The Caste System Of India

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The Caturvarna

The Caturvarna system provided a matrix where the individual could optimally react with the society. The ancient Indian idea was that according to man’s individual nature and temperament (Swabhava), he was suited for a particular law of action (Swadharma). There were at least four types of functioning people with different laws of action :

  1. a priesthood that generated scholars, legislators, thinkers, literatures, religious leaders and guides (Brahmins) ;

  2. a military and political aristocracy that provided kings, warriors, governors and administrators (Kshatriyas) ;

  3. a class of free agriculturists, traders, craftsmen, artistans and and merchants (Vaishyas) ; and

  4. a proletariat of serfs and labourers (Sudras).

Variants of these four types of people are still found in modern societies --- whether they are of the commercial type eulogising ‘CAPITAL’ or proletariate-oriented , upholding ‘LABOUR’. Sri Aurobindo points out that even in such societies there would exist ‘thinkers moved to find the law and truth and guiding rule of the whole matter, the captains and leaders of industry who would make all this productive activity an excuse for the satisfaction of their need of adventure and battle and leadership and dominance, the many typical purely productive and wealth-getting men, the average workers satisfied with a modicum of labour and reward of their labour.’ (2)

The four types of functioning people constituted the four-fold order of the society in ancient India. This was the original Caturvarna system. The economic order of the society was also mapped and graded to suit this four –fold classification. However it is worthwhile to note that the intellectual, ethical and spiritual growth of the individual was given a higher status that the economical need. The economical man (The Vaishya) held an honorable but a lower position in the social hierarchy : he was placed third while the lead was in the hands of the intellectual and political classes. In fact, at different points in the history of social evolution, different factors have been thrown up by the Zietgeist – the time-spirit, to dominate society. In the past, non-economic factors were more important when the man of learning had a higher social status. Today the position has changed. With the decline of the Brahmin ( the aristocracy of letters and culture and the Kshatriya (the military aristrocracy), the commercial and industrial classes, Vaishya and Sudra, within “CAPITAL” AND “LABOUR” have come to the forefront and after casting out their rivals are themselves engaged in a fratricidal conflict. Sri Aurobindo(3) explains that the Vaishya still predominantes with his stamp of commercialism and utilitarianism which is even extended to the realms of science, art, poetry and philosophy. Sri Aurobindo also prophesises that this state will not continue and Labour will get its due dignity and a time might come when other non – economic factors will again come to the forefront and dominate the life of an elevated human race. To understand the socio-religious and socio–political frame work that originally upheld the Caturvarna in ancient India, it is necessary to appreciate two important factors :

  1. The concept of Dharma and

  2. The structural changes in the evolution of communities.


Dharma ----- the law of governance, determination and direction was a great impersonal authority that evolved when the spiritual urge of the Vedic and Upanishadic ages turned to effectuate itself at the social level.(4)

  1. The spiritual urge blossomed not in the mass in the isolated individuals--- for the common people, an ethical discipline was necessary so that the individual could not find the optional social milieu to develop himself. The Indian concept of Dharma is the right law of functioning of our life in all its modalities---- a concept that includes and transcends the Western idea of ethical and social rule. Sri Aurobindo explains that the Dharma is a law of ideal perfection for the developing mind and soul of man. However there are differences in individual personalities, capacities, reaction-patterns and there are socio-cultural variations. Any social law must take cognizance of this variety formula for that would be in Sri Aurobindo’s words ‘a senseless geometric rigidity that would spoil the plastic truth of life. ‘People who are suited for different professions and social roles must be provided with appropriate avenues for spontaneous growth. There must be also be a restraining and guiding force so that human conduct is not led by desires but by reason. This then was the Dharma ---- suited both for the individual and the collective development. It was special for the special person and universally effective. (5)

The Caturvarna was one of the systems which the Dharma evolved and supported for the free growth of the individual while yet living in the society. The regulating and disciplining effect of the Dharma was evident from certain characteristics of the Caturvarna: (6)

  1. The social hierarchy was never a political hierarchy. Inspite of the importance given to Brahmins, they could not usurp political power in India and there never arose a theocracy as in Tibet. Due to the influence of the Dharma, the fight between the church and the state is absent from the political history of India.

  2. There was no exclusive state religion and the monarch was not the religious head. The Buddhist and Brahmin emperors supported both the rival religions –such was the ethical mandate of the Dharma. Even Asoka who attempted to extend his royal powers to the spiritual domain had to compromise and his edicts had a recommendatory rather than an imperative character.

  3. The king was a limited or constitutional monarch and guardian, executor and servant of the Dharma. His power was limited to the issue of administrative decrees that had to be in consonance with the religious, social, political and economical considerations of the community. There were also other powers to cross-check the authority of the king. Manu even advocated regicide for unjust and oppressive kings. The social life of the people was by and large free from autocratic interference.

  4. Neither the Brahmin nor the king could change the Dharma. Any new value to be acceptable could only be introduced by the Rishi – The spiritual seer who could hail from any social class.

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