Continued from here.
Coming back to the justifications given by the supporters of Gita, one finds that they are merely based on a few ambiguous individual verses scattered around the Gita. They certainly lack the holistic understanding and message that Gita preaches; let alone the interpretations that have evolved in practice since the period of Gita. More significantly, what these theoretical interpretations display is the ignorance of the nature of the Caste system in everyday practice that has existed for thousands of years.
While one can make a hundred attempts at justifying that Caste as per the Gita is based on Karma alone and it is only meant for the good of society, but it would be a grave mistake to ignore the practical nature of Caste, which is based solely on birth for thousands of years, along with fixity of professions, disallowing of inter-dining and inter-marriages. Caste has not produced any good results for a large majority of the Indian society. It would be foolish to think that the wrong interpretations of a supposedly great text were only opportunistic and coincidental. To take a holistic look at what Gita really preaches, and what justifications its proponents give to its glorification of violence and caste, let us start by asking a few questions:
1. If the Gita tried to give meaning to caste based on Karma alone and undo the birth factor, why did it not explicitly assert that caste/Varna should not be based on birth? Why make ambiguous statements and leave it open to be interpreted wrongly?
2. If caste is based on Karma and Guna (merit/aptitude), what do Karma and Guna exactly mean, according to Gita? Does Karma include deeds, education and skills?
3. Are Karma and Guna acquired in this birth or do they refer to deeds/education/skills i.e., Karma and Guna, acquired in previous births?
4. If deeds decide Varna, then just as deeds can keep changing, why can’t a Varna change?
5. If it is only deeds that determine Varna, why are the atrocities based on Varna justified? Why should the incompetent be tortured and denied basic dignity and love?
6. Why doesn’t Gita acknowledge the scientific and philosophical truth that all human beings are equal? If Buddha being a human could expound on the principle of equality, why Krishna, though being an Avatar of God, could not understand it and did not find any need to preach it to a greater extent?
7. Are all these confusions left like that so that it can be conveniently interpreted to justify any injustice in the name of Varna and Dharma?
8. While division of labor exists all over the world for better efficiency, why did most Hindu scriptures including Gita find it necessary to not just divide labor but also the laborers, the people?
9. Do Gita and Mahabharata, so full of violence and polygamy (of both Men and Women: Draupadi being a wife to five heroes and Kunti, the mother of heroes, having an illegitimate child), really represent Indian culture of vegetarianism and monogamy?
If one goes through the entire mythology, there would be hundred other questions that could be asked, but I would limit myself to the most common and relevant ones in the context of one scripture and the justifications provided in favor of it.
Let us see what answers the defenders can offer. They would surely attempt at least a few of them.
For the first question they would say there is no ambiguity in the verse 4.13, that Karma and Guna determine Varna. Since it does not talk against birth based caste it does not mean it promotes birth-based caste. For example, definition of a sphere is, ‘a perfectly round geometrical object in three-dimensional space, such as the shape of a round ball’. One does not categorically need to say that a sphere is not a square or cube or cone. So if Krishna has already given one basis of Caste, why does the question of other bases come into picture?
This would look like a great argument in the face of critics. But unfortunately this argument does not take into account the entire text of the Gita and other references it makes with respect to Caste. Taking analogies from modern science to justify mythological claims is a very fashionable habit the modern upper castes have developed. But the problem is these are mostly selective, self-satisfying analogies. When Galileo discovered the truth about Earth’s shape, there was a common misconception that Earth was flat and was at the center of the universe with everything revolving around it. He had to defy that logic and fight against the odds of religious dogmas to prove it. Science does not leave any scope for ambiguity and misinterpretations. Scientific claims are such that they cannot be misinterpreted in any way. If there is a scope for something inexplicable, science does accept the limitations of the theory, explicitly states the assumptions made and keeps the scope open for a better theory. Is that the case with mythological claims? Is that the case with Gita’s claims about caste? Is it really a merit based supposedly noble division of society or is it a subtle attempt at justifying an evil that already existed? Take a look at the time period when Gita was written. The ‘caturvarna’, a social order of dividing people into broadly four categories and then further dividing into specific castes already existed at the period when Gita was written. One does not even have to worry about the specific time period that historians would claim, pre-Buddha or post-Buddha. The fact that birth based caste system existed at the time of Gita is evident within the Gita itself!
Chapter 9, Verse 32:
“mam hi partha vyapasritya ye ‘pi syuh papa-yonayah |
striyo vaisyas tatha sudras te ‘pi yanti param gatim ||”
“For finding refuge in Me, even those who though are born of the womb of sin, women, Vaishyas, and Shudras too, reach the supreme goal.”
Isn’t this an utter obscenity and contempt based on birth? On one side Krishna is ridiculing people based on the kind of birth they get, and on other side he is asking them to devote themselves to him in order to achieve salvation. But there are other accounts in Gita where he clarifies that even though one aspires to reach the supreme goal through devotion, he must continue with the duty that he is assigned in this birth, be it trade or be it scavenging. Indeed Krishna discourages any form of changing profession even if one displays an aptitude suitable for other professions when he says ‘para-dharma bhayavaha’. Krishna acknowledges the nature of caste that does not allow a person to do work that is not assigned to him for his entire lifetime. Even Yudhistira has raised questions about inter-mixing of castes due to inter-caste sexual relations. Considering this, it would be fatuous to assume that the birth based caste system that put restrictions on change of profession did not exist. So if the birth based system of caste already existed, and if Krishna did not mean to establish a birth-based system, then why didn’t he clarify this point in greater detail?
The answer is not very difficult if one tries to find out the nature and rules of Karma and Guna that Krishna has spent energy in detailing. Understanding them will show how opportunistic are the interpretations of the ambiguity in the Gita by its supporters. Krishna talks vigorously about Sanchita Karma (Past/accumulated actions) and with no ambiguity claims that Karma of past birth also carries its effects on the present birth and unless one pays for the sins in all the births, there is no salvation. The nature of the caste system envisioned in the Gita becomes clearer, and we realize it conforms to the rigid system that has existed in practice through ages, as we analyze the subject of Karma and Guna in more detail, which we shall do shortly.
Going one step ahead, lets see what else he talks about in Gita.
Chapter 10, Verse 6:
“maharsayah sapta purvecatvaro manavas tatha|
mad-bhava manasa jatayesam loka imah prajah ||”
“The seven great sages and before them the four other great sages and the Manus [progenitors of mankind] come from Me, born from My mind, and all the living beings populating the various planets descend from them.”
There are several other mentions of Manu in Gita where Krishna claims that they have been blessed with his powers and have laid down the details of Religious conduct. When Krishna is talking about conduct and Karma, he is also saying that the Vedas, Smritis and Puranas that detail the worldly rules will always have the authority. He never denies their authority. If throughout Gita Krishna is preaching the authority of the ancient texts of Manu, one has to see what rules has Manu laid down. Exposing the complete inhumanity in Manusmriti would be out of scope of this article, and if one reads even a small portion of it, he is surely to be disgusted by the cruelty and obscenity present in it. For the purpose of this article, I would like to mention only one example to highlight how Caste had to be birth based, which is far more decent compared to the rest of Manu’s thoughts.
According to Manu, if a ‘Sudra’ (lower caste) man has intercourse with ‘Brahman’ woman, the child that is born thereof would be a ‘Chandal’, someone who deals with the disposing of corpses, an outcaste even beyond the system of the four Varnas. What kind of punishments the Sudra father would get are too far beyond the norms of decency even to be mentioned here. While Krishna himself authorizes these texts, what they lay out are rules like this, “Now people here whose conduct is good can expect to quickly attain a pleasant birth, like that of a Brahman, the Kshatriya, or the Vaisya. But people of evil conduct can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig, or a Chandala” (Chandogya Upanishad). How can one imagine that by talking about Karma and Guna, Krishna has not meant the caste system that is birth based, just because he didn’t mention the detailed link of Karma and Guna with birth while talking about them in one place? Gita without any doubt professes a discriminatory caste system, if not, there was no need to authorize the evidently heinous laws of Manu.
Far from being a reformer of caste system, Krishna is actually justifying the evil system in sweetest words. On one side Krishna himself asserts that Karma in this birth causes a person to be born in relevant caste in next life. On the other side, his disciples are now claiming that the misinterpretation that happened for thousands of years that caste is determined by birth and previous life’s deeds is not what Gita meant to say! Krishna is not leaving this ambiguity by chance; all that he is doing is establishing a link between Karma-Birth-Caste, and then subtly dropping the node ‘Birth’ on one occasion.
Rahul Bhalerao is an MBA from IIM Kozhikode, currently working as a Consultant with MindTree Ltd., and is associated with the FOSS Movement.