13 February 2008

The Varna System (contd)

We can conclude our discussion of the Varna system by making a couple of observations. Then it will be clear why the Varna system was:
A. Perfect for its time
B. Not suitable for our time.

The two key features of the Varna system were:
1. The classification of society into four classes
2. The hereditary nature of this structure.

Traditional Indian society was an agricultural society. In an agricultural society, all occupations could be grouped under the four broad heads of priest/scholar, warrior/ruler, merchant and worker. This was the perfect form of social organisation for that period; Plato had recommended a similar system in his Republic. But today we live in an industrial (or post-industrial) society – which is far more complex. Today we can no longer classify all occupations under four headings. Hence the grouping of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra is irrelevant today.

Secondly, society needs to preserve and transmit knowledge in order to survive. In particular, knowledge related to work. How was this to be done in an agricultural society? In a society without the Internet, computers, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and above all – printed books? The only institution for preserving and transmitting knowledge was the family. That is why sons mostly followed their fathers' occupations. Today this is no longer the case. We live in the age of the mass media. We no longer rely only on the family to preserve and transmit knowledge. Hence hereditary occupational classes are no longer needed.

Why am I talking so much about a system that is not relevant for today's society? Because it is important to give the past its due. These days it is very fashionable to bash the Varna system, in the name of being 'modern' and 'progressive'. There are too many people out there criticising the Varna system who don’t bother to understand exactly what it was and why it came about. I repeat: today's caste system is not the same as the original Varna system. The former is a disease; the latter a testimony to the genius of our ancestors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am afraid you are absolutely wrong when you say Varna was hereditary. In fact, it was precisely non-hereditary.

I did extensive research, looking into both our shrutis and itihaasas on this issue, as well as accounts of travellers in pre-Islamic India.