Caste – Right to be Socially Equal

Classification of all people in India into four hierarchical Varnas – or Castes (and sub-Castes) as they are now called – is a social reality of India. This social reality still persists in this country notwithstanding the fact that any discrimination on the basis of Castes is outlawed by the Indian Constitution. The well-known Caste-hierarchy runs from Brahmin to Kshtriya to Vaishya and, lastly, to Shudra. This classification has its origin in prehistoric times and is sanctified by Hindu religious scriptures.

To modern human mind it looks abhorrent to classify humans into higher or lower categories. Our sense of dignity revolts against such a cruel treatment of humans by humans and finds itself at a loss to understand any reason, any justification – either now in modern times or in ancient past – for such a division. Is there any justification? Is there an iota of reason for the same? Are all people not made equal to each other? When people come into this world – when they take birth – they are all equal. And, then, they are made unequal by social institutions and sanctified by religious scriptures! Again, is there any justification for the same? In answering this question we would not quote any obscure religious scripture; our sole strength is the logic of reason; and nothing else.

Let us start by putting a generic question: Is an ordinary Christian entitled to a social respect equal to Jesus Christ? Is an ordinary Buddhist entitled to a social respect equal to Gautama Buddha? Let us lower down our gaze: Is an ordinary Christian entitled to a social respect equal to an anointed Christian Saint, say like Mother Teresa?Is an ordinary Buddhist entitled to a social respect equal to an accomplished Buddhist Monk, say like Mila Repa? The social reality is that these two classes either in Christians or Buddhists are not equal. It is a truth nobody can deny. Can this logic apply to Hindus or their social institution of Varna, which was systematically organized in ancient times? Let us proceed.

Relativity is a great tool discovered by human mind. It is a scientific concept (discovered by Einstein), which applies to not only the entities that we call space and time but equally applies to everything else in nature. It is wholesome concept. It states that a thing may be seen (or scientifically, observed) from different points of views (or scientifically, relative to different moving frames of reference) and the result of all such observations may be contradictory to one another but still all such results would be absolutely (!) correct. One who is not versed with science may wonder the accuracy of such a statement. Though the detailed explanation of the logic of this scientific statement would be out of place here, it is enough to explain this mental concept with this example. A train moving on the track at the speed of fifty miles per hour may be observed by a person from ground at the track side or the position of a person who is travelling on this very train or the position of a person who is flying in airplane above this train or, still, the position of a person who has just landed on Moon. These positions could be infinite. The result of the observation from the position of the person who is travelling on this train, the speed of the train is zero, that is, the train is stationary. The person on the track the speed of the train is fifty miles per hour. Likewise, the speed of this train would be different when observed from the flying plane or the Moon. And, all observations are correct. And, all these results of the observation of this train are contradictory to one another.

  This concept applies to everything in nature. We can observe society from different points of view. We can observe human beings from different points of view. Let us study human beings.

We all humans live on Earth and live in communities, that is, society. We are born equals. In all modern societies, we all have equal legal rights. From the point of view of modern society, this is the position.

Let us see humans from the spiritual point of view. All living beings, including humans, are evolving from lower position to higher position. What is that in humans that is so evolving? Is it humans’ body – with all its constituents – alone that is evolving from lower to higher position? Yes, human body is evolving but it is not this physical body alone that is undergoing this evolution. There is a true SELF – Sri Aurobindo names it Psychic Being – in every human that is the device of this evolutionary process. And, this Psychic Being is present not only in humans; it is equally present in every living being, though in an under developed form. This Being – the spiritual spark – is present in every entity in universe; it is there in dead matter, albeit in undeveloped – frozen – form.

  From the point of view of this developing Psychic Being, all living beings are belaboring through the device of their respective circumstantial human conditions to evolve spiritually from a lower to higher position. It is an evolution of this spiritual being spread over millions of lives and it does not cease with the death of human’s physical body.

From this point of view, every human being is equal with everybody else in the society in the matter of purpose and mission of life. However, all human beings are not equal in the evolutionary stage they have attained in this evolutionary process. On Earth there are always some who are evolved more than others in the spiritual journey. One can name many who may come in this category, like Buddha, Jesus Christ, Nizamuddin Aulia, Mira Bai, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya, Ramakrishana, Sri Aurobindo and many others of this kind.

  Let us come to the collective living of humans. We live in organized society. We organize ourselves so that we can live peacefully, survive and meet challenges that may confront us. And, we organize ourselves in smaller groups to accomplish certain social missions. For example, we organize an army of soldiers; there are many ranks and hierarchy of layers. There in army though all are equal humans, they organize themselves in layers. Why it is so? It is so because as an organized group, they have a mission to accomplish, that is, to win a war. The commander of the group is equal to an ordinary rank soldier, but he knows the art of war better than a rank soldier. He commands to accomplish the plan to win. If there is no commander, there is no planning to win. Also, if there is no mission to accomplish, there is no need of a commander. If there is no mission to accomplish, there is no need of organizing humans into a disciplined group.

 But spiritual wisdom tells us that there is a mission for humans to accomplish on Earth. Humans are on their evolutionary journey, spiritual as well as biological, and they are not aimless wandering herd of animals here on Earth.

In ancient India the human’ collective living was organized to accomplish this mission. This organization was Varna (or caste, as it is known today) system. The commander of this grouping was Brahman. When we judge the worth of Varna – Caste – system today, we always forget to take into account the crucial foundation – sine qua non – of this system. The Varna system was conferred by the conduct of the individual concerned and not by his birth.

The moment this system was degenerated into the conferment of Varna by birth, it lost its logic, spiritual or otherwise. Thenceforth, it is condemnable. Thenceforth, it is the worst form of social slavery of those who find themselves on the lowest social rung simply because of the circumstance of their birth.

In this context the words of Swami Vivekananda, the renowned disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa (the seer of Veloor Math in Calcutta), are full of spiritual wisdom. When asked of the degraded condition of the Sudra caste, the so called lower caste thus, “But if the present degraded condition is due to their past Karma, Swamiji, how do you propose to help them?” the Samiji said these pithy words: “Karma is the eternal assertion of human freedom. If we can bring ourselves down by our Karma, surely it is in our power to raise ourselves by it. The masses, besides, have not brought themselves down altogether by their own Karma. So we should give them better environment to work in. I do not propose any leveling of castes. Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan. We have only to raise them without bringing down anybody. And this has mostly to be done by the Brahmanas themselves.”

 Varna – or castes – system today – when it has degenerated into a social system of human segrigation simply based on the birth of an individual – needs to be destroyed with its roots. It is a crime against those on the lowest social ladder.

How can one uproot this crime against a major section of humanity in India? History tells us, Lord Buddha by his spiritual enlightenment of Indian people had almost uprooted this poisonous weed. However, after passing away of Lord Buddha it could not be completely rooted out and it again grew into a big tree. And, we are face to face with this mankind’s worst menace today.

How can we uproot it? To use an allegory here, we may say that to soften its firm underground roots, we need to pour some nourishing water into them. These roots are firmly embedded by millennium’s social practice and we need to loosen them. We need to water them by accepting Varna system with the caveat that all categorizations of individuals shall be conferred by State by their conduct alone and not by birth under the rigor of law. This treatment would loosen its roots and allow modern India to manipulate them in order to destroy them.  From this point of view, let us trace its historical origin and evolution to modern times.

Dr. Ambedkar, in his final address to the Constituent Assembly, observed: “The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the same sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.

  “We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is a complete absence of two things in Indian society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principles of graded inequality, which means elevation of some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society, in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26th January, 1950, we are going to enter in to a life of contradictions.

  “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic structure, (we) continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

  There are two viewpoints to look at the problem of social justice in the caste ridden Hindu society in India. One may approach this problem from the viewpoint of an enlightened spiritual vision and the other one is looking at the problem from a purely materialist mundane viewpoint.

  An unceasing chain of spiritual leaders of this country have taught us that an individual who has been able to achieve some degree of mastery over his desires and impulses and has subdued his arrogance, greed etc, and because of such mastery has developed some degree of benevolent and humane attitude towards his fellow human beings, is comparatively nearer to Divine light. They tell us that such an individual is more likely to have the grace of Almighty and is a person belonging to a higher category of human beings’ classification. Hindu saints maintain that such a person is Brahmin by his actions or Karmas. Likewise, Jain and Buddhist saints also place such person in a category higher than ordinary human being who has not such mastery. In fact, such a higher state of consciousness on the part of an individual is totally a matter of his psychic evolution, which has nothing to do with his outside material state of social status, position of power etc. It is further taught to us by the great leaders of mankind that the outside manifestations of humane attitude etc. are merely the reflection of internal state of one’s consciousness in these matters.

  From this point of view the so-called lower caste people (these castes being enumerated by Indian Constitution in an annexed schedule and therefore popularly called Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) by and large – because of the very fact of their sufferance at the hands of society and consequently earning spiritual merits in return because of this very circumstance– are better placed if Varnas are determined by conduct and not by birth (as is the true concept of Varnas)  than those who belong to the so-called higher castes, who are because of this circumstance rich and mighty (with concomitant evil of arrogance and pride) and consequently have lesser chance to earn spiritual merits.

Though for the evolution of human being’s true Self towards its destiny outer circumstances provide merely the necessary conditions required in specific individual cases, yet the helping hand in this evolutionary venture may be provided by the collective organization of the society.

From this point of view these people belonging to the lowest social rung – depending on one’s spiritual position in the individual cases – deserve to be placed in the upper castes and, conversely and consequently, the people belonging to upper castes – likewise depending on one’s individual case – deserve to be degraded to the lower castes.

If today castes are assigned by one’s conduct alone and not by his or her birth (under some constitutional mechanism), then the caste-wise population of India would be turned upside down, that is, many Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaisyas would be degraded to Sudras castes and many Sudras would be upgraded to the upper castes of Vaisyas, Kshtriyas or Brahmins.

Of course, the ruling political forces of today of diverse hues, which garner votes of people on caste sentiments, would not like things to happen this way. These forces have vested interest in distorted caste-ism. They have ruled and oppressed the lower castes in India for thousands of years, and even today they are least interested in either reforming castes by basing them on one’s conduct rather than on birth or eradicating this birth-based caste-ism, which in its original form once was a great social institution of spiritual advancement of human beings.

  This is the true meaning of castes (or Varnas) and such is the far-reaching impact of spiritual vision on the caste-ism that is plaguing India today.

  Indian Supreme Court in one of its judgment graphically depicts the pathetic conditions of these so-called lower castes’ people or Shudras and the Swami Vivekananda’s call to Indian society to come to the whole-hearted aid of the weak, the down-trodden, the wronged Pariah in these words:

  “Let us be sure of the social facts. Mark Twain cynically remarked once: ‘Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.’ It is a fact of our social history and a blot on our cultural heritage that 135 million men and women, described as SC and ST, have been suffering as ‘suppressed classes’, denied human dignity and languishing as de facto bonded labor. They still are, in several places, ‘worse than the serf and the slave’ and ‘their social standard is lower than the social standard of ordinary human beings’ (Ambedkar). Tortured, violated and even murdered the saga of the SCs and STs is not only one of economic exploitation but of social ostracisation. Referring to the sorrows of the suppressed shudras (what I prefer to call the panchama proletariat) swami Vivekananda demanded shudra raj and refuted the incapability of the groaning untouchables:

  “Aye, Brahmins, if the Brahmin has more aptitude for learning on the ground of heredity than the Pariah, spends no more money on the Brahmin’s education but spend all on the Pariah. Give to the weak, for there the entire gift is needed. .. Our poor people, these down-trodden masses of India, therefore, require to hear and to know what they really are. Aye, let every man and woman and child, without respect of caste or birth, weakness and strength, hear and learn that behind the strong and the weak, behind the high and the low, behind everyone, there is that Infinite Soul, assuring that infinite possibility and the infinite capacity of all to become great and good. Let us proclaim to every soul: ‘Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.’ Arise, awake!”

  The immortal true Self in every human being is equally capable of rising and marching ahead on the path of one’s destiny in this material world.

  Then there is another viewpoint to look at this problem of social justice in India. This viewpoint is purely materialist in substance and mundane in intention and purpose. Let us look at the social justice problem from this point of view also.

  Individuals in the society have many kinds of inter se relations. All these relations are mutual bridges among them in their collective living. Majority of people in any society seldom live a life that is intimately concerned with their private and subjective true self. The collective life of human beings brings out in the open many facets of their interconnected existence, which otherwise lie dormant.

  One such facet of this collective life that is brought out in the open is the social interrelation among them. In the course of the civilization’s development human beings have evolved the concept of justice, which derives its strength from moral considerations. There are many dimensions of the concept of justice in the humans’ collective life. One such dimension is ‘social justice’.

  Also there are many facets of the concept of social injustice. In several countries, there are ethnic minorities. They exist like an island amid an ocean. The people belonging to the majority stock assign in their subconscious mind a place of an intrusive element, which has been imposed on them from outside from historical reasons and which element somehow has to be tolerated by them. In this case, the supposed intruders are held by the majority equal to them in social status but still an unwelcome presence. Here the majority is hostile to them in their treatment. They even hold them in contempt; nevertheless they have a place for them of an equal social status. This hostility of attitude gives birth to the social discrimination and injustice.

  Then, likewise, there are religious and linguistic minorities who suffer discrimination and injustice in the similar manner. The extreme form of social injustice, the plane slavery, is now no longer legally available anywhere in the world. Sometimes, we hear of such cases of human slavery existing in remote corners of civilized world where the writ of law does not prevail but such are the rare instance. Even in these rare cases, the treatment meted out to the slave is that of an owner over his chattel – much like an owner over his domesticated animal – where the master inflicts physical injury on his slave but still in his own interest takes care of the necessary welfare of the slave. In this extreme case also, there is no place for a psychological injury to the soul of slave.

However, in the case of caste-ridden India, the depth of social injustice is unfathomable and the injury inflicted is incomparable to any of the above forms of social injustice.

  In India, the form of social injustice inflicted on a section of people identified by their castes is a class apart. It is unique in that it does not occur anywhere in the world, except India.

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  1. Trackback: Abolition of ‘Untouchability’ in India | Indian People's Congress

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