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I.10. The Hindu View of Society and its Global Relevance

 

Part I.10

The Hindu View of Society and Its Global Relevance

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������ Hindu Dharma contains a wealth of thought on social issues and a long tradition of social sciences. These begin with an extensive ancient literature of Dharma Shastras and Dharma Sutras, of which the well-known Manu Smriti is not the only one (or the last word for that matter). Even epics like the Mahabharata have many passages on the social order. Many modern Indian gurus, like Sri Aurobindo, have written on social issues. Of course, the role of Mahatma Gandhi in this respect is well known. Many modern Indian spiritual movements aim at social upliftment, like the recent Swadhyaya movement of Pandurang Shastri Athavale. In fact, the term Dharma in Hindu parlance first refers to the social dharma.

 

According to Hindu Dharma, Self-knowledge and the yogic approaches to achieve it are eternal and remain largely the same, differing in externalities of name, form and approach from age to age. However, the social dharma is less fixed and subject more to variations of time, place and culture. Therefore, Hindu Dharma (unlike, for example, Islam and its Sharia law code) does not have a single social dharma or social law for all time or for all cultures. It recognizes the need of different societies to define their social and political orders and is open to any number of possible social systems. The main issue for Hindu Dharma is that a social order encourages spiritual development and grants religious freedom and freedom of inquiry in all areas of life.

 

Strangely, these traditional social sciences are not well known to Hindus, much less to those who write about Hinduism. Few people understand that Hinduism projects both a spiritual and social order aimed at spiritual freedom and Self-realization. Hindu social thought is not the rigid authoritarian social order that people usually consider Hinduism to project through the caste system. It is also very different from Islamic or Christian views of the world divided between the believers and the non-believers. Hindu thought does not divide the world on the basis of religion into those who are saved and those who are not.

 

Most people look at Hindu social thought in the stereotyped form of the caste system, not realizing that this does not represent the real tradition at all. Caste by birth is a distortion of an originally more fluid system of social division and derives mainly from the medieval period as a defensive reaction against foreign invasions.The foundation of classical Hindu society is a recognition of individual needs and capacities, defined in spiritual as well as material terms.

 

������ Hinduism calls itself Sanatana Dharma, a universal or eternal tradition of dharma or natural law. It seeks both an individual and a collective order of Dharma harmonizing the human being within the greater universe of consciousness. The highest Dharma in Hinduism is Moksha, which means freedom or liberation of consciousness, not simply of the body. This implies the full development of individual potentials in order to expand one�s consciousness from the egoic level to a divine and cosmic realization. To this end all other human pursuits of earning a livelihood, raising a family, career achievement, and creative and cultural advancement have their value, but are not in themselves the ultimate. Without such a transcendent goal to turn these into liberating factors they lead to bondage and become factors of disintegration. After all, these factors deal with the transient and outer aspect of our nature. Only Self-realization has an eternal value.

 

There are four pillars of the Hindu view of society.

 

1.     Family � Jati

2.     Class � Varna

3.     Individual Dharma � Svadharma

4.     Differing Capacities � Adhikara Bheda

 

The Role of the Family and Tribe

 

Much is said in the western world today about the family and its decline in modern society. All current western politicians speak of�family values� often without making clear what exactly they mean either by the family or by values. Increasing divorce rates in particular are cited as a problem, with broken homes and single parents. The old family model of a two-parent family and a housewife taking care of the children at home has become the exception rather than the rule in the developed world.

 

Yet it is not surprising that the nuclear family is threatened in the West because the extended family disappeared decades ago. Mobile life-styles and urban living cut people off from their extended families and turned the nuclear family into an isolated unit. Without the support of an extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, the nuclear family cannot sustain itself. It is exposed to social vicissitudes like a person without the shelter of a house.

 

In Hinduism the concept of family includes not just the nuclear family, but also the extended family and community linked by ties of blood, neighborhood, culture and history. Such greater families are often referred to as �tribes� in traditional societies. Such larger family/communities care for their own and it is only in their absence that require modern socialized and government run care for the sick and the elderly (which, however, can never provide the same intimacy).

 

Family ties from the nuclear and extended family give strength to society. The nuclear and extended families nourish and support one another. In classical India, different families promoted certain forms of behavior and culture and preserved various traditions. Family traditions included forms of art, music science and religion. In this way they enriched not only the society, but also aided in the growth of the individuals who could be born into and are nurtured by diverse traditions.

 

In the West�and as is the trend of modern society everywhere�people are defined primarily as individuals. Each individual must have his or her own rights, job and money, which means that each person is on his or her own and in competition with all other individuals. This is isolating and frightening and breeds stress and loneliness. The result is that in the West today people are mainly living alone and looking at life in terms of their own separate identity. Though there is material affluence and unprecedented personal rights, there is also tremendous emotional unhappiness, personal alienation, and little by way of real culture. Most of the available culture is an entertainment field for individuals, like the movies, in which there is little real personal interaction.

 

However, new efforts to create family and community are arising to fill the void in human identity created by the breakdown of the family system and resultant social and psychological problems. Even the tribalism and gangs prevalent among the urban youth are an attempt, unconscious and confused though it may be, to give meaning to life through a family or clan identity.

 

Family ties, however important, of course do have their dangers. One can have a strong family or community of thieves, as in case of the Mafia. Family loyalty can turn into a means of exploiting other individuals or other families. The family good can override that of society and breed social division and chaos.

 

India today still suffers from this negative side of family, which is responsible for much of the so-called caste problem in the country. People seek the advancement of their own family or tribe at the expense of the society as a whole. Once a politician is elected his concern is not with the social good but with getting money or resources to his own family, tribe or caste, which is usually defined in terms of blood relations. He robs the state or society to further the vested interest of his family or community. His community becomes his vote bank that supports or elects him to further its separate interests at the expense of the greater good of the nation.

 

This family rule is most notable in India in the Congress party that has dominated the country since independence. Congress has been a dynasty of one family, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty through Pandit Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, in which loyalty to the current family head outweighs any real political ideology or social concerns. Strangely, such family and community based parties like Congress or the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Mulayam Singh Yadav boast a rhetoric of anti-castism while they themselves are promoting what are mainly only family, tribal or personal advantages!

 

Class � Varna

 

������ All societies are made up of classes, whether clearly defined as in traditional societies or loosely as in modern societies. All societies have their rich and poor, which is the main class division by wealth. But there are other class divisions as well.

 

The old Hindu idea was of a four-tiered society. First was an intellectual or spiritual class, the so-called Brahmins, the educators who guided the culture and provided its values. Second was the ruling, political or warrior class, the Kshatriyas who protected society from hostile forces. Third was the merchant or commercial class, which included both merchants and farmers, the Vaishyas, who created the wealth on which the society depended. The Vaishyas were the majority class in society (note the term �vish� from which vaishya derives means �the people�). It served to support society as a whole and create its resources.Fourth was servant or service oriented groups, the Shudras. They helped the other groups and in turn were cared for by them.

 

Each class had duties as well as rights. The Brahmins had to practice austerity and poverty, selflessly teaching and guiding the culture. The Kshatriyas had to be willing to fight and die in battle. The Vaishyas had to share their wealth with all the classes. Other subclasses existed like artists, musicians, craftsmen and doctors, which had more specific roles.

 

������ The varna system, in fact, reflects an organic order, like modern ecology. Human society is a single organism like the human body, but like the body consists of various limbs and organs that have their special functions necessary for the well-being of the whole. This is the Hindu image of the Brahmin as the head, the Kshatriya as the arms, the Vaishya as the legs and the Shudra as the feet. While this organic model was eventually applied in a rigid manner, overemphasizing one�s birth family, the importance of family traditions, which no society can entirely ignore, should not be forgotten either. The varna system originally emphasized guna and karma (Gita IV.13), the quality and action of a person, not simply the social position of the birth family. Individual achievement could lift one beyond ones class. If an individual exhibited qualities of another varna, he could with some extra effort join that class.In time, entire families could rise or fall in class status according to their behavior. While the family one was born into could be a helpful indication of one�s probable varna, it was not regarded as final. Note that even in common parlance in India today the son of a Pandit (panditaputra) means �a fool�, showing that we not only are like our parents but can become the opposite!

 

Social duties were shared in unusual circumstances. For example, if the Kshatriya or noble class was defeated in war, the other classes, even the Brahmins, took up arms, assuming the Kshatriya role to compensate. The varna system was an organic social order devised to support a common social good. It considered individual capacities as well as family and social background.

 

������ In addition, the highest goal of Moksha or liberation of the individual required going beyond the varna system, which was thought to be only of a preliminary nature in human development. This created orders of monks, sadhus, yogis and swamis who devoted themselves to spiritual practices and were not bound by the duties of any class or caste. They came from any class but were more commonly from the Brahmins, who were taught to seek liberation and to renounce personal satisfaction as part of the duties of their class.

 

Though people like to emphasize the role of caste in Hinduism, caste is not all there is to the Hindu view of society. The varna system broke down in India centuries ago. The majority of Brahmins today do not practice traditional Brahmin priestly occupations (and those who do are among the poorest of the poor, like temple priests in South India who earn only as much as a common street sweeper). They don�t live according to the rigid rules of piety and penance of medieval Brahmins, who were little more than monks. Similarly, the majority of Kshatriyas do not follow Kshatriya occupations. Many Shudras in India have achieved wealth as in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In fact, in India as throughout the modern world is dominated by commercialism and most people are following Vaishya values and ways of life.

 

Class and Caste in Other Societies

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Similar social orders existed throughout the ancient and medieval worlds with priestly orders, the nobility, merchants and the common people. Europe had its aristocracy, which was its Kshatriya class, until the early twentieth century and remnants of it still remain. While this aristocracy had its corruption, it did produce a certain refinement and artistic culture that the West still emulates today. This ancient class system has survived longer in India, both for good and for ill, which has preserved an ancient type of culture longer than other countries.

 

������ Yet this fourfold class order exists to some extent in modern cultures as well. All cultures have their educational elite of professors, scientists, doctors, artists, priests and ministers. They have their political class of politicians, lawyers, policemen and soldiers. They have their merchant and farmer classes. They have their servants or service oriented jobs. Such a division is almost inevitable in society based upon the division of labor according to social needs and human capacities.

 

������ Modern society has removed more obvious class divisions and inequities. Overt slavery has been abolished, but a clear division of rich and poor remains and in some countries, like America, is increasing again. It has reemerged as a division between rich and poor nations, in which third world countries provide cheap labor and raw material for the affluent nations of the West, just as servants used to provide this for their wealthy employers. Affluent cultures also import their servant classes from poorer countries, like the Mexicans in America, the Turks in Germany or Philippine maids in Singapore.

 

Family of birth remains an important index of one�s class. Most people still tend to follow the class status of their family, though exceptions are more common than in older cultures. Various wealthy or educational elites can be found all over the world. Each class also tends to create its own social group. We can see this in the political circles of Washington DC, in army barracks everywhere, in artistic countercultures, or in rural farm settings.

 

It is natural for people to create communities based upon common work or vocational interests. It can help enrich society as a whole by allowing people of common interests to strengthen their particular talents and resources. Such groups provide a field in which individuals can grow. For example, an individual of political temperament will do better if raised or working in a political class environment.

 

However, class like family, though natural and inevitable, has clear dangers. Class oppression is a well-known theme of recent centuries all over the world through the socialist and communist movements. The division of rich and poor is still perhaps the most cruel and defining aspect of social identity. Though a greater class equality has been created in modern times, class divisions have not and perhaps cannot be eliminated, any more than family divisions can. But they can be made to correspond better with real individual capacities.

 

Society cannot be one homogenous or gelatinous mass or it cannot stand. Like the human body it must have an organic structure and differentiation, which requires some class divisions. Even communist countries could not abolish class but instead created new classes of bureaucrats, policemen and ideologues, which were just their own modified forms of Vaishya, Kshatriya and Brahmin orders.

 

������ At the same time, modern society has no real concept of freedom that transcends social groups and their mundane goals. Modern society emphasizes a social dharma of success, affluence and materialism for everyone. It is a Vaishya dharma, not a Moksha dharma. Modern freedom is defined mainly in terms of commercial values; freedom to buy or freedom to do what one wants in the outer world. Modern commercial or Vaishya-dominated society appears stunted and incomplete, neither understanding, nor providing for the needs for all the different classes and temperaments of people. Because of its commercial values the gulf between the rich and the poor must continue.

 

Individual Dharma

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������ In Hindu thought, family and class identities are secondary to the individual and his or her own spiritual capacities. The individual is the real bearer of consciousness and only the individual can achieve Moksha or liberation. The social dharma of mutual duties rests upon the individual dharma of spiritual practice, which it should support and uphold. Ultimately, the individual must renounce society in order to achieve liberation. This is the basis of the many monastic and sadhu orders of Hinduism that require renunciation of all social status in order to join.

 

������ The main principle of individual dharma in Hinduism is Svadharma; one should follow one�s own dharma in life. The Bhagavad Gita III.35 states: �Better is one�s own dharma though imperfectly done, than the dharma of another well-performed. Better is death in one�s own dharma. To pursue the dharma of another carries great fear.�

 

������ Yet individual and social dharmas are interrelated. Family and community exist to provide a foundation for individual development. They create the field in which the individual can grow. For example, a person may have a good artistic capacity but if he is born into a family that dislikes art or into a cultural setting where no artistic training can be found, that capacity cannot develop.

 

������ The modern West emphasizes the material freedom of the individual to pursue desire, not the spiritual freedom of the individual to transcend desire. The western idea is of individual fulfillment and self-realization but only of our outer capacities, not our inner potentials. While this does provide an external freedom that has aided in advancements in science and technology, it has not liberated the spirit of man or brought the growth of a higher consciousness in humanity. Without spiritual freedom it still leaves humanity in the bondage of desire.

 

Individual Qualifications

 

������ Individual Dharma rests upon the capacities of the individual. Different people have different capacities and these also grow and change with time. Svadharma rests upon Adhikara Bheda (different capacities). We must understand what we are really capable of. Each creature in the world has its capacities. A squirrel cannot compete with a horse in running races, for example, but a horse cannot compete with a squirrel in terms of climbing trees! Yet the main quality or capacity of the human being is to pursue Self-realization. It is not a mere physical, biological or intellectual specialty.

 

We must also understand what is the highest good for a person. Svadharma means what reflects the dharma or spiritual capacity of a person. It is not Svakama, doing what we like or what affords us the most pleasure in the outer world. Such personal inclinations are not dharma.

The West promotes individual freedom and the ability of the person to become what they want. This is usually defined in terms of gaining fame or money in the outer world, which are the prime values of modern commercial culture. These are not dharma or a universal good but merely a transient or personal pleasure. They neither fulfill the individual, nor create a caring social order.

 

In modern society real individual capacity is often lost sight of. People seek what brings outer achievement and acquisition, not necessarily what reflects their real capacities or brings inner peace and happiness. A person becomes a doctor not necessarily out of love of healing but out of looking for a high paying job. The people who become prominent are not necessary those who are most capable in their fields but those best able to manipulate the media and create a good marketing strategy for their image, which seldom corresponds to who they really are. Packaging has become the main concern and content continues to decline.

 

Individual Dharma is not a matter of doing what one likes. Often our likes are mistaken. A person may want to be a great athlete but that may be a fantasy, not a real possibility. He may be better off in some other job. And our material capacities and spiritual capacities vary. We may have a material capacity to make a lot of money but not a spiritual capacity to achieve a higher state of consciousness. We sometimes have to choose between one or the other because our time in life is limited. We are not able to manifest all possibilities for ourselves, just as even a good musician cannot be good at playing all musical instruments.

 

As individuals we have several capacities and must understand not only what we want to do but also what represents our highest good. The difficulty lies in determining the real capacity of a person. It is much like a student in school. They require some aptitude testing or job training to determine this. Merely what they want may not be enough to show their real place in life.

 

������ Most people don�t know their real capacities and generally seek something imaginary or inflated for themselves. We must remember the example of the Gita. Krishna urged Arjuna to fight in battle rather than to renounce the world because Arjuna was a Kshatriya, a warrior, not only by caste but by individual temperament, not a monk or sadhu. The monk role was an escape to avoid the difficult duties that his dharma required.

 

A Hindu View of Society

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In the Hindu view a global or enlightened society must consider these four bases of the social order. Above all a Moksha Dharma or the seeking of spiritual freedom and self-realization must be present for an really enlightened social order to emerge.

 

������ Family is necessary, not only the nuclear family, but also the extended family and a greater community or tribe. Class differences are necessary as they fulfill various social needs. However, both family and class groups should promote greater social unity and a common welfare. They should encourage rather than stifle the capacities of individuals even if these deviate from family or class norms. In short, they must remain general, flexible and adaptable, with an orientation to a higher spiritual dharma.

 

Most important is a society that recognizes individual dharma and individual capacities as the highest goal. The individual has to be free to pursue his or her own dharma according to his or her own capacities. This is to respect the Self, Atman or Divine presence in everyone.

 

However, in emphasizing the individual, the dharma of the individual must be stressed. Dharma is the unifying factor. The dharma of the individual cannot stand apart from the dharma of the society or the dharma of the universe and implies not only individual capacities but also personal duties as well. We all have our part to play in the universal order, which is an order of giving, sharing and sacrifice (Yajna). That is our Dharma. Our individual dharma is not intended to obstruct the dharma of others but to aid in the unfoldment of all life. Fulfillment of individual dharma and social dharma must go hand in hand. It is the pursuit of desire that is divisive, which is a deviation from the cosmic order of sharing (Yajna).

 

������ Modern society is a commercial society. It suppresses spiritual or dharmic capacities in people and instead promotes desire and ego based urges that lead to adharma. Communist society emphasized �to each according to his needs and from each according to his abilities�. This principle reflects a consideration of individual capacity. Unfortunately, it is defined only in material terms and so could never become a reality.

To foster the real individual or the real person (Atman or Purusha) means to control the desire-based ego. It means to develop the real capacities of people, not merely to inflate their wants, ambition or aggression. It means to help people to discover what they really love to do for its own sake, not to pursue results. Here again the Gita II. 47 teaches us, saying that our adhikara, our right or capacity is only to do the work, not to seek its results. If you love doing something you are not counting the rewards. You will do it even if there are no rewards.

 

������ This dharmic idea of society preserves individual freedom at the deepest level while maintaining duty to the world in our outer behavior. It affords a place for commercial urges without allowing them to dominate our deeper aspirations. It has a place for family and class but one that does not serve to stifle the individual or to fragment society.

 

Religion in Human Society

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Religion, or the seeking to align the human being with the cosmic being, should play a role in creating a proper social order. Religion establishes the sacraments for keeping together the family and the community. Religion defines the priestly class that provides the main educators and value promoters for society. Therefore religion should be the main source of dharma.

 

������ The problem with western religions as they have developed historically is that they do not have a proper concept of Svadharma or individual dharma. They have one savior, prophet, book, church or belief for everyone, as if there were no real individual temperamental differences. Should anyone seek to follow a different or personal approach to the spiritual life they are criticized or punished as unorthodox or heretical.

 

Such religions try to impose their one belief on all human beings, destroying any individual and cultural achievements and capacities that might get in the way. Their effort to convert the world to a single belief shows their rigidity and their lack of understanding of the diversity of life. This is like trying to get everyone to dress the same, talk the same or walk the same. Certainly we need as much freedom and creativity in praying, meditating and worshipping as we do in other aspects of life. Otherwise we are not really human beings but only automatons.

 

������ On the other hand, Hinduism has many Gods, Goddesses, teachers, scriptures, and Yoga practices in order to accommodate the different levels and capacities of individuals. This multiplicity of deities represents how the higher and universal truth can be approached from the various angles of the many human types. It reflects not an abstract or exclusive unity but a creative and flexible unity that moves and changes with life itself.

 

������ A dharmic society should rest upon a dharmic approach to religion. This implies an approach that is pluralistic, non-dogmatic, creative, adaptable and alive. Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, shorn of its unnecessary accretions, can offer such a dharmic vision. Unfortunately, most Hindus don�t understand their tradition and are unable to use it in their own lives, much less share it with others. Some of them are putting a rigidity into Hinduism that ignores this entire foundation of svadharma and self-realization. Others are failing to see the universality of dharma in Hinduism and regarding it as something merely cultural or ethnocentric.

 

A New Way of Dharma

 

We are now entering a global, multicultural and multi-religious age. We are moving from the technological age to the age of information, to an eventual age of consciousness. Rigid and exclusive forms can no longer be justified in our social or religious orders. At the same time, we cannot ignore the organic base of life in nature, family and community. The abstract ideological approaches of communism and socialism have failed. Modern commercialism is reaching its limits in global exploitation and ecological devastation. The fulfillment of the individual, the society or the world of nature can no longer be separated from one another. Nor can we define our fulfillment only in economic terms without causing harm both to people and to nature.

 

For this coming new world-age (yuga), we need a new socio-political-economic order. The models of the past are either erroneous or out of date. The only real solution is a new culture of dharma, in which individual, social and planetary dharmas have their place and their interdependence is clearly recognized as well. New political systems have to evolve that go beyond the limitations of modern democracy without bringing back old forms of tyranny. A new economic system is required that neither suppresses economic freedom, as in communism, nor makes it the end all of life, as in the current multinational capitalism. Naturally this will require much thinking, planning and new experiments.

 

We must return to the dharmic roots of human civilization for a new dharmic renaissance. A new society of dharma is required for a new age of dharma. Dharmic thinking must be reintroduced not only in religion but also in science and culture. Dharmic action must be emphasized over any seeking of results or gaining of outer powers. This dharmic approach is not hostile to any truth and can serve to integrate the skill and wisdom in all our human endeavors. The dharmic approach loses nothing that is unique but at the same time does not take away from the totality. A new dharmic inquiry (Dharma Mimamsa) is necessary, including into the roots of the social order. In the Hindu tradition, this will require creating new Smritis and Dharma Shastras. There are lasting solutions to all the problems of life, but these are dharmic solutions. We must seek such dharmic solutions to our problems and not be content with mere short term profit.

 

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