Thoughts on caste

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Thu Feb 13 21:09:58 CST 1997

On Thu, 13 Feb 1997, Dennis Waite wrote:

> This view is that the modern (last few hundred years?) understanding of the
> caste definitions is a total distortion of the original intent. This is that
> people *by their nature* differ in their abilities, according to the
> relative proportions of the guna present in their make-up. Thus, the

I have tried to keep away from bringin up issues of caste, but since it is
here, my thoughts are as follows.

It is certainly very helpful for Indians in modern times to explain away
the caste structure as one based on guNa, and not on heredity, at least
in original intent. But to say that the hereditary nature of caste is a
distortion of the original intent, and that it is a feature of the last
few hundred years of Indian history is not very correct.

While the Gita does say that varNa is determined by guNa, this has
traditionally always been explained away as something inherited by birth.
Thus, a person of sAttvika temperament is almost always assumed to be born
to parents of similar temperament, and so on ad infinitum, making caste a
de facto hereditary attribute. Also, the authors of various dharmaSAstra
works tell us that the offspring of a kshatriya mother and a brAhmaNa
father belong to one caste, while the offspring of a brAhmaNa mother and a
kshatriya father belong to another. The multitudes of sub-castes in India
are explained as arising out of such inter-varNa unions. Whatever the
reality of such explanations, the fact remains that these authors regarded
the caste of a person as being determined by birth.

For how long has this attitude been prevalent? The latest date of that
classic dharmaSAstra work, the manusmr.ti, is somewhere near 100 CE. Thus,
caste as being determined by birth has been around for at least two
_millennia_, not just a few centuries. I am not saying that this is
necessarily a correct attitude to take, nor do I want to say that the old
dharmaSAstras are totally wrong. Human society always finds ways to
stratify itself into high and low, into superior and inferior, by whatever
criteria happen to be most relevant to it at a given point in time. If it
is not caste, it is the color of your skin. If not color, it is wealth.

And closely connected to social systems are the political systems that
men live under. A political system that is supposedly based on equality
of all men, but once allowed its white citizens to own black slaves and
didn't give its women and its freed slaves the right to vote till recently
is considered to be the best democracy in the world today. Holding on to
a seemingly rosy principle in theory, but practicing something opposed to
it, seems more hypocritical than an old system based on monarchy, where
there was a clear distinction between high and low. At least the latter
system openly bases its practices on its theory.

Finally, I would like to point out that if the existence of the caste
system is problematic for some people, explaining it as based on something
essential to the nature of human beings is much more problematic,
especially for advaita. The real identity of every sentient being, or for
that matter, even dead matter, is nothing but brahman. Caste, as much as
other things like the individual ego, cannot therefore be due to any
essential nature. To say that people belong to different castes by virtue
of their different natures is to concede an element of intrinsic
difference at an absolute level. The usual explanation of guNas in the
framework of sAmkhya is to talk of all guNas as being attributes of
material prakr.ti, which is like mAyA. The purusha is not affected by the
guNas. Once the guNas are reduced to material properties, caste determined
by guNa is not very different from caste determined by birth. After all,
birth refers only to a particular material manifestation which comes into
being, stays on for some time and then passes on. This is perfectly okay
for sAmkhya, which allows for multiple purushas.

>From the point of view of advaita, we have to hold caste as relevant only
at the vyavahAra level. Caste is intimately tied to human action, and to
human relationships. If the search for moksha is one that tries to
transcend action, and to remove all notion of difference, part of that
search must be to renounce caste altogether. That is why SankarAcArya
says, "katham varNASramI bhavet?" - how can a sannyAsI follow the dictates
of conventional varNa-ASrama distinctions? That is why various advaita
poems revel in rejecting one's birth, one's gotra (which is again related
to caste, indirectly), one's varNa, and everything else that passes for
one's essential identity. But please be warned that only a total
renouncer can totally renounce caste. Those of us who continue to be in
the world, and of the world, will find ourselves being affected by
caste and race and economic status, however detached we may try to be.

In my opinion, too much dwelling on the issue of one's caste only detracts
from the real quest that teachers of advaita encourage. In the final
analysis, an email forum such as this can only go so far. If caste
troubles you, ask your questions to a learned guru, who is also realized,
and follow his advice. Let the others stick to their opinions, however
outmoded or however revolutionary they may be.

S. Vidyasankar
>From ADVAITA-L at TAMU.EDU Fri Feb 14 09:48:27 1997
Message-Id: <FRI.14.FEB.1997.094827.0500.ADVAITAL at TAMU.EDU>
Date: Fri, 14 Feb 1997 09:48:27 -0500
Reply-To: "Advaita (non-duality) with reverence" <ADVAITA-L at TAMU.EDU>
To: "Advaita (non-duality) with reverence" <ADVAITA-L at TAMU.EDU>
From: Anand Hudli <ahudli at APPN.CI.IN.AMERITECH.COM>
Subject: Morning thoughts about Goddess lalitaa
Comments: To: advaita-l at
Mime-Version: 1.0
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  praataH stuve parashivaaM lalitaaM bhavaaniiM
  trayyantavedyavibhavaM karuNaanavadyaaM  |
  vishvasya sR^ishhTivilayasthitihetubhuutaaM
  vidyeshvariiM nigamavaaN^manasaatiduuraaM  ||

  praataH - in the morning
  stuve - I praise
  parashivaaM - the supremely auspicious
  lalitaaM - Goddess lalitaa
  bhavaaniiM - Bhavaanii (the spouse of Bhava)
  trayyantavedyavibhavaaM - whose glory is known through Vedaanta
  karuNaanavadyaaM - who is compassionate and pure
  vishvasya - of the universe
  sR^ishhTivilayasthitihetubhuutaaM - is the cause of the creation,
                                      maintenance, and destruction
  vidyeshvariiM - the Goddess of Knowledge
  nigamavaaN^manasaatiduuraaM - is extremely inaccessible to the
                                scriptures, words, and mind.

  In the morning, I praise the supremely auspicious Lalitaa, the
  spouse of Shiva, whose glory is known through Vedaanta, who is
  compassionate and pure, who is the cause of the creation, maintenance,
  and destruction of the universe, who is the Goddess of Knowledge, and
  who is completely beyond the reach of the scriptures, words, and mind.


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