Thursday, August 29, 2013

Understanding the Terms of Ancient Indian Social Organization

Below are excerpts from "The Renaissance in India" by Sri Aurobindo, where he explains clearly the terms used within India for various units of social organization and their distinction.

In summary,
varNa = color i.e., Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra
Jaati = caste, e.g., Vaidika, Niyogi Brahmin, Reddy, Kamma, etc.
Kula = vamsha (clan), e.g., Kuru, Yaadava, Panchala, Rajput etc.

varNa is a concept that is based on svabhaava and distinct from birth, whereas jaati is determined by birth.
Originally, jaati came from varNa and later got subdivided.
i.e., within a varNa there might be multiple jaatis (e.g., subdivisions of brahmin caste).
Within a Jaati, there might be multiple kulas.

For each, there is a dharma - varNa dharma, jaati dharma and kula dharma.

Excerpts from "The Renaissance in India" by Sri Aurobindo pp. 417-419 available for download from

The Indian political system was still maintained for many centuries in the south, but
the public assemblies which went on existing there do not seem
to have been of the same constitution as the ancient political bodies,
but were rather some of the other communal organisations
and assemblies of which these were a coordination and supreme
instrument of control. These inferior assemblies included bodies
originally of a political character, once the supreme governing
institutions of the clan nation, kula, and the republic, gaNa.
Under the new dispensation they remained in existence, but lost
their supreme powers and could only administer with a subordinate
and restricted authority the affairs of their constituent
communities. The kula or clan family persisted, even after it
had lost its political character, as a socio-religious institution,
especially among the Kshatriyas, and preserved the tradition of
its social and religious law, kula-dharma, and in some cases its
communal assembly, kula-sangha. The public assemblies that
we find even in quite recent times filling the role of the old general
assembly in Southern India, more than one coexisting and
acting separately or in unison, appear to have been variations
on this type of body. In Rajputana also the clan family, kula,
recovered its political character and action, but in another form
and without the ancient institutions and finer cultural temper,
although they preserved in a high degree the Kshatriya dharma
of courage, chivalry, magnanimity and honour.

A stronger permanent element in the Indian communal system,
one that grew up in the frame of the four orders—in the end
even replacing it—and acquired an extraordinary vitality, persistence
and predominant importance was the historic and still
tenacious though decadent institution of caste, jaati. Originally
this rose from subdivisions of the four orders that grew up in
each order under the stress of various forces. The subdivision of
the Brahmin castes was mainly due to religious, socio-religious
and ceremonial causes, but there were also regional and local
divisions: the Kshatriyas remained for the most part one united
order, though divided into kulas. On the other hand the Vaishya
and Shudra orders split up into innumerable castes under the
necessity of a subdivision of economic functions on the basis
of the hereditary principle. Apart from the increasingly rigid
application of the hereditary principle, this settled subdivision
of function could well enough have been secured, as in other
countries, by a guild system and in the towns we do find a vigorous
and efficient guild system in existence. But the guild system
afterwards fell into desuetude and the more general institution
of caste became the one basis of economic function everywhere.
The caste in town and village was a separate communal unit, at
once religious, social and economic, and decided its religious,
social and other questions, carried on its caste affairs and exercised
jurisdiction over its members in a perfect freedom from
all outside interference: only on fundamental questions of the
Dharma the Brahmins were referred to for an authoritative interpretation
or decision as custodians of the Shastra. As with
the kula, each caste had its caste law and rule of living and
conduct, jaati-dharma, and its caste communal assembly, jaati sangha.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Inconvenient Concepts in Indian Puranas: Daampatya Dharma

Dharma vs. Vedanta

It is easy for us modern Indians to accept Vedantic ideas, but not Indian Dharmas because Vedanta makes intellectual sense and we can get away by debating and doing nothing else, whereas Dharmas often go against our individual freedom and don't explain why. The inconvenient truth is, there is no recourse except to follow Dharma to realize Vedantic truths. True, there are gurus who'll give you simpler-looking bypass routes initially, but the deeper you go, the more your life looks like that of orthodox brahmins. Look at Brahma Kumari followers.

However, Dharma has two aspects - the concept or the essence (tattva) that is eternal, and its form or manifestation (aachaara) that changes with time. What is commonly referred to as Dharma is mostly the form. In very few instances is the essence explained or the distinction made. This is where Indian Dharmic concepts are hard to crack by moderns. It demands a lot of viveka (discriminative acumen), shraddha (faithful diligence) and sampradaaya jnaanam (deep knowledge of the context) to isolate the essence from the form and apply it differently without loss to the core. We in India have been so accustomed to shallow thinking on deep subjects especially when it comes to original Indian ideas. In such matters, we get into the mode of either defense or offense instead of deep thought and assimilative innovation.

Dharmas need viveka to interpret and reformulate for the present circumstance.

Daampatya Dharma

I'd like to deal with one Indian dharma which is increasingly brushed aside as inapplicable to modern times - daampatya dharma (the law of conduct in married life) as laid out in our shaastras.

The english word `Husband' has dozens of connotations in Samskrit, each referring to a specific role played. Raadhaa explains those words and their import in the Devi Bhagavatam thus:

Samskrit words for husband and their connotations.

bhartaa = bears, supports (bibharti)
pati = takes care, protects (paalayati)
svaamii = lord over her body
kaantah = fulfills her desires (kaamanaaM pUrayati)
bandhuh = provides all comforts
priyah = pleases (priyam karoti)
iishvarah = bestows wealth and lordship (aishvaryam dadaati)
prANeshvarah = Lord of her life force (praaNaanaam prabhuH),
ramaNah = shares the pleasure of union (rati sukham dadaati, physical, emotional, aesthetic)

These words indicate how rich, precise and pregnant with culture Samskrit language is. A husband should cross check which title he deserves before expecting from his wife. Unless you bear the burden of the house, you're not a bhartaa. Burden is not just money, but also emotional cushioning for the family. Unless you can control your wife's excesses, you're not a svaamii or iishvara but a daasa.

But these concepts look like so archaic and B.C. era isn't it? They don't apply today, or they only apply to Gods. These are typical reactions we hear to such concepts. We cringe at the words svaamii and praaNeshvara. They look much like words of grandmother generation. Is there anything in those concepts that we can learn from and apply today?

Interpreting Daampatya Dharma for Today

If you look at those appellations closely, they are describing the various roles that a husband plays in married life. There will be a similar list for the wife as well. For instance, one of them is 'jaayaa' one produces progeny. But how to reconcile them with today's life where a female also earns and supports the family? How to reconcile with gay marriages?

If you decouple the male vs. female partner from their roles here, then they are listing the basic ingredient roles for a happy, fruitful, well-oiled married life. Any deficiency in any role play will lead to difficulties. Which partner dominates in which role is an implementation detail and may vary by era and social circumstances. Both may play a given role equally, some higher and some lower, or 
distribute. In some cases, physical body's nature or innate svabhaava forces the choice of role.

For instance, when I was doing PhD, my wife supported me for some time. During that time, she was bhartrii and I was bhaaryaH :-), and now our roles are reversed.

Dharmic Concepts: Separating Form and Essence

That is at a high level. Now delving a little deeper into the import of some "inconvenient" words. Take praaNeshvara, for example. Literally, praaNeshvaraH means lord of one's life (praaNa) which stands for vital force that is the seat of passion, impulse and living itself. Philosophically, only God can be praaNeshvara, but that's another discussion. Said another way, it is one in whose hands she has kept her entire life as its ruler/guide. What is the most precious for a human being? It is his/her life. When will I keep my life in the hands of someone? When I trust that person completely. When I am travelling in an airplane, who is my praaNeshvara during that journey? The pilot, and the air traffic control :-).

Complete, implicit trust is the corner stone of family life, unlike business life where the word is "trust but verify". If I don't want my partner to look into my bank or phone records, there goes the family for a toss.
That's why praaNeshvara is such an important word. If a wife hesitates to call her husband praaNeshvara, it means she doesn't trust him. There's something wrong. If the husband doesn't like to call his wife praaNeshvarii, it's time for a marriage counseling session.

My point is, whenever we hear Samskrit words, we squirm uncomfortably, feel embarrassed, cringe, dismiss, offend or defend. But we don't inquire deep. Traditional Indian thought is very deep, and deals with the very fibre of our personality. So do not dismiss Indian thoughts lightly. Find the essence and see how to give it a new form.