Living Gita: 18: The Question of Varna Sankara

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When families are destroyed, timeless family traditions are destroyed. And when that happens, families plunge into lawlessness. And with families plunging into lawlessness, women become corrupt. And when women become corrupt, Krishna, varna sankara results. Varna sankara [the intermixture of varnas] leads to hell both those who destroy the families and the families themselves. Deprived of the offerings of water and food, the spirits of the ancestors fall. By these evil deeds of those who destroy families, causing confusion of varnas, the eternal dharmas of families and castes are destroyed. BG 1.40-43

We heard Arjuna arguing earlier that one’s own people should not be killed, however wicked they are, even if they are atatayis, the greatest of criminals. In fact, he calls the people against whom he is waging the war by the name atatayis and then says they should not still be killed because they are his swajana, his own people, and asks how one can achieve happiness after killing one’s own people. Perhaps he feels his argument to justify the decision he has already taken under his emotional hijack to abandon the war and run away from the battlefield preferring to become a monk is not strong enough. So here he is putting forward another argument. This time the argument is that the war will eventually lead to varna sankara, intermixing of varnas. This would happen because the death of the kshatriya men in the war would misbalance the man-woman ratio among kshatriyas, many kshatriya women would not find kshatriya men to marry and then they would either have relationships with non-kshatriya men or marry non-kshatriya men, leading to the birth of huge numbers of children whose varna would be indeterminate.

Let’s take a look at this argument that Arjuna gives now to justify his decision to abandon the war.

The varna system is very different from what we speak of as the caste system today. The varnas are just four, brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras, whereas casts are hundreds and hundreds. Every modern state in India has scores of different castes, counting major and minor ones.

The varna system is as old as the Vedas, which according to current understanding are some ten to twelve thousand years old. Modern scholars studying the age of the Vedas point out that the Taittiriya Samhita belonging to the Krishna Yajur Veda places the constellation Pleiades at the winter solstice, which correlates with astronomical events that took place around 8,500 BCE. Dr. B.G. Siddharth of Birla Science Institute points out that the Taittiriya Brahmana refers to the Purva Bhadrapada star as rising due east – an event that occurred no later than 10,000 BCE, which makes the brahmana around 12000 years old. Since the Samhita parts of the Vedas are much older than the brahmana books, these are much older than 12000 years. And the Rig Veda in its Purusha Sukta speaks of the birth of the four varnas from the cosmic person, the Virat Purusha, or God.

However this system was very different from what we know as the varna system today. For the Rig Veda, the system was based not on birth, but on psycho-spiritual qualities of the individual called the gunas. They were a way of describing people by their nature and not by their birth.

The Bhagavad Gita speaks of the varna system in its fourth chapter where Krishna speaking as God says that the system of fourfold varnas was created by him based on the differences of gunas and karmas:

chaaturvarnyam mayaa srishtam guna-karma-vibhaagashah;
tasya kartaaram api maam viddhyakartaaram avyayam
BG 4.13

There is no mention of birth [jaati, janma] here. As the verse says, the system was based on gunas and karmas, psychological tendencies and professions followed, and not on birth.

Ancient India understood that all human beings are not the same, individuals differ from one another in their temperaments, longings, drives, aspirations, needs, talents, competencies and so on and based on these differences divided people into four broad categories, just as modern psychologist Carl Jung divided people into the three categories of extroverts, introverts and ambiverts and modern social psychology divides people into Type A and Type B.

People who loved calmness and serenity, who were highly intellectual and spiritual, contemplative and meditative, dominated by the need to understand themselves and the world around them, who sought the meaning of life, loved solitude and serenity and had strong, to use a term by Dr Abraham Maslow, transcendence needs, were given the name brahmanas. These were people who sought growth in their inner worlds, wanted to grow vertically, so to speak.

People who were oriented towards power and leadership, who felt the need to take charge of others and to command and control them, were called kshatriyas. Their orientation was towards expansion on the horizontal plain, at the level where they were. They needed to conquer the world, were aggressive and territorially oriented, tended to give generously, were excited by danger and adventure and loved taking risks. They had tremendous energy, were steadfast and tenacious, frequently acted impulsively not caring for consequences, had strong belongingness and acceptance needs and were marked by raw courage and great strength of purpose. These were the movers and shakers of the society.

And a third group were the wealth producers of the society whose basic interest was in producing more and more material wealth through all possible means such as agriculture, cattle rearing, business and commerce and so on. They were called vaishyas. They used their wealth to produce more wealth, and in a way it is they who sustained the society since no society can survive and grow without wealth.

People who did not belong to any of these three categories belonged to the fourth group and were given the name shudras. The largest number of people in the society belonged to this group. They did not share the aspirations of the first three groups of people: they did not have the strong spiritual needs of the first group of people, the strong territorial and authority needs of the second group and were not driven by the wealth and possession needs of the third group. They were contented with their lives as they lived it every day and wanted to make sure that their tomorrows were taken care of.

Since this division was based on your gunas and karmas, on our drives, motives and aspirations and the professions we chose for ourselves based on these, it was a highly flexible and mobile system and anyone could move from any group to any other group as their gunas and karmas changed, as their nature and drives changed.

In the Vedic literature we find examples of people being treated as belonging to one varna or another on the basis of their gunas – their psychological nature. For instance the Chhandogya Upanishad belonging to the Sama Veda tells us the story of Satyakama, the son of a poor woman called Jabala who earned her living by doing odd jobs in different houses and was contented with her simple life. Jabala herself did not have any higher aspirations in life, but her son wanted to know the Truth, to become what the varna system of the day called a brahmana. The boy approached the famous guru of the day, Rishi Haridrumata Gautama who asked him what gotra lineage he belonged to. When he said he did not know, Rishi Gautama sent Satyakama back to his mother to find out, and she told him she herself did not know it, she worked in different houses and a man in one of those house should be his father. She told him, “Go and tell your guru that my name is Jabala and you are therefore Styakama Jabala.’

When the boy came and told his guru the exact words of his mother without any embarrassment or shame, repeating his desire to seek the Truth, Gauytama’s face beamed with pleasure and he told Satyakama that anyone who had the desire he had to learn and that kind of integrity and commitment to truth is a brahmana and therefore he was a brahmana. Stayakama Jabala becomes Gautama’s disciple and eventually one of the greatest Vedic rishis in his own right.

The purpose of this division into four categories was so that people could understand themselves and live their life in accordance with their essential nature and drives, follow professions they had maximum aptitude for so that individuals reached self-actualization and the society was assured of maximum benefit from each individual. It was an elitist system that provided lots of opportunities for the three ‘upper’ classes who were also given plenty of privileges. An important weakness of the system was that it did not take into consideration and provide for the needs of the vast majority of ‘average’ people who neither had the brahmanical orientation nor the kshatriya or vaishya orientation. The word shudra, a word of unknown etymology, for all we know did not have any negative connotations to begin with, and probably just meant an ordinary person, though eventually it came to be associated with a lot of social prejudices and became for all practical pruposes a word of abuse.

However, soon the sons of the brahmanas started claiming they too were brahmanas, the sons kshatriyas that they too are kshatriyas and the sons of vaishyas that they are vaishyas too. The sons claimed for themselves too the privileges their fathers were given, whether they had the temperaments and competencies required or not, forgetting that the human being is not just the body born of his parents but much more than that, that each one of comes into this world with a rich collection of vasanas, sanskaras and karmas that we have acquired through the endless lifetimes we have lived. Over time the varna system that was based on gunas and karmas was reduced to one based exclusively on birth.

Thus in the Mahabharata we find Karna refused the privileges of a kshatriya because he was supposed to have been a non-kshatriya by birth even though he had all the qualities of a kshatriya. We also find that Drona and his son Ashwatthama treated as brahmanas though by temperament and karma they were kshatriyas, particularly Ashwatthama. Vidura, being calm, serene, intellectual and spiritual, a great yogi filled with inner light and every inch a brahmana by guna and karma, was never given brahmanical privileges and was throughout his life treated as a shudra because he was the son of a shudra maid.

Once it fell from its original form and the original ideas died out, the varna system decayed further and eventually became a thoroughly dreadful thing and one of the worst human institutions ever. It bound and shackled with invisible chains the vast majority of people who fell into its all-powerful hands, refused them all human dignity, denied them all social mobility, condemned them to the dirtiest jobs society wanted to be done and then treated them as dirty for doing these jobs.

The battle against the caste system is old. The Buddha revolted against it two thousand six hundred years ago, enlightened men like Basaveshara, chief minister of the Kalachuri king of Karnataka and founder of the Lingayats revolted against it a thousand years ago. All the Sikh gurus and the Natha saints rejected it. In modern times Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar fought against it, the constitution of India holds discrimination based on cast illegal, but in spite of all this, it is still very much with us, condemning to the peripheries of society some eighty percent of India’s population, denying them social dignity and in some cases even basic human dignity.

One of my students in a teacher-education college where I taught, a young lady who had already taught in a school for many years, once told me about a student in one of her classes. The student sat away in class from all other students, wouldn’t ask any questions and volunteer any answers, in the lunch break she wouldn’t join the other students but would go away to a distant corner and eat there all alone. In the games periods she wouldn’t join the other students but would stand under a tree quietly and watch other students playing. The young teacher took interest in this lonely, sad girl and eventually after much effort discovered that the girl was born into a cast that was considered untouchable and it was the fear of social rejection that kept her away from active school life.

Another student of mine in the same college was bright, one of the toppers of the college, beautiful, lighted up any place she went to, but came from a village where the entire community shared a common well. The villagers did not stop her from drawing up water from the well but every time she came and fetched water from the well, they came and washed up the walls of the well and its cemented surroundings and only then would they use the well.

One of my friends witnessed a sad and shocking scene in a village in Vaishali – the sacred land where the Buddha walked and taught, one of the oldest democracies in the world – just a few years ago while travelling by bus. A city-educated young man was pulled out of a bus and thoroughly beaten up with slippers for daring to sit next to another youth from his village in the bus – the beaten up young man belonged to one of the ‘lower castes’.

The Shatarudriya – One Hundred Prayers to Rudra – is one of the most beautiful prayers anywhere in the world, belonging to any religion, still ritually chanted everyday in millions of Hindu homes. The prayer, also known by such names as the Rudri Path, Rudradhyayi, Rudra Prashna and so on, is an ancient prayer from the Taittiriya Samhita of the Krishna Yajur Veda which sees divinity in everything and everyone. Among the prayers addressed to Rudra we find:

namo mahadbhyah kshullakebhyas cha vo namo...

“Salutations to you, O Lord! The great ones and the small ones alike you are! Salutations to you, O Lord! The carpenters and the chariot makers are none other than you! Salutations to you, O Lord! The potters who mold clay and make pots and the smiths who work in metals are none other than you! Salutations to you, O Lord! The fowlers who trap birds and fishermen who catch fish are none other than you! Salutations to you, O Lord! You are the bow and arrow makers, the hunters and the leaders of hounds. Salutations to you, O Lord! You the source of all things and you are the destroyer of all things too!”

That is the spirit of the Vedas! To the Shatarudriya everything is divine and nothing pollutes And once the varna system began decaying and in its decayed form became the caste system based on jati, birth, it started seeing some people polluting and untouchable, whose very shadow falling on your shadow would pollute you!

When Arjuna says the war will lead to varna-sankara, intermingling of varnas, through corruption in women and the birth children of mixed varnas, he is not speaking of the varna system based on gunas and karmas. He is speaking of the highly corrupt system of classifying people based exclusively on birth and totally ignored competencies, drives, and other elements of human nature. He is speaking of the system that made the saintly Vidura a shudra for life, that denied the glorious Karna kshatriyahood, that called the vicious, monstrous Ashwatthama a brahmana in spite of the darkest deeds he did in the kalaratri of the Sauptika Parva of Mahabharata. He is speaking of a system that would soon become the highly corrupt caste system we have today and is one of the greatest evils in our society: a system that limits opportunities for social participation, social mobility, job opportunities, selection of life partners, etc. exclusively to what is decided by one’s birth, a system that reduces the vast majority of population to the lowest rungs of the society forever with no chance of escape.

The destruction of such a system is perhaps one of the prices that have to be paid for establishing dharma in the society and among its leaders.


Even if we do not go to the profound depths of ancient Indian understanding of the gunas and what they teach us about human nature, human growth, human excellence and so on, which we will have plenty of opportunities to talk about during our discussions of the Gita later since the gunas are central to three of the eighteen chapters of the Gita, and confine our discussion at this stage to varnas as birth-based, Arjuna’s fears about varna-sankara still do not have a strong foundation. Just as varna purity – somewhat like racial purity – has its strengths, genetically speaking mixing of varnas too has several advantages. When we do not mix the genes, children inherit both the strengths and weaknesses our parents. Many genetic groups have become extinct just because they did not mix with other groups and many others have widespread defects because of inbreeding. Of course we are not discussing incest but that too is a form of inbreeding. There are several reasons why the incest taboo exists all over the world, but the most important of them is the fear of possible genetically inherited defects. On the whole, nature prefers mixing of genes rather than purity of genes. Basically, sex itself is nature’s way of making sure of genes being mixed to produce stronger and varied offspring.

Arjuna cannot escape the call to the war for establishing dharma hiding behind the argument that varna-sankara will take place and that will be disastrous. That is another lame argument, like his earlier argument that felons should not be destroyed if they are one’s own people.

Arjuna has become temporarily blind to truth because of his attachment and refuses to see things as they are. The Gita will teach him to come out of this blindness and help him see things objectively, through eyes that are detached, and practice anasakti yoga which is one of the central teachings for the Gita.

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Views: 4840      Comments: 1

Comment Very good commentary.

Raja Desai
23-Oct-2022 19:42 PM

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