Caste – a classification of human nature

Caste, or varna, to be more precise, is the indication of the particular manner in which an individual is connected to the Absolute, the source of all that is.

Here, by caste is meant the four varnas of the Hindu tradition, which are often translated as class rather than caste. The Bhagavad Gita says that the whole world is made of three qualities: sattva (calm), rajas (passion) and tamas (un-clarity). The human psyche is also made of different compositions of these qualities and this is the basis for caste. Sattva, says the Gita, is dominant in the brahmana, rajas in the kshatriya and vaishya, and tamas in the shudra. Texts of the Hindu tradition say several times that the varna is determined primarily by one’s nature and not by one’s birth, and modern Hindu thinkers such as Gandhi, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Radhakrishnan and Shrila Prabhupada concur.

In this perspective, to have a varna is to know oneself to the depths of one’s existence. At present, we live in a culture that is realising that happiness lies in actualising one’s own potentials, and not in following the oft-trodden path. Films such as 3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par promote this way of thinking. The varna system, in its original essence, is just that.

Perhaps the basic task in life for us as human beings is to know and follow our calling. In the above sense, a caste is a calling – a calling from nature to be a certain kind of person, even if that may involve considerable pain or sacrifice.

To understand the truth about existence, and to relate every possible situation in this world, psychological or physical, to the Absolute, the very root of all things – that is the role of the brahmana. He can perform this role because his being is dominated by sattva, and hence, he is aware of his own roots in the Absolute, since there is little passion or un-clarity to hinder this awareness. The philosopher Martin Buber is a typical example of a brahmana. Other writers who perhaps fall into this category are Ananda Coomaraswamy, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Carl Gustav Jung, and their proper place is in the academia. The sattva composition of the brahmana is marked by detachment, serenity, and in its worst forms, an indifference to the world, as is characteristic of much modern scholarship.

To conduct the activity of the world is the function of the kshatriya and the vaishya. The kshatriya plays the part of the organiser and the administrator, for his share of rajas is tinged with assertiveness, self-confidence, and at worst, dictatorship. Pervez Musharraf is perhaps a good example of a kshatriya. He is also a good example of the corruption that follows when a kshatriya rules society without the counsel of a brahmana.

The vaishya also conducts the activity of the world, but in its more commonplace, social and transactional aspects, rather than conducting the activity from above, like the kshatriya. The majority of human beings belong to this group. The vaishya’s share of rajas is tinged with exuberance, enthusiasm, and in its worst forms, greed. The economic forces that are so dominant in the world today are signs of the vaishyas being a great influence, unlike the early part of the 20th century when it was totalitarianism of the kshatriyas that dominated. When a vaishya takes up the role of the brahmana, we get a form of academics and research that is concerned with specifics and not with the whole picture, with petty debates on historical dates, on isolated physical processes and on individuals, rather than focusing on what these dates, processes and individuals mean in the larger picture of existence. Philosophy or theology, once the queen of all disciplines and the one which all other disciplines served, now becomes an isolated little department.

The tamas-dominated shudra is not a lowly creature, as the degenerate form of the varna system understands him. He is rather one who is good working with his hands and legs, performing the most basic tasks of maintaining order, harmony and cleanliness which forms the basis for civilisation. Only a hunter gatherer society can exist without a class of shudras. It is difficult to think of a famous shudra, though it is important to note that the caste and regionalism dominated politics of modern India is often a politics where the shudra is the leader, a task for which his lack of fitness is demonstrated by the misdeeds in the politics of UP and Bihar.

Needless to say, there will be those who are dominated by one of these four categories but also have elements of the other types. For instance, there are brahmanas with a kshatriya tinge, and other brahmanas who are more purely brahamana-like.

In an ideal world, the so-called sat yuga of the Hindu tradition, each individual would have an innate self-knowledge of his potentials, and thereby, his caste. Such a world would itself be dominated by sattva. But as time progresses, sattva dissipates and rajas and tamas come to the fore, causing much confusion and lack of self-knowledge. Caste becomes a matter of heredity.

Finally, a word on the matter of heredity. In a society such as that of ancient India, there were few colleges and universities. Unless one was a brahmana, one learnt one’s professional skills from one’s father. Hence, from a tiny age, the soldier’s son would be brought up in a soldier-like ethos and gradually imparted the skills of a soldier by his father. The potter’s son would be brought up in a potter’s ethos. There was no school to go to where other influences would attract him. There was no internet and TV to know about the myriad possibilities of the world. Just going to the next village was a long journey that few undertook. Today, children want to be singers after watching Indian Idol, and astronauts after knowing about NASA. The world is different, and hence, we find a hereditary basis for professions quite illogical. In fact, it is quite natural and logical in a traditional, pre-industrial society, although that still does not warrant heredity being made the infallible norm.

“Caste is inherent in human nature. Hinduism has merely made a science out of it.” – Mahatma Gandhi

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~ by tdcatss on September 14, 2010.

2 Responses to “Caste – a classification of human nature”

  1. Kaif, I think that there is some misunderstanding in people between the two words and their inherent meanings: varna and jati.

    The ancient Hindus created the varna system and not the jati system, which evolved later. Varna system was free because it was based on the constitution of the person and his/her disposition. A person had the choice to move from one varna to the other. The epics and Upanishads mention a lot of people who had chosen/changed varnas. For example, Vishwamitra, Lord Krishna, Ravana, etc.

    The Jati system was based on the occupation of the father/family to whom/which you were born.

  2. yes, i don’t know very much about history but i suppose you’re right !

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