CASTE SYSTEM IN INDIA – A REPLY.
On page 139 of this Journal of September there is published a letter from Mr. R. Shunmukha Mudaliyar which raises some important points for consideration. They are of course those which the orthodox ordinarily put forth whenever an attempt at introducing a reasonable reform into the society is made. He says, "The caste system in India is a practical result going on in harmony with the religious progress or evolution." The caste system that we see at present in existence is no doubt the result of the working of the system for several centuries past. But can it be contended that it grew as a consequence of the growth of religiosity? It is something quite different from that which was set down by the great sages. It has only the mere form, without the spirit, of the ideal caste system preached to us by the several lawgivers. If the form can be taken as supplying the place of the spirit and if both can be regarded as one and the same the existing system may severe us well. But the spirit is something quite distinct from form and the latter has to be modified or sometime transformed as every new phase of the spirit comes into play, suiting the needs of the times. It is in this light that all our sacred books have been interpreted by thinkers both ancient and modern. In the first article on 'The Sudra and the Sastra'*, [* Vide pp. 31-37 in July Number of this Journal – Ed. L.T] the writer has quoted, from the celebrated commentary of Sankara on the Gita, a passage wherein the rationale of the caste system has been explained by the great preacher. Tested by the criterion laid down there, there will be no difficulty in understanding that the system is not what it ought to be and unless it is thoroughly modified, it is agreed on all hands, that it is becoming obstructive to all progress. Among the moderns Svami Vivekananda who has been quoted in the article in question, the Hon. Mr. G. K. Gokhale, and recently the Hon. Mr. Justice Sankaran Nair have spoken to the same effect.
When it is said that Mr. Chamberlain dined with royalty, it is meant to be conveyed that royalty has recognized merit even in a man of a caste which in India we call degraded and vile. If it can be claimed for the caste system that it allows merit to have its due place in society there will be no cause for complaint against it. Whether the progress is spiritual or otherwise the ground principle ought to be the recognition of merit wherever found, or the system where such recognition is not existing is bound to collapse as it will be the case with the caste system if it does not take care to mend itself. Recognition of merit leads men to more exertion on their part and exertion if properly put forth makes way for progress. One is at a loss to know if dining with royalty prevents a man from thinking with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa or Saint Tayumanavar. We have read in some of our sacred books that some of our greatest sages whom we revere even today are the recipients of boundless hospitality from kings and it cannot be said for a moment that their spirituality has in any way become lessened. It is only merit, inborn capacity that makes a man great either spiritually or otherwise. Mere dining sinks into insignificance before this great moral law. Spirituality is no doubt the end and sociology or caste system are all means to that end. Dining with royalty after all means recognition of merit. If recognition of merit can be taken as conveying that the means and the end are equal then there is a wide gulf between the writer of the article as it is understood and the critic and it is not Justice to argue that royalty is vying with Divinity in its real sense. It is possible to conceive of instances where a soul can stand 'on the highest rung of the ladder' both socially and spiritually at the same time. The one status does not at all make anybody ineligible for the other. The only consideration is that he who is in a position to become spiritually advanced would not care to work up his material elevation. However there are examples of personages who are both socially and spiritually great. Rama and Janaka were such and are regarded as having taken birth in this world for the sake of humanity.
Mr. Mudaliyar raises the question of inter-dining in the course of his letter. Sastras allowed inter dining somewhat freely among the first three castes. Those members are called the twice-born. But even among the Sudras, there were a few from whom a Bramana was permitted to take food.
Parasara who wrote his code fro the Kaliyuga laid down: "A Brahmana can safely partake of the boiled rice of a Dasa, Napita, Gopala, Kulamitra, and Ardhasiri among Sudras as well as that of one who has resigned himself to his care." But the practice was allowed to fall into desuetude in later times.
Animal diet is another of the question raised. One, cannot understand how, if 'addicted to animal diet,' men cannot 'agree and think of the Supreme Siva successfully'. There is nothing to prevent a man whether a flesh-eater or vegetarian from contemplating on the Supreme self. The Aryan were once flesh-eaters. Perhaps at the time when Vedas and Upanishats had been composed, there is reason to believe, that flesh eating must have been common. Manu and other legislators intervened and restricted the use of meat to sacrifices and Sraddhas. Yajnawalkya says, "The departed manes become gratified with … fish, venison, mutton, meat of birds, goat, spotted antelope Ena (deer), Ruru (deer), boar (pork) and have successively for one month more. The meat of rhinoceros, and of fish having large scales…the meat of black goat…is said to yield un-ending fruits; there is no doubt (Ch. I-258-261)." Gradually there was a re-action in favor of vegetables diet pure and simple and when Parasara wrote the first three twice-born castes and a few sects among the Sudras had become vegetarians. Probably the change was due to the benevolent teachings of Buddha. Vegetarianism is also now making progress in some of the Western countries and its spread is due partly to the fact that animal life should be treated with tenderness and, partly to the growing recognition that it helps intellectual and spiritual growth. But whatever it is vegetarianism is steadily growing as it did in ancient times. However, that is no reason why those who are addicted to vegetarianism should dissociate themselves from those who are not and think it necessary that one should be a pure vegetarian in order to deserve social equality with them. Vegetarianism is not an unknown thing even among the lowest castes. There are days among them when a purely Vegetable meal is religiously taken. Hence, there will be no difficulty in instituting a inter dining on a vegetable basis provided the superior castes are willing to move.
C. A. N.