Caste System and the Varnasrama Dharma in Hinduism

Hindu Caste System and Varnashrama Dharma

by Jayaram V

Hindu caste system is one of the most widely studied social systems in the world. It is perhaps one of the oldest social traditions of the world, which still exerts considerable influence upon the lives and attitudes of over a billion people. I have written several articles on the Hindu caste system in the past, mostly critically, and examined it from various perspectives suggesting that it is better if we can eliminate the practice altogether.

However, I believe I am asking for the impossible because the roots of Hinduism are entrenched in duty (dharma) and without duty there is no Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma so to speak. While working on an article on the Varnasrama Dharma, it occurred to me that in my earlier writings I might have missed an important point with regard to the relevance of caste system in the four phases of human life and I wanted to cover that aspect here. I still maintain that caste system had done a great damage to Hindu society. However, the system had some positive aspects which were totally ignored as the time went by. It is my conviction that whoever invented the caste system, their intentions were good but the results that followed from it, as with many human inventions, were disastrous. Given the human propensity to follow the path of least resistance, the system was a healthy choice to force certain groups and communities to adhere to a particular way of life and follow certain rules and obligations. But in course of time, the purpose was lost and the system was abused. In the following paragraphs I want to elaborate upon this premise.

Castes were meant to ensure obligatory duties

As a teacher if you leave a hundred students in a classroom to look after themselves and return after a few hours to see how things are going on, most likely you will find the class in total chaos. How can then you ensure a whole society of people to maintain discipline and decorum among themselves and observe proper norms of social and ethical behavior for a whole cycle of creation, spanning over epochs of time without losing their focus and commitment? Now, in the world there are certain jobs or duties which are not very likeable or rewarding and there are some which are very likeable and very rewarding. How can you prevent people from rushing to perform the rewarding jobs or stop them from avoiding the unpleasant ones? How can you make a person participate in a terrible war as a soldier knowing well that his chances of returning to his family are almost none to zero? Or make someone toil in the fields all day long, while someone else is sitting in a palatial house and enjoying the rewards of such toil?

The Vedic seers thought that they had found an answer to these social and human problems in the form of caste system. Remember they had to do it at a time when probably 98% of the population was illiterate. The Hindu caste system tried to distinguish the obligatory duties of people based upon their caste distinctions and in the process ensure the order and regularity of society.

Because of the caste system, each caste was obligated to perform certain specific duties, even if such duties were not economically rewarding or socially satisfying. Thus, the priests were expected to perform rituals and sacrifices for the benefit of gods and hosts of sacrifices (yajamanas) even if such duties were taxing and economically not very rewarding. Their duties enhanced their social status and earned them certain privileges, but did not give them enough satisfaction in terms of financial rewards or political power.

The Kshatriyas enjoyed power, dignity and social prestige, but their lives were very insecure and their families lived with a lot of anxiety. There was no certainty how long a warrior would live or support his family. The same was true even in case of a king. We learn from Selukus, a Greek ambassador who visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya, that the emperor lived in utter fear of his life and never slept in the same room for two consecutive days. Going by the number of enemies he had, his fear was justified.

The merchants and business people (vaisyas) had access to a lot of economic resources and opportunities to earn wealth, but correspondingly enjoyed lesser social privileges. If a king or a noble man demanded money or resources from a merchant or wanted to borrow money which was rarely repaid, they had to oblige without a protest. As part of their profession, they were also expected to travel to far off places through dangerous forests inhabited wild animals and robbers and across turbulent rivers, and suffer innumerable hardships along the way

The peasants and working classes had access to land ownership, arts and crafts, and opportunities to own vast tracts of lands as feudal lords and partners of professional guilds, but they had even lesser privileges in society, especially in religious and political matters. They were not allowed to study or live with dignity or stand on par with the higher castes in the social hierarchy.

The condition of outcastes was even worse. They were given no choice in choosing their profession but do their duties in a state of submission, because so unpleasant were their duties that given a choice none would undertake them. Therefore they were given little freedom to exercise their will or have a say in public affairs.

The system thus forced people to accept the obligations arising from their births and caste based professions. The law books strengthened the system prescribing rigid caste based rules and suggesting punishment for those who disregarded them.

Each caste not only enjoyed certain privileges but also suffered from certain disabilities. Higher privileges came with complex duties and greater responsibilities. If the rewards were good, the punishments were equally severe. If the Brahmanas enjoyed wider social privileges, they were also subject to constant public scrutiny for their conduct while the lower castes escaped with little or no attention, except when they tried to violate the social norms.

Thus, the original intent of the caste system was to create division of duties and ensure some form of social and economic justice for various sections of society. It guaranteed some degree of balance and orderly progression of society. It ensured a social order in which each caste was obligated to perform certain pleasant and unpleasant tasks that were essential for the overall welfare of the world and bear with advantages and disadvantages arising from that arrangement.

The present day world is a good example to know what happens when the caste system falls apart. Many children from the Brahmana families are now taking up other duties instead of their traditional ones because priestly profession does not guarantee a well-to-do life. So is the case with all the other castes. The result is what we witness today in the world, decline of family and society, absence of discipline and loss of faith.

That castes forced people to perform certain unpleasant tasks, with the prospect of karmic retribution for those who neglected them, balancing it with certain social and economic privileges in proportion to the degree of importance such duties attracted. Caste was an important aspect of life and carried some weight in many respects. But it was never the intention of the seers to make it the sole determining factor in shaping the destiny of each individual. The system was applied only to those who chose to be part of society and lived within its bounds, pursuing worldly goals and enjoying the benefits civilized life offered. But it ignored those who chose to renounce the worldly life and follow the ascetic path.

This becomes evident when we study the caste system from the perspective of varnasrama dharma. If you want to know about varnasrama dharma in detail, please use the links provided below and refer to the two articles I have written before.

Varnasrama dharma is, in fact, the dharma of all dharmas. It lays down what a person is obligated to do in each phase of human life. As a child one is expected to pursue studies related to his chosen profession, as an adult to perform his caste/family based obligatory duties, as an aging person to retire from active life live like a hermit and in old age to renounce everything and become a homeless wandering ascetic (sanyasi). In brief, this was the blue print of life suggested in the Vedas and the Upanishads.

Caste rules applied to the first two phases of human life

Now when we study the rules concerning Varnasrama dharma it becomes apparent that caste is relevant only in the first two stages. In the third and fourth phases caste becomes irrelevant as one gradually withdraws from life and renounces everything including one's caste. The law books confirm this.

In the third phase of life, as a hermit (vanaprastha) a person is expected to retire into a remote house or hermitage in a forest or a secluded place outside a village or a town and spend his time there in study and contemplation, preparing himself for the final state of renunciation, observing strict rules of chaste conduct. He is allowed to live under the roof of a house and follow certain norms. He is still expected to help others if they seek his help, but he is free from the usual obligatory duties of a householder.

The Vasistha Sutras lays down that during this phase he is not expected to enter a village or step on a ploughed land. He has to remain chaste, his heart full of meekness, honoring the guests who visit him irrespective of their caste or background, giving whatever he has and not receiving anything in return, taking three baths a day, and thus discharging his duties towards one and all.

The Baudhayana Sutras distinguishes two kinds of hermits, those who cook food and those who do not. Both are meant to observe certain norms but they are free from caste based obligatory duties of householders.

The Gautama sutras stipulates that a hermit shall live in a forest subsisting on roots and fruits practicing austerities. He still has to offer oblations by kindling fire. He should eat only wild growing vegetables and worship gods, ancestors, celestial beings and seers. He should receive the hospitality of all people of all castes except those with whom intercourse is forbidden. He may even use the flesh of animals killed by beasts. In other words he should avoid caste based distinction but live religiously and spiritually.

An ascetic person has no caste

The fourth phase of life, as an ascetic who practices renunciation to its perfection, is even more difficult to lead. An ascetic person in this phase of life has to completely erase his individuality and previous identity and leave no mark of who he was and to which caste he belonged. Even wearing the sacred thread is prohibited. The reason for this is suggested in the Jabala Upanishad by Yajnvalkya who tells Atri, "This (Self) alone is the sacred thread of him who purifies himself by offering and sipping water. This is the ordained method (vidhi) for those who have renounced worldly life (parivrajakas)."

As per the rules prescribed in the law books, during the final phase as wandering ascetic, one is not expected to wear any caste marks, or follow any visible signs of caste based conduct or show preference for a particular caste. The rules are crystal clear.

  • He must not possess anything.
  • He should not live in the same house or at the same place for long.
  • He must change his residence during rainy season and not enter any village except for begging.
  • He should beg for alms late, only after people might have eaten their meals.

In the Jabala Upanishad again, Yajnavalkya describes the ideal life and conduct of those great souls (paramahansas) who pursue Brahman, He cites some of their names and suggests how one should live to reach that state. "Here are Samvartaka, Aruni, Svetaketu, Durvasa, Ribhu, Nidagha, Jada-Bharata, Dattatreya, Raivataka, and others who are known by the name Paramahansas. They bear no distinguishing marks, act in mysterious ways, free from intoxication but behave as if they are intoxicated. Throwing into water the three pronged staff (tridandam), the water jug (kamandalam), tuft of hair on the back of the head, the sacred thread, and saying bhuh svaha, they (who want to become Paramahansas) should search for the Self. Resorting to nakedness they had at birth, without any attachments, without holding on to anything, they should follow the path of Brahman. With a pure mind that is endowed with stable intelligence, for the sake of sustaining their breath, with the alms they collect at the appointed times, they should fill the vessel of their stomachs, remaining equal to whether they received the alms or not. They must live in an empty house, a temple, a shelter made of grass or straw, an anthill, the base of a tree, a potter's house, a house where sacred fire is lit, the sandy bank of a river, a hill, a cave, a hollow of a tree, a water fall or a mountain torrent in a deserted place. Without effort, 297 free from egoism, with the mind firmly established in the Self, intent upon ending the consequences of impure actions, they finally give up their bodies on the path of renunciation. That one goes by the name paramahansa, yes, he goes by the name paramahansa."

According to the Vashista Sutras those who entered into Sanyasasrama were to shun society and public attention and act as if they were out of their minds (10.19). The same principles applied in case of their death also. Caste based cremation was prohibited for ascetic people. They were expected to spend the last days of their lives in secluded places or in the houses of low caste person and when they died they were to be buried or their bodies were to dropped into a flowing river or left in the open to become food for the wild animals.

Thus we see that caste was meant to ensure preserve the order and regularity, nurture the gods through sacrifices, continue the family lineage, and support various activities that are essential for the welfare of the people and other beings. It was meant to serve a limited purpose in the first two stages of life in the journey of a human being towards liberation. After retiring from life, one was expected to shun caste affiliations and caste related attachment and in the end renounce it altogether.

Is birth based caste system justified

The birth based caste system led to many social evils. But in itself it is not an indication that it is not justified. From the perspective of Varnasrama dharma, we can see some justification for it. Imagine what would have happened if human beings were to apply some system to decide who should belong to which caste. There would have been a number of errors in their judgment and vast scope for misuse of authority and willful injustice. Therefore, it make sense to rely upon divine justice and trust in the law karma to determine the caste of person. In other words, a person becomes a Brahmana or a Kshatriya or Vaisya or Sutra by his previous actions. A person's good or bad actions determine his next birth in a particular family according to his deeds. The Bhagavadgita confirms this possibility. We may perhaps go with the idea, giving the people enough choice and freedom to choose their own course of life and letting the law of karma determine the consequences of such actions. At the same we should not let any one group or caste impose their will upon others or tell them what they should or should not do. In other word, caste should become a person's individual choice not a social issue.

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