“It is not possible for a chandala to tread heavily on an altar which is beautifully decorated and situated amongst a sacrificial fire, pots, and ladles, and sanctified by the mantras of the brahmanas. Similarly, I, being the religiously wedded wife of one who is Himself ever committed to dharma, am firm in my vows and thus, O lowest of the Rakshasas, it is not possible for me to ever be touched by you, who are a sinner.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.18-19)
This is a beautiful analogy used by Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, to describe how Ravana was unqualified and incapable of touching her. This may seem strange to hear because Ravana, a Rakshasa demon, had just kidnapped Sita from the forest of Dandaka and forcibly brought her to his kingdom of Lanka. Yet as all the great acharyas confirm, Sita Devi could never be touched by Ravana because she always remains completely spiritual. She is God’s wife in the spiritual world, meaning that she is not tainted by any material qualities. Only those elevated personalities, those whose minds have been purified through proper training, can understand and see Sita’s true spiritual form.
The Indian caste system is famous throughout the world. It is usually understood to be a sort of social pecking order, where certain classes of people are deemed more worthy than others. Aside from the four primary castes, there are also those considered untouchable. When learning about Hindu culture in American schools, the issue of the untouchables is almost always broached. The actual Vedic system, however, has nothing to do with social statuses or ostracizing people based on their birth. The caste system, more accurately known as varnashrama-dharma, is a natural ordering of society based on the inherent qualities that people possess and the work they perform. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, says that He created this system based on guna and karma. He never mentions anywhere that one’s varna, or caste, is inherited at the time of birth.
The reason for the divisions is that every person will have different tendencies. The modern day movements aimed at providing social justice and the equal distribution of wealth are certainly idealistic, but not practical since everyone has different desires and qualities. Not every person has the same work ethic, nor does everyone want to be rich. In fact, if you conducted a poll to find out at what annual salary a person would consider themselves rich, you’d get a wide variety of answers. To some people, earning $100,000 a year is considered great wealth, while others would require multiple millions of dollars before they felt comfortable. These differences in desires and qualities are natural, and they are acquired over the course of many many lifetimes. Vedic teachings tell us that our consciousness at the time of death determines the type of body we inherit in our next birth.
“In whatever condition one quits his present body, in his next life he will attain to that state of being without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)
The four varnas of the famous caste system are the brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras. Then there are those who are considered so uncivilized that they don’t even fall into any of these categories. These “untouchables” are the mlecchas, yavanas, and chandalas. For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the two extreme ends of the spectrum: the brahmanas and the chandalas. The meaning of brahmana is someone who knows Brahman. Most of us understand that there is a personal God who is in control of everything. He is the person we go to when we want things, and He is also in charge of making the impossible seem possible. The Vedas give us further details into God’s nature. He who most of us know as God is actually Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Bhagavan, whose original form is that of Shri Krishna, then takes two primary expansions. The Lord is kind enough to live within our body as a minute spirit soul. We also have our own spirit soul that forms the basis of our identity, but God’s soul is there alongside ours. Our soul is known as the jivatma, or just regular atma. Since God’s soul is much more powerful, it is known as Paramatma, or the great soul. The Paramatma can be realized through yoga. Yoga itself means the linking of our soul with God’s expansion residing within our heart. There is a less granular expansion, or classification, of God known as Brahman. Brahman is an all-encompassing energy. Everything, including matter and spirit, is Brahman.
“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.42)
Those who know Brahman understand that all living entities are an equal part of the creation. There is no difference in quality or quantity between one jivatma and another. To know Brahman and truly understand it, one must possess certain qualities. Such a person must be peaceful, humble, tolerant, wise, etc. These are the qualities, or gunas, of a brahmana. Along with these qualities, brahmanas must perform certain types of work. Their prescribed duties, or karma, include reading the Vedas, teaching others Vedic wisdom, performing sacrifices, teaching others how to perform sacrifices, taking charity, and giving charity.
To be considered a qualified brahmana, one must be properly trained. There are many caste brahmanas in India who inherited their status from their forefathers. Essentially any caste brahmana can trace their family lineage all the way back to a famous sage of the past. Having this sort of ancestry is certainly very nice, and it presents a wonderful opportunity. However, as mentioned before, one’s varna is determined by qualities and work. If we are born in a brahmana family but don’t exude any of the qualities of a brahmana or perform any of their activities, we can’t be considered a bona fide brahmana.
To know Brahman means to know that we are not our bodies. The spirit soul, or atma, represents our identity. Those who live on the bodily conception of life, considering themselves to be Indian, American, black, white, etc., certainly don’t know Brahman. A person born in a brahmana family who doesn’t have respect for all forms of life certainly cannot be considered a qualified teacher of the Vedas. To know Brahman, one must be trained by a qualified brahmana, someone who knows the Truth.
The sacrifice is an essential part of religious life in the Vedic tradition. Sacrifice involves voluntarily giving up something that is valuable to you. In the ancient times, kings would perform grand sacrifices where they would offer a horse or some other valuable animal to God. These sacrifices were very intricate and complex, and they required the perfect recitation of specific Vedic hymns and mantras. A qualified brahmana was required to perform these sacrifices, otherwise the desired result would never be achieved. In a properly executed sacrifice, the soul residing within the animal would immediately be promoted to the human species in the next life, and the king would reap tremendous material rewards as a result.
Since the sacrifices required meticulous attention to detail, only trained sages could perform them. By the same token, those who were unclean and not trained in any Vedic discipline were strictly forbidden from taking part in such sacrifices. In the varnashrama system, the shudras are considered the fourth and lowest division. They are laborers by trade, and they receive no formal training in any Vedic discipline. The chandalas, or dog-eaters, are considered even lower. Even in today’s society where meat-eating is quite common, if someone were to start eating dog flesh, they would be considered uncivilized and an odd-ball. In ancient times, these people were not allowed anywhere near a sacrifice, for their presence would taint the whole proceeding. Such a person could surely tread across any normal area of land, but as soon as that same land became sanctified with the paraphernalia of a Vedic sacrifice along with the recitation of mantras by qualified brahmanas, such a person was restricted from setting foot on it.
Now this restriction may seem a little harsh to the lay-person. To properly understand the context, let’s take the example of flying an airplane. A plane is an enormous vehicle, requiring expert pilots to operate it. A pilot must go through hours and hours of training before they are allowed into the cockpit to personally steer a plane from takeoff to landing. We would never think of taking any odd person off the street and asking them to fly a plane, for the results would be disastrous. The plane probably would never even make it off the ground, and if it did, it most certainly would crash. The Vedic sacrifice can be thought of in the same light. Though we may not see its results directly, a yajna, or sacrifice, is performed for the benefit of Lord Vishnu. In fact, the word yajna itself means Vishnu, or the four-handed expansion form of Lord Krishna. All yajnas are meant for the satisfaction of Vishnu, which means that if a non-devotee, or person lacking knowledge of Vishnu, performs a sacrifice, there will be no tangible result. More than just nullifying the effects of the sacrifice, a chandala can do great harm by causing animals to be needlessly killed or causing the ingredients of the sacrifice to be wasted. This is precisely what occurred over time as unqualified brahmanas started taking to animal sacrifice simply as an excuse to eat meat. For this reason, the practice of animal sacrifice was eventually abolished.
This analogy to a chandala being restricted from a yajna was appropriately used by Sita Devi when talking to Ravana. During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Lord Krishna descended to earth in His all-blissful, all-knowing form of Lord Rama, the handsome prince of Ayodhya. Rama’s wife was Sita Devi, an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi. The couple was residing in the forest of Dandaka along with Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, when one day Sita was kidnapped by Ravana. The Rakshasa race was quite strong at the time, and their leader was the ten-headed son of Vishrava, Ravana. Though Ravana was quite capable in battle, he knew he didn’t stand a chance against Rama and Lakshmana, so he devised a plan where he could kidnap Sita in Their absence. Successfully taking Sita to his kingdom of Lanka, Ravana tried every which way to win her heart over, but he failed every time.
In the above referenced statement, Sita is letting Ravana know that he can never touch her. She compared him to a chandala, or the lowest class of man. This analogy is important because Ravana certainly viewed himself as high class. He lived in the finest palaces, drank the best wine, and had hundreds of beautiful wives. He even thought that he was a religious person, for he used to regularly perform worship of various demigods. Nevertheless, he lived completely in the bodily conception of life. He didn’t believe in a Supreme God, for he was trying to be God himself through the conquering of enemies and the acquisition of material wealth, strength, and fame. As a Rakshasa, he was accustomed to eating meat. The irony of Ravana’s haughtiness was that he was actually lower than a chandala. A chandala is so low that they eat dog flesh, but Ravana actually ate human flesh on a regular basis. He and his Rakshasa associates would harass the great sages living in the forests, attack their sacrifices, kill them, and then eat their flesh.
“To say nothing of touching mother Sita, a person with material senses cannot even see her. When Ravana kidnapped her, he kidnapped only her material, illusory form.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 9.193)
Sita was dead-on in her characterization of Ravana. The demon certainly did touch her, but just as a chandala can never properly execute a sacrifice, Ravana was never able to actually touch Sita’s spiritual form. He only associated with a material form of Sita, a sort of fake covering. Only devotees can see God and His associates as they are.
If we see God and His pure devotees as being products of material nature, we can never get the true benefit of their association. The impersonalist philosophers, the Mayavadis, encounter this very problem when they try to execute bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The Mayavadis believe that Brahman is the ultimate feature of God, meaning they don’t believe in a Paramatma or Bhagavan. Because of this, they try to worship some imaginary form of God, or worse, they take God’s authorized forms such as Rama, Krishna, etc. to be products of maya, or material nature. For these reasons their performance of bhakti-yoga is useless. Their viewpoint is no different than how Ravana viewed Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana. In the end, Sita’s words would hold true as Ravana was never able to win her over. Lord Rama eventually came to Lanka and killed the demon and all his soldiers after a series of fierce battles.
The lesson here is that if we want to truly get the benefit of association with God, we must be properly trained from a devotee. The devotees of Lord Vishnu, Vaishnavas, are actually above brahmanas in stature because they understand Bhagavan. Since Bhagavan is the source of Brahman, Vaishnavas automatically acquire all the qualities of a brahmana. In this age, we can all become Vaishnavas, regardless of our ancestry, simply by regularly chanting God’s names in a loving way, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This chanting is known as the sankirtana-yajna, and unlike sacrifices of the past, there are no restrictions on its performance. Any person can chant and receive all the glorious benefits. This is Krishna’s mercy for the people of this age, and we should most certainly take advantage of it.