult to understand. According to the Holy Bhagavad Gita, it can be construed that caste was not so rigid. Lord Krishna says (ch-4, verse 13): “The fourfold-caste (Chātur-varna) has been created by Me according to the differentiation of ‘GUNA’ and ‘KARMA’; though I am the author thereof know Me as non-doer and immutable.” So there is no sanction of today’s appalling caste system in the Holy Gita. Nor does this make it a racial system.
So what was Varna system really based on? Strictly Varna was based on one's ‘Guna’ (mental quality or trait) and ‘Karma’ (physical actions or conduct). This definition of the Varna not only removes our present misunderstanding but also provides us with some data to understand its true significance. Not by birth (jāti or heredity) does a man belong to a Varna but by his “mental tendencies” and “personal conduct”. It is based on the intrinsic qualities (Swabhāva).
The Yaksha in the Mahābhārat asks Yudhistira “King, how does one become a Brāhmana: Is it by birth or character or study of the Vedas or education? Tell me precisely.” To this the dharma-abiding King Yudhistira says “Listen, Yaksha, it is neither birth nor education, nor even the study of the Vedas. Without doubt, it is character alone that marks a Brāhmana.” In another instance in the Mahabharata, Yudhistira answers similar questions to a Python who wounds itself around Bhima, which is quite enlightening on the Varna system.
There are lists of traits in the scriptures for each varna-group which are looked upon as components of character. This Varna system was ultimately based upon one's aptitude and capabilities, not birth. By birth Veda Vyas was born to a fisherwoman but he is revered as Brāhmana.
Here is some more pramān from the scriptures: ”A hymn from the Rig Veda (9.112.3) also seems to indicate that one's Varna is not necessarily determined by that of one's family: “I am a bard, my father is a physician, and my mother's job is to grind the corn.” The Rig Veda goes to the extent of saying,” No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity".
Blasting the general opinion that Caste system is a product of Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda remarks “Though our castes and our institutions are apparently linked with our religion, they are not so. In religion there is no caste. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedānta.”
H “Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shūdra-hood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brāhmana.
Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Vishwāmitra become a Brāhmana and Parashurāma a Kshatriya?”
~ Swami Vivekānanda
indu scriptures declare that ‘Birth cannot give superiority or inferiority to anyone’. The generic definition of the term ‘Varna’ comes from ‘Vriyate Iti Varnaha' implies that one can choose the social group, occupation based on your innate tendencies. But this choice of changing one’s innate tendencies takes time and effort, unless it is natural or sincerely yearned for.
History is replete with such examples of this exercise of choice and existence of flexible varna/caste mobility.
Swami Vivekānanda explains “Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shūdra-hood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brāhmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Vishwāmitra become a Brāhmana and Parashurāma a Kshatriya?”
The ancient Varna system may or may not be relevant today, but its existence as a flexible natural order of society has universal appeal even today. In fact many sections of society follow this naturally without a system badge. The Varna system did not force persons to carry on the prescribed callings which are not their choice.
Certainly the Varna system, in its true import, supports innate tendencies that impel ‘Conduct’. Isn’t conduct more important than the so-called ‘descended–genetic-strands-of-purity’ or otherwise that seem to lie ever dormant?
Also read: When Caste was not a bad word http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/When-caste-was-not-a-bad-word-1.aspx
Indigenous Education in the 18th century http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/Indigeneous-Education-in-the-18th-century-1.aspx
Religion, not caste behind reservations http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/Religion,-not-caste,-behind-reservations-1.aspx