The ancient societal structure of Varnas was that of a cooperative guild system where different classes or sections of people catered and complemented one another’s requirements which added to the overall welfare of the society at large. It was a mutually beneficial cooperative federal system where people across the classes were conscious of their moral and societal duties and the rights came innately with Dharmic compliance. Even a peek into Dharmashastras reveal that that the Varna system was never about castes but a system of occupation based identity where laws were applicable in accordance with the roles and responsibilities one carried.
But it is ironical today that although we live in a system that constitutionally legitimizes inequality by celebrating reverse oppression based on alleged and generalized oppression theories of the past while normalizing mediocrity and unaccountability all in the name of affirmative action by providing for increased and incessant reservations with each passing year, the history text books still seem to compensate for the consistent political impotency by a sustained vilification of the Varna system _ a system that helped societies thrive in the Vedic age 4000 years ago.
The trigger for this post has been the CBSE class VI syllabus that teaches that the Varna system instituted inequality and was an oppressive system as if today’s provisions of Socialistic Democracy – stricken with reservations, mediocrity and BritishRaj diktats has led us to become a superpower.
The Vedic seers established the Dharmashastras based on the requirements of the then society, which were later enhanced, amended and appropriated with time but to be viewing the past social construct under the present prism and viciously attaching a political narrative to attack an entire civilization is a gross injustice to the history and heritage of our glorious lineage.
Understanding the emergence of Varna Vyavastha
To begin with there were no Varnas in the Kriti Yuga as life was very simple, easy and blissful. Life was based on Dharma with no ego, greed, complexities, cruelty, anger or desire or differentiation amongst people, there was no king nor any Veda in this Yuga. Life was sustained on something called ‘Madhu’ which was abundantly available and no special efforts or skills were required to get it. (Note Madhu here is not the honey produced by bees)
As time passed Dharma was weakened and the complexities of life increased. In the Treta Yuga, life is no longer simple and can no more be sustained on mere Madhu. Agriculture is not yet known, few trees and cereals grow and there is a need to learn new skills and crafts to sustain life. In the Treta Yuga differentiation sets in and the 3 varnas of Bramanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are formed as the need for sustenance grows.
(I use the present tense ‘life is no longer simple‘ because the ChaturYuga is a repetitive cosmic cycle)
The 4th Varna of Kshudra perhaps began at the end of Dwapara Yuga or at the beginning of Kali Yuga as even in the Mahabharatha there are references of the fisherman class(Suta) or the hunter class and not of the Kshudra.
Thus the Varna Vyavastha that evolved as a result of increasing human capacities was simply the emergence of a cooperative guild system where people from the same profession grouped up as guild communities, working towards the common goal of mutual sustenance and harmonious living. It was never meant to establish any higher or lower status in the society. It was just a vritti or occupational arrangement for the overall prosperity of the society but in the white man’s imperial quest, the Varna system was superimposed with the divisive constructs of the European class system and christened as our own indigenous caste system that has been successfully sustained and even thrived with booster shots of politics.
As regards to the oppression theory where it is alleged that only Brahmins were entitled to the knowledge of Vedas or learning, here is a gist from a commentary of what the Smrthis say:
“The obligation of studentship was so paramount that any member of these 3 varnas not accepting it would be an outcast. No one was to imitate such men, nor was anybody to teach them nor perform sacrifice for them nor have any physical relationships with and their descendants began to be called Vraatyas(ib, ii, 5, 40 f)”
This shows that Smrithis insisted on compulsory education for all the 3 varnas of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and perhaps the Vraathyas who did not choose studentship ended up as the fourth Varna of Kshudra because the very term ‘kshudra’ in Sanskrit means ‘insignificant’, ‘petty’ or ‘silly’. It was not just in the Rig Vedic period but even in the AtharvaVeda period the dislike is evident as evil things like fever are wished away to distant westerners like Ghandharas, Bahlikas, Mujavants(v, 22,7) and to easterners like Angas and Magadhas.
Magadhas are dubbed as Vratyas in Vedic texts(AV, xv, 2, 1-4) mainly because they did not take to learning. If one looks closely Magadha was mostly ruled by Kshudra kings in history.
The prominence attributed to learning of Vedas from the above passage is conspicuously revealing of the advocacy of mandatory education for all and those who did not learn them were called insignificant. While it is obvious here that imparting of education or knowledge had nothing to do with class or caste by birth although in later periods it did get reduced to family traditions but it is worth pondering if the initial differences in the society began not on account of systemic denial but of individual refusals or indifference or inability to seek knowledge that might have furthered the structure of identity of Varna by birth. And mind you this education was not elementary but a compulsory higher education as studentship ranged from 9 years to 18 years to 36 years in the Vedic times.
Of course in later Vedic period and also in medieval times the duration of years were lessened in accordance with the needs and demands of the different guilds that formed the bulk of the society as most of these guilds were given a free hand to set up their own laws and legislations. The Vedic society was essentially bound by Vedas at large but enjoyed self-governance within the framework of Dharma.
Importance attributed to spiritual knowledge over the mundane
The Vedic knowledge is classified into 2 types namely Para Vidya and Apara Vidya. Para vidya is the experiential knowledge of realizing Brahman – that which cannot be taught but can be realized. It deals with the 4 Vedas, Upavedas and was/is normally achieved with the guidance of an Acharya.
Apara vidya is the knowledge of arts and crafts – the 64 kalas which includes agriculture, science, crafts, medicine, laws, logic etc required in the day to day sustenance.
As more and more people became interested in Para Vidya, perhaps it came to be associated with prestige and supremacy over other skills, this shift in treating the Para vidya as more important than the Apara Vidya where the knowledge of sacred became more important than knowledge of the mundane, perhaps led to the hierarchal supremacy of those who chose the Brahmana Varna just like how choosing the Science stream is viewed as superior to that of Arts, Humanities or Commerce stream today.
Most of us have been stereotyped to believe that ManuMaharshi advocated pouring of molten lead into a Kshudra’s ears if he heard the Vedas, isn’t it?! But did you know that a Bramana who did not pronounce the hymns right and a Bramana who did not adhere to the spiritualistic and ritualistic ideals and those Bramanas who received fees for teaching were looked down upon and risked being isolated or even losing Brahminhood. Also the punishments and practices meted out to Bramins and Kshudras differed, the Kshudra had less punishments, a Kshudra got as punishment ½ of what a Vaishya or Kshatriya got and a Bramana got 4 times heavier punishment than that of a Kshudra. Also few provisions show that the status of the Shudra was not so degraded as the master or employer whom he served was required to support him throughout life even when old or disabled for work.
The Smrithis, Sutras and Dharmashastras were a body of laws governing the society that served as a framework of constitution that were evolved and enhanced with time just like constitutional amendments but it is intriguing why in these secular times we have only heard how obnoxious the Manu Smrthi was when there were other Smrthis like Vishnu Smrthi, Yagnavalkya Smrthi and Narada Smrthi!
Checks on Absolutism
In the post Vedic period, in order to keep a check on the king’s autocracy there were advising and administrative bodies like Mantri Parishads, Sabhas and Parishads. A Parishad or a Cabinet of 9 was formed out of a ministry of 37 comprising of 4 Bramanas, 8 Kshatriyas, 21 Vaishayas, 3 Kshudras and 1 Suta(Mbh, 85, 6-11). What do these numbers speak? 21 Vaishyas as against 4 Bramanas, yet it was the Bramanas who oppressed?? Or is it that the Ambanis of Vedic times dominated and high jacked the administrative eco system?
The numbers connote an administrative acumen that prioritizes economic prosperity as the prime factor for a society to thrive followed by military readiness to protect that prosperity within the Dharmic framework to serve the society and lead them to common goal of overall welfare.
Every framework of social system that shapes a civilization is bound to have finesse alongside its fault lines hence it is best to put history in an as is condition with no ideals or ideologies attached because as they say if Politics is a tree – history is its root, but in times when history has been reduced into a political tool where all social economic or political reforms are in consonance with fabricated and blown up hate filled history of divisive theories of oppression, it becomes imperative to make space and state the other side of the story which has resiliently borne the brunt of vile atrocities of invasive and debilitating socialism in the name of caste system and affirmative action.
Equality is a relative term that differs under the different constructs of social economic spiritual religious emotional intellectual ethnic cultural conditions and it cannot be measured on a scale as per the diktats of a rule book because priorities and practices of individuals differ. Equality can never be absolute in any society and it can fairly be established by defining and inculcating into the society a sense of right and wrong where right is respected and adhered to irrespective of all other conditions.
History should be viewed as a facilitator for learning unlearning and reformation, it should not become a foundationless apparatus for settling scores of alleged past