The Leader of the country today is known as the “Head of State”. One who leads an organization or a function is said to be “Heading” that area. A Peon on the other hand, is one who was and is still in many countries the lowest in an organization. The word Peon comes from the Medieval Latin word Pedonem which means “Foot Soldier”. This is the world of today – in Modern India and around the world, each and every organization has these two positions (or their equivalent) in some form or the other. In US, the lowest rung of the workers – who do work by hand – are known as the “Blue Collared Workers”. Such people do the manual jobs, often dirty jobs. They contrast with the “White Collared Workers” who work in office environs and work on desk and chairs.
The villain of Caste System in India is said to be Manu. Why? Because he said that Brahmins (the educated and leaders of the society) were the Heads of the Society, and Shudras (the working class – or Blue Collared or Peons) were the Feet. And, rest of the folks were something in-between.
Cutting through the rhetoric of the self-congratulatory “reformers”, is there any difference between the lingo of a Modern Organization / Society and Manusmriti? So, lets just cut the proverbial crap and ask the real question – What is Caste System and and Why did it become so retrograde.
World is divided into 4 types of people
No matter where you go, which time you live in and which geography you are in; you will always find 4 types of people with inherent skill-sets to match. One, the Educated. Second, the Warriors. Third, the Traders and Businessmen. Fourth, the Manual labor. This is an observation and not a normative statement (this is how it should be) so any notions of its prescriptive interpretation should be out of the discussion right away.
No society can escape that.
So, in every society you have “Heads” and you have “Foots .. ooops.. Foot Soldiers”. And the rest of them.
Then, What is the problem?
The issue with Caste or this inherent skillset division is not that it is there. But the issue occurs when there is No Mobility! If, one profession or Skill becomes a hereditary gift, then it shuts the society down.
Why would such a scenario happen? What would create the Barriers of Entry, as Michael Porter may call it?
Access to Freely and fairly available Education.
If Obama did not have access to Harvard Law School, then no matter how good he was, it would have been extremely tough for him to get where he did in the US. In a country like US, of free enterprise and unlimited opportunities, it is a fact that political careers are settled by your lineage as opposed to your greatness. If you are a Bush or a Kennedy or a Clinton now, you will have their political careers on a silver platter for most part. And, these families – specially the newer ones – once established in the highest political echelons, make sure that their progeny get the front row seats of the next political system somehow. These families even have an unfair access to the highest of schools. That’s what the Old Boys network is for. Isn’t it?
The desire to extend your power to your progeny was not the sole preserve of the Medieval Indians. It is present everywhere.
What mitigates such usurping of power by Nepotism is Access to Freely and Fairly available Education at the highest level. In a society where the Higher Education has either been destroyed, destabilized or simply been hijacked by the wealthy, such mitigation is not possible. The Love of the Progeny rules supreme. As is the case in most of the US politics and certainly in Indian politics.
Its the lack of Mobility, Stupid!
That a society has differentiation in skills and specialization is not what is bad. The bad thing is lack of mobility. When, anyone from any background with any level of resources at his/her hand in a society has the ability to reach the top, then the scourge like that of the Caste System cannot happen.
In India most of the Sages, the Highest of Gurus and Teachers of Spiritual sciences were not from any one caste. Valmiki or Ratnakar was a dacoit, Vyasa from a fisherman’s family, Vishwamitra a soldier et al were all great and venerated Sages. The Brahmins of the highest order. Yet, no one received their status as Brahmarishis or Highest Sages in heredity. They all strove and got the necessary realization.
Just because a society has Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, doesn’t make it a retrograde Caste society. A Retrograde Caste society is one where a person from any caste does not have the opportunity to do what s/he likes and is capable of despite the abilities.
Moreover, Spiritual Sciences were never strictly scriptural in nature. In fact, Gurus would create their own independent concoction of their learning methods. And, some were such intense beings, that they really did not need any Guru.
So, if there was any science or knowledge that didn’t strictly need education – it was Spiritual sciences of India. For, it involved Inner Realization. Not outward scholarship!
What killed Mobility?
Taxila or Takshashila was one of greatest center of Learning – Spiritual and Worldly – anywhere in the Ancient world. It was the center of Integrated learning with many disciplines which ran across all the so-called castes. Not just the Spiritual Sciences, but also the crafts and skills as well as military sciences were taught by the best of teachers available anywhere in the country.
The Vedas, the ancient and the most revered Hindu scriptures, and the Eighteen Silpas or Arts, which included skills such as archery, hunting, and elephant lore, were taught, in addition to its law school, medical school, and school of military science. [Radha Kumud Mookerji (2nd ed. 1951; reprint 1989).Ancient Indian Education: Brahmanical and Buddhist(p. 478-489). Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 81-208-0423-6.]
The students came from far flung regions of India to get access to that learning as per their skillset. Kind of like the Harvard of Ancient world. Greats like Chanakya, the greatest surgeon of the Ancient world Charaka, and the great grammarian Panini were products of Takshashila!
It was first attacked by Darius of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 518 BCE. It was again won by Alexander in 326 BCE. Finally, it was destroyed by the Hephthalites from China between 460-470 AD.
The invasions of India continued well into the later centuries with the Islamic invaders coming in with the most ruthless of bloodshed ever unleashed on any populace.
The Islamic invasions of India started in 711 AD with first Umayyad Caliph invading India and then Mohammad Bin Qasim invading India in 712 AD. From 1001 AD, when Mahmud Ghazni attacked India to 1160s when Mohammad Ghori attacked India and took control of the Indian territories of the Ghaznavids to then the Delhi Sultans and ending with the Moghuls – the invasions by the Muslim Arab rulers were noted for their “Total War concept”. Unlike the rules of war prevalent amongst the Indian kingdoms, the Islamic invaders would kill the no-warrior citizens in thousands. Specially, the priest class. They destroyed temples, Ashrams and Universities.
For example, Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed the Nalanda University in 1193. It is said that the library in Nalanda was so vast that it kept burning for 3 months after the invaders set fire to it and ransacked the monasteries and killed the monks in that place.
The indigenous Spiritual sciences suffered the worst blow under the Sultanate Empire and the Mughals. When rampant conversion, killings of the priests, persecution and destruction of temples and Spiritual Centers, along with the Saints and Sages was common. The entire Sikh history – from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh – is, for example, a testament to the aggression and persecution of any Spiritual work outside of Islam.
Imagine US without Its Universities
Now, imagine a scenario where – invaders come to US and destroy the Universities and also ransack the schools. Later, they rule the US and target this education and knowledge as “Impure” and “Satanic”. And, implant their own 6th century culture as the sine qua non of education. And this is not a loony idea. In some ways, if Higher Education becomes too expensive and Barriers to Entry too high, some variant of the scenario recounted below could actually happen in the US and most of the Western world!
Now, continuing with the scenario we started with, it is obvious that those who know the skills and have the knowledge and understand the significance of that knowledge in face of the onslaught of the medieval marauding invaders would transmit that knowledge somehow to keep it alive. Specifically to their own progeny. And, if that knowledge demands strict quality control and includes part of knowledge that could give unusual powers to the knower, it will be strictly controlled via filial connections.
The more experiential the knowledge – where it is not a direct method, but something that requires subjective sciences – then codifying and creating structures would be that much tougher.
Give this scenario 500 years. And you have a strong system of Filial network of knowledge dissemination, where the entry of outsiders is strictly prohibited. Depending on the strictness of the upbringing and strength of the intellect – which can be further enhanced through inbreeding (Gotras – or family lineage – becoming a primary factor of marriage and intermingling), this system can degenerate to a very bad situation.
On one hand, there was an urgency to save the knowledge that had been acquired and worked on by the Sages for thousands and thousands of years in celebrated Ashrams and magnificent Universities. On the other hand, there was the curse of finding the most secure way to not just pass on the knowledge but do it with the requisite quality.
This was specifically important for Occult and Siddha related knowledge.
The cementing of filial structures and destruction of mobility between different skillsets occurred in this period. In the last millennia. Before that, although there were Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras – it was not hereditary, as one had access to a Takshashila to create mobility between skillsets outside of family backgrounds.
Just as – simply because we have a “Head of State” and a Peon in say, British society of today does not mean that if tomorrow the marauding invaders destroyed its educational (and mobility) fabric thus solidifying the filial networks – that today’s Brits were also cursed with a caste system!
Distinct Societal Layers is one thing and Social immobility between them leading to cemented filial skills dictated social system is quite another! Having a (Teacher) Brahman, (Warrior) Kshatriya, (Trader) Vaishya, and a (Blue collared worker) Shudra in a society.. any society is one thing…. and having a system where being a Teacher or a Trader or a Blue collared worker is decided by your lineage is quite another!
Interesting Gem from Ancient India missed in fog of Caste System Bashing
It were not the Traders/Businessmen (as today) or the Politicians/Warriors (since last 1000 years in most of West) – who were the “Heads” of a society in India. Rather, that place was reserved for the Teachers. The Gurus. The Learned Ones or the Brahmins.
Wouldn’t we wish that if mobility between layers is ensured by access to freely available and fair education; every society is also “headed” by the wise and the learned instead of the despotic and the violent?
Featured Image Credit: Asee-Prism / Illustration by Nicola Nittoli