Ritualists see hierarchy above equality, spiritualists see equality above hierarchy
We cherish equality; we don’t want anyone to be discriminated against. Simultaneously, our hard-nosed side cautions that some hierarchies are essential for the orderly conduct of things.
Consider driving. If anyone were deprived of the right to drive, that would militate against equality. But if there were no hierarchy in terms of drivers being monitored by traffic cops, driving would become chaotic and dangerous. Therefore we need a balance of equality and hierarchy.
On the spiritual path too, both equality and hierarchy exist. Gita wisdom explains that spiritually we all are equal, for we are souls, who are parts of Krishna (15.07). We are all meant ultimately to rejoice in a life of eternal love with him. While we strive to attain love for him, we need an orderly society, which requires some functional hierarchy. In dharmic traditions, such a hierarchy was provided by varnashrama.
Every hierarchy is prone to abuse, and varnashrama is no exception. Because some upper-caste people became power-hungry, they perverted varnashrama into the discriminatory caste system, which made people’s birth the defining decider of their life’s trajectory. The Gita (04.13) itself strikes a cautionary note against such perversion, emphasizing that one’s social position is to be determined by qualities and activities, not birth.
Unfortunately, such philosophical subtleties are lost to ritualistic followers, who reduce practices meant for spiritual transformation to mere rituals that must be conformed with. Such ritualists consider hierarchies the tradition’s essence and deem non-conformity with those hierarchies an inexcusable deviation.
Significantly however, the Gita stresses equality above hierarchy. It (05.18) reveals the vision of the spiritually realized: they see everyone from the lowest social position to the highest as essentially equal.
By such an inclusive vision, the Gita addresses contemporary concerns for social justice and presents a spirituality that is inclusive, attractive, effective.
Think it over:
- How are equality and hierarchy both important?
- How did varnashrama degenerate into the caste system?
- How does the Gita stress equality above hierarchy?
05.18 The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].
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