Aldous Huxley called the Bhagavad Gita “the perennial philosophy.” In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna’s struggle to live in accordance with both his svadharma (duties in relation to him, specifically as a kshatriya) and sanatana dharma (duties and ethics that everyone is bound by) keenly illustrates the idea that the world is not black and white, that it is perhaps better to help someone deduce his own answers instead of slapping down a list of “do’s and don’ts” because that list may not be applicable in even his near future, much less his children’s futures. Our duties, our ethics, are in part related to our abilities, merits, cultural context, and even social status. What makes this the perennial philosophy? Its ambiguity.
The beauty of reality is its complexities, ambiguities, and dualities. Well maybe not everyone considers that beautiful, but if Hinduism and its various philosophies could be characterized by one thing it would have to be its tendency to embrace and even emphasize dualities. And realistically, this is not an ideal philosophy for the masses—people do not want their questions answered with more questions, they just want answers. And if direct answers are not given, they are teased out of cryptic texts regardless because it seems to be our human inclination to dig deep for meanings that may not have existed originally. This is both a dangerous process as well as a beautiful one, as the products of such literary excavations can vary significantly.
While Hinduism may be defined as absorbent of virtually any tradition and philosophy, history can show otherwise—it is of great value, therefore, to explore the esotericism of Hinduism and consider whether this quality is aligned with the wisdom of the Vedas. Due to the fact that the religious goals of Hindus can vary greatly and cannot all be accounted for, this paper will focus on the goals of enlightenment (Vedantic) as well as more worldly goals attained by orthopraxy and discipline (Vedic); however, the goal of creating a bond between disciple and divinity from the Bhakti perspective, will not be addressed. I will use the caste system as a lens for viewing the esotericism of the Vedas and Hinduism to illustrate that ultimately the nature of the Vedas and its goals are not technically accessible—or even desirable—to the average person and that paths such as introspective thought and self realization are privileges and concerns for a very small minority.
The Hindu caste system’s supposed Vedic origins must first be explored. According to the Rig Veda (10.90) four categories of man emerged from the primeval man or Purusha and his body parts—his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet. Subjective hierarchies and the varna system stating that Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras emerged from these body parts is part of the later literary traditions: the Dharma Shastras, and the Manusmriti in particular. These texts were largely written by Brahmins and for Brahmins, with less instructive and useful information provided for Kshatriyas, even less for Vaishyas and essentially nothing for Sudras aside from the idea that they ought to serve the higher classes. The outcastes of the varna system, the dalits or “candalas” in the Manusmriti, were basically regarded as the products of inter-caste unions—a wrongdoing that was meant to be punished. The Vedic source, or the Purusha Sukta, is only loosely connected to this Dharma Shastric worldview of hierarchies of body parts and, in consequence, castes of people. The Vedas make no specific value or hierarchical claims about each varna—in fact, it seems that it is instead implying that all four varnas create a whole and that they are interdependent. It cannot be objectively argued based on the relevant Vedic text that the feet are less important for human function than the thighs or that the Sudras are somehow less vital to society than Vaishyas or deserve to be treated as inferior. How would a Brahmin like to function without his feet? The context and authorship of the Dharma Shastras must be taken into account and the Vedic source of such ideas must be considered closely.
Looking at the caste system in terms of privilege is next in order—in modern times as well as ancient. The caste system serves as a symbol in American textbooks for a lack of being civilized, or being unaware of the egalitarian values of the West and maintaining a “backwards” worldview. The idea that people are born into a more or less decided fate, that children obtain the occupations and social status of their parents, that there is no mobility—it is all so abhorrent to the West. It is also abhorrent to many people in the East. Even while looking at the biased Dharma Shastras, which plays out in favor of Brahmins, there is still value for all occupations and duties in society, it is primarily saying that there is a time and place for every kind of action and occupation. For example, drinking may not be expressly prohibited or considered wrong for all people in the exact same way—there may be allowances for alcohol in ritual tantric practices and it may appear more (or solely) adharmic for a Brahmin priest to drink alcohol versus a Kshatriya soldier. Even war and violence are sometimes rationalized by the mindset that yes, these actions are perhaps adharmic, but they are happening because it is the Kali Yuga and our world is headed in the general direction of disorder—this is nothing more than the scientific principle of entropy applied to society. This is not a validation for adharmic behavior as much as a way of rationalizing the actions of others and possibly a way of refraining from judgment.
Upon listening to the news, my mom frequently utters (though in Tamil), “This is what they call the Kali Yuga. And this is why.” I am very much intrigued by this attitude because it reflects a lot of other beliefs—that there is greater difficulty in being dharmic in the Kali Yuga than in previous yugas, that we are all slowly moving towards disorder over a large period of time, but that these adharmic actions still hold a negative connotation so we still ought to refrain from participating in them as they will still affect us individually. To actively and proactively live one’s life without judgment but with a deeper, cultivated sense of what is right or wrong, what is expected of me personally—given my temperament, my abilities, my upbringing, my specific environment—has long appeared to be the message that my Hindu parents sought to send me. They never “read” the Vedas or even the Bhagavad Gita in its entirety. But they, too, received the message I received from them.
Today I look for confirmation of these ideas in the original texts and I find them, not knowing whether I am actually seeing “proof” or just seeing what I want to see. Ultimately, it does not matter, because my reality is defined by my thoughts and actions and is just as “real” as the next person’s—this is precisely the inherent great danger in these kinds of thoughts when planted amongst the masses. It is this freedom and fluidity of thought that allows for Hinduism to be branded with labels like “moral subjectivity” and for Hindus to feel as though their religion offers no disciple or moral code, especially in relation to their Christian and Muslim peers. The average person simply seeks a clear-cut path of right versus wrong. In the epic sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica, the polytheistic President reminds a dying patient who has lost faith in the fickle Greek pantheon of Gods that all the stories are but metaphors and not literal truths, to which the patient replies, “I don’t want metaphors, I want answers.” This is the world that Hinduism is situated in and a world that Hindu texts were never meant to appease. Vedic and Vedantic schools of thought have been distorted, however, to appease the masses looking for simple answers and have also been manipulated by others to fulfill their own agendas—similar in some ways, yet different in other ways, to the realities of other religious institutions today.
The Vedas were restricted in their oral transmission to the Brahmin class so as to maintain their original form. Perhaps it seemed unfair to other classes that they did not have direct access to the source of knowledge, but perhaps even direct access would not have been followed by understanding. Imagine a middle school boy trying to glean the essential messages of The Scarlet Letter through his own reading, sans class discussion, sans Spark Notes. He would be lost. He could misinterpret the novel as a code for how women ought to be treated in society. He could model his behavior on that of the various male characters in the novel. Personal interpretation without a guru was an early fear to those seeking to perpetuate the Vedas and rightfully so.
The oral transmission of the Vedas was reserved as a duty for a select group of people and even that select group of people was not encouraged to understand the literature. That being said, they did understand the value of shruti—or that which is heard—over that which is remembered or read, which is subject to errors in perception, emphasis on literal meanings, and without objective distinction between metaphor and literal truth. The transmitters essentially carried the legacy of the Vedas without understanding the value of the Vedas, but accepting that they were indeed valuable. The Upanishadic period finally asked “why?” and produced philosophical texts based on the Vedas, adding to the value of the Vedas and engendering new schools of thought under the heading of Vedanta. So, the people who memorized the Vedas did not necessarily understand them, and it is possible that those who understand the essence of the Vedas have not actually read the Vedas. The oral transmission of the Vedas is an interesting process that allowed the texts to stay true to its original form. Though people can find fault with this exclusivity, was there really another way for an oral tradition to stay true to its original form? The answer is probably no, considering there is no other oral tradition known to scholars that has stayed true to its original form for millennia.
Whether the value of the Vedas was worth that exclusivity and ultimate Brahmin usurpation of societal power, is hard to objectively state, but Brahminic corruption and the emergence of the caste system seems to be less related to the Vedas than with Indian culture and Brahminic domination. It is hard to divide religion from culture and religio-politics, but as shown previously with the loose connection between the caste system and its source in the Rig Veda, this distinction needs to be made—or at least attempted to be made. Not all Hindus grant authority to the Dharma Shastras and not just Hindus have allowed caste to determine life choices in Indian culture. As Doniger elucidates, the idea of caste or class hierarchy in India plagues Christian, Muslim, and Sikh communities, too.
In modern times, politicians and average citizens alike seek to claim that the caste system has been abolished in India. But if one considers this claim more closely, it becomes apparent that that is similar to saying that race can be abolished. Discrimination on the basis of race or caste can be made illegal, but not the perception of caste and individual beliefs on caste that ultimately still permeate Indian society. It would not matter if Indian law declared that Sudras could marry Brahmins if people still maintained their belief system regarding social hierarchy relating to one’s karma or “goodness” factor. Caste is like skin color—a categorization that allows people to discriminate between who they can relate to and who they cannot relate to. It is not entirely a social construct—it is human nature to be able to categorize and discriminate between that which is yours and that which is not. For some, the only relevant discrimination is between species, but for many there are many more distinctions to be drawn between people.
Aside from the logical fallacy that the caste system itself could be abolished from Hindu or Indian society, is the existence of the quota system in Indian education as well as the pressures of conservative Hindu political parties. Similar to Affirmative Action in America, India offers compensation to the lower “scheduled caste,” due to the historical injustices they endured. There is basically a quota system that guarantees a specific number of these people of lower castes to be admitted to schools and colleges—up to 50% of the seats available can go to the lower castes, without regards to merit or economic status. This pinch to the merit system infuriates qualified Brahmins that are paying for mistakes that they did not necessarily commit. It is quite similar to the sentiment of many students in America: it is no rarity to hear things along the lines of “you are so lucky to be a minority, you can get into college a lot easier and get more scholarships even with lower grades.” Of course, these systems cannot be perfect, but it is still doing something in favor of social mobility, so the ideology is to be respected on some level.
The problem with giving perks to the lower classes in modern day India is that politicians know just how to use this vehicle for their own agendas. The Arya Samaj and various other political entities have been associated with Hindu reconversions and even Hindu violence in the name of restoring a Hindu nation. Muslims and Christians that may have initially converted due to their qualms with the caste system are now strongly encouraged to revert to Hinduism and thereby gain access to lower caste benefits that did not exist previously. Either through coercion, heavy campaigning, or destruction of places of worship, these politicians and their followers are trying to establish an order that was never recommended by ancient scriptures.
It can perhaps be argued that any religion is both esoteric and exoteric but this duality is particularly striking with Hinduism, which seems to find a way to accommodate the most polar of philosophies. On one hand, Hindu schools of thought seem to value oneness, unity, diversity and acceptance. The panentheistic view that God is everything within this universe and beyond, and that everything is Brahman, that our true selves are inherently perfect are still very much a part of Hinduism. Yet, on the other hand, there seems to be a very hierarchical, divisive, and immobile understanding of society which is at odds with the order of the natural world that is referred to in Vedic and Vedantic texts. This is undoubtedly, at least partially, resultant of a simplification of esoteric knowledge for use amongst the masses—knowledge that, without a guru, would be and was manipulated for good reasons as well as bad. Some manipulated it for political gains or personal benefits, while some distorted original truths or practices to provide simple answers for the average person. In making complex truths more accessible, a lot of things were potentially lost. The fact that Vedic and Vedantic thought permeates Indian society at essentially a subconscious level has both positive and negative results. My parents and their beliefs are one positive result, I believe, that may not have resulted in the exact same way if they had read the Vedas or Upanishads in a structured or scholarly way. The modern day Hindu caste system (its negative reality, as opposed to its potential positive intentions) is a perfect negative example of how an elite group could take advantage of a poetic verse and construe it in their favor. Any religious community should be able to recognize this as a distortion of religious texts. Hinduism is scarred by what the caste system represents as Islam is scarred by what Jihad can represent to the outsider and I can only hope that this will be more clearly elucidated in grade school history lessons in America than when I first learned about Indian society and Hindu thought.