Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
The way I see it, it does neither. It’s quite neutral on this.
Back then, there was a specific format in which society was arranged. People took on their parents’ professions after them. Nobody encroached into another’s realm. A potter’s son would also be a potter, and so would his son after him. A fisherman’s daughter would marry another fisherman, and their son would also become a fisherman. A king’s son automatically became the next king after his father. A priest’s son became the next priest. See, it was all crystal clear. It was nothing like the ‘evil caste system’ that it has sadly metamorphosed into now.
And then there were the oddities…like Karna and Ekalavya. Both of them belonged to families which did not consider professional warfare as a part of their culture. The occupations that these boys were ‘supposed to do’ did not require them to know how to wield a bow and arrow or to hold a sword. When they dared to go against societal norms, they were held back – either by their own family or by society at large.
People back then probably didn’t/ couldn’t digest the idea of society losing its balance. If a potter’s son became a priest, then who would handle the pottery? If an iron-monger’s son decided to become a fisherman, then what who would take up the work after the old iron monger dies? So more than this being a matter of prejudice or discrimination, it was more a matter of maintaining societal balance. It was only several centuries later that ‘caste’ came to be seen as a ‘hindrance for growth’. It ceased to be a matter of one’s identity and became a matter of pride for those in the higher rungs and a matter of shame for those in the lower rungs, thereby giving it a ‘social evil’ or ‘undesirable’ status.
During the times of the Mahabharata, the society was very different from what it is today. As there is really no point in speaking for or against an aspect of society that was not abnormal back then, there is no mention in the text whether this was good or bad. Let me give you an example. Marriage is a societal norm today, isn’t it? It has been so for centuries. What if…just what if things turn in a such a way that a thousand years later or so, marriage as a concept gets eliminated from this world. Things happen in such a way that marriage gets to be viewed as a social evil…as a way of controlling individuals…or whatever. I leave the possible reasons to your imagination. Anyhow, imagine if marriage becomes a ‘social evil’ several years down the line. And if somebody asks ‘Does 21st century literature speak for or against marriage?’, what would people opine? It’s viewed as a perfectly normal arrangement now. But we cannot say for sure that it will forever remain that way. For back then, nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought that our society would turn into the enormous mishmash that it is now. But it did happen didn’t it? What was the norm then is an evil today.
So I guess we can just assume from the Mahabharata writings that the societal divisions were a perfectly normal thing back then and that it was not even thought of as an evil aspect or anything. It was just a part of living.