A second and deeper look at varnasrama reveals it's nature as an "Organic Democray".
"49.5 % reservations in IITs, Students launch agitation" declare newspaper headlines. The current reservations are purported to assist the supposedly lowborn sections of society, who were discriminated against for generations in Hinduism.
THE SOCIAL BODY – DISCRIMINATION OR COOPERATION?
Interestingly, the original Vedic scriptures don't consider birth – the basis of casteist discrimination in modern Hinduism – as the criterion of social classification. The Bhagavad-gita (4.13) declares that this social division, known as van,lasrama, was based on qualities and activities (guna-karma). The Rg Veda (10.90.12) compares society to the human body. The brahmanas (thinkers and teachers) are compared to the head, the ksatriyas (governors and protectors) to the arms, vaisyas (producers and traders) to the belly and sudras (workers and general assistants) to the feet. In our body, one part may be positioned higher than the other, but that is just to facilitate its optimum contribution to the body. Ultimately all parts need nourishment and are necessary for proper bodily functioning. If any part is neglected or malfunctions, the whole body suffers. Similarly, in the social body, brahmanas (determined by qualities, not birth) are higher in the social hierarchy, but that is just to ensure optimum social utilization of their intellectual abilities. Ultimately, every class is valued for its contribution to society. If any class is exploited or is lethargic, the entire society is adversely affected. Importantly, these four social classes, known as van).as, are not discriminatory man-made divisions. Essentially they are four human types found in every human society. Most people exhibit qualities that re- flect an overlapping of these categories, but one occupational inclination eventually predominates.Interestingly, we find similar divisions in a modern MNC – researchers, managers, financers and workers. This division is not discriminatory, but fair, because people are classified not forcibly, but as per their abilities.
Intriguingly the Greek philosopher Plato in his The Republic echoes this principle. Though he mentions three classes instead of four – philosopher kings, warriors (called as auxiliaries), and merchants and workers together as one, his basis for classification is the same – natural propensities. He compares rulers to gold, auxiliaries to silver, and those in the third class to brass and iron.
Engaging people as per their psychophysical natures has several benefits:
1. Provides individual job satisfaction and security
In Vedic times, experienced elders would identify the natural inclination of a child and train him accordingly, thus empowering him to excel in his vocation and thus become emotionally satisfied and economically secure.
2. Avoids needless competition and maximizes social productivity
When people are trained according to their natures, all members of society – teachers, administrators, traders, artisans – pursue their respective professions without having to compete with each other and contribute constructively to society.
Nowadays, when certain professions – engineering and medicine, for example – are glamorized, everyone chases after them. This leads to:
• Students in those fields undergo intense, often maniac, competition.
• Even successful students fear unemployment as too many candidates vie for too few jobs.
• When students are educated contrary to their natures, they are unable to develop the competence expected of their profession, leading to harm or even havoc. Most of us have probably heard about say doctors prescribing wrong medicines.
• Dearth of talent in other fields leads to decreased overall social productivity.
3. Satisfies everyone's material needs in an efficient and uncomplicated manner.
Communities whose members specialize in different fields can trade internally and become self-sufficient, thus avoiding the complications attendant with external dependence.
HOW DID VARNASRAMA AVOID EXPLOITATION?
1. All people – irrespective of their social position – were spiritually equal as servitors of God
The lower castes would serve the upper castes, but the upper castes would serve God – visibly. When people would see, "Our masters are as much servants as we are, albeit serving in a different role", they would unhesitatingly execute their role in the social body, decided according to their God-given talents. Knowing that all material conditions were transitory, whereas spiritual gains were everlasting, people would be satisfied with the unprejudiced spiritual enrichment provided by varnasrama and transcend the material differences.
2. The most powerful social classes had to be the most renounced
It was imperative for the upper castes – the brahmanas and ksatriyas – to renounce the world at around fifty and focus fully on self-realization. This not only ensured that they successfully achieved the spiritual goal of life, but also checked them from becoming exploitative. Thus the varnasrama system ingeniously reconciled and integrated the absolute spiritual equality of all people with their relative material differences. Gerald Heard in his book Man, the Master calls varnasrama as ''organic democracy" – "the rule of the people who have organized themselves in a living and not a mechanical relationship; where instead of all men being said to be equal, which is a lie, all men are known to be of equal value, could we but find the position in which their potential contribution could be released and their essential growth so pursued ."
Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent in New Delhi, explains the superiority of varnasrama over the current seemingly equal social system in his book No Full Stops in India, "The alienation of many young people in the West and the loneliness of the old show the suffering that egalitar ianism inflicts on those who do not win, the superficiality of an egalitarianism which in effect means equal opportunities for all to win and then ignores the inevitable losers. For all that, the elite of India have become so spellbound by egalitarianism that they are unable to see any good in the only institution which does provide a sense of identity and dignity to those who are robbed from birth of the opportunity to compete on an equal footing – caste."
BIRTH-RIGHT MADE IT ALL WRONG
The caste-by-birth idea – the bane of Hindu casteism – is decidedly nonVedic. The Vedic texts abound with examples of qualified people, even if lowborn, being elevated to respectable places in society.
The Chandogya Upanisad narrates how Gautama Rsi declared a maidservant's son, Satyakama Jabali, to be a brahmana as the boy was unhesitatingly truthful – the hallmark of a true brahmana. Furthermore, Suta Gosvami, Kanaka, Kancipurna, Tukarama, Thiruvalluvar, Sura dasa and Haridasa Thakura were all revered as saints, though they were low-born.
Plato adds an interesting dimension to his social classification: golden parents will tend to have golden children, as silver parents will naturally have silver children, and so on. Similarly in varnasrama often the occupation of a person would turn Out to be the varna of his birth – partially due to the childhood upbringing and training. A child born in a brahmana family would generally become a qualified brahmana and the same applied to children born in other varnas. Consequently the varna would normally be determined by birth, but it could be retained only by behavior. So if a son of a brahmana did not develop brahminical qualities, he would no longer be accepted as a brahmana, but as a brahma-bandhu, unqualified relative of a brahmana. Conversely if the son of a sudra exhibited brahminical qualities, he would be accepted as a brahmana. Plato also recommends this flexibility. If an iron parent has a golden child, then, says Plato, we must acknowledge that a golden child born to an iron parent, for example, is indeed golden-his birthright should be disregarded in favor of his natural quality.
Then how did the widespread perversion of caste-by-birth originate? In medieval times, a coterie of brahma-bandhus, wanting to hold on to brahminical privileges without developing the required character, started claiming that caste was decided by birth and was unchangeable. Further they misused their social influence to deprive lower castes of access to the practices of self-realization. And thus began the unfortunate history of casteist discrimination. Genuine Vedic teachers categorically disown this caste-by-birth system as non-Vedic and label it as asuri varnasrama, the demoniacally-conceived system
SPIRITUALITY IS THE SOLUTION
The ultimate purpose of the original varnasrama, known as daiv varnasrama, the divinely-ordained system, was not just material social organization, but systematic spiritual elevation. As eternal souls, beloved sons and servants of God, Krsna, we can attain eternal happiness only in His devotional service. This selfless divine love enables us to live as happily as is ever possible in this world and finally transports us to our original home, the spiritual world, where we live in eternal ecstasy, reciprocating love with Krsna. Varnasrama offers the best springboard to catapult us to our spiritual birthright. Hence cultivating genuine spirituality – Krsna consciousness – and returning back to the spiritual world is the only real solution to all problems including birth, old age, disease, death – and discrimination.
Undoubtedly in this world, discrimination must be prevented and redressed. But is varnasrama its cause? Untouchability and similar Hindu inequities are portrayed as the ultimate horror, yet racial groups like American Indians or Australian Aborigines in modern societies were treated worse than untouchables; they were iso lated , crowded into reserves, where they could only atrophy and disappear.
(As an aside, India is the only country whose history has never been tainted by slavery)
Many countries today are witnessing xenophobia. And discrimination, if I may use the word, based on economic power is ubiquitous in the current consumer economy.
What causes discrimination? A lmost always materialism. When people imagine that material things – wealth and comforts, power and prestige, positions and possessions – are the only way to happiness, they seek to acquire these by any means. As we live in a world of limited resources and unlimited wants, plenty for one causes scarcity for anomer. When the powerful become materially-minded, they encroach upon the quota of the weak, leading to social inequities. Depending on time, place and circumstances, this materialistic agenda masks itself in racial, nationalistic, religious – and casteist rationalizations.
The antidote for materialism is spirituality, which provides inner fulfillment and cures the exploitative mentality. And varnasrama is the best social order to foster spiritual enlightenment and experience. Therefore, while striving to remove the cataract of casteism, let us ensure that we don't pluck out the eye of Vedic spiritual wisdom. When the whole world is recognizing the value of ancient Indian wisdom in the form of yoga, meditation, vastu-sastra and chanting of holy names, let us not reject the profound and universal spiritual teachings of ancient India while correcting the social evils of Hinduism. Late British historian Dr Arnold Toynbee reminds us, "It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way."
COMING TO THE PRESENT
Whether the Indian government reserves more seats for OBCs is not in our control. Ultimately if the materialism that spawned discrimination is not cured, reservations may lead to a reverse discrimination against the higher castes. Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, remarked, "Without the awakening of divine consciousness in the individual, there is no use of crying for world peace." There fore Srila Prabhupada declared his mission to the West to be "finding brahmanas." Far from reviving the demoniac caste-by- birth perversion, he wanted to revitalize the modern social body with its missing head. He wanted to create, among the so-called low born Westerners as well as everywhere else, a class of genuine spiritual intellectuals, by education, culture and training. Hundreds of such spiritually transmuted intellectuals are pioneering a non-sectarian spiritual revival all over the world. When these detached devoted leaders guide society, their examples, words and policies will eradicate the material greed that causes all inequities. Hence practicing and sharing Krsna consciousness constitutes egalitarianism in its most pure, potent and practical form, the panacea for all forms of discrimination. Ultimately if the materialism that spawned discrimination is not cured, increasing reservations will not solve the problem. Therefore let us ourselves individually reserve more of our time, energy and intelligence to understand, apply and share our timeless spiritual heritage.
Caitanya Carana Dasa, 25, is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. He holds a degree in electronics & telecommunications engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune.