Caste System

1. Varnasrama

The “caste system” as it exists today is very much a degenerate version of varnasrama – a technical classification of personality types, conceived a couple of thousand years before Carl Jung and his theory of personality archetypes . Varna = colors, tones, spectrum, variations, variegations. Srama = labor, exertion, training.

Varnasrama was based on ones gunas (tendencies, qualities) and ones karma (actions), unlike the caste system which is based on ones birth or lineage.

चातुर्  वर्नयम्  मया  श्रस्तम  गुन  कर्म  विभागसः |

The four varnas were created by Me in accordance to the distribution of ones gunas (qualities) and karma (actions).
– Bhagavad Gita, 4.13

ब्राह्मण क्षत्रिय  विशां  शूद्राणां  च  परंतप  |
कर्माणि  प्रविभक्तानि  स्वभाव  प्रभवैर्  गुनैः  ||

Brahamana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra;
the duties are distributed according to the qualities inherent in ones innate nature.
– Bhagavad Gita, 18.41

These two verses are often pointed out by leftist pseudo-intellectuals to show that the caste system is sanctioned by Krishna. A few points to note:

  • In the above verse “caste” is not used. In fact, not even the word jaati is used.
  • Instead he refers to the scientific classification known as varnasrama (not much different from classification of people based on their personality archetypes by the father of modern psychology, Carl Jung), in accordance to the distribution (विभागसः) of ones qualities (गुन) and actions (कर्म).
  • The Bhagavad Gita, without any ambiguity uses words based on the root words ja, bhav, srsht, vyakt (pertaining to born, be, create, manifest) in their proper places. If it was the case that even the varnasrama concept is present at birth or arises from birth, he would have clearly used one of many words with root ja (from birth, arising from birth, born from, etc)

In short, varnasrama is a social classification based on the following four types of workers:

  1. Brahmin: Those motivated by knowledge, teaching. Carry the higher responsibility of questioning the moral rightness or dharma of every decision or action they take. Predominantly sattvic guna. Strictly speaking people of this varnasrama are those who apply Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as their way of life. These people enjoy being keepers, seekers, and transmitters of knowledge, including art. A good example of such are researchers, teachers, and artists.
  2. Kshatriya: Those motivated by power and control; the desire to lead, having leadership and organizational skills. Carry the responsibility of enforcing dharma. Predominantly sattvic-rajasic guna. These people enjoy being leaders, they enjoy decision making, exercise power, and mastery in politics. A good example might be some of the really dynamic managers in your company who thrive on leading.
  3. Vaishya: Those motivated by being able to “do things” or “make things”. Predominantly rajasic-tamasic guna.These people are workers, in particular “skilled” workers. They produce things, what they do they do to their best. A good example of this are most of the software developers in an IT company.
  4. Sudra: Those who are happy to do any work; they take very little to be motivated. Predominantly tamasic guna. These people are the casual (“unskilled”) workers who are easy to motivate – because they’re happy to do anything you give them. A good example of this are most of the testers and documentation folks, in an IT company. While software developers may detest doing testing or documentation work, sudras are content in doing anything.

One might compare varnasrama to Jungian personality types – just that the Hindus came up with the idea about six thousand years ago (not to mention that Jung was a scholar in Sanskrit studies, and there is plenty of evidence that he expropriated this from Hindu literature; see my separate article on Discreditation).

Note that traits like vegetarianism, cleanliness, successful career, artistic talents, chivalry, combat skills, courteousness, charity, what you wear, skin color, etc. have little or no bearing on determining ones varnasrama.

Society cannot function harmoniously when it denies the fact that people are of different varnas. Ideally, a person would make his or her educational and career choices based on their personal temperaments or inclinations. Otherwise there is the risk (often out of social stigma or pressure) of taking up something one is not talented in nor has any interest in. Resulting in feelings of dissatisfaction, loss, and even an inferiority, and as a consequence a detriment to the person and the well being of the society as a whole. This connection between varna and career choice brings us to the next topic, jaati.

Prakriti

One note before we get into jaati. While varnasrama itself is not established by birth, there is a component which is established at birth and environment: ones prakriti (loosely putting it, ones material constituents). It goes all the way down to and beyond the quantum level where your thoughts and actions largely influenced by your chemical makeup. For example, what you eat has significant impact on your thoughts and emotions, it influences your gunas. As said in the Bhagavad Gita, the ignorant think they are the doer. The actual doer is the jiva-atman tainted by prakriti. Note, that prakriti maybe ones material nature, but is not limited genetics. Thus why genetics alone fails to explain how in a family lineage that has traditionally produced kids who have a talent for music can produce a kid who has absolutely no talent for music, but say mathematics (and vice versa). Theories of dominant and recessive traits fail to apply here.

2. Jaati

As we saw, varnasrama is a scientific classification based on personality types. In parallel to the science of  varnas, there exists a functional classification or jaati.

Jaati also applied to non-humans as well. For example, plants and animals are categorized into different (and even multiple) jaatis depending on their form and function (which is dependent on context).

Among humans, this functional classification became associated with occupation. Each person performed the duty as prescribed by his jaati (jaati-dharma). So for example if you say are an engineer – you belong to the engineer jaati/profession. If you are a goldsmith, then you belong to the goldsmith jaati/profession.

Though listed here as a one-to-one correspondence to varnasrama, a jaati may actually be composed of multiple varnas of varying proportions.

  1. Brahmin: teacher, scientist, guru, minister, priest, poet, architect (i.e. most white collar workers)
  2. Kshatriya: leader, politician, planner, decision maker, governor, kings, generals. (i.e. most white collar workers to upper income blue collar workers)
  3. Vaishya: businessman, banker, merchant, goldsmith, landlord, etc. (i.e. most middle income blue collar workers)
  4. Sudras: builder, brick layer, farmer, servant, cleaner, municipal worker, etc. (i.e. most middle to lower income blue collar workers)

The degeneration of jaati may be traced as follows:

First it started with the tradition of families handing down their profession to their children. Successors “to the throne” were groomed for their job, in order to preserve family tradition, specialty, and name – whether it be a doctor, politician, or engineer – people start marrying only within their jaati. This was also very prevalent in many parts of the world as well, to marry within ones own creed. With jaati becoming a family tradition, handed down from generation to generation, came inevitably the idea of “you are born into it”. That is, once born into a royal family you are royal. Once born into a family of goldsmiths, you are by default almost destined to be a goldsmith.

Last but not least, enter politics into the picture to exploit jaati. There is nothing worse than causing divisiveness within people and polarizing them against each other, for the purpose of creating controllable constituencies for reeling in votes. Along with that, arose the close cousin of politics – power. At this point the idea of “being born into a jaati” becomes enforced through a socio-political structure. That is, not only are you born into a jaati, but the only way you can change your jaati (profession) is that you have to born into it. Thus the royal people remain royal without fear of being challenged by the working class people.

Many Hindu reformists, sages, saints, philosophers (many of whom were Brahmins) fought hard to eliminate the idea of jaati by emphasizing that ones varna (and subsequently jaati) is determined by ones karma (actions) and gunas (temperaments)… i.e. not by birth. There are also many illustrations in the Hindu epics and puranas showing mobility between different jaatis based on merit, showing that such mobility existed even back thousands of years ago. And very importantly the purposeful inclusion of topics illustrating tragic jaati discrimination in the epics like the Mahabharata  (like that of Ekalavya being discriminated, or that of Karna being discriminated), amply illustrating the angst of facing such discrimination as well as the adharmic consequences that follow, i.e. if one were to prevent the mobility between jaatis based on merit.

Advantages of Jaati

While the caste system warrants no merit whatsoever, the jaati system has some benefits.

Recognizing Temperaments

Jaati (being based on varnasrama) recognizes that people are different, and produces different levels of education and work opportunities. For example, before the British, every province had hundreds of gurukulams – each tailored to the level and type of education geared towards people of different qualities (gunas) and aptitudes (varnas). If people of farming or musician background wanted to learn engineering, they would go to their respective gurukulum, where the subject is taught in accordance with the temperament of farmers or musicians.

However, with the systematic dismantling of gurukulums by the British, youths of different aptitudes and socio-economic backgrounds were forced to compete under the same roof. Those who had natural temperament for a certain subject were at unfair advantage, while those who did not have temperament for that subject struggled to keep up. It would be traumatic to the former. In this “university system”, not only was everyone put under the same umbrella – the concept in itself was barbaric, and the consequences were tragic, but the western model encouraged competition instead of team spirit (where each one helps the other one up). For example, there was no scoring system in a gurukulam (though there were honorary titles given at the end of the entire training, which is far different from grading). The kid who “underperformed” respected, admired, and looked up to the one who “outperformed”. Likewise those who outperformed helped up those who underperformed. In the end, they call graduate with varying levels of skills, but none with a stigma of being graded or branded. The result of getting rid of gurukulams and introducing the university system caused many jaatis to actually become backward (and classified as backward “castes”, regardless of the fact they may be far more specialized in areas not placed of high value by the industrial society of the time). Today we can see a feeble re-emergence of gurukulam concept in the West, by schools specialized in unique teaching methods.

Today we also see that indigenous knowledge (i.e. of “backward classes”) are given high value: sustainable farming methods, the knowledge-base of natural medicinal plants and medicinal techniques, indigenous manufacturing techniques, indigenous rain water harvesting, irrigation, fisheries, ship-building techniques, textiles, etc. Yet, at the same time this knowledge is shamelessly expropriated and commercialized, while at the same time rendering the source of this knowledge as “backward”; very much due to the Indian educational systems failure to bring back indigenous knowledge systems and techniques as a respectable career paths, worthy of being commercialized indigenously instead of being “rediscovered” by foreign countries (and commercialized over there).

Profession

Jaati (before it degenerated) is as close to the term “profession” than one might think, just that the name of the profession is not in English (it is in local vernacular), and secondly, it is way outdated for its time. For example, we have jaatis in native dialect, for farmers, goldsmiths, merchants, artisans, etc. Today’s jaatis are for example: software engineers, architects, doctors, businessmen, scientists, leaders, athletes, poets, etc.

Social Fabric

The concept of jaati also emphasizes that of community over individualism. In a jaati system a person always carries himself with some dignity, as he belongs to and takes pride in his jaati, in what he does best (regardless of whether it is a white or blue collar job). There is no feeling of being stigmatized that one’s job may be “too low” in the ladder. For example, consider in the USA, where a tailor (isolated and deprived of any sense of a tailor community) lives among a community of engineers. He’ll likely feel isolated compared with the engineers. Might not even take as much pride and passion in his job — to the level he would if where among a community of tailors. He might even want to become an engineer due to a feeling of inferiority with his own career, as opposed to a genuine interest in engineering.

Resonance Effect

Many jaati’s tend to congregate and/or prefer to mix within their jaati.

People tend to be more productive and enjoyable when they are among fellow jaati members. A resonance effect, when people of like minds get together. For example, a musician among musicians, as opposed a musician living among a group of 10 mathematicians. Or a philosopher among other philosophers, as opposed to among doctors or those who lack abstract thought.

Note: this is not rigid. If you survey the people you mix with the most closely, they’ll all likely belong to a certain temperament. How often has one not noticed when in a party (especially where everyone is a stranger to each other), the introverts gravitate towards each other, or doctors form their own group, or mathematicians form their own little coterie. It is not rigid, there is movement and interaction between all, but overtime as the party progresses they gravitate towards each other and form small blobs that occasionally disperse, but return together. Or a passionate Muslim, among a group of passionate evangelical Christians? Or the fact that we have townships in major cosmopolitan cities, like Japan Town, China Town, Indian Town, and Muslim communities.

It is the denial of jaati (that people are different) coupled with the emergence of fundamentalist jaatis (based not on temperaments or even professions, but hard-line ideologies, like fundamentalist Christians or Muslims), is causing multiculturalism to fail in the West.

There is nothing inherently wrong in a person preferring to mix among people of similar jaati. Provided, this doesn’t become rigid, like when one becomes too fundamentalist to go outside one’s comfort zone and associate with other jaatis, including forming close bonds, nor become too insecure to see others congregating together (especially those who have been brought up on a predominant mono-culture).

3. Caste

Though the exploitation based on jaati was prevalent, it was never a “racial” discrimination, for the concept of “race” never existed in India. Nor were there any complexes – no one superior or inferior to other. Each simply carried out his jaati-dharma, no more different than engineers, doctors, scientists, skilled workers, non-skilled workers, etc. do what they do without feeling of superiority/inferiority complex.

But this peaceful cooperative co-existence was destroyed by greed and further exploited and accentuated by the British Empire (by allurement, by introducing the notion of race, breeding mistrust). In their spirit of divide-and-conquer, they pitted one jaati against another. The term “caste” itself was introduced by Portuguese missionaries when they invaded India with extreme brutality, in the early 15th century. The word “caste” comes from the Portuguese word casta – meaning race [which in turn has the Latin roots – casto – meaning pure].

The British worked hard to deepen every fault line between castes that they could find (and manufacture ones that didn’t exist), by fueling strong identities based not only on caste, but worst: based on race. All in the name of divide-and-conqueror, which was the primary means for them to keep such a diverse country under their leash.

One should note that caste is prevalent in the West as well, as in the USA where people play the caste card with Hispanics, Blacks, the Christian Right, Muslims, gays, the rich and famous, the homeless, white collar workers (IT, businessmen), blue collar workers, immigrants,… For instance, a number of cities are segregated (and hardly get visibility on the radar when it comes to politics). Take Washington D.C. – the whole of South-East D.C. is almost exclusively Black population (newscasters are careful to make the distinction – “inner city” versus “outer city” kids for example, almost treated like outcasts).

Caste system is present in Christian culture, and has been for most of its history (and for centuries Biblically justified): slavery, imperialism, feudalism, and serfdom. There is even segregation today among church members. There have been numerous petitions and protests by Dalit Christians against caste discrimination in the church. Not only is it more difficult for them to rise up in the church ranks (whether in India, or churches elsewhere in the world), but even more open discrimination like not being allowed for example to occupy the same front rows seats in the church as others.

The caste system is also present widely in Muslim culture as witnessed by the many castes within Islam that are very intolerant and destructive of one another. For example, strictly prohibiting marriage outside their caste, etc. For example, entire Muslim townships segregated based on one’s Muslim caste (Suni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, Wahhabi, Salafi, Sufi, etc… and a number of sub-castes within each of these). As mentioned under “Resonance Effect” (see above), there is nothing inherently wrong, as long as this territorialism is not rigid. Note also, here I use the word “caste” as opposed to “jaati”. As caste is birth based, while jaati allows mobility. And the Muslim sub-identities fall more into the category of the former. For example, while a musician jaati can marry a mathematician jaati, a Suni would not be allowed to marry a Shia. Not to mention violent animosity between segregated townships to different Muslim castes (let alone to non-Muslims).

The caste system continues as a degenerate class structure, mainly kept alive by power struggle, politics, and tribal tradition.

4. Tribalism

There is a fourth aspect, that operates orthogonally – and that is tribalism.

As if the degeneration of varnasrama and jaati, to caste were not enough, the juxtaposition of caste on otherwise peaceful tribal communities (which was and is most of India), results in a really toxic mixture, that is so far removed from the precursors of caste. That, mixed with local politics (binding caste over natural tribal feelings of community), has resulted in clashes and violence.

It is an important factor as it is a natural instinct that precedes any concept of varnasrama or jaati. Tribalism is so pervasive that even modern societies have not been untouched by it. Tribalism in the West (for most of their two thousand or so years of history) is based mostly on the most negative of traits, such as racism, prejudice, and feelings of superiority. It is also seen on a grander scale, such as when an entire nations tribal instinct are rallied into a cry for war, a “war call”, to justify taking the nation into war with another nation. I’m reminded of the US Senate floor chanting and stomping their feet, as senior George Bush walked in (this was the prelude to the first Iraq / Gulf War).

5. Conclusion

Buying into the concept of “caste” (i.e. race/birth based distortion of jaati and varnasrama) was one of the biggest sell outs ever. Once a person believes he is “born into” a certain jaati, he takes it for granted, and thus no longer strives to live up to the highest standards set for that jaati (one’s jaati dharma), and that jaati declines. This is a great loss to the society as a whole as well as to that jaati/community, as it causes false-pride. Like when a person belonging to an “engineering” jaati says, “I am proud to belong to engineering jaati” (i.e. come from a family of great engineers), but only to ride on the coattails of the success of his ancestors, while the person himself is a poor example of exemplifying his jaati dharma as an engineer, and henceforth each succeeding generation that jaati declines.

It is a good sign that a number of the younger generation very much disavow caste.

Communities based on jaati are important (as highlighted in the Advantages of Jaati section above), provided jaati communities take the rightful form of being based on intrinsic value (career, aptitude, gunas, actions, temperaments, etc) of the person, and not based on a birth-label which may not at all reflect ones temperaments. For example, there could be a person who is naturally inclined to be a musician (i.e. ideally that would be his jaati), but discouraged by the community of musicians because he was not “born” into that jaati.

On the positive side, there are many changes that are happening at a rapid pace in India, that can purge the society of the caste system: reduction of poverty, rapid economic progress, and upping the standard of living and literacy. And maybe, in some distant future, the recognition of the need for jaati, i.e. the need to recognize that people are different, will make a comeback, restored to its rightful form.

So what’s my varnasrama and jaati?

In the past, when the entire population of the Indian Subcontinent (such as during the Ramayana/Mahabharata period) was less than a million, society could afford to have just a few specialized roles. In today’s world one will find one’s varnasrama and jaati to be spread across multiple disciplines, though having a dominant varna-srama and a dominant jaati.

A program manager for example, while mainly kshatriya (leadership skills) in varnasrama, should also possess good business inclination (vaishya), and also possess the inclination to think broadly across varied domain areas (brahmin).

I don’t believe in caste, so I don’t even entertain the question as to what “my caste” is. But, I can probably guess what my varnasrama is:

  1. mostly brahmin. Today’s critical thinkers, teachers, philosophers fall into this category.
  2. a good amount of vaishya. The bulk of today’s workers (including most IT professionals) fall into this category.
  3. a dash of kshatriya. A lot of today’s businessmen, leaders, activists, and politicians fall into this category.

As for my jaati:

  1. philosopher?
  2. knowledge engineer?

Further Reading

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