An Indian Civilizational Perspective

Thoughts on Why Caste System may have come from Indian Spirituality

equality.jpgHave you ever thought of this? In relations to the Hindu philosophy, how could such lofty wisdom lead to or tolerate something as regressive as Caste System in the Indian society?

Beyond the religious affiliations, when I first became acquainted with the profound texts of Vedic/Vedantic wisdom, this question has always bothered me.

Over the past few months, my thoughts and ideas around this question have started to come together. These may seem like conjectures, which they are, but it is also my sincere attempt to understand the genesis of what is the greatest issue in the Hindu society for a long time.

Like so many things from our age-old faith that we can strongly relate to even today, higher education has been one of the key elements. There happened to be a bench mark set to acquire the knowledge of Spiritual Sciences in ancient times, just like qualifying for universities in modern times. Those pedagogic were never supposed to be mass education opportunities. But, they were certainly not restricted on the basis of caste. For, Matsya Kings have been described in Mahabharat, and we know about Ved Vyas being a fisherman’s son. Many Sages such as Maharishi Valmiki, Maharishi Matanga, Maharishi Vishwamitra, Rishika Lopamudra, etc. were not Brahmins. Having structure in a society with people doing different activities (as they please) is one thing. To have that as inter-generational restriction from society is another.

This is where we start.

The Spiritual sciences used to be transmitted to disciples in a very special way by every great teacher. The Guru has his/her own way to transmit the experience and the wisdom and it is done in a personal way. One cannot sit on a city square and give it, if one is serious. The purpose of Spiritual instruction is not entertainment or to show off but to fundamentally transform people. Therefore, all the Gurus have their way to initiating their disciples and then sharing what needs to be done. Buddha has his way, Nanak his own, and others before and after them had their individual way. None can be completely comparable. However, one thing is common, the instructions and the initiation was not done indiscriminately. There was a method to it.
If initiating disciples needed proper care and treatment, then choosing the right successor was even more important. Of the many disciples, only a handful ever make it to the highest levels of Enlightened Beings. Of those, only one could be considered by the Guru to be the real successor or one who could take the science and the lineage forward. Some Gurus did not choose any successor and let the “mission” fold up.

However, Spiritual growth is not without its effects – some very fantastic ones from a layman’s eyes. Siddhas, Yogis and Monks do attain some powers that can be considered “Super natural” because ordinary men and women do not have access to them. That brings in their own pitfalls.

The greatest of Gurus and Yogis steer clear of these pitfalls and rarely, if ever, use these powers. But for whom the appropriate wisdom has not come through may be tempted to use them. We know the case of Ravana in Ramayana. He had powers but not wisdom. High Ego, Serendipitous Powers and lacking the “final mile” of Wisdom is a very deadly combination. But it can happen more easily than the person being enlightened. Since there is no certification from anyone that someone is “Enlightened” or not, performing “miracles” using such powers has always been seen as a good proxy for Enlightenment. Although the reverse is true. The Enlightened are very reluctant to use such powers and if they do, they do so in great compulsion. For example, Yogananda left his body on March 7, 1952 but his body did not decay even after 20 days. (Time Magazine article . Notarized Letter from the Mortuary Director).

The reason why the instruction was not given en-masse is because not everyone could receive it. What is given is important, but not critical. Who receives and how s/he receives is the critical factor. That is one of the reason, why most of the texts in Advaita were “Question & Answer” format. Only when someone had reached a level such that s/he could ask the question, would the Guru answer. That ensured that one is not just talking in vacuum or giving off something that is not being received the way it should be. That is why Krishna even goes to the extent of calling the wisdom being transmitted to Arjun as “Secret Knowledge”.

Some Gurus were very strict with this and some were lax. But they all knew its importance and had enough safe guards.

Somewhere along the way, a few things happened:

Standards of dissemination of the wisdom were not followed. This meant that proper safeguards were not taken and for some reason, some Gurus transmitted it to people either not ready for it or not worthy of it. If something entailing large powers was being given out, without much control, then the greatest possibility is that such a thing was handed down in one’s own family. That is why probably the first seeds of Family ties being the basis of Spiritual lineage took shape. But the pretense of secrecy remained. While earlier the secrecy was to be maintained for the uninitiated; now the secrecy was to be maintained from the non-Family members.

The practices and wisdom brought some powers with it, even for not very strong disciples. Sometimes through sheer Grace of the Guru who did it out of his relationship that compassion. Either way, display of even the slightest of powers was enough of a legitimacy for the uninitiated Guru, not worthy otherwise.

I believe these two reasons contributed for the beginnings of creating an exclusive club, where only a few knew the secrets. This was so earlier as well. But earlier it was based on meritocracy, whereas now it was family ties that became more important.

Sometimes the laxity in the transmission occurred because of the situations one found himself in. A War or an Invasion or Politics.

In any case, the very requirements and strengths of the Spiritual Science became its greatest nemesis.

One can see this dynamics play out in the journey of the Sikh Gurus. The successive Gurus did not start their lives as enlightened. Some may not be at their highest level when they were initiated. But they represent the First Guru – the complete enlightened Master – nevertheless. Amongst thousands of disciples, only one was always chosen. And it wasn’t always in the family of the preceding Guru.

Finally, came the situation where the Last Guru found himself where he was in a war, uncertain of situations, and not enough time to prepare the next Guru, but something that had to be transmitted to the next generation. Guru Gobind Singh took the drastic step of dismantling the Guru lineage by pointing to a book (something that could never speak or initiate disciples) as the only Guru. This, I believe, obviated any tampering of the original message and destroying what had been done earlier. And it worked well.

The Sages and Gurus missed out on this drastic step. Stopping the lineage does not necessarily extinguish the knowledge and the wisdom. That remains just fine. Its dissemination is an issue. Enlightened Sages do not come to establish knowledge but to disseminate what is already known, experienced and affirmed to be the “Truth”.

In the end, I would like to point out that a society can not be judged by just one aspect of it. A society which had Einstein, also certainly had petty thieves and Pedophiles. Just because Caste System prevailed in the Indian society, does not make whatever Vedic/Vedantic wisdom has to offer useless. In fact it is no reflection on the wisdom and the profundity of the Sages / Rishis. The truth is that the society is neither wholly great, nor pathetic. It has people of all hues and ways. It is however, easier to find thieves in a certain society – especially if the corruption has become a norm – than to find Einsteins.

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