It’s the election time in India. The voting will begin in phases in a week’s time. The politicians are counting votes based on caste, religion lines. This makes me think are we really racists? This is the sad truth that we are guilty of racism: not always but distressingly often. It’s shameful. Yet, we are blissfully unaware and unconcerned. The Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand said:
Racism is a mindset of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage — the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry
Historically we’re not racists. We are continuing with the same old British education system and the history taught to us by the British. Their education system was divisive and most suited for continuity of their imperialism. Henry Mayer Hyndman, 20th Century British politician said:
Many hundreds of years before the coming of the English, the nations of India had been a collection of wealthy and highly civilised people, possessed of great language with an elaborate code of laws and social regulations, with exquisite artistic taste in architecture and decoration, producing conceptions which have greatly influenced the development of the most progressive races of the West.
Since independence, there has been no serious effort to create the Indian-ness. Sadly, vote-bank politics is widening the social divide.
India is endowed with the beauty of diversity in languages, geography, features, habits, cultures, religions, ethnicity and origins. We were not like this before. We accepted everybody with open hands. We lost that tolerance, that sense of acceptance. Before British, whosoever came to India became a part of it, from Shaka, Hun, Pathan, Mughal, Parsis…, they all settled in India. With them, they brought here their culture, tradition, foods, and knowledge. There was social cohesion. Rabindranath Tagore developed the idea of Indian civilization as a composite culture. He said:
“Shaka, Hun dal Pathan, Mughal ek dehe holo leen…”
The original varna system was based on co-operation, mutual service to God, and commensurate rights and responsibilities. The earliest application to the formal division into four social classes appears in the late Rigvedic Purusha Sukta. Recent scholarship suggests that the discussion of varna, as well as untouchable outcasts in these texts, does not resemble the modern era caste system in India. Patrick Olivelle, a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions and credited with modern translations of Vedic literature, Dharma-sutras, and Dharma-sastras, states that ancient and medieval Indian texts do not support the ritual pollution, purity-impurity as the basis for varna system. Ancient Buddhist texts mention varna system in South Asia, but the details suggest that it was a non-rigid, flexible and with characteristics devoid of features of a social stratification system. Adi puraṇa, the 8th-century text of Jainism by Jinasena, states “there is only one jati called manusyajati or the human race, but divisions arise account of their different professions.”
The original Vedic concept of Varna Dharma reflects an ecological model of society that is universal. Those who look at varna in terms of caste oppression have not examined its origins, but only look at later distortions, in which the true Vedic spirit was compromised. With the proper understanding of varnavyavastha, we will be able to appreciate it fully, failing which we will be victims of the pseudo secular attitude afflicting our nation, which carries an over westernised approach to classify this wonderful system as something barbaric. Caste based discrimination has absolutely no room in the varnavyavastha.
Varna is one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts in Hinduism, and as a result it has a lot of stigma attached to it. “Caste System” is a very poor, if not an incorrect translation for Varna-vyavastha. Varna actually refers to the classification of people based on their qualities. Varna is classified into four types: brahman, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra. Contrary to the popular belief that one’s birth decides one’s varna, it is strongly considered that it is one’s gunas (In English: qualities) that determines one’s varna. Lord Krishna also said so in Shrimad Bhagvat Gita and that every being is born with his/her gunas. Birth does not give anyone superiority or inferiority. The contemporary caste system attaching superiority or inferiority in the social status simply based on one’s birth has been plaguing the modern Indian society, and wrongly tarnished the Vedas in the eyes of those who are not familiar with the proper classification.
It now seems that the great pot is broken. It’s the time again for rebuilding the social cohesion. We must teach our children the history of India from the ancient times, cultures of India coming down through generations for thousands of years, diverse festivals of India and accepting the diversity as a part of great Indian culture.
Tolerance is our strength and not weakness. Tolerance is not passive. It demands an active choice to reach out on the basis of mutual understanding and respect, especially where disagreement exists. Tolerance means recognizing that our diversity is a strength — a wellspring of creativity and renewal for all societies. Then only we can learn to respect India and its Indian-ness – the rich diversity, the greatness that is only peculiar to India.
Indian-ness is an idea, a thought, a mindset that accepts and respects the diversity that makes us special, that makes us believe and understand that we are only Indians. We should identify us with that Indian-ness. Education is the solution. There should be a uniform education system in the country that is invested in the youth of the nation, cultures, and history of the nation from the glorious days of Veda and earlier. Vedas preached freedom of thoughts, acceptance of differences so long as we are seeking the Truth.
I again quote Rabindranath Tagore and we should strive to realize his dream of our great country —
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action …
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
We are living through a period of global transition. Technology is connecting us ever more closely, and cross-cultural exchanges are deepening every day — but this does not mean there is more understanding. Societies are more diverse but intolerance is on the rise in too many places. I further recollect the golden speech of Swami Vivekananda delivered on September 11, 1893, during the Parliament of World’s Religions, Chicago, the USA held from September 11 to 27, 1893. He said:
… I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth… Sectarianism, bigotry, and their horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now… In the face of this evidence, if some people still dream of the exclusive survival of their own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity them from the bottom of my heart, and point out to them that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight”, “Assimilation and not Destruction”; “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”
Sri Aurobindo said —
“Our ideal of patriotism proceeds on the basis of love and brotherhood and it looks beyond the unity of the nation and envisages the ultimate unity of mankind … it is a unity of brothers, equal and free men that we seek, not the unity of master and serf, of devourer and devoured … Nationalism is not a mere political programme. If you are going to be nationalist, if you are going to assent to this religion of nationalism, you must do it in the religious spirit and not for self-political goal.”
For both Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, as with the earlier Bengal Renaissance figures, Sanatan Dharma was synonymous with a universal religion that was characterised by its radical inclusivity. The universal religion of Vedanta that they heralded was a system of beliefs that could include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist and members of other faiths including non-believers. It was a religion whose social values were coextensive in its aims with the religion of humanity proclaimed by the champions of the secular European Enlightenment. Due to misappropriation of language and the confusion of cultural memory with critical history, many contemporary political theorist both on the Right and the Left often historically de-contextualise both Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and other legends of the Bengal Renaissance to conflate their multi-dimensional view of a national polity with the reductive contemporary phenomena of Hindu Nationalism, often referred to as Hindutwa.
Upanishads, a great reservoir of our ancient knowledge, are extracts from the Vedas. The Vedas are not about any religion. They are philosophical books. Religion is attached to them only much later.
An enlightened reformulation of the Varna system can produce a new social order different from both what we see in India and from the current western social model. The basis of this new dharmic society must be Karma Yoga – action based upon selfless service and a sense of the unity of all humanity and the entire cosmos. It must allow the individual to flower in his or her true capacity and encourage entrepreneurship at all levels, but with a sense of responsibility for the whole of life. Developing such a new dharmic social order requires deep exploration, profound research, new thinking and innovative insight.
सर्वेषां स्वस्तिर्भवतु ।
सर्वेषां शान्तिर्भवतु ।
सर्वेषां पूर्नं भवतु ।
सर्वेषां मड्गलं भवतु ॥
The English translation of the Shanti (peace) shloka from ancient Sanskrit texts is:
May there be happiness in all.
May there be peace in all.
May there be fulfilment in all.
May there be prosperity in all.