Thursday, June 14, 2018

Varna, Jati, Politics and Chaos

What was this caste discrimination in India called Varnas? Were Shudras really prevented from reading Vedas? 

Such questions are coming up because we do not know our own family history and our country's history well enough. Most people who gain their knowledge through social media memes suffer this disorder. This is also a common argument put forth by the ignorant ones blindly believing their Dravidian politicians in South India.

A Varna is not a Caste or Jati

First of all, one needs to understand that a Varna is not a Caste. Indian society all over the Indian subcontinent (including Tamilnadu) had  4 Varnas generally:

- Brahamana, propagators of knowledge
- Kshatriya, protectors of state & country
- Vaisya, one who indulges in commerce and agriculture
- Shudra, one who works on other tasks in society

One who is born to a Shudra father / mother need not be a Shudra. Even if you are born in a Brahmin family, if you are not a propagator of knowledge, you are not a Brahamana! Simple and straight forward ... Depending on one's daily work only, one was categorised in this manner.

One more thing - do you realize that one is not all the time a Brahmana or all the time a Kshatriya or Shudra for that matter? Let's say you are into agriculture as main business. By that virtue, you are a Vaisya. But you might also be into teaching others in your village. By that virtue, you are a Brahmana. One's Varna is known by the 'predominant' virtue of what they do and adopt.

Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, a professor of Sanskrit and Religious studies, state, "there is no evidence in the Rigveda for an elaborate, much-subdivided and overarching caste system", and "the varna system seems to be embryonic in the Rigveda and, both then and later, a social ideal rather than a social reality". Source is Wikipedia page on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varna_(Hinduism)

Historical examples

People might have exploited this whole system later by establishing rigidity around it and claiming their right by birth. That was not so earlier and I am going to give concrete examples from our history.

(1) Valmiki who wrote the Ramayana was a hunter / robber who later was reformed by Sage Narada. There is a caste of people called VALMIKIS in South India who are said to have come in the lineage of Sage Valmiki. Unfortunately, they take pride in identifying themselves as Shudras now! Anyway, Valmiki actually taught Vedas and the art of weaponry to Luv & Kush who are the sons of Rama. If he was not considered a Brahmana, who else was?

(2) Vyasa who wrote the Mahabharata and is known to have actually categorized the Vedas was born to Matsya Gandhi, a fisher woman. He was named Krishna Dwaipayana, the dark one born in an island, at birth. The very name VYASA means the 'Compiler' denoting his work on the Vedas. By birth, he should have been a Shudra. But by his deeds and dedication of life to teaching people, he was praised by everyone as a Brahmana only! There is a huge Guru Parampara that follows Vyasa muni. So, if he was a Shudra, how could he have learnt and work on the Vedas?

(3) Parashurama is known as someone who went about waging wars with Kshatriyas and killed many of them. Though he was born in a Brahmana family (to Sage Jamadagni), by his deeds he came to be a Kshatriya. Was he denied the knowledge of Vedas? No!

(4) Many of us know from Mahabhrata that Guru Dronacharya and King Drupada studied in the same Gurukul and learnt the same arts as children. Now Drona was a Brahmana and Drupada was a Kshatriya. But both of them were taught the Veda Mantras and art of weaponry by their Guru. Does this indicate a discrimination in teaching?

(5) There is a specific episode in Mahabharata where Yudhishthira and a Yaksha debate on the moral principles of that time. To the specific question by the Yaksha asking about one's Varna, Yudhisthira answers clearly and emphatically that nobody can claim their Varna by birth but it is by deeds only.

(6) A King born as Kaushika rules his kingdom for a long time as a Kshatriya but later gives it all up for severe penance. He is later recognized as Brahma-rishi and is now widely known by the name 'Vishwamitra'. Clearly Varna by birth did not decide what he would become.

(7) Krishna clearly states in Bhagavad Gita:

cāturvarṇyaṃ mayā sṛṣṭaṃ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ .
tasya kartāramapi māṃ viddhyakartāramavyayam ... 4:13

"I have created this four-fold Varna order according to the quality of work."

Modern day's Interpretation

Going by these examples,

(1) If you have a good professor (not the leftist ones like in JNU) in your school or college, he / she would need to be recognized as a Brahmana.

(2) If you are in the IT industry in a menial job, at best you could be called a Vysya or a Shudra, even if you are born in a Brahmana family.

Is this Varna system explained only in the Hindu texts?

No! There is a Buddhist text called 'Digha Nikaya' (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digha_Nikaya) which talks about an interesting discussion between Gautama Buddha and a Brahmana called Sonadanda that throws more light on how Varnas were treated in more recent times.

Buddha: By how many qualities do Brahmins recognize another Brahmin? How would one declare truthfully and without falling into falsehood?

Sonadanda: I will list five characteristics to recognize another Brahmin. He is of pure descent on both the mother's and the father's side, he is well versed in mantras, he is of fair color handsome and pleasing, he is virtuous learned and wise, and he is the first or second to hold the sacrificial ladle.

Buddha: If we omit one of these qualities you just listed, could not one be still a true Brahmin?

Sonadanda, one by one, eliminates fair colour and looks, then eliminates Varna in which one was born, and then eliminates the ability to recite mantra and do sacrifices as a requirement of being a Brahmin. Sonadanda asserts that just two qualities are necessary to truthfully and without falling into falsehoold identify a Brahmin; these two qualities are "being virtuous and being learned and wise".

Sonadanda then states that it is impossible to reduce the requirement for being a Brahmin any further, because "for wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom; where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world".

Sonadanda: We only know this much Gotama; it would be well if Holy Gotama would explain meaning of the two [morality, wisdom] more.

Interestingly, there is a text on Jainism called 'Adi Purana' by Janasena (8th Century AD) that talks about this too! The Adi purana text states "there is only one jati called manusyajati or the human caste, but divisions arise account of their different professions".

It is clear that at least the identification of one's predominant qualities formed the basis of Varna in Gautama Buddha's time and as late as the 8th Century AD. 

What should we do now?

Unfortunately, a lot of our scriptures and text were lost and burnt during the Islamic invasions thereafter (read about burning of Nalanda if you are interested) and we miss a precious lot of social thought and dynamics after 1000 AD. 

In my personal opinion, we should bring back everyone to the profession-based identification system and restore the societal balance accordingly. It is high time the current (and silly, may I add) caste system being endorsed by Indian politicians from 20th Century AD is discarded and thrown out of the window.

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