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In ancient India the caste system apparently was regarded as a positive, divinely based phenomenon. The hierarchical differentiation of human beings on the basis of color (varna) and birth (jati) was seen as a worldly reflection of a ritually sacrificed Divine Body (purusa).
Accordingly, the Rig Veda of the conquering northern Aryans¹ tells of the ritual dismemberment of a Primal Cosmic Man, on which the caste system is based.
The highest, fair-skinned Brahman caste (priests, thinkers) emanated from the head, the lower and darker Kshatriya caste (rajas, warriors, persons of action) from the arms, while the next lower and darker Vaisna caste (merchants) originated from the thighs.
Later, the additional fourth, lowest and darkest Sudra caste (servants) was added, believed to be the “feet” of the purusa. This caste was probably created by the Aryans to account for the indigenous Dravidians.
Like distinctions made by the apostle Paul in the New Testament, each caste had a unique social duty (dharma) to fulfill, corresponding to the particular part of the cosmic body from which it originated. Unlike Pauline Christianity, however, the Sudras were forbidden to study the sacred scripture of the Veda.²
In time, another fifth category evolved, the “untouchables” (quite literally, societal outcasts), whose members were allegedly so lowly that they didn’t belong to any caste. Deploring the caste system, Mahatma Gandhi called these people Harijans (“Children of God”).
Of the upper three castes, at age twelve the Hindu male undergoes the ritual of upanaya, receiving a sacred thread to indicate his status as ‘twice born.’ Not unlike the Christian Confirmation or Jewish Bar Mitzvah, this ceremony contains both cultural and spiritual significance.
The western equivalent to caste is the equally misguided idea of class. Both concepts tend to separate and evaluate individuals on a hierarchical scale. Caste did this exclusively by birth, whereas class includes other variables.
Despite the fact that caste was openly challenged by Gandhi in the 1930s and legally criminalized in the 1950s, both subtle and overt injustices premised on caste distinctions continue to this day, just as they do with the idea of class.
¹ It should be noted that not everyone subscribes to that version of Indian history. Click here for more.
² Human nature being what it is, similar prohibitions later arose in the Christian Church regarding the study of Latin and the reading of the Bible.
³ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 175-177).
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One of the former Hindu castes, characterized by merchants and businessmen.
Members of the Vaisya caste are traditionally associated with karma-yoga, the yoga of action, although it should be noted that in contemporary India a businessperson does not necessarily attach religious significance to his or her work.
The Vaisya caste was generally ranked as the third of four, along with a 5th unofficial group of “outcastes.”
By way of contrast, the merchant class in medieval Japan under the powerful Tokugawa military rulers (1600-1867) was regarded as the lowest class, not the second-lowest or, depending on how one looks at it, third-lowest.
The whole notion of caste was deplored by Gandhi in the 1930s and criminalized in India during the 1950s. Its power over the minds of people has diminished although some arguably backward families still look to ‘appropriate’ caste marriages.
Old Indian Castes by rank
- Brahman caste (priests, thinkers)
- Kshatriya caste (rajas, warriors, persons of action)
- Vaisna caste (merchants)
- Sudra (menial laborers, servants)
- Unofficial group of Outcastes.
» Yoga, Karma-yoga
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The Bhagavad-Gita [Sanskrit: The song of the Lord] is a central scripture holy to Hindus that belongs to book VI of the epic Mahabharata. Believed by many scholars to be a more recent insert within the Mahabharata, the Gita synthesizes different, previously existing forms of yoga.
The main plot line revolves around Krishna urging Arjuna to fulfil the dharma (sacred duty) appropriate to his warrior caste (kshatrya). Taken literally, in the Gita this means Arjuna must slay kith and kin in the battlefield.
Krishna outlines additional dharmas appropriate for other castes, but Arjuna’s sacred task is to kill. Krishna further instructs Arjuna that his relatives will not really perish because the soul (atman) is eternal.
A gentler, psychological interpretation of the Gita sees the ‘killing’ in terms of the destruction of bad karma accumulated over past lives. These attributes manifest as outward aspects of the personality in the present life, not unlike that which Carl Jung terms the persona. Thus the ‘killing’ could be seen as the elimination or, perhaps, redirection of superficial and negative personality components that obscure awareness of the immortal soul (atman)
Because God’s grace is said to be central in overcoming negative past karma, some scholars believe that the Gita was written as late as 2nd-century CE, influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the precise date, Arjuna’s dharma seems to lie somewhere between Old Testament ideas concerning the problem of social justice (“an eye for an eye”) and the New Testament emphasis on spiritual salvation (“turn the other cheek”).
While some Christians may argue that the Gita’s message is clearly inferior to the New Testament’s prescription to love one’s enemies, this claim is complicated by the additional teaching of the so-called “Just War,” a teaching which is explicit or, perhaps, implicit to many Christian belief systems.
Having said that, it seems that a valid distinction may be made between what Jesus of the New Testament says we ought to do vs. what will happen.
Jesus of the New Testament says his followers ought not to be violent, nor to even think violently, even though conflict and war will inevitably break out among some members of the population. By way of contrast, the Krishna of the Gita essentially says killing is okay in certain circumstances. And this is something that Christ never advocates in the New Testament.
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Dharma is the idea of sacred duty in Hinduism. The concept originates from India’s ancient legal texts, so it’s not surprising that “doing the right thing” within this belief system is usually bound up within specific caste and gender biases, which many today would see as hopelessly backward.
As a Hindu ideal, dharma is doing one’s divine duty in an apparently impersonal manner. In essence, the mind is said to be fixed on God while correct action is performed without care for the personal “fruit” of those actions.
The belief that one’s actions may be entirely untainted by personal biases and desires seems questionable. And this is no scholarly quibble. Orthodox Hinduism, for instance, advocates killing as the appropriate dharma for members of the kshatriya caste. And in domestic affairs, the dharma of the wife is often marked by servitude to her husband and family, a position widely held to be sexist.¹
The idea of surrendering to God is nothing new but each religion tends to define the notion of appropriate surrender differently. Despite the obvious problems with the idea of dharma, recent social movements within India are compelling the middle classes, especially, to become increasingly aware of the often conflicting distinction between the idea of universal human rights and this ancient view of religious duty.
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¹ India, where 80.5 % of the population say they’re Hindu, has recently been labelled the worst place to be a woman, with Canada being the best. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/13/us-g20-women-idUSBRE85C00420120613
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Rosemary Ellen Guiley (19?? – ) is an American researcher, author and broadcaster on paranormal phenomena. Dr. Guiley promotes awareness of the paranormal. At her website she writes that her “driving purpose is to help further our understanding of our place and role in the cosmic scheme” (visionaryliving.com). She also addresses issues like communicating with the dead and dealing with malevolent spirits.
This is all very interesting stuff. Unfortunately, it’s still difficult for most people to understand because of the inherent difficulties in the public verification of paranormal reports. In addition, some materialist or (ironically enough) religious reactionaries tend to cast aspersions on anyone interested in trying to understand the paranormal—even though the very same people will often delight at movies like The Exorcist.¹
¹ The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, of course, would say that the horror movie watcher is momentarily fascinated by the archetype of the shadow. For Jung this is not unhealthy. But in some destructive instances, if left unconscious the shadow archetype apparently can erupt and compel non-integrated individuals to behave in a manner harmful to self or others.
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Garhashtya is the second Hindu asrama¹ (Vedic stage of life) in which the male generally enters into the marriage bond as a sacred duty and exercise in sexual self-control.
In this stage the man becomes a householder, replete with children and fulfils his dharma by taking a job according to his caste position.
¹ In Hinduism this is the traditional belief, stemming from the Veda, that spiritual aspirants belonging to the “twice born” castes should proceed through four asrama, or stages of life. These stages are: brahmacharya, garhashtya, vanaprashta and sannyasa.
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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian nationalist hero whose actions helped to liberate India from British colonial rule. His honorary title, Mahatma, means “great soul.”
Gandhi studied law in London and moved to South Africa in 1893. He fought unjust laws against Indians in Africa for 21 years. Returning to India in 1914, he became head of the Indian National Congress.
Gandhi advocated and epitomized the idea of non-violent resistance through social non-cooperation (some would say “mass civil disobedience”). He worked tirelessly towards Indian independence, sometimes fasting as a means of protest and also of purification.
Apparently he slept in the same bed with young girls, one of whom being his great-niece, in order to prove that he had conquered the temptations of the flesh.
In 1922, he was imprisoned in a dingy Indian cell for conspiracy, and was detained there for two years. In 1930 he undertook a 200-mile trek to the sea to make salt—a clear statement defying government restrictions.
Jailed again until 1931, he then sat at the London Round Table Conference on Indian constitutional reform.
In 1946 he negotiated with the Cabinet Mission that drafted an independent Indian constitution. Shortly after Indian independence in 1947, he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist while trying to quell Hindu-Muslim conflicts in Bengal.
Among his many memorable achievements, he decried the miserable oppression of the untouchables (at that time, the undisputed social outcastes in India) calling them harijans , “the children of God.”¹
¹ The practice of untouchability was made illegal by the Constitution of India in 1950 and the former untouchables, being a mixed population, now call themselves Dalit.
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Hinduism is the main religion of India, having evolved over several thousand years.
It has no creed nor firm institutional structure, although the belief in reincarnation runs through almost every form of Hinduism.
Instead of revering one holy book like the Bible or the Koran, Hinduism relies on a variety of sacred scriptures. The oldest are the Vedas (1500-1200 BCE), with the Rig-Veda being prominent among them.
Later, the dharma sutras and dharma shastras appear (500 BCE – 500 CE). These ancient codes of conduct, numbering over 5,000 separate titles, were composed in Sanskrit. They spell out rules and regulations for a wide variety of situations. And they legitimized the caste system and the ideal Hindu stages of life (asrama). They were legally binding in India until contrary legislation appeared in 1955-56.
The Upanisads (1000-600 BCE) are an introspective set of scriptures dealing with the eternal self and its relation to temporal life.
Also important are the two epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. While the Bhagavad-Gita belongs within the Mahabharata, most scholars believe it is was added later to the epic, crystallizing various strands of existing Hindu belief.
The most important gods of the Trimurti (Skt. = three forms, sometimes loosely translated as “Trinity”) are Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver) and Siva (Destroyer and Cosmic Dancer). But many other deities, called avatars, and their consorts are privately and publicly worshipped (e.g., Krishna-Radha, Hanuman, Ganesha, Kali).
In some strands of Hinduism the Buddha is believed to be a demonic avatar. This is probably because Buddha’s teaching challenged the Hindu priestly and caste traditions.
From the 1800′s, the Indian gurus Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekenanda, Sai Baba, Sri Aurobindo, Paramahansa Yogananda and Sri Rajneesh have been prominent. Meanwhile the Indian poet, dramatist and musician Rabindranath Tagore pioneered an innovative, internationally based ashram-style university at Santiniketan and Mohandas Gandhi, who championed the Bhagavad-Gita, has been internationally known as a key political and spiritual figure.
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In Hinduism, jnana yoga [Sanskrit jnana: the path of spiritual knowledge] is the yoga of knowledge. But this isn’t just bookish, conceptual or intellectual knowledge. Instead, the goal of jnana yoga is to know the true self and, for believers in this path, its identity with the Godhead.
Not to say that Jnana yoga never involves erudition, or intellectual and conceptual knowledge. It certainly can. But these are seen as tools to achieve illumination instead of ends in themselves.
The dharma (sacred duty) of jnana yoga is about overcoming ignorance [Sanskrit: avidya] and clearing the path for true spiritual knowledge. And for believers, this kind of knowledge is nothing less than realizing that this changing world (and all the desires that go with it) are illusory. It also means realizing that the personal ego is not the true self.
When the aspirant reaches this stage of awareness, he or she may be confused and even wonder if they’ve gone insane (as did Sri Ramakrishna on occasion). But a healthy transition means that the seeker eventually understands that the atman and brahman are one and the same.
Traditionally associated with the Brahmin caste, the meaning of jnana-yoga would be closer to wisdom instead of erudition. But prominent figures like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Ramacharaka are both quite learned and (allegedly) illuminated.
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