There are many stumbling blocks when it comes to the Hindu philosophy. There is one in particular that keeps making rounds whenever Sanatana Dharma is brought up – the one about India's caste realities is one of the most obvious.
To begin with one must understand what the word "caste" means, it is derived from the Portuguese word "casta" which means lineage, race or breed. There is no exact equivalent for "caste" in the Hindu society. What really exists is the dual concept of varna or jati. There are four varnas and countless jatis.
Caste-based discrimination is not intrinsic to Hinduism. "Untouchability" and caste-based discrimination are purely social evils not accepted or recognised anywhere in the Hindu scriptures. The sacred texts describe varna as a metaphysical framework detailing four distinctive qualities which are manifest, in varying degrees, in every individual. Varna is not the four rigid, societal classes that many think of it to be. Jati refers to the occupation-based, social units with which people actually are identified. In theory, the jatis loosely belonged to one of the four varnas but were not limited to the traditional profession of the varna in Vedic times. The four varnas- and the most common profession belonging to each were:
- Scholars, teachers, physicians, judges and priests (Brahmana)
- Kings, soldiers and administrators (Kshatriya)
- Businessmen, traders, merchants and dairy farmers (Vaishya)
- Labourers, farmers, blacksmiths (including wealthy landowners were Shudras)
Many people still fail to see that the caste system was never an integral part of Hinduism, it was just created for structural purposes. The classification (varna) embodied the mind-set of a person. As each category had certain characteristics, one could actually infer that they were merely qualities of humans who belonged to each. The Brahmanas are supposed to be the wise and well-read who understood the scriptures, who had the mind-set of a seer. The Kshatriya varna had the mind-set of a master, a Vaishya had a mind-set of a trader and someone from the Shudra varna had the mind-set of a follower.
It is crucial to note that in the Vedic times the classification was also transferable, a Brahmana could become a warrior and a Shudra could become a sage and vice versa. Sage Valmiki, was a robber who wrote Ramayana, sage Vishwamitra was once a king, sages Dronacharya & Kripacharya taught archery to the Pandavas.
The subsequent fifth category, now known as the "untouchables", emerged more than 2,000 years after the Rig Veda (the first Veda) to catergorise those jatis which, for various reasons did not fit into the four-fold structure. Many of these jatis that fall under the fifth category performed tasks considered ritually impure, physical defiling, or involving violence. The Bhagavata Purana states these to be the defining characteristics of the fifth category. However, the Vedic texts neither mention the concept of untouchable people nor any practice of untouchability.
The system was never rigid and it was certainly flexible. The people who were outside of the structure probably had unpleasant, unethical or ill-couth characteristics. They could also become a seer if they wanted to surely. Much later people started misusing the system, calling themselves superior when everyone could be superior if they sought to. Overtime, however, they used their exalted position to dominate society and claim entitlements. It was an irony of history that those who carried knowledge of how to expand the mind failed to expand their own minds, and chose the common path of domination instead. Nevertheless, overtime varna and jati became conflated and birth-based.
The term “caste” in modern India is primarily understood to mean jati rather than varna is a characteristic across all religious communities. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists & Sikhs in India follow this system too. The caste system is not limited only to Hindus. Caste discrimination has been outlawed since independence of the country. There are more opportunities now for the ones who have been wronged over this. Nevertheless, neither varna nor jati have bearing on one’s occupation in modern day India, but may still influence lifestyle, certain socio-cultural practices and marriage.
The caste system neither enhances the Hindu philosophy nor is it essential to it. It is fundamental to understand that all of us have a choice in choosing our varna based on our inclinations.The rituals in the Vedas ask the noble or the king to eat with the commoner from the same vessel. Hindu philosophy emphasises equality of all mankind.
ajyeṣṭhāso akaniṣṭhāsa ete sam bhrātaro vāvṛdhuḥ saubhagāyaa - No one is superior, none inferior. We are all brothers, marching forward to prosperity.