The crisis in our religious and social life that we are often face to face with indicates the need for going to first principles. That untouchability exists in spite of legislation against it is a fact—a degrading and saddening fact—which must be faced. No one can deny that change and reform are overdue; but we must first seek for the philosophical basis of untouchability. Nothing can come out of nothing, and the most debasing and gross forms of life and caricatures of some reality or fact in Nature.
Untouchability is not peculiar to India alone. In one form or another, it exists almost everywhere. It may have an ethnic source; the racial discrimination that exists in some countries is a brand of untouchability. The fight for racial equality goes on, and here, too, legislation alone has not been able to solve the problem. Or its source may be vocational; certain professions in life are regarded as low, bring less earnings compared to other professions, and those engaged in them are looked down upon. A charwoman and those whom she serves do not enjoy the same socio-economic status. Social clubs are a standing manifestation of this type of untouchability—there are commercial clubs and clubs for gentlemen!
Racial and vocational untouchability is not based on religious considerations. In India, it has been given a religious basis, which in reality does not exist. If a religion sanctions unbrotherly treatment of one section of human beings by another, then that religion cannot be true. The very function of true religion is to unite man to man and to uphold the Ideal of Brotherhood, for as Souls, immortal and divine, all are but aspects of the One Self. True religion teaches man to look upon all other men as Souls, and all honest labour as sacred, and it cannot support the degradation and the crime of untouchability. The claim that Hinduism sanctions untouchability is most false—not true Hinduism at any rate.
The significant question is—by what process has the curse of untouchability arisen? It results as a residue when castes, instead of serving the purpose they were meant to serve, function on a wrong basis of competition and exploitation. It should be noted that castes, too, are a universal phenomenon. They have been known as classes in Western society. Class struggle is but another phase of the same problem. While the division of castes is based on religious beliefs, religious prejudices and religious misunderstanding, the division of classes is based on social beliefs, social prejudices and social misunderstandings. The struggle between the capitalist-ruler and the working-man has been no less acute than the struggle between the high-caste and the low-caste.
To seek the philosophical basis of castes, classes, and all divisions in human society, we must understand that in the human kingdom diversity persists as naturally as in the other kingdoms. Castes and classes, communities and races, have a basis in Nature herself. They are produced by the urge of the evolutionary process. The course of that urge is from within outwards; that is, the creative urge rises at the centre and spreads to the circumference. This spreading is manifestation, which our ancient philosophers named Prabhava. Hence manifestation necessarily means differentiation and diversity. The One Principle of Unifersal Life starting to manifest or expand from a central point becomes heterogeneous in its countless expressions. Creation is expansion of the will-force of Spirit or Purusha, and we call it the Brahma aspect. What has emerged or what is created is preserved by the Vishnu aspect of Spirit. The change, disintegration and destruction which recreates and regenerates is the Shiva aspect of Spirit. Thus Purusha by its triple activity keeps the different kingdoms of Nature going, cycle after cycle, age after age, replacing one type with another. For example, the animal monsters of past yugas are no more, but their transformations exist today. The human giants of earlier races are extinct, but their transformations are to be found in our day. Castes and classes are no longer recognized as the religious and spiritual institutions they were meant to be in an age when true Religion prevailed, but have degenerated into socio-economic institutions because ours is the Age of Iron, the dark Kali Yuga, and our civilization is made and ruled by the machine and by rupees, pounds or dollars. Thus, philosophically examined, we can see that the grouping arrangement of Nature persists in all her kingdoms, including human.
All thinking men recognize that castes have had their day and that they must cease to exist in their present form. But the grouping arrangement of Nature cannot be destroyed; it should be utilized. It is precisely in using it along right lines that Harmony and Brotherhood can be established.
There is only one way in which the problem of castes as of classes can be solved. For centuries men have fought for their "rights." The problem of distinctions and divisions will not be solved till the ideal of duty or dharma, the property of the Soul within, is substituted for rights wrested from without. Let each individual fulfil his own dharma, discharge his own responsibility, and thereby serve not only his own caste or class, but all his fellow beings, irrespective of any distinctions. The only nobility and superiority recognized from the spiritual point of view is that of the Soul and is rooted in the intrinsic value of one's own character and inner perception. No caste is superior or inferior, any more than one colour is superior or inferior to another.
The curse of untouchability arose in India and brought about the degradation of the country because the profoundly true and profoundly practical teachings of the Gita were disregarded. Another wonderful opportunity came to India when two thousand five hundred years ago the Great Buddha exposed the absolute fallacy of castes by birth and heredity. India did not listen. When she did, as during the reign of King Asoka, then peace and glory surrounded her. Modern India is determined to do away with the evil, yet is encountering opposition from vested interests. No truly religious thinker can support the idea of maintaining the status quo in this matter. Not only India, but the world as a whole is ripening for the practice of dharma as taught by Krishna and by Buddha.
What is dharma? It is the Law of Life in every kingdom. It is the dharma of the fire to burn; it is the dharma of the water to find its level; it is the dharma of the flower to open and of the fruit to ripen. Dharma is the right expression of the inner properties of life. It is a magnificent word, this word dharma, and it throws a flood of light on the subject of human duties, human religion, human progress. Its teachings are of universal application.
We must relate the ideal of dharma to the existence of castes. The Gita says that castes, four in number, exist in the human kingdom as a grouping of Nature. And these four castes arise from Gunas and Karma. Not our birth or the prefession of our fathers, but our own inner disposition and our own actions assign to each one of us his or her caste. Verses 41-45 or the Eighteenth Discourse of the Gita should be studied very carefully:
Making a practical application of this, we shall find that many Brahmanas are only Brahmanas in name; most of them are Vaishyas making money, and poor "Vaishyas at that, for they hoard wealth and their charity itself is a bargain. According to one's own inner property of the Soul is one a Brahmana, a Vaishya, a Kshatriya, or a Shudra. And there is no fifth caste! All are Hindus, all are Harijans, the people of the Great God Hari, and each belongs to one of the four castes in terms of his inner character and his outward behaviour and service. The Gita teaching on caste, as also what is said on the subject in the other true Shastras, needs to be popularized and practised.
These words of Yudhishthira in the Vanaparva of the Mahabharata should be noted:
In the Vishnu-Bhagavata we read:
And this is what Manu Smriti has to say:
So that is the first principle. True caste-marks are marks of conduct. From this fundamental principle most naturally follows the second—by changing one's own character one automatically changes one's own Soul caste. It is possible by the performance of right dharma to grow and evolve from glory to glory. All of us have this solemn duty, and at least a few of us can begin to practise it.
What is that dharma? Each one of us is an untouchable, because who among us is free from disobedience to Nature's laws, from impurity of heart or mind, from fears of a hundred kinds, from selfishness and greed of one sort or another? Let us remove the untouchability in us. We are each one of us a Shudra, and a Vaishya, and Kshatriya, as well as a Brahmana. We are not perfect, but through right dharma, by eliminating our vices and by strengthening our virtues, we move towards perfection. As Shudras, each one of us must remove the sin of disobedience to the voice of conscience, and not only the blemish of negligence. As Vaishyas, each one of us must learn not only to guard against the blemish of speculation and loss, but also to remove the sin of dishonesty. As Kshatriyas, each one of us must kill the sin of cowardice even though many fears possess us. As Brahmanas, each one of us should remove the blemish of ignorance, but not neglect to eradicate the vice of impurity. Let us develop the virtue of efficiency and skill and become true Shudras; the virtue of charity and become true Vaishyas; the virtue of courage and become true Kshatriyas; the virtue of sacrifice and become true Brahmanas. Thus will we make ourselves in the copy of the Great Purusha, the radiant, blazing Divinity of whom the Purusha-Sukta hymn sings.
Let us willingly give up what we regard as our caste rights and privileges, and joyfully take up our duties and responsibilities. Let us begin to practise true charity of mind and of heart in our own sphere. Let us treat all we come in contact with, with soul-understanding, looking upon all men as our brothers, all women as our sisters. Let the children at school learn to regard all other children as co-pupils, comrades and friends. Let those who have servants in their homes treat them with understanding, trying to educate them and to teach them better modes of living, thus raising them to better conditions. Let the men in their offices and clubs judge merit in terms of honesty, of efficiency and capacity, and not in terms of caste or wealth distinctions. And let all who are happy remember the unhappy! The more we know and the more we have, the greater our responsibility to those who know less and have less. The true Brahmana is he who devotes himself to the truly disinterested service of others, who consecrates his life to teach and help his fellow men. All of us must prepare ourselves for that service in the future, and the best preparation lies in opening our hearts to the misery of the depressed, the submerged, the poor and the ignorant. The problem, their degradation are our problem and our degradation.