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Hinduism - Caste

( Originally Published 1916 )



CASTE is Unity. This may seem a paradox to the West, which has criticised without attempting to understand; but it is the A B C of truth as regards this much-discussed institution. Unity in Variety. The true ideal of caste is an extension of the Hindu family ideal, where each has his rightful place and privileges, and where the ideal of all is service for all. As in the family the elders have the chief obligations and responsibilities while the children have lesser reverence but greater freedom, so the higher castes have the chief responsibility for the welfare of the whole and have to go through many disciplines from which the lower castes, like children, are exempt.

Thus, like all other Hindu institutions, the caste system was also based upon the ideal of spiritual culture. It grew naturally as their civilisation grew, adapting itself to race and nation; it developed as they developed. This great institution, so much criticised by the unillumined, remains the wonder of the world, and has aroused keen inquiry as to its longevity. What is it that has kept the Hindu race so intact? Storm after storm has swept over, but it remains. The Hindu is still Hindu. Where are the ancient civilisations? In Europe the Roman eagle has fallen, the Byzantine Empire dwindled into pieces; ancient Greece and Carthage are no more. But India lives and re-news her youth, treasuring the jewel of her ancient heritage in the stronghold of Caste. Caste has preserved the life and ideal of the Hindu race.

Yet in the West it is deemed an absurdity that in the light of the twentieth century there should exist such a thing as caste in any country. We wonder sometimes if our critics have any idea of what Hindu caste really is. Our institution of caste was evolved for the efficient organisation and administration of the country, and proved itself fitted for this purpose better than any social system yet discovered in any part of the world.

Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, these were the three twice-born orders, belonging to the original Aryan stock, who had practically the same rights and privileges. But it is natural for a group of people who work together for a certain time to become to a certain extent a fixed group, with fixed ideals, and these ideals grow amongst them to such an extent that they become practically the very life and breath of that group.

It was natural for the group of people who were thinking all the time about spiritual matters in the forest-universities of India, to think only of the Absolute and to forget the world. Those were the days of the discovery of spiritual truths amongst our forefathers, unequalled, unsurpassed by any nation of the world. It was natural for those who were fighting men to honour them and to see that they were not disturbed in their spiritual studies and were protected from the surrounding enemies then in India, the non-Aryans. At the same time, it was natural that both those who were busy in the matters of spiritual discovery, and those who were protecting them, should be fed, and fed properly. So there arose a class whose duty was to look after the economic problem.

The first class of the people, who were busy in spiritual discovery, was called " Brahmin," the second " Kshatriya," the third class " Vaisya "; but all these three classes had the same rights and privileges. These were the necessary component parts of the great Hindus that had settled in India. They conquered the non-Aryans, who by race and tradition were inferior. After their gradual con-quest, these also became members of the Hindu family, but with inferior rank. These are the Sudras. By this means our forefathers protected themselves from interfusion with an inferior race, and at the same time avoided the alternatives that all other Aryan people have deemed necessary, slavery or extermination. The Sudra had his own rights and privileges, respected by all the other castes.

It is worthy of note that in the Hindu system, the highest caste was not that of the greatest worldly power, as in other social systems today. The Brahmin was above the King, by virtue of his greater renunciation and discipline. The pure Hindu Brahmin is, from the Vedic period until today, the same. He has never earned any money. He does not earn any money to-day. His vocation was teaching; that it is today. His house is a simple house. His wife a humble woman; she wears no ornament save her wedding bracelet made of conch-shell; she devotedly serves her husband and the students who surround him.

He does not take money, but he feeds hundreds of disciples. He is supported by the rajahs and the people; for it is considered a sacred duty and privilege to sustain those who are the conservers of spiritual learning. He has nothing for the morrow. By culture and tradition, he lives by faith. He trusts in God, and God feedeth him.

There is a story of Krishna told in all the villages of India which illustrates this beautiful faith that God careth for us more than we can ask or think : A Brahmin was copying the text of the Gita; " They who depend on me, casting aside all care, whatsoever they need, I myself carry it to them." Pondering on the text, it seemed to the Brahmin irreverent to think of the Lord as Himself carrying food to His devotees, and he decided that the word " carry " must be an error. He therefore erased it carefully with his penknife and substituted the word " send." A few moments later, as he rose to go to bathe in the Ganges before eating, his wife came to him with a troubled face and told him there was no food in the house. The last had been given to a guest. " Do not be troubled," said the Brahmin gently, " let us call upon the Lord to fulfil His own promise." He had only left the room a few minutes, when a beautiful youth stood at the door with a basket of delicious food. "Your husband called me to carry this," he said, giving the basket to the Brahmin's wife. But as he lifted his arms she saw that there were gashes above his heart. " My poor boy," she exclaimed, " who has wounded you? " He replied gently, " Your husband wounded me, Mother, be-fore he called me." " My husband ! " exclaimed the wife in amazement. " He would not hurt any living thing, not even an insect." But the beautiful youth had vanished, and at the same moment her husband reentered the room. " How was it possible," she cried in bewilderment, " that you could have cruelly hurt the beautiful boy whom you sent here with food?" . " I sent no food;" said the Brahmin, " I have not left the house." Then the eyes of the husband and wife met, and they knew who had brought the food, and that they had wounded the heart of the Lord by doubting the perfection of His promise. And the Brahmin restored the sacred text to its original form : " They who depend on me, casting aside all care, whatsoever they need, I Myself carry to them."

The Brahmin is respected, not because he is called Brahmin, but because of the renunciation and sacrifice that he has lived up to and placed before his country. By keeping the spiritual fire burning round him from the ancient days, he has been a power in the land. He teaches his students the spiritual truths. In the laboratory of Nature he found his ample elements. He never dreamed of dreadnoughts and super-dreadnoughts, Zeppelins and airships; he conjured not dum-dum bullets or poison gas. His one message was the message of spirituality and by that gift he has made his country what she has been, is, and shall be. Kings were afraid of the Brahmins. Who will not stand in awe before such an ideal of sacrifice and renunciation? The King sends food and raiment regularly for thousands of students. He serves with his material-treasures as the Brahmin serves with his treasures of learning.

Brahmins used to live in the forest and on the river banks. They made sacrifice and ablutions with fire and water, the sacred symbols of their life and culture. When a Brahmin comes to any social function, he comes bare-footed, simple in dress, but all the assembled guests stand in his honour. He does not seek honours, but, honours seek him. " Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things shall be added unto you." Our forefathers have sought always the Kingdom of Heaven, and they found, like Jesus, that " the Kingdom of God " is not without, but within.

India has caste; the West has class. Caste is internal; class external. Caste is cultural and spiritual, its ideal, mutual obligation and service. Class is credal and material, based on arbitrary ideas of superiority and material power. Class feeling dominates everything in the West. In India, with all our caste, there was never either class feeling or race antagonism. These have come with Western influence. Missionaries coming to India form a caste of their own, really mixing very little with the people, except for the so-called " saving of souls 1 " When they have made a convert, he is not received on an equal footing. He has left his own home and he finds, to his surprise, himself really an outcast in the home of his adoption. He discovers the separation of class and race, undefined, more difficult to contend against than any barriers of caste among his own people.

In the same way the civil service people who come out to India form a caste of their own. They go to rule the people, but they do not try to know them. How can you govern a people unless you know them very intimately? This civil-service class for the most part have not even a superficial knowledge of the Indian people. Yet they write books for their countrymen under such headings as " Real India," " People of India." How dare they write! They have never mixed with the people. It is a myth that the Indians never mix with others, as is sometimes said, and that the social barriers of their life are such that Western people cannot mix with them. There is nothing in the social life of the Hindu to prevent the formation of the strongest friendships between East and West, as is evidenced in individual cases where such friendships do exist. It is the idea of superiority on the part of the West that has made the barriers. If they had fraternized with the Indians the Indians would indeed have accepted them as their own brothers. It is for the interest of the " Christian " Empire to change its programme of life in India. It is significant that in the early days of the Civil Service its members who really settled in India formed strong friendships. These men uniformly speak in the highest praise of the Hindus

" The people of Bengal are gentle, benevolent, more susceptible to gratitude for kindness shown them than prompted to vengeance for wrongs inflicted, and as exempt from the worst propensities of human passion as any people on the face of the earth." So says Warren Hastings, who spent many years there.

" The people of India are brave, generous, and humane, and their truth is as remarkable as their courage," is the verdict of Sir John Malcolm; while Sir Thomas Monroe sums up the whole in the following distinguished manner

" The general practice of hospitality and charity amongst them, and above all a treatment of the female sex full of confidence, respect and delicacy, are signs which denote a civilised people. The Hindus are not inferior to the nations of Europe, and if civilisation is to become an article of trade between the two countries, I am convinced that this country will gain by the import of cargo."

Such was the opinion of those who knew India. The modern Westerner sees a few waves on the surface of the ocean of Hinduism, and forthwith thinks he has fathomed its depths. He considers that everything Western is superior because it is Western. It is the same spirit of arbitrary superiority which develops race-antagonism in the East and class-antagonism at home.

The Hindus, on the other hand, have in their midst an ordered society which is a real brotherhood. The Brahmin looks to the interest of the Kshatriya, the Kshatriya to that of the Brahmin; and the same is true between all the castes. The Sudra is not neglected in any way. When our Sudra servants come to our houses, our children call them either brother or uncle. In national festivals and ceremonies, we not only give presents to our own kinsmen and relations, but to all the people who are necessary factors in our composite life. They invite us and we invite them. They come to our Pujas, we go to theirs. When a Sudra suffers mentally or physically, the Brahmins take care of him. Wife or children go to his house and do everything for him. One caste is indispensable to the other, and in our religious observances, our injunctions are such that the Brahmin cannot perform them without the Sudra.

The Brahmin must feed the Sudra, must love him as his own child. A Brahmin at the time of dinner may not touch a Sudra, but it is not only a Sudra, his own son may not touch him. He considers that eating is a sacrament, to be sacredly performed. He realises in this sacrament that he is eating the very breath of God. It is not hatred, it is realisation. It is not for division, but for higher union. Every function of daily life to a Hindu is his devotion, through which he tries to realise his God. The Hindu never eats as the animals do. It is his prayer. It is his devotion. He does not eat with the Sudra, but he does not love him less. Where can the other three castes stand, whose scriptures say that the whole universe is their relation, if they cannot love the Sudra as they love the members of their own family? The Sudras are a very part and parcel of the family.

In every Indian village, and even in a big city, all the caste people live as a necessary factor of each other, the Brahmin being the presiding genius, whose main work is to awaken spirituality, which is the motive power to all our human action. At Pujas, marriages and other ceremonies the whole community is invited, sometimes several thousand people. At all special festivals, the. rich house-holder distributes gifts to all, as much as he can according to his means. The poor man also gives ; perhaps some sort of work. But there is no compulsion. It is only the mutual exchange of greetings in the one big family.

The division of this community-family of the Hindus into caste groups was evolved for the division of labour, and the giving to all of the right of equal opportunities within his own particular sphere. But " equal opportunities " in the Indian sense is very different from what it is in the West-ern. In the West, equal opportunities means equal opportunities for material education and power; so that if X can buy a motor-car, or become a Member of Parliament, Y can have a chance to do the same. This is not the view in India. In India, by equal opportunities we understand that each and every member of any caste-guild is free to fulfil his dharma, or ideal. In India we think that the fulfilment of the three functions of life service, knowledge and devotion, is the fullest privilege. The particular group assigned to him does not matter so much, since this life is only one bar of the music of God, and each note has its own sweetness. All serve. The Brahmin must serve his race and nation by giving spiritually. If he does, he is a Brahmin; if he does not, he falls from his ideal. So also the Kshatriya, he must serve, through knowledge of his dharma and devotion to it. The Vaisya must serve by providing the necessaries of life for those who protect and teach; and he must do it with knowledge and devotion. Service, knowledge, devotion; these are all common properties or equal opportunities of all classes of people. All must be done for God. In India it is this service, this knowledge, and this devotion that is the ideal.

Now it may be said, where rests the Sudra? The Sudra has also the same privileges. But being taken originally from the non-Aryan class, and of an inferior type, he was not given work beyond his capacity; but he was given opportunity to develop his heart and soul according to the same ideal. Every function of a Sudra's life was to him his dharma. There he developed himself to the ideal of service, knowledge and devotion. Every one in Hindu society has the privilege of developing his dharma in his own caste-guild. The highest knowledge to the Hindu was the knowledge of God, devotion to God, and service to Humanity. For that they had common privileges and equal opportunities; for the rest, they enunciated the first principle of political economy centuries before Adam Smith was born.

True only the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas could read the Vedas, and the Sudras were de-barred. One does not give higher mathematics to children; but if to know the art of service and knowledge, faith and devotion, is the ideal of human life, the Sudras of India were more privileged than any people in the world. After their day's work, they used to flock round the pandit, and do today, to hear him expound the highest teachings, in a language and in a way understood by all.

Caste in India has never brought any class division. In India the division between one caste people and another is not due to any distinction between man and man. The Brahmin has never quarrelled with his Sudra neighbour, nor has a Kshatriya ever made any attempt to thrust his sword into his neighbour's breast. If hatred has come between caste and caste, at any time, it has sunk into the ideal of Brotherhood again. All the religious reformers who have appeared in India have proclaimed this ideal of Brotherhood. They have sought not to do away with caste, but to purify it, to bring it back to the ideal. These reformers have come from all ranks and grades of classes, even from Mohammedans; but they are equally respected by all our people.

The Gita says : " The sage looketh equally on a Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and the lowest outcast." India is full of songs and stories ex-pressing the truth that " All is One." There can be no distinction between man and man for the Divine Spirit is in all.

Sankara, the great Hindu philosopher and re-former, was one day coming from his bath in the Ganges when a drunken outcast accidentally touched him. " How dare you touch me? " he exclaimed. The outcast replied that since the same Supreme Spirit is in all, how could his touch contaminate, and proceeded to expound the philosophy of Oneness. Sankara listened in wonderment and humbly acknowledged that he was right. Whereupon the outcast stood revealed as Shiva Himself, and Sankara fell at His feet.

Caste is not, as often thought, stereotyped. It is elastic, but elastic under certain rules and restrictions. It originated in a common agreement about certain things. It still exists on that principle. It has brought out a spirit of Brotherhood, the ideal of which is to sink all differences of passions and prejudices; to work in one's own guild yet contribute to the race and to the nation an ideal of federation, an ideal of communism. This Idealism has held the Hindu race. Form without spirit is lifeless, and whatever faults exist in the caste-system today are due to a loss of the true spirit of caste, partly from foreign influence, and largely to the consequent decline of the ashrama system of education of which I shall speak later. It is to a revival of this system that we must look for a revival of the true spirit of caste. Changes will come, as they have always come, but they must be as they have always been, from within.

When our forefathers immersed themselves in the sacred rivers, they used to think and pray that the waters of their country might enter into their very soul. They did it with the ideal of linking themselves with all the people that inhabited their Motherland. The Hindu never built in hatred. Hatred was never his foundation. It was always Oneness. He has adopted his social ideal to the progressive genius of his race. He is unique in that. His growth is from within, and from within he will to-day and in the future build his ideal for the coming race. Whatever the form of his civilisation, the spirit expressed therein has always been that of Brotherhood, of Harmony, of Oneness; beautifully sounded in the following song, sung even by the nautch-girls of India

" O Lord, look not upon my evil qualities!
Thy Name, O Lord, is Same-sightedness,
Make of us both the same Brahman!

One piece of iron is the Image in the Temple,
And another, the knife in the hand of the butcher,
But when they touch the philosopher's stone,
Both alike turn to gold !

One drop of water is in the sacred Jumna,
And another is in the ditch by the roadside,
But when they fall into the Ganges,
Both alike become holy.

So, Lord, look not upon my evil qualities!
Thy Name, O Lord, is Same-sightedness,
Make of us both the same Brahman! "



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