Source from An article by Swami Satyaswarupananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – February 2005
Individual freedom, social equality and democracy are considered the defining virtues of modern civilization. They are the benchmarks against which social thinkers judge the progress of nations and peoples. These values are often found to be compromised in the developing world and such areas have provided focal points for intervention by the North. Whether these interventions have been intellectual, socio-economic, political or military, they have invariably been controversial and contested. For, although few intellectuals would argue against the universal desirability of these values, few societies can boast of allowing a free play to these. In fact, numerous extant and vigorous social institutions confound and challenge the universality of these values. Caste is one such institution.
To speak of caste without condemning it is a sure way to invite censure, yet caste as an institution has proved remarkably enduring. If the Constitution of free India abolished untouchability and made caste discrimination illegal, the provision of reservations for scheduled castes and tribes has tended to reinforce the caste identity of at least a large section of the Indian population. Elections in India repeatedly confirm the fact that even progressive and liberal-minded individuals can hardly afford to ignore caste equations if they are to be successful in electoral politics. Caste remains a crucial determinant in a majority of Indian marriages, even when the individuals concerned are well educated and are otherwise little concerned about caste. It has been pointed out by social thinkers that caste served as a social bulwark that protected and preserved the Hindu society in the face of invasions, but the same bulwark also cramped the Hindus with restrictions, thus sapping their vitality and choking their growth. This paradoxical nature of caste has intrigued scholars and social observers and excited their imagination down the centuries. This has spawned hundreds of writings and observations on the subject without the last word being said yet.
The Sociology of Caste
Caste is essentially about social divisions and gradations, about the formation of classes and ranks based on differences in lineage, occupation or wealth. In recent times, Louis Dumont’s book Homo Hierarchicus has popularized the concept of human beings as essentially hierarchical in their social formations. It has been argued that social hierarchy is an inevitable outcome of basic biological differences between humans – both as individuals as well as groups – and these differences are often accentuated by environmental modifiers. That such gradations are natural is supported by their existence amongst a wide range of social animals. Ants, termites and bees provide a striking example of organized division of function and labour. The queens, nymphs, workers, soldiers and drones amongst these insects have very specialized roles and these divisions are therefore termed ‘castes’ by entomologists.
Most people identify caste with Hindu society, but discerning observers have pointed out that the Hindu caste system is only a special case of a much more general, if not universal, phenomenon of class distinction and hierarchy. Social stratification appeared early in the course of social evolution. The four varnas of Vedic India had their equivalents in other contemporary civilizations. Endogamy, commensality and occupational specialization are taken by social anthropologists to define caste, and these were virtually the determinants of all social stratification in pre-modern societies.
In modern societies, occupational diversity, increased social mobility, loosening of family ties and economic expansion have led to the replacement of the traditional determinants of caste by economic status as the sole determinative of social difference. We now have economic classes – the upper, the middle and the working – that are in no way less hierarchical than the traditional caste or the ranked feudal order. What differentiates the modern class from its medieval or ancient counterpart is the theoretical lack of exclusiveness and the individual as the unit of stratification. Unfortunately, in practice, not many individuals manage to rise from the lower ranks of society to its higher echelons, and so class divisions are not as labile as one would otherwise expect them to be.
Marxism represents a modern ideological attempt at developing a classless society. However, the inevitability of class struggle and the rule of the proletariat as predicted by Marx never really materialized in the industrial nations of Europe. Capitalist societies circumvented this problem through welfare measures and ‘class cooperation’. Marxism succeeded as a political movement in agrarian societies through dictatorial measures that not only curbed individual enterprise and democracy, but also led to the replacement of the feudal hierarchy with its bureaucratic communist counterpart.
conflict. Even after the abolition of A more sinister form of social division is the one on racial and ethnic lines. At a global level this is currently one of the leading causes of slavery and apartheid racial bias in subtle forms remains apparent in affluent societies, while in almost all recent large-scale armed conflicts ethnic issues have played a significant role.
Caste, then, as it is found in India, is hardly unique. Yet it has distinctive features that deserve attention. When the Portuguese first used the term caste they derived it from casta, meaning ‘pure or unmixed’. They were probably impressed by the rules segregating the castes and the prohibitions against inter-marriage. That a series of Smriti texts down the centuries had been formulating rules to regulate social organization, and in the process routinize and perpetuate the existing segregation, is also unique to India.
Evolution of Castes
Interestingly, the origins of the varna divisions as found in the Rig Veda appear to be racial. Early verses of this Veda speak of two varnas, the arya and the dasa (or dasyu), as two distinct and inimical groups, differing in physical features, skin colour and culture. The dasas were later conquered and assimilated even as the four varnas with their traditional duties as known to us crystallized by the later Vedic period.
Although according to texts like the Bhagavadgita varna divisions are based on individual character traits (guna) and occupation (karma), these divisions had turned hereditary in the late Vedic period itself, even as occupations became hereditary. Here it may be worth noting that even in modern societies the likelihood that children will choose the vocation of their parents, or a related vocation, is quite high. That occupations should be hereditary in ancient times was, therefore, only natural.
Despite the restrictions imposed by the Smritis on inter-varna marriages, caste divisions in ancient India remained fairly fluid. In the Mahabharata we find Yudhishthira commenting: ‘It appears to me that it is very difficult to ascertain the caste of human beings on account of confusion of all varnas … hence the wise consider character the prinicipal desirable. ‘Acharya Shankara echoes a similar view about the then existing caste structure in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya.
The proliferation of vocations and inter-varna marriages led to the formation of numerous occupational groups, each of which became, by the medieval times, a caste or a sub-caste called jati which, as the name itself implies, was hereditary.
Caste and Privilege
If social hierarchy is universal and if caste is simply one form of social hierarchy, what has made the Indian caste system an anachronism and anathema in modern times? For one, as stated earlier, economic factors are the prime determinants of the social order – the social and political relations, and the class divisions that characterize modern societies. The rise of ‘vaishya power’, as Swami Vivekananda put it, was coincident with the Industrial Revolution and has been the chief driving force for capitalist societies both in the colonial and the post-colonial era. The jati hierarchy, however, is not consonant with economic status, and has often been at odds with the rising economic order. Second, the free market capitalist economy always leaves room for upward socio-economic mobility, although in practice such rise may not be common. The predetermined nature of jatis, however, tend to discourage social change. Finally, it was the prescription of hereditary privileges and social discrimination, manifesting in its worst form as ‘untouchability’, that really made the caste system an eyesore.
Interestingly, scholars have argued that the crystallized caste system as it obtained in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was ‘neither an unchanged survival of ancient India nor a single system that reflected core cultural values’. Rather, caste as a modern social construct is ‘the product of a concrete historical encounter between India and British colonial rule’. Not only did the British privilege caste distinctions over all other forms of social identity but they also played upon caste identities to ensure colonial control. The significant changes ushered into Indian society after independence both through constitutional and social measures provide some support for this view.
Source from An article by Dr. Sreemati Mukherjee which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – July 2005
Shakti: Destruction, Defying Categorization, Ultimately Enigmatic
In the biography by Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, the first book-length study of her life, there is a passage where the author quotes Swami Vivekananda as saying that within Holy Mother’s apparently calm exterior was embodied the power of the destructive aspect (of God as woman and Shakti). If she embodies Shakti, as Sri Ramakrishna himself said she did, then we have to keep in mind that energy must also have its terrifying dimensions. My mind goes back to an incident I read many years ago, once again in Swami Gambhirananda’s biography. In the chapter entitled ‘Devi’ he refers to an incident where, in response to someone tentatively suggesting that a mad relative of hers might set fire to an ashrama created for Sri Ramakrishna, Mother seemed to undergo a facial transformation and declared in a loud and unnatural tone, ‘That would be just wonderful! Just the way He wanted it! Let everything be a vast cremation ground.’ Thereupon she started laughing, once again in a loud and unnatural manner, which readers familiar with Bengali will recognize in the term attahasya.
Credit should be given to Swami Gambhirananda for including this piece of information that offers what many would construe as an unnatural, uncanny and even monstrous dimension of Mother’s personality. However, the incident seems to underscore the complexity of the idea of Shakti. Sri Ramakrishna speaks of Kali or Mahamaya as someone who gives birth to a child and then gobbles it up. If Kali means Time that both redeems and destroys, accepting Kali means accepting tragedy as integral to life. Kali is no symbol that speaks to one of various kinds of power only, but also an idea that stands for the struggles embedded in life. By that token, even if we are afforded a rare glimpse into the terrifying depths of Sri Sarada Devi’s personality in an incident like this, she also exemplifies suffering and pain as that face of Kali who is Time.
If one were to peruse her biographies written by Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, Swami Gambhirananda and Swami Tapasyananda, one would become aware of Sarada Devi’s grinding domestic routine. As Swami Tathagatananda, head of the Vedanta Society of New York, once said at a congregation in which I happened to be present, ‘None of you, I can guarantee, would have been able to take her routine in that narrow, extremely low-roofed room, hung over with pots and pans, crowded with women relatives and women visitors, in the way she did, from three in the morning till about eleven in the night.’ The lives of women vegetable sellers who travel long distances to sell their produce, or hospital ayahs who work many hours outside their house without profitable gains recompensing them, perhaps bear a much closer relationship to the sheer physical demands of her work routine, than us who often occupy elite positions in society and remain far removed from the conditions of such labour.
It will be worthwhile to remember that Sri Sarada Devi lived a life that by most standards could be called qualified and circumscribed by poverty. Indeed, there is enough documentation to prove that after the death of Sri Ramakrishna, when she lived mostly alone in his parental home at Kamarpukur from 1887 to 1890, she wore saris that were knotted in various places to cover up the rents in the fabric, and that she also lived on a diet that consisted of rice and spinach, without even salt to season the fare. Although her stay at Kamarpukur was punctuated by trips to Calcutta and to places of pilgrimage, it was an intensely difficult period of her life. Besides the fact of poverty, she also had to face the indifference of Sri Ramakrishna’s surviving relatives and the cruelty of villagers, many of whom criticized her for not subscribing to the strict norms dictating a widow’s appearance. Keeping in mind Sri Ramakrishna’s wish that she wear ornaments and a sari that attested to her married state, she did not bow to the weight of public opinion, but preserved her dignity and singularity of purpose in the face of public criticism.
In the Midst of Family Life
Unhappy with her daughter’s state in Kamarpukur, Shyamasundari Devi, her mother, requested Sri Sarada Devi to take up residence with her in Jayrambati, where she lived on and off till her death. Holy Mother had four surviving brothers, Prasannakumar, Kalikumar, Baradaprasad and Abhaycharan, and their families now became her own. Her youngest and most promising brother Abhaycharan passed away shortly, leaving behind a wife (Surabala) and an infant daughter (Radharani or Radhu). Surabala had lost her mother as a child and had been brought up by her aunt and grandmother, who too passed away shortly after her husband’s death. Whatever the reasons for her mental unhinging, she thereupon became completely incapable of looking after her daughter. Observing her callous treatment of Radhu in the family courtyard, Mother resolved to take responsibility for the child herself. From that day onwards, practically till the last days of her life, Holy Mother remained Radhu’s formal caretaker.
Some aspects of Sri Sarada Devi’s life have a persistent quality. They are her unwavering commitment to people both within and without the family, a scrupulous sense of dispensing her duties and an untiring espousal of the doctrine of work. In her youth it was Sri Ramakrishna, his mother, women devotees like Golap Ma, would-be monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, and other householder devotees who visited him who benefited from her ceaseless attention to their welfare. Her own needs of washing, eating and sleeping were met with the minimum of fuss and almost beyond the direct observation of any person. In our age of obstreperous flaunting of ourselves and our rejection of the values of quietness and patience, maybe we need to look at the quiet message that her life sends us. Apart from an occasional moment of grumbling, she submitted to an arduous routine of work with the utmost grace and acceptance. Her life is well documented, and if this was not the reality of her nature, there would be stray references here and there, arguing to the contrary. She retained a habit of contentment well into her final years, and rarely displayed displeasure or taciturnity.
Her domestic life with her brothers’ families was vexing, to say the least. In the early years of her stay with her brothers, Kaliprasanna particularly harangued her constantly for money. Later on Radhu, Surabala and Nalini (Prasannakumar’s daughter) each took a part in taxing and stretching her patience to its utmost limits. The three women mentioned above were a constant feature of her retinue, whether she lived in Jayrambati or in Calcutta. Of course, the presence of women devotees like Golap Ma and Yogin Ma lessened the burden of living with such oppressive and intractable relatives, but Sri Sarada Devi mostly lived out a domestic existence that was troublesome and precarious, to say the least. The principal share in making her family life truly thorn-infested was of course Radhu’s and Surabala’s.
Love as the Defining Mode of Being
Radhu was often sick and had to be nursed very carefully, and Sri Sarada Devi often took the burden of this nursing. As a child she (Radhu) had a sweet temperament, but as she developed and matured into adult years, she lost a great deal of her earlier sweetness and in fact acquired a complaining, truculent nature. Holy Mother, unremitting in her care and attention towards Radhu, often bore the brunt of Radhu’s temperamental behaviour that sometimes crossed all recognizable limits of decency and order. I shall refer to certain incidents that occurred towards the end of Holy Mother’s life.
By this time Radhu was not only married but also the mother of a child. During the months of her pregnancy, Radhu’s nerves had been in such a state of stress that she could not adjust to even the most peaceful and unproblematic of surroundings; the least noise anywhere would be enough to upset her. Having moved around with her to various places, Holy Mother eventually resided with her in a small house in a place called Koalpara, where the almost absolute quietness of the village surroundings satisfied Radhu. For someone who was used to so much attention from a variety of devotees both male and female, Holy Mother could well have been a little less accommodating of Radhu’s idiosyncrasies. But such was the absolute nature of her commitment to this girl that she never walked away from what she read as her duty in a particular situation.
In spite of being the recipient of such loving care for years on end, Radhu remained capable of the most negative reciprocation imaginable. Once denied opium, which she had formed a habit of taking from the time of the difficult delivery of her child, Radhu took a large brinjal from a basket of vegetables that Holy Mother was cutting, and hurled it against her back. Sri Sarada Devi’s back swelled up at the point of contact, but all she said was, ‘Thakur, don’t count that as Radhu’s sin. She’s witless!’.
Within the bounds of my knowledge, I can only think of Christ’s reaction on the Cross, where he prayed to his Father to ‘forgive’ the perpetrators who had executed the deed of nailing him on the Cross, as an analogous incident. Absolute forgiveness of this nature is hard to imagine, but Sri Sarada Devi remains a fairly recent historical example of this kind of ultimate human possibility. Perhaps, this is the ‘water’ that Eliot was bemoaning the lack of in the rock-strewn wasteland of our modern existence.
Radharani, as I have mentioned before, was not the only thorn disturbing the domestic peace of Holy Mother’s household. Surabala would often break out into insane demonstrations of anger and jealousy, not stopping to accuse Sri Sarada Devi of appropriating Radhu for her own self. Once Holy Mother lost her patience and declared in an agitated tone, a rough translation of which amounts to ‘Look, don’t treat me as an ordinary person! You are lucky I don’t take offence with what you say. … Your daughter will remain yours. I can cut off her hold on me any minute that I choose to!’ . Nalini for her part insisted on airing all her petty superstitions and obsessions. Once she told Sri Sarada Devi that she would have to take her bath all over again because a crow had committed some imaginary offence on her. Whereupon Sri Sarada Devi rejoined, ‘Obsessions! Your mind is never clean of them. They will increase as much as you allow them to’ . To this same Nalini, she had on a similar occasion insisted on the purity of the mind, because it was the mind, she felt, that determined the perception of good and evil (ibid.).
Despite the frustrating conditions of her domestic life, Sri Sarada Devi had acquired an iconic status by the time she died. Sought after, importuned and loved by devotees not only from Bengal but from all over India, she retained till the last days of her life a principle of care and commitment to all those who sought her shelter in some way. Perhaps more than Sri Ramakrishna, she was tolerant of human excesses and deviances. Given her social, cultural and historical location as a Bengali woman with a conservative rural upbringing, it was no ordinary act of catholicity to say that the thief Amjad and her much beloved Sharat (Swami Saradananda) were equally her sons. This was in response to Nalini’s remonstration one day at Jayrambati, that she should not extend excessive hospitality to Amjad knowing that he was a thief. She also extended hospitality to Nivedita and to the Americans Sarah Bull and Josephine MacLeod at a time when foreigners were considered to be ‘untouchable’ by conservative Bengalis.
Her last words to a woman devotee were: ‘If you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults. Learn to make the whole world your own. No one is a stranger, my child; this whole world is your own!’. It is on this note that I would like to end my tribute to Sri Sarada Devi. She touched the lives of many while she was alive. Even after her death she continues to draw many lives to her and perhaps provides them with that still point of rest or repose, that shanti with which this article began.
Notes and References
1. What, in short, is modernity? Different people, different critics and different cultural historians define it variously. In India, perhaps it would be safe to equate the arrival of modernity with the revival or inculcation of scientific and rational methods of enquiry that was one of the gifts (although the word gift is used keeping in mind the coercive, politically implicated and sometimes emasculating effects of Western education in India) that Western thinkers brought to the country. We see the visible manifestation of this spirit in Raja Rammohun Roy and his championing of a more rational and thereby a more humane basis to social practices and rituals which were sometimes stifling, life-denying and cruelly oppressive to women in particular.
2. Matthew Arnold, ‘To Marguerite’ in The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1950), ed. Helen Gardner (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 687.
3. T S Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (1909-1950) (New York, San Diego and London: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1950), 47.
4. The Upanishads, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1975), 182-3.
5. Complete Poems and Plays, 55.
6. Jibanananda Das, ‘Banalata Sen’ in Bangla Kabita Samuchchay, ed. Sukumar Sen (New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1991), 412.
7. ‘Thousand’ and ‘walking’ are simply English translations of the Bengali words hajaar and chalitechhi that occur in the poem.
8. ‘Burnt Norton’ in Complete Poems and Plays, 119.
9. St Matthew, 16.25.
10. King Lear, 4.4.
11. Louis Fischer, ‘My Week with Gandhi’ in Higher Secondary English Selections (Prose) (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati Publishing Department on behalf of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education, 1984).
12. Ibid., 61.
13. Swami Gambhirananda, Sri Ma Sarada Devi (Calcutta: Udbodhan Karyalay, 1987), 32. Translations of all Bengali citations are mine.
14. Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, Sri Sri Sarada Devi (Calcutta: Calcutta Book House, 1396 BE), 108.
15. Sri Ma Sarada Devi, 105.