The System of Castes
Shackle or Benefit?
The division of a society into castes, as is the case in India, is generally disparaged because at first glance it appears retrogressive and outdated. Yet it is governed by a logic and wisdom often ignored. Indeed, when the caste system is not subjected to distortions, it greatly facilitates as much the way of life of the society as it does the blossoming of the individual.
Western traders and travellers who have visited India, whether in the distant past, like Marco Polo, or more recently, all observed that Indian society is divided into well-defined social groups, each unfolding its own characteristics. These groupings have been called castes, derived from the Portuguese word casta meaning “lineage” or “breed.” Every caste groups together people with very definite characteristics and excludes those who do not have them.
Traditionally, castes are groupings based on a trade association. Members of the same caste form a homogeneous group within society. On the one hand they work in the same profession (occupations linked to, for example, agriculture or trade). On the other hand the way of life which follows from the occupation engenders similar concerns and aspirations. This often leads to a common way of thinking, to basically the same behaviour, language, appearance, diet, use of leisure time and perpetuating the traditions.
The homogeneity inside castes, however, does not amount to a uniformity of the members. Every individual retains his personality and his character, and shares only his way of life with the others. This way of life is, however, so typical that the possibility of somebody slipping into a caste which is not his is doomed to fail from the outset: his behaviour would betray him immediately.
In India, castes are closed groupings into which one can only enter by birth. The unity and cohesion of the caste are also maintained by the fact that marriage is permitted only between members of the same caste. As a result every individual is very aware of his definitive caste identity and knows what differentiates him from other castes. Indian society is traditionally divided into four basic castes. The caste of the Brahmins is usually designated as being that of priests. In reality, it is rather a caste of those who have, in the broad sense of the term, knowledge, whether it is religious or secular knowledge. As a result the caste consists of the priests, scientists, scholars and the teachers.
The caste of the Kshatriyas, also known as the caste of the warriors, has the task of protecting the society against invaders and maintaining social order within. It comprises warriors and soldiers, as well as kings and lords. The latter hold the authority and power, which are to be exercised for the good of the whole community. The caste of the Vaishyas, depicted narrowly as that of merchants, is made up of the trade associations of food suppliers to society, including producers (farmers, breeders…) and distributors (traders, merchants, bankers…).
The caste of the Sudras embraces the producers of materials necessary for daily and occupational life (potter, smith, weaver…). It is the caste traditionally of artisans, handypersons, menial workers and labourers. The four basic castes are each subdivided into sub-castes. The great caste of artisans, for example, is divided into sub-castes of blacksmiths, basket weavers, cabinetmakers, etc. Each of these sub-castes has its own typical occupation and way of life. The sub-castes are further divided into a wide spectrum of smaller groups, according to how refined is the activity of the sub-group. The producers of carpets for everyday use, for example, form a different subgroup from weavers of precious and rare carpets for palaces and temples. Contrary to a common opinion, the caste system is not unique to India. Certainly, the division of Indian society into castes has always been very openly maintained and integrated into daily life. However, caste systems have existed throughout history and almost everywhere in the world. This has led specialists to speculate that the division of a society into castes was something universal.
Western society was itself divided into “castes”. For instance, France at the end of the 14th century was divided into three social orders: the nobility, the clergy and the commonalty (the artisans and the peasants). The members of these three orders were recognisable in their activity and in their way of life. Their social identification with an order was just as developed as the sense of social identity for Indians is tied to a caste, and admission to another order just as difficult as switching castes.
Starting from the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the French society, like the English, was divided into three major classes: the aristocrats or owners, the bourgeois and the proletarians. Nowadays, one speaks rather of the upper, middle and lower or working classes; class consciousness is less central to social identity and moving from one to the other a lot easier.
The universal character of the caste system is also shown by its existence among social animals. The adult population of bees, ants and termites is divided into groups of morphologically differentiated individuals, each having a different activity that is necessary for the whole. In a hive, there are bees responsible for defence, others for supply and others still for maintenance and building. Foremost is a caste of one individual, around whom everything revolves and gets organised: the caste of the queen.
Why a grouping into castes?
The universal development of castes or classes shows an active principle at work. In other words, the formation of castes is the inevitable result of the working of a Law of Creation. This is the Law of the Attraction of Homogeneous Species, which implies that those who are of the same species or are alike attract each other or gather together. By contrast, those not in affinity, perhaps because they are of a different species or have nothing in common, do not come together, and may even repel each other.
This Law has been ingrained by popular wisdom into proverbs and sayings such as “Birds of a feather flock together” and “A man is known by the company he keeps”. The power which attracts like to one another or repels opposites is not an external power – otherwise there could be no question of attraction – but emanates from the entities. Every human being radiates according to his nature, and attracts, or is attracted by, people possessing radiations of a similar kind. This phenomenon, being the expression of a law, takes place quite automatically, without requirement of effort on our part.
The effects of the Law of the Attraction of Homogeneous Species are easily observed in any human gathering. A class of schoolchildren on a day out in nature will quickly and spontaneously divide into subgroups: some pupils will wander to explore the surroundings, others will look after the fire and meals, yet others will prefer to laze about in the shade. The same will occur in a group of adults: sportsmen, card players, artistes, gluttons … all quickly find themselves forming subgroups. This Law ensures that people who have the same interests and similar attitudes and who behave and think in the same way can find each other and unite in activity. No one person can find out everything by himself. He needs the knowledge and the skills of other human beings to improve his own knowledge. A mutual exchange is a necessity; some bring to others what they lack; the latter receive from the former and in turn give something. However, among the multitude of people that surround us and who are rich in their own abilities, we need some more than others. We seek those who are striving in the same direction as us, that is to say those whose concerns, ideas and actions are similar; in other words, those who are homogeneous to us.
The wisdom that lies in the Laws of Creation — laws which are the expression of the Will of the Creator — does not favour the association of people having conflicting goals, because they upset and hinder one another unintentionally. By contrast, it promotes the meeting and rapport of people who share similar interests, who understand each other well and, as a result, can help and stimulate one another. A musician, for example, will develop his talents with a lot more certainty if he dwells in a circle of musicians than if he spends all day with people who do not appreciate music, who neither play nor listen to it. The company of homogeneous people creates an environment in which fertile exchanges can take place, each person bringing something to the others. Individual faculties are stimulated; they improve, complement each other and blossom. Does this mean that every caste should live folded up on itself, without outside contact? No, because no caste can live in isolation, alone by itself. Each is an inseparable part of a whole. It is not without reason that one speaks of a caste system, even in a so-called “classless society.”
Interdependence of castes
In the Indian system, every caste knows that it can offer only a part of the needs of the society as a whole and, thereby, is unable to be self-sufficient in itself.
A society comprising only one caste, that of warriors for example, could not survive or function. What will it live on? Who will make arms for it? Who will perpetuate secular and religious knowledge?
The castes are not insular and autonomous, but are the parts of a whole that is much greater than them and in which each has its place and its role. It is impossible for a caste taken in isolation to do without even a single other caste. In a society, the suppression of any caste will always create a gap which no other caste can fill, given that the other communities do not possess what is necessary to remedy the gap.
For Indians, the society is an earthly copy of “the universal man”, as affirmed by one of the oldest Hindu sacred texts: the Rig Veda. This universal man is the model on which Creation, together with everything to be found in it, is formed and organised. Every caste thus corresponds to a part of the body. And just like the human body cannot function if deprived of one of its basic organs, a society cannot survive without one of its castes.
That human beings of different kinds need each other is after all a well known and fully accepted truism, even in the Western world. One hears people in manual occupation wondering how a person doing an intellectual job can bear to be seated all day without “doing” anything concrete with his hands! By contrast, intellectuals are delighted not to have a manual activity for which they feel no affinity, and are relieved that this type of activity appeals to others. After all is said and done, every person who is where he belongs is happy to be there. He is grateful that others take upon themselves what is not appealing to him. How appropriate then are sayings like “everyone has his tastes” and “a tree does not a forest make”. Indeed, all kinds of people gifted with different qualities are required so that all the functions and activities necessary for life in society are accomplished.
The caste system is therefore based on what seems like two contradictory imperatives: on the one hand, the separation into different castes, that is to say exclusion of any other community, and on the other hand, the union of the castes, that is, exchange with another community. The contradiction between these two imperatives is only apparent. It is due to the fact that they are at different levels: the separation favours individual development above all, while union promotes social development.
In a society organised on the caste system, a village for example, multiple ties transcend the divisions, because each person is conscious of belonging to a social organism in which he has his place and which needs him. This social identity can even go as far as to engender a certain “patriotism” or loyalism in relation to the village, and from all the villagers, whatever their caste may be.
A distortion of the caste system: organisation into a hierarchy
The prevailing view of those who study the social structure of castes is that the organisation into a hierarchy is an intrinsic feature. The priestly caste would dominate that of warriors, which in turn would prevail over the farmers and traders, thus leaving the artisans and workers right at the bottom.
Giving priority to one caste over others is a distortion of the system. It is a self-serving and erroneous use of the system. Self-serving, because one part of the whole wants to assume more importance than it actually has, and erroneous because it is at variance with the logic of the system.
As we have seen, the interdependence which exists between the castes makes it such that no single one is more important than the other. If the suppression of any community puts the survival of the whole in danger, elevating one of them to a position of prominence is just as detrimental. The views and interests of this one part would then gain the upper hand. According to the foremost caste in charge, the society would become a hardline religious, military, merchant or crafts society. Moreover, plurality and diversity would no longer flourish. The harmony and necessary balance between the different parts would be broken, since one of them would unilaterally set the tone for all the others. The health of the human body would equally be compromised if the stomach or the heart were suddenly to take on a much more important role than it had hitherto.
Any caste desiring a hierarchically dominant position must believe that its views and organising ways are superior to all the other communities. It must also think that its aspirations and interests are more important and fairer than those the others can offer. In reality, such a caste only reasons according to its own kind or point of view, and not from being placed above the whole. It is to do with a fragmentary vision, valid for the fragment that it is, but not for the whole. It will therefore inevitably lead to discords and disturbances.
The caste of priests, for example, cannot, even with all the goodwill in the world, fully take into consideration and in a fair manner the needs of the artisans; the latter caste, in turn, is not placed to comprehend the inherent necessities in the life of the warriors; and so on for each one. By placing the castes one above the other, the hierarchy disrupts the harmony of relations and exchanges which exist among castes of equal importance, so as to lead down the paths of a power struggle. The castes at the bottom of the hierarchy will revolt sooner or later against the inevitable injustices from the ruling castes. Distrust will then replace the relationship of trust. Each caste will struggle for its own interests and against those of the others, and not for the general interest in collaboration with the others.
In a non-hierarchical social structure, the full accomplishment of tasks and duties by a caste is beneficial to the whole society; in a hierarchical system, on the other hand, success is achieved to the detriment of another and accentuates the imbalance.
To resolve the problems caused by the organisation of societies into hierarchies, some have proposed the abolition of castes. An attempt in this sense was made in the West. The proponents of communism wanted to abolish the class division of society, by integrating all the classes into a single community of workers. Being contrary to that great Law of the Attraction of Homogeneous Species, the attempt failed. The communist society became divided unofficially into classes, in spite of all the efforts undertaken to avoid it. Harmony between the castes, or the classes, does not come about by their suppression, but by the abolition of their organisation into a hierarchy.
The existence of a caste of “outcasts” or “untouchables” is a consequence of the organisation into a hierarchy and is not part of the original system. It is a recent development, having only appeared in the 12th century, whereas the caste system has been in existence in India for several millennia. The preceding points on non-organisation into hierarchy concerns castes considered as such, each one in relation to the others, but not their members taken separately. It is indeed undeniable that by their qualities certain individuals surpass others and cannot be placed on the same hierarchical level. Could there exist, in spite of everything, a hierarchy within the caste system?
Hierarchy within castes
What allows one human being to develop faster than another is free will. Human spirits evolve and develop the qualities that lie within according to decisions they take thanks to their free will. These decisions are necessarily different from one individual to another, which has the natural consequence that human beings do not all develop at the same pace or rhythm and in the same manner. Some are inevitably more advanced than other human beings, that is to say closer to full development of their spiritual faculties.
That is why in a given caste, there are some individuals who have improved and ennobled the qualities inherent in their caste a lot further than others. These differences in development will be translated, right within the caste, in differences in the way of life and outlook. Now, these differences constitute different species, species equally subject to the action of the Law of the Attraction of Homogeneous Species. Thus issuing inside the four big basic castes, are sub-castes which are like many intermediate landings on the rising steps of development.
We are thus faced with two caste systems. One system could qualify as horizontal, because the castes which comprise it are side by side and possess equal value. It is the system about which we spoke before and which includes the four big castes or basic types. The second system is vertical and includes, within each of the four castes, sub-castes placed one above the other, with the most developed at the top.
The organisation of the second system into a hierarchy is not therefore based on the kind of activity, but on the degree of development and ennoblement within the type. It is necessary to emphasise here the fact that in Creation discarnate human spirits are also divided on the different planes of the beyond (the purgatory of the Christian religion) according to their degree of development: the most developed spirits being on the highest planes and the nearest to Paradise, the least developed on the lowest planes. And just as in Creation spirits can rise from one plane to the other in accordance with their development, in the same way human beings have the possibility to scale up the sub-castes that are above them, according to their personal ennoblement in the qualities of the basic caste to which they belong. The distinction between both caste systems can be observed in the present Indian society, in spite of the considerable distortions compared to the original model. There are two types of castes: the “Varnas”, the four basic castes, and the “jati”, the sub-castes within the main castes, numbering several thousands. The latter are not part of a rigid and pre-established system but form according to the needs, since they depend on the development of human beings, which is something living, therefore dynamic and changeable.
In India, a new sub-caste forms when some members of an existing sub-caste distance themselves from the customary way of life of their caste and wish to cultivate among themselves this new way of living, which they consider to be closer to the ideal of their caste. To preserve their unity, the members of this new sub-caste live as a closed group, restricting contacts with outsiders by marrying endogamously among themselves. A new sub-caste is, however, only recognised as such by the others inasmuch as it shows by its actions the relevance of its existence. There is nothing final about the new caste nevertheless! Like all the others, it can disappear for lack of members to perpetuate it or when the latter develop towards an existing higher sub-caste into which they become integrated.
The fact that an individual can evolve from one sub-caste to another within the same caste is much more logical and comprehensible than the prohibition that is generally attributed as inherent in the caste system. We stated already that one is born into a caste; thus an individual cannot be born into the artisan caste and then move onto the caste of farmers and traders, through that of warriors and rulers, before ending in the caste of scholars and priests. This outlook would in effect imply that the goal of development of every human spirit is to become a priest or a scholar, these activities having to be considered in this approach as the most cultivated, and thereby the most adequate to serve God in His Creation. But is this really the case? Is not every activity that is carried out with care and diligence, and with respect and love for other people, pleasing to God? In this circumstance, no activity would be more elevated than others because they all have their usefulness in Creation, just as every caste has its usefulness in society.
The necessity of a development or passage through the four castes also seems unlikely because that would exceed the innate possibilities in the nature of the human spirit. The latter develops only a part of the possibilities given to it, never all. The development that a human spirit must accomplish therefore takes place in a vertical direction: growing in ennoblement in a given type, and not in all types.
The organisation of the sub-castes into a hierarchy does not therefore have a material purpose (the quest for power, for example, as is the case when the system is distorted), but a spiritual goal. It aims to promote the development of the human spirit by allowing it to attain an environment more advantageous to its development, in the same way as a schoolchild enters a higher class when he has attained the level.
A lesson of wisdom
The caste system in its pure form is capable of making us perceive the wisdom of the Creator which governs the Laws of Creation. Through this system, the Law of the Attraction of Homogeneous Species promotes social peace as well as the spiritual development of individuals. The working of this Law is penetrated by justice and love; by justice, because the membership of a caste is not arbitrary. It results from decisions which every spirit takes with the help of its free will and the efforts it has deployed to reach the goals which it set for itself. The fact that one is born into this or that caste is not in conflict with justice, because births are also governed by the Law of the Attraction of Homogeneous Species. Each one is born into an environment, thus into a caste, with which he is homogeneous.
The action of the Law of Homogeneity in the caste systems is also full of love. It allows each one to develop in its own kind and, in spite of the differences from the others, to have a place among them.