Understanding and Critique of the Caste System

The Gita devotes several of its verses to discussion of the four-fold order of society. which has been mixed up with what we have seen come down through time as the rigid and stultifying caste system which has created enormous confusion and obstacles to the modern-day development of India. Caste as it has been practiced has forced hereditary positions and ranking in society on everyone, has prevented in many cases the most suited from taking up roles for which they were most capable, and has held back progress generally. The Gita’s discussion actually has very little, if anything, to do with this historical ossification of societal roles.

Sri Aurobindo points out that even the roles that the Gita assigns to the 4 orders of society do not match up with the historically developed caste system, making it clear that the meaning as understood by the Gita varies from what we know of as the caste system today. Further, “And if the economical divisions of function have been confounded beyond any possibility of rectification, the law of the Guna or quality is still less a part of the later system. There all is rigid custom…, with no reference to the need of the individual nature. If again we take the religious side of the contention advanced by the advocates of the caste system, we can certainly fasten no such absurd idea on the words of the Gita as that it is a law of man’s nature that he shall follow without regard to his personal bent and capacities the profession of his parents or his immediate or distant ancestors, the son of a milkman be a milkman, the son of a doctor a doctor, the descendants of shoemakers remain shoemakers to the end of measurable time, still less that by doing so, by this unintelligent and mechanical repetition of the law of another’s nature without regard to his own individual call and qualities a man automatically farthers his own perfection and arrives at spiritual freedom.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 493-494

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