Today everybody- from the top leader down to the man in the street- is asking: Why should there be caste? With a little thinking, you will realise that the division of society into various jatis is for the good of all. It serves in two ways. While, on the one hand, it contributes to the progress of the entire community, on the other, it helps each individual to become pure of mind and obtain ultimate liberation.
You do not have to accept this view because it comes from me or because it is that of the sastras. You may think that people like me are reactionaries opposed to progress. But consider the opinion of a man whose goal, all will agree, was the advancement of this nation. This man was determined to do away with all differences among the people, eradicate superstition and elevate the" backward classes" to the level of the rest of society. This man was Gandhiji who extolled the varnasrama system and whole-heartedly accepted it. I mention this because I thought, if not anything else, at least the views of Gandhiji would persuade you to accept the fact that the varna system has good features.
Gandhiji has written an essay entitled, "My Varnasrama Dharma". In it he says:"Varnasrama is a system that has happened on its own. It is natural and inherent in a man's birth. It is a natural law that Hinduism has systematised into a science. This system makes a fourfold division of labour and lays down the duties of each section but not its rights. For any individual to think himself to be superior to others and look down upon another as inferior to himself is against the very spirit of Hindu culture. In the varnasrama system each individual learns to discipline himself and the energies of society are prevented from being frittered away. I keep fighting against untouchability because I consider it an evil but I support varnasrama as healthy for society and believe that it is not the product of a narrow mind. This arrangement gives the labourer the same status as it does a great thinker". Gandhiji supported varnasrama with greater ardour than sanatanists.
It would be pointed out that Gandhiji's actions were such as to suggest that he was opposed to difference in society based on rites and customs. He supported even intercaste marriage. How is all this to be reconciled with the fact that he upheld varnasrama? Gandhiji thought that, though varna dharma was a worthy system, it had broken down and that it was not possible to revive it. What was the use of keeping the remains after the essence had been extracted from a thing, he asked. So he thought that retaining the outward differences in society was not justified after the principles on which these differences were founded were not longer in force.
I do not think like him. Varnasrama is the backbone of our religion. If it is to be abandoned on the pretext that it is beyond repair, we do not require either a matha or a man to preside over it. For any individual to run an institution labelling himself as its head [that is as the head of any matha] after the root of all dharma is gone, is tantamount to exploiting society. If the old system of caste is in reality extinct, there is no need for a matha and it should be disbanded. But I nurse the belief that such a thing has not happened yet. Nor do I think that caste will before long inevitably cease to exist. I am also confident that, if we are awake to the problem at least now and mobilise all our strength and resources to take the necessary steps, we shall be able to impart the varna system new life and vigour.
No matter how the varna system has become muddled with reference to other vocations, Vedic learning which is the life-breath of all occupations still survives in the pathasalas here and there. In these schools the scriptures are taught strictly in the traditional way. There is enthusiastic support for the efforts taken to spread Vedic learning. Students join the pathasalas in fairly large numbers. There is a small group committed to the cause of the Vedic tradition and to its continuance. My duty is the creation of more and more such groups and to work for their growth. If Vedic learning flourishes, a way will open up to counteract the veil consequences of the muddle created in the other varnas. And if Brahmins become an example and a guide- if not all of them, at least a few- by remaining true to their old ways of life, others will return to their hereditary duties.
Since Gandhiji believed that varnasrama dharma could neither be mended nor revived in its true form, he wanted it to be totally scrapped. I think otherwise. Though [the flame of] varna dharma has become dim it is not totally extinguished and I feel that there are some sparks still, left which could be fanned into a bright flame again. We must learn the lesson from our history during the past fifty years that our society will have to pay dearly if it gives up varna dharma. You will learn this lesson from the fate suffered by the great civilisations that flourished in the rest of the world where such a system did not obtain.
The disintegration of the old system of hereditary vocations must be attributed to the introduction of machinery and the establishment of big factories. There is not much scope for machines in a simple life. The old varna system could be saved if poeple live a simple life and are occupied with the old handicrafts and cottage industries. Gandhiji spoke untiringly of his ideal that all work must be done by human power. He was against monstrous machines and urged people to live a simple life, eschewing all luxury. In this respect his views are in conformity with the ideals of varna dharma.
Today the various schemes introduced by the government together with the changed outlook of the people militate against the ideal of a simple life and the system of handicrafts. But, ironically enough, politicians and others keep singing the praises of Gandhiji unceasingly without translating his ideas into action. Gandhiji was a reformer who ardently wished the good of society and worked in the cause of egalitarianism. He was not a hard-nosed sanatanist who tenaciously clung to the canonical texts merely because they were old. People had faith in one like him. I thought that the views of such a man on varnasrama should make a deep impression on you.
Why are people generally opposed to caste? Because they believe that caste is responsible for the differences and disparities in society and the quarrels arising from them. I have told you so often that in reality no jati is inferior to another or superior to it. However, critics of varna dharma argue that, whether or not in reality it has caused differences in society, an impression had gained ground that it has. As you can see for yourself, they add," There are quarrels arising out of them. We want to do away with the system of jatis because we don't want these fights to go on indefinitely and divide society."
To speak thus, however, is to suggest that we must cut of the head to cure headache. If the old dharma suffers from a headache in the form of quarrels in society, it is our duty to restore it to health. How? We must speak to the people concerned about the true principles and remove the misunderstanding that cause quarrels. This is the mode of treatment to keep the old system of varna healthy. It is preposterous to suggest that, because of the disputes, the dharma that is the root and source of our society should itself be done away with.
If there is something that is the cause of a dispute, it does not stand to reason to destroy this something itself. We cannot conduct the affairs of the world in this manner. There will naturally be people for this and against any question. Such differences are inevitable. Today there are two issues which have been the cause of a great deal of conflict. These are languages and ideology. It would be absurd to argue that we want neither any language nor any ideology because they are the cause of conflict.
Nowhere else in the world today do we witness the sort of clashes that we face in our own country on the question of language. The caste of quarrels are not of the same scale as these- the frenzy aroused by language is so intense. The Tamil and the Telugu keep quarrelling with one another, so too the Bengali and the Bihari, the Kannadiga and the Maharastrian. Then there is the English vs. Hindi controversy. People indeed come to blows on the language issue. How would you solve this problem? Would you suggest universal dumbness as a solution, that is abolition of all speech, all tongues? .
Disputes concerning political ideology, about the type of government wanted, are far too numerous. There is the big divide between communism and capitalism: it has been the cause of trouble throughout the world. Without any world war actually breaking out, thousands of people have perished in the clash of ideologies. Apart from the struggle between capitalism and communism you see other kinds of unrest in various parts of the world: monarchy giving way to republicanism; the rise of dictatorial governments. Large numbers of people become victims in these ideological wars. Although everybody claims that he is for democracy, at heart there are so many differences between one man and another on the question of political ideology and hence all the quarrels.
Would it be right to argue that all ideologies must be scrapped merely because they lead to quarrels? Any government is constituted on some ideologies basis or other, is it not? No ideology would mean no government- is it not so? Are we then to abolish the institution of governments and be alike animals [in the absence of any authority to enforce law and order]? If languages are not wanted because they are the cause of trouble and if governments are not wanted because they lead to ideological wars, it follows logically that religions and jatis also are not wanted since they too create disputes. Going a step further we may ask: Is it not because we human beings exist that we keep quarrelling among ourselves? So should we. . . . [the Paramaguru just smiles without completing the sentence].
Though there is a vociferous campaign carried on against caste, jati crops up as a crucial factor in elections. It is on the basis of caste that all parties conduct their electioneering. The cry," We don't want any jati", seems really to mean," we don't want a particular jati".
Maintaining the system of jatis on a nominal basis is not justified if each of the jatis does not have a special social responsibility to discharge. To assign a vocation to each group or jati on a hereditary basis is for the good of all society. It is particularly important that this country has a section of people whose lifetime work is to keep chanting the Vedas, the Vedas which bring happiness to all living creatures through the loftiness of their sound and the profundity of the truths contained in them. Performance of the rites that form part of the Vedic tradition is as much a duty of this section as that of learning the mantras.
Modernists think that it is the varna system that is responsible for quarrels in society over questions of"high" and" low" among the various jatis. On the contrary, I think it is precisely for the purpose of ridding society of feelings of differences in status that we need the caste system." If we are born in this jati, well, it is the will of Isvara. Our vocation has also been handed down to us in the same manner. Let us stick to it and do good to society as best we can. If somebody else finds that he has some other vocation, it is also according to the will of the Lord. Let each one of us do the work allotted to us in a spirit of dedication to Isvara". If such an attitude develops there will be no room to think or feel that one kind of work is better than another kind or worse.
We must try to cultivate this outlook and inculcate it in everybody. We must set an example through our own life- there is no better way of making people understand the true spirit of the system of jatis. Then even our "oral propaganda" will not be necessary. If there is ill-will in society, it is because the concept of varna dharma is not properly understood. We must resolve right now to practise this dharma in its true spirit so that there will be no cause for society to be raven by bitterness.
With the decay of jati dharma, livelihood has become a major problem for everybody. The obsession with money is a natural consequence of this worry. Until 70 or 75 years ago, nobody had any problem about his means of sustenance. The worry or concern then was about one's duty. If obtaining the means of livelihood were the only goal of life, the less well-off would be jealous of those who are affluent and occupy high places in the society. It would also lead to misunderstanding and quarrels. If each man is concerned only about his duty and about doing it well, questions of status will not arise. But if money and status are the objectives, it will naturally mean that the man who has more money and occupies a higher place is superior to the man who is less prosperous and occupies a lower position. The point is such differences do not exist in true varna dharma. Even if the social order of jatis were abolished and together with it the quarrels among the various communities came to an end, society would have to face another problem, that is class conflict. We see this phenomenon all over the world today.
Our society must be one in which there are no differences of high and low. All will then live in harmony as the children of Isvara without fighting among themselves. They will live as a united family helping one another and spreading a sense of peace and happiness everywhere. I ask you to follow the old dharma so that we may achieve such an ideal society. If we take a small step now towards such a goal, Isvara will give us a helping hand for us to go further ahead. I keep praying to him.
For a general background, please see here