On the birthday of Thanthai Periyar, I wanted to pen down some words on a subject he felt strongly about – caste. A favorite subject of mine too and whenever I come across an article or book which offers some clarity on this area, I lap it up, dirt et all. And this time, when I read something, it offered me a different perspective to the birth of this demon, so I rushed here to share with you, in case you were ignorant like me.
Before we continue further, do you remember the note that Rohit Vemula, the brilliant PHD candidate at University of Hyderabad, left behind before he committed suicide? Go ahead, read it and come back here, I can wait. His note haunted me for days after I read it. Every word in it seemed to sear through my flesh and torture every cell in my body. “My birth is my fatal accident… The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility…”. A gifted writer and scientist, I only wish he was alive, I wish he knew what I am about to say.
Rohit Vemula was one example. There are thousands of suicides and murders happening all around us, due to an identity which people stamp us with soon after our birth. But who decided this? Where is it written that when we are born, our caste is decided? Doesn’t it make you wonder? Why did we accept things instead of questioning them, while we teach our children to be curious? Every single person I have talked to regarding this subject, said that it is clearly written in our Vedas, our Epics, our Upanishads, that it was God who divided people into the 4 classes. And so research, I did. Went back to our scriptures.
This division of people into 4 Varnas, Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, is probably one of the most controversial and villainized subjects in all of Hindu theology. Ever since we were kids, we were taught that people were classified into 4 Varnas, based on the work that they did. Their occupation. An average Indian’s understanding of the Varnas system is only till that. It was what our CBSE and State board books taught us during our 7th and 8th standard. TBut..the problem is THEY ARE COMPLETELY WRONG!!
The truth is, Varnas were not classified based on what work a person did. Neither were they decided based on their birth. According to Bhagavad Gita, which is considered as the universal source of knowledge, Varnas were designations given to an individual based on the inherent qualities or gunas they possess. And in no way are they genealogical, meaning it cannot be passed from ancestors. Now, we are going to go a little more techinical. Stay with me, because you need to know this. Else your 8th standard social science will ruin you.
According to Bhagavad Gita, there are 3 gunas which form the primary constituents of the nature and are the basis of all substances in the world. These gunas or qualities are termed as sattva, rajas, and tamas. It is a mixture of these gunas, which decide the Varnas of an individual.
“According to the three modes of material nature or gunas and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.” (Bhagavad Gita, 4,13)
A little about the 3 gunas or qualities which form the basis for Varnas-
Sattva – Sattva attaches to wisdom, happiness, absence of pride, contentment, divine nature, .”When through every gate (sense) in this body, the wisdom-light shines, then it may be known that sattva is predominant”, (Bhagavad Gita 14:11).
Rajas – the nature of desire, anger, greed, pride, envy, egotism, jealous and passion belongs to rajas.
“Know thou rajas to be of the nature of passion, the source of thirst (for sensual enjoyments) and attachment; it binds fast, O Arjuna the embodied one by attachment to action”, (Bhagavad Gita 14: 7).
Tamas – Ignorance, dullness, sleep, delusion and so on belongs to tamas.
“But know thou tamas to be born of ignorance, deluding all embodied beings, it binds fast, O Arjuna, by heedlessness, indolence and sleep”, (Bhagavad Gita, 14: 8).
Interestingly, all 3 gunas exist in a person during their primordial stage but later on, only one will be predominant. That guna which is dominant in them makes up their inherent quality. It is only based on the mixture of gunas present in a person, people were supposed to be classified as belonging to that Varna.
This will become clearer when we explore the Varnas and the gunas associated them.
The Brahmanas Varna:
“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness – these are natural qualities by which Brahmanas work” [Bhagavad Gita – 18:42]
The inherent nature of Brahmana is sattva, and so he is of serene nature. They are those, who seek knowledge, be it the knowledge of God or the knowledge of the mundane. The mental traits of a Brahmana are restraint of the mind and senses. They are charged with the spiritual and intellectual well-being of society.
The Kshatriyas Varna:
“Heroism, exuberance, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are natural qualities of work for the Kshatriyas“ (Bhagavad Gita 18:43)
The inherent nature of a Kshatriya is rajas and sattva. Rajas predominate and sattva is subordinate to rajas. They possess lordliness. They have aggressive energy due to their dominant Rajas. Their duty is to govern and protect the people. Arjuna of the Bhagavad Gita was a Kshatriya.
The Vaishya Varna:
“Farming, cow protection and business are natural work for the Vaishyas“ (Bhagavad Gita 18:44)
The nature of Vaisyas is rajas and tamas. Rajas predominate and tamas being subordinate to rajas. Their mental trait is to do all kinds of activities or business to earn money.
The Shudra Varna:
“Labor and service to others are natural work for the Shudras“ (Bhagavad Gita 18:44)
The nature of the Shudra is tamas and rajas. Tamas predominate and rajas are subordinate to tamas. Shudra etymologically means, one whose heart melts to the sorrow and pain of others. Their mental traits are humility, purity, and straight-forwardness. They are skilled workers. Their main occupation is to do service for the society.
In the Vedic Varnas system, a person possessing the inherent quality of a particular Varna is said to belong to that Varna. All 4 Varnas were required for society to function in harmony. Everyone was considered equal, there was no higher or lower varna and so there was no place for stigma. How cool was that! Varnas were useful for creating a balanced society where everyone played a productive role, which was dictated by their intrinsic nature and never decided by their birth.
For instance, if the son of a Brahmana has the qualities of a Shudra (possessing the nature of a Shudra as defined above), he would be classified as belonging to the Shudra clan. And based on his inherent nature, he can find a suitable career path, which fits his inherent nature, which was what the Varnas originally were for.
“By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect.” (Bhagavad Gita 18:45)
The lines above, simple as they may be, carry so much weight, if understood as they were meant to be. Which is, it is better to follow a line of work based on one’s own nature than to accept an occupation what is imposed on them by their lineage or the society. Which just means, a person having the qualities of a Shudra will do well in a career path which meets their inherent nature, their passion, instead of just following what their ancestors have done.
Vedic varnas never linked profession to a person’s birth. This may be difficult to fathom in our current society, where Varna system was completely taken over by the caste system and where birth decided their identity.
So how did this happen? What went wrong? Somewhere down the lane, our pig headed people wanted to exploit the Varna system. Varna system was supposed to help in deciding a person choose their line of work but instead people decided to enjoy the privileges of a particular Varna within their family. A Brahmana might have wanted to keep the knowledge of scriptures within his family be it whether they liked it or not. A Vaishya person may have wanted his children to learn the secrets of trade so they can prosper.
And so people changed this Varna system to suit their needs, to enjoy the privileges associated with it and came up with the demon-caste system, where occupation and lifestyle became genealogical. Another theory is that Aryans who arrived in India in 1500 BC came up with the concept of caste system to organize people and divide them up. Whatever it may be — what we need to remember is that caste system was not written in the Vedas. It was not what is said in the Bhagavad Gita. God did not decide your fate. Your birth did not decide your fate. Caste is a man-made rakshasha, that only exists in India.
So, let’s spread the knowledge, if you didn’t know it till now. If you hear someone call themselves as belonging to a particular caste or community question their identity. Don’t call yourself as belonging to a particular varna until you have the qualities that varna needs to possess. Rethink your identity. It is hard to reason with people who DO NOT want to believe this, but it pays no use to argue with such masses.
But we can do this – let’s teach our children the right thing. There was no caste in the scriptures. The next time someone calls themselves a Brahmin or BC or SC, based on their birth, and put the blame on Vedas, or fate, call them out on it. Make them think about their inherent nature. Make them identity their Varna. Let them know what our scriptures actually says. Make them rethink their identity.
Incidentally, I mentioned this to my Ola driver, while he was repenting on his birth identity. He was blown away by it. Spread the word. Maybe we can avoid more Vemulas in future. Hoping the future will have a casteless society.