Bhagavad Gita 2: Varna based on birth or individual qualities?

April 22, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

It is often claims with forceful assertions that the chatur-varna-vyavastha (CVV) that is mentioned in the Gita is based on the qualities of persons and not on their birth. Arguments (or assertions/explanations) are advanced on both sides. One needs to look closely at the relevant shlokas to make sense of this issue.

A close reading of some shlokas makes a clear argument that the Varna is based on birth, and also that different Varnas have different dispositions and swabhavas. We need to trace these principle in connection with each other.

In 4-13 Krishna says that the chaturvarnya is his creation.

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः ।

तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥ ४- १३ ॥

“The fourfold order was created by Me according to the divisions of quality and work. Though I am its creator, know Me to be incapable of action or change.” (Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan [SR], George Alien & Unwin (India) Private Ltd. 1971)

On the first reading it seems that the varnas were created according to division of gunas and karmas. But pay attention to the words gunas and karmas, it will be fully explained when we read further down. We should also pay attention to the fact that here the emphasis is on Krishna being unaffected of karma or change, emphasis of the verse is actually Krishna’s nirliptata; and not chatruvarnya character of the world.

Radhakrishnan tried to explain that this is not a declaration of Varna based on birth, but on “guna (aptitude) and karma (function)”. However, he builds his argument on the basis of quotes from various places in the Mahabharata, not from Gita itself. It is common knowledge that Mahabharata has contradictory statements. Radhakrishna’s explanation is not very convincing. Particularly in the light of what the Gita says further down.

Even the argument he produces on the basis of Mahabharata remains open to question. Radhakrishnan writes: “Yudhishthira says that it is difficult to find out the caste of persons on account of the mixture of castes. Men beget offspring in all sorts of women. So conduct is the only determining feature of the caste according to sages”. This comes in Section CLXXIX of Vanaparva in a dialogue between Nahusha as a serpent and Yudhishthira. And looks like a critique of existing social practice rather than offering a description.

The most charitable view one can take at this moment is: let the issue of Varna by birth or guna be an open question and decide on the basis of what is said in this connection in other places in Gita itself. However, we will do well to remember that there are a large number of Hindi translations and commentaries on Gita which make no bones about Varana being determined by birth. For example Shirmad Bhagwad Gita by Swami Ramsukhdas clearly state that due to actions of past lives the ‘gunas’, satva, rajas and tamas, differ for each person and the God makes them Bhrahmin, Kshatriya etc. according to them. (page 306) This is an interesting interpretation of what Rakhakrishnan calls aptitudes and actions. These, according to the Swami are actions of the past life and the aptitudes are determined by these actions.

So, let’s see what turns out to be the case in other shlakas.

The point in this shloka is that the society is divided into four varnas, be they on the basis of actions and aptitudes n this life or as results of the actions in the last life. The issue then is: are these four varna’s equal in merit?

Well, the answer turns out to be NO.

मां हि पार्थ व्यपाश्रित्य येऽपि स्युः पापयोनयः ।

स्त्रियो वैश्यास्तथा शूद्रास्तेऽपि यान्ति परां गतिम् ॥ ९- ३२ ॥

“For those who take refuge in Me. 0 Partha (Arjuna), though they are lowly born, women, Vaisyas, as well as Sudras, they also attain to the highest goal.” (SR)

There seems to be a popular view that this shloka does not call women, vaishyas and shudras belonging to ‘papayoni’ but only says that ‘people born in papayogi and women etc.’ also attain the highest goal through me.

This does not seem to be the sense in Gita. But for the sake of argument even if one accepts it, it turns out to be a small comfort for women etc.

The purpose here is to explain to Arjuna the merits of worshiping and submitting to Krishna. In the shlokas 4:30 and 4:31 it is explained that even “a man of most vile conduct” attains the highest goal if he worships Krishna. Then in 4:32 it says that even the papayoni born and (or like?) women etc. attain the same goal by worshiping Him. Then goes on to 4:33 to say that “How much more then, holy Brahmins and devoted royal saints; having entered this impermanent sorrowful world, do thou worship Me.” This sequence of the argument leaves no doubt that the women etc. are lower than the Brahmins and royal saints.

Neither of the interpretation thinks all varna’s of equal merit. Nor are the women equal in spiritual merit to Brahmans.

Radhakrishana tries to explain it away by saying that “This verse is not to be regarded as supporting the social customs debarring women and Sudras from Vedic study. It refers to the view prevalent at the time of the composition of the Gita. The Gita does not sanction these social rules.” Well, may be. But even if women etc. ate allowed to study vedas what about their position in terms of spiritual attainments according to Gita? It is clearly below the Brahmans and kshatriyas.

Again Swami Ramsukhdas is rather straightforward about the issue and explains that the term “papayonayah” (papa-yoniwaale) is used for those who did bad karmas in their previous life, and so are born low in this life. And women, vaishyas and sudras are included in it.

But be that as it may, what is clear so far is: 1. The society is divided into four varnas. 2. These varnas are not equal in their gunas, karmas and spiritual merit. And 3. Women are more towards sudras than towards Brahmans.

Now let’s see how Krishna himself explains the working of the three gunas of prakriti and their relation to birth.

इति क्षेत्रं तथा ज्ञानं ज्ञेयं चोक्तं समासतः ।

मद्भक्त एतद्विज्ञाय मद्भावायोपपद्यते ॥ १३- १९ ॥

“Know thou that prakrti (nature) and purusha (soul) are both beginningless; and know also that the forms and modes are born of prakrti (nature).” (SR)

प्रकृतिं पुरुषं चैव विद्ध्यनादी उभावपि ।

विकारांश्च गुणांश्चैव विद्धि प्रकृतिसम्भवान् ॥ १३- २० ॥

“Nature is said to be the cause of effect, instrument and agent (ness) and the soul is said to be the cause, in regard to the experience of pleasure and pain.” (SR)

कार्यकारणकर्तृत्वे हेतुः प्रकृतिरुच्यते ।

पुरुषः सुखदुःखानां भोक्तृत्वे हेतुरुच्यते ॥ १३- २१ ॥

“The soul in nature enjoys the modes born of nature. Attachment to the modes is the cause of its births in good and evil wombs.” (SR)

Let’s try to connect all this: HE, the Lord Krishna, caused the four varna system; yes, on the basis of karma and gunas. Women, viashyas and shudras are born in ‘papayoni’ (or are like them in spirituality) because of their karmas. The soul is born into “good or evil womb” according to its karmas of the past lives and gunas (what SR calls “aptitudes”) and karmas are determined by this birth in “good or evil womb”. I do not know how one can doubt the conclusion without a liberal doze of dogma!

Next we need to move to their swabhava (nature) and swadharma (duties) in this life. It is established that: vaishya, shudra and women are born of ‘low’ birth or are in the same category. It is because of their karmas in past lives, their nature (swabhava) is determined by their birth, through the kind of womb they get; and this play happens through the three gunas of prakriti. In simpler words: their past lives determine their birth, and their gunas. And they fit into the chaturvarna. Shlokas 18:40 to 18:47 tell the ‘swabhava’ and ‘swadharma’ of the four varnas. Those who obey their swadharma with devotion to the lord get united with HIM. Moral of the story: do the duties assigned by your varnas; if you want to unite with the Brahmn do not disturb the varna hierarchy.

How it comes from the horse’s mouth is given below.

न तदस्ति पृथिव्यां वा दिवि देवेषु वा पुनः ।

सत्त्वं प्रकृतिजैर्मुक्तं यदेभिः स्यात्त्रिभिर्गुणैः ॥ १८- ४० ॥

“There is no creature either on earth or again among the gods in heaven, which is free from the three modes born of nature.” (SR)

ब्राह्मणक्षत्रियविशां शूद्राणां च परन्तप ।

कर्माणि प्रविभक्तानि स्वभावप्रभवैर्गुणैः ॥ १८- ४१ ॥

“Of Brahmins, of Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas as also of Sudras. o Conqueror of the foe (Arjuna), the activities are distinguished, in accordance with the qualities born of their nature.” (SR)

Remember that “their nature” is determined by the attachment they felt for the pleasures of prakriti in their past life. That attachment determined the womb they are born in. That birth is determined by their nature.

शमो दमस्तपः शौचं क्षान्तिरार्जवमेव च ।

ज्ञानं विज्ञानमास्तिक्यं ब्रह्मकर्म स्वभावजम् ॥ १८- ४२ ॥

“Serenity, self-control, austerity, purity, forbearance and uprightness, wisdom, knowledge and faith in religion, these are the duties of the Brahmin, born of his nature.” (SR)

शौर्यं तेजो धृतिर्दाक्ष्यं युद्धे चाप्यपलायनम् ।

दानमीश्वरभावश्च क्षात्रं कर्म स्वभावजम् ॥ १८- ४३ ॥

“Heroism, vigour, steadiness, resourcefulness, not fleeing even in a battle, generosity and leadership, these are the duties of a Kshatriya born of his nature.” (SR)

कृषिगौरक्ष्यवाणिज्यं वैश्यकर्म स्वभावजम् ।

परिचर्यात्मकं कर्म शूद्रस्यापि स्वभावजम् ॥ १८- ४४ ॥

“Agriculture, tending cattle and trade are the duties of a Vaisya born of his nature; work of the character of service is the duty of a Sudra born of his nature.” (SR)

And then comes the moral of the story:

स्वे स्वे कर्मण्यभिरतः संसिद्धिं लभते नरः ।

स्वकर्मनिरतः सिद्धिं यथा विन्दति तच्छृणु ॥ १८- ४५ ॥

“Devoted each to his own duty man attains perfection. How one, devoted to one’s own duty, attains perfection, that do thou hear.” (SR)

यतः प्रवृत्तिर्भूतानां येन सर्वमिदं ततम् ।

स्वकर्मणा तमभ्यर्च्य सिद्धिं विन्दति मानवः ॥ १८- ४६ ॥

“He from whom all beings arise and by whom all this is pervaded-by worshipping Him through the performance of his own duty does man attain perfection.” (SR)

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् ।

स्वभावनियतं कर्म कुर्वन्नाप्नोति किल्बिषम् ॥ १८- ४७ ॥

“Better is one’s own law though imperfectly carried out than the law of another carried out perfectly. One does not incur sin when one does the duty ordained by one’s own nature.” (SR)

It seems to be clear to me that the Gita: 1. Recognises varana-vyavastha. 2. Varna’s are determined by birth, through a complex mechanism of karma-theory and workings of the prakriti and purushs (the soul). 3. Varna’s are not equal in spiritual merit, social standing, swabhava and swadharma. 4. However, all can redeem themselves by devotion to HIM and through following their duty; the path to salvation is closed to none. 5. But to achieve this they have to accept their station in the society and their duties to Him and other people in the society. I do not know how one can escape these conclusions.

But is this about ‘varna’ or ‘caste’? Well, we all know how each caste even today wants to place itself in one of the four varnas. This is no difficult task to fit the castes into varnas.

However, that does not make Gita a ‘bad book’. It is simply expressing the thinking of its times. Some of those social norms we do not like today. Still there is plenty in Gita which is extremely valuable for human life. What I was arguing in my article “Indoctrination …” is that unless the student is capable of making her own judgment and is able to shift chaff from the grain, Gita should not be imposed as a moral code. One can learn from it, but has to recognise that all is not acceptable in this book. It could be used for making arguments which go against the principles of equality and justice; and to explains away (even worst: to justify) the inequality in society on the basis of karma theory.

And, of course, it is a religious book which depends on faith for acceptance of its basic assumptions.