A few days ago, I came across RMS’s post where he says that Ramayana endorses caste bias.
As a person who takes interest and studies Vedic text, I decided to provide him with further details to clarify and hopefully show him that Ramayana does not endorse any such thing. So, I prepared an email and sent it. Of course, he is a very nice guy and replied. However, he is not convinced that my explanations, clarifications and point of views change anything in his post.
Well, I don’t mind, it is fair. If he still doesn’t think so, no problems. It is healthy to have different views.
However, I think the email I sent contained good information that others might find useful. So I am posting it here. I have taken RMS’s permission to mention the context too, so I am safe.
Vedic norms of classification for a society
In Vedic Shaashtra (शास्त्र), 3 grouping systems (norms of classification) are suggested:
- Based on a person’s attributes (गुण विभाग:)
- Based on a person’s occupation (कर्म विभाग:)
- Based on a person’s birth (जाति विभाग:)
The 3 groups have 4 categories: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shoodra.
I will try to explain these norms. The explanation is by no means precise, but should suffice to capture the heart of the matter:
Grouping based on a person’s attributes
If a person likes to contemplate, self-analyze, study shaastra etc, such a person is considered a “Brahmin”. This has nothing to do with what he does for a profession or where he was born etc. It focuses on what “kind” of mind-set the person has.
If a person likes to help others, helps “selflessly”, considers helping the society his duty, such a person is called a “Kshatriya”.
If a person likes to help others, but for selfish reasons, is called a “Vaishya”.
If a person likes sitting, and doing nothing, he is called a “Shoodra”.
Grouping based on a person’s occupation
If a person likes to teach others and learn the Shaashtra, teach students of their “Dharma” (धर्म), collaborate with other similar people to improve teaching methods, he is called a “Brahmin”.
If a person likes to help the society, but not run a business, such as ministers, MLAs, kings in old days etc, who likes creating environment so that others can pursue their goals, such a person is called a “Kshatriya”.
If a person does business or any commercial activity, sells things for a profit and this way contributes to the society but with primary motive of helping himself and the people he loves (family etc), such a person is called a “Vaishya”.
If a person has no goal of his own but helps the other three in doing their work, he is not a leader, but likes being led by others, doesn’t have much skill in any field, but fits in the overall structure to help Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya, such a person is called a “Shoodra”.
Grouping based on a person’s birth
This is purely based on the family of birth.
As you can surely imagine, people are not so simply classified, and these groups too overlap. This overlap is also allowed.
This concludes the 3 norms.
There are points worth noting in this scheme: A person can be “गुण ब्राह्मण:” (Brahmin by attributes), “कर्म क्षत्रिय:” (Kshatriya by occupation) and “जाति शूद्र:” (Shoodra by birth) at the same time.
Everyone is considered of equal “status” when considering occupation and birth. The “bias” is only considered for attributes - personality. A shoodra and a brahmin are equal when talking about their occupation. It doesn’t matter. There is no discrimination. However, when talking about attributes, Brahmin > Kshatriya > Vaishya > Shoodra.
I hope this gives you insight into the scheme of classification.
Attributes of the passage
Now, if we look at the specific story that has been talked about in the post, there are a few things we should understand.
First is, Puraana (पूराण) are not to be considered history. Ramayana is an “epic poem”, which doesn’t claim to be an exact account of what had happened. And puraana has been clear about them having fictional elements among some true stories - to convey the message using symbolism and make things dramatic to keep people from getting bored.
In Vedic way, the only way to “destroy” a person is through knowledge of self. If a person is merely killed, he is reborn in one form or another. And therefore, whenever a Lord kills an evil person, the person realizes who the Lord is, who he himself is, and is never reborn. There is no other way for the Lord to get rid of evil. Such a death cannot be considered physical death in all cases. Because according to Veda, when a person gains self-knowledge, the person “dies” because he sees everything as One.
Another picture always painted in these stories is the head being cut off by the Lord or the hero. Head signifies ego (अहङ्कार). Therefore, in most cases based on the context, it should be understood, that the Lord helped get rid of excessive ego of the person.
Keeping all the information presented here - of the classifications, puraana being symbolic stories etc, our mental picture of the same story changes completely! Now we see that when Shambuka asked for “the status of a God”, there was no other way, but to get rid of his ego, and give him the total knowledge of self. When Shambuka says “Know that I am a Shudra and my name is Shambuka.” he is talking about his ancestry - that is similar to saying “Know that I am Cooper, and my name is Sheldon”. When the Gods say “this Shudra will not be able to attain heaven!” which suggests a tone of sheer happiness on the Gods’ part, means Gods are happy that the Shoodra is now free from the cycle of birth and death and is now set free.
I think there has been misinterpretation due to the lack of understanding. And, at least, that perticular passage of Ramayana does not seem to be endorsing caste bias if interpreted with proper knowledge of the system.