“O Raghava, even if Vaidehi [Sita] has been killed or taken away, it is not appropriate for You, O brave one, to lament in the same way as an ordinary person.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.14)
The famous Hindu caste system is generally thought of to be a social pecking-order based off bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Those unfamiliar with its origins, and even those who think they know how it should work, mistakenly believe that followers of the Vedic tradition subscribe to the idea of dividing people into groups based on their family heritage, and that certain people should be shunned since they belong to a lower caste. If we delve a little bit deeper into the subject, we’ll see that this is most certainly not the case.
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)
What we generally refer to as the caste system is actually known as varnashrama-dharma in Sanskrit. Varna refers to one’s occupational duties and ashrama refers to a spiritual institution or stage in one’s life. Dharma can mean religion, but a more accurate definition would be an occupational duty. The Vedas, which are the oldest scriptures in existence, tell us that religion is not just some blind faith where one steadfastly holds to a set of scriptures without knowing the meaning behind any of the statements contained within. Spirituality is a deep and intricate science which covers all bases of material existence. Religion really means connecting the soul with God; yoga. Dharma is that ever-existing quality or trait that defines something. For us spirit souls, our existence is based off of our relationship with God. Divorced from God, we cannot exist. One may ask, “How can one exist today if they don’t believe in God? “ The answer is that simple forgetfulness of the Supreme Lord and His powers is not enough to be divorced from Him. Though one may be unaware of the existence of God, it does not mean that they are separated from Him. In this regard, we see that dharma doesn’t change.
Though dharma is eternal, or sanatana, the magnitude of one’s adherence to it can certainly vary. Those who are well aware of their relationship to God as servant always remain on the righteous path and thus ensure that all actions are performed in accordance with dharma. Others, however, who make their own path in life, tread the road of adharma, or irreligion. The term dharma sounds nice, but what does it actually mean? What does it mean to connect with God all the time? To shed light on the subject, the Vedas introduce the concepts of varna and ashrama. Though we are all equal in a spiritual sense, upon assuming a material body, we inherit different qualities. Influenced by these qualities, we develop a penchant to perform some type of work. Not everyone wants to perform the same work. Some want to be government leaders, some want to engage in fighting and gambling, others are interested in business, and there are still others who are quite content with offering menial service to the rest of society.
These four divisions exist naturally, for even in the most secular of societies we see that there are people who engage in each one of these activities. The Vedic concept is that instead of artificially renouncing the reality of diversity in hopes of a Utopian idea of equality of outcomes, we should embrace these differences. More than just welcoming the varieties of work performed, we should dovetail this work with spiritual life. This is where ashrama comes in. Every person should engage in their occupational duties, but at the same time, advance in spiritual life. What does advancing spiritually mean? The aim is that one should gradually work their way towards realizing the fact that they are not their body.
At first glance, this idea seems silly. “If I am not my body, then what am I? All I know is my body.” It is for this reason that the understanding of aham brahmasmi, or “I am a spirit soul”, takes a lifetime of study and spiritual endeavor to understand. Therefore the scientific system of societal maintenance passed down by the Vedas advises that one gradually progress through the four ashramas of life. In the beginning stages, we should humbly submit ourselves to a spiritual master. Living as a celibate student, we can take in spiritual wisdom in an unfettered environment where we don’t have to worry about maintaining a job and family. When we reach adulthood, we can get married and thus gain a partner in our religious efforts. A religiously inclined wife is referred to as a sadharma-charini in Sanskrit, a term which references the fact that the wife is the performer of religious duties along with her husband. After many years of family life, we can retire from our job and focus more on connecting with God. After a few years of retired family life, we should finally renounce everything and make spirituality our full-time occupation. This will prepare us for our impending death. If we have the right consciousness at the time of death, we can immediately ascend to the imperishable and eternally existing spiritual world, where we can have loving association with the Supreme Lord in His personal form.
“Whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the four varnas laid out in the Vedas, and more specifically the shudras. As mentioned before, in any society there will be people who are quite content doing manual labor and offering service to others. In Vedic terminology, this group is known as the shudra class. In India, this word “shudra” has become taboo in a sense; it is considered an epithet for low-class people. It should not be considered as such because the word shudra actually has a deeper meaning. Shudra means someone who is untrained in any religious discipline. It is this characteristic that makes one a candidate for performing simple labor.
Just because someone takes to manual labor as an occupation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a shudra. Nor does one’s family heritage determine their caste either. The system of varnashrama-dharma is very scientific and it is completely based on one’s qualities. In the original system, a person belonged to the higher classes [brahmana, kshatriya and vaishya] after they were initiated by a spiritual master, or a brahmana guru. This initiation only took place after a brahmana judged the qualities of a student. If a student had a proclivity towards higher learning and studying Vedic literature, he would be trained as a brahmana. If a person had an inclination towards fighting and providing protection to others, they would be trained as a kshatriya. Similarly, if a student took a liking to business, agriculture, and cow protection, they would be trained as a vaishya.
The shudras would never receive training from a guru since they were considered not intelligent enough to understand the duties of the higher castes. This doesn’t mean that simply because a person’s father was a shudra that they would be automatically deemed unintelligent. The spiritual master would judge a person’s qualities and then determine their caste. As time went on, the practice degraded to the point where people began claiming higher caste status simply off birthright. This degraded caste system is still practiced in parts of India, though it is not in line with Vedic principles.
“Kalau shudra-sambhavah: in the age of Kali, everyone is born a shudra.”
Since a shudra is anyone who is untrained in any Vedic discipline, we all assume this designation at birth, and it remains with us until we are given a spiritual education. A shudra has one other noticeable characteristic: they easily lament. What do they lament over? Things pertaining to the body. This includes death, the loss of money, bad fortune, etc. Since our identities ultimately come from the soul residing within, lamenting over things relating to the body is considered unnecessary.
One may wonder what is wrong with grieving over the body. Are we not supposed to be sad if our friends and family members die? Are we not supposed to get bummed out if we lose our job? Are we not supposed to have compassion for the poor? Concern for these things is certainly justified. Of course we will be sad when bad things happen to us or to others, but the wise don’t let these unfortunate events take them off course. The mission in life is to learn about God and use that knowledge to love Him. One cannot truly understand God unless and until they understand who they are. If they remain on the bodily conception of life, taking issues relating to matter to be of utmost importance, they will never understand who they really are.
We are all meant to be God’s servants. This isn’t a forced type of service such as slavery. Pure devotion to God is completely voluntary and results in the highest bliss. God is so kind that He does not force us to love Him. If we want to forget Him and take our bodies to be the beginning and end of everything, He will most certainly allow us to do so. At the same time, those who are forgetful of God are more likely to become depressed when faced with temporary setbacks. It takes a little intelligence to realize that everything relating to matter is temporary. The higher classes of men are trained in the Vedic discipline, so they are taught to persevere through the tough times. We may live a comfortable life, with a nice salary and a nice home, but these things can be taken away in a second. As we’ve seen over the course of history, economic conditions can fluctuate very quickly in a country. One minute there is an economic boom and the next over ten percent of the population is unemployed. Our wonderful life, with all our nice relationships, can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
It is the duty of those who are trained in the Vedic discipline, the higher castes, to set a good example for the rest of society. When they hit upon hard times, they should remain firm and steady in their execution of dharma, for the rest of society will follow their lead. If our leaders exhibit the qualities of shudras, whereby they easily lament over issues relating to the material body, then the rest of society will follow suit. This will result in a condition where all the citizens will be constantly in distress and always on edge. The leaders must be of topmost character and highly perseverant.
This was the lesson taught by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, the Supreme Absolute Truth Himself appeared on earth in the guise of a human being. Since God is Absolute, when He makes a personal appearance on earth, everything relating to Him remains completely spiritual. So even though Rama appeared in the guise of a kshatriya warrior, His body was completely blissful and full of knowledge. God doesn’t appear on earth just for His own fun, but rather to set a good example for future generations. Not only can we learn from God’s activities, but we can take delight in them as well. Just as we like to watch television shows and movies to see our favorite actors in action, God performs wonderful pastimes for the benefit of future generations who will read about His activities in the great Vedic texts.
Lord Rama wanted to set a good example of how one should always follow the path of dharma. As a member of the kshatriya caste, Rama’s duty was to serve as a leader in society. Yet since He was in the guise of a human being, He also wanted to show how human beings must endure tragedy and calamity. On one occasion, Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped from the forest. Rama and Lakshmana went looking for her but couldn’t find her. Rama loved Sita very much; she was a true sadharma-charini. The trio was in the forest due to an exile punishment handed out by Rama’s father, the King of Ayodhya. Sita and Lakshmana easily could have stayed back in Ayodhya, but they refused to let Rama suffer alone.
Since His wife was kidnapped, Rama felt like a failure. He failed to perform His duty as a husband of providing complete protection to His wife. After searching for a while, Rama gave way to lamentation. He became sad and then angry to the point where He was ready to destroy the whole world as an act of revenge. Lakshmana, Rama’s wonderful younger brother, took this opportunity to offer some sound words of advice. In the above referenced statement, he says that even if Sita were dead, Rama still shouldn’t lament in such a way.
This may seem a little odd at first. A person’s wife being kidnapped and killed is most certainly a cause for great distress. Who wouldn’t be greatly saddened by such a tragedy? Yet Lakshmana’s statements were completely accurate. One of the most famous books of the Vedic tradition is the Bhagavad-gita, which is known as the Song of God. In the Gita, Lord Krishna, God Himself, personally appears on earth and delivers a wonderful dissertation on the meaning of life and the difference between matter and spirit to His cousin and disciple, Arjuna. This talk was delivered on the battlefield of Kurukshetra just prior to the commencement of a great war. At the time, Arjuna was hesitant to fight because he didn’t want his cousins and other family members, who were fighting for the opposition, to die.
“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bg. 2.11)
In His opening statements, Lord Krishna emphasized the fact that grieving over the material body is not wise. The learned never rejoice nor lament the condition of others, for they understand that there is an equality shared amongst all living entities due to the fact that every living being has a spirit soul residing within. This soul can never be destroyed no matter what is done to the body. From the passage above, we see that thousands of years prior to Krishna’s advent, Lakshmana possessed this very same knowledge. This illustrates the potency of the varnashrama-dharma system when it is properly implemented. Not only did Lakshmana understand these higher truths, but so did all the kshatriyas and brahmanas of the time.
In the end, Lord Rama would heed Lakshmana’s advice and continue His search for Sita. Eventually Rama would march to Lanka and take on Sita’s captor, Ravana, face to face. After a wonderful battle, Ravana would be defeated and Sita would be rescued. The lesson here is that we should try to understand Vedic knowledge by humbly submitting ourselves before a bona fide spiritual master. The great Vaishnava saints have left volumes upon volumes of written instruction. If we have the desire to understand God, we should take the necessary steps to reconnect with Him. We should elevate ourselves from the status of shudras and try to come to a higher understanding.
Whatever bad fortune comes our way, we should not let it divert us from the path of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. This is the highest religious system. Even if we are unable to understand higher concepts of spiritual life, we can all take to devotional service by simply chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By keeping ourselves always connected with God, we can be sure that lamentation will never take us off the righteous path. Following Rama and Lakshmana’s example, we can sleigh the demon of ignorance and finally achieve true enlightenment; love for God.
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