Unity in Diversity
(HinduDharma: Part 3, The Vedic Religion And Varna Dharma (10 chapters))

Talking of the varna system I am reminded of the early days of aviation. In the beginning the air ship[dirigible balloon] was filled with one gas bag. It was discovered that the vessel would collapse even if it sprang just one leak. So it was fitted with a number of smaller gas bags and kept afloat without much danger of its crashing. The principle of different duties and vocations for different sections of society is similar to what kept the old type of airship from collapsing. In the varna system we have an example of unity in diversity.

Fastening together a large number of individual fire sticks is not easy: the bundle is loosened quickly and the sticks will give way. The removal of even one stick will make the bundle loose and, with each stick giving way, you will be left with separate sticks. Try to tie together a handful of sticks at a time instead of all the sticks together. A number of such small sheaves may be easily fastened together into a strong and secure larger bundle. Even if it becomes loose, none of the smaller bundles will come away. This is not the case with the large bundle bound up of individual sticks. A bundle made up of a number of smaller sets will remain well secured.

To keep a vast community bound together in a single uniform structure is well-nigh an impossible task. Because of its unmanageable size it is not easily sustained in a disciplined manner. This is the reason why - to revert to the example of the fuel sticks - the community was divided into jatis [similar to the smaller bundles in the analogy of the fire sticks] and each jati assigned a particular vocation. Each varna was divided into a number of jatis [smaller bundles], with each jati having a headman with the authority to punish offenders. Today criminals are sentenced to prison or punished in other ways. But the incidence of crime is on the increase since all such types of punishment have no different effect. In the jati system the guilty took the punishment to heart. So much so that, until the turn of the century, people lived more or less honourably and there was little incidence of crime. The police and the magistrates did not have much work to do.

What was the punishment meted out to offenders by the village or jati headman? Excommunication. Whether it was a cobbler or a barber - anyone belonging to any one of the jatis now included among the "backward" or "depressed" classes - he would feel deeply stung if he were thrown out of his jati: no punishment was harsher or more humiliating than excommunication.

What do we learn from all this? No jati thought poorly of itself or of another jati. Members of each jati considered themselves the supreme authority in managing their affairs. This naturally gave them sense of contentment and satisfaction. What would have happened if some jatis were regarded as "low" and some others as "high"? Feelings of inferiority would have arisen among some sections of the community and perhaps, apart form Brahmins and Ksatriyas, no jati would have had any sense of pride in itself. If each jati had no respect for itself no one would have taken excommunication to heart. When the entire society was divided into small groups called jatis, not only did one jati have affection for another, each also trusted the other. There was indeed a feeling of kinship among all members of the community. This was the reason why the threat of excommunication was dreaded.

Now some sections of the community remain attached to their jatis for the only reason that they enjoy certain privileges as members belonging to the "backward" classes. But they take no true pride in belonging to their respective jatis. In the old days these sections "enjoyed" no special privileges but we know it to be a fact that, until some three or four generations ago, they were proud of belonging to their jatis. We must add that this was not because - as is the case today - of rivalries and jealousies among the various groups. There were indeed no quarrels, no rivalries, based on differences of jati. Apart from pride, there was a sense of fulfilment among members of each jati in pursuing the vocation inherited from their forefathers and in observing the rites proper to it.

Nowadays trouble-makers defy even the police. But in the past, in the system of jatis, there was no opposition to the decisions of the headman. The police are, after all, part of an outward system of discipline and law enforcement. But in jati rule the discipline was internal since there was a sense of kinship among the members of each jati. So in the jati set-up crime was controlled more effectively than in today's system of restoring to weapons or the constabulary. Though divided according to jatis and the occupations and customs pertaining to each of them, society remained united. It was a system that ensured harmony.

"Hindu Dharma" is a book which contains English translation of certain invaluable and engrossing speeches of Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwamiji (at various times during the years 1907 to 1994).
For a general background, please see here