However, it will be too simplistic to say that the voices for abolition of caste system were raised only in 20th century. Ancient Indian history is ripe with evidences of well learned men questioning the basis of classifying the society on the basis of labour and later, on basis of birth. It is a separate issue whether they were able to change the viewpoint of the society or not. The moot point is that the ill effect of this social stratification was recognised by some in the ancient ages itself.
Upanishads (Composed between 1000BCE- 600BCE) are the pinnacle of ancient Indian thought. The brilliant concepts of Brahman, Maya, Atman, Transmigration of Soul, Rebirth and Moksha are the gifts of the Upanishads. The central theme of Upanishads is that all are evolved from the supreme, indestructible Almighty and that our final aim is to achieve Him. The Ghosha-Vakyas or commandments of the Upanishads like Aham Brahmasmi, Tat-Tvam-Asi, etc have enthralled the human conscience for ages. The Muktika cannon names around 108 Upanishads out of which we get to hear names of the important Upanishads only like Brihadaranyaka, Chhandogya, Shvetashvatara, Taittiriya, Kena, Ishavasya, etc. However, the smaller and lesser known Upanishads also carry pearls of wisdom in an equal manner. The Upanishad that we are going to see today is called Vajrasuchika Upanishad.
Vajrasuchika Upanishad is as small as a few pages but has wisdom that even a full studied thesis will not be able to capture. Its tenets might be called as cliche in today's world but a society where casteism was the main rule, this crisp text was a courageous attempt to criticise the norm of the day. It is composed by Ashvaghosha, the famous author of the Sanskrit treatises Buddha-Charita and Saundarananda. Ashvaghosha was born in Saketa in 2nd century CE and is regarded as the greatest litterateur before the age of Kalidasa. The reader may note the irony- Manu Smriti is also composed in 2nd century CE, same as the time of Ashvaghosha when he was questioning casteism !
The interesting name of the Upanishad calls for a clarification.
- Vajra - Diamond / Iron or hard
- Suchika - Needle
Let's get to the main content of the Upanishad
In this regard, the following inquiry is made:
IS JIVA, THE BRAHMIN ?
"Of these options, if the first i.e. 'the Jiva is Brahmin' is considered, then no (i.e., this cannot be true) because the nature (Rupa) of the Jiva remains the same in the bodies it assumed in previous lives and also in the future bodies.
Impelled by the fruit of its actions, the Jiva attains numerous bodies (in different births) and in all these bodies, the nature of the Jiva remains the same.
Therefore, the designation 'Brahmin' cannot apply to the Jiva."
IS BODY, THE BRAHMIN ?
"Then, if it is said that the body has the designation 'Brahmin', then no (i.e., this cannot be true),
Because the bodies of all human beings down to the Chandalas (= Outcastes) have the same nature since they are composed of the same 5 elements;
Because features like death, birth, vice and virtue are seen in all bodies;
Because of the absence of the rule that Brahmins are white, Kshatriyas are red, Vaishyas are yellow and Shudras are black.
Because upon cremating the corpses of their fathers/elders and others , one would get tainted with the sin of Brahminicide.
Because of these reasons, the body cannot bear the designation 'Brahmin'."
IS FAMILY LINEAGE, THE BRAHMIN ?
IS SPIRITUAL KNOWLEDGE, THE BRAHMIN ?
(Note - Upanishads have multiple references of enlightened kings debating on philosophy like Janaka Videha, Ajatashatru Kashiraja, Ashvapati Kaikeya, etc who even outshone Brahmins)
- He (indeed) who, after having all his desires fulfilled as a result of perceiving (realising) directly, as an Amalaka fruit in one’s hand-- The Atman that is One without a second (or is beyond compare), - (That is) bereft of (distinctions of) clan and (is not composed of) the constituents of Prakriti (guNa-hInaM), and actionless,
- (That is) free of all defects like the six infirmities (viz. old age, death, sorrow, delusion, hunger and thirst) and the six states of existence/transformations (viz. birth, existence, growth/development, transformation, waning and perishing),
- (That is) of the nature of Immutable Reality, of Consciousness, Blissful and Infinite/Eternal,
- (That is) an Independent Entity (not deriving its existence and properties from anything else), (That is) devoid of determinations, but (itself) the support of infinite determinations,
- (That is) present in all living and non-living beings as the immanent Soul, (Who) pervades the interior and envelopes the exterior of everything as ether,
- (That is) possesses the attribute of perfect and complete (akhanda) Bliss,
- (That is) incomparable, (That is) known only through one’s own (spiritual) experience (and not through reading of books or teaching by others) and is inferred only indirectly (because of It cannot be perceived by the senses);
- Becomes free of the defects of desire, attachment and the like, becomes endowed with the (positive) qualities like tranquility etc.,
- Becomes free of (negative) behaviours like jealousy, greed, expectations, delusion etc., and leads a life in which the mind is not tainted pretensions, ego and the like.He alone,
- Who possesses the aforementioned characteristics, is a Brahmin- such is (indeed) the import of Sruti, Smriti, Itihasa and the Puranas.
- There is no other way of attaining Brahminhood. Meditate upon Brahman, the Atman, (That is) of the nature of Immutable Reality, of Consciousness, Blissful and One without a second (or is beyond compare! Meditate upon Brahman!
Such is this Upanishad (secret/exalted) doctrine!”