A system of four castes or hierarchies of people. Based not on birth but on a person’s natural capacities and goals of life. [ref]The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, explained by Paramhansa Yogananda. Glossary.[/ref]
Ancient Hindu System
Originally formulated by the great legislator Manu, the ancient system of India describes the natural spiritual evolution of people through four classes. Also known as varnas, the castes are: sudras, capable of offering service to society through bodily labor; vaisyas, who serve through mentality, skill, agriculture, trade, commerce, and business life in general; kshatriyas, rulers and warriors whose talents are administrative, executive, and protective; and brahmins, who of contemplative nature are spiritually inspired and inspiring.
Manu instructed members of all castes show respect to other people as long as they possessed wisdom, virtue, age, kinship, and in some cases wealth, regardless of caste distinction. [ref name=ay41]Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. Chapter 41, “An Idyl in South India.”[/ref]
As originally conceived, the caste system recognized evolution as a refinement of consciousness. sudras represented the lowest level of refinement, at which people are unwilling to reason and act selflessly. Vaisyas represented the level at which people begin to use their intelligence for selfish purposes, for example to accumulate wealth. kshatriyas represent the noble stage of consciousness wherein people begin to give generously to others, for example in leadership capacities. brahmins represent the final frontier of consciousness in which people realize the truth and guide other people spiritually. Although human beings belong to the four general castes, members within each caste also represent different stages of consciousness. [ref name=hwa]The Hindu Way of Awakening, by Swami Kriyananda. Chapter 17, “The Avatara and Human Evolution.”[/ref]
Distinctions Between the Castes
The goal that a person elects to achieve in life demonstrates their natural capacities and therefore their true caste. For sudras, the goal is kama or desire through a life of the senses. For vaisyas, the goal is artha or gain through a life of fulfilling but controlling the desires. For kshatriyas, the goal is dharma or self-discipline through a life of responsibility and right action. For brahmins, the goal is moksha or liberation through a life of spirituality and religious teaching. Thus, the castes correspond to four ways of rendering service to humanity through the body, mind, willpower, and spirit. [backref name=ay41]
Devolvement of the System
To a certain extent, all human societies exhibit the features of caste. For example, in the time of Jesus, people were divided into the classes of higher-caste Jews and lower-caste Samaritans. In India, castes were divided by the vocations and family history of people, such as soldiers (kshatriya) and clergymen (brahmin).
However, the institutionalization of the castes into a hereditary system limited social mobility and sanctioned social inequality. For example in India, the son of a soldier claimed to be a Kshatriya even if he had never used a weapon. Similarly, a highly-educated, spiritual Sudra could never mingle with a hereditary brahmin, even a spiritually degenerate brahmin. In the United States, the iteration of the caste system in the slave system legitimized the inequality between slaves and their owners. During the dark ages of Kali Yuga, caste systems became instruments of social suppression, perpetuated by selfish high castes and complacent low castes. [backref name=hwa]
The Caste System Now
Notwithstanding entrenched realities, social reformers such as Mahatma Gandhi have attempted to restore the ancient spirituality of the caste system. [backref name=ay41] In the system, those with the natural inclination and spiritual consciousness of a kshatriya, for instance, regardless of heredity, is truly a kshatriya. According to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, “Neither birth nor sacraments nor study nor ancestry can decide whether a person is twice-born (i.e., a Brahmin); character and conduct only can decide.” [backref name=ay41]
Today, the caste system is relevant to communities where people are devoted to spiritual advancement. In order to uplift themselves and others, human beings need satsanga or good, spiritual company. In spiritual communities, even members of the lowest caste will certainly rise in consciousness. [ref]Yogananda for the World, by Swami Kriyananda. Chapter 4, “Was Yogananda the Last of the Gurus?[/ref]