Krishna delineates caste system

Bhagavad Gita 18

Cast away the castes.

In the previous discussion, we saw Krishna explaining pleasure in the three gunaa-modes. Krishna emphasises that there is no being (including the other existential levels of Devas, etc.) free from these qualities of sattwa, rajas and tamas.

Here he makes some declarations on caste systems, which have been critically analysed by many. Krishna explains that the fourfold division of castes is based on the three gunaas. One is assigned duties according to his/her nature.

This nature of people would be broad based, depending on sattwa, rajas and tamas and would also depend on factors like the physical chemistry, mental make-up and the ambience in which one is born. He mentions at one other occasion that he is the author of the fourfold division of castes.

Some doubts which we may have…

  1. Why would he speak about these divisions in an approving manner, in spite of having made good compartmentalisation of individual characters, by the three qualities (trigunaa)?
    2 Is it because it is mentioned in other texts (smriti etc.)?
    3 Is it because he wants to establish an economic order following which there would be a better society?

It is evident that divisions were not entirely based on birth but it is unclear why Krishna would want divisions in this form. Anyway, present-day conflicts and divisions are being entirely based on caste-by-birth rule, which is far away from what Krishna means.

Let us see further as to what are the qualities of these caste-members…

The nature and duties of a Brahmanaa - serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity (inner and outer), forgiveness, uprightness, knowledge, realisation (experience and inferred knowledge) and belief in God – these are the duties of a Brahmanaa born out of (one’s own) nature (swabhaawam).

Kshatriyaa - prowess, splendour, dexterity (skill), firmness, generosity, not fleeing from battle, lordliness are the duties of the kshatriyaas born of their own nature.

Vaisyaa - agriculture, cattle-rearing and trading

Sudraa – service

If one’s nature synchronises with the given traits or duties, the classification may be made. One noticeable feature is that while a lot of adjectives and qualities are tabulated for Brahmanaas and Kshatriyas, the other two, Vaisyas and Sudras are defined directly with physical duties.

While this is the view of the scriptures, as explained by Krishna, that men are to be recognised by one’s nature and accorded duties, the world recognises people according to the caste in which one is born. Even the division of labour as explained by Krishna is lost. If we still want to follow the division rule of Krishna, we shall find most of the people are engaged in service and would rightly fit in the Sudra cadre.

Let us go over what Krishna has said earlier about castes and ponder over these words for some time…

The caste system is based on one’s qualities (gunaa) and duties (karmaa). He says this earlier. If we look at the qualities of Brahmana we find that sattwa is predominating.

In Kshatriya qualities we find rajas predominating and sattwa is secondary.

Vaisya - His karma (and qualities) indicate a rajas predominance and tamas being secondary.

Sudra is classified with a nature of tamas predominance.

According to Krishna, all the three gunaas are present in all beings. So, it is only logical that a combination of this three quality system-order is also present in all beings. Then the differentiation can only be made quantitatively i.e., how much of sudra qualities one has or how much of brahmana qualities on has, etc. Then, accordingly, one may be classified.

The basic question remains: Why should we classify?

That is required because then alone a man can find his duties and perform them.

This is the dictum of Krishna.

He further states that performing one’s own duty (swadharmaa) in a mediocre manner is better than performing someone else’s duty in an excellent manner. This compels us to necessarily find out what is our swadharmaa. We shall come to this a little later.

The system-order, if we look at it again, shows the various yogas being followed at every level… Sudra’s duties can be equated to karma yoga (his service without expectation of fruits).

Vaisya’s duties may be equated to raja yoga (A raja yogi harnesses the energies of his form or the domain he dwells in, whereas the Vaisya collects the representative materials of energies and deals with them). Kshatriya’s duties may be equated with bhakti yoga (he is devoted to his country and society) and Brahmana’s duties are indicative of jnana yoga qualities.

A further analysis shows that a Brahmana can do the actions of all four castes - a more comprehensive state of evolution, a Kshatriya can do the duties of his own and that of Vaisya and Sudra, a Vaisya can perform the duties of his own and that of Sudra, while the Sudra can perform only the duties of his own order.

This is a capability analysis of the given system.

If one is able to do such an analysis of one’s own nature (introspection) then one may be able to see his swadharmaa or the duties that he has to perform. On the other hand, nature itself shows us a path as to what we should do (the success and failure of our actions will indicate what suits us and what does not).

Whatever be the complexities and confusion in finding one’s swadharmaa and duties (karma), one point becomes clear. That is, the system-order in the name of castes is not to be framed on one’s birth but by one’s nature. Yet, humans are deluded and create divisions based on birth!

If we look at the legends of great seers, we find many so-called low-born are the people who have realised god in the tone and spirit of our scriptures. The Alwars of the Vaishnavite order, many Nayanmars and bhakti-cult saints (Tukaram, etc.) were mostly non-Brahmanas by birth but did the duties of the Brahmanas.

Spirit knows not any low and higher births. It is all enveloping and universal.

The legendary story of Sankara is a standing example of this fact…

One early morning at Kasi, Sankara walks from the Ganga after his bath. He moves along, with the disciples making way for him. A chandaalaa (low-born) appears in front of him with four dogs on leash (supposedly Lord Siva with the four Vedas). The disciples ask him to move and make way for Sankara, the exalted soul.

The chandaalaa asks, “What should I move away from, the body or the spirit?”

Sankara is stunned and he rearranges his ideas further.

Let us rearrange our ideas a little………


These Gita talks were earlier published as ‘Gita - A reassurance from Godhead’ in ‘Nandini Voice for the Deprived’.

May 09, 2010
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Rajoo Balaji

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