"Religion is the idea which is raising the brute unto man, and man unto God." - Swami Vivekananda












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | February 2005  





       Towards a Castless India


        Swami Satyaswarupananda






      Individual freedom, social equality and democracy are considered the defining virtues of modern civilization. They are the benchmarks against which social thinkers judge the progress of nations and peoples. These values are often found to be compromised in the developing world and such areas have provided focal points for intervention by the North. Whether these interventions have been intellectual, socio-economic, political or military, they have invariably been controversial and contested. For, although few intellectuals would argue against the universal desirability of these values, few societies can boast of allowing a free play to these. In fact, numerous extant and vigorous social institutions confound and challenge the universality of these values. Caste is one such institution.

      To speak of caste without condemning it is a sure way to invite censure, yet caste as an institution has proved remarkably enduring. If the Constitution of free India abolished untouchability and made caste discrimination illegal, the provision of reservations for scheduled castes and tribes has tended to reinforce the caste identity of at least a large section of the Indian population. Elections in India repeatedly confirm the fact that even progressive and liberal-minded individuals can hardly afford to ignore caste equations if they are to be successful in electoral politics. Caste remains a crucial determinant in a majority of Indian marriages, even when the individuals concerned are well educated and are otherwise little concerned about caste. It has been pointed out by social thinkers that caste served as a social bulwark that protected and preserved the Hindu society in the face of invasions, but the same bulwark also cramped the Hindus with restrictions, thus sapping their vitality and choking their growth. This paradoxical nature of caste has intrigued scholars and social observers and excited their imagination down the centuries. This has spawned hundreds of writings and observations on the subject without the last word being said yet.


      The Sociology of Caste

      Caste is essentially about social divisions and gradations, about the formation of classes and ranks based on differences in lineage, occupation or wealth. In recent times, Louis Dumont's book Homo Hierarchicus has popularized the concept of human beings as essentially hierarchical in their social formations. It has been argued that social hierarchy is an inevitable outcome of basic biological differences between humans - both as individuals as well as groups - and these differences are often accentuated by environmental modifiers. That such gradations are natural is supported by their existence amongst a wide range of social animals. Ants, termites and bees provide a striking example of organized division of function and labour. The queens, nymphs, workers, soldiers and drones amongst these insects have very specialized roles and these divisions are therefore termed 'castes' by entomologists.

      Most people identify caste with Hindu society, but discerning observers have pointed out that the Hindu caste system is only a special case of a much more general, if not universal, phenomenon of class distinction and hierarchy. Social stratification appeared early in the course of social evolution. The four varnas of Vedic India had their equivalents in other contemporary civilizations. Endogamy, commensality and occupational specialization are taken by social anthropologists to define caste, and these were virtually the determinants of all social stratification in pre-modern societies.

      In modern societies, occupational diversity, increased social mobility, loosening of family ties and economic expansion have led to the replacement of the traditional determinants of caste by economic status as the sole determinative of social difference. We now have economic classes - the upper, the middle and the working - that are in no way less hierarchical than the traditional caste or the ranked feudal order. What differentiates the modern class from its medieval or ancient counterpart is the theoretical lack of exclusiveness and the individual as the unit of stratification. Unfortunately, in practice, not many individuals manage to rise from the lower ranks of society to its higher echelons, and so class divisions are not as labile as one would otherwise expect them to be.

      Marxism represents a modern ideological attempt at developing a classless society. However, the inevitability of class struggle and the rule of the proletariat as predicted by Marx never really materialized in the industrial nations of Europe. Capitalist societies circumvented this problem through welfare measures and 'class cooperation'. Marxism succeeded as a political movement in agrarian societies through dictatorial measures that not only curbed individual enterprise and democracy, but also led to the replacement of the feudal hierarchy with its bureaucratic communist counterpart.

      A more sinister form of social division is the one on racial and ethnic lines. At a global level this is currently one of the leading causes of conflict. Even after the abolition of slavery and apartheid racial bias in subtle forms remains apparent in affluent societies, while in almost all recent large-scale armed conflicts ethnic issues have played a significant role.

      Caste, then, as it is found in India, is hardly unique. Yet it has distinctive features that deserve attention. When the Portuguese first used the term caste they derived it from casta, meaning 'pure or unmixed'. They were probably impressed by the rules segregating the castes and the prohibitions against inter-marriage. That a series of Smriti texts down the centuries had been formulating rules to regulate social organization, and in the process routinize and perpetuate the existing segregation, is also unique to India.


      Evolution of Castes


      Interestingly, the origins of the varna divisions as found in the Rig Veda appear to be racial. Early verses of this Veda speak of two varnas, the arya and the dasa (or dasyu), as two distinct and inimical groups, differing in physical features, skin colour and culture. The dasas were later conquered and assimilated even as the four varnas with their traditional duties as known to us crystallized by the later Vedic period.

      Although according to texts like the Bhagavadgita varna divisions are based on individual character traits (guna) and occupation (karma), these divisions had turned hereditary in the late Vedic period itself, even as occupations became hereditary. Here it may be worth noting that even in modern societies the likelihood that children will choose the vocation of their parents, or a related vocation, is quite high. That occupations should be hereditary in ancient times was, therefore, only natural.

      Despite the restrictions imposed by the Smritis on inter-varna marriages, caste divisions in ancient India remained fairly fluid. In the Mahabharata we find Yudhishthira commenting: 'It appears to me that it is very difficult to ascertain the caste of human beings on account of confusion of all varnas Е hence the wise consider character the prinicipal desirable.' (1) Acharya Shankara echoes a similar view about the then existing caste structure in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya. (2)

      The proliferation of vocations and inter-varna marriages led to the formation of numerous occupational groups, each of which became, by the medieval times, a caste or a sub-caste called jati which, as the name itself implies, was hereditary.

      Caste and Privilege


      If social hierarchy is universal and if caste is simply one form of social hierarchy, what has made the Indian caste system an anachronism and anathema in modern times? For one, as stated earlier, economic factors are the prime determinants of the social order - the social and political relations, and the class divisions that characterize modern societies. The rise of 'vaishya power', as Swami Vivekananda put it, was coincident with the Industrial Revolution and has been the chief driving force for capitalist societies both in the colonial and the post-colonial era. The jati hierarchy, however, is not consonant with economic status, and has often been at odds with the rising economic order. Second, the free market capitalist economy always leaves room for upward socio-economic mobility, although in practice such rise may not be common. The predetermined nature of jatis, however, tend to discourage social change. Finally, it was the prescription of hereditary privileges and social discrimination, manifesting in its worst form as 'untouchability', that really made the caste system an eyesore.

      Interestingly, scholars have argued that the crystallized caste system as it obtained in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was 'neither an unchanged survival of ancient India nor a single system that reflected core cultural values'. Rather, caste as a modern social construct is 'the product of a concrete historical encounter between India and British colonial rule'. Not only did the British privilege caste distinctions over all other forms of social identity but they also played upon caste identities to ensure colonial control. The significant changes ushered into Indian society after independence both through constitutional and social measures provide some support for this view.


      On Breaking Privileges


      Class, caste and privilege happen to be closely linked entities. It is this link that is the source of all discrimination and oppression. As Swami Vivekananda put it succinctly, 'Caste is a natural order. Е That is the only natural way of solving life. Men must form themselves into groups and you cannot get rid of that. Wherever you go, there will be caste. But that does not mean there will be these privileges!' (3)

      Unfortunately, privileges are as pervasive as caste. 'Privilege is the bane of human life,' said Swamiji, while analysing its dynamic relationship with the social order in his famous lecture on 'Vedanta and Privilege':

      Two forces, as it were, are constantly at work, one making caste, and the other breaking caste; in other words, the one making for privilege, the other breaking down privilege. And whenever privilege is broken down, more and more light and progress come to a race. This struggle we see all around us. Of course there is first the brutal idea of privilege, that of the strong over the weak. There is the privilege of wealth. If a man has more money than another, he wants a little privilege over those who have less. There is the still subtler and more powerful privilege of intellect; because one man knows more than others, he claims more privilege. And the last of all, and the worst, because [it is] the most tyrannical, is the privilege of spirituality. If some persons think they know more of spirituality, of God, they claim a superior privilege over everyone else. (1.423)

      Swamiji was in full agreement with the educated, reform-minded individuals of his time about the necessity of a thorough overhauling of society, for he felt that the narrow, restrictive and separative caste distinctions were a barrier to India's progress. But his plan was not destructive. He believed that each society followed its own line of growth and all that needed to be done was to remove barriers that impeded this natural evolution. He noted that the introduction of 'new modes of education', the opening of 'new channels for the coming-in of wealth', and modern competition, especially trade competition with Europe, had already broken down caste barriers to a great extent. What he wanted to add to this process was the introduction of ideas, for he was confident that caste distinctions will 'crumble before the advance of ideas'.

      By 'ideas' Swamiji did not mean modern scientific and liberal social ideas alone. For, although most progressive modern societies are built upon these ideas, they have not proved sufficient in breaking down barriers and privileges. What is needed is Vedanta, and a culture based on the Vedantic spirit. This is because 'none can be Vedantists, and at the same time admit of privilege to anyone, either mental, physical, or spiritual; absolutely no privilege for anyone.' Vedanta proclaims that 'the same power is in every man, the one manifesting more, the other less; the same potentiality is in everyone. Where [then] is the claim to privilege?' (Ibid.)

      The Vedantic message, when it spreads among the lower ranks of society, ensures bottom-up reform, for 'if you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, I am as good a man as you; I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher; but I have the same God in me, as you have in you.' (3.246) All grass-root workers can testify to this potent transforming effect of Vedantic culture. In fact, Swamiji was categorical that when everyone was taught that divinity is within, everyone will work out his own salvation. (Ibid.)


      Shudra-jagarana: The Rise of the Shudras


      To Swami Vivekananda the varnas were not simple descriptive categories of the Indian social order. He used these categories to represent Indian history, to conceptualize the evolving world order, and even to make historical predictions. In one of his letters to his American host Mary Hale he writes, 'Human society is in turn governed by the four castes - the priests, the soldiers, the traders, and the labourers', and after a brief discussion of the characteristic features of each of these states he observes, 'Last will come the labourer (shudra) rule. Its advantages will be the distribution of physical comforts - its disadvantages, (perhaps) the lowering of culture. There will be a great distribution of ordinary culture, but extraordinary geniuses will be less and less.' (6.380-1)

      In the seminal essay 'Modern India', he dwelt more elaborately on this issue and suggested:

      A time will come when there will be the rising of the shudra class, with their shudrahood, that is to say, not like that as at present, when the shudras are becoming great by acquiring the characteristic qualities of the vaishyas or the kshatriyas; but a time will come, when the shudras of every country, with their inborn shudra nature and habits - not becoming in essence vaishya or kshatriya, but remaining as shudras - will gain absolute supremacy in every society. (4.468)

      The last few decades have seen a significant rise in social and political awareness among the underprivileged sections of Indian society as also in their attempts at self-empowerment. In his latest book The Silent Revolution, the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot argues that this trend constitutes a genuine 'democratization' of India and that the social and economic effects of this 'silent revolution' are bound to multiply in the years to come.

      This assertiveness has also brought into focus the problem of class conflict especially in areas where ultra-left ideologies have been dominant. Swamiji had warned against conflict for two reasons: one, it would further divide an already heterogenous nation; two, it would prevent the diffusion of culture to the lower strata of society. The latter is crucial because culture is indispensable for any group to be sustainable, for 'it is culture that withstands shocks, not a simple mass of knowledge.' Swamiji therefore laid great emphasis on the diffusion of culture. In his famous Madras lecture on 'The Future of India', he exhorted: 'Teach the masses in the vernaculars, give them ideas, they will get information; but something more is necessary, give them culture. Until you give them that there can be no permanence in the raised condition of the masses.' (3.291)

      It is worth noting that the shudras always had their own culture. In his monumental work History of Dharmasastra, P. V. Kane observes that if the shudras laboured under certain grave disabilities they had certain compensatory advantages too. They could follow almost any profession except the few especially reserved for the brahmanas. They were free from the daily round of rituals mandatory for the other varnas, they had to undergo no samskaras except marriage, no penances were necessary for them in case of moral lapses and they had no restriction to observe regarding food and drink or gotra and pravara (in marriage). They were entitled to purta-dharma (charitable acts) and also the pancha mahayajnas. (4) Swamiji not only endorsed most of these cultural features but actually prescribed them for everybody, irrespective of caste. He was as much against meaningless ritual as he was in favour of inter-caste marriages. He was all for freedom of choice in matters of food and occupation; and service as envisioned in purta-dharma and the pancha mahayajnas, he considered mandatory for all. But Swamiji also wanted the masses to appropriate the Sanskritic culture that had all along been the privileged possession of the upper castes, for Sanskrit had been the source of the power and prestige wielded by the upper classes. Of course, by Sanskritic culture Swamiji meant the life-giving ideas contained in the Upanishads and related texts, and not the 'mass of superstition' that often passed as Hinduism.

      Despite all the recent changes and upheavals, legislations and social protests, there is little to suggest that caste in India is on its way out. From Buddha to Narayana Guru to Mahatma Gandhi, a whole host of powerful spiritual personalities have campaigned against caste, but the system has endured. In her essay on Sri Ramakrishna and the Caste System in this issue, Dr. Krishna Verma notes Sri Ramakrishna's pregnant comment: 'The caste system can be removed by one means only, and that is the love of God. Lovers of God do not belong to any caste.' The bhakti movement bears historical testimony to this fact, and Swamiji echoes this spirit of Vedantic bhakti when he says, 'Live in any caste you like; but that is no reason why you should hate another man or another caste. It is love and love alone I preach, and I base my teaching on the great Vedantic truth of the sameness and omnipresence of the Soul of the Universe.' (3.194) The solution to the vexed issue of caste, therefore, may lie not in an iconoclastic attack on caste but in the ability of communities to transcend these barriers.

      The message of Vedanta as exemplified in the lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda contains this call for transcendence. It has played a significant historical role in weakening caste distinctions and it will continue to break caste barriers as it percolates among the masses. To the extent that we are able to contribute to this process, we may consider ourselves privileged.




1. 'Vanaparva', Mahabharata, 180.31-3, cited in P V Kane, History of Dharmasastra (Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1997), 2.61.

2. Acharya Shankara's commentary on Brahma Sutras, 1.3.33.

3. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.245.

4. History of Dharmasastra, 2.164.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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