In the ancient times there only one caste lived in India called hamsa. They were yogis, devotees of the Lord, or knowers of Brahman engaged in studying the Vedas. Among the hamsas, those who on the strength of devotional service, yoga or impersonal knowledge distinguished themselves over their respective groups were accepted by the hamsas as paramahamsas. Among the ordinary impersonalists and yogis of India, the topics of the bhagavata paramahamsas are particularly mentioned in a few places. The differences between bhagavata paramahamsas with impersonal knowledge and yogic paramahamsas is clearly explained by Sri Jiva Goswami when he discusses Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan as the advaita- jnana, or non-dual Absolute Truth.
The word Brahman refers to the greatness and nourishment of unbroken knowledge or supreme consciousness, unalloyed consciousness, pure consciousness, and eternal consciousness.
Srimad Anandatirtha Purnaprajna Madhvacarya Bhagavan has fully unfolded
the difference between Brahman and the living entities in the hearts of
his followers. He ascertained that in the constitutional position of the
living entities, they are situated in unbroken knowledge. Since the living
entities are constitutionally marginal, sometimes they identify themselves
as under the subordination of unbroken knowledge, sometimes they misidentify
themselves as brahman or knowers of dualistic knowledge and sometimes they
misidentify themselves as matter, which is opposite to brahman.
As soon as the living entities give up the subordination of matter they realize themselves as Vaisnavas. At that time, due their spiritual nature, material desires and material conceptions of life cannot attract them.
The living entities' lack of knowledge about the Absolute Truth makes them ignorant of Brahman. Sometimes they accept Brahman as an inferior object and try to establish themselves as Brahman. Being desirous of material enjoyment, they sometimes determine to accept the illusory energy of the Lord as Brahman.
Those who do not know the truth neglect their spiritual master, with
the help of material knowledge, follow the ascending path.
They live within this world and unnecessarily praise themselves as knowers of Brahman. The hamsas, however, know perfectly well that Brahman, which is devoid of form and variegatedness, is a partial manifestation of the Supreme Lord.
Some of the hamsas know the localized aspect of the Absolute Truth
as Paramatma and thus disassociate themselves from the activities of this
material world, which is created by the illusory energy of the Lord. The
perfection of this disassociation qualifies them to meditate on the Supersoul
as yogis. It is not very difficult to attain spiritual knowledge or devotional
service to Visnu from the respective positions of either persons who have
realized Brahman or yogis who have attained perfection; rather it is their
gradual progress. The position of the devotees of the Lord, or that of
bhagavata paramahamsas, is the highest perfectional platform for both impersonal
hamsas and yogi hamsas. When a devotee, or bhagavata paramahamsa, descends
to the lower levels, he should not be considered either a pseudo impersonalist
or a pseudo yogi. The bhagavata paramahamsa is the highest yogi and supreme
knower of Brahman. One should not consider him inferior to either the impersonalists
When the hamsas give up impersonal knowledge and endeavor to distinguish themselves from other hamsas while following their Grihya-sutras, or social codes of conduct, then according to their qualities and activities the four varnas and four ashrams are created. In Satya yuga there was only one varna called hamsa.
Later, after 1,728,000 years passed, the varnashram system was inaugurated among the hamsas. These divisions were effected according to ones occupation, qualities, symptoms, and possibility of future utility, According to the differences in the processes of one's goal, perfection, and intelligence, there can be tow types of varnashram. It has been a current practice in this country that the ascertainment of Varna according to seminal consideration is based on future utility. Moreover, one's occupation, nature, and symptoms have always nourished the seminal system. When we discuss the topics of Kavasa mentioned in the Aitareya Upanisad and the topics of Jabala mentioned in the Chandogya Upanisad then we will properly understand seminal consideration. Sri Mahabharata, Hari-vamsa and the 18 Puranas had mentioned both processes of varnashram.
It is not that the system of varnashram according to seminal considerations
which began in Treta Yuga, will continue forever and should be kept intact,
though its purpose is lost -the truthful hamsas of India do not accept
this-. The statements of the Vedas such as the Kalpa-sastras and the Grhya-
sutras of Gobhila, Katyayana, and others that a brahmana should undergo
the sacred thread ceremony at the age of eight is only a proposal.
Although all hamsas are equal, those who wish to follow the Grhya- sutras and their descendants are to be considered prospective brahmanas. A twice born brahmana is required to undergo social purificatory processes. Those who disagree or are unqualified for such samskaras, in other words, those who do not exhibit any inclination for Brahman, such people among the hamsas are non- brahmanas devoid of samskaras, or simply seminal descendants.
A twice born must follow the rules and regulation of the Grhya- sutras. According to familial tradition, those who followed were accepted as twice born. Those hamsas who due to envious nature or laziness were addressed as sudras by the brahmanas could not become twice born. When the descendants of such people will be in favor of undergoing social reformation, then they will not be bereft of the opportunity from being reinstated in their respective occupation, quality, and nature.
Among the hamsas, the occupations, natures, and symptoms of the yogis, the worshipers, and the knowers of Brahman have always been there, are there, and will be there. In ancient times, when the varnashram system was not prominent, the hamsas alone attained the platform the bhagavata paramahamsas. There were also many paramahamsas found amongst the yogis, who were less inclined towards cultivation of the Absolute Truth, and amongst the impersonalists who were engaged in mental speculation. But when the impersonal conception among the hamsas of the world gradually sank in the deep water of forgetfulness, then atheism began to expand, the words of the spiritual master were reduced to chaos, and disregard for the truths of the Vedas covered the hearts of some hamsas like fog. Being deceived by their own material knowledge, they began to disrespect the Absolute Truth. In this way, the hamsas were divided into four varnas.
Essay pubkished in the Weekly Magazine Gaudiya from the time of Siddhanta
Verse translations from various sources - There is a class of men,
particularly in India, that maintain that one can only be a brahmana(considered
the highest of the four castes) by birth. Consequently, one falls in any
of the other three castes, or outside of the caste system, as well by virtue
Obviously, people with this mindset are usually born into brahmanafamilies and have keen interests to maintain their high status quo despite any lacking in morality or qualification, or ill motivation on their part. In India these people are more commonly known as smarta-brahmanas(brahmanasby regulation), jata-gosais(goswamisby birth), or caste-goswamis.
Now, many people born in brahmanafamilies will indeed be brahmanas, fulfill brahminical duties, study scripture and follow the brahmana-varnalifestyle. This is admirable and genuine. But a vast number do not, and still claim the brahmanarights by virtue of birth. This is deplorable. Scrutiny of the very Vedic scriptures the brahmanacaste is to uphold and teach shows that nothing is further from the truth.
The following verses come from a range of Vedic scriptures and clearly indicate how the varna, or caste, of an individual is determined. It also indicates that vaishnavas, or worshipers of Vishnu or Krishna, are above the caste system and why.
It is also important to understand that the modern Indian caste system is a very watered-down and terribly distorted version of the original caste system mentioned in the Vedic literatures. As becomes clear from the texts quoted below and throughout the Vedic literatures, this original system was based on the natural propensities of people. Even nowadays we find that people do fit into several categories according to their propensities. Some people like to dominate, direct, manage, protect. Others like to deal with business and agriculture. Again others are inclined to mental work, study and spirituality. And yet again others are inclined to serve, perform arts and crafts, or labor. It is exactly this classification that was followed in the ancient cultures, based on the observation that a society functions most optimally when its citizens are properly situated according to their qualities and activities.
Alongside this social division existed a division of spiritual orders based on the life cycle and meant to offer each member of society an opportunity to gradually advance spiritually according to his own inclinations. No wonder that this system, when administered properly, creates a very safe and fulfilling environment. It is then also not very surprising that Krishna, God Himself, claims to be the originator of this system.
catur-varnyam maya srstam
tasya kartaram api mam
viddhy akartaram avyayam
"According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them [gunaand karma; qualification and activity], the four divisions of human society are created by Me. And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer, being unchangeable." (Bhagavad-gita 4.13)
sudre tu yad bhavel laksma
dvije tac ca na vidyate
na vai sudro bhavec chudro
brahmano na ca brahmanah
"If the characteristics of a brahmana are found in a sudraand not in a brahmana, that sudrashould not be known as a sudra, and that brahmanashould not be known as a brahmana." (Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 180)
sudra-yonau hi jatasya
"If a person born in a sudrafamily has developed the qualities of a brahmana, such as satya[truthfulness], sama[peacefulness], dama[self-control] and arjava[simplicity], he attains the exalted position of a brahmana." (Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Chapter 211)
brahman yam upajiva ti
ksatriyo vatha vaisyo
va brahma-bhuyah sa gacchati
ebhis tu karmabhir devi
subhair acaritais tatha
sudro brahmanatam yati
vaisyah ksatriyatam vrajet
na yonir napi samskaro
na srutam na ca santatih
vrttam eva tu karanam
"If one is factually situated in the occupation of a brahmana, he must be considered a brahmana, even if born of a ksatriyaor vaisyafamily. O Devi, if even a sudra is actually engaged in the occupation and pure behavior of a brahmana, he becomes a brahmana. Moreover, a vaisyacan become a ksatriya. Therefore, neither the source of one's birth, nor his reformation, nor his education is the criterion of a brahmana. The vrtta, or occupation, is the real standard by which one is known as a brahmana." (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, Chapter 163)
bhaktir asta-vidha hy esa
yasmin mlecche 'pi vartate
sa viprendro muni-sresthah
sa jnani sa ca panditah
tasmai deyam tato grah ya
'msa ca pujyo yatha harih
"There are many different kinds of devotees, but even a Vaisnava coming from a family of mlecchasor yavanasis understood to be a learned scholar, complete in knowledge, if he knows the Vaisnava philosophy. He should therefore be given charity, for such a Vaisnava is as worshipable as the Supreme Personality of Godhead." (Garuda Purana)
guror apy avaliptasya
"Anyone who is supposed to be a gurubut who goes against the principle of visnu-bhakticannot be accepted as guru. If one has falsely accepted such a guru, one should reject him." (Mahabharata, Udyoga Parva 179.25)
kiba vipra, kiba nyasi, sudra kene naya
yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei 'guru' haya
"Whether one is a brahmana, a sannyasior a sudra-- regardless of what he is -- he can become a spiritual master if he knows the science of Krishna." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 8.128)
tomara nama suni' haya svapaca 'pavana'
alaukika sakti tomara na yaya kathana
"Simply by hearing Your holy name, dog-eaters become holy saints. Your uncommon potencies cannot be described in words." (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 18.124)
candalo 'pi dvija-srestho
dvijo 'pi svapacadhamah
"Even if one is born in the family of a candala, if one engages in the devotional service of the Lord, he becomes the best of brahmanas. But even a brahmana who is devoid of devotional service is on the level of the lowest dog-eater." (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.31.10, purport, source unspecified)
mam hi partha vyapasritya
ye 'pi syuh papa-yonayah
striyo vaisyas tatha sudras
te 'pi yanti param gatim
"O son of Prtha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth, women, vaisyas[merchants] and sudras[workers] can attain the supreme destination." (Bhagavad-gita 9.32)
abhira-sumbha yavanah khasadayah
ye 'nye ca papa yad-apasrayasrayah
sudhyanti tasmai prabhavisnave namah
"Kirata, Huna, Andhra, Pulinda, Pulkasa, Abhira, Sumbha, Yavana, members of the Khasaraces and even others addicted to sinful acts can be purified by taking shelter of the devotees of the Lord, due to His being the supreme power. I beg to offer my respectful obeisances unto Him." (Srimad Bhagavatam 2.4.18)
aho bata sva-paco 'to gariyan
yaj jihvagre vartate nama tubhyam
tepus tapas te juhuvuh sasnur arya
brahmanucur nama grnanti ye te
"Oh, how glorious are they whose tongues are chanting Your holy name! Even if born in the families of dog-eaters, such persons are worshipable. Persons who chant the holy name of Your Lordship must have executed all kinds of austerities and fire sacrifices and achieved all the good manners of the aryans. To be chanting the holy name of Your Lordship, they must have bathed at holy places of pilgrimage, studied the Vedas and fulfilled everything required." (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.33.7)
sva-dharma-nisthah sata-janmabhih puman
virincatam eti tatah param hi mam
avyakrtam bhagavato 'tha vaisnavam
padam yathaham vibudhah kalatyaye
"A person who executes his occupational duty properly for one hundred births becomes qualified to occupy the post of Brahma, and if he becomes more qualified, he can approach Lord Siva. A person who is directly surrendered to Lord Krishna, or Visnu, in unalloyed devotional service is immediately promoted to the spiritual planets. Lord Siva and other demigods attain these planets after the destruction of the material world." (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.24.29)
viprad dvi-sad-guna-yutad aravinda-nabha-
padaravinda-vimukhat svapacam varistham
punati sa kulam na tu bhurimanah
"If a brahmanahas all twelve of the brahminical qualifications [as they are stated in the book called Sanat-sujata] but is not a devotee and is averse to the lotus feet of the Lord, he is certainly lower than a devotee who is a dog-eater but who has dedicated everything -- mind, words, activities, wealth and life -- to the Supreme Lord. Such a devotee is better than such a brahmanabecause the devotee can purify his whole family, whereas the so-called brahmanain a position of false prestige cannot purify even himself." (Srimad Bhagavatam 7.9.10)
yasya yal laksanam proktam
yad anyatrapi drsyeta
tat tenaiva vinirdiset
"If one shows the symptoms of being a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisyaor sudra, as described above, even if he has appeared in a different class, he should be accepted according to those symptoms of classification." (Srimad Bhagavatam 7.11.35)
maha kula prasuto 'pi
sarva yajnesu diksitah
sahasran sakhadhyayi ca
na guruh syad avaisnavah
"Even if one is a famous brahmana, born in a high class family, who is expert in performing sacrifices, who has achieved a Vedic education and who is well versed in Vedic injunctions in a thousand Vedic scriptures, if he is not a Vaisnava, he is unable to become a spiritual master." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 1.54, quoting from the Padma Purana)
grhita visnu diksako
visnu pujaparo narah
vaisnavo 'bhihito 'bhijnair
itaro 'smad avaisnavah
"A person who is initiated in Visnu mantras, and who is expert in worshiping Lord Visnu, such a person is known as a Vaisnava. Besides this, everyone else is an avaisnava." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 1.55, quoting from the Padma Purana)
yatha kancanatam yati
tatha diksa vidhanena
dvijatvam jayate nrnam
"As bell metal is turned into gold when mixed with mercury in an alchemical process, so in that very way, by the process of proper initiation by a bona fide spiritual master, a person becomes a brahmana." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 2.12, quoting from the Tattvasagara)
mantrena nirayam vajet
punas ca vidhina samyag
grahayed vaisnavad guroh
"If someone, due to some circumstance is initiated by a non-vaisnavaspiritual master, he is destined to go to hell. He should again accept reinitiation from a Vaisnava spiritual master according to Vedic instructions." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 4.366, quoting from the Narada Pancaratra)
sevanam bhaktir ucyate
"Bhakti, or devotional service, means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all the senses. When the spirit soul renders service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects. One is freed from all material designations, and, simply by being employed in the service of the Lord, one's senses are purified." (Narada-pancaratra)
tesam agama margena
suddhir na srauta vartmana
"In Kali-yuga, whatever brahmanastake birth are equal to sudrasand are equally impure. According to scriptural injunctions, they are purified, but in Kali-yuga, they cannot be purified by chanting or learning Vedic mantras." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 5.5, quoting from the Visnu Yamala)
striyo va yadi va sudra
pujayitva sila cakra
labhante sasvatam padam
"Worship of Salagram Sila can be done by women, sudras(low caste), brahmanas(twice born), ksatriyas(administrators), etc. and they can all achieve the eternal abode of Lord Krishna perfectly. (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 5.452, quoting from the Skanda Purana, conversation between Lord Brahma and Narada Muni)
sudram va bhagavad-bhaktam
nisadam sva-pacam tatha
sa yati narakam dhruvam
"A Vaisnava, even if he is born in a sudra, dog-eater or even lower class family than that, if somebody sees such a devotee in bad behavior (due to being born in that kind of family), he is certainly said to be going to hell." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 10.119, quoting from the Itihasa Samuccaya, Lomasa Rsi speaks)
na me 'bhaktas catur-vedi
mad-bhaktah sva-pacah priyah
tasmai deyam tato grahyam
sa ca pujyo yatha hy aham
"If someone is not My devotee, even if he is expert in the four Vedas, he is not dear to Me. If someone is My devotee, even if he is lowborn, he is dear to Me. Therefore, one should give charity to such a low born person and accept charity from him. Even a low born devotee is equally worshipable as Me." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 10.127, quoting from the Itihasa Samuccaya, spoken by the Supreme Lord)
ye tyakta loka dharmartha
visnu bhakti vasam gatah
tebhyo nityam namo namah
"Any person who is not attached to sons, wife, varnasrama system, wealth and even liberation, and worships Lord Sri Visnu properly with devotion, to such a devotee, I pay my obeisances again and again." (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 10.248, quoting from the Narayana Vyuha)
kim vedaih kimu va sastraih
kimu tirthati sevanaih
kim tapobhih kimadhvaraih
"Those people who are bereft of devotional service, what is the result of their performing Vedic studies, Vedic activities, study of scriptures, going to places of pilgrimage, great austerities and acquiring knowledge?" (Hari Bhakti Vilasa 10.302, quoting from the Brhan Naradiya Purana)
harer abhakto vipro 'pi
hari bhakta svapako 'pi
"Any person who is not a devotee of Lord Sri Hari, even though he is a brahmana, he is lower than a dog-eater. Even if one is a dog-eater, if he is a devotee of Lord Sri Hari, he is understood as being better than a brahmana. (Padma Purana, Kriya Yogasara 16.3)
arcye visnau sila-dhir gurusu
nara-matir vaisnave jati-buddhir
visnor va vaisnavanam kali-mala-mathane
sri-visnor namni mantre sakala-
visnau sarvesvarese tad-itara-
sama-dhir yasya va naraki sah
"One who thinks the Deity in the temple to be made of wood or stone, who thinks of the spiritual master in the disciplic succession as an ordinary man, who thinks the Vaisnava in the Acyuta-gotra to belong to a certain caste or creed or who thinks of caranamrtaor Ganges water as ordinary water is taken to be a resident of hell." (Padma Purana)
avaisnavo gurur na syad
vaisnavah sva-paco guruh
"A scholarly brahmana, expert in all subjects of Vedic knowledge, is unfit to become a spiritual master without being a Vaisnava, or expert in the science of Krishna consciousness. But a person born in a family of a lower caste can become a spiritual master if he is a Vaisnava, or Krishna conscious." (Padma Purana)
na sudra bhagavad-bhaktas
te tu bhagavata matah
sarva-varnesu te sudra
ye na bhakta janardane
"A devotee should never be considered a sudra. All the devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead should be recognized as bhagavatas. If one is not a devotee of Lord Krishna, however, even if born of a brahmana, ksatriyaor vaisyafamily, he should be considered a sudra." (Padma Purana)
sva-pakam iva nekseta
loke vipram avaisnavam
vaisnavo varno-bahyo 'pi
"If a person born in a brahmanafamily is an avaisnava, a nondevotee, one should not see his face, exactly as one should not look upon the face of a candala, or dog-eater. However, a Vaisnava found in varnasother than brahmanacan purify all the three worlds." (Padma Purana)
ekanty eko visisyate
"A brahmanaqualified to offer sacrifices is better than an ordinary
brahmanaand better than such a brahmanais one who has studied all the Vedic
scriptures. Among many such brahmanas, one who is a devotee of Lord Visnu
is the best; and among many such Vaisnavas, one who fully engages in the
service of the Lord is the best." (Garuda Puarana)
But why does the caste system that prevails mainly among the Hindus, also exists in a subconscious manner amongst Muslims in India (Pakistan and Bangla Desh) as also among the Christians and Sikhs in India?
|For a long time people from some castes were not allowed entry into
temples - A deformity created by the caste system.
Seen here is the Jagannath Temple at Puri in eastern India which is one the holiest of Hindu temples and is considered to be one of the four dhams. Adi Shankara also established a Mutt here of which a Jagadguru is in charge. The other three mutts being at Dwarka (in the west), Kanchi (in the South) and Badrinath (in the north)
Casteism amongst Muslims (in Pakistan and India)
Despite their conversion to Islam; Pakistani Muslims still refer to themselves as Jats, Gujjars, Rajputs, etc. This is especially so during match-making in an arranged Nikah (marriage). One instance of the visibility of casteist feelings among Pakistanis is the reference Benazir Bhutto makes in her book 'Daughter of the East', when she says, "In my veins runs the blood of a Wadhera". Wadheras are a Rajput clan from Punjab and Sindh.
Caste also exists among Bangla-Deshi Muslims.
Casteism amongst Indian Christians
Indian Christians also are not free of caste. Goans and East Indian Christians, still refer to themselves as Bamons (Brahmins), Bhandaris, Kolis, Prabhus, etc.
Casteism amongst Sikhs
The Sikhs too refer to themselves as Jat Sikhs, Mazabhi Sikhs, Ramgarhia Sikhs. Jat Sikhs profess surnames like Chauhan (Jagjit Singh Chauhan), Dhillon (Ganga Singh Dhillon), Arora (Jagjit Singh Arora), Oberoi, Saini, etc., that display caste backgrounds.Ramgarhias and Mazhabis have generally no surnames as Sikh tradition recommends.
Why is Casteism an Indelible Pan-Indian (and Pakistani) Reality?
Why is Caste so indelible that it can remain among communities who now profess religions that decry caste distinctions?
Why is it that among Hindus caste is such a sticky factor that it refuses to die despite the Constitution of India's ban of the system?
Why do we still have a Mandalization of Indian Politics?
Why many centuries after their conversion to Islam and Christianity do Muslims and Christians still subconsciously (and at times openly) observe the caste system they inherited from their Hindu ancestors?
Why is Casteism is today still a living, rather festering, practice which continues to plague our 20th century Indian society?
Time and again our newspapers carry reports about caste wars in various parts of our country. While reading about Parliamentary news in newspapers, we come across references to the Jat Lobby, Maratha Lobby, Rajput Lobby, Brahmin Lobby, Dalit Lobby OBC Lobby, etc., which brings to the fore the fact that even at the highest level of our country's democratic institutions, caste as a factor is still a living one. And this brought to be so as in the electoral strategies of political parties we hear of caste-based vote banks, caste politics, caste equations in voting patterns, caste-based reserved constituencies, caste based job reservations (that have existed since independence and have been further articulated by the Mandal Commission), ad nauseam.
All this along with the recurring caste carnages and the ongoing caste politics are a constant reminder to us Indians that caste and casteism which we have inherited from our history are still active and alive around us.
|According to one hypothesis, the origin of the clergy in India goes
back to the days when humans learnt to ignite fire through friction. Initially
the fire must have been obtained from an already burning source like forest
fires. In these circumstances, before the days of ignition the task of
tending the fire was very crucial. The function of tending the fire became
a specialised one which begun to be passed from father to son and this
select group came to be called Agni-hotras i.e. 'preservers of fire'. As
they tended to the fire they also roasted and later cooked food for the
entire tribe. In Vedic literature Agni - fire has been referred to as an
eater of dead flesh (Kravyad). Fire also served as a formidable weapon
against wild animals and other tribes.
Fire was then, as it still is, an object of worship as the tribal peoples had seen fire as a powerful destructive medium in forest fires and volcanic eruptions. But after its domestication, fire spelt prosperity for the nomadic people. Prosperity in the form of warmth from the cold climate, protection from wild beasts, better food by roasting the flesh of the hunted animals, etc. The domestication of fire had provided a gravitating nucleus for the collective life of the tribe (Gana). Hence it could easily become an object of worship. When the nomadic Aryans had progressed towards settled civilized life the Central Fireplace (Yagna) no longer remained the gravitating nucleus of their daily life. But their social memory continued to be ruled by the past reality.
As to what the tribal Aryans originally did around this central fireplace can be guessed from the original Yagna rituals which today are kept alive in the Yagnas as performed by Sadhus (i.e. ascetics and hermits).
The Yagna Ritual Re-creates all Aspects of Primitive Tribal Collective Life
One Contemporary writer describes this Yagna ritual as follows: " The Yagna ritual " ... " is a process in which almost all primitive social life has to be recreated. You have to produce fire by friction of two pieces of wood, to build a cottage where no iron is used but only specific wood and grass, to milk cows, make curds, pound corn with stone (not even a stone mill), boil and cook it, ..." This description brings out the fine semblance between the original Yagna ritual and the function of cooking for a tribal household. In the public Yagnas, like the Rajasuya and Ashwamedha Yagna that were sponsored in later ages by kings, many alterations and refinements were introduced but the original primitive features stuck fast. These royal Yagnas involved the coming together of innumerable Brahmins, the consigning to the central fire, generous quantities of sandalwood, camphor, ghee (clarified butter), grains, and even sacrificial animals and birds. All this corresponds to the central fireplace theory as the origin of the Yagna.
This lingering social memory perpetuated the practice of having the central fire, which in the changed circumstances became a ritualised form of worship. The recollection of the extinct past fermented ideas that invocation of the fire would again spell wealth and prosperity as it had after its domestication.
In the Yagna ritual of later days up to our own age, the hymns sung in the Vedic days are recited, the collective social life is reconstructed in a ritualised manner with the fond hope that all this would spell prosperity for the performers of the Yagna.
But the Agni-hotras, who conducted the Yagnas by virtue of being placed in between the tribe and the domesticated fire, also performed the functions like making offerings to the fire and invoking it to spell prosperity for the tribe, victory in war, etc., apart from roasting and later cooking which was their primary function. These Agni-hotras were the prototype of the Brahmin caste of today.
In addition to this the hereditary monopoly over the cooking function in Vedic times also gave this section the priestly functions of invoking the fire-god in favour of the tribe. Thus they came to be looked upon as representatives of God, whose word carried divine sanction. This being so they also came to acquire the exclusive right of learning (and writing) religious scriptures and virtually of all knowledge. This was so as, in ancient India, most knowledge had scriptural overtones. Astrology, Astronomy, Mathematics, Philosophy, linguistics, Law, etc., were the main areas which were developed in ancient India and all these subjects were closely bound up with religious dogmas. The Agni-hotras "tenderers of the fire" who had become the clergy (Brahmins), could thus virtually monopolize the areas of acquiring and imparting education, to the exclusion of other castes.
The institution and attitude both of which go into the making of caste and casteism in today's India remain an enigmatic one for Indians as also for foreign Indologists. The fact that casteist feelings are still part of our psyche make it all the more relevant that we are informed about how the institution of caste could have come into being.
The Scriptural Explanation
Our scriptures already have an answer to this. The Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda says that the four fold division of society into Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (cultivators) and Shudras (menial servants) has been created by primeval man 'Purusha'. From Purusha's brain have emerged the Brahmins, from his forearms have emerged the kshatriyas from his abdomen have emerged the Vaishyas and from his feet have emerged the Shudras.
But to examine how the institution of caste could have originated alongwith the auxiliary practices of untouchability and endogamy we will have a peep into the society in which the composers of the Rig Veda lived some three to four thousand years back.
|Buddha preached against observing caste distinctions. Entry into a Buddhist Stupa (temple) was open to members of all castes, unlike that in the case of many Hindu temples. Seen here is the ornate entrance to the Stupa at Sanchi which is representative of the Maurya and Post-Maurya style of sculpture. This style was to change and become more ornate in the middle ages.|
BRAHMINS - THOSE BAPTISED BY FIRE
Caste is a gift of centuries of history whose origin goes back to 3 or 4 millennia in. It goes back to a past when like all other humans, the tribal Aryans roamed the plains of Central Asia before reaching India. In the new stone age these tribals lived in conditions of savagery and barbarism. There obviously was no room for caste division as each and every able-bodied male member had to) help in the tribe's only vocation of hunting and gathering the means of subsistence. This common form of labour is referred to as "Satra" in the Rig Veda. This term which literally means 'a session' is still used to refer to religious activities which involve the collective chanting of slokas (hymns).
Agni-hotras the 'preservers of fire'
But with the domestication of fire, things began to change. It became necessary for some members of the Aryan tribes to undertake the task of tending the fire and prevent it from being extinguished. This was before the days when humans learnt to ignite fire through friction. Initially the fire must have been obtained from an already burning source like forest fires.
In these circumstances, before the days of ignition the task of tending the fire was very crucial. The function of tending the fire became a specialised one which begun to be passed from father to son and this select group came to be called Agni-hotras i.e. 'preservers of fire'. As they tended to the fire they also roasted and later cooked food for the entire tribe.
Fire was then, as it still is, an object of worship as the tribal peoples had seen fire as a powerful destructive medium in forest fires and volcanic eruptions. By virtue of being placed between the tribe and the domesticated fire, this section of the tribe also performed functions like making offerings to the fire and invoking it to spell prosperity for the tribe, victory in war, etc., apart from cooking which was their primary function. These Agni-hotras were the prototype of the Brahmin caste of today.
The above theory of the origin of the Brahmin caste may seem fantastic and unbelievable, but even today we can see that at our weddings or any other social and religious occasions the cooks are traditionally Brahmins. In some Indian languages the word for cook is Achari which comes quite close to Acharya meaning a scholar. In Hindi and Gujarati the word Maharaj is used to address both priests and cooks. Another word which we use to designate a scholar viz. 'Shastri' also originally meant a wielder of instruments and not a scholar according to the; noted Sanskritalogist P.V. Kane.
|Hinduism and the social structure associated with Hindu society represent a combination of extreme philosophical tolerance but cultural intolerance in its social structure. Hence, Hindus welcomed other faiths into India, but observed a strict caste discrimination. Seen here is the Dancing Shiva at Halebid. A creation of medieval Hindu craftsmanship.|
This corollary between cooking and priestly functions may appear to be outrageous and unreal but the etymological closeness between the Sanskrit words given below also corroborates this corollary:
(Food offered to God and departed relatives)
(Source : English-Sanskrit Dictionary by Prof. Vaman Shivram Apte, Mumbai, 1920)
|A portion of the Belur temple complex in Karnataka that is famous for its richly intricate carvings. Such carvings were undertaken by skilled craftsmen belonging to the ocupational castes, who were generally not allowed entry into the temples after their construction.|
But this apart, Hindu Shastras (religious texts) have another explanation to offer as per the Holy scriptures ' Brahma Janayate Iti Brahamana' i.e. a Brahmin is a person who has mastered the essence of Brahma (Universe). In the Bhagavad Geeta, Sri Krishna says that the caste divisions have been created by Him.
But if the earlier theory is correct it would justify the origin of Brahmins as a profession of cooks. It is quite possible that this is the explanation behind the Brahmin insistence on cleanliness and purification which quite logically seem to be a corollary of the culinary profession.
In fact even the Yagna
fire sacrifice of today is a ritualization of the original cooking
function. During the Yagna; milk, honey, grains, clarified butter and small
figures of animals Pista Pashu) made from wheat flour have to be offered
to the fire. A Yagna is accompanied with mass feeding of people. As mentioned
in an earlier chapter in the original Yagna ritual, which is today observed
only by some Sadhus (ascetics) is a process in which almost all primitive
social life has to be recreated. You have to produce fire by friction of
two pieces of wood, to build a cottage where no iron is used but only specific
wood and grass, to milk cows, to make curds, pound corn with stone (not
even a stone mill), kill and skin animals, boil and cook them". This description
brings out the close resemblance between the original Yagna ritual and
the function of cooking on which Brahmin's had come to acquire hereditary
|The Jains were the first sect to break away from Hinduism. They observe the caste distinctions associated with the Hindu social structure, but with less intensity. Seen here are the Arwahi Group of Jain statues near Gwalior date which back to the 9th century.|
But this hereditary monopoly over the cooking function in Vedic times also gave this section the priestly functions of invoking the fire-god in favour of the tribe. Thus they came to be looked upon as representatives of God, whose word carried divine sanction. This being so they also came to acquire the exclusive right of learning (and writing) religious scriptures and virtually of all knowledge. This was so as, in ancient India, most knowledge had scriptural overtones. Astrology, Astronomy, Mathematics, Philosophy, linguistics, Law, etc., were the main areas which were developed in ancient India and all these subjects were closely bound up with religious dogmas.
Brahmins who had become the clergy, could thus virtually monopolize the areas of acquiring and imparting education, to the exclusion of other castes.
There are strict injunctions in our Dharmashastras (legal literature) against the taking of education by the Shudras. According to the Dharmashastras, Shudras should remain beyond earshot when the Vedas are being recited, the Manusmriti goes a step ahead when it says that even for an accidental hearing of the Vedic chants a Shudra's ears should be lopped off. This typifies the attitude of the Brahmin orthodoxy towards monopolizing learning and education.
Now we move on to examine the process that led to the emergence of
who played an important role, next only to the Brahmins in the caste hierarchy.
View the Table of Contents
The vaishyas share with the two higher classes, the brahmana and the
kshatriya, the distinction of being dvija, or "twice-born," achieving their
spiritual rebirth when they assume the sacred wool thread at the upanayana
-- Brittanica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia Brittanica Inc., 1997
The idea behind this site is that it should be a resource and portal for anyone interested in sustainable business, permaculture, local currencies, natural building, renewable energy and so on. Please feel free to suggest links, create an account for yourself and post new articles, join discussions and use any of the facilities provided. You can expect gradual changes to the site over the next while so be sure to visit regularly.
What is a vaishya? The vaishya varna or caste is the third of the four social strata of vedic society. Vaishyas are likened to the belly of society and farming, cow protection and business are the natural work or dharma for the vaishyas. The brahmanas or priests, the highest caste are likened to the head of society - they provide advice on spiritual matters and are engaged in worship and sacrifice. Next come the kshatriyas or warriors, who are likened to the arms of society and are responsible for the protection of society. For the sudras, who are likened to the legs of society, there is labor and service to others.
"Persons of all varnas are brahmanas, because they are all born from
Lord Brahma. The brahmanas were born from the mouth of Brahma, the ksatriyas
from his arms, the vaisyas were born from his navel, and the sudras were
born from his legs. Do not consider the varnas in another way. One who
is fixed in knowledge is a brahmana. Therefore, O king, this moksa-sastra
was spoken for the benefit of those brahmanas and ksatriyas who have attained
knowledge. This is the opinion of ancient scholars."
-- Mahabharata, Santi-parva, ch. 318
This varnasrama system is designed for the improvement of all members
of society. A class system may seem inequitable in terms of the distribution
of resources in the modern world but in vedic society all varnas are considered
necessary for a healthy society and while the higher varnas may enjoy greater
privileges, they also bear greater responsibilities, a feature that seems
to be missing from contemporary society. One's role or identity is naturally
important in human society and one's occupation is a large contibuting
factor. While it is generally considered that there is not much mobility
in the Indian 'caste system', this is not the case. There are plenty of
verses from various sacred texts that attest to the fact that varna should
be based on the qualities and activities of the individual and not their
If one is factually situated in the occupation of a brahmana, he must be considered a brahmana, even if born of a ksatriya or vaisya family. "O Devi, if even a sudra is actually engaged in the occupation and pure behavior of a brahmana, he becomes a brahmana. Moreover, a vaisya can become a ksatriya. "Therefore, neither the source of one's birth, nor his reformation, nor his education is the criterion of a brahmana. The vrtta, or occupation, is the real standard by which one is known as a brahmana.
-- Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, ch. 163
So, what place has varnasrama in the 21st century? After all, it has been said that everyone in Kaliyuga (the Iron or Winter Age of which approximately 5000 years have passed) is a sudra or lower. While, most of us, especiallly those of us in the Western world cannot possibly hope to follow every Vedic injunction, we can at least aspire to follow the principle of varnasrama and improve our lot materially and spiritually through the means of karma yoga and in the case of the vaisya practice ethical business and agriculture that is in harmony with the environment, protecting all inhabitants of the earth instead of exploiting them for some short term profit. The internet has become a democratising force giving the small business person an equal footing with the multi-national. Community is again becoming an important feature in the modern world, a reverse of the trend of the nuclear family. The Open Source and Linux community epitomise this trend and here again short term profit has been forgone for mutual benefuit in an essentially gift economy.
So whatever you angle or interest, feel free and welcome to use the
resources provided here.
Om tat sat,
See more pages on the Hare Krishna maha mantra HERE
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