Teaching and researching religions, languages, literatures, films, and ecology of India: http://philosophy.unt.edu/people/faculty/pankaj-jain

Dr. Pankaj Jain

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Dr. Pankaj Jain is the author of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability (May 2011), which won the 2012 DANAM Book Award and the 2011 Uberoi Foundation Book Award. His 2nd book is Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains (Routledge 2017).

He is co-founder of American Academy of Indic Studies (www.AAIndicStudies.org) and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Springer).

He is Associate Professor in the department of Philosophy & Religion. He has published articles in journals such as Religious Studies Review, Worldviews, Religion Compass, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Visual Anthropology. He also contributes to the Huffington Post, Washington Post’s forum On Faith, and Patheos.
His research has been supported by the Fulbright fellowship and by the Wenner Gren grant. His teaching interests include Religion and Ecology, Indian films, and Religions and Cultures of South Asia and South Asian Diaspora in North America. Before joining UNT, he taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean, and New Jersey City University. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he is exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in Hindu and Jain communities in India and the Indian diaspora. He serves as a research affiliate with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, as scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith, as a board member of the Society for Hindu Christian Studies, and as a board member of the Executive Advisory Council of Hindu American Seva Charities, an NGO working with the White House Office for the faith-based initiatives. He has presented his research at Columbia University, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, University of South Florida, Florida International University, University of Toledo, Texas Christian University, High Point University, Lancaster University (UK), Andhra University (India), Univ of Rajasthan (India), and several conferences, high schools, radio and TV stations, temples, churches, Yoga centers, and other community centers.
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from Columbia University (both in Religious Studies). In his “previous life” he had also earned a B.S. in Computer Science from India and had worked as a software engineer in India and in New Jersey. Dr. Jain is an active member of several academic and community organizations, is fluent in several Indian languages, and has published poems in Hindi. He was born in Rajasthan and had also lived in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Karnatak (in India) and in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas (in the USA). Some of his papers and articles are at:http://unt.academia.edu/PankajJain/Papers and videos are at http://www.youtube.com/pj2017. The Facebook page for his book is at:https://www.facebook.com/DharmaAndEcology

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Varna and Jati: Social Structure of Hindus

Varna vyavastha (literally, the class system) remains one of the most interesting and debatable topics in the study of Vedic culture. Since the Vedas remain an unraveled mystery even today due to the archaic Sanskrit in which they were composed, much of the ancient social history is derived from the extrapolation from the later history of Indian society. While most of the modern scholarship on this issue applies Marxist and Weberian themes to interpret this, I endeavor to take a fresh approach to demonstrate some of the lesser-known aspects of this system.

The Original System
The varna system illustrates the spirit of comprehensive synthesis, characteristic of the ancient Indian mind with its faith in the collaboration of races and the co-operation of cultures. Paradoxical as it may seem, the system of varna was the outcome of tolerance and trust. Though it may now have degenerated into an instrument of oppression and intolerance and tends to perpetuate inequality and develop the spirit of exclusiveness, these unfortunate effects were not the central motives of the varna system. The system of varna insisted that the law of social life should not be cold and cruel competition, but harmony and co-operation. Society should not be a field of rivalry among individuals. The varnas were not allowed to compete with one another. Varna divisions were based on individual temperament, and which were not immutable. Originally varnas were assigned to people based on their aptitude and qualities, but in later periods they were assigned based on birth. However, there are a number of exceptions in the entire period that shows the flexibility of the system.

There were four varnas: brahmin, ksatriya, vaisya and sudra. The basic idea was division of labor in the society. Brahmin was defined as brahman nayati iti brahmin. People who preached spiritual teachings to the society and lived spiritual lives were called brahmins. Ksatriya was defined as kseeyate traayate iti ksatriya. These were the people who protected the society against external attacks and maintained internal order. Vaisya was defined as visati iti vaisya. Businessmen, traders and farmers came under this category. Sudras were the people engaged in services. Carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, cobblers, porters etc., fell under this category. This system ensured that the religious, political, financial and physical powers were all separated into four different social classes. Due to this fair separation of political and intellectual powers, ancient Indian society could not turn itself into a theocratic or autocratic society.

In the beginning, there was only one varna in the ancient Indian society. “We were all brahmins or all sudras,” says Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (1.4, 11-5, 1.31) and also Mahabharata (12.188). A smrti text says that one is born a sudra, and through purification he becomes a brahmin. According to Bhagavada Gita, varna is conferred on the basis of the intrinsic nature of an individual, which is a combination of three gunas (qualities): sattva, rajas, and tamas. In the Mahabharata SantiParva, Yudhisthira defines a brahmin as one who is truthful, forgiving, and kind. He clearly points out that a brahmin is not a brahmin just because he is born in a brahmin family, nor is a sudra a sudra because his parents are sudras. The same concept is mentioned in Manu Smrti. Another scripture Apastamba Dharmasutra states that by birth every human being is a sudra. It is by education and upbringing that one becomes `twice born', that is, a dvija.
Manu sums up the relative status and functions of the varnas in the following verse of Manu Smrti: “The brahmin acquires his status by his knowledge, the ksatriya by his martial vigor, the vaisya by wealth; and the sudra by birth alone.” In the Bhagavada Gita, 4.13, Krsna says: "The fourfold varna has been created by Me according to the differentiation of guna (qualities)."
In Bhagavada Gita 18.41, Krsna states: "The devotees of the Lord are not sudras; sudras are they who have no faith in the Lord whichever be their varna.” Mahabharata says that a wise man should not slight even an outcaste if he is devoted to the Lord; he who looks down on him will fall into hell. SantiParva, Mahabharata also says that there is no superior varna. The universe is the work of the Immense Being. The beings created by him were only divided into varnas according to their aptitude.

Bhagavada Gita also says, "Of brahmins, ksatriyas and vaisyas, as also the sudras, O Arjuna, and the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature." According to the Hitopades, all mankind is one family. Manu Smrti (11.157) says, "Just as a wooden toy elephant cannot be a real elephant, and a stuffed deer cannot be a real deer, so, without studying scriptures and the Vedas and the development of intellect, a brahmin by birth cannot be considered a brahmin.”

In my opinion, all the above quotations and references point out that the varnas were designated to a person based on one's aptitude, quality, mental state and characteristic. Although birth or parentage may have played an important role in the later times, the original system seems to be based on the quality of a person rather than on birth alone. Even when the varna was ascribed based on birth, there are a number of examples from the mythology and history of ancient India to demonstrate the flexibility and mobility among the varnas.

Vyäsa, a brahmin sage and the most revered author of many Vedic scriptures including the Vedas, Mahabharata, Bhagavada Gita and Bhagavata Purana, was the son of Satyavati, a sudra woman. Vyäsa's profound knowledge of the Vedic wisdom established him as a brahmin even though he was born of a sudra mother. Vyäsa's father, Päräsara, was also a son of a candala woman and yet was considered a brahmin based on his Vedic wisdom. Another popular Vedic sage, Välmiki was initially a hunter. He came to be known as a brahmin sage on the basis of his profound knowledge of the scriptures and his authorship of the Rämäyana. According to Rig Veda (IX.112.3), the poet refers to his diverse parentage: “I am a reciter of hymns, my father is a physician and my mother grinds corn with stones. We desire to obtain wealth in various actions.” Sage Aitareya, author of Aitareya Upanisad, was born of a sudra woman. Vasishtha, son of a prostitute, was established as a brahmin and Rig Veda book VII is attributed to him. In Chandogya Upanisad, the honesty of Satyakäma establishes his brahminhood, even though his ancestry is unknown as he is the son of a maidservant. Visvamitra, born in a ksatriya family becomes a sage, and hence a brahmin, based on his asceticism. Some Rig Veda hymns are attributed to him. The priest Vidathin Bhärdväja became a ksatriya as soon as he was adopted by King Bharata and his descendents were the well-known Bharata ksatriyas. Janaka, a ksatriya by birth, attained the rank of a brahmin by virtue of his ripe wisdom and saintly character and is considered a rajarishi (king-sage). Vidura, a brahmin visionary, who gave religious and moral instructions to King Dhrtarashtra, was born to a woman servant of the palace. His varna as a brahmin was determined on the basis of his wisdom and knowledge of scriptures. The Kauravas and Pandavas were the descendants of Satyavati, a fisher-woman, and Vyäsa, a brahmin. In spite of this mixed heredity, the Kauravas and Pandavas were known as ksatriyas on the basis of their occupation. Ajamidha and Puramidha were admitted to the status of the brahmin class, and even composed Vedic hymns. Yaska, in his Nirukta, tells us that of two brothers, Santanu and Devapi, one becomes a ksatriya king and the other a brahmin priest. Kavasa, the son of the slave girl Ilusa, becomes a brahmin priest. The Bhagavata Purana tells of the elevation of the ksatriya clan named Dhastru to brahminhood. In the later Vedic times, Chandragupta Maurya, originally from the Muria tribe, goes on to become the famous Mauryan emperor of Magadha. Similarly, his descendant, King Asoka, was the son of a maidservant. The Sanskrit poet and author, Kalidasa is also not known to be a brahmin by birth. His works are considered among the most important Sanskrit works. In the medieval period, saint Thiruvalluvar, author of 'Thirukural' was a weaver. Other saints such as Kabir, Sura Dasa, Ram Dasa and Tukaram came from the sudra class also. Many of the great visionaries in modern India were not brahmins by birth but can be regarded as brahmins by their life-styles and teachings: Mahätmä Gändhi, Swämi Vivekänada, Sri Aurobindo, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swämi Chinmayänanda etc.
Misconceptions about the Varna System

Heterodox ideologies such as Jainism and Buddhism have criticized the notions of varna-based svadharma (one's own duty), which inspired Arjuna to indulge in the Mahabharata war. Since Arjuna was a ksatriya, he was motivated to follow his duty of a warrior by Krsna.
Unfortunately, the original system is often either overlooked or misinterpreted. Let us examine some of the main concerns expressed about the varna system.

· Inequality: Does the varna system treat human beings unequally, with the brahmins at the top of the hierarchy and the sudras at the bottom? This is a common observation about the system which is based on the modern caste system rather than the ancient varna system. It is rarely observed that the social hierarchy is not just limited to Hinduism but it stays intact in any Indian religious society; Buddhists, Jainas, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims have their own caste hierarchies and restrictions. Even western societies have their own classes and groups. Thus, it is indeed a social phenomenon, which is not just limited to Hinduism or India. J. Muir has provided numerous passages from ancient Indian texts to demonstrate the equality of varnas.

Rig Veda II. 33. 13 speaks of "our father Manu" (pita nah). Note that all of mankind is described as having a single ancestor.

Taittareya Brahmana II.3.8.1. It describes the process of creation of human beings by Prajapati as follows: "... he reflected, after that he created men. That constitutes the manhood of men. He, who knows the manhood of men, becomes intelligent. Mind does not forsake him."

Satapatha Brahmana VII.5.2.6. This passage describes the process of creation of human beings by Prajapati as follows: "He formed animals from his breath, a man from his soul, a horse from his eye, a bull from his breath, a sheep from his ear, a goat from his voice." It is worth noting that here too the various objects of creation are being correlated to various parts of the body of Prajapati, as in the Purusa Sukta.

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad I. 4. 11-15. These passages describe the successive creation of the four varnas, in contrast to their simultaneous creation in the Purusa Sukta. Just as in the case of Manu where all of humanity is traced to a single parent, here all of humanity is traced to a single homogeneous class, to begin with.

Visnu Purana VIII. 138-140. According to this account when the Eden-like existence ceased: "At this juncture the perfect mind-born sons of Brahma, of different dispositions, who had formerly existed in the Satya age, were reproduced in the Treta as brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas, sudras, and destructive men." This means that the varna system characterises human life after the 'fall', as it were. It is a post-Lapsarian phenomenon. The development of 'castes' here represents a falling away from an earlier ideal condition, in which there were no varnas.

In Bhagavada Gita, it is clearly mentioned that sudra and women can achieve the liberation and it is not just limited to any one high caste.

Upanisads and other Vedic scriptures have mentioned at many places that the same Brahman exists in all the living beings and hence all are equal.

Mahabharata (III.216.14-15) mentions that a sudra can become brahmin by engaging in self-control, truth and righteousness.

H. T. Colebrooke, one of the early Sanskrit scholars wrote, “ Daily observation shows even the brahmin exercising the menial profession of a sudra. It may be received as a general maxim, that the occupation, appointed for each tribe, is entitled merely to a preference. Every profession, with few exceptions, is open to every description of persons; and the discouragement, arising from religious prejudices, is not greater than what exists in Great Britain from the effects of Municipal and Corporation laws.”

· Svabhäva by birth: In the varna system, one's svadharma is based on one's svabhäva. But how can svabhäva be fixed by birth? Is it a changeable substance? This debate is not fully resolved even by today's geneologists. According to the recent research, genes are much more responsible in fixing one's nature than they are given credit for. As more researches unfold, this mystery will unravel whether one's svabhäva is fixed based on one's birth or it can be changed by one's training.

· Coercion: Did the varna system deny the basic right to choose one's profession? Was one forced to perform one's svadharma even against one's call of conscience, e.g., Krsna motivates Arjuna to fight because he was born as a ksatriya? In the same war, there were many warriors who did not qualify fully as ksatriya by birth and still were fighting, e.g., Drona, Krpa, Asvatthämä, Karna, Bheeshma etc. Krsna did not ask Arjuna to fight just because he was born as a ksatriya but convinced him based on many other arguments. Whatever coercion may exist in the society could be argued as a social discipline. In the practical world, there would be complete chaos and disaster if the individuals stopped performing their duties. A well-balanced society definitely needs warriors, merchants, teachers and laborers. Hence, instead of one's unrestrained rights, one's duties are given more importance.

Varna system is one of the most debatable phenomena of India and is tarred with many controversies. However, on a deeper analysis one finds that the basic need for this system was simply to ensure a healthy and flexible society unlike the one which has been rigidified due to the colonial misinterpretation and mistreatment of varnas, resulting in the castes as we find them in the present day India . The original varna system was quite flexible in which one's varna could be changed based on one's skill and was not fixed as is often understood. Indeed, it was the colonization of India by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries that changed the varna system into the present rigid system of castes.

1. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life,(HarperCollins, 1998)
2. Padmanabh S Jaini, “Values in comparative perspective: Svadharma versus Ahimsä”, Collected Papers on Buddhist Studies, (Motilal Banarasidas, 2001)
3. J Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts, (Delhi, Oriental Publishers, 1972)
4. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, (Viking, 2002)
5. Nicholas B Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, (Princeton University Press, 2001)
6. Arvind Sharma, Classical Hindu Thought, (Oxford University Press, 2000)


Kanhekar said...

For Varna Jati Vyavastha Britisher are not responsible but only Brahmin are culprit.

Kanhekar said...

Varna Jati system is not a division of labour but it is a division of labourer.

Refractor said...

do you think that non-hindus and dalits are so naive that they would believe you?

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Kanhekar said...
"For Varna Jati Vyavastha Britisher are not responsible but only Brahmin are culprit.
Varna Jati system is not a division of labour but it is a division of labourer. "

If, one take a trouble to read Mahabharat, Bhagavat Puran, Harivansh will understand that it is
not a division of labourer. Each individual is an unit and integral part of the society. Just like a
brick or any other part of the building, has different function to provide the strength and durability, each of has different strength and power, which we can contribute to the society and be a brick or nut or bolt or pile of this gorgeous universe that God has
created. Brahmins are not the real culprit, but their weakness has been exploited real good in order to take control of India.

Almost, for 1000 years invasion by moguls had weakened social harmony of Indian subcontinent and still it was going on, thanks to the contributions of saints like Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya, Vallabhacharya, Swaminaryan, Tulsidas, Kabir, Shivaji, Samarth Ramadas Swami, Aeknath, Sant Gyaneshwar, Tukaram, Narshim Mehta, Mirabai, RamKrishna Paramhans, Swami Vivekanand, Gokhale, Tilak. These are the real Brahmin who gave their lives for the society. Shivaji, Gandhiji, Saradar Patel were like true Kashtriya who fought like a hero for their ideals in order to uplift the society.

Brahmins that you called in today's society are not even worth to be called Dalit according to Mahabharat, Bhagavat Puran, Harivansh.

We need to start reading our scriptures. We are fortunate enough that now it is made available in our languages and even in english.

Do we want to take trouble reading or we still want to sleep like Kumbhakarna. Ravan made sure Kumbhakarna sleeps for his entire life, so that Ravan could rule.
But, it was persistance of Vibhishan that ultimately helped to bring Ravan Rajya to end.

Do we want to awaken Rama and Krishna in our heart and bring them in our life?

How can we do that? Not by saying
Mera Bharat mahan, but by doing something that can make Mera Bharat Mahan.

Refractor, we do not need to make any non-hindus or Dalits to believe anything. Hinduism is not a religion, it is a Way of Life, a Way of Thinking and Way of Worship.
Nobody can match Vedic philosophy because it flowing from the head of Shivaji as a pure stream of knowledge. Anybody, can take even a drop of this stream can have true revelation. Do you want to take trouble to go to the bank of this Ganga (our scriptures) and want to enjoy the beauty of this gem known as a Hinduism?

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Saurabh Dey said...

Kaliyuga isthe culprit. The scriptures rightfully predict the loss of knowledge, fall of society and misuse of varna system in Kaliyuga.

God/ Omkar/ Nature has an order of bringing life into this world. At any point of time most of the people in a society wll be shudras, lesser vaishyas and kshatriyas and very few brahmins. They all support each other like four pillars under the roof.
If you want to find out a varna of a person there are a few ways :
1. Kundali - it states the varna and other likely qualties.
2. Free time analysis : Brahmins by nature, in ther free time, try to find out stuff, learn, gain knowledge, Kshatriyas go for sports martial arts, Vaishyas relax and think of making money, talk about opportunities for prosperity, Shudras go have fun or waste time, sleep quite often.

Mlecchas (outcastes / pure evil) think of crime and unrighteous ways to harm others due to ego / jealousy / greed.

Varna system is a life science, thats why it appears in horoscopes. If each person follows their Varna, they will be true to their work, work passionately and thus be happy and build a healthy respectful society.
If parents want to guide their teenage kids for career selection, just look up their Varna and get a Kundali made, and that shall help you decide a lot. And mind you, its very accurate.

The ancients knew this, and we have to start thinking about it like we thought of Yoga and Vaastu and now know and have proof and evidence that they are beneficial.
If still some people don't believe then just think u are taking a chance, just give it a try, nothing to lose.

Saurabh Dey said...

Varna system also says: there are four sources of power - Wisdom, Strength, Money, Skill, and ideally one person should not try to achieve other powers than the one related to them.

Brahmins : Power of knowledge, wisdom and thus shud refrain from money and politcal power, but shud guide the ruler on how to improve society and teach as teachers.

Kshatriyas : Power of strength / leadership / courage / valour should always protect its people even at the cost of their life. They shud not get into earning too much or trying to run away from duties in search of knowledge and wizardry powers.

Vaishyas : Should concentrate on earning money rightfully, investing, employing more people, charity, tax paying. They should not try to hold power and knowledge they anyways will not have much so should not forget to respect the ones who have.

Shudras : The holder of skills should not waste too much time and do their service properly. Should no be too greedy or use their skills for unrightful purposes. they should follow the philosophers and rulers as their outlook is very small and big descision making for dociety is difficult for them.

So basically these 4 pillars of a healthy society should always coexist in harmony.

In recent times, examples of varna but not of discimination :

1. Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa(1836-86) born into a trader(Vaishya) family becomes a Brahmin out of his own will, later one of the greatest philosophers who attained Moksha. He was also the pujari of Dakshineshwar amd the guru of Swami Vivekananda. People he touched would heal, and he was God for them. See the caste dint exist there.

2. Sant Ravidas (15th cent)was from chamar(leather workers) untouchable family. Leather was a animals hide, so considered impure and people working wth them had negative energy. So these people were cast off. But as soon as he left his job and achieved new heights in spiritualty, and people saw his divinity and knowledge, they revered him, and his followers are growing till today.

God creates differences but power hungry people create divide, so that they can rule. God has always given us unity in diversity with all differences complimenting each other. Just take a look around and try to realise, that its time we got out of this mess of our mental state and go back a couple of hundred years and analyze every aspect of life. Or refer the Bhagwad Gita and other scriptures with an open calm mind.

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