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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Varnas – A journey to its roots

We see divisions all around us – in nature, in society, within government, within our own body. Even an ant or honeybee colony seems to have division of labor. Interestingly even in socio-economically evolved west we see such patterns are strong and even run in families. We see doctors marrying doctors, engineers run in families, needless to say software consultants marrying another one. A simple insight into William Sears1 family of doctors is sufficient to prove that human beings build their success based on their family roots. Even in US, though there may be not many recognizable patterns, serving armed forces usually runs in the family for many. 

So if it is natural for humans to gravitate to comfortable patterns, then why casteism in Bharat has become a monster? In fact, casteism is not Varnashrama. We saw in Fourfold Hindu Dharma, that four Varnas exist: Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. In this article, we will definitely stay away from the socio-econo-political aspects of Varnas, in their current form of casteism. We are going to challenge the traditional thought of Varna as a birth-right.

Our gaze is going to be centred more on the spiritual angle. This will enable us to get rid of some of the common misconceptions, some deliberately mischievously propagated by West. Many well-funded proselytizing agencies from West are deepening the fractures invented by the British legacy we have inherited. 

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the strongest champions of Varnashrama2

“I believe that every man is born in the world with certain natural tendencies. Every person is born with certain natural tendencies. Every person is born with certain definite limitations which he cannot overcome. From a careful observation of those limitations the law of Varna was deduced. It establishes certain spheres of action for certain people with certain tendencies. This avoided all unworthy competition. Whilst recognizing limitations the law of Varna admitted of no distinctions of high and low; on the one hand it guaranteed to each the fruits of his labours, and on the other it prevented him from pressing upon his neighbours reputed. But my conviction is that an ideal social order will only be evolved when the implication of this law are fully understood and given effect to.”

Source: The Modern review, Oct’35, p.413

We have to accept the saddest fact. If one were to go merely by the number of critics quoting and studying our scriptures and the number of Hindus who study to understand and practice, we are far outnumbered. A practicing Muslim or Christian, follows the recommended scriptures. But as Hindus, we give numerous excuses that even outnumbers the wonderful scriptures we have. With that melancholic thought, let me urge the practitioners to dust off and pick a scripture, not to understand Hindu Dharma, but themselves through the vehicle called Hindu Dharma.

At the outset let me clarify that the two words Jaati and Varna, both used to indicate Caste, have different meanings. Interestingly the currently followed usage of Caste is never even sanctioned. Jaati comes from Janam, birth. Varna has numerous meanings like color, but its root word means to choose.

Often, critics selectively quoting our scriptures, which we never open, is at the root cause of misinterpretations. Both critics and defenders quote this sloka in their favor.

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागश: |
तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ||

chātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛiṣhṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśhaḥ
tasya kartāram api māṁ viddhyakartāram avyayam (Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 13)

According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.

Since Krishna, himself, said that Varnas are His creation, critics go salivating that caste problem stems from Krishna or GodHead itself. What a ridiculous conclusion. If they patiently read the second part of the same verse they often quote, HE clearly declares that HE is a non-doer.

Nādatte kasyacit pāpaṁ na caiva sukṛtaṁ vibhuḥ (5.15):

Neither is God responsible for the good that we do, nor is He responsible for the bad that we do.

We are automatically rewarded or punished by a ‘computer system’ which He has set up in the form of these cosmic forces; and as the law automatically acts, our actions automatically act in the form of pleasure and pain. – Swami Krishnananda

If critics are able to quote and hold on to one verse wrongly for their argument, will they be charitable enough to think the same about the other verses that share more insights? There are numerous internal cross-references within Bhagavad Gita that one needs to study to have a better insight.

Let us go back to that sloka again. Krishna says Guna-Karma Vibhagashah. According to the Gunas and Karmas, divisions happen. Hindus believe that birth is a consequence of Karmas (past actions).  There are Three Gunas in nature. Sattva(Purity, Balancing), Rajasic(Dynamic, Activity) and Tamasic(Inertia, Darkness). Modern science at this stage is able to appreciate Statics and Kinetics, but yet to understand or include the Balancing phenomenon.

Gunas are dynamic and will vary from person to person and within the same person with time. Very easy to understand that as a child one may be very active, but with age, they may tend to get calmer or even inert. Early wakers may be active as they rise from bed but sleepy early night, but night owls love late nights, but are sleepy early morning. We will see in later article more in depth about Gunas. For now it is suffice to reckon that the entire universe is an admixture of the three Gunas.

No one will ever have 100% of one Guna. Though the Guna composition is always in a flux, there is a predominant Guna that characterizes each individual. Through Purushartha, self-exertion, one can modify this pattern. The great Sages saw that humans tend to follow some basic patterns. They found that some of us have Sattva as the dominant factor, followed by Rajas and little Tamas. Needless to say these are people who are very spiritual, intellectual and active people in society. They were called Brahmanas. The best example that comes to my mind is late Dr. A.P.J. Kalam.

In Kshatriyas, we find Rajas as the dominant factor, followed by Sattva and little Tamas.  Needless to say that great politicians of our times like Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi come to our mind, irrespective of their policy outlook. Their focus need not be warfare. One can see this spirit even in sportspersons like Sachin Tendulkar or M.S.Dhoni. The fighting spirit is predominantly Kshatriya. We see that many are motivated by money. Their relationship with the world is through the world of finance. Needless to state Vaishyas have their dominant Rajas backed by Tamas and little Sattva. Be it Bill Gates or the roadside Kirana owner, one can easily match these patterns.

The bulk of the society will be dominated by Sudras, their mindset dominated by Tamas, supported by Rajas and where Sattva doesn’t play major role. In society, the majority of the folks are employees. They want 9-5 jobs, content with pension. They do not want risks like Vaishya. Nor do they want to stand up for something right and go after it with a winning attitude. Needless to mention, their mind doesn’t dwell on subtle aspects of spirituality.

We have already observed in Fourfold Hindu Dharma, the four Purusharthas, Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha, the four ways humans exert themselves, namely, Social-Financial-Psychological-Spiritual. These are not like steps or levels that one peels like layers of onion. These are all the dimensions one has to be observant of simultaneously. The understanding is on the foundation of Dharma – earn Artha (all sorts of wealth, not just money), enjoy without sacrificing the bounds of Dharma, Kama (not merely carnal pleasures, as most commonly misinterpreted) and raise oneself in consciousness, Moksha.

Despite the emphasis on all the four, in an orderly society, people predominantly tend to gravitate towards one major Purushartha. In a typical society, most of the people are just living by the laws of the land, minding their own job, centred around their families or values they believe in. The maximum most people follow any law is to not be in violation. This level of thought process is pain avoidance. Shudra, by one definition, means pain avoidance. 

janmana jayate shudrah samskarairdvija uchyate – (Mahabharata)

All are born Shudras, it is only through certain rites or inner training that one becomes a Dwija or twice-born. 

Vaishyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmanas are referred as Dwijas or Twice born, as they have risen from a animal-man mindset to start moving higher. Why animal man? Because at this level, the higher  faculties or aspirations are not at play.

By this internal cross-reference in Mahabharata, it is very clear that unless one makes a conscious effort to raise higher inwards, one may be revolving around the conditions in which one is born. They may acquire more material wealth, but their mindset may not be evolved. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is sufficient proof that even scientific outlook concurs with this eastern observation.

So we can safely conclude that a good man who merely observes the social laws and believes in moral codes due to the pressures of the society is a Shudra. We now look at the person who is oriented towards the materialistic aspects of life. This need not be only money, but also expressions like fashion, collecting the trinkets of pleasure. These folks are also not in violation of Dharma. We will continue to use the word as Social Order, for this article. They need not be only business persons, but those whose action is always centred around wealth, Artha – Vaishyas

There are amongst others who are power centric. They want to influence. In a positive way, it is called leadership and in a negative connotation, world over it is called politics. Of course, all military will have to be part of this definition. There is an immense psychological idea to dominate, overpower, conquer, stand tall. Again, if we get over the twisted, highly limited definition of the word, Kama. Kama is desire, which is again a psychological pressure in the Self to exert in a certain direction. This must not be misconstrued that the other varnas do not have desires. Similarly, it doesn’t mean non- vaishyas never touch money or some such silly notion. Kshatriyas need not be the only ones in power. We see lots of media hungry NGOs who will never get elected, but they are busy influencing. This is a good example which shows we must understand the varna concept with a subtle, alert mind.

Brahmanas, by that definition, are the ones who are totally immersed in either intellectual or spiritual excellence. So this will cover Einstein and also all the great swamijis we know of. Again, as we refine our mind in a higher plane, the varna also changes.

Is there any definitive proof in our scriptures or this is a made up account? In VishnuSahasaranama Stotram portion that is found in Mahabharata, sung by Bhishma in front of Krishna, on his death bed, he provides a definitive clue.

वेदान्तगो ब्रह्मणः स्यात् क्षत्रियो विजयी भवेत् |

वैश्यो धनसंर्द्धःस्यात् शुद्र सुखमवाप्नुयात ||

vedāntagō brāhmaṇaḥ syāt kṣatriyō vijayī bhavet |

vaiśyō dhanasamṛddhaḥ syāt śūdrassukhamavāpnuyāt ||

The Brahmin will get knowledge, the Kshatriya will get victory. The Vaisya will get wealth, the Shudra will get pleasures.

By the above account, it is clear that based on the Gunas and Karmas, one’s Varna will be defined. But as science today tells us that our birth environment plays a critical role throughout our life, though we retain the power to break that shackle all the time. Again some scriptural reference can comfort us here.

एकवर्णं इदं पूर्व विश्वं आसीद युधिष्टिर कर्मक्रियविशेसेन चतुर्वर्ण्याम प्रतिष्ठितम

eka varnam idam purvam vishvam Asid yudhisthira; karmakriyAvishesena chAturvarnyam pratisthitam  (Mahabharata)

The whole world was of one class, and the four groups became established on account of their conduct.

Though this argument sounds nice, is there proof that such an interpretation was ever followed during the Vedic times. Again, we have to go back to the scriptures to validate this article. We see many accounts that will remove the faintest doubt from any skeptic, as long as they are true to the research. A few are listed below:

  • Vishwamitra, a born Kshatriya, became a Brahmin, a Brahma Rishi, by his Purushartha. All his sons became Shudras and further generations rose back as Brahmanas.
  • In Mahabharata, King Shantanu, marries Satyavati, who is a fisherwoman. Satyavati, also has a child, Vyasa, who is born to Parasara, both were Brahmanas by their actions. Vyasa sires Kshatriya sons – Dhritarashtra to Ambika and Pandu to Ambalika. But Vidura, fathered by Vyasa to Parishrami, a royal maid, shudra, ends up as a Brahmana.
  • Parasurama, Drona, Aswaththama all born as Brahmanas end up living as Kshatriyas for most of their lives.
  • In Vedic times, Satyakama Jabala, Chandogya Upanishad, is born to a prostitute, but is recognized as the highest varna, due to his actions.
  • Aitareya Rishi, born of a daasi, shudra, is the original composer of Aitareya Bramana and Aitareya Upanishad portions of the Rig Veda.

The following is a quote culled from Chaitanya Charnamrita, Prabhupad3. In the Mahābhārata, Vana-parva, Chapter 180, it is stated:

śūdre tu yad bhavel lakṣma
dvije tac ca na vidyate
na vai śūdro bhavec chūdro
brāhmaṇo na ca brāhmaṇaḥ

“If the characteristics of a brāhmaṇa are found in a śūdra and not in a brāhmaṇa, that śūdra should not be known as a śūdra, and that brāhmaṇa should not be known as a brāhmaṇa.”

Similarly, in the Vana-parva, Chapter 211, it is said:

śūdra-yonau hi jātasya
ārjave vartamānasya
brāhmaṇyam abhijāyate

“If a person born in a Sudra family has developed the qualities of a Brahmana, such as Satya[truthfulness], sama[peacefulness], dama[self-control] and arjava[simplicity], he attains the exalted position of a Brahmana”.

What is the outlook one should have amongst the different Varnas? Mahabharata provides the answer.

अन्त्यजो विप्रजतिश  एक एव सहोदरह एकयोनिप्रसुतस  च एकसखेन जायते

antyajo viprajātiśa ca eka eva sahodaraḥ ekayoniprasūtas ca ekasākhena jāyate

Treat everyone, irrespective of the varnas, as Sakodaras, brothers, and as one. So the Brahmana and the Sudra are to be treated as one.

Varnas are mere classification of humans based on their dominant outlook towards work. As humans we have different dimensions. Some of us focus on the intellectual angle, some on the emotional or control side, some are money oriented whilst others are focused on pain avoidance. Varnas are external, social, outward, while Ashramas (Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa) refer to the inward graduated ascent of the spirit to higher and higher dimensions of comprehension4. So what is the inward attitude one should have towards Varnas. Krishna solves the puzzle. It is not the social focus. But a spiritual one. Let us treat all with respect, irrespective of the Varna, as the same divinity shines in all of us.

उद्धरॆत् आत्मना आत्मानं  आत्मानम् अवसादयॆत् 
आत्म एव हि आत्मनः बंधुः आत्म एव रिपुः आत्मनः 

uddharEt AtmanA AtmAnaM na AtmAnam avasAdayEt |
Atma eva hi AtmanaH baMdhuH Atma eva ripuH AtmanaH || Bhagavad Gita 6.5 ||

By means of the mind, one should lift up the soul, but should not ruin the soul; because mind alone is the friend of the soul, mind alone is the enemy of the soul.

Society is a representation of our mind. Just as Krishna wants us to use the higher mind to raise the lower one, Varna is just a mindset. A higher Varna must reach out to raise the consciousness, despite the odds of natural tendencies. 

Om Tat Sat


1. William Sears (Physician)

2. India of my Dreams – M.K.Gandhi

3. Chaitanya CharnamritaPrabhupad

4. Krishnananda’s Bhagavad Gita commentary

Suggested Reading:

Vedic Literature says caste by birth is unjust

Was there a caste system in Hinduism (Sanathan Dharma)? NO!!!

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Sanatana Dharmist. Endeavor is to share the little I have learnt along this Cosmic journey with my fellow travelers. Sincerely interested in raising awareness of Hindu Dharma, especially to Hindus.


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