Varna versus Caste in Bhagavad Gita

January 2, 2022 | Global Gita | Blog

In this exposition Swami Nirvisheshananda Tirtha ji discusses and analyzes the subject of Varna division in the Hindu society. The Varna system has been widely misinterpreted and misunderstood, taking the form of the caste system.

As per the original and correct interpretation, mankind is divided into four Varnas – Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras.

Krishna, discussing this fourfold division in Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 18, verse 41), says:

ब्राह्मणक्षत्रियविशां शूद्राणां च परन्तप |
कर्माणि प्रविभक्तानि स्वभावप्रभवैर्गुणै: || 41||

brāhmaa-khatriya-viśhā śhūdrāā cha parantapa
karmāi pravibhaktāni svabhāva-prabhavair guai

Activities of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras are well divided on the basis of their qualities shaped by Nature’s gunas.

Work was divided among people in the society based on their Guna constitution. Each of these social groups took up activities according to their tendencies and skills, and contributed to the welfare of the society. Each of them by this exclusive dedication to his/her chosen field excelled in it.

Depending on his natural tendencies (Svabhava), the three Gunas (Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas) will function in a human being. These may be present in different permutations and combinations in a person. A Brahmana may have Sattva as a predominant Guna, followed by Rajas and Tamas. Rajas will be the dominant Guna in a Kshatriya followed by Sattva and Tamas in whichever order. In a Vaishya, the order may be Rajas, Tamas and Sattva, and in a Sudra, Tamas and Rajas followed by Sattva.

“But this Guna constitution is not absolute,” says Swamji, “You may have been born with a certain Guna constitution but it can be changed by self-effort. If one wants to cultivate Sattva Guna, then he will have to imbibe more and more Saatvik inputs”.

This Varna classification had been defined in India, but such a broad categorization exists everywhere in the world. Everywhere there are certain kinds of people with a preference and an orientation for teaching, some who are given to administration, and yet others to manual labor, serving others, etc. 
Discussing Svabhava, Swamiji quotes Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 8, verse 3:

श्रीभगवानुवाच |
अक्षरं ब्रह्म परमं स्वभावोऽध्यात्ममुच्यते |
भूतभावोद्भवकरो विसर्ग: कर्मसञ्ज्ञित: || 3||

śhrī bhagavān uvācha
akhara brahma parama svabhāvo ’dhyātmam uchyate
bhūta-bhāvodbhava-karo visarga karma-sanjñita

The Svabhava is the spiritual essence in us. It is the same for everybody (whatever his Varna or Guna).

But when this ‘Sva’ manifests through a personality, it will take up the qualities of the personality. Swamiji took the example of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda and said, “Although their personalities were poles apart, there was no difference in their realization”.

Each person will have some natural tendencies, qualities, or parameters. But because of desires, we do not follow our Svabhava. A person may be very good in music but he may take up a career in information technology because the profession may be more lucrative.

In ancient India, this Varna classification led to amazing excellence in various fields. This is apparent when consider the contributions of Indians in the fields of literature, poetry, medicine, astronomy, music, and much more.

Swamiji emphatically says, “But that does not give anybody the right to look down upon anybody. India has suffered because people started looking down upon those belonging to other Varnas”.

Our scriptures repeatedly proclaim that the path of spirituality and goal of attaining perfection is open to everyone. It is not restricted to a certain class of people.

Swamiji states, “Whether you are studying Shastras, ruling the kingdom, doing business, or helping others, everything depends upon how and with what attitude you do the work.”

Swamiji concluded with a defining statement that if everyone does all work fully knowing that it is all a play of the Gunas and work without any ego, attachment or expectation of happiness, it is possible to attain the heights of spiritual perfection.