So are all men created equal? Do we have certain unalienable rights to our life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In a seemingly egalitarian utopia, the world still silently pigeonholes its populace, and Thailand still has a complex social class structure.
In India’s old caste system, people were born into certain types of professions and social stature. The Brahmins were priestly people while the Kshatriyas, or Rajanyas, were rulers, administrators, and warriors. Further down the line the Vaishyas were artisans, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers, the Shudras were labouring classes, and the tribal and the rest were deemed “untouchables”. Thais, on the other hand, were more flexible in their social mobility, although there were not several categories of professions—it was agriculture, artisan, trading, or military.
In the Ayutthaya Period, a system of corvée and slavery was established and regulated. The Siamese commoners, or Phrai, as well as slaves, all had to register with a government bureau or under a leading member of the royalty or a nobleman’s master. When King Rama V abolished slavery in1905, the newly freed slaves settled themselves as farmers or merchants. However, today the hierarchical system is still ingrained in our culture as reflected in our language and social perspectives. The pronouns of “I” and “You” in Thai can be the most mind-boggling of all languages because they will refer to the relationships of the first and second persons—from royalty, to monks, to laypeople of all ages, genders, and statuses.
Modern capitalist society stems out different types of class systems. The pyramidal social structure has become more onion-shaped, with new affluences borne out of the bourgeois and the bohemians. As the middle class prospered and gained more presence through their businesses and achievements, socio-economic statuses shifted from the ruling class and political cliques to income, education, and social influences. Nowadays artists, actors, and musicians can earn superstardom in milli-seconds of appearances, with votes, likes, and social media comments. With their fame and fortune these celebrities have grown into the new VIPs and VVIPs who receive preferential treatments and privileges. The earnings of celebrities and the nouveau riche speak louder than the old establishment’s discretion. One aristocratic personality even shunned the word “Hi-So” of which he claims sounds vulgar.
In the society that places more importance on the superficial, we tend to have an eye for the exterior rather than the interior. Most think that class can be seen through someone’s last name and family background, or what they do, drive, wear, and eat, live, etc. However, like morals and merits, class cannot be bought. Good and gracious behaviours, manners, gravitas, attitudes, beliefs, and intelligence are what should be seen as true class.
Unlike an episode of Downton Abbey, in our era we can move up and down the stations if we board the right platforms to trade up. However, these days we hardly hear about a Cinderella story of someone marrying into wealth or status, as many upper-crust families tend to merge their fortunes. But for some life can be like working in a large company, where if one performs rightly one can climb up through the social ladder. But be warned—happiness is not guaranteed. In fact, sometimes it can be very lonely at the top. For example, an extremely wealthy wife of a captain of industry wanted to move up the ranks within the entourage of the royalty, but she was shunned by the ladies-in-waiting because she “tried too hard”. Another case-in-point tells of a pretty girl from a modest background who entered society as a “kept woman”. However, no man would dream of her as marriage material, so she has had to settle for the charmed life of a mistress. Ah, the upper echelon of can be so cruel!
Buddhism, by contrast, sees humans as lotus flowers and classifies people into four categories according to their hearts and souls. First, the blooms above the water receiving the full sunshine are like people who are most susceptible to understand Dharma and reach enlightenment faster than others. Second are the blossoms floating at the brim and about to bloom—similar to people who have good minds and with more learning and practicing, they will understand Dharma soon. Third are the slowly growing buds below the water, representing the people who are less intelligent and need time to comprehend. Last are the lotuses growing at the bottom in the mud. They are akin to people who are ignorant, unconcerned, and hard to teach, and will end up being eaten by water creatures and will hardly ever arrive at their goal.
So if you are looking for true class, don’t judge based on someone’s designer bags, or the flashy cars they drive, but try to peek into their souls.