I never understood the caste system as a child. I still don’t. I never realised names had religious connotations. In one of my very early stories as a storyteller, the protagonist Ayesha had a mother named Asha. When someone asked me why I had chosen names from different religions, I simply said I liked those names. I didn’t realise they were representing varied faiths. As a teenager when I met up with a new set of friends and someone said ‘I am a kshatriya’ I immediately wondered what that even meant. Curiosity led me to explore the caste system. But what I read then made no sense. It still doesn’t.
The text books said that there were four varanas – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. In addition there were also the Outcastes or untouchables. The texts explained that the caste system was based on birth and there was a duty assigned to each caste that was expected out of them irrespective of their inclination. The duty of a Brahmin was wisdom and knowledge. They were considered ‘twice born’, were priests and teachers; followed the path of Gnanayoga and were said to have sattva guna or peaceful countenance.The Kshatriyas were warriors and rulers. Their way of life was karma yoga and were filled with Rajo guna. The Vaishyas were Merchants and traders. Their role was to improve commerce.The Shudras were for service or labour. Both Vaishyas and Shudras were said to have Tamasic qualities and were to follow Bhakti yoga.
Over a period of study, I realised that these hard rules were fast changing and many a noble soul was able to see beyond the rigid lines of a distorted policy to understand nobody can be assigned by mere birth to follow a certain way of life. Mahatma Gandhi called the untouchables Harijans or the children of God. Thankfully, I have parents who taught me to respect my culture and yet not yield to its idiosyncrasies.
The purpose of this article is neither to justify nor attack the historicity or validity of the caste system. Neither is it to understand its tenets; adhere or rebel them. It is more a reflection of what it means to me personally. It is a reflection of my journey with all of them.
I am a Brahmin. Not by birth nor by choice. I am a Brahmin because I believe it is my birthright to be wise. I am a Brahmin because I believe it is in me to learn and teach, to understand and guide, to be saatvic and cultivate peace – not just within me but in every person around me. I am a Brahmin because I wish to live a life of purity, forgiveness, harmony and faith.
But I cannot be a Brahmin if the Kshatriya in me is not alive…
I am a Kshatriya. Not by birth nor by choice. I am a Kshatriya because I believe it is my birthright to be resourceful. I will fight for what is right, all my life! I will be heroic, generous and noble. But most importantly, I believe I am a Kshatriya for I lead my people with vision and discipline. I am a Kshatriya and a Brahmin; a leader and a teacher.
But I cannot be so, if the Vaishya in me is not alive…
I am a Vaishya. Not by birth nor by choice. I am a Vaishya because I believe abundance is my birthright. I value everything I receive and in turn I do believe the world ought to value what I give in return. Even as I wouldn’t negate the worth of your work, I refuse to allow anybody to weigh my work as ‘free’. I am willing to work hard to establish and reap the value of what I do. I am a Vaishya, a Kshatriya and a Brahmin for I value each role as worthy.
But I realise I cannot be any of these if the Shudra in me is not alive…
The garbage remained in the bin. The clothes were yet to be washed. The garden needed water and the dried leaves were all about. I kept watching the clock. Where is everybody? Why hasn’t any of this been done yet? Irritated I began putting the shopping bag in its rightful place. Nothing was were it was meant to be! Why was the packet of dog biscuits lying around in my kitchen drawer? Where was the additional toilet paper? How come I was out of kitchen towels and why were there no doormats near the entrance. The devil smiled and whispered ‘Let them come today! They have it in store!’ Well ! They didn’t come and it was I who had it in store!
Frantically trying not to get carried away with all the household chores, I was spitting fire ready to explode on the next person who would come my way. Nobody came. I was all alone and the house was a total mess. For a fraction of a second I thought, ‘let it just be. They can do it when they get here tomorrow.’ And that is when the thought came ‘where is the shudra in you?’
I am a Shudra. Not by birth nor by choice. I am a Shudra because I believe it is only my job to clean my ass! (Sorry ! If that hurts your sense of propriety, you can read it as ‘it is my job to clean my mess!’) Nobody owes me the care of labour. If I find it menial to do my own work, what gives me the right to expect it from another? Yes! I am a Shudra for I believe self help is the best help.
I am a Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya and a Brahmin for I want to be complete. I want to be self-reliant. I most certainly want to be true to my every nature.
I learnt that the caste system was linked with the four stages of life – Brahmacharya – the stage of a student, Gruhasta – the stage of a householder, Vanaprasta – the stage of a forest dweller and Sanyasa – the stage of a wandering ascetic. I learnt that the Brahmins were allowed all four stages, while the Kshatriyas the first three stages and the Vaishyas the first two stages. While the Shudras did indeed marry, the texts seemed to be interpreted to mean they did not belong to any of these life stages.
I would like to believe that every human being begins as a student, as a Shudra to first learn to do his own stuff; to labour and work, to establish discipline and to learn to exist by doing what needs to be done. This leads him to learn the value of what he does. In the process of discovering such a value for his own labours, he understands the value of the labour of others. He becomes a Vaishya, trading labours for mutual growth. But he can succeed as a Vaishya only when the Shudra in him is alive. Wealth management and making our money work for us, as we stretch our legs and rest, will lead us to an economic melt down. Commerce can flourish only on the foundation of labour. This is like a Gruhastashrama – building not just a family but a society. Every human ought to become a Vaishya capable of contributing to the wealth of the society.
When our world grows beyond just I, me and myself, it will lead to a need for standpoints – the righteous war of a leader to establish acceptable ways to mutually co-exist. Travels like a forest dweller of the Vanaprastashrama, can expand our horizons to different ways of life and help us understand the role of various cultures in the making of the man. However, most certainly, these travels will not be feasible if the the Vaishya in you is not alive! To be a true leader you must value both yourself and the others.
With the exposure to various thoughts of elevated living, the willingness to take righteous standpoints, understanding the worth of others’ labour and our own, and still willing to get our hands coarse with work, the role of a teacher unfolds – not because you choose to be one. But because the world looks up to you and wants to learn from you. Now as a Brahmin of wisdom, one is ready to embrace Sanyasa where he no longer exists as the singular but is willing to ‘die’ and be born for the sake of the others. The Varanas are not mutually exclusive ways of life for groups of people but an all inclusive way of life for each individual.
Did the Bhagavad Gita actually say this? Did our Vamana Purana, Vaikhanasa Dharmasutra or the Laws of Manu actually mean this? Probably not… or may be so… I don’t know. And truth be told – I don’t care. I simply know that I strive to be a Brahmin, a Kshatriya, a Vaishya and a Shudra – a complete human being willing to play every role I must. I do hope there are many more too willing to don these roles. But it all begins with the question ‘where is the Shudra in you?’