Statement against Caste-based Discrimination: Swami Chidanand Saraswati, President and Spiritual Head, Parmarth Niketan
Pujya Swamiji is President and Spiritual Head of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh (Himalayas), India, one of the largest spiritual institutions in India and is the Founder/Chairman of India Heritage Research Foundation (IHRF), an international, non-profit, humanitarian foundation engaged in a wide variety of charitable activities including free schools, women’s empowerment programs, vocational training centers, orphanages/gurukuls, medical care programs, rural development, environmental and ecological preservation as well as the monumental project of compiling the first Encyclopedia of Hinduism which was blessed and previewed by H.H. the Dalai Lama. IHRF has also constructed the first ashrams in the holy land of Mansarovar and Mt. Kailash. Pujya Swamiji is the recipient of innumerable awards, including the Mahatma Gandhi Humanitarian award, Hindu of the Year Award from Hinduism Today magazine, Devarishi Award, Bhaskar Award, Prominent Personality Award, by Lions’ Club, and Best Citizens of India Award. His humility and simplicity combined with his profound wisdom, deep understanding and boundless love for all of humanity, make him one of those rare saints who touches, uplifts and inspires audiences all across the globe.
Statement on Caste System in India
Our scriptures teach that all souls are part and parcel of the Divine, that we are all drops in the Divine, Universal ocean. Nowhere does it say that any group or any caste is superior to the others. Nowhere does it say that some drops are more divine than others. In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagawan Krishna describes the best of everything – out of mountains, I am the Himalayas; out of the rivers, I am the Ganga; out of religious rituals, I am japa; out of the trees , I am the pepal. He goes on and on defining truly the “best” of everything on Earth. But He doesn’t say anything such as”out of the castes, I am a Brahmin.” If one caste were superior to others, certainly He would have mentioned it. Nowhere in any of our scriptures does it place one of the castes qualitatively higher than the others. Rather, Bhagavan Krishna says that He created all 4 departments of a society; the system was a system of ‘varna vyavastha’ or a functionally organized civilization. He describes each caste as a different part of the body, all playing individual crucial roles.
So, nowhere is it said or written or taught in our scriptures that the system is either hierarchical or hereditary. This is a misunderstood, misinterpreted and misappropriated aspect of social living. It is definitely not scripturally sanctioned. The time has come, actually the time is already past, for this social anachronism to be abandoned, for any and all oppression and suppression on the basis of caste or creed to be discarded, and for Indians of all castes to move forward into a bright future, hand in hand.
Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji
President & Spiritual Head, Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh, India)
Founder/Chairman, India Heritage Research Foundation
Caste System in Today’s Context
1. All His creation is universally one and the same to Almighty God, and even then, today, Hindu religion appears to be losing its direction by remaining so grossly divided in terms of ‘castes and their sub-divisions’. What, according to you, would be the way to bring about unity under one umbrella?
The Caste system as you see it today is not was originally simply a division of labor based on personal, talents tendencies and abilities. It was never supposed to divide people. Rather, it was supposed to unite people so that everyone was simultaneously working to the best of his/her ability for the greater service of all. In the scriptures, when the system of dividing society into four groups was explained, the word used is “Varna.” Varna means “class” not “caste.” Caste is actually “Jati” and it is an incorrect translation of the word “varna.” When the Portuguese colonized parts of India, they mistakenly translated “varna vyavasthaa” as “caste system” and the mistake has stayed since then.
The varna system was based on a person’s characteristics, temperament and their innate “nature.” The Vedas describe one’s nature as being a mixture of the three gunas – tamas, rajas and sattva. Depending on the relative proportions of each of these gunas, one would be classified as a Brahmin, Kshetriya, Vaishya or Shudra. For example, Brahmins who perform much of the intellectual, creative and spiritual work within a community have a high proportion of sattva and low proportions of tamas and rajas. A kshetriya who is inclined toward political, administrative and military work has a high proportion of rajas, a medium proportion of sattva and a low proportion of tamas. A Vaishya who performs the tasks of businessman, employer and skilled laborer also has a high proportion of rajas but has relatively equal proportions of sattva and tamas, both of which are lower than rajas. Last, a shudra who performs the unskilled labor in society has a high proportion of tamas, a low proportion of sattva and a medium proportion of rajas.
These gunas are not inherited. They are based on one’s inherent nature and one’s karma. Therefore one’s “varna” was also not supposed to be based on heredity, and in the past it was not. It is only in relatively modern times that the strict, rigid, heredity-based “caste” system has come into existence. There are many examples in the scriptures and in history of people transcending the “class” or “varna” into which they were born. Everyone was free to choose an occupation according to his/her guna and karma.
Further, according to the scriptures, there is no hierarchy at all inherent in the varna system. All parts are of equal importance and equal worth. A good example is to imagine a human body. The brain which thinks, plans and guides represents the Brahmin caste. The hands and arms which fight, protect and work represent the kshetriya caste. The stomach which serves as the source of energy and “transactions” represents the vaishya caste, and the legs/feet which do the necessary running around in the service of the rest of the body represent the shudra caste. No one can say the brain is better than the legs or that hands are superior to feet. Each is equally important for the overall functioning of the body system. They just serve different roles.
The way to unite people now is education. We must bring awareness that all people are equal and that there are no small or big people or superior or inferior people. Spiritual leaders and other teachers can teach the truth of the scriptures and help eradicate this prejudice.
Look at Bhagwan Ram and Bhagwan Krishna. Both show the example of taking their food from even people of the lowest caste and going to the homes of the lower caste people. It is devotion, purity and commitment which make us great or small, not our caste.
2. Gujaratis living abroad, even today, observe firm rules and regulations restricting themselves within one’s own caste and community whenever it comes to organising their children’s marriages. Is this a proper procedure to continue these days? Should these practices be liberalised? How would you advise our community leaders on this matter?
These regulations should be loosened. Parents’ focus should be on encouraging their children to marry Indians rather than being so stuck in a particular caste. The important thing is that our children marry Indians so that the culture and tradition are passed on. Ideally they should marry people from a similar culture/language background within the Indian community (for example, Gujaratis marrying Gujaratis, Punjabis marrying Punjabis) because then the tradition, language, culture, etc. will be familiar and similar. This makes it easier to travel down the journey of life –if our partner shares a similar background, language, culture, and tradition. However, this is not essential. Parents should be flexible about marriage partners as long as they are within the Indian, Hindu community.
Also, though, this tendency should be inculcated in our children from a very young age. We should infuse our culture, traditions, rituals and heritage in them so beautifully that they automatically look to marry someone who shares this same culture.
3. Caste based social organisations are formed strictly on the basis of caste by Indians living in foreign countries. Do you think this is a welcome and necessary trend in the 21st Century? Should such organisations be allowed to continue? Should these be replaced by other alternatives? If so, how?
No. We should overcome these things. They are outdated. Particularly, living abroad Indian Hindus should be focused on being Indian Hindus rather than being so concerned with being a part of their particular caste. Being Indian should be our identity living abroad. In that way we can be united.
Organizations can certainly exist within the Indian Hindu community, but they should be based on language and culture rather than caste. So for example, there is the Gujarati Samaj or the Punjabi association, etc.
4. Caste-system was at the root of the differences in the social levels among Hindus as individuals. Narsinh Mehta, great poet and devotee of Lord Krishna, Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, Sahjanand Swami Maharaj and many other social reformers struggled during their lifetime to rid society of the evils of the caste-system. And yet, these evils do persist even today. What do you think could be done to eradicate this evil?
Yes, the problems exist, but these great souls have also had an effect. The effect is there. Change is there. People are changing. However, more has to be done. We must keep working to eradicate this problem.
One of the reasons that it has not yet been eradicated within India is that politicians have used the caste divisions for their own sake. But this must stop. The time has come for everyone to realize that it is weakening our communities.
5. ‘What caste do you belong to?’ is the first question many Gujaratis believing in the caste-system ask whenever they happen to meet one another! Would you consider this kind of questioning appropriate in these days? We shall appreciate to know of a ‘strong rebuttal’ to the questioner so that he would refrain from asking such questions in future!
This is not a good question at all. Originally, as I mentioned, the caste was just a division of labor, a division of jobs. So, really it would be more proper and more in keeping with the true meaning of “caste” if we ask each other “what is your job?”
Nowadays caste doesn’t bare any relation to jobs. Brahmins who are supposed to be the teachers and priests are running shoe companies. Vaishyas are taking care of temples and being the teachers. Kshetriyas are rarely serving as soldiers of America, UK, Africa, Canada, etc. Everyone is doing everyone else’s job now. So, the question bares no connection to its original meaning and is used only to give us a way of judging others and putting them into a box of “superior” or “inferior.” Therefore it should not be used. These prejudices are simply bringing disease to our community.
A good rebuttal is simply to say, ‘I am Indian.” Or “I am Hindu.” Or “I am Gujarati.” Or “I am a child of God.”
Or, if you really want to answer the question in its true meaning, then you can say, “I am a businessman.” Or “I am a teacher.” Or “I am a doctor.”
6. At the government levels, also, we have not been able to do away with the class differences like ‘Savarnas and Scheduled/Backward Classes’. They have continued to offer protection under the ‘system of reservations’ in the areas of education and employment. What is your opinion on this subject?
The System of Reservation and the special protection and services should remain but they should be based on need not caste. They should be based on poverty levels and socio-economic status, not on caste. Anyone – of any caste – living below a certain standard should be helped.
7. Do you think a day will dawn when all Hindus unitedly would say: ‘WE ARE ALL ONE AND UNITED’? What should be done by social, political and religious reformers in order to achieve this?
Yes. I am very positive and optimistic. I do think that the day will come when we are all united. Bhagwan Ram built bridges between men and men, animals and men, animals and animals. He even built bridges to the demons! We should take this example and the communities should start building bridges between different castes and different communities.
Our problem is our ego. That is the only thing inhibiting our unity. Look at the “I”. Wherever it is, it always stands capital, whether at the beginning of a sentence, the middle of a sentence or the end of a sentence. “I” is always capital, and “I” represents our ego. This capital “I” is a border, a boundary, a wall between us. Our egos stand in the way of our unity. Whether it is our personal egos, or egos about the superiority of our particular caste or society. The key is to bend our egos. We must bend the “I” and turn it from vertical to horizontal. When the “I” becomes horizontal, then it can serve as a bridge between people, families, communities and nations.
The spiritual leaders can teach people to build bridges and to unite. That is why we are doing this Vishwa Dharma Prasaar Yatra. We have travelled across the globe, through USA, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Russia, Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific, spreading the message of Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam – the World is One Family.
We have seen that everyone wants to unite. Everyone wants to be together. Everyone wants to be in peace. I am confident that this message and mission will blossom and flourish, and that people across the world of all religions (not only Hindus) will join together as one united family.