ONE OF THE FIRST things that comes to mind for many people when they hear mention of India is Hinduism's infamous caste system, one of the most hotly debated topics on India. People see casteism as a major cause of India's problems. The lower classes are abused and oppressed while the upper classes rule all based on birth. People question why anyone would believe in a religion that supports such abuse.
On an electronic bulletin board, one Indian writes, "My family suffered a great deal because of this casteism, and I think it is a very big handicap for our nation." When people in the West are asked what they know about India, they often reply, "The caste system and the Taj Mahal."
How has India acquired such a notorious way of organizing society? What is the proper role of the brahmanas, the priestly class? How is the system supposed to function?
Caste discrimination by birth, thought to be one of the fundamental characteristics of Hinduism, is absent from the Vedic scriptures, the essence of which is the Bhagavad-gita. The present-day caste system is a degradation of varnasrama-dharma, the original social system described by Lord Krsna Himself in the Bhagavad-gita (4.13):
catur-varnyam maya srstam
"According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me." Because among human beings Lord Krsna created divisions, called varnas, they are natural in any society. Classes exist, whether based on birth, wealth, power, or occupation. A classless society is therefore impossible. Even communism, which was supposed to be classless, had enormous disparity between the ruling class and ordinary workers.
Lord Krsna says that a person's varna comes from his guna, "nature" or "quality," and karma, the type of activity he does. Krsna does not use the word janma, "birth." The varnasrama system is not rigid or oppressive. If a person born into a family of a lower varna shows the qualities and inclinations of a brahmana, he can be educated accordingly and become a brahmana. On the other hand, being born in an upper-varna family does not automatically confer that status without the proper qualities and training. Srila Prabhupada gives an example: "A son cannot claim, 'Because my father is a lawyer, then I am also lawyer.' The son also must become a qualified lawyer."
Now, a child who grows up in a pure and austere family that studies the scriptures and worships the Lord will tend to be attracted to those qualities and activities when he grows up. Children of doctors often grow up to become doctors themselves. To that extent birth can be one factor indicating a person's work. But the decisive factors are one's qualities and training.
For example, Lord Rsabhadeva, an incarnation of Krsna, was a king, and therefore his one hundred sons were born in a ksatriya family. But, as Srila Prabhupada writes, "Out of these, ten were engaged as ksatriyas and ruled the planet. Nine sons became good preachers of Srimad-Bhagavatam (maha-bhagavatas), and this indicates that they were above the position of brahmanas. The other eighty-one sons became highly qualified brahmanas." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.4.13, purport). Another example: Kancipurna, the instructing guru of the great devotee Ramanujacarya, was a sudra by birth.
After reading on the Internet Bhagavad-gita's description of the caste system, an Indian gentleman wrote, "I think Hinduism is completely distorted, and it is upon our shoulders that we bring it back to its original state. To tell people the basic definition of each caste would be very helpful."
The Bhagavad-gita (18.42) concisely defines the varnas, beginning with the brahmanas: "Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom, and religiousness these are the natural qualities by which the brahmana'swork."
The brahmanas are situated in the mode of goodness. Brahmana means "one who knows Brahman, the Absolute Truth." If a person thinks, "I am a brahmana because my parents were brahmana caste," he is not a knower of Brahman but a knower of the body.
Krsna describes the spiritual vision of the brahmanas: "The humble sages [brahmanas], by virtue of knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater [outcaste]." (Bg. 5.18) By definition, abrahmana sees everyone equally and thus, out of humility, does not repress anyone. As soon as he does, he is no longer a brahmana.
The brahmanas are the teachers of society. With their knowledge of the scriptures they guide society in the proper direction, toward self-realization. The brahmanas advise the ksatriyas, the administrators, on how to govern to ensure the spiritual advancement of the citizens. The ksatriyas then use their diplomatic skill to lead society.
To ensure that the brahmanas stay free from the pursuit of power, wealth, and prestige, and that their work is, as far as possible, without self-interest, brahmanas do not receive a salary for teaching, but rather depend on charity and begging. They don't accumulate wealth beyond what they need to live. The brahmanas depend fully on the Supreme Lord, and the other varnas support them for their valuable service.
Srila Prabhupada said that because modern society is lacking in brahmanas with spiritual vision, it is producing cats and dogs debauches, drunkards, and woman-hunters. These cats and dogs accept as their leader the biggest beast, who will do the most to satisfy their sensual desires, and thus create a chaotic society.
Furthermore, today's so-called brahmanas in India hardly possess the ideal qualifications presented in the Bhagavad-gita. Instead, they have taken to meat-eating, intoxication, and other sinful activities. Therefore society suffers without brahminical guidance. That is why Srila Prabhupada wanted to create brahmanas who could properly guide leaders in how to organize society for spiritual progress while simultaneously alleviating its material problems. The importance of well-trained brahmanas cannot be overestimated.
"Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the natural qualities of work for the ksatriyas." (Bg. 18.43) Ruling by the instructions of the brahmanas, the ksatriyas have the duty to protect citizens and maintain peace and order.
Srila Prabhupada describes how society would be organized under the Krsna conscious state: "In Vedic civilization, the land was given to the people for cultivation, not for ownership, and a tax was collected that was twenty-five percent of the person's income…. One cannot get land from the government unless he agrees to produce something, and if everyone produces food then there is no scarcity. At least he has his own food produced by himself." If work is delegated in this way, Srila Prabhupada says, then there is no hunger or unemployment. By contrast, in today's consumer society most people don't grow food crops; rather, they produce an endless variety of needless commodities.
One of the most important duties of the ksatriyas is to make sure the citizens know the purpose of human life and engage in duties that will help them fulfill it. To do this, the ksatriyas themselves must be rajarsis, or saintly kings. They must possess some of the scriptural knowledge and good qualities of the brahmanas. In the fourth chapter, Lord Krsna describes how the knowledge of the Bhagavad-gita was "passed down through disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way." Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter, "Such a noble king is not an autocrat but is guided by brahmanas in how to rule and see everyone employed in their respective duties."
An example of the ideal rajarsi is Lord Rama, the incarnation of Krsna in the role of a king. During Lord Rama's reign, called Rama-rajya, people were peaceful, happy, materially satisfied, and spiritually advanced.
Most people, however, are neither brahmanas nor ksatriyas, but vaisyas and sudras.
"Farming, cow protection, and business are natural work for the vaisyas." (Bg. 18.44) Vaisyas protect cows, grow food for themselves, and sell the excess. Cow protection is essential for the material and spiritual survival of society. Cow protection develops compassion, and milk builds the finer tissues of the brain for understanding spiritual matters.
"For the sudras there is labor and service to others." (Bg. 18.44) Sudras do work that is of service to the other classes, so they must depend on others for their maintenance. Srila Prabhupada writes, "The sudra class can attain all comforts of life simply by rendering service to the higher classes. … The higher castes should always look after the maintenance of the sudras. … A sudra should not leave his master when the master is old and invalid, and the master should keep the servants satisfied in all respects." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.9.26)
Although in general sudras may be less intelligent, by faithfully carrying out their occupational duties under the guidance of a spiritual master they can attain the highest platform of spiritual perfection. Srila Prabhupada writes, "The process of devotional service is so strong that the pure devotee of the Supreme Lord can enable people of the lower classes to attain the highest perfection of life." (Bg. 9.32)
The Social Body
The varnasrama system may be compared to a social body. The brahmanas, with their knowledge to direct society, can be compared to the head, eyes, and brain of the social body; ksatriyas, who offer protection, are the arms; the vaisyas, who support society, are the stomach; and the sudras are the legs.
Common sense tells us that we need our head even more than we need our arms and legs, because without the head the entire body is useless. So the brahmanas are the most important, because of the guidance they provide. Yet without the labor of thesudras, the legs, society would not get anywhere. Without the support of the vaisyas, the brahmanas would be unable to devote their time to teaching and studying. And without protection and land from the ksatriyas, the vaisyas could not carry out their occupation of providing for society. But when each part of the social body performs its proper function, then the entire society can be peaceful and cooperative and can concentrate on its real goal, Krsna consciousness.
Ravi Gupta, age thirteen, lives at the Hare Krsna center in Boise, Idaho. The center is run by his parents. Ravi, who was schooled at home, is a second-year student at Boise State University.