I was obsessed with unraveling the answer to one striking paradox: how could India, a country so rich in the philosophy of Oneness, also support a caste system that militated against this knowing? This is a BIG question and it took immense effort to find answers that satisfied me. A major turning point was learning about what eastern sages refer to as the Two Great Truths. (Here’s a post you might enjoy: https://miraprabhu.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/two-great-truths-absolute-and-relative-reality-real-and-unreal/).
It was the answers to my ten thousand questions combined with intriguing myths and stories that led me to write Krishna’s Counsel, the second novel in my Moksha Trilogy. Pia, my protagonist, is a rebellious and hypersensitive girl who grows up in 60s south India and is just as confused by her environment as I was.
“If India was so great and all, Unc,” she asks her beloved Uncle Hari, “how did things go so wrong?”
“For far too many reasons to discuss in a single morning, sweetheart,” Uncle replied. “But you can start your own analysis with the fact that our subcontinent has been invaded countless times—unspeakable atrocities have happened here over the millennia.” A wicked gleam leaped into his eyes. “And if you want to pick on one man you can safely detest for our current chaos, Pia, I’d suggest Manu.”
Lila looked up from her book with a frown. “Who’s Manu?”
“A so-called rishi who codified Hindu law around two thousand years ago,” Uncle explained. “Manu decreed that only the two highest castes—the Brahmins or priests, and the Kshatriyas, the warrior kings they served, could access formal learning. Vaishyas and Sudras, merchants and servants respectively, were to concentrate on serving the two upper castes, so that society could thrive as visualized by the Gods. As for women, my impression is that Manu probably loathed them. Many Hindus still regard Manu as a great sage, Pia, and yet it pains me here,” he said, placing a hand on his heart, “to consider how callously he ruined the fabric of our society.”
“While many would disagree with me,” Uncle went on, “I trace the decline of Indian civilization to Manu’s Code. That’s the point at which the caste system became rigid, although scholars still quarrel about the date it was created—all the way from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Manu was the furthest thing from being a democrat: Brahmins got off lightly, regardless of the nature of their crimes while the other three castes were punished with increasing severity.”
“What were things like before this code?” Pia asked curiously.
“Oh, I suppose one was rated on behavior and not on birth. Fortunately Manu’s influence wasn’t as pernicious as it might have been, perhaps because our ancestors were intrinsically nonconformist—unlike our modern clowns, or should I say clones?” Uncle shuddered theatrically. “As for what Manu did to women, Pia, you don’t want to hear about it, oh no.”
“Please, Uncle!” she cried, knowing he was playing with her.
“All right,” he capitulated a little too quickly. “Manu claimed a woman is constitutionally inept, inconsistent, and prone to sensuality—all excellent reasons to deprive her of her fundamental rights!” He chuckled dryly. “All this, of course, ha ha ha, was for her own protection.”
Lila looked up with a frown. “How could some stupid code make a woman so helpless?”
“Well,” he said, “according to Manu, a female is so brainless that her father must assume control over every aspect of her life. Then hubby takes over, followed by her sons. If a woman is widowed early, she cannot remarry. If her husband is a lecherous lout, well, she still has to consider him as equal to God. She can share in the wealth of the family, but if she works, her wages are to be half of a man’s for the same labor. Worst of all, studying the scriptures is forbidden to her.
“Know how far Manu said a wife should go to please her man?” Uncle asked dryly. “Well, if he had his eye on a courtesan, she was to carry him to the woman’s house on her shoulders, wait patiently while he had his fun, then cart the spent bastard back home.”
* * * * * * * * *
Clearly Uncle Hari at least partially blamed this code for accelerating the deterioration of the once respectful equation between man and woman, as well as between different strata of society—and in my non-scholarly view, he was right to do so.
Now I’ve been reading an interesting novel called Brahma’s Dream (Shree Ghatage). At one point in the saga, an old Brahmin widow grows furious with a relative who has hired a Muslim boy to help with the housework. This widow fears she will be polluted by the mere presence of this young servant in her home, and honestly believes her chances of making it to celestial realms will be blighted if she allows this. And so it is with millions of traditional upper caste folks in India who, even today, will refuse to consider eating food cooked by a lower caste, let alone associate intimately with those lower in the caste hierarchy—and this decades after the Indian Constitution has abolished this horrific system that regards millions as inferior based on birth alone! (The original caste system encouraged people to follow their dharma; it was only when the system became based on birth that its multitudinous evils took root.)
What lies at the root of such a demeaning system? My op: Nothing but the human egoic obsession with being “special.” Humans driven by this ugly need will commit any crime to foster and preserve this myth of their own superiority—and if we open our eyes, we will see evidence of this all over our planet.
Impossible to deny that some are way superior in intelligence, skill, talent, looks to others—so where is this equality to be found? For me, it emerges from the ancient teaching that beneath the egoic system of body and mind lies a substratum of existence-consciousness and bliss. This ocean of peace and joy exists in every single being and is our birthright. So yes, the serial killer and the saint are united in this one thing, for their common essence is immortal bliss. It is layers of ignorance that cover this luminous truth—ignorance that drives some of us further into the abyss of evil. (Sages claim that the relative reality that each of us experience is the result of lifetimes of karma (thinking, speaking and acting); this level of reality, while valid, is not ‘real’ by the definition of Advaita. Only the unchanging substratum of our being is considered “real” and it is this that the seeker of freedom in the tradition of jnana (eastern wisdom) is urged to focus upon.)
Ramana Maharshi, the luminous sage of south India, was born into a traditional Brahmin community that honored the caste system. And yet, as a jnani (a free one), he had no use for such egregious distinctions. One of his famous lines is that “there is no other.” Ramana broke a whole slew of caste laws. For instance, as a young swami living on the slopes of Arunachala, he accepted offerings of food from low-caste women—a big no-no for the average law-abiding Brahmin! His mother was horrified, whereupon Ramana mocked her for her narrow-mindedness. Why? In my view, he mocked her not because he did not love her deeply, but because he knew that unless she realized the mystical truth of Oneness, she would never be light enough to enter the portals of enlightenment or moksha.
And yet, like Gautama Buddha, Ramana did not openly exhort others to break free of their traditional moorings, nor did he emphasize the need for relative reform (he lived during British rule in India). Why? Because reform involves the ego and belongs to the realm of relative reality. Indeed, reform as a goal pales in comparison to what Ramana wanted us to shoot for, which is complete freedom from the matrix. He urged us to use our finite energy to dismantle once and for all the relative dream spun by the great enchantress Maya—for when we seek permanent freedom from the claustrophobic matrix, not just the individual but all beings benefit.
Greetings from Arunachala, considered to be Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill, and who vows to destroy every delusion to which we are subject so we can experience the bliss of our radiant and blissful Self!