Caste — According to Ananda Coomaraswamy

Deriving spiritual contentment out of work that suited one's disposition was considered more worthy than being disillusioned by a job which was contrary to one's nature.

Caste — According to Ananda Coomaraswamy


In his numerous articles on the subject of caste and the traditional social order in India, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy sought not “to apologize for the Indian social system, but only to explain it” (Coomaraswamy 1983:3). For him, tradition has

“nothing to do with any ‘ages’, whether ‘dark’, ‘primeval’, or otherwise. Tradition represents doctrines about first principles, which do not change; and traditional institutions represent the application of these principles in particular environments…” (Moore et al, 1989:45).

So, for him, traditional institutions were means to the perfectibility of an individual — they represented an application of a body of principles to contingent circumstances, and were to be judged accordingly — if an institution was conducive to the realization of whatever it held to be the ultimate ends of life, that institution was good; otherwise, it was not. In his words,

“In traditional society one respects established institutions, and if anything goes wrong one does not assume that it can be put right by institutional revolutions, but only by a change of mind (metanoia repentance), leaving the order itself unchanged; “reformation” can only imply what the word itself imports, a return to some form from which a deviation has taken place… much too often, men of good will are ready to attack an unfamiliar institution without first asking what are its intentions, or whether these intentions which are the values by which the given society lives and which belong to the essence of its “morale”, are likely to be realized by the new institutions which it is proposed to introduce from outside.”                                          (Coomaraswamy 1983:3)

Knowing the Self

Caste-system — the alleged “hierarchical” system — is, he wrote, “everyman’s Way to realize the Last End — knowing his Self”. Because it is based on common understandings of the ultimate ends of life rather than upon its immediate purposes — “as to which there can be an almost endless variety of notions” — he commenced his exposition from there.

For the Hindus, he wrote, the purpose of life is defined in a fourfold way. On the one hand, the purposes of life are the satisfaction of desire (kāma), the pursuit of values (artha), and the fulfillment of function (dharma, in the sense of duty); on the other hand, the final, and in this sense the whole, purpose of life, is to attain liberation (mokṣa) from all wanting, valuation and responsibilities. These immediate and final ends are not, Coomaraswamy wrote, independent of, or fundamentally opposed to, one another, and provision is made in the society for both the active life of the householder and the contemplative life of the sanyāsi.   

For a person leading an active life, spiritual progress is to be attained by the study of Scriptures and the fulfillment of one’s own proper functions (sva-karma) in the āśrama that one may be living in at the time. In Kṛṣṇa’s words, sve sve karmaṇy abhirataḥ saṁsiddhiṁ labhate naraḥ (Bhagavad Gītā, 18.45) — Man reaches perfection by his loving devotion to his own work (sva-karma). Sva-karma is the performance of an activity in conformity with one’s own nature. In Rene Guenon’s words,

“… everyone must normally fulfill the function for which he is destined by his very nature, and he cannot fulfill any other function without a resulting grave disorder, which will have its repercussion on the whole social organization to which he belongs. Even more than this, if such a disorder becomes general, it will have its effects on the cosmic realm itself, all things being linked together according to strict correspondences”         (Fohr et al 2001: 58)                                                      

According to tradition, dharma[i] and sva-karma are interwoven concepts: the one is the Universal and Eternal law; “the other is that share of this Law for which every man is made responsible by his physical and mental constitution” (Coomaraswamy 1940: 41). In other words, through the performance of his sva-karma, an individual participates in the Universal dharma, and so it is that sva-karma is translatable as sva-dharma.

Coomaraswamy showed that the idea of sva-karma has parallels in the Greek tradition in Plato’s definition of ‘justice’.  What “justice” means is discussed at some length in the second and fourth books of the Republic. Plato defines the word as the principle of “doing what it is ours to do” (434a–c). He writes, “our several natures are not alike but different … one man is naturally fitted for one task, another for another (allos ep allou ergou praxein)” (370b). In Book III, 406c, Plato uses the word ergon (function, work) to say, “… in all well governed peoples there is a work assigned to each man (ergon ti ekasto en polei) in the city which he must perform.” Again, “a carpenter undertaking to do the work (ta erga) of a cobbler or a cobbler of a carpenter … or even the attempt but the same man to do both … would not greatly injure a city?” (434a–c). Coomaraswamy writes,

“Nothing will be more ruinous to the state than for the cobbler to attempt to do the carpenter’s work, or for an artisan or money maker led on by wealth or by command of votes or by his own strength to take upon himself the soldier’s form, or for a soldier to take upon himself that of a counselor or warden, for which he is not fitted, or for one man to be a jack-of-all-trades; and he (Plato) says that wherever such perversions occur, there is injustice. He points out that our several natures are not all alike, but different, and maintains that everyone is bound to perform for the state one social service, that for which his nature is best adapted. And in this way more will be produced, and of a better sort, and more easily, when each one does one work, according to his own nature, at the right time and being at leisure from other tasks. In other words, the operation of Justice provides automatically for the satisfaction of all the real needs of a society.”           Coomaraswamy (1977: 23)       

According to Coomaraswamy, it is this notion, or rather its absence that most clearly marks the shortcomings of the modern world today. Today, a man can adopt any profession, and he can even change it at will, as if this profession were something purely exterior to him, without any real connection with what he truly is. Today, all work is economically determined and leisure is devoted to the hectic pursuit of the pleasure that is not found in the work. In Heimann’s words,

“Man’s labour has ceased to afford him spiritual support; he is never alone with tasks endeared to him by slow and toilsome progress, sometimes extending over many years or even a lifetime… the personal contact, enjoying an almost religious intimacy, between work and worker has been destroyed, the ‘moving belt’ permitting only an impersonal contact with thousands of unfinished parts of the whole; and the craftsman’s devotion to quality has been replaced by considerations of mere quantity.”        Heimann (1937: 134)

Coomaraswamy writes,

“No type of civilization can be accepted that does not provide for the worker’s happiness: and no man can be happy who is forced to earn a living otherwise than by the labours for which he is naturally fitted and to which therefore he can literally devote himself with enthusiasm. I say that no man can be happy but in “that station of life to which it has pleased God to call him”; that man is literally unfortunate (deprived of his due inheritance) if either the state or his own ambition bring it about that his fortune and his nature are incongruous…”                      Coomaraswamy (1977:5)

On the other hand, he shows that the Bhagavad Gītā speaks of the traditional worker’s “delight” in his work (Bhagavad Gītā, 18.45); the word employed, abhi-rata (ram dhātu with an intensifying prefix), might as well have been rendered by “being in love with,” as if with a bride. Accordingly, the traditional craftsman likes nothing better than to talk about his work. Plato, in his Republic, points out that,

“a carpenter, if he falls sick, will indeed consult a doctor, and follow his advice. But if anyone prescribes for him a long course of treatment with swathings about the head and other paraphernalia, he hastily says that such a life of pre-occupation with sickness and neglect of the work that lies before him is not worth living.”(406c-407a)

Caste, according to Coomaraswamy, is determined by sva-dharma, and in his words, “the hierarchy of the castes… is not a hierarchy of races, but of functions and of standards and ways of living.” He writes,

“At the back of all Indian metaphysics lies the conception that the existent world in all its variety originates in a primordial differentiation of one into many; and that it can only be preserved in a state of well-being by an “extension of the thread of the sacrifice,” i.e., by its ritual perpetuation, whereby the process of creation is continued: just as a human “line” can only be extended by a perpetuation of father-mother relationships which are also to be regarded as ritual acts. Now the archetypal sacrificer is often called the “All-worker” (viśva-karman), and its human mimesis in fact demands a cooperation of all the skills that men possess, or in other words that of all kinds of men … Hence, if the sacrifice…is to be correctly, that is, perfectly performed — which is essential to the success of its purpose… the sacrificial society must include all kinds of artists. In this sense it is literally true that, as the Indian phrase would run, the vocations are “born of the sacrifice.” Conversely, the vocations themselves are “sanctified”; and even when the craftsman is working for the benefit of other men and not obviously to provide the essentials of a divine service, his operation (karman) is a rite…”   Coomaraswamy (1977:11)

Caste, then, is not synonymous with class. Kṛṣṇa says, cāturvarṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ (Bhagavad-gītā 4.13) – I emanated the Four Castes, distributing qualities and operations. Accordingly, the Brahmins are qualified thus:

śamo damas tapaḥ śaucaṁ kṣāntir ārjavam eva ca |

jñānaṁ vijñānam āstikyaṁ brahma-karma svabhāvajam || 18.42

“Control of internal and external sense-organs, austerity, purity, forbearance, straightforwardness, knowledge, wisdom, and faith are the duties of brahmins, born of their inherent nature.”

The kṣatriya-s:

śauryaṁ tejo dhṛtir dākṣyaṁ yuddhe cāpy apalāyanam |

dānam īśvara-bhāvaś ca kṣātraṁ karma svabhāvajam || 18.43

“Valour, invincibility, steadiness, adroitness and not retreating in battle, generosity and lordliness are the duties of kṣatriya-s born of his inherent nature.”

Vaiśya-s and the śūdra-s are described thus:

kṛṣi-gaurakṣya-vāṇijyaṁ vaiśya-karma svabhāvajam |

paricaryātmakaṁ karma śūdrasyāpi svabhāvajam || 18.44

“Agriculture, cattle-tending and trade are the duties of the vaiśya, born of his inherent nature. And the duty of a śūdra is one of service, born of his inherent nature.”

It must be remembered that in a vocationally integrated society, a proportionate equality is practiced. The whole position is, according to Coomaraswamy, analogous to that of a family: as Aristotle says,

“Everything is ordered together to one end; but just as in a household, the free have the least authority to act at random, and have most or all of their actions arranged for them, whereas the footmen and animals have but little common (responsibility) and act for the most part at random” (Metaphysics XII. 10. 3).

Accordingly, the liberty of choice is more and more restricted the higher one’s status: noblesse oblige. In fact, Coomaraswamy shows how in a vocational society uncorrupted by ideas of social ambition, it is taken for granted that “everyone is very proud of his hereditary science” (kula-vidyā) (Mālavikāgnimitra 1.4):

“So, Philo, pointing out that when the king asks, “What is your work?” he receives the answer, “We are shepherds, as were our fathers”, comments: “Aye, indeed! Does it not seem that they were more proud of being shepherds than is the king, who is talking to them, of his sovereign power?” In one of Dekker’s plays, he makes his grocer express the fervent wish, May no son of mine ever be anything but a grocer!”   Coomaraswamy (1977:17)

It must be noted here that caste is not, in Hindu law, a legal disability; men of any caste may act as witnesses in suits (Manu VIII.61-63). Furthermore, according to this proportionate law, a king is to be fined a thousand times as much as a śūdra for the same offence (for the consequences or repercussions of a King’s offence is far-reaching in effect than that of a common man.) Similarly, a brahmin’s punishment is also very much heavier than a śūdra’s for the same offence, and many things are allowed to the śūdra that a brahmin or the wife of a brahmin may not do, like remarriage. It must also be noted that caste discrimination is strict only in terms of rules against intermarriage and inter-dining. For example, not even the king can aspire to marry his own brahmin cook’s daughter. As for inter-dining, a Hindu does not inter-dine even with his own wife, or his own caste, and that this has nothing whatever to do with social prejudice of any kind, but reflects a functional differentiation. T.W. Rhys Davids remarks,

“Evidence has been yearly accumulating on the existence of restrictions as to intermarriage, and as to the right of eating together among other tribes—Greeks, Germans, Russians and so on. Both the spirit, and to a large degree, the actual details of modern Indian caste usages, are identical with these ancient, and no doubt universal customs.”  Davids (1899, 98) 

According to Coomaraswamy, if one were to imagine a caste system suddenly imposed upon the existing modern scene, you and I too, would, from the orthodox point of view, become “untouchables”, and all our celebrities and “idols”, pariahs. He writes,  

“It may help to clarify the problem as it exists if I point out that you and I too, are from the orthodox point of view “untouchables”. The feeling of ritual contamination that is felt by those whose life is disciplined and reserved, when brought into contact with those whose way of life and diet are much more promiscuous, is perfectly natural; it is not, like your colour prejudice, a denial of common humanity. It would be as unreasonable to expect the orthodox Hindu to admit all and sundry to their sacred precincts as it would be to expect them to admit you. You may be able to employ a Brahman cook, but that will not enable you to marry his daughter or even to enter your own kitchen without removing your shoes; and that is as it should be. The best answer to the problem was made by Swami Vivekânanda; if the casteless or outcastes want to improve their position, “let them learn Sanskrit”, which means, adopt the higher and colder standards of thinking and living that have only been preserved for millennia because those who practiced them would not mix.”  Coomaraswamy (1983:16)

In Nietzsche’s words, “It is right that life should grow colder towards the summit.” To do away with caste, to reduce all men to the condition of the modern proletarians who have no vocations but only “jobs”, would not be a solution, but much rather, in Coomaraswamy’s words, a dissolution. He writes,

“We are not for a moment pretending that the untouchability of the lower and (out) castes, which is so offensive to modern minds, is in any sense an excrescence upon the caste taboos are not based upon racial or color prejudice as such (a fallen brahman, however well-born or fair, is under the same disabilities as an outcaste by birth, Manu XI.245, 98, etc), but are for the sake of the preservation of a ritual purity at once physical and psychic. I wonder, sometimes, if foreign reformers ever realize that if we should admit the Indian outcastes to our temple sanctuaries, we might as well admit Europeans? Actually, just as the Titans are by all means excluded from the sacrifices offered by the Gods, so are shudras from participation in the cults of the higher castes (Taittiriya Samhita VII.1.1.6). But this does not mean that the lower castes, or even the outcaste, is in any way deprived of a religion. In the first place, he has cults of his own, intimately connected with his own métier, and these are by no means extraneous to, but only a phase of, Hinduism as a whole; distinctions of cult in India are not a matter of “other gods,” but of convenience; the way of works and of devotion is open to all, and actually not a few of India’s greatest saints have been of shudra or even chandala birth.”    Coomaraswamy (1977:11)

Traditionally, the inheritance of functions is a matter of re-birth — “not in the current misinterpretation of the word, but as rebirth is defined in Indian scriptures and in accordance with the traditional assumption that the father himself is reborn in his son” (Coomaraswamy 1977:18). According to the Manusmṛti, patir bhāryām sampraviśya garbho bhūtveha jāyate | jāyāyāstaddhi jāyātvaṁ yadasyāṁ jāyate punaḥ || (Manusmṛti 9.8) — The husband is re-born from his wife — and for this reason she is called “jāyā” (from her is he born again). According to this conception,

“the father, as regards his empirical personality or “character”, is reborn in his son, who is to all intents and purposes identified with him and takes his place in the community when he retires or dies; and that this natural succession is confirmed by formal rites of transmission. The vocational function is a form of divine service, and the métier, i.e., “ministry”, a work that at the same time honors God and serves man’s present needs: and so it is that in India, as it was for Plato, the first reason for which one ought to beget children is in order to, ‘carry on from generation to generation the good work’.”   Coomaraswamy (1940: 39)

Coomaraswamy writes, just as for Plato, so for Śaṁkara, duo sunt in homine[ii]—there are two (natures) in man. Of these two, one is the mortal/individual personality or character of the man; the other, the Immortal and the very Person of the man himself. It is only to the former, individual nature that varṇa can be applied; the word varṇa itself could, indeed, be rendered not inaccurately by “individuality,” inasmuch as colour arisen from the contact of light with a material, which then exhibits a colour that is determined not by the light, but by its own nature. In other words,

“My” individuality or psychophysical constitution is not, from this point of view, an end in itself either for me or for others, but always a means, garment, vehicle, or tool to be made good use of for as and for so long as it is “mine”; it is not an absolute, but only a relative value, personal insofar as it can be utilized as means to the attainment of man’s last end of liberation, and social in its adaptation to the fulfillment of this, that, or the other specialized function. It is the individuality, and not the Person, that is bequeathed by the father to his son, in part by heredity, in part by example, and in part by formal rites of transmission: when the father retires, or at his death, the son inherits his position, and, in the widest sense of the word, his debts, i.e., social responsibilities. This acceptance of the paternal inheritance sets the father free from the burden of social responsibility that is attached to him as an individual; having done what there was for him to do, the very man departs in peace… When, now, we have forgotten who we are and, identifying ourselves with our “outer man”, have become lovers of our own individual-selves, we imagine that our whole happiness is contained in the freedom of this “outer man” to go his own way and find pasture where he will. There, in ignorance and in desire, lie the roots of individualism. Thus, the traditional concept of liberty goes far beyond, in fact, the demand of any anarchist; it is the concept of an absolute, unfettered freedom to be as, when, and where we will. All other and contingent liberties, however desirable and right, are derivative and to be valued only in relation to this last end.”  (Coomaraswamy 1977:18).

Accordingly, all trades of a traditional society are considered sacred, and as a sort of liturgy. Kṛṣṇa says, “inasmuch as by his own work, he (a man) is praising Him”. So, then, Coomaraswamy writes, we are to do whatever Nature bids us do, whatever ought to be done; but without anxiety about the consequences over which we have no control. We are to surrender all activities to Him, that they may be His and not ours; they will no more affect Him than a drop of water sticks to the shiny lotus leaf. There is no liberation by merit, but only by working without ever thinking that “I”, that which I call “myself”, is the actor. “Inaction” is not a matter of doing nothing, but of “acting without acting”; whoever so sees is a bridled man, a Yogi, even though doing everything. In other words, everyman’s Way to become what he is—what he has it in him to become— is one of perfectionism in that station of life to which his own nature imperiously summons him. The pursuit of perfection is everyman’s “equality of opportunity”; and the goal is the same for all, for the miner and the professor alike, because there are no degrees of perfection. Further,

“Even supposing that the traditional caste systems in practice fall short of their theory, would it not be better if the social reformer, instead of attacking a theory (of which he very rarely has any real understanding) were to ask himself whether the traditional systems were not in fact designed to realize a kind of social justice that cannot be realized in any competitive industrial system where all production is primarily for profit, where the consumer is a guinea pig, and where for all but a fortunate few, occupation is not a matter of free choice, but economically, and in that sense arbitrarily, determined?”   Coomaraswamy (1977: 14)


The caste system has been painted in such dark colors only because it is incompatible with the existing industrial system; it ought not to be judged by concepts of success that govern life in a society organized for overproduction and profit at any price, and where it is everyone’s ambition to rise on the social ladder, rather than to realize his own perfection. Indeed, this scheme is the nearest and only approach to a workable socialism that has been tried in our race, and that succeeded for hundreds of years. Sir George Birdwood’s words:

“In that (Hindu) life all are but co-ordinate parts of one undivided and indivisible whole, wherein the provision and respect due to every individual are enforced, under the highest religious sanctions, and every office and calling perpetuated from father to son by those cardinal obligations of caste on which the whole hierarchy of Hinduism hinges…We trace there the bright outlines of a self-contained, self-dependent, symmetrical and perfectly harmonious industrial economy, deeply rooted in the popular conviction of its divine character, and protected, through every political and commercial vicissitude, by the absolute power and marvelous wisdom and tact of the brāhminical priesthood. Such an ideal order we should have held impossible of realization, but that it continues to exist and to afford us, in the yet living results of its daily operation in India, a proof of the superiority, in so many unsuspected ways, of the hierarchic civilization of antiquity over the secular, joyless, inane, and self-destructive, modern civilization of the West”.                 Birdwood (1915:76. 83-84)

References / Footnotes

Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1940). East and West and Other Essays. Colombo. Ola Books Ltd.

Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1977). “The Bugbear of Democracy, Freedom, and Equality”. Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Summer, 1977). 

Moore, Alvin & Coomaraswamy, Rama. (1989). Selected letters of Ananda Coomaraswamy. Oxford University Press. New Delhi.

Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1983).   “The Religious Basis of the Forms of Indian Society”. Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 15, No. 1 & 2. (Winter-Spring, 1983).

Davids, Rhys. T. W. (1899). Dialogues of the Buddha. Oxford University Press. New York.

Birdwood, George. (1915). Sva. London Philip Lee Warner. London.

Fohr, H.D., Bethell, C., Moore, P., Schiff. H. (Trans) (2001). Rene Guenon’s Miscellanea. New York. Sophia Perennis.

Heimann, Betty. (1937). Indian and Western Philosophy. London Geroge Allen and Unwin LTD

Jowett, Benjamin. (1960). Plato’s Republic. Anchor Books. New York

Sachs, Joe. (1999). Aristotle’s Metaphysics. New Mexico. Green Lion Press.

Shastri, J.L. (1983). Manusmriti. Delhi. Motilal Banarasidass.

[i] “Dharma”, Coomaraswamy writes, “is a pregnant term, difficult to translate in the present context; cf. eidos in Republic, 434A. In general, dharma (literally ‘support’, dhṛ as in dhruva, ‘fixed’, ‘Pole Star’, and Gr. thronos) is synonymous with ‘Truth’. Than this ruling principle there is ‘nothing higher’ (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, I.4.14); dharma is the ‘king’s King’ (Aṅguttara Nikāya, 1.109), i.e. ‘King of kings’; and there can be no higher title than that of dharma-rāja, ‘King of Justice’. Hence the well-known designation of the veritable Royalty as Dharmarāja, to be distinguished from the personality of the king in whom it temporarily inheres”.

[ii] dvā suparṇā sayujā sakhāyā samānaṁ vṛkṣaṁ pariṣasvajāte| tayor anyaḥ pippalam svādv atty anaśnann anyo abhicākaśīti || Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 3.1.1

About Author: Manjushree Hegde

Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.

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