INSTITUTION OF CASTE IN INDIA – THE PAST, PRESENT AND THE FUTURE

A brief summary of the talk on

INSTITUTION OF CASTE IN INDIA – THE PAST, PRESENT AND THE FUTURE

On Friday, December 4, 2020

Talk by Swami Bodhananda ji

Video of the talk followed by Q & A

Central problem of caste system as practiced in Indian society is “untouchability” to which 25 % of India’s population is subjected by upper caste Hindus.

Remedial measures are needed to be taken to stem this discrimination and provide a level playing field to all people by extending equal opportunity.

Society loses to benefit from the latent talent of the people thus marginalized.

The issue of caste was considered under three epochs : 

  1. Vedic times to 7th century CE;
  2. 7th century to 1857; and
  3. Post 1857

Historical background of India’s caste system:

First stage:
Four castes, called Varna, was instituted to perform four basic functions of society : 

  1. learning and teaching; 
  2. governance; 
  3. production and trade; and
  4. service. 

Individuals were fitted by talent and training to perform these four distinct functions. 

Outside these four varnas were designated chandalas and mlecchas.

Life of individuals was again divided into four stages:

Learning, Householder, Contemplative and Renunciation.

India evolved into highest ideal of civilization and culture.

Varna dharma was based on birth.

Plato in his Republic discourses on the division of four chief social functions which are performed by people fitted for it by talent and training. 

In the Vedic epoch there was no caste system as prevails at the present time – as rigid compartmentalised groups.There was intergroup mobility according to qualities and fitness.

Second Stage:
Radical change from the earlier epoch takes place 

India was overrun by foreign invaders from Central Asia 

India came under Islamic rule from the 16th  century to the middle of 19th century, and  after that under colonial rule of the British.

For 1000 years India submitted to foreign rule during which India withdrew into itself, and the four main Varna split into numerous castes and subcastes, each insulated by others by its own endogamous marriages and customs.

There was no intermarrying or interdining.

While India then consisted of thousands of small groups.

This splintering  of population into mutually exclusive small groups helped India to survive a millennium of foreign domination with its basic culture intact.

It served a purpose.

Third stage:
India had lost touch with the rich cultural roots of the Vedic era owing to a thousand years of alien conquest and colonization.

Renaissance of interest in past heritage occurred in the late 19th and 20th centuries owing to inspiring life and works of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.

Secular values of democracy, freedom and Scientific spirit of the West by leaders of free India ushered in political and social transformation.

Conscious national efforts were made to eradicate untouchability from Indian society.

Constitutional provisions were made and laws enacted towards social emancipation and uplift Dalits which  greatly reduced the practice of untouchability.

The Dalits and the tribal population were afforded 0pportunites to gain upward mobility in social status.

Though the evil still persists in the psyche of upper caste people it is greatly reduced – except in some pockets of northern India.

Dalit middle class have come into the mainstream.

Future prospects:
Social change coming out of modern culture of industrialization and urbanization bringing about intermingling of castes will have the effect of breaking rigid caste barriers and tend tend toward egalitarianism.


Comments from HLI desk

The main focus of the speaker on the subject of caste system of India was from the standpoint of secular history.

A slight reference was made en passant on the philosophical foundation of the caste system during the prehistoric Vedic times.

An understanding of it and of the subsequent loss of it seems imperative if reform in the much abused caste system, with which India is afflicted, is to come about. 

Philosophy of true caste system

  • The word caste does not represent the true system originally prevalent in ancient India 
  • The original tem used was Varna 
  • The term Varna meant, not external colour visible to the naked eye  ; it meant inner character of an individual—of the Inner man who is not visible to the naked eyewithin the external form visible to the eye of the flesh
  • The character and qualities of every person are defined by colour combinations of the aura of the Inner Man
  • The character, qualities, and abilities of each person are acquired by the Ego by his thoughts and actions in its past lives on earth.
  • Persons gifted with higher  clairvoyance – Seers and Sages – who can see into inner planes of being can accurately judge the real character of a person which cannot be gauged by person’s outer visible actions and conduct
  • In the Vedic times persons fitted by character, qualities and abilities performed functions for which they were naturally fitted 
  • In all societies all human activities and functions fall under 4 broad categories :
  1. Intellectual : learning and teaching 
  2. Governance : Administration and defense 
  3. Trade and commerce : Production, buying, selling
  4. Service : Manual Labour
  • Persons performed functions pertaining to the four broad categories for which they were naturally fitted – by their qualities and propensities acquired by their own  Karma 
  • Training and development of Individuals into four stages : 
  1. Learning under a Guru
  2. Householder 
  3. Contemplative life 
  4. Renunciation and liberation 
  • Object of life were four :
  1. Fulfillment of desires and aspirations
  2. Earning livelihood and generating wealth
  3. Adhering to law of Righteous Conduct
  4. Liberation from conditioned existence 
  • In these four stages of life individuals acquired :
  1. Knowledge and skills
  2. Grounding in law of righteous living (Dharma)
  3. Performance of Duty towards all life 
  4. Final object of attaining Enlightenment 
  • Varna system of social organization was not rigid and compartmentalised 
  • There was social mobility  acorrfmng to fitness and merit – not by accident of birth
  • Nor was any distinctions made as inferior or superior in the Varna system

India attained high point of culture and civilization and bequeathed to the world grandest and noblest science and philosophy of life and civilization

A more detailed exposition of the ancient Varna-Ashrama Dharma may be had in an article in the Theosophical Movement magazine: 

  1. The Institution of Castes – I
  2. The Institution of Castes – II

Loss of the Varna Dharma and social degradation

  • Racial evolution proceeds in cycles of time called Yugas and Kalpas
  • Age of Enlightenment is followed by the age of spiritual darkness and moral depravity
  • Records of the past ages of enlightenment serve as guide to the people in declining cycles
  • Loss of true spiritual knowledge follows descending cycle 
  • Varna dharma degenerated into to rigid and artificial caste system
  • Mere accident of birth determined the caste 
  • Original four orders became split into hundreds of mutually exclusive endogamous castes and sub-castes
  • Social Evil of untouchability reared its head 
  • Mutual exclusives and rivalries among castes and subcastes, prevalence of hereditary caste system divorced from character, qualities and merit led to social degradation.
  • It has transformed into  tyrannical social system

Is the later caste system unmixed evil ?

  • Swami Bhodananda said in his talk that the Hindu society splitting into hundreds of mutually exclusive castes, each with its own customs, the sub-continent split into thousands of small political entities. This circumstance saved India from total destruction of its culture by waves of foreign invasions from central Asia and Europe 
  • There seems to be some truth in this assertion 
  • It has served a purpose 
  • Madam Blavatsky – the Agent of Masters of Wisdom who recorded for the modern world the ancient Science of Theosophy, speaks of evils of caste system but with a caveat. She says it serves a purpose :-

“Brahmanas in Vedic times knew neither caste  nor widows from Malabar…..The .Brahminism of which he [Jacolliot] speaks did not exist in the age of the Rishis……castes were invented but in the Kali-Yuga, for reasons as occult as they were just, from the standpoint of the prosperity and health of the race.”

(Theosophy : Some Rare Perspectives, p. 15)
  • Above statement from HPB, who gave out extensive teachings of Occult Philosophy as the accredited Messenger of the Mahatmas has credibility 
  • It harmonizes with the statement of Swami Bidhanadaji that the post Vedic caste system – though a perversion of their original Varna Dharma – saved India and India’s old civilization and culture from total destruction during the thousand year long invasions and foreign rule 
  • What exactly were the occult reasons for establishing the system is not known to us 
  • Existing caste system however needs to be eradicated through reforms from within the system 

India’s reform 

  • Caste system based on accident of birth needs to be abolished 
  • It has brought on enormous social injustice, inequality, disunity, evil of untouchability, and oppression and marginalization of so-called lower castes and tribal people 

On the subject of Reform of India’s caste system a reading of the article of the subject in the Theosophical Movement is invited: “Caste system and India’s reform”

2 comments

  1. It is no use blaming Islamic and British rule for ill of caste system or any other ill in Hindu Society. Caste system had degenerated much earlier. This fact should be accepted honestly by all and sincere efforts by society particularly those of upper caste persons should be made to get rid off this ill.

    1. “It is no use blaming Islamic or British rule for ill of a caste system or any other ill in Hindu society. Caste system has degenerated much earlier. This fact should be accepted sincerely by all and sincere effort by society particularly of those of upper caste persons should be made to get rid off this ill.”

      HLI Comment

      That caste system degenerated earlier, much before foreign invasions and colonization of India is well known, and this fact is mentioned in the Vishnu Purana, which is attributed to Sage Veda Vyasa, somewhere between 400 BCE to 900 CE according to modern scholars.

      The prevalent Caste system and especially untouchability is ingrained in the Hindu mind like a hereditary disease and customized in Hindu society. Legislation may mitigate the evil to some extent but cannot eradicate the prejudice of the human mind and the belief system.

      It is paradoxical and hypocritical that learned scholars and influential religious heads of Hindu society should be giving discourses and writing learned treatises on Advaita philosophy, which proclaim equality and human dignity, presence of divinity in the hearts of all, high or low, and yet turn blind eye to the tragedy of oppression of a large section of society subjected to inhuman treatment

      Hindu society seems to labouring under the dangerous misconception that the Dalits are what they are because of their past Karma, forgetting that their own inhuman attitude will draw on them Karmic retribution to suffer injustice and pain they directly or indirectly inflicted on others–even just turning away from the suffering of others.

      It is the duty of every patriotic Hindu to imbibe the universalism of the ancient Hindu spiritual tradition and practically apply the principle of human solidarity, universal causation, the laws of Karma and Reincarnation, and eradicate his mental bias and prejudice, look upon his fellowmen as an inseparable portion of his true Self.

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