The Stations of Life (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

People are different. The point of caste is the natural differences in dispositions that put people into classes as seers, administrators, producers, and followers. Insofar as caste has come to mean rigidity, exclusiveness, and undeserved privilege, Hindus today are working to clear the corruption from their polity.

People are different—we are back a third time to this cardinal Hindu tenet. We have traced its import for the different paths people should follow toward God, and the different patterns of life appropriate at various stages in the human career. We come now to its implications for the station the individual should occupy in the social order.

People are different. They occupy different stations in the social order.

This brings us to the Hindu concept of caste. On no other score is Hinduism better known or more roundly denounced by the outside world. Caste contains both point and perversion. Everything in the discussion of this subject depends on our ability to distinguish between the two.

Caste has a point but it also is subject to perversion.

How caste arose is one of the confused topics of history. Central, certainly, was the fact that during the second millennium B.C. a host of Aryans possessing a different language, culture, and physiognomy (tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, straight-haired) migrated into India. The clash of differences that followed burgeoned the caste system, if it did not actually create it. The extent to which ethnic differences, color, trade guilds harboring professional secrets, sanitation restrictions between groups with different immunity systems, and magico-religious taboos concerning pollution and purification contributed to the pattern that emerged may never be fully unraveled. In any event the outcome was a society that was divided into four groups: seers, administrators, producers, and followers.

Central to the caste system was the migration of Aryans to India, who possessed a different language, culture, and physiognomy. The outcome was a society that was divided into four groups: seers, administrators, producers, and followers.

Let us record at once the perversions that entered in time, however they originated. To begin with, a fifth group—of outcastes or untouchables—appeared. Even in speaking of this category there are mitigating points to be remembered. In dealing with her lowest social group, India did not sink to slavery as have most civilizations; outcastes who in their fourth stage of life renounced the world for God were regarded as outside social classifications and were revered, even by the highest caste, the brahmins; from Buddha through Dayananda to Gandhi, many religious reformers sought to remove untouchability from the caste system; and contemporary India’s constitution outlaws the institution. Still, the outcaste’s lot through India’s history has been a wretched one and must be regarded as the basic perversion the caste system succumbed to. A second deterioration lay in the proliferation of castes into subcastes, of which there are today over three thousand. Third, proscriptions against intermarriage and inter-dining came to complicate social intercourse enormously. Fourth, privileges entered the system, with higher castes benefiting at the expense of the lower. Finally, caste became hereditary. One remained in the caste into which one was born.

The basic perversion the caste system succumbed to was a fifth group—of outcastes or untouchables. A second deterioration lay in the proliferation of castes into subcastes. Third, proscriptions against intermarriage and inter-dining came to complicate social intercourse enormously. Fourth, privileges entered the system, with higher castes benefiting at the expense of the lower. Finally, caste became hereditary. 

With these heavy counts against it, it may come as a surprise to find that there are contemporary Indians, thoroughly familiar with Western alternatives, who defend caste—not, to be sure, in its entirety, especially what it has become, but in its basic format. What lasting values could such a system possibly contain?

What is called for here is recognition that with respect to the ways they can best contribute to society and develop their own potentialities, people fall into four groups. (1) The first group India called brahmins or seers. Reflective, with a passion to understand and a keen intuitive grasp of the values that matter most in human life, these are civilization’s intellectual and spiritual leaders. Into their province fall the functions our more specialized society has distributed among philosophers, artists, religious leaders, and teachers; things of the mind and spirit are their raw materials. (2) The second group, the kshatriyas, are born administrators, with a genius for orchestrating people and projects in ways that makes the most of available human talents. (3) Others find their vocation as producers; they are artisans and farmers, skillful in creating the material things on which life depends. These are the vaishyas. (4) Finally, shudras, can be characterized as followers or servants. Unskilled laborers would be another name for them. These are people who, if they had to carve out a career for themselves, commit themselves to long periods of training, or go into business for themselves, would founder. Their attention spans are relatively short, which makes them unwilling to sacrifice a great deal in the way of present gains for the sake of future rewards. Under supervision, however, they are capable of hard work and devoted service. Such people are better off, and actually happier, working for others than being on their own. We, with our democratic and egalitarian sentiments, do not like to admit that there are such people, to which the orthodox Hindu replies: What you would like is not the point. The question is what people actually are.

The point of caste is that people naturally have different dispositions that can broadly be categorized  as seers, administrators, producers, and followers.

Few contemporary Hindus defend the lengths to which India eventually went in keeping the castes distinct. Her proscriptions regulating intermarriage, inter-dining, and other forms of social contact made her, in her first prime minister’s wry assessment, “the least tolerant nation in social forms while the most tolerant in the realm of ideas.” Yet even here a certain point lies behind the accursed proliferations. That proscriptions against different castes drinking from the same source were especially firm suggests that differences in immunity to diseases may have played a part. The presiding reasons, however, were broader than this. Unless unequals are separated in some fashion, the weak must compete against the strong across the board and will stand no chance of winning anywhere. Between castes there was no equality, but within each caste the individual’s rights were safer than if he or she had been forced to fend alone in the world at large. Each caste was self-governing, and in trouble one could be sure of being tried by one’s peers. Within each caste there was equality, opportunity, and social insurance.

There are perversions of caste that need not be defended, but castes did serve to prevent competition among unequals. Also, differences in immunity to diseases may have played a part in certain social proscriptions. 

Inequalities between the castes themselves aimed for due compensation for services rendered. The well-being of society requires that some people assume, at the cost of considerable self-sacrifice, responsibilities far beyond average. While most young people will plunge early into marriage and employment, some must postpone those satisfactions for as much as a decade to prepare themselves for demanding vocations. The wage earner who checks out at five o’clock is through for the day; the employer must take home the ever-present insecurities of the entrepreneur, and often homework as well. The question is partly whether employers would be willing to shoulder their responsibilities without added compensation, but also whether it would be just to ask them to do so. India never confused democracy with egalitarianism. Justice was defined as a state in which privileges were proportionate to responsibilities. In salary and social power, therefore, the second caste, the administrators, rightly stood supreme; in honor and psychological power, the brahmins. But only (according to the ideal) because their responsibilities were proportionately greater. In precise reverse of the European doctrine that the king could do no wrong, the orthodox Hindu view came very near to holding that the shudras, the lowest caste, could do no wrong, its members being regarded as children from whom not much should be expected. Classical legal doctrine stipulated that for the same offense “the punishment of the Vaishya [producer] should be twice as heavy as that of the shudra, that of the kshatriya [administrator] twice as heavy again, and that of the brahmin twice or even four times as heavy again.” In India the lowest caste was exempt from many of the forms of probity and self-denial that the upper castes were held to. Its widows might remarry, and proscription against meat and alcohol were less exacting.

Justice is a state in which privileges are proportionate to responsibilities. Democracy should not be confused with egalitarianism. Responsibilities, self-sacrifices, rewards and punishments should naturally be much greater for higher castes than for the lower castes. 

Stated in modern idiom, the ideal of caste emerges something like this: At the bottom of the social scale is a class of routineers—domestics, factory workers, and hired hands—who can put up with an unvaried round of duties but who, their self-discipline being marginal, must punch time clocks if they are to get in a day’s work, and who are little inclined to forego present gratification for the sake of long-term gains. Above them is a class of technicians. Artisans in preindustrial societies, in an industrial age they are the people who understand machines, repair them, and keep them running. Next comes the managerial class. In its political wing it includes party officials and elected representatives; in its military branch, officers and chiefs-of-staff; in its industrial arm, entrepreneurs, managers, board members, and chief executive officers.

At the bottom of the social scale is the class who are little inclined to forego present gratification for the sake of long-term gains. 

If, however, society is to be not only complex but good, if it is to be wise and inspired as well as efficient, there must be above the administrators—in esteem but not in pay, for one of the defining marks of this class must lie in its indifference to wealth and power—a fourth class, which in our specialized society would include religious leaders, teachers, writers, and artists. Such people are rightly called seers in the literal sense of this word, for they are the eyes of the community. As the head (administrators) rests on the body (laborers and technicians), so the eyes are placed at the top of the head. Members of this class must possess enough willpower to counter the egoism and seductions that distort perception. They command respect because others recognize both their own incapacity for such restraint and the truth of what the seer tells them. It is as if the seer sees clearly what other types only suspect. But such vision is fragile; it yields sound discernments only when carefully protected. Needing leisure for unhurried reflection, the seer must be protected from over-involvement in the day-to-day exigencies that clutter and cloud the mind, as a navigator must be free from serving in the galley or stoking in the hold in order to track the stars to keep the ship on course. Above all, this final caste must be protected from temporal power. India considered Plato’s dream of the philosopher king unrealistic, and it is true that when brahmins assumed social power, they became corrupt. For temporal power subjects its wielder to pressures and temptations that to some extent refract judgment and distort it. The role of the seer is not to crack down but to counsel, not to drive but to guide. Like a compass needle, guarded that it may point, the brahmin is to ascertain, then indicate, the true north of life’s meaning and purpose, charting the way to civilization’s advance.

At the top of the social order is the class that must possess enough willpower to counter the egoism and seductions that distort perception. The provide vision and wisdom to the community. They must be indifferent to wealth and power unlike the philosopher king of Plato. They are to ascertain, then indicate, the true north of life’s meaning and purpose, charting the way to civilization’s advance.

Caste, when it has decayed, is as offensive as any other corrupting corpse. Whatever its character at the start, it came in time to neglect Plato’s insight that “a golden parent may have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son, and then there must be a change of rank; the son of the rich must descend, and the child of the artisan rise, in the social scale; for an oracle says ’that the state will come to an end if governed by a man of brass or iron.’” As one of the most thoughtful recent advocates of the basic idea of caste has written, “we may expect that the coming development will differ chiefly in permitting intermarriage and choice or change of occupation under certain conditions, though still recognizing the general desirability of marriage within the group and of following one’s parents’ calling.” Insofar as caste has come to mean rigidity, exclusiveness, and undeserved privilege, Hindus today are working to clear the corruption from their polity. But there remain many who believe that to the problem no country has yet solved, the problem of how society ought to be ordered to insure the maximum of fair play and creativity, the basic theses of caste continue to warrant attention.

Insofar as caste has come to mean rigidity, exclusiveness, and undeserved privilege, Hindus today are working to clear the corruption from their polity.

Up to this point we have approached Hinduism in terms of its practical import. Beginning with its analysis of what people want, we have traced its suggestions concerning the ways these wants might be met and the responses appropriate to various stages and stations of human life. The remaining sections of this chapter shift the focus from practice to theory, indicating the principal philosophical concepts that rib the Hindu religion.

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