While travelling in a train from Haryana, Richard (now Radhanath Swami) saw an ugly incident of a teenager being beaten by his employer. On enquiry, Richard discovered that because the boy was from a lower caste, he was being discriminated against and was unlikely to get any facility to advance in life. However Richard also discovered that this was a perversion of a scientific system called varnashrama, which teaches that, just as the human body has a head, arms, belly, and legs, and each limb is meant to perform its function for the benefit of the whole body, in the social body, one is taught to accept responsibilities for the social and spiritual benefit of oneself as well as everyone in society according to one’s natural inclinations and skills. The Vedic varnashram was meant to encourage, empower, and unify everyone. Richard learnt that this beautiful system has now been corrupted by exploitation based on birth. Richard also thought of the suppression of racial and religious minorities in America and Europe, and he reflected sadly on how the tendency to cultivate superiority and exploit others takes many guises, expressing itself in society, politics, philosophy, or even religion.
The study of Vedic Varnashrama offers an interesting analysis and division of human beings on the basis of their differing psycho physical needs. Briefly, the varnashrama system comprises four basic material occupations or duties (varnas) and four spiritual stages (ashramas). The varnas are (1) brahmanas (intellectuals and priests), (2) kshatriyas (warriors and administrators), (3) vaishyas (farmers and business people), and (4) shudras (manual laborers and general assistants). Most people exhibit qualities that reflect an overlapping of these categories, but one occupational inclination will eventually predominate.
The four spiritual stages (ashramas) are (1) brahmacarya (celibate student life), (2) grihastha (married life), (3) vanaprastha (retired life), and (4) sannyasa (renunciation and complete dedication to the Absolute).
The Vedic culture takes into account the psychophysical nature of individuals before assigning a place for them in the varnashrama system. Unfortunately, this system has devolved into the modern-day caste system, where people are classified according to birth. If one is born into a brahmana family, for example, one is automatically considered a brahmana, regardless of qualifications. This superficial reading of varna has led to the jati system, with its innumerable sub-castes and variations on the original four varnas. This system has caused considerable confusion, civil strife, and social unrest in Indian society.
The varnashrama system emphasizes “quality and work,” not birth. People are put into particular categories according to their qualifications, not the families they were born into. While birth may point one in a particular direction or help in other ways, it is never the sole factor in determining one’s lifelong occupation. For example, birth in a judge’s family may afford one a good education and provide one’s vocational inclination early in life, but it doesn’t guarantee judgeship. Again, this “quality and work” criterion in relation to varna is clear from the Gita itself, though few modern Indians are aware of this.
The Greek philosopher Plato—though apparently unaware of Vedic texts—recognized social divisions that are strikingly similar to those of the varna system. In his Republic,he argues that social classes correspond to a hierarchy of personality types. The class predominated by the philosophical intellect, he says, is the highest, after that come those dominated by the emotions, and finally we find those in whom “the appetites” (sensual desires) predominate. Further, says Plato, one finds that society is naturally divided in a similar way. On top are the philosopher- kings, who rule; below them are the warriors, whom he refers to as “auxiliaries,” since they assist the king; and finally we have the merchants and workers, whom Plato combines into one distinct category.
He compares rulers to gold, auxiliaries to silver, and those in the third class to brass and iron. According to Plato, golden parents will tend to have golden children, as silver parents will naturally have silver children, and so on. But sometimes, he admits, golden parents may have silver, brass, or iron children, and the reverse is also true. When this occurs, says Plato, one must be flexible enough to acknowledge that a golden child born to an iron parent, for example, is indeed golden—his birthright should be disregarded in favour of his natural quality.
Radhanath Swami writes in his autobiography that it heartened him that nothing in the true Hindu philosophy supported suppression of human beings on the basis of one’s race, caste, sex or birth, and that among saintly people, he had not witnessed any of this kind of prejudice.