24 January 2008

The Varna System

My previous post might be interpreted as a defence of the caste system. Nothing could be further from the truth. My comments were about Vedic society – which was very different from today's society. The caste system that exists today bears no resemblance to the Varna system of the Vedic age.

1. During the Vedic age, there was no sense of high or low among the different Varnas. All Varnas had the same status in society. Every person was treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of which Varna he/she belonged to. This is only logical. A chair needs all four of its legs to stand properly. So all four legs are equally important. There is no sense in saying that one leg is 'superior' to another.

2. In general, a person followed his father's Varna/occupation (This is what happens even today). But if he so wished, he could always shift to another Varna. There was complete freedom to move from one Varna into another. There are plenty of examples in ancient Indian history of individuals, or even entire groups, changing their Varna. Social mobility was not just an empty slogan; it was a fact of life.

3. Ancient India was a prosperous society. Even the humblest occupation could provide a decent living – by the standards of those days. So it is not true that the Shudras were 'condemned' to a life of poverty.

A society has two conflicting needs: stability and dynamism. Too much stability will result in stagnation and collapse. Too much dynamism will result in chaos and disintegration. The ideal society is one that balances these two needs. The Varna system was a brilliant form of social organisation that succeeded in doing exactly this. Sons usually followed their fathers' occupations. This preserved knowledge, and ensured continuity and stability. But freedom of occupation was also allowed, ensuring dynamism and creativity.

Unfortunately this happy state of affairs did not last forever. Gradually Vedic society began to decay. The notion of 'high' and 'low' came into the Varna system – people were discriminated against based on their Varna. The system also became rigid and inflexible – people could no longer change their occupations. By the 7th century AD, the decay was clearly visible. The invasion and conquest by the Turks, and later the Mughals, only accelerated this decay. And the British rule was the final nail in the coffin. With the result that the caste system of today is a perversion of the original Varna system. There is no justification for it. The sooner it goes, the better.

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