Reverence for the old is a commendable virtue. But it can turn into a curse. Such has been the case with the caste system. Savarkar calls it: ?the greatest curse on Hinduism?. Every effort to blot it out has multiplied the evil.
The caste system creates social distance between man and man. As such, it is anti-social. It is also against the noble Hindu concept of the ?human family?. To make matters worse, social distance turned into physical distance?the worst form of alienation. Unity and social cohesion became impossible after that. The Hindus became prey to foreign invaders. Their tragedy? They did not even know what caused their tragedy!
The caste system is perhaps 3,000 years old. Mahavira and the Buddha were the first to reject it. Every reformer has since opposed it. The revolt has continued to this day.
The Hindu civilisation is based on freedom of enquiry. Naturally, it promoted individualism. It went against unity and collective effort. Only a common language and religion could have brought the Hindus closer to each other. But, alas, the caste system prevented the study of Sanskrit among the lower castes and their participation in religion!
To classify men according to their aptitude (Varnashrama) is natural. (Aptitude tests are common all over the world.) But only in India, it became hereditary. More lies had, therefore, to be told to make people accept it.
But telling such ?lies? was common. All in good spirit. The Panchatantra is a collection of fables. They are recited for didactic purposes?to educate princes in Rajadharma.
Purusha Sukhta, on which the caste system is based, was largely fabricated by the priestly class to justify the caste system. But why so much of atrocities? Well, was not the inquisition known for its atrocities? In Hinduism, there is more bark, than bite. Hindu societies were never strict in their observance of scriptures. Thus, the Vaishyas did engage in battles. And Shudras were recruited into the protection forces. Vastupala, the great warrior under the Chalukayas, was a Vaishya. So was Ambada, who killed the great Mallikarjuna, a Kshatriya. And do you know that the Kashmiri and Hoyasala troops were composed largely of Shudras? (See Art of War in Ancient India by P.C.Chakravarty) The point is: If the rule was broken in one place, it could have been broken all over India.
Ambedkar calls caste a ?monstrous contrivance of social oppression?. Yes, it was. But the oppression in India was nothing compared to what the slaves suffered in Greece and Rome. A.L.Basham says in The Wonder That was India, that ?the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilisation is its humanity.?
Early Aryans had no caste. They were priests, soldiers and peasants. Caste is a human contrivance. Aurobindo says: Caste was originally an arrangement for the distribution of functions in society. It was made into a divine order by the priests.
Three groups emerged at first: Priests, Kshatriyas and the rest.
They represented the three gunas: Satvik, Rajasik and Tamasik. Surprisingly, we find the same division in Plato. He divided men into three groups on the basis of virtues: Wisdom, Courage and Temperance. He was influenced by Vedanta.
Dr S.Radhakrishnan says: ?Whatever might have been the historic basis for the development of the caste system, it has degraded the great ideals of the ancient Upanishads, which affirm, that the human being as such is a speck of the spirit, a ray of the divine. Yet we built stone walls separating peoples, exalting some as superior and branding others as inferior.? To Dr Radkahrishnan character is the only patent of nobility. That alone distinguishes one man from another. In the Ramayana, Rama tells Jabali, the Brahman cynic: ?It is a man'scharacter and his deeds that determine whether he is a high or low born, pure or impure.? The birth principle had little support in the country, not even in the Rig Veda.
Buddha opposed the purity principle. Remember, it led to untouchability. Untouchability is a monstrosity, says Gandhi. Efforts were made to combat it. But in vain.
R.C.Dutt, the historian, writes of this priestly class: ?The Brahmins as a caste are perhaps the most socially exclusive and reactionary.? But Gandhi needed their help against the British. In any case, the Congress was a den of casteists. Gandhi could make no impact on them.
Did Shankara, our greatest philosopher, approve of the caste system? He did not. In Nirvana Shatakam, he says: there is no jati beda. And when Shankara created the ten ascetic orders, he banned caste in order to make them more cohesive. What is more, he chose Shudras to man the akharas (military wing attached to the mutts)
The Muslim advent forced Hindus to close their ranks and stamp out any opposition to the caste system. It was made more rigid and fixed, says Nehru.
Manu was no supporter of the Brahmins. He says: ?Brahmins who tend herds of cattle, who trade, who practice mechanical arts?must be treated as if they are Shudras.? Alas, even the reformist Arya Samaj failed to expel such people from the Brahmin community! That could have solved the caste problem.
How is one, then, to explain the persistence of the caste system? Above all, because of the support it received from the theories of karma and transmigration of souls. Perhaps from the principle of purity, also. Are we ready to give up the Karma theory? Not yet.