Vedic Friends Association Position on Casteism
Casteism in India - which we can easily define as the restriction of people's status in life to their caste of birth - has gotten a lot of criticism, and often rightly so. It has also weakened Hindu society and made it vulnerable to conversion and other forms of fragmentation. Casteism as we find it today is based on a misrepresentation and misinterpretation of a legitimate and progressive Vedic system known as varnashrama, an organic division of society by social values and stage of life, the goal of which was to unify society based upon spiritual values and the pursuit of Dharma and Self-realization. However, the two are now often opposite in their effects. Casteism does not represent Dharma, nor aid people in Self-realization. We should get rid of present-day casteism if we are again to utilize the genuine and liberal form of social organization of varnashrama.
The casteism that we find today is a materialistic body-based system of designation that has become a way of oppressing the lower social orders of people. It says that if you are born in a family of a certain classification, then you are of the same class, regardless of what else you may do. In casteism, birth is the determinative factor in deciding one's social standing. It dictates that your social order, occupational potential and characteristics are the same as your parents, which is a label that may have been placed on a family hundreds of years ago.
Casteism says that if you are born of a brahmana family, then you are a brahmana, no matter whether you truly exhibit the genuine characteristics of a brahmana or not. And if you are also born in a kshatriya family, or a vaisya or shudra family, then that is what you must be. It is as if when born in a doctor's family, the child is also considered a doctor. However, this requires the proper training and perception to see if the child will be a qualified doctor or not. Just being born in the family of a doctor does not mean that the children will also be doctors, although this may help. But they surely are not doctors merely by birth. Training and intelligence must be there.
It is the premise of the Vedic Friends Association that it is not one's birth that is most important, but one's consciousness, intentions, and spiritual awareness, which supersedes the rank of one's body or family. It is this consciousness that actually determines one's personality, character and abilities, not merely one's birth. This is actually how we should see people and treat them equally as spiritual beings inside material bodies.
Quite different from the caste system is varnashrama, which is legitimate and virtuous. It is meant for the progressive organization of society as a single cooperative organism like the human body. Varnashrama is the Vedic system that divides society into four natural groups depending on individual characteristics and dispositions. Everyone has certain tendencies by their own natural inclinations and choice. These inclinations are also seen in one's occupational preferences. These activities are divided into four basic divisions called varnas. For example, there are those who prefer to offer service to society through physical labor, skilled trades, or working for others (called shudras); those who serve through agriculture, trade, commerce, business, and banking or administrative work (vaishyas); those who have the talents of leaders, government administration, police or military and the protection of society (kshatriyas); and those who are by nature intellectuals, contemplative, and inspired by acquiring spiritual and philosophical knowledge, and motivated to work in this way for the rest of society (the brahmanas). It was never a factor of whether a person had a certain ancestry or birth that determined which class was most appropriate for him or her.
Ashramas divided society for spiritual reasons. These were brahmacharya (students), grihasthas (householders), vanaprasthas (retired persons), and sannyasa (those who were renounced from all materialistic affairs). This usually followed stages of life in segments of around twenty-five years each.
The system of varnashrama came into existence according to the natural tendencies of people, to direct them so that everyone could work together according to the needs of society. The ashramas divided an individual's life so that a person could fulfill all of one's basic desires as well as accomplish the spiritual goals of life. Only according to one's qualities, tendencies and traits, usually as one grew up in school, was it determined which varna was best for that person. And then he would be trained accordingly to do the most suited work that fit his qualities, much like the way counselors work with students in schools today.
The real purpose of varnashrama was not to label or restrict someone. It was actually part of the means for self-discovery and development. It was to assist a person to find their place in life where he or she would be most comfortable in terms of functionality and occupation. It was to allow the means for everyone to work according to their own nature, which helps bring happiness to the individual and society. Thus, a person could study what was most suited for him or her rather than pursue a type of work that was not really in line with that person's character, and in which he would soon be dissatisfied. So, it would help guide one to more efficiently complete one's life and reach fulfillment. In this way, the varnashrama system is based on the natural divisions within society and is not meant to be forced distinctions or restrictions.
However, beyond this it was meant to help raise the consciousness of humanity from materialism to a higher state of devotional regard for God in spiritual life. It would help one in managing the physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual energy for improving one's health, mental and physical development and productivity, along with spiritual awareness. Thus, it was meant for helping society to become spiritually harmonized and make the everyday tasks into a means of spiritual progress and growth.
To explain further, in Bhagavad-gita (4.13) Lord Krishna says, "According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me." Then He continues, "Brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras are distinguished by their qualities of work in accordance with the modes of nature." (Bg.18.41) Herein we can see that there is no mention of birth as a determining factor for one's varna or classification. They are ascertained by their qualities of work. Furthermore, "By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. . . By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, man can, in the performance of his own duty [or occupation], attain perfection." (Bg.18.45-6)
Herein we can understand that these divisions are created by the Lord so that everyone can be rightly situated in the work and activities that are most suitable for each person, and in which they can feel most comfortable. Whatever occupational tendency a person may have is determined by the modes of material nature one has acquired, or in which he or she associates. Beyond this, these classifications are to organize society in a way that can help in the systematic development of the spiritual consciousness of all mankind.
The system of varnashrama exists naturally everywhere because people will always have the tendencies for what they want to do, or have particular qualities for occupational skills. And these can invariably be divided into the four above-mentioned groups. This is natural, and, as we have seen the evidence here, it has been created by the Supreme Creator. Therefore, it will always be in existence in some shape or form.
This system, however, never divided people according to materialistic classifications. It was meant to unite people in a cooperative society in the service of God. In Vedic times, even the shudras had the same rights as those of the other varnas, and their dignity was preserved without discrimination. In this way, everyone would be satisfied materially and work in a way for the Lord's pleasure. The Vedic culture, ultimately, was for the well-being and spiritual advancement of the whole society. Forced designation or untouchability was never a part of the Vedic process. The materialistic system of "casteism" has deteriorated into a means of dividing society according to mere parentage to control certain groups, while protecting or expanding the worldly happiness of the privileged.
Logically speaking, if a person is not performing any unhygienic activities, then why should he be called a Dalit, or an untouchable, simply because of the family in which he was born? Even after performing something dirty, one need only wash oneself properly to be clean again. Likewise, to raise one's consciousness to a higher awareness or frequency of activity, one need only participate in the Vedic methods of spiritual advancement, which must be done regardless of one's rank or varna, whether shudra or brahmana.
Actually, there is no word as "untouchable" as a classification in any of the Vedic scriptures. This has been a modern invention. As it stands today, it is a great curse on Hinduism. It attacks the core of its spiritual philosophy, and has resulted in large numbers of Hindus converting to other religions. Therefore, it needs to be replaced by the genuine system of Varnashrama, or simply thrown out completely. However, there are many groups of Vedic followers that are open for everyone and do not divide people or consider them according to their birth.
The Dangers of Casteism as We Find it Today
As casteism continues, it furthers the fragmentation of Indian society. In fact, you could say that it has practically killed Vedic society and has brought about the numerous divisions and social quarrels that we now find in India. Even amongst the Hindus alone, there has been fighting along caste, ethnic and sectarian lines for hundreds of years. This is one of the main reasons why the country has been weakened to such a degree that they could not properly defend themselves in a unified way from the genocide under the Muslim invasions and modern fundamentalism. This sort of fragmentation was also a factor that helped force Indians to endure two centuries of British persecutions.
Casteism today does not help society advance spiritually. In fact, it helps promote contempt and disapproval among the people of different classes and ethnic groups. For this reason, we still see today that when the shudras and Dalits feel like they are disliked by fellow Hindus, they become Muslims or Christians or Buddhists in the attempt to find greater acceptance elsewhere and avoid class distinctions. The result of this has been social disharmony. Otherwise, there would have been no need for parts of India to be divided to create Bangla Desh and Pakistan, which have since become nothing more than mortal enemies of India. Have any lessons been learned? Apparently not. Ethnic intolerance is on the rise in many parts of India.
Even today you can find such divisions that a brahmana from one state does not trust a brahmana from a different part of India. For example, the Nambudris of Kerala look down on any other brahmanas. Even among other groups, a Jat boy from the Punjab will not marry a Jat girl from Uttar Pradesh. And a Patel from Kutch will look at a Patel from Ahmedabad as foreign. Thus, the problem of caste and ethnicity is making a society that fights like cats and dogs. In reality, casteism is killing Indian culture.
It has brought about a series of fragmentations so that even castes are divided into conflicting tribes and families based on birth alone.
What We can do to Eliminate the Caste System
Social revolutionaries who wanted to change the caste system have been around for a long time. Gandhi was a notable figure in this. However, before him was Ramanujacharya. He crusaded against the concept of untouchability. In Melkote, Karanataka, he threw open the doors to the temple and let everyone in, regardless of classification. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu also ignored the restrictions that were established by the caste system. He associated and ate with anyone who was a sincere devotee of the Lord, considering one's intention and consciousness as being more important than mere social classification of one's body.
So what can be done to change this form of casteism? We can go back to the Vedic system of studying the natural tendencies of the child in its early stage of education. Then observe its association, activities and intellectual interests to begin to determine it's real varna or direction in occupation. Then, as in any western country, as the child grows, begin testing, counseling and steering it in the proper course of education to determine if the right category has been given. Then allow that person to develop him or herself to the fullest possibility without restrictions of some forced caste placed on the person. Other things that can be done that can help in this regard include the following:
1. Laws have already been passed, such as in India's Constitution that has a specific Article forbidding untouchability (Art 17), Article 25(2b) to throw open Hindu religious institutions to all sections of Hindus, and Article 15 (4) to permit the state to make special provisions for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. It also has a host of other Articles in Part III to ensure Right to Equality. After all, India is a democracy with freedom for anyone regardless of race, religion or sex. And under a democracy, everyone should follow the same set of laws--a uniform code for all Indians. However, these laws need to be monitored in a way to make sure that they are implemented to see to it that this caste prejudice is not only outlawed, but stopped.
2. All people, no matter whether they are Dalits, other low-caste Hindus, or non-Indian people who have converted to Hinduism, should have the means and freedom which enable them to enter all Hindu temples and participate in the Vedic process of spiritual development. This practice of allowing only particular people to enter the temples again is merely a means that expands and protects the rights of those who are already privileged, without showing the concern for others. It is another example of how the upper-castes suppress those of lower status. It is another example of how it is causing the disintegration of the noble standards that were once found in Hinduism.
3. Furthermore, the practice of bonded labor should be not only outlawed, but with stiff fines and penalties for those who still utilize it. Bonded labor is the practice of using poor villagers for cheap labor, often giving them low wages and shambles for dwellings. Then giving them loans with interest that are supposed to be paid off in exchange for labor. If the loans are not paid off, then the person's children must also work for years in order to try to pay off the loans of their fathers or grandfathers. This can go on for generations. It is essentially financial slavery. You see bonded labor in places like textile shops, large farms, and in the carpet and silk factories, which are known to be the prominent places that use child labor. It is time for the government to get involved to make sure that this practice comes to an end once and for all, and that all financial obligations are nullified. It is another example of how the rich and privileged suppress and control the lower classes.
In the real system of varnashrama, everyone's position can be respected since everyone is seen as servants of the Lord in whatever capacity they serve. The people are appreciated for what they do. Workers and laborers were never to be treated harshly, or given hellish conditions in which to live or work. They were to be treated kindly and fairly.
4. Ultimately, as with all social problems, the most important action to take in order to change society is to provide the means for continued spiritual development. That is why it is important that spiritual organizations, spiritual teachers and acharyas work to provide the means for the upliftment of people's consciousness through spiritual education and practice, so that people can seriously change their view of their fellow human beings. That is why temples need to be open to everyone. We all need to realize our transcendental identities, and that we are all spiritual beings, not the temporary bodies in which we reside. As spiritual beings, we are all the same. On that level, there needs to be no special treatment of one over another. Materially, there may be so many differences, but these are all temporary and only within the material vision. By recognizing this, it can help us get back to practicing the real and genuine version of casteism, which is the Vedic system of varnashrama.
5. We need to have more social gatherings that allow people to come together in a cooperative mood, then work or play together, and get to know each other better. We especially need to have more religious and spiritual functions, like Krishna Janmastami, Ramnavami, etc., that can bring everyone together to celebrate in a way in which we forget about our class distinctions or ethnic divisions. That way we can all be inspired and then leave the event while still holding that inspiration in our hearts. By experiencing such events and then carrying this attitude wherever we go, it will reinforce social harmony, equality and fraternity amongst all.
When you are spiritually charged, you want to share that inspiration and love with everyone. You don't want anything to stifle your feeling of spiritual exhilaration. You want everyone else to feel it, too. That's when you are really approaching true spiritual and God consciousness. And casteism can never be a part of that. It will only separate you from your fellow spiritual beings, and take down your spiritual consciousness and alienate you from God and from the God within everyone.
Many organizations have shown and teach disregard for the caste system and its materialistic designations. Spiritual organizations such as Iskcon, Swadyaya and others, have taken the path of showing the equality amongst all people without caste distinctions. They treat everyone equally while allowing individuals to pursue their own particular occupational tendencies without the stigma of being categorized into any certain social group. This is one way in which society can again be unified, especially in regard to Hindu society and India in general.
6. Another thing that can help in this matter is that swamis from various maths and temples should visit those who are neglected. They should put on religious functions in their communities. Or they can make sure that such people, along with everyone else, are invited to the temples for regular functions, and see to it that there is equality in matters of puja, worship, prasad and food distribution, and Vedic education and instructions. This is the common heritage of all Hindus, and, indeed, all of mankind. No one should be deprived from that, and it should be our duty to see to it that everyone has this opportunity. We must all do our part. Otherwise, if there are any who are not spiritually educated, then we are to blame.
The above mentioned points, which are not many, may not completely cure this problem of caste suppression, but it could certainly begin the process of taking things in the right direction and begin to change how things in the social arrangement of India continue.
Ironing out these man-made difficulties by spreading genuine spiritual education is, in effect, a way of invoking and showing our devotion to God. If God established varnashrama, as explained in the Bhagavad-gita, then we should work in ways to tear down the modern and materialistic caste system and reinstall the genuine Vedic process. In this Vedic system, everyone is recognized as being spiritually equal, and everyone can work according to their occupational tendencies toward pleasing God without being subject to social classification and stigma.
It is the personal vision of the Vedic Friends Association of a casteless society, a society that focuses on unity through our spiritual identities, which are all equal and beyond bodily designations. It is our personal vision wherein everyone can work according to their own natural tendencies in a spirit of cooperation and devotion to God without being categorized merely because of their birth. It is our vision of a society in which everyone can get along, cooperating and assisting each other in harmony toward our spiritual growth. However, we all have to work toward social reform. After all, what kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you prefer? A world divided, full of social disparities and ethnic divisions? Or a world united in cooperation and harmony, all working to encourage and help each other through life? The decision is obvious.
We should all be ambassadors to spread social harmony. We should all be ambassadors of the genuine Vedic standards and culture. We should all be revolutionaries to break the materialistic social barriers between us. We must be willing to work for the progress and upliftment of all, which then guarantees our own upliftment. We must be willing to change society, and that change starts within each and everyone of us.
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