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  • Writer's pictureAshok Kumar Burra

Varna and Caste System

Updated: Feb 5

Varna is the nature of an individual based on gunas(Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas) and activities in which one is interested in a particular kind of job or occupation to earn a living, and Caste means a lineage of an individual about which job or profession his/her very early ancestors used or made to do as a family profession.

The whole varna was made keeping in view the dharma that one had to follow. Varna was never considered by birth if we go through the following instances of our great literature. In Srimad Bhagavad Gita Chapter IV Verse 13, Lord Krishna clearly states that the four Varnas are based on their work and their basic nature and not related to birth at all.

chātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛiṣhṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśhaḥ

 tasya kartāram api māṁ viddhyakartāram avyayam”

The four varnas have been created by Me through a classification of the gunas and activities. Even though I am the creator of this system, still know Me to be the non-doer and eternal.

Lord  Krishna explains in this verse that the classification of the Varṇāśhram system was made according to people’s qualities and activities and not by birth. The Brahmins are those who have the supremacy of the mode of goodness (sattva) are interested in sharing knowledge and worship. The Kshatriyas who demonstrate courage like to organize and protect people, face challenges, take risks, will have a prominence of sattva and rajas. The Vaishyas are those who possess the mode of passion mixed with rajas and tamas form the business and agricultural class.  The  Shudras, who are predominated by the mode of tamas form the working class. 

Here is a story in Chandogya Upanishad Chapter IV, which supports the Varna system which was by gunas and activities and not by birth. 

Satyakama was the son of a woman named Jabala.  He had a strong wish to learn Brahmavidya and so he left his house and approached sage Goutama. The sage questioned about his family and Gotra. Satyakama who was not aware of his father’s name and Gotra came back to his house and asked his mother about his father and gotra. His mother told him that she does not know the name of his father and gotra. She further told him that she had to move about much as a servant in many houses when she was young and conceived him. She further told him to go to the sage and told him that as her name is Jabala, his name is Satyakama Jabala.

Satyakama returned to Sage Goutama and told him what he knew. The sage was pleased with his honesty and love for the truth and declared that the boy’s honesty is the mark of a “Brāhmaṇa, true seeker of the knowledge of the Brahman” and accepted him as his disciple.

The story is notable for declaring that the mark of a student of Brahman is not parentage, but honesty. 

Sri Adi Sankara, in his Manisha Panchakam, has also mentioned that birth doesn’t matter. It is the knowledge of Brahman which makes one a Brahmin.

Following shloka is from Skanda Purana which gives importance to the nature and activities of an individual and not his caste in which he has been born.

Janmanā jāyate śūdra saṁskārāt dvija ucyate” 

Everyone is born a shudra but by purification of mind and attaining Vedic knowledge by faith one becomes Dwija (Brahman).

No human being becomes a brahman just by being born to a brahmin couple. One who attained Vedic knowledge and shows the path to liberation to his fellow beings, who is free from sorrow, who is lawful and pure, who is free from all worldly and heavenly bonds, who is desireless, free from rebirth, and one who is endowed with wisdom and who has realized the ultimate truth is a Brahmin.

Valmiki Ramayana tells us how a Kshatriya king became Brahmarshi. Kaushik was a king also known as Viswamithra. Maharshi Vasista possessed a cow called Sabala can give everything wished for. Once Kaushik went to the Ashram of Vasista and saw the cow and wished to possess it. Vasistha refused to say the cow actually belongs to Devas, so he cannot give it. Kaushik became furious and attacked Vasistha with all his forces. However, he was defeated by the power of Vasista’s Brahmavidya. Kaushik went to the Himalayas to perform severe Tapasya for over 1000 years.

Indra, the head of Heaven tested Viswamithra under the guise of a brahmin and begged for food just when Kaushik was ready to break a fast of many years by eating some food. Kaushik without any hesitation offered his food at once to Indra and resumes his penance. Kaushika continued his penance without being provoked by any of Indra’s testing and alluring interferences. Kaushika’s yogic power was at a peak. Then Brahma, along with Indra and other Devas appeared before Kaushika and called him Brahmarshi and named him Vishvamitra or Friend of the Universe. Then Vishwamitra went and greeted Vashishta with the pride of being a new Brahmarishi in the heart. Vashishta simply blessed him. Suddenly all pride and desire left Vishwamitra’s heart and he became a clean and clear Brahmarshi. When Vishwamitra turned back to leave, Vashishta realized a change of heart and greeted Vishwamitra as Brahmarshi.

Maurya kings were not originally Kshatriyas and they were Kushwahas. Chandra Guptha overthrew the Nanda Dynasty and became the king of Magadha,  his varna was that of a Kshatriya. 

It might have happened about 1500 BC when the Aryans conquered and took control over the regions in India, suppressed the locals, disregarded their cultures, and made them their servants. Maybe during the Gupta period, the varna system became rigid and prohibited movement from one varna to the other and thus evolved the rigid caste system based on their profession as seen today. The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras. Outside of these four castes system are the Dalits. People who clean drainages etc., are called   “Scheduled Caste” and those who live in forests as tribes are called  “Scheduled Tribes.”  The main castes were further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on their specific profession. 

The caste system creates differences among the people in society and affects the quality of life and social mobility.  It stands in the way of Political, Social, and Economical reforms though the Indian Constitution has given equal rights to all its citizens. Our politics is largely managed by caste vote banks because people in most areas vote on a caste basis. It is a curse on our country which must be eradicated if we really want to see our country’s prosperity in all aspects.

If spirituality is widespread in the country, then most of the people have the ability to think of the unity of all humans, that the same God is within all souls, and rejects the claim of separate Gods for different religions.  When the people are elevated spiritually and understand that all humans are basically the same, they won’t find any supremacy of their caste over the other and also understand worshipping the Ultimate(God) in different names and in different places of worship do not make any difference.

Courtesy: Sri B.E.Sampath Kumar, Sri Ramchandraji Seva Trust, Kadapa.

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