One of the biggest mental stumbling blocks for any American to hurdle when considering whether to embrace Vaishnava philosophy is India’s notorious caste system. To some it is an evil parallel to this country’s insidious racial classification system that positions whiteness on top with blackness on the bottom, with all the other so-called races relegated to intermediate positions. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.
The timeless Vedic literature describes a natural system of social organization that can bring about a peaceful society where everyone is happy. This system is called Varnashrama dharma, and while it serves as the basis for India’s current caste system, it is far different, without hint of racial prejudice.
The purpose of the Varnashrama social system is to provide a structure allowing people to work according to their natural tendencies and to organize society so that everyone, regardless of their position, makes spiritual advancement.
According to this philosophy, people can only work with a cooperative spirit if there is a central point of focus. Over the years proponents of many different political ideologies (e.g., Communism) have tried to unite society by providing such a central point. These attempts have all ultimately failed, though.
Generally, people work for their own pleasure, and this is sometimes extended to working for the family, the nation or even the whole world. Because the aims and aspirations of the members of society are so varied it is practically impossible to achieve a peaceful situation as everyone is working to fulfill his or her own personal goals.
The only universal point around which everyone can work is God. He provides an absolute, eternal center for all our activities. If we try to make something else the central point, the resulting society is doomed to fail.
The ancient Varnashrama system recognizes that there are many different types of people who may not be spiritually inclined. The society is thus organized under the direction of qualified brahmanas, spiritually gifted intellectuals, and is divided into four occupational and four spiritual divisions in such a way that everyone is serving God simply by performing their occupational duties. As the entire society is arranged to please God, anyone working within the society also pleases God, whether consciously or unconsciously.
The Varnashrama system recognizes the natural talents and abilities of each person and provides work according to a person’s qualities. There are four qualities of work. The brahmanas are the intellectual and priestly class. The kshatriyas are the government, the military and the administrative classes. The vaishyas are farmers and businessmen, and the shudras are workers.
There are also four spiritual divisions: brahmacharya or student life, grihastha or married life, vanaprastha or retired life and sannyasa or renounced life. As per Vaishnava teachings, if this system is properly implemented under the direction of qualified brahmanas, the result will be peace and prosperity throughout the world.
Varnashrama social divisions are based on qualities and work. If someone has the qualities of a brahmana, and if he works as a brahmana, he is accepted as a qualified brahmana. In this way, the Varnashrama system should not be confused with the corrupt caste system of India.
The current Indian system is akin to accepting the sons of a United States Supreme Court justice as Supreme Court justices themselves. Of course, that would be nonsense, as the individuals would have to be qualified. They have to attend and graduate from institutions of higher learning and pass bar exams, etc. Then they have to gain practical experience – usually as lawyers and judges on lesser platforms of jurisprudence — before even being considered for a high court appointment.
In India, people often claim to be brahmanas simply because they are born into a brahmana family, even though they do not possess the qualifications or qualities of a brahmana. In most cases they are not working as brahmanas either. The result of the corruption of the original system has been the destruction of the entire social structure in India, and, now, the rich tend to use the caste system to exploit and oppress the poor.
In the original Varnashrama society, however, all members are equally important. An analogy comparing the social body to the human body is instrumental in explaining this. The brahmanas are the head of the body, as they possess the intelligence and give directions to the other parts of the body. The kshatriyas are likened to the arms of the body, as their business as administrators and the military is to protect the social body from threats from outside (attacks from enemies) and disruption from within.
Vaishyas are likened to the stomach that provides energy to the body. The vaishyas, as the productive class, are the farmers and businessmen who produce and distribute food to the social body. The vaishyas are also responsible for protecting the cows – vitally important in a society that looks upon cows with reverence usually reserved for one’s mother. (Vedanta considers the cow to be essentially similar to our mother, because, in our infancy, our mother gave us cow milk to drink.)
Shudras are equated with the legs as they provide the manual labor required by the social body. We look after our whole body. It is not that we attend to problems affecting the head and neglect problems in the legs. The body works as a coordinated unit, and a problem anywhere in the body causes a disruption to the proper functioning of the whole body. When that happens we must immediately attend to that problem.
The social body should work as a coordinated unit with different members of the society acting in their respective positions as brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras according to their qualities. The result would be a happy, peaceful and efficient society.
Even if you do not accept the premise that we are all born with different levels of intellect, different tendencies and inclinations, you have to accept that the varna system exists contemporarily in America almost exactly as described above. We have our own brahmana caste, i.e., religious leaders and empirical philosophers – the intelligent class/caste — that offer sage advice to government and military leaders. The kshatriyas are the political and military leaders. The vaishyas are the captains of industry, and the shudras constitute the overwhelming bulk of the population – working class stiffs.