“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)Download this episode (right click and save)
Perhaps you’ve heard of the caste system that India is infamous for. You know, the thing where you’re born into a specific class and remain stuck there for the duration of life. If you emerge from the womb of a mother who is married to someone in the highest caste, then you’re set. There is even the lowest class, called the untouchable, and no one dares go near them. While indeed such discrimination is practiced not only in India but elsewhere around the world throughout the course of human history, the original system of division, which is scientifically based, makes total sense. And through applying a little intellect, the system of automatically inheriting honor becomes nonsensical.
Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the author of everything good and wonderful in this world, first put forth the system of four classes of men and their accompanying four stages of life at the beginning of the creation. He spoke of this system again to a distressed warrior known as Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra some five thousand years ago in a conversation today widely known as the Bhagavad-gita, or the Song of God.
Krishna lays out four social orders: brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra. The classes go in ascending order of priority. The brahmanas are the first class. They are the wisest. They know Brahman, or the eternal spiritual force that pervades all of space. They know that every living entity is Brahman; thus they know that distinctions based on outward appearance alone are foolish. They know that the aim of life is to be spiritually conscious, especially at the time of death, the point at which the next body type is determined.
The kshatriya class brings with it a hint of discrimination. The warrior must decide who is an enemy and who is a friend. They must be passionate enough to act in favor of an outcome known as victory. This is for the benefit of others. They must give abundantly in charity to those worthy of it, namely the brahmanas, who ideally do not work for a living. The kshatriyas must be courageous and they must not shirk their responsibilities. The vaishyas and the shudras have even more discrimination, as the vaishyas seek material gain through business ventures and the shudras look for sense satisfaction through service to the other three classes.
When Krishna describes these four orders, known as varnas, He does not say that they are determined by birth. In fact, He does not say this anywhere. The exact words He uses are guna and karma, which translate to “quality” and “work.” The quality is what determines the initial order and then the subsequent work maintains that order. I may be born with a character full of courage and strength, but if I don’t act in the proper way to defend others, I am not a kshatriya. I may try to act in such a way that shows that I am spiritually realized, but if I don’t have the qualities to avoid discrimination then I am not a brahmana.
As the living entity is born into the darkness of ignorance, it is not surprising that the dominant tendency in history has been to pass honor along to future generations. If someone is a famous brahmana, all of their descendants then become known as brahmanas, honorable men due to their family ancestry. This practice is not exclusive to the area today known as India. In colonial America the same issue was discussed with respect to the practice of the monarchies in Europe, which passed down honor automatically to future generations. A wise printer in America named Benjamin Franklin strongly disagreed with this practice. In supporting his arguments, he cited the Chinese, who were known to pass honor upwards, towards the parents.
“For honor, worthily obtained is in its nature a personal thing, and incommunicable to any but those who had some share in obtaining it. Thus among the Chinese, the most ancient, and from long experience the wisest of nations, honor does not descend, but ascends. If a man from his learning, his wisdom, or his valor, is promoted by the Emperor to the rank of Mandarin, his parents are immediately entitled to all the same ceremonies of respect from the people, that are established as due to the Mandarin himself; on the supposition that it must have been owing to the education, instruction, and good example afforded him by his parents, that he was rendered capable of serving the public.” (Benjamin Franklin)
And actually, this argument is both logically valid and confirmed by shastra, the scriptural works that describe both the Supreme Lord and His teachings. It is said that if one becomes a first class-devotee, always worshiping God and thus surpassing even the material designations of the four orders, they rescue many previous generations of family members. This truth was relayed to a young child named Prahlada one time.
“The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: My dear Prahlada, O most pure, O great saintly person, your father has been purified, along with twenty-one forefathers in your family. Because you were born in this family, the entire dynasty has been purified.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.10.18)
Prahlada was born in a family of demons known as Daityas. His father was in the kshatriya order; he was a king who ruled the world with a strong and feared hand. Thus under the hereditary model, Prahlada should have been taken to be a bad fellow, for if honor is to descend then so must dishonor. But in fact Prahlada had all the godly qualities; he was naturally attracted to devotional service from birth. Devotional service, which also goes by such terms as bhakti-yoga and bhagavata-dharma, transcends the four social divisions of society and the accompanying four spiritual stages. Devotional service is available even to the helpless child, who can prove God’s existence by remaining steadfast in devotion through some of the most difficult circumstances.
So Prahlada earned honor all by himself. His father did not give it to him. None of his teachers in school did, either. He remained conscious of Krishna even when others tried to get him to act otherwise. They tried to force that devotion out of him by killing him. But that force did not work. The honor in Prahlada was so strong that eventually Krishna Himself came to remove the obstacles from the boy’s way. Prahlada earned such a high stature that God was ready to give him anything. The boy asked for pardon for his sinful father, and Narasimhadeva, the fierce and unique form of Krishna who appeared to save the day, informed Prahlada that not only was his father getting liberation but so were many previous generations in his family. This confirms the fact that honor ascends, and so one who takes to devotion with full faith and sincerity does the best service for those who came before them.
Of caste system likely you’ve heard,
Disappointment in you it stirred.
But real system from Krishna learn,
How from work and quality each order earned.
Also honor only ascending known to go,
Worthy those who played a hand in it so.
Prahlada for himself not wanting boons any,
Supreme Lord liberating his ancestors many.