Caste according to the Vedas and the Gita

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Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra Saraswati


Let us first consider the view that according to the Vedas themselves caste is not based on birth. (After all, the Vedas are the source of our religion. So it is essential to be clear on this point.) Earlier I sought to counter the view that there was Vedic sanction for post-puberty marriages. The present contention about what the Vedas say about caste is similar, being based on a passage read out of context. What is mentioned as an exception to the rule is being interpreted as a rule itself. I will give firm proof in support of the view that caste is based on birth and not on the nature or quality of individuals. The caula of children belonging to particular caste is performed at the age of three, the upanayana at five or seven. These are samskaras based on birth and performed in childhood. So it would be absurd to claim that one's vocation is based on one's nature of qualities. Is it possible to determine one's qualities or nature in early childhood? Let us now come to Gita. It is true that the Gita speaks of "samadarsana", "seeing the selfsame thing in everything and everybody. But it would be perverse to argue on this basis that the Gita does not recognise any caste distinctions. When, according to Krsna, do we attain the stage of samatva, the stage when we will look upon all as equal? We must consider the context: The Lord speaks of the samadarsana of the wise man who is absorbed in the Atman and for whom there exists nothing [other than the Atman] including creation - and even the fact that Isvara is the creator is of no consequence to him. The Lord says that all are equal for a man when he renounces karma entirely to become an ascetic and attains the final state of enlightenment. The Vedas and the Upanisads say the same thing. Only an individual belonging to the highest plane can see all things as One [as one Reality]. Samadarsana is not of this phenomenal world of plurality nor is it for us who are engaged in works. The Lord speaks in the Gita of samadarsana, samacitta and samabhuddhi from the yogin's point of view, but by no means does he refer to "samakaryatva" as applied to our worldly existence. Some concede that Bhagavan does not deny caste differences, but however argue that, according to the Lord, caste is not based on birth but on the individual qualities of people. In support they quote this line from the Gita. "Caturvarnyam mayasrstam guna-karma-vibagasah". When do we come to know the qualities that distinguish an individual? At what age does he reveal his nature? How are we to determine this and impart him the education and training necessary for the vocation that will be in keeping with his qualities? Take, for instance, the calling of the Brahmin who has to join the gurukula when he is seven or eight years old. His education covers a period of twelve years; after this alone will he be qualified for his vocation which includes, among other things, teaching. If a man's occupation were to be fixed until after his character and qualities are formed, it would mean a waste of his youthful years. Even if he were to learn a job or trade thus at a late age it would mean a loss not only to himself but also to society. The Lord speaks again and again that we must be constantly engaged in work and that we must not remain idle even a moment. How then would he approve of an arrangement in which every individual has to be without any work until his vocation is determined according to his character? Does this mean that the Lord lends his support in theory alone to the system of vocations according to the differing qualities of people and that in actual practice he wants occupations to be based on birth? But he is not like a politician [of these days] speaking one thing and doing something entirely different. What do we see in Krsna's own life as a divine incarnation? When Arjuna refuses to fight saying that it is better to become a mendicant than spill the blood of friends and relatives even if it be to rule over an empire, what does the Lord tell him? He urges Arjuna to fight. "You are born a Ksatriya and you are duty-bound to wage war. Take up your bow and fight". Here too it may be argued thus: "Arjuna was a great warrior and a great hero. His reluctance to take up arms against friends and relatives must have been a momentary affair. His inner quality and temperament were that of a man of valour. So the Lord enthuses him to go to war. What he refers to as Arjuna's svadharma (own duty) cannot be the same as his jati dharma (caste duty). The Lord must be referring to Arjuna's natural character as his svadharma. " If such an argument is correct, what about the character of Dharmaputra (Yudhisthra)? From the very beginning he is averse to war and anxious to make peace with the Kauravas. Does he not go so far as to say that he would not insist on half the kingdom but he would be satisfied with just five houses? Krsna goes to the Kauravas as his envoy [of peace] but is himself dragged into war by them. Earlier he encouraged Yudhisthra to subjugate all his neighbouring kingdoms to become an imperial ruler and perform the rajasuya. Does Dharmaputra desire such glory? His inner character and temperament show that he is not warlike by nature nor do they suggest that he desires the status of a mighty imperial ruler. Sri Krsna Paramatman makes such a man practice his dharma of a Ksatriya. All this shows that by svadharma it is jati dharma that the Lord means. Men like Dronacarya were born Brahmins but they took up the duty of Ksatriyas. Bhagavan does not deprecate them since they were otherwise great men, but all the same he does not show any displeasure when Bhima taunts Dronacarya for having forsaken the dharma of his birth. Thus we have confirmation that by svadharma the Lord means the jati dharma of birth. Then, why does he use the phrase "guna-karma-vibhagasah" in the Gita?













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