The caste system in ancient India

The ancient Chaturvarnya must not be judged by its later
disintegrated degeneration and gross meaningless parody, the
caste system. But neither was it precisely the system of the classes
which we find in other civilisations, priesthood, nobility, merchant
class and serfs or labourers. It may have had outwardly
the same starting-point, but it was given a very different revealing
significance. The ancient Indian idea was that man falls
by his nature into four types. There are, first and highest, the
man of learning and thought and knowledge; next, the man of
power and action, ruler, warrior, leader, administrator; third in
the scale, the economic man, producer and wealth-getter, the
merchant, artisan, cultivator: these were the twice-born, who
received the initiation, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya. Last came
the more undeveloped human type, not yet fit for these steps of
the scale, unintellectual, without force, incapable of creation or
intelligent production, the man fit only for unskilled labour and
menial service, the Shudra. The economic order of society was
cast in the form and gradation of these four types. The Brahmin
class was called upon to give the community its priests, thinkers,
men of letters, legists, scholars, religious leaders and guides. The
Kshatriya class gave it its kings, warriors, governors and administrators.
The Vaishya order supplied it with its producers,
agriculturists, craftsmen, artisans, merchants and traders. The
Shudra class ministered to its need of menials and servants. As
far as this went, there was nothing peculiar in the system except
its extraordinary durability and, perhaps, the supreme position
given to religion, thought and learning, not only at the top of
the scale,—for that can be paralleled from one or two other
civilisations,—but as the dominant power. The Indian idea in
its purity fixed the status of a man in this order not by his
birth, but by his capacities and his inner nature, and, if this rule
had been strictly observed, that would have been a very clear
mark of distinctness, a superiority of a unique kind. But even
the best society is always something of a machine and gravitates
towards the material sign and standard, and to found truly the
social order upon this finer psychological basis would have been
in those times a difficult and vain endeavour. In practice we find
that birth became the basis of the Varna. It is elsewhere that we
must look for the strong distinguishing mark which has made
of this social structure a thing apart and sole in its type.
At no time indeed was the adherence to the economic rule
quite absolute. The early ages show a considerable flexibility
which was not quite lost in the process of complex crystallisation
into a fixed form. And even in the greater rigidity of the
latter-day caste system there has been in practice a confusion
of economic functions. The vitality of a vigorous community
cannot obey at every point the indications of a pattern and
tradition cut by the mechanising mind. Moreover there was
always a difference between the ideal theory of the system and
its rougher unideal practice. For the material side of an idea
or system has always its weaknesses even in its best times, and
the final defect of all systems of this kind is that they stiffen
into a fixed hierarchy which cannot maintain permanently its
purity or the utility it was meant to serve. It becomes a soulless
form and prolongs itself in a state of corruption, degeneracy
or oppressive formalism when the uses that justified it are no
longer in existence. Even when its ways can no longer be made
consistent with the developing needs of the growth of humanity,
the formal system persists and corrupts the truth of life and
blocks progress. Indian society did not escape this general law;
it was overtaken by these deficiencies, lost the true sense of the
thing which it set out to embody and degenerated into a chaos of
castes, developing evils which we are now much embarrassed to
eliminate. But it was a well-devised and necessary scheme in its
time; it gave the community the firm and nobly built stability it
needed for the security of its cultural development,—a stability
hardly paralleled in any other culture. And, as interpreted by the
Indian genius, it became a greater thing than a mere outward
economic, political and social mechanism intended to serve the
needs and convenience of the collective life.
For the real greatness of the Indian system of the four varnas
did not lie in its well-ordered division of economic function;
its true originality and permanent value was in the ethical and
spiritual content which the thinkers and builders of the society
poured into these forms. This inner content started with the
idea that the intellectual, ethical and spiritual growth of the
individual is the central need of the race. Society itself is only the
necessary framework for this growth; it is a system of relations
which provides it with its needed medium, field and conditions
and with a nexus of helpful influences. A secure place had to
be found in the community for the individual man from which
he could at once serve these relations, helping to maintain the
society and pay it his debt of duty and assistance, and proceed
to his own self-development with the best possible aid from the
communal life. Birth was accepted in practice as the first gross
and natural indicator; for heredity to the Indian mind has always
ranked as a factor of the highest importance: it was even taken
in later thought as a sign of the nature and as an index to the
surroundings which the individual had prepared for himself by
his past soul-development in former existences. But birth is not
and cannot be the sole test of Varna. The intellectual capacity
of the man, the turn of his temperament, his ethical nature,
his spiritual stature, these are the important factors. There was
erected therefore a rule of family living, a system of individual
observance and self-training, a force of upbringing and education
which would bring out and formulate these essential things.
The individualman was carefully trained in the capacities, habits
and attainments, and habituated to the sense of honour and duty
necessary for the discharge of his allotted function in life.He was
scrupulously equipped with the science of the thing he had to
do, the best way to succeed in it as an interest, artha, and to
attain to the highest rule, canon and recognised perfection of its
activities, economic, political, sacerdotal, literary, scholastic or
whatever else theymight be. Even the most despised pursuits had
their education, their law and canon, their ambition of success,
their sense of honour in the discharge and scruple of well-doing,
their dignity of a fixed standard of perfection, and it was because
they had these things that even the lowest and least attractive
could be in a certain degree a means of self-finding and ordered
self-satisfaction. In addition to this special function and training
there were the general accomplishments, sciences, arts, graces of
life, those which satisfy the intellectual, aesthetic and hedonistic
powers of human nature. These in ancient India were many
and various, were taught with minuteness, thoroughness and
subtlety and were available to all men of culture.

VOLUME 20
THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO P 171-173

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