The philosophical idea of varṇa (not “caste”) in Upaniṣad and Veda
First, let us look at the following passages of Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4:
ब्रह्म वा इदमग्र आसीदेकमेव तदेकं सन्न व्यभवत् । तच्छ्रेयोरूपमत्यसृजत क्षत्रं यान्येतानि देवत्रा क्षत्राणीन्द्रो वरुणः सोमो रुद्रः पर्जन्यो यमो मृत्युरीशान इति । तस्मात्क्षत्रात्परं नास्ति तस्माद् ब्राह्मणः क्षत्रियमधस्तादुपास्ते राजसूये क्षत्र एव तद्यशो दधाति सैषा क्षत्रस्य योनिर्यद् ब्रह्म । तस्माद्यद्यपि राजा परमतां गच्छति ब्रह्मैवान्तत उपनिश्रयति स्वां योनिं य उ एनं हिनस्ति स्वां स योनिमृच्छति स पापीयान् भवति यथा श्रेयांसं हिंसित्वा । ११
“Brahman alone was indeed all this in the beginning. It being alone did not prosper. Hence it created a better form than itself, called Kṣatra. These are the deities who are Kṣatra — Indra, Varuṇa, Soma, Rudra, Parjanya, Yama, Mṛtyu and Īśāna. Hence, there is nothing higher than the Kṣatra, and that is why the Brāhmaṇa worships the Kṣatriya from below in the Rājasūya — he bestows that glory on the Kṣatriya only. The Brahman is the origin of the Kṣatra. Hence, even though the king is raised to superiority, in the end he seeks refuge in his origin, the Brahman. He who harms him, he harms his own origin and becomes sinful just as by harming one’s elder.”
स नैव व्यभवत्स विशमसृजत यान्येतानि देवजातानि गणश आख्यायन्ते वसवो रुद्रा आदित्या विश्वेदेवा मरुत इति । १२
“He still did not prosper. He created the Viṭ (i.e. Vaiśya). These are the Viṭ deities — the ones enumerated in groups — Vasus, Rudras, Ādityas, Viśvedevas and Maruts.”
स नैव व्यभवत्स शौद्रं वर्णमसृजत पूषणमियं वै पूषेयं हीदं सर्वं पुष्यति यदिदं किंच । १३
“He still did not prosper. He created the Śūdra varṇa. The deity who is Śūdra is Pūṣan. This earth is indeed Pūṣan, because she nourishes everything that exists.”
तदेतद् ब्रह्म क्षत्रं विट् शूद्रस्तदग्निनैव देवेषु ब्रह्माभवत् ब्राह्मणो मनुष्येषु क्षत्रियेण क्षत्रियो वैश्येन वैश्यः शूद्रेण शूद्रः …. । १५
“This then is the Brahman, Kṣatra, Viṭ and Śūdra. Brahman became Agni among the deities, and among humans it became the Brāhmaṇa. Similarly, from the Kṣatra deities came the human Kṣatriya, from the Vaiśya came the Vaiśya, and from the Śūdra came the Śūdra.”
We must first understand the objective of the Vedic texts, the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas. Technically, there are no traditionally separate texts called Upaniṣads because these are extracts from the Samhitās, Brāhmaṇas or Āraṇyakas.
So these prose texts aim at providing integrative philosophical explanations for fundamental questions of human existence. While the Brāhmaṇa texts do this in the context of elaborating the rituals of yajña and the mystical symbolism of each ritual, the Āraṇyaka texts take a step further and abstract the philosophical explanations further.
The above quoted passages demonstrate the typical style of this integrative philosophical explanation. The overall theme of the section 1.4 is to discuss the sole existence of the ultimate spiritual reality called Brahman and the creation of the universe and its various aspects. Hence, the same metaphysical Brahman is conflated with post-creation physical categories such as the human Brāhmaṇa. This is an example of expressing the identities and equivalencies between the physical and metaphysical realms. As is understandable, when crossing the boundary from metaphysical to physical, we cross from pure unconditional truth to conditioned human constructs.
The first point to note carefully is the use of the neuter “It” and “Brahman” in the first paragraph. This refers to the primeval state of the undifferentiated ultimate non-dual existence of Brahman in and of itself, prior to creation of a duality. In this state, obviously everything is the same Brahman without distinction and discrimination. This is the state that is the goal of spiritual aspirants. Looking at it from another point of view, the state of Brahman is also the reversal of creation, where all the dualities merge back into the non-dual state.
Hence, our tradition makes no distinction between enlightened persons (Jñānis) of different births or “castes”. Once a person becomes a Jñāni, he/she is beyond physical constructs, and joins the metaphysical non-duality. Our history is filled with people of various “high and low” births who attained the same unquestionable spiritual status. This is also supported by authority. The previous passage in this same text says that whoever realizes the truth “I am Brahman” surely becomes Brahman without distinction. Also, Śaṅkarācārya says in his Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣyam, “ज्ञाने सर्वेषामधिकारः jñāne sarveṣāmadhikāraḥ” — “Everyone is entitled to knowledge”.
However, the subtle point to be noted is that once the physical categories of duality have been created, every category “owns” a mode of operation. Hence, in the created universe, jumping across modes of operation is resented by definition. To simplify terms, what I mean is that although everyone is entitled to knowledge, not all the various modes of gaining that knowledge are open to all classes of people. This is an unfortunate and inevitable paradox of the created universe. The end state of equality is respected, but the means of reaching that end state have restrictions. In our tradition, we see three stages of development:
- In the beginning, when society was simple (i.e. symbolized by a new creation), everyone regardless of birth had equal entitlement over knowledge (Jñāna) and modes of operation (Karma). This is when everyone studied Veda and performed yajña.
- As society proliferated, the entitlement over knowledge (Jñāna) was still equal but the different modes of operation (Karma) were now “owned” by different categories. This is when everyone still studied Veda, but not everyone could perform yajña.
- As competition grew in society, there was increasing monopolization of both knowledge (Jñāna) and modes of operation (Karma). This is when not everyone could study the Veda nor perform yajña. This is also when alternative parallel systems that provided the same knowledge as the Veda (e.g. Epics and Purāṇas) came into existence. This restored the state back to the one where everyone is entitled to, and has access to, knowledge.
The second point to note is that after creation of the duality of the universe, Brahman by its non-dual self is not adequate to operate in this duality. This might seem nonsensical as Brahman is everything and omnipotent. However, the non-dual Brahman “in-and-of-itself” exists in a completely different plane than the physical “dualized” universe. To give a sci-fi analogy, a creature from a three-dimensional world cannot operate in a two-dimensional world without modifications. Hence, Brahman needs to “dualize” itself into various modes and forms that correspond to the various aspects and elements of the physical universe. This is the reasoning behind the existence of, for example, five senses to correspond to the five media of perception.
The extrapolation of the non-dual Brahman into the four categories according to modes of operation (Karma) is as essential to the working of the universe as any other aspect.
This idea is evident in the above quoted passages, where the four categories are ascribed even to the deities. So it should be obvious and indisputable that the philosophy of the four varṇas is not based on denigration, oppression, disadvantaging or other development that is inevitable in real-world social group dynamics. Hence we observe that the text says that the Brahman did not prosper until all four varṇas had been created.
As a consequence of this “dualization”, please notice the text beginning to use the words “He” and “Brāhmaṇa” in place of “It” and “Brahman”.
The third point to note is the ascription of the Brāhmaṇa as the source of the Kṣatriya even though the latter gets all the glory. This is easily understood philosophically. The Brāhmaṇa symbolizes all undifferentiated or non-specialized mental activity. As such all idealized aspects of the mind such as general decision-making, intellectualizing, conscience, uncompromised adherence to truth, etc. will be the starting point for actual physical implementation or action, which is symbolized by the Kṣatriya. As we see in the physical world, the film actor is the center of attention and fame, whereas the director works behind the camera.
This philosophy demonstrates a great symbiosis that was conceived and implemented by our ancients. The Brāhmaṇa cannot be undermined by the Kṣatriya, as the former is uncompromised idealization, whereas the latter is forever facing constraints that force compromise. The concept is that of ideal ideation and optimized implementation.
The fourth point to note is the great spiritual and physical status of the Śūdra varṇa. Not only is the god Pūṣan called Śūdra and identified with Mother Earth who sustains all life, but the text says that the human Śūdras are descended from the divine Śūdra, just as the other human varṇas are descended from the divine varṇas.
So, all the varṇas are philosophically and theologically equal in status and dignity.
In this context, the criticism and denigration of the Ṛgvedic Puruṣa Sūktam (10.90) as defining a hierarchical “caste” structure, is extremely pedestrian, willfully ignorant and unenlightened. In particular, the origin of Śūdra varṇa from the feet of Puruṣa (10.90.12: padbhyām śūdrah) is followed by the origin of the Earth also from the feet of Puruṣa (10.90.14: padbhyām bhūmih). So if origin from feet is supposed to imply attributed inferiority, then should we consider the Earth on which we live, as inferior? And if so, inferior compared to what? Moreover, Puruṣa himself is introduced in the first verse as possessing a thousand heads and a thousand feet. So it seems that both the head and the feet are equally important characteristics of thePuruṣa.
Now, as far as the social reality is concerned, there is no doubt that every idealized social system will degrade and deteriorate when it steps into human society, which is comprised of imperfect humans with their greed, fear, envy, lust and a host of other vices.
The historical system that was named “caste” is actually a combination of the philosophical categories of varṇa and the biological lineage of jāti.
Author: Ram Abloh
May 21st, 2020
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