"All that is fine. But what about the question of self-respect?" ask reformers who profess to be socialists. For them, however, to raise such a question is to remain untrue to their own ideals. They talk a great deal, don't they, about dignity of labour? They proclaim that no job, no work, is degrading. Gandhiji cleaned his toilet himself. Rajagopalachari washed his clothes himself when he was premier. To demonstrate the principle of dignity of labour VIPs like the mayor sweep the streets one day in a year. Photographs of important men doing such work are published in the newspapers. If the reformists think that manual work is degrading it means that they are opposed to the ideals they themselves uphold.
If you ask me, "ahamkara" or ego-feeling is a cover for all such ideas as "status", "self -respect", etc. If you look at the question from the angle that the Sudra does not have the self-pride associated with the Brahmin, the Ksatriya and the Vaisya, you will realise the truth of Vyasa's dictum, "Sudrah sadhuh". The sastras are one with the socialists in proclaiming that all types of work are equally noble. If the socialists say so from the worldly or material point of view, the sastras say the same from the spiritual point of view. To explain, since the well being of mankind is dependent on the performance of variety of jobs, there is no question of one job being inferior to another job or superior to it. If everybody does the work allotted to him thinking it to be an offering to Isvara, all will be rewarded with inner purity, so say the sastras. When work is accomplished in a spirit of dedication to God, the consciousness will be cleansed. And this, inner purity, is a means to becoming aware of the Self.
You may look at your work from two angles. One is from that of dignity of labour according to which principle no work is degrading. The second is from that of consecrating your work, whatever it be to God. In either case "self-respect " has no place in it. If there is neither vanity nor ego-sense in doing one's duty or work, there will be no cause for anger, no reason to feel that one is assigned a particular set of religious practices that is humiliating. One should then be willing to accept the religious ordinances prescribed according to one's vocation. It must be noted that if a Brahmin enjoys bodily comforts in the same manner as a Ksatriya or a Vaisya, his mantras will cease to be efficacious. If a labourer keeps fast like a Brahmin he will not be able to do his duty, that is he will not able to do physical work satisfactorily.
"According to the sastras, " once a learned man told me, "the Brahmin must wear white, the Ksatriya red, the Vaisya yellow and the Sudra blue. At first, I wondered whether in this order one caste was regarded as inferior to another. On reflection, I saw the reason behind it. "Until then I myself had not given any thought to the subject. So I asked the pandita to explain the principle behind the arrangement he has spoken about. He said: "Even the slightest stain will be visible on the white. When a Brahmin performs a sacrifice he has to be careful that he does not spill anything or waste anything. If he does, his white clothes will show it. He has necessarily to be frugal since he must not bother others for money or material. The Ksatriya, as a warrior, spills blood, but the bloodstains on his dress should not show, nor should it be a cause of fear for others- that is why he wears red. A Vaisya handles a variety of commodities in the bazar but it yellow that sticks to his clothes the most. That is why the Vaisya must wear yellow so that the yellow stains will not show easily. Blue is most suitable for those who work in dust and grime. Even in modern days workers wear blue uniforms. So blue is the most suitable colour for Sudras". You will thus appreciate the reason behind each type of wear. The sastras are indeed mindful of the conveniences and comforts of each jati. If you realise this, you will understand the meaning of saying, "Sastraya ca sukhaya ca." You will thus also appreciate the reason behind many a sastric rule and realise that there must be an inner meaning to those rules the significance of which you have yet to grasp.
Today even intelligent people do not know the meaning behind different caste duties. "How can the work done by one man be according to dharma and meritorious while the same done by another is contrary to dharma and sinful?" they ask. In the olden days even unlettered people knew that it was a sin to adopt the vocation and duties of another jati because it was injurious to society. They worked together during temple festivals and in carrying out public duties but in matters like food and so on they did not mix together since such mixing, they knew, was harmful to their traditional vocations. The mingling of castes, they realised, would damage the system of vocations, the system that was devised for the good of all society. For thousands of years all castes have lived according to this system, finding happiness and fulfilment in it. If they had not found such happiness and fulfilment, they would have surely rebelled against the system.
After the inception of British rule, Brahmins lost their royal grants of land but got jobs in the government. With the introduction of machines and increased urbanisation, the handicrafts were destroyed and village life received a setback. While other communities found it difficult to get jobs, Brahmins were able to earn their upkeep without any physical exertion. This shook the very foundations of the system of four varnas and the British now used the opportunity to introduce new principle of egalitarianism and the race theory. People lost their faith in the sastras and with it there was a change in the outlook. If by the grace of Isvara, the old system is restored, the work done by every individual - from the Brahmin to the Pancama - will bring inward purity to all. Besides there will the realisation that each, according to his hereditary occupation, will contribute to the general welfare of the mankind. If we pause to reflect on the subject, we will feel proud of varna dharma instead of feeling ashamed of it-and we will also develop a deep respect for those who created it.
For a general background, please see here