The Gita and the caste system
By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Indian society has been divided into many castes and sub-castes and they have caused many ethnic clashes frequently. In elections, castes often play a major role in the selection of candidates belonging to various parties. The unity of the Indian tion has been shattered by caste conflicts. The Quota politics has caused havoc in the country. Reservation policy has granted several privileges to certain castes and sub-castes. Yet the discontent of various castes has made the situation very grave and the discontent is spreading far and wide.
Some people blame the Hindu religious scripture and philosophic text the Bhagavad Gita for introducing caste distinctions. In the Kurukshetra war, while getting ready for the battle, the third pandava Arju asked his charioteer Lord Sri Krish to move the chariot to the middle of the warzone so that he could see the enemy line clearly. To his dismay Arju saw his relatives, friends and preceptors in the opposite side. On seeing them Arju felt very much dejected and told Sri Krish that he could not fight and bring disaster to the Kingdom by killing all those people. On hearing him Sri Krish tried to dispel his illusions by explaining about the duty of human beings on earth as well as the relation of the soul and the body, besides telling him that one should do his allocated duty according to his ‘var’ in a detached manner, but surrendering all the action to the Supreme Reality. The teachings of Lord Krish to Arju comprise the Bhagavad Gita, which is incorporated in Maharshi Vyasa’s immortal classic the ‘Mahabharata’. The Bhagavad Gita is a sacred book of the Hindus, but besides its religious implications, the great and deep philosophy of the Gita stirs the heart of every philosopher.
It is true that Bhagavad Gita has divided human beings into four ‘vars’ which are Bhahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. According to the traditiol interpretation ‘svadharma’ denotes duty allocated to any particular individual by virtue of his or her belonging to one of the four vars mentioned above, into which the Indian society was divided in ancient times. In course of time four vars degenerated into caste system, which became associated with rrow attitudes of loyalty to small sub-groups rather than to society as a whole. Then for the lower castes, the conditions of poverty and occupatiol immobility practically constituted a vicious circle, and to escape from this circle one had to break tradition. Taking into account the drawbacks of the present —day caste system, many critics of the Gita rebel against the concept of “svadharma” (the duty of a person belonging to a particular var).
Caste discrimition has caused havoc in Indian society. So many heinous crimes have been committed in the me of caste and now the reservation policy of the government has brought various conflicts amongst the castes and sub-castes. Some people blame the Gita for the caste problems. Various criticisms have been levelled against the Gita by the anti-caste scholars. But the “svadharma” issue should not be judged in the light of the evils of the present-day caste system. The Gita states that gu (quality or aptitude) and Karma (function) constitute the basis of the ‘var’ system.
According to Radhakrishn, the Gita puts emphasis on ‘gu’ (aptitude) and ‘karma’ (function) and not on ‘jati’ (birth). In his view the ‘vama’ or the order to which we belong, is independent of sex, birth or breed. A class determined by temperament and vocation is not a caste determined by birth and heredity. The present morbid condition of India, broken into castes and sub-castes, is opposed to the unity taught by the Gita, which advocates an organic as against an atomistic conception of society.
In chapter 18, the verses 41-47 explain the duties of each , var determined in each case by ‘svabhava’ (ture or character) and efficacy of ‘svakarma’ or ‘svadharma’ (again determined by character or ture of a person). So far ‘var’ seems to be determined by the aptitude and the ture of a person. But in verse 48 in the 18th chapter the expression used is “sahajam karma”. The literal meaning of ‘sahajam’ is “born with”. This single word ‘sahajam’ is picked up by the critics of the Gita to denounce this ‘svadharma’ doctrine. The translation of this particular verse is: “Every endeavour is covered by some fault just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work born of his ture, 0 son of Kunti, even if such work is full of faults”.
Some critics of the Gita in modern times take the view that, since the term “svadharma” essentially represent the duty of each ‘var’, which was an easy form of caste system, the work ethics of the Gita is too compartmentalized and rrow. K.K. pillai said: “Even in a philosophic text like the Gita, the” Var system” based on birth has acquired undue importance. The Gita simply accepted the age-old blind and cruel system of caste and gave it divine authority”. Pillai remarked that we should reject the Gita’s teaching on “vama dharma”. For him such rejection is justified, since Krish did not impose his will on Arju and only told him to do as he chose after having reflected on the teachings.
Did the Gita advocate caste system? The Gita-commentators do not agree with the critics. Gandhi said that even if ‘vama’ is determined by birth, and ‘svadharma’ is linked with ‘var’, it does not represent a weak point for the Gita. He said that several revered saints in the ancient times were from different classes. There were potters, butchers, cobblers, and others among them. None rejected his hereditary function, but worked for his salvation by means of a detached sincere performance of it, which was dedicated to God. The implication of performing some action in accordance with his ‘vama’ (svadharma) may be that when a man gives up his ancestral trade and takes up a new job, many years are wasted on learning the new job. The father’s profession and the environment help a person immensely, if he takes up the same profession. In this age we see that a film actor’s son usually becomes an actor, a lawyer’s son becomes a lawyer, a doctor’s son becomes a doctor, a business man’s son often takes up the father’s profession. The same is the case with other professions as well. There is nothing derogatory about it. That may be the implication of ‘sahajam’ used in the Gita.
Radhakrishn remarked that’ var’ in the Gita depended not on birth, but on qualities and functions. He said that “svabhava”(ture) is given more importance than “svadharma” (functions in accordance with ‘var’) in the Gita. In this context it can be said that the word ‘sahajam’ can be translated as “suited to one’s ture”. In the opinion of Radhakrishn, the concept of “svadharma” linked with such non-hereditary ‘var’ was designed for human ability. He stated the four-fold order is designed for human evolution. There is nothing absolute about the caste system, which has changed its character in the process of history. It cannot be regarded as anything more than an insistence on a variety of ways in which the social purpose can be carried out.”
Actually by giving a rrow interpretation to the expression ‘svadharma’, we are doing great injustice to the Gita. It is one of the remarkable features of the Gita that it strikes an extraordiry modern note in its clear and unmistakable recognition of the influence of tural dispositions on the individuality of man. Aurobindo’s detailed alysis of the Gita gives “svabhava” (ture) a bigger role than “sahajam” (birth). He interpreted “svabhava” not only as “phenomel ture,” but also as “spiritual ture”. According to Aurobindo the word “sahajam” means what is born with us, i.e. whatever is tural, inborn and inte. It seems to be something like Descartes’ inte ideas, with which a man is born. The work or function of a man is determined by “gu” (quality or aptitude) and the work origites from his ‘svabhava’(ture), which is also the regulating factor. This emphasis on an inner quality and spirit, which finds expression in work, function and action, is the whole sense of the Gita’s idea of ‘karma’. We can attain spiritual perfection if we turn action of the ‘svadharma’ into a worship of the inner deity, the universal spirit, the transcendent ‘Purushottama “and eventually surrender all the actions into his hands. The individual’s ignorance is removed when he works according to his “svabhava” in a detached manner. He should regard his action as the work of the “Divine Shakti” and he may reach as much perfection as is possible for a human being.
Tilak said that “karmayog can be dissociated from var”, because the ‘var’ system has nothing to do with the central message of the Gita. Tilak summarized his view of the ‘universality’ of ‘svadharma’ based on “karmayoga” and its linkage with “Lokasaingraha”(universal welfare). He said that in any society, if the arrangement of four ‘vars’ applies to that society, then according to the arrangement ,the duty which falls on one’s shoulders, or which may have been taken as the duty of one’s choice, becomes a moral duty. On the other hand, taking up some activity which is proper for someone else, on some pretext or other, is wrong from the point of view of public good.
Tilak’s justification of ‘svadharma’ (with or without its link with var) rests on the contributions that ‘svadharma’ can make for the preservation of morality and to the advancement of “lokasangraha” (public good). ‘Var’ and ‘Svadharma’ do not have any inseparable connection according to Tilak. Despite its advocacy of hereditary professions, the Gita makes no mention of intrinsic superiority or inferiority of any profession. It rather emphasizes that man attains perfection by doing his duty devotedly.
The above - mentioned views of the scholars represent possibilities to interpret “svadharma” in ways appropriate to the present age. There is also the possibility of combining ‘svadharma’ with “lokasamgraha”. All forms of perfection do not lie in the same direction. Each person aims at something beyond himself, at self-transcendence, which he gains after persol perfection.
From the idealistic point of view it can be said that service of neighbours would turally become a visible part of one’s duty as it grows in full awareness of one’s role in the community. ‘Svadharma’ comes turally; no one has to search for it. The service of the parents to whom a person is born, the service of the neighbours amongst whom he finds himself, are the duties which comes to him turally. Thus a person’s obligations are matters of everyday experience. We feel hungry, we feel thirsty. So to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty becomes our duty, our ture.
Tilak used the alogy of small wheels in a machine to draw attention to the important role of ordiry “svadharma” observers “in bringing about Lokasamgraha”. He said that just as extremely small wheels are necessary along with large wheels in order that any machine should work properly, so also it is necessary that the authority of common people should be exercised properly and fully in the same way as the authority of the superior persons in order that the mechanism of the cosmos regulated force continues to work in a properly regulated manner. If the potters do not manufacture pots and weavers do not weave cloth, the maintence of society, that is, lokasamgraha cannot be satisfactorily carried out.
The Gita assures the attainment of perfection through the performance of one’s duties, that is, ‘svadharma’, when is done as a worship of the Supreme Reality. The Gita States that by being devoted to his own duty, a man attains perfection. Another term used in the Gita to convey the idea of “worshipping the divine through svadharma”, is “Karma-samarpam”, which literally means “dedicating one’s actions to God”. In order that actions are fit to be dedicated to God, they have to be pure, unselfish and conducive to the good of society.
The Gita proclaims to everybody through Arju, “Perform life-long your worldly duties according to your respective positions in life (svadharma) with a self-identifying vision, and enthusiastically, and thereby perpetually worship the deity in the shape of Paramatma, because there in lies your happiness and in the next”.
Tilak believed that in times of social crisis, one’s choice of ‘svadharma’ could not be determined by Var rules. Gandhi also believed in working not only according to one’s “svabhava,” but also in the light of changing social needs. For himself he chose as his ‘svadharma’, the service of his country and humanity, but he viewed it as the “road to salvation”.
In the Gita it is stated that in the battle field of “Kuruksetra”, Sri Krish told Arju that he should not have any desire for selfish gain, and also said that he should maintain even mindedness, irrespective of achieving success or failure. That is the way Arju should act. A few verses in the Gita contain the teaching that one should stick to his ‘svadharma’ (even if there are shortcomings in it) and avoid ‘paradharma’ (someone else’s duty, even if it looks more attractive). It has been stated in the Gita that “Better one’s duty, bereft of merit, than another’s well-performed; better is death in the discharge of one’s duty; another’s duty is fraught with danger.”
We may conclude that the Gita never approved of caste system as we see today. Lord Sri Krish advised people through Arju that one should perform his ‘svadharma’ without any selfish desire. All actions should be dedicated to God. Only then one can attain perfection and true happiness.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)