Is Hinduism responsible for Caste-based Issues in Contemporary Society?
Manusmriti defines four Varnas for people: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The main castes are further divided into approx. 3000 castes and approx 25,000 sub-castes. I won't go into detail about describing what these castes mean here, but doesn't this conflict with the Hinduism's core idea of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the Whole world is one family)"? If we all are members of one family, why do our ancient scriptures impose this complex and strict caste system upon us? Is this the core reason behind all caste-related problems in India? At least it looks like... from how it is being portrayed in the contemporary world.
One article published by BBC describes the caste system in India, giving reference to Manusmriti, through the below picture:
The article mentions that "At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma's head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma's feet and did all the menial jobs. Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots - the Dalits or the untouchables."
On a high level, this looks conflicting with Rig Veda which states that everyone is equal, and there is no one inferior or superior.
"Ajyesthaaso Akanisthaasa Yete
Sam Bhraataro Vaavrudhuh Soubhagaya"
- RigVeda, Mandala-5, Sukta-60, Mantra-5
Meaning: ‘No one is superior or inferior; all are brothers; all should strive for the interest of all and progress collectively’.
Moreover, the scriptures such as Yajur Veda, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Brihad Upanishad describe the god the ONE: Param Aatman who is formless and shapeless. Then, when Manusmriti describes various Varnas emerged from various body parts of God Brahma, does it conflict with other Vedic Scriptures?
The answer lies in the below shloka from Shanti Parva of The Mahabharata.
Na Visheshosti Varnanaam Sarvam Braahmyamidam Jagat
Brahmanaa poorva Sristhim hi Karmabhih Varnataam Gatam
Meaning: “Humans can not be distinguished by castes. Divine consciousness is omnipresent in the world. At birth, everyone is entirely Brahmanic. The Varnas (castes) have emerged in consequence of men’s actions.”
The shloka brings an important aspect which bridges the conflict and explains what is wrong with today's Indian society. At birth, we're all the purest form... equivalent to god... "The Brahmanic". A modern saying "Babies are a form of Gods" aligns well with it :-). Our scriptures then set the individual free to choose one's Karmas, based on which the Varna or Caste of the person is decided. What needs to be understood here is that the picture of Brahma from Manusmriti is the representation of thoughts, and must not be taken for reference as it is. Different people can interpret different meanings from the picture... let me bring back the picture and explain my interpretation.
God Brahma represents the world: the society we live in.
Brahmins are the priests and teachers... the ones who "choose to" earn the true knowledge about the Gods and the Vedas and spread this knowledge for the betterment of society. Their strength lies with their mind. That's why Brahmins are pictured at the head of "Physical embodiment/interpretation of God Brahma".
Kshatriyas are the warriors and rulers... those who "choose to" learn war arts, politics, and social sciences. Their strength lies with their hands and shoulders. That's why they are pictured at the shoulders of "Physical embodiment/interpretation of God Brahma".
The above two are those whose contributions to the societies are mostly visible.
Vaishyas are the farmers, traders, and merchants... the ones who are the core of any human societal system. From generating the food to forming and running economy, from doing businesses to paying taxes, and from maintaining the balance of the society to bringing disrupting changes in it, they are the ones who form and run the society. They are the core... and hence are depicted near the core area of "Physical embodiment/interpretation of God Brahma"
Shudras are the laborers... the ones who choose to do labor-intensive jobs. Like feet, they are the ones who support society and enable it to stand. Their contributions to society are mostly ignored, but they lay the foundation of any developed society.
Dalits are the ones who "choose to" work as a support system for the entire society. Just like the land beneath the feet gives a body ground to stand, Dalits support any society by maintaining it and keeping it in the form usable for all.
Which of these is a higher caste? Which one is lower? Whose job is most important? Whose is the least? It's impossible to decide... isn't it? For smooth functioning of a body, the feet are as important as the brain, the foundation is as important as the core, and the shoulders and hands are as important as thighs and legs. This picture, which is popularly used by contemporary media to show the caste-based discrimination in ancient India, actually represents the core idea of Societal Equality in Hinduism: "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the whole world is one family)".
In the entire interpretation, I have not used any list of Surnames, Gotras, or place of birth. So is the case with Vedas... and so is the case with Manusmriti as well. Hinduism defines different Varnas (castes) of the people based on the Karmas (work) they "choose to" do. That's the beauty of Hinduism, everyone is independent to choose one's Karma, and subsequently one's caste. Hinduism never supports the idea of discriminating against an individual based on birth. As per my interpretation, a person born in Brahmin family (with modern day Brahmin surname) but with no idea of God, Vedic Knowledge, and a will to teach it / spread it for the betterment of society is not a Brahmin. Similarly, a person born in a Dalit family but working as a scientist or a soldier is not a Dalit. Our births don't decide our caste, our karmas do. Need Proofs? There are many. A few of them are listed below:
1. Impressed by her devotion, Lord Rama ate berry fruits given and tasted by Shabari (who belonged to a different caste)
2. People worshiping Ramayana, an epic written by Guru Valmiki, whose parents (what most believe) were Dalits
3. Lord Bhishma giving a title of Maharathi warrior to Karna, who was the son of a charioteer
4. Lord Krishna washing Sudama's feet with his tears. Sudama belonged to one of the poorest families in his kingdom, while Krishna was the king of his kingdom
This brings me to the point for which I wrote this entire article. Modern caste system fixes a person's caste at his birth... and snatches the fundamental freedom of choosing the caste based on the Karma. This is where all the problems begin... this is where the tensions among the castes deepen. I sincerely have no idea who taught us to do this, but at least I know that the idea doesn't come from ancient Hinduism. Some attribute this "deformation" of our culture to the invaders, some attribute it to politicians, while some others to someone else. But our current caste system is the root of all the caste-related issues we're facing. Be it the tensions related to inter-caste marriage, or be it to the daily heated discussions related to caste-based reservations and promotions, every problem has its root at increasing distances among various castes. The day we understand, and, as a society, accept that caste is not "surnames", we'll be able to find the path of a better society.
Samaani va Aakootihi Samaanaa Hridayaanivah
Samaanamastu vo Mano Yathaa Vah Susahaasati
- RigVeda, Mandala-10
Meaning: “Let there be oneness in your resolutions, hearts, and minds; let the determination to live with mutual cooperation be firm in you all”.
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Disclaimer: The article represents the author's interpretation of the hymns and suktas of Vedic scriptures that he has read. It must not be used as reference material for Hinduism or Vedic wisdom. The author does not intend to hurt any religious or political sentiments through this article.