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Article CI: Gender and Caste in Vedanta

"Ay, let every man and woman and child, without respect of caste or birth, weakness or strength, hear and learn that behind the strong and the weak, behind the high and the low, behind everyone, there is that Infinite Soul, assuring all the infinite possibility and the infinite capacity to become great and good. Let us proclaim to every soul: Arise, arise, awake! Awake from this hypnotism of weakness. None is really weak; the soul is infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient. Stand up, assert yourself, proclaim the God within you, do not deny Him!" Swami Vivekananda (Extracts from 'The Mission of the Vedanta' -- Return to India, Vivekananda A Biography, By Swami Nikhilananda)

The roles of gender and caste in Hinduism are often criticized. However, Vedanta philosophy applies to all regardless of gender or caste. Furthermore, the modern notion of caste may not be at all related to the descriptions given in the Bhagavad Gita and the Rig Veda, among other scriptures. Misinterpretation of scriptural verse allowed for the degeneration of the original philosophy, and the British occupation of India may have exacerbated the situation.

"Today, people think that the rigid caste system operated in India is the result of ancient requirements of religion. But just how much of this rigidity was due to their religion? Or how much was it due to a conscious direction by the British to create artificial divisions in order to make it easier to divide and rule the sub-continent and its people?" For more information, review the full article by Kevin Hobson, published in the London Times -

"The fourfold caste (varna) has been created by Me according to the differentiation of attributes (gunas) and actions (karma)" -- Bhagavad Gita 4:13. The Gita indicates here that each individual represents a combination of attributes (gunas) and actions (karma), which can be described by caste (varna), meaning shade of texture. From a Vedantic standpoint, one may identify and utilize one's attributes, in order to best orient oneself with dharma. By ideally utilizing one's attributes to perform dharma, one can best be aligned with the Divine within, to ascend toward enlightenment.

Although sources such as the Manu Smriti might indicate otherwise, Vedantins assert that caste is not determined by heredity. In his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (4:13), Swami Yogananda writes, "In India certain powerful religious leaders among the Brahmins - not unlike the Pharisees in the time of Christ - arranged to base the caste system entirely on heredity to suit their own despotic purposes. For a long time the general masses fell prey to the theory that the vocation of priest or warrior or businessman or laborer should be determined according to heredity, and not according to innate tastes or abilities... This accursed hereditary view of caste always has been condemned by wise swamis, yogis, and other enlightened men of India... It is therefore pure ignorance to classify castes according to heredity... Each man, the reincarnation of an ego with various personal traits and instincts, born in a family whose characteristics may be quite foreign to him, should be allowed to pursue the work most congenial to him."

Swami Chinmayananda's commentary includes, "The decadent Hindu-Brahmin found it very convenient to quote the first quarter of the stanza, and repeat "I CREATED THE FOUR VARNAS", and give this tragic social vivisection a divine look having a godly sanction. They, who did this, were in fact, the greatest blasphemers that Hinduism ever had to reckon with." His disciple, Swami Atmananda writes that, "No one is of low or high caste by birth. It is his actions which makes him high or low... Caste system is basically a highly psychological and perfect system to discern the field of ones work as per one's inclinations and disposition. What we see around has no scriptural sanction."

In 1896, Ralph T.H. Griffith translated Rig Veda (X.90.12) as "The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced." With efforts to address etymological origins of each word and sound, Shyam Ghosh translates the same verses as, "That which made it expand (open its mouth) was the cause, the means (arms) crated for it (to advance) was the light, that which made its pervasion possible was space (the area around), and then with its descent on earth, was produced the conscious being." Ghosh further writes, "Unfortunately, subtle thoughts expressed in figurative language (as in most other verses of this Veda), were misconceived and later were misinterpreted by some interested parties to justify the caste system in India. The words used here have no bearing at all to present-day Brahmanas and Sudras -- in fact, we are all Sudras according to this rsi."

Misunderstanding and misinterpretation may have created the modern system of caste based on heredity. Exploitation of such misconceptions has led to much conflict over time. Nonetheless, the scriptural intent of caste, or varna, can still be appreciated in that one may ideally utilize one's innate attributes to ideally follow the path of dharma to enlightenment.

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