Saturday 22 April 2023

Caste by birth should not spread but disappear (The Sunday Guardian)


It is a matter of surprise that some born into faiths whose scriptures make no mention of caste are seeking to bring caste into their theologies.

The caste system now still practised in India differs from the practices that were followed in the ancient past. In essence, the caste system divides society into four equally important branches of activity. The dissemination of knowledge and the conduct of rituals in places of worship was held to be the responsibility of Brahmins. The acquiring of wealth through individual enterprise was the dominion of the Vaisyas, while the protection of the state and its people was the duty of the Kshatriyas. Other work was the province of the Shudras. It was not at birth that caste identity had been formed, no matter who the parents were, or the family that a child was born into. Caste denotes occupation and expertise. It is illogical therefore to affix caste at birth. After all, simply because a child is born to a doctor or an engineer couple does not endow the infant with the skills needed in those professions. It is only later that skills are picked up and mastered. While in many cases, a child would in later years follow the profession of his or her parents, that was not necessarily the case. As the tradition set in ancient India went, the child of a Shudra could in the course of years, evolve into a practitioner of medicine or engineering, or get immersed in the acquisition and expansion of knowledge, including those relating to places of worship. In Kerala, the present writer, who edited a mass circulation newspaper at the time, was among the protagonists who ensured that an academy of priesthood was set up. Irrespective of birth, young minds could study in the academy and master spiritual philosophy and rituals, ultimately becoming priests in a temple. It was in Kerala that Sri Narayana Guru was born. The Guru consecrated a Shiva temple but met with opposition from hereditary priests, who said that they alone had the right to consecrate temples. Sri Narayana Guru smiled and replied that they were welcome to go to any temple they wished, and that he would be satisfied with those who came and prayed at the temple consecrated by him. Initially, almost all the worshippers were from the “backward class” Ezhava community that the Guru was born into, but soon afterwards, all manner of devotees began visiting the temple consecrated by him. In ancient times, before the mist of wars and conquests clouded the belief systems and practices that had been in vogue for millennia, the Guru would have instantly been accepted as a Brahmin, given the philosophical and priestly qualities he acquired.
Judged not by the accidental yardstick of birth but the standard of subsequent attainment, there is no doubt that one of the founding fathers of the Republic, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, was a scholar from an early age, a fact that his writings subsequently confirmed. Consequently, he too could be said to acquire the characteristics of the scholar caste. Subsequently, he became a fighter for causes dear to his heart and mind, thereby moving into the fighter caste whose duty is to protect our country and its citizens. It remains a matter of regret in many that Dr Ambedkar was not chosen as the first Prime Minister of India, for had he been given that responsibility, the country would have evolved in a manner very different from the way it did. Caste ought not to come from birth but from experience and study. Unfortunately, the notion of caste by birth within a particular faith has become embedded in our society, with as yet no sign of the actual system staging a revival. In a context where caste by birth needs to be replaced by caste through learning and experience, it is a matter of surprise that some born into faiths whose scriptures make no mention of caste are seeking to bring caste into their theologies. Those who seek to bring hierarchy by birth into theologies that acknowledge all humanity to be born equal in merit need to ask themselves whether they are being true to the Founders and the Revealers of such faiths by seeking to bring into them a concept alien to the foundational principles of such faiths. The doctrines of Sanatan Dharma, the Bible and the Quran teach about the equality of humankind. As was said during a period of the history of India that appears to have been forgotten, Janmana Jayate Shudra, Karmana Jayate Bahuda. Each is born into the same “caste”, and only subsequently moves on to another. It is said that man and woman do not live by bread alone, so it could be affirmed that society cannot function through just one, any one, of the four castes. Each is needed, each is equal in importance to the others. The “caste” (profession) of an individual, if defined solely by the accident of birth, is akin to the children of a doctor being assumed to be doctors, irrespective of whether they are trained and proficient in that discipline or not. Rather than the doctrine of caste by birth being spread to other faiths, what is needed in the faith where caste still remains is to return to the system of affixing an individual’s caste through his or her learning and experience.

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