'British Colonization Distorted Varna into Caste System to Divide and Rule Hindus' - Monk and Philosopher Swami Ambikananda at Castecon

A landmark first-of-a-kind conference Castecon 2023 was held in San Francisco and convened by Pandit Satish Sharma and Richa Gautam with the leadership and support of a grassroots team. This was the first such event where many important voices against the caste bill SB403, came on a common platform to raise their concerns about the false caste allegations on the Hindu American community. The bill was finally defeated on October 7th with a Governor's veto. Castefiles will print a series of articles with key excerpts from the Castecon conference.

Dec 25, 2023 - 06:35
'British Colonization Distorted Varna into Caste System to Divide and Rule Hindus' - Monk and Philosopher Swami Ambikananda at Castecon

Twenty-five years ago, I took Sanyaas and what quickly emerged for me is that donning this robe meant that people who find themselves in one of those challenging situations of life would be approaching me. So for over 25 years, I have listened to both strangers and friends in some of their darkest moments, and what has emerged for me is that we as humans are now in an existential crisis. Since the dawn of industrialization, every attempt has been made to reduce our Humanity. We are told we are empty bio-mechanisms, purchasing machines are entirely at the mercy of selfish genes that demand our reproduction and market forces that demand that we do nothing but consume. Meaning has been stripped from life. 

The great concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl taught us that we can bear almost anything if we know why. The search for why is mocked. Yet, almost every person I encounter is in a difficult and dark situation. Seeking not just a way out of that situation, they also deeply at a fundamental level, want to understand why. And it's this that has brought me to reappraise Varna, which colonization distorted into the caste system. 

The Portuguese came first, they were the first to encounter it, and they named it Casta. When the British came, they took that up and they created the ‘caste system’. And it was a system of ‘divide and rule’ – a hierarchy of domination and exploitation that very much mirrored the one they created on these British Isles. 

Subtle meaning of Varna

In the Atma, we do have something known as Varna. First, I have to tell you that Sanskrit is a dynamic and extremely subtle language. Varna means color or dye or covering. It's not the color of our skin. It is the color of our internal landscape. It's the internal characteristics that mark that in us, which is unchanging and eternal Atma. 

On the battlefield Kurukshetra, where mighty forces were arrayed against each other, the Avatar Bhagavan Shri Krishna took up the chariot reigns of his friend and disciple Arjuna and invited him to look at the enemy. And, thus the great teaching of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ began and ‘Varna’ was one of them. 

Chapter 4, Verse 14, Krishna Ji tells us, “Everybody has a ‘Guna’ and the ‘Karma’ and these are what define our ‘Varna’”. Guna is an inner characteristic, a kind of thread, a deep impulse that defines us. And Karma is the action we take on what defines our actions, our Guna. We don't all react in the same way because everybody has a different Guna. Everybody has a Guna and everybody acts on it. 

Every morning I do my meditation and study. I am so much a Brahman and calm, studious listening for that transcendent inner voice rather than the meanderings of my own mind. But then I get up and I encounter the day and my true Varna emerges. I am a warrior, a Kshatriya. I do not seek a battle. I will never strike the first blow, but I will not evade the fight either, because that's not my nature, not my Guna. My inner landscape demands that I rise to every challenge with the sword in hand. The sword might be my mind honed for battle by four older brothers who, after having taught me to be fierce, told me frequently that I was a pesky little brat, always ready for a fight. 

I thank them. They were my first teachers in handling my combative nature, my warrior Guna. How and what determines our Guna that every person has? The only one without Guna is the Avatar where the Atma requires no masking. What determines it? Yes, it could be the moment of our birth, a past life, who knows, whatever their origins, we all have it. 

What can give our lives meaning when we find ourselves on the battlefield?  One of the most useful things is to deeply understand what we have within to meet the challenges we are faced with. The defining of these Guna and these Varnas was told to me by Swami Agnivesh – the founder of ‘Bandhua Mukti Morcha’, the bonded Labor Liberation Front. The Brahman, he said, is the one who steps back from battle and invites us to pause and seek deep inner truths and scriptural guidance. He or she does this while the warrior is making battle plans, and the Vaishya is getting the community ready to endure. And the Shudra is seeing where his services are required. 

However, seeking the expression of Varna within myself was taught to me by my guru Swami Venkateshananda. We can go to our birth charts and they can tell us. But Swami Ji taught us the way of the ‘Yoginpratyahara’ to let that penetrating intense gaze that we are always looking out at this world into ourselves and allow your Varna to be revealed to you. It's not of importance to anybody else but ourselves to uncover that inner Guna and then learn how to express it in your life through action.

Find a way out of ugly distortion of race and caste 

As a Kshatriya, what is it that I will fight to protect and defend? This is going to give my life meaning. My dream for humanity is that we find our way out of this ugly distortion of race and caste system. This distortion was imposed by colonization. We have to restore Varna to its true meaning. Then every challenge will become a learning process. Learning and growing from learning will then become our meaning. 

Every dark passage, no matter how we may painfully stumble along it, becomes filled with meaning because it becomes a means of taking us through our Guna even while we are acting on it to an inner reality that is our eternal nature and everyone's eternal nature. 

- Swami Ambikananda: Hindu Monk, Teacher of Vedanta, Philosophy, and Yoga

Castecon Desk Hindu community leader in the UK, Pandit Satish K Sharma, and Indian American activist and researcher Richa Gautam joined hands with a group of community grassroots members for holding a landmark conference Castecon 2023 in San Francisco. The first event of its kind, Castecon 2023 brought together a number of important voices in the Indian American community against the Caste Bill SB403. The event went a long way in laying out the current and future challenges for the Indian American community, especially the weaponisation of a non-issue like caste. Castefiles will publish a series of articles culling insight from the speakers at Castecon 2023 with excerpts from speeches. The articles will hopefully lay the basis for the community's strategy to meet the challenges of the future.