Krishna says in the Gita: “The four-fold caste system has been created by me according to the differentiation of gunas and karma.” If so, the present caste system is a grotesque parody of the original intention.
There are, three gunas: Satvic, Rajasik and Tamasik. The nature (character) of a person is made, Krishna seems to say, by the way the gunas combine in man. Naturally, men are born unequal and they remain unequal. The Greeks, too, divided men into three categories: wise, courageous and temperate.
But Thiruvalluvar says in the Thiru Kural: “all men are born equal. What makes them different are their occupations”. Who is right-Krishna or Thiruvalluvar? Of course, Krishna; if the nature (character, personality) of a man is made up of gunas and they are combined differently in men, they cannot be equal. And it is the proportion in which the gunas are combined that determines whether a man will be wise, courageous or temperate.
Thiruvalluvar was a weaver like Kabir. The Kural, which is almost as old as the Vedas, is a collection of 1330 maxims. It is clear from Thiruvalluvar’s life that spiritual progress has nothing to do with the social status of a person. He called upon people to opt for an occupation which one could do in a praise-worthy manner. What about the occupations that are not praise-worthy?
While Thiruvalluvar believed that one could choose one’s caste, Krishna says: “Better one’s own duty (to which one is born), though devoid of merit, than the duty of another. Thus Krishna condemned men to their hereditary castes for ever. Men have been in the caste trap ever since.
Caste has been a controversial subject ever since its inception. The Brahmins themselves refused to accept the division of work, which denied them the right to work as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. these dissenters were called Lautikas. And those who stood by the orthodox position were called Vedikas.
Manu wanted to prevent confusion in the caste system. He was, therefore, strict. Which is why he imposed punishments on those who violated the system. No doubt, he added to the mischief.
During the Vedic age, the concept of caste was vague. There was no definite opinion on the nature of caste or on its origin. Thus, in a dialogue between Brigu and Bharadwaja (architects of the Vedas) the former opined that caste differences arose from skin colour. Bharadwaja disagreed. He said that there were so many variations of skin colours even within a caste that colour could not be the basis of caste. It is clear from this dialogue that all legends and myths about the origin of caste must be treated as false.
Much has been made of the so-called cruelty of Manu, especially against the lower orders of society. Some correction is called for here. It is seldom spoken that Manu was the man who changed the system of trial by ordeal-the most ghastly judicial system known to man, to trial by a set procedure. This is why Sir William Jones and others spoke highly on the role of Manu in the advance of the Indian judicial system. Even James Mill, the imperialist historian, says: “They (Manu laws) display a degree of excellence far beyond what is exemplified in the more enlightened countries. Two more facts: In Syria, the king used to flay the skin of his victims before they were massacred. In Rome, they were thrown to the lions or kept in the dungeons till death after blinding them. And in our own times, we have the “gas chambers” of the Nazis. I do not think that Manu’s punishments were more ghastly. Manu should be known as a reformer.
Caste had no authority. Even the writers of the Vedas were not clear about its merits. Mahavira did not accept it. Nor did the Buddha. Which is why admitted into his Sangha Upali, the barber, Sunita, the scavenger, Punna the slave girl and Ambapali, the courtesan. The Buddhists believed that caste blinds the moral imagination.
There is a belief that Manu was partial to the Brahmins. No, he was not. In fact, he made an example of the Brahmins by imposing severe restrictions of their life. The balance of forces, we are told between castes was maintained by enforcing on Brahmins the duty of study, teaching and worship. Manu forbade the Brahmins from trading and other gainful occupation. Brahmins, who tended cattle, who traded, who practised mechanical arts were to be treated as Shudras, Manu said.
In Manu Samhita, the seniority of a Brahmin was declared to be neither birth nor age nor wealth, but knowledge. It is stated in the Mahabharata that it was not pedigree or class but by deeds that one became a Brahmin. Even a Chandala can become a Brahmin by his good deeds.
To conclude, “No religion on the earth, “says Vivekananda, “preach the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism and no religion on earth treads upon the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism.”
Dear reader, are we to condemn Hinduism for this ghastly error? No. Why? Because it is what alone makes us proud.