Caste is a social division. It has nothing to do with religion. True religion stands for oneness and not for any sort of division. There are different forms of caste in different places. In any society, communities having close affinities or similarities with regard to their characteristics and occupations automatically form a caste. In our country there were originally four castes – brāhmana, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra.
Caste is jāti in Sanskrit. The word, jāti, originally implied the in-born characteristics and speciality of an individual. Thus each individual has a different jāti.
There is also a cultural basis of the caste system which was prevalent in India from the hoary past:
‘Janmanā jāyate shudrah samskārāt dvijochyate /
Veda-pāthe bhavedviprah Brahma jānāti brāhmanah.’
- As you are born, you are a shudra, that is, there has been no attempt yet to refine the mind. The state of shudra-hood implies that there is no training to improve one’s desires, attires, movements, ways of talking, etc. and bring about culture. Some sort of polish in behaviour, in one’s way of talking, in everything – some refinement appears through striving. We are to make an attempt and work hard to be a little cultured. Thus we become a dvija, born for the second time, as it were. After that he studies the Vedas. The Veda literally means jnāna, knowledge. The state attained by striving for jnāna is that of a vipra. A vast amount of knowledge is contained in the Vedas and other books. Studying them may be helpful, but often bookish knowledge does not come to our rescue. Knowledge must be assimilated and made our own, so that it can be applied fruitfully in real life situations. Otherwise such knowledge has absolutely no practical value. And you won’t find everything in books. The highest knowledge, the ultimate jnāna, is the realization of the Oneness of all that exists. The many are the various manifestations of the One, which we call Brahman. The man who has come to know that the One has become the many is the perfect man. He can never take the wrong roads in life, he can never commit mistakes. He is the brāhmana.
The brāhmana does not belong to the Hindus alone. There may be brāhmanas among Muslims, Christians, and others too. The test is: whether he has come to know the One and thus reached the highest state of life. All such castes are found in all communities – the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians, etc. Though they may differ in their social systems and daily rites, fundamentally their castes are the same.