By Annan Boodram
According to the great Hindu saint/philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, when one, observing the moral codes of conduct applicable to one’s station in life and society, performs actions for enjoyment and acquisition of wealth (kama and artha – two goals of life in Hinduism), one is said to be following pravritti dharma (social action). The problem with this statement is that it ossifies ‘one’s station in life’ thereby endorsing the caste system. We all know that today no one has a set or permanent ‘station in life’ and that the social mobility ladder is so fluid that people travel upwards and downwards all the time. We also know that a person’s job does not define that person and that each individual has many facets to his/her life. Yet among some Hindus, especially from India or of Indian background, Shankaracharya’s statement would resonate because the ossified caste system is still alive and kicking, especially within their psyche. Yet, given his perspective herein, one has to question the great saint/philosopher’s total understanding of the human condition.
In fact, contrary to what is propagated by traditional religionists, caste is not divinely ordained; it is a socio-historical construct that has been given legitimacy through religion; thus the argument that karma makes one a Brahmin for example, and that’s why that person is born to Brahmin parents – the propagation of caste as hereditary. But an analysis of the literature indicates that children of Brahmin parents can only be Brahmins by their own actions, not by birth. In effect caste is really is about actions and outlook and has nothing to do with birth; atma chooses parents based on karma, not on caste.
Supporters of caste also usually take pride in the conceptual framework within these words: ‘Though of an inferior merit, the discharge of one’s natural obligation should be preferred. The undertaking of a deed of superior merit is, on the other hand, improper and injurious, if it is attempted without cultivating the ability that is commensurate with it.’ The reality is that nobody is born with an innate ability to achieve a deed of superior merit; even the best will need minimal learned acquisition, and even then there will inevitably be failures, which can become stepping-stones to eventual success. To suggest therefore that man should not aspire above his condition and circumstances is simply to reinforce caste boundaries while contradicting many philosophical, sociological and psychological precepts that urge advancement and upward movement.
Besides the reality is that nothing is infallible except God. And since all books – Vedas, Bible, and Koran – were written by man, none of them could be infallible. Furthermore, man has been given an intellect and the capacity to critically inquire, discriminate and introspect so that man can separate the philosophy from the surrounding socio-historical conventions. Caste is one such socio-historical convention that lost its efficacy a long time ago but is still held on to by significant sections of the Indian and Hindu population.
To reiterate then, the caste system started off as a socio historical construct of stratification for the purpose of social/political control. Later it became embedded in religious philosophy, which validated it and culturally legitimized its practice. How is this so? Let’s look at some of the signposts.
Maya was a tool to keep society stratified and enable upper castes to control lower castes while keeping the masses subjugated in their suffering and misery. The logic was that if the masses accepted that their exploitation and suffering was illusory, then they would have no motivation to rebel against it and try to change their social reality, nor would they see the upper castes as being responsible for their state. But since we are all atma how can that be illusion? If we accept that God exists and displays devotion accordingly how can that be illusion? If we do good, help others, display compassion et al how can that be illusion? The reality is that since God created everything, unless we’re saying that God creates illusion, then everything has to be real. Besides to what end would God invest time and effort in creating illusion and only illusion? If, in fact, the world is maya, then God must be a master magician with a streak of sadism who created the world for self-enjoyment.
Furthermore, if Manu and Satrupa (Adam and Eve) are the progenitors of all mankind where and how did caste come into being? Who decided and how was it decided that one offspring was Brahmin, another was Kshatrya and so on? And if caste was indeed God-ordained then how come it held applicability in India only and not globally? How come it takes up so much space in Hindu literature but is not mention at all in other scriptures such as Bible and Koran? Some argue that caste held sway in other civilizations as class but there are fundamental differences between the two and only in Hinduism is there a hereditary attachment or an instruction that one must discharge one’s ‘natural obligation’ rather than desiring a ‘deed of superior merit’.
Demonizing ‘attachment’ was another of those concepts used to keep the oppressed in their place. For, if they accepted that attachments hindered spiritual advancement, then they would not mind their lack of material comforts and social advancement. However, the reality is that attachments, like everything else, operate within the law of duality and thus can either be bad or good depending on goals and outcomes.
Then there is the view encapsulated by Ramana Maharishi who stated, “
“The body does not say ‘I’. No one will argue that even in deep sleep the ‘I’ ceases to exist.”
But is it not ‘I’ that distinguishes each from the other? After all we are not an amorphous mass are we? No, we are each an individual with our own karma and for each birth, our own atma. So yes we are each ‘I’ and we recognize and celebrate our ‘Iness’. Thus this view that we are not ‘I’ is outmoded and antiquated and, in fact, simply a product of a socio-historical time when the masses were subsumed to the higher castes and were conditioned to not seek self identity so as to become controllable, subservient and accepting of the status quo.
What about the traditional concept of guru? Much has been written about the guru, in whom supposedly resided all knowledge and some argue, perfection. But these ideas about a perfect guru were set about to make sure that lower castes become dependent on the upper castes as ‘bridges’ to God. And while it may be true that in the days of yore when schools did not exist, knowledge, such as it was, was not readily and easily accessible, and the vast majority of people were illiterate, the guru was the instrument through whom literacy and knowledge was handed down and passed on in a limited scale. In contemporary times with existence of schools, and education accessible to the public, the gurukul has become irrelevant. I would argue that even with respect to scriptural knowledge and spiritual understanding, a guru is far form being sufficient; one would need many gurus and so, in effect, a guru is merely a teacher and not some exalted spiritual personage of perfection.
In fact, many who claim to be or are considered gurus, reflect behavior that is mundane and sometimes pathological. And since the guru supposedly cannot be questioned and has to be obeyed regardless, no one dares tell a guru that he falls far short of the requirements as per the ‘scripture’. Even the gurus of antiquity and mythology fell short because they were often hasty, quick to anger, emitted curses upon those they became angry with, were arrogant and demanded to be placed on pedestals and literally worshiped.
Today we need to be very careful that we don’t create God in man’s image. Placing a guru, any guru, on a pedestal and transforming that person into a being of divinity, creates the master/servant relationship with inherent servitude and subservience. Instead, let’s proffer due respect and consideration, as we would anyone else, if such is merited, but let’s recognize that a guru is a mere human being, not much different than you and I. Let’s also understand that pandits are not automatically conferred with infallibility and spiritualism; rather pandatai is just another vocation with some being better than others, some being good and some being lousy, just as would obtain in any other field of endeavor. So let’s dismiss this exploitative and ossified caste system and resolve to denounce and combat it wherever it rears its ugly head.
The bottom line is that religion, per se, is man made, for various reasons, and scriptures are just some people’s perspectives frame worked by specific socio-historical norms, practices and beliefs. God, on the other hand, is a spiritual being and thus our commonality is that we are all spiritual beings with no distinctions of castes, religion or other similar divisiveness. So we really do not need religion to attain our spiritual potential or to become God conscious, although religion can become a bridge if the philosophy is extricated from its socio-historical moorings and aptly understood and applied. Instead, we simply need to see God in every human being, serve others, and be honest, truthful, compassionate, caring, loving, kind and display integrity at all times. Yes, we will stumble and sometimes even fall, but each time we will straighten ourselves, or get right back up and keep moving on. And by harnessing our inherent spirituality, we become healers rather than dividers and we bring people together without any sort of imposition.