by Swami Krishnananda
The perfect outlook of life considers four aspects which form inseparable ingredients of the very notion of perfection—society, the individual, the universe, and God. These four principles sum up the central objectives of what may be called the human perspective.
The Indian's outlook has ever been a movement towards the achievement of perfection in degrees. There has never been an attempt to jump over the scales of evolution, but rather a very systematised endeavour at completing the duties called upon everyone at every level of evolution, starting with the lowest possible form.
Previously I mentioned that this vision of perfection took into consideration four objectives of human existence known as the Purusharthas—dharma, artha, kama, moksha —which great ideal is implemented and worked out through the administration and organisation of society, and the discipline of the individual. The organisation of society took the form of the varna system, and the discipline of the individual took the form of the ashrama system. These are the famous varna and ashrama orders of the regulation of life as a whole.
No man in this world is complete, and no man can be complete. Inasmuch as the endowments of every individual are partial, human society would be a conglomeration of partial individualities; there would be nothing perfect anywhere. The human personality is an admixture of various levels or, we can say, forces. The layers of the so-called individuality—the physical body, the pranas, the mind, the intellect, and the spirit—are all there in every individual, but none is fully developed in any person. If the body is perfect, the mind may not be; if the mind is perfect, the body may not be, and so on.
The wisdom of the ancients was such that they contemplated a system of introducing some sort of perfection into the social order by bringing together the various partial endowments of personalities into an ordered system, which gave the shape of perfection. In the Sankhya philosophy we have the famous example illustrating the work of purusha and prakriti jointly. Purusha is supposed to be like a lame person who can see; prakriti is supposed to be like a blind person who can walk. Suppose the person who can see but has no legs sits upon the shoulders of the person who cannot see but has legs; then there is an appearance of a complete ability to reach the destination. We can say there is a total individuality by a bringing together of two partial aspects, which is a good illustration to explain the point that we are making in connection with the varna system.
As no man is complete—no man is wholly spiritual, no man is wholly intellectual or rational, no man is wholly emotional or active, and no man is wholly capable of manual work, etc.—a necessity is felt to bring together the various partialities into a wholeness for the welfare of society. It is something like the system of give-and-take in the field of commercial activity. He who has rice but needs cloth will sell his rice to a person who has cloth; and one who has cloth but has no rice will trade his cloth for rice. The old barter system was like this. Everyone has needs, but no one has the capacity to fulfil all their needs. What I have, others may not have; and what others have, I may not have. Therefore, in order that social solidarity may be ensured so that there may be some sort of perfect image produced in the totality of the social structure, the varna system was thought to be the most advisable method to be adopted.
What does the varna system mean, actually? We have a very crude notion of these ideas. We have often heard of the various castes, known as the Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, the Sudras, etc. While originally it was a purely rational, scientific, impersonal contemplation of social values, it has gradually deteriorated into a kind of emotional appropriation of prerogatives, and has tended to become an obnoxious system. Well, we can call any dog a bad name and hang it, but all dogs are not necessarily bad. Likewise, a misinterpretation and a misconstruing of the original intention can become a travesty—as it is also in the case of the various religions of the world, for instance.
The original prophets and the founders were masters—Godmen and Incarnations who had the vision of the Supreme Supernal Light—who gave mankind a divine message with eternal significance. But when the prophet has vanished and the Incarnation has gone, there are followers who misinterpret, distort, and cut off one faith from another so that the very intention of the prophet or the Incarnation is lost, and we have only warfare among religious faiths. Such a thing has happened to the original system of varna.
'Varna' does not actually mean colour in a grammatical sense. It means the colour which is philosophically or metaphysically attributed to the so-called gunas of prakriti—sattva, rajas and tamas. These three properties of prakriti are the basis or the substratum of what are known as the colours. It does not mean the colour of the skin, as it is sometimes wrongly thought to be. It is the colour of the property preponderating in a particular individual in some measure—how much sattva, how much rajas, how much tamas is there in an individual. No one is wholly sattvic, wholly rajasic or wholly tamasic; there is some percentage of each guna in different individuals in various proportions.
The group of individuals who have the capacity to reflect a maximum amount of sattva are those persons who can think better in terms of the higher reason behind things than those who are predominantly rajasic or tamasic. So is the case with the other properties—rajas and tamas. Rajas has a tendency to activate everything, and tends towards energetic movement. Tamas is very heavy, dense and static. It does not move like rajas, and cannot think like sattva.
Society has many kinds of requirements and, as we have noted earlier, individuals constitute a society. Whatever is the need of a man is the need of society, so to say. We have hunger and thirst, and everyone in society has this difficulty—an urge to appease our hunger, quench our thirst, and wear clothing. Therefore, we also have a need for the procedure of give-and-take because everyone needs something. I have touched upon the principles of administration, almost bordering upon the system of political science, which tells us something about the origin of the administrative system—the need for organisation in society, how people feel that they have to be governed by a principle, law or rule because individuals are isolated particulars scattered hither and thither—and that there is nothing visible in the world which can bring them together in the form of an organisation.
How can two persons come together unless there is something common between them? But what is common between individuals? We can see nothing in common. Each person is absolutely independent in many respects. It was discovered very early that this independence of attitude is to the detriment of individuals because one cannot be wholly independent unless one is also wholly perfect. An imperfect person cannot be absolutely independent; and, as no one in this world is perfect, no one can be independent.
Thus arises the necessity to be dependent on others; and the need for dependence calls for a system of relationship among people that lands us upon the system of the management of persons. And what is law, but the rule which tells us how to manage individuals? This also was necessary.
But the way of this administration, or the rationale behind the system of organisation, is most important, whatever that organisation be—whether administrative, economic, or anything else. Every action is preceded by a thought. We cannot jump into activity without thinking of the pros and cons of the steps that we are taking, because the thought is the constitution that we lay at the very outset before we implement a procedure. Hence, there must be people to think of the way to organise things.
Thus was sown the seed of the varna system. There would be the thinking or the rational type of people who contribute their might of knowledge for the purpose of the wholesome evolution and growth of society in its entirety; others would work vigorously by contributing their own abilities to maintain the organisational order or system; others would help in a third manner, by providing the economic means of sustenance; and there should also be people who would act like the pillars of the entire edifice of society, the footstool of the whole picture called human organisation. That we need people to work, and we need people to provide the economic means of sustenance by the procedure is well known. There is also a need for organisation and administration. And there is, above all, a need to think. Therefore, the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras are not superior and inferior types of people in society. This very poor interpretation is a travesty of the originally good-intentioned system.
We know very well how beautifully the Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda touches upon this system of organisation when it says: brahmano'sya mukhamasid bahu rajanyah kritah, uru tadasya yad vaishyah padbhyagi shudro ajayata. This image that we have in the Purusha Sukta of the Veda is illustrative of a very important significance hidden behind this system, namely, the organic character of people. As the human body is one organic completeness, society is also supposed to be that. The body is supported by the legs which stand firmly on the ground, and the legs are connected to the main trunk through the thighs, and there is the trunk, the whole body, and there is the voice which speaks the wisdom thought by the mind. That there is a cooperative action in an organism of the human personality is well known to every person, and we have no partiality or favouritism in regard to any limb of our body. It is improper to think that the legs are inferior to the head, the heart, the trunk, the arms, etc.
In a family, no child is unimportant, though various aptitudes are visible in the children of that family. It is preposterous to think in terms of 'high' and 'low' in anything whatsoever in this world, because the intention of any type of organisation, including the organisation of the physical body itself, is not to pinpoint the superiority or the inferiority of any particular aspect or organ, but to achieve the collective focusing of force, and the cooperation that is behind these apparently isolated limbs, for a purpose entirely transcendent to themselves.
The leg does not walk for its own sake. What does the leg gain by walking? The leg can say, "Why should I walk? I gain nothing." What does the brain gain by thinking? What do the hands gain by grasping? If we take each item separately, there seems to be no significance in the action. The action is significant only in terms of a higher transcendent purpose. A machine does not work for its own sake. What does a machine gain by moving? Its moving is significant in terms of the output that results from its movement. The output of the machine is the transcendent purpose beyond the machine.
The limbs of the body work, not because that work has any significance of its own when viewed independently, but because it has a transcendent significance, which is the maintenance of the whole person. The maintenance of the person is the transcendent intention behind the working of the isolated limbs of the body. Likewise, no individual can work, or should work, for himself. Otherwise, each one would be grumbling, "Why should I work?"—as it often happens these days. People do not understand the dignity of labour, the meaning or significance of work, even as one cannot know why the leg is walking. Its moving seems to be meaningless and unnecessary. But we know why it is moving. It has a purpose beyond itself.