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Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part II.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism

Part II

The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is

Summary Article

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 27 March, 2017

Copyright © 2017 Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.


This is part of a series of articles which examine the important question: is caste-based discrimination in Hindu society an intrinsic part of Hinduism? Is it sanctioned in Hindu scripture?

In the Introduction to this series, the parameters of discussion, the assumptions, the methodology, and the overall conclusions of the entire series were presented.

In the present article, Part II of the series, I examine the famous Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, or song of God, to see what it has to say about caste. The main conclusions about the role of caste in the Bhagavad Gita are given in the present summary article, without discussing chapter and verse.

Detailed elaborations of individual verses – with original Sanskrit texts, word-by-word translations, free translations, multiple commentaries, and my own conclusions, based on the literal text and the multiple commentaries – are given in a mini-series of seven articles, starting with Part III.

I conclude that caste and caste-based discrimination are fundamental to the very foundation of Hinduism as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita.

They are not a distortion of the scriptures of Hinduism. Far from being an added social custom, caste is at the very basis of Hindu thought.

The caste system, as seen today, is largely a faithful representation of Lord Krishna’s words and intended meaning in the Bhagavad Gita. The central arguments in the Bhagavad Gita itself would collapse without the support of caste-based discrimination.



Background of the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita (often referred to simply as “the Gita”) is part of the Mahabharata, a tale of internecine conflict between two sets of royal cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, over control of the kingdom of Hastinapura, near modern Delhi. In the Mahabharata, the climactic moment of the epic is when, after all other possibilities are exhausted, the two sides, along with their allies, assemble at the battlefield in Kurukshetra (in modern-day Haryana in north India) to fight for the kingdom.

Just as the battle is about to begin, Arjuna, one of the great heroes on the Pandava side, has second thoughts about the moral correctness of the course he is about to embark on. He wonders if a kingdom won after killing his near and dear ones, such as his beloved grand-uncle Bhishma or his arms teacher Drona, who are duty-bound to fight for his enemies the Kauravas; or even the Kauravas themselves who, though mortally opposed to him, are still his cousins; is worth the battle. The god Krishna, a human incarnation of the eternal God Vishnu, who serves as Arjuna’s charioteer in the Mahabharata War (i.e., as a non-combatant) despite being a great warrior himself, then advises Arjuna on the correct course of life and convinces him to fight.

The questions that Arjuna puts to Krishna and the answers that the Krishna makes to Arjuna, with explanations on the true nature of life, the multiple ways of achieving salvation in life, and the union of the human soul with the divine, form the Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of God,” which runs to 700 verses.  The composition of the Bhagavad Gita is dated to between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE.

The Bhagavad Gita is a book of high philosophy, and talks about the reasons for performing actions in life, the definition of “right” action, and the purpose of life itself. Many Hindu scholars and saints consider the Gita to be the very essence of all the Vedas and Upanishads – a concise summary of the essentials of Hinduism. It is for this reason that many consider it the holiest book in Hinduism, although Hinduism does not have a single Bible, unlike Abrahamic religions. As proof of its special position in the Hindu scriptural canon, Hindu witnesses in Indian courts are made to swear on the Bhagavad Gita that what they testify is the truth.

In a Nutshell: The Role of Caste in the Gita

To understand the message of the Gita, we must first remind ourselves of the principal reason the Gita was taught by Krishna to Arjuna. That reason is that Arjuna refuses to fight, saying that he sees no point in winning over a kingdom after killing all his relatives.

Everything that Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita is said with a view to convincing Arjuna that he must fight and that his reasons for not fighting are wrong. This is because, according to Krishna, the Great War in the Mahabharata is a war between good and evil. The Kauravas represent evil and must be defeated – and Arjuna is the most appropriate and qualified agent of good who can achieve this. Hence Krishna counters many of Arjuna’s excellent questions with his answers, which form the message of the Gita.

Unlike many other Indian scriptures, the Gita is a document of remarkable unity in thought. The portrait of Hindu thought and Hindu society that it presents is a complete and reasonably coherent one. While there are contradictions in it too, like in other Hindu scriptures, the contradictions are relatively minor.

To better present the summary of the ideas of the Gita, I will discuss them from Arjuna’s perspective. The answers to Arjuna’s objections capture the message of the Gita. In what follows, I will not quote chapter and verse to justify my statements: those references can be found in the Detailed Exposition in subsequent parts of this series.

In the next few sections, I present Arjuna’s doubts and objections, and Krishna’s answers to them.

Why Should Arjuna Kill his Relatives?

Krishna answers that Arjuna would be killing nobody, as there is a distinction between the body and the soul (Atman or AtmA) – the body perishes, whereas the soul is eternal. So he cannot possibly kill Bhishma, Drona, or his cousins, because all he can kill are their bodies. Their souls are immortal. Just as a person casts off old clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards an old body at the time of death; rises to the higher planets, enjoys the rewards or suffers the punishments for its deeds in that birth; and, having exhausted both, enters a new body as a baby. This repeating cycle of birth followed by death, followed by birth again is called samsAra. It is, therefore, pointless to grieve about death, since what is dying is only the perishable body, not the immortal, imperishable soul.

Will Souls perennially Remain in the Cycle of samsAra?

Krishna answers that the cycle can be broken, and that this is the purpose of human existence. The Universe is pervaded by the Universal divine consciousness, known as brahmaN or paramAtmAbrahmaN (not to be confused with the varNa of Brahmana - pronounced brAhmaNa - or Brahmin, mentioned in Part I) exists in every living and non-living thing in the Universe. The goal of human existence is mOksha – the liberation from the cycle of samsAra, whereby the Atman of the human being merges with the paramAtmA of the Lord, and is freed from the cycle of birth and death. But for this, the soul must be enlightened. There are many paths to enlightenment, such as the path of karma yOga (the discipline of performing righteous, selfless duty as service to God), jnAna yOga (the discipline of knowledge of the scriptures, and the discernment of the glories of God), and bhakti yOga (the discipline of absolute devotion to God). karma in Sanskrit means action; jnAna means knowledge; and bhakti means devotion.

Why Must Arjuna Covet a Kingdom So Badly?

Krishna answers that Arjuna is looking at the issue in completely the wrong way. Arjuna must fight – but not for greed for the kingdom. He must fight because the Pandavas are on the side of virtue, and their cousins the Kauravas are on the side of vice and evil, and it is his duty as a Kshatriya (the warrior varNa, described in Part I) to fight to protect the good and destroy evil. However, he must fight only for this principle, not for obtaining the kingdom, even if he obtains the kingdom as a by-product. Krishna explains that this is to be done by “nishkAma karma,” or “action without attachment.” Arjuna must fight, but fight as a duty, and do it as an offering to God. (kAma is the Sanskrit word for attachment; hence nishkAma means “without attachment.”)

Why is it Arjuna’s Duty to Fight as a Kshatriya?

Krishna explains that he, as God, has partitioned society into the four “varNas” – groupings based on birth-based professional categories. The four varNas are those of the Brahmins, or priests and teachers; the Kshatriyas, or warriors and kings; the Vaishyas, or merchants; and the Shudras, or those tasked with menial duties. There is a clear hierarchy of status and privilege among the Varnas: the Brahmins are the noblest and highest, the Kshatriyas come afterwards, followed by the Vaishyas. The Shudras are lowest in the hierarchy.

Each varNa has a divinely-ordained duty, known as dharma, consistent with the aforementioned distinctions of priests and teachers, warriors and kings, merchants, and menial workers. Therefore, if you are born in the varNa of Brahmins, for example, it is your divinely-ordained duty to learn the Vedas and other holy scriptures, spend your time in worship and teaching of those same scriptures, and advise the other castes on right conduct. If you are born in the Kshatriya varNa, likewise, your divinely-ordained duty is to serve in the military and in positions of kingly authority, and protect the people who are your subjects, based on upholding good and destroying evil. If you are born in the Vaishya varNa, your divinely-ordained duty is to engage in trade and agriculture for the benefit of society in as fair a manner as possible. And if you are born in the Shudra varNa, your divinely-ordained duty is to serve the other three varNas in as best a way as possible, and accept what they give for those services in return. It is the duty of the other three varNas to take care of the Shudra varNa. This is known as varNA dharma.

One is born into a varNa, and cannot change it in his lifetime. Arjuna is born as a Kshatriya; therefore he must do the duty of a Kshatriya. He must fight. He cannot give up arms and become a man of peace. All he can do is do his duty (fighting for good against evil) to the best of his ability, do it with no attachment to the rewards of his actions, and do it as service to God.

Similarly, a Brahmana should engage in learning and teaching, but not for profit – rather to spread the knowledge of scripture to deserving students. A Vaishya’s profession inherently involves the earning of profit, but he must do it as a divine duty, and in as fair a way as possible, because he fulfils an important social role. Because of the nature of his duty, he cannot ever do his duty in a nishkAma sort of way. And the Shudra must serve the other three varNas, and not complain about it, because that is the duty enjoined upon him by the scriptures.

Why is One’s varNa-Based Duty Fixed?

After all, Krishna had praised the path of knowledge (jnAna yOga) earlier. Arjuna would like to drop his weapons, not kill anyone, go to the forest and meditate on God, study the scriptures, converse with holy sages, and attain the unity of his Atman with the paramAtma, following the path of knowledge, as Brahmins often do. Why is Arjuna not allowed to do so?

Krishna explains that this is because of the three modes of material nature, also known as the guNas. These are the mode of goodness, known as the sattva guNa, the mode of passion, known as raja guNa (or rajas), and the mode of darkness, known as tama guNa (or tamas). There is a clear hierarchy among the three guNas – the sattva guNa is the purest and noblest, followed by the raja guNa, and finally by the tama guNa, which represents the worst qualities of human beings.

The human body is known as the kshEtra, or the field of activities. The human body is constituted of prakRuti, which can be technically translated as nature; but in Hindu philosophy, it actually is a broader concept than that. prakRuti consists of the five elements: air, fire, water, earth, and ether; and also encompasses manas (mind), buddhi (intelligence), and ahamkAra (ego). This is known as the eight-fold constitution of prakRuti. (The difference between manas and buddhi is that manas is the part of the mental faculty that senses and processes; buddhi is the part of the mental faculty that makes judgements and decisions.)

But what gives life to this prakRuti to make a living being, or jIva, is the AtmA or soul. The AtmA is also known as the kshEtrajna, or the knower of the field, because it is the AtmA that senses the body and its functions; it monitors the actions of the body. The AtmA brings along with it the guNas that are imprinted on it. Each AtmA has imprinted upon it a certain percentage of each guNa – sattvarajas, and tamas. In other words, each soul has a pre-natal tendency towards different kinds of actions.

In the beginning, the creator endowed all souls with the sattva guNa. But, owing to their actions and choices in each life, souls acquires more of one guNa or the other. When humans start to deviate from the path of righteousness, the sattva guNa in them starts to reduce, and the rajas and tamas guNa in them starts to predominate. After each of its millions and millions of births, each soul has a new imprint on it, based on its good or bad actions in all its past births, of certain levels of rajastamas, and sattva.

The embodied living being is therefore the combination of prakRuti, the AtmA, and the guNas that have ensnared the AtmA. The AtmA is bound to act in certain ways depending on what guNas are attached to it. For example, if a human being (an embodied soul, a jIva) possesses an AtmA with a high percentage of sattva, that person will engage largely in virtuous deeds and in contemplation of God; he will largely perform actions without expectation of reward. Someone with a high level of tamas will wander through life in ignorance and superstition; he will care neither about actions nor about their fruits. He is so lazy that he never seeks out the truth. And one whose AtmA is dominated by rajas will engage in passion and activity all his life – he will seek out food, women, liquor, and possessions for pleasure; he will be of an active disposition and fight for territory and kingdom; he will be a slave to his senses and always perform actions for rewards.

The AtmA achieves birth in a body within a certain varNa, based on the guNas that are imprinted on it. Thus, an AtmA with a high level of tamas will likely be born as a Shudra; the AtmA with a high level of rajas will be likely born as a Kshatriya; one with a lot of rajas and tamas combined will be born as a Vaishya; and an AtmA with a high level of sattva will be born as a Brahmin.

So the fact that Arjuna has been born as a Kshatriya is a consequence of his merits or demerits in millions of birth prior to this one; all those births have imprinted upon his soul a predominance of rajas; and therefore in this birth, he has to do his divinely-ordained duty for his varNa, which is that of the Kshatriya. His job is to be a warrior and fight for good; rule over his kingdom; and govern his subjects fairly.

And so, to Arjuna who is vacillating about whether he should fight or give up arms and become a sage, Krishna tells him in no uncertain terms that he is not allowed to give up his varNa-dictated duty. To emphasize the point, he says clearly that even if one is better at the duties of a different varNa, and considered to be poor at doing the duties of his own varNa, it is considered superior to do his own varNa-dictated duty than do the duty of another varNa.

Is There No Way Out of This?

One may wonder from the previous section that if a jIva is forced to behave in certain ways because of the imprint of the guNas that his or her soul is born with, can he or she never get better? The answer is given by Krishna, who clearly explains it as though one might explain the presence of a ladder. It is clear from what he says that humans have free agency in determining their actions for better or worse.

Thus, for example, if one is born as a Vaishya, one can try to study the Vedas; one can perform his duty to the best of his ability, whilst always remembering the Lord in his mind; one can do virtuous acts, such as give alms to the needy; and one can listen to the words of learned saints and understand the path to salvation. Consistent effort in this direction during his entire life will ensure that the balance of guNas attached to his soul gradually increases in the direction of sattva and reduces in the direction of rajas and tamas. The guNas are therefore very dynamic. However, since the imprint of the guNas on the soul have not happened in just one life, erasing them will also not be possible in one birth. It will take several births of high living to improve the quality of one’s guNas. Eventually, after many rebirths, this Vaishya may even be reborn as a Brahmin because of consistently good behaviour in his many births.

And similarly, if one is born a Brahmin, one can either devote himself completely to spiritual knowledge, action without expectation of rewards, and remembering the Lord, and he might escape samsAra; or, he can, despite being born as a Brahmin, yield to vices, engage completely in activities that focus on passion – sex, food, liquor, money, property; he might live a life of complete indiscipline; he might completely disregard the holy Vedas – and by doing so, reduce the imprint of sattva on his soul and increase the imprint of rajas on his soul, thereby ensuring a future birth in the lower varNa of Kshatriyas. If he lives a life of ignorance, sleep, and indifference, his fate in future births could be worse, and he could be born as a Shudra. It is for this reason that being born in the varNa of Brahmins is considered so special, because it implies that the soul has had many births in the past where the bodies it was attached to performed very virtuous deeds; and by doing so, they have brought the soul very close to the possibility of exiting samsAra.

In this way, over millions of rebirths, a soul can achieve the highest birth corresponding to the purest of the sAttvika (endowed with sattvaguNas, and prepare itself for mOksha, provided that, in every birth, the jIva associated with the soul, obeyed its varNa dharma, was devoted to God, and prayed to God for helping its soul become free of samsAra – for such a feat (of exiting samsAra) is only possible by divine Grace.

Implications of the Message of Gita on the Role of Caste

There are three main implications of the message of the Gita on caste. The first is that duty can only be defined in Hinduism with regard to varNa. The second is that, by creating this hierarchical system of varNas in society, and the promise that one can potentially be reborn in a higher stratum of society in a future birth if one performs his duty properly in this birth, social order is preserved. The third is that inter-varNa marriages are forbidden, and therefore the varNa system preserves endogamy.

The following sections clarify all of these points.

The Gita, like most Hindu scriptures, talks mostly about varNa and not about jAti. Because of this, readers may be confused about the relationship between the two. That is also clarified below.

“Duty” is Only Defined Within a varNa

It will be immediately clear on examining the message of the Gita that the very message of karma yOga, viz., “You have the right to perform actions prescribed for you, not the right to the fruits of their actions” (Chapter 2, verse 47) is complete only when the “prescribed actions” for a person are defined.

In Chapter 4, verse 13, Krishna explains that the four varNas as divisions of society that he has created for AtmAs, based on their pre-natal guNas. And Krishna describes the prescribed duties for people born in different varNas in Chapter 18, verses 41-48. In Chapter 14, he describes that one is born as a Brahmana, a Kshatriya, a Vaishya, or a Shudra, based on the guNas attached to his soul. He emphasizes in Chapter 18 what I have already expatiated above upon the duties of the different varNas – that a Brahmin’s duties are related to scholarship of the scriptures and right living; that a Kshatriya’s duties are related to fighting for the right, heroism, and leadership; that a Vaishya’s duties are related to commerce, agriculture, and cow protection; and that a Shudra’s duties consist of serving the other three varNas.

Thus, the prescription of duties for the different varNas is vital to Krishna’s repeated exhortation in the Gita that detached performance of one’s duty is the path to salvation and to the union of the AtmA with the paramAtmA. Since Krishna repeatedly talks about “prescribed duties,” it is clear that one must only do the duties that are prescribed for his varNa; else one is guilty of adharma, or unrighteousness. As has already been mentioned, Krishna clearly mentions that one’s own duty, performed poorly, is superior to the duty of another’s, performed well. From this, it is clear that one’s dharma is not what one is intrinsically good at. The example of Arjuna does not help the reader in this, for in the Mahabharata he has repeatedly shown himself to be a great hero in the martial arts. In his case, what he is clearly intrinsically good at, which is the science of arms, is also his divinely-ordained duty (dharma) as a Kshatriya. But if we think of today’s world, and we think of someone born in a Kshatriya varNa, whose dharma would be to serve in the military, but who might have an affinity for and an aptitude for science, it would be adharma for him to pursue science and give up his “traditional” vocation of being a soldier.

The Gita’s prescription for salvation therefore also combines with it a certain social order that must be adhered to if one must not commit adharma. The verses in the Gita leave one with no doubt whatsoever that the maintenance of the cAturvarNa (four-varNa) system of Hindu society is vital to what Krishna sees as the maintenance of dharma and the salvation of the soul.

The varNa System Maintains Social Order

The varNa system has one more role to play in addition to what I have just stated. One can certainly argue for a looser interpretation of the Gita, and say (many have done this in modern times) that what Krishna said can be interpreted in modern times as implying that whatever one sees as one’s dharma, one must do it in a nishkAma way (without attachment to the fruits of one’s action) – so, for example, if one is an electrical engineer or a postman or a cook, one must do that duty to the best of his ability, with no attachment to the rewards (monetary or otherwise) from that job – one may get a salary for doing that job, but one’s focus must be on excelling in his profession and not on the salary – and one must do that job in the spirit of service to God.

There is much to be said for the salutary effects of such an interpretation. However, the question then arises: how does one attain salvation? Krishna lays down several instructions on how one can achieve the union of the AtmA with the paramAtmA. He talks about studying the Vedas and other scriptures to understand the role of God better; he talks about how to become a detached yOgI, how one can meditate on the Supreme so that one can perceive the soul within oneself and, later, understand that the soul within is part of the all-pervading brahmaN. He talks about how one can be constantly engaged in the loving contemplation of God and move towards understanding that God lives within oneself.

But, in spite of all that, can one guarantee mOksha by doing all this? Can one be sure that one will escape samsAra? The answer is, of course, no. There is no guarantee of this. By doing virtuous deeds, by engaging oneself in constant contemplation of God, one can improve the ratio of sattva in one’s jIva to rajas and tamas, but one cannot ensure that one’s AtmA is completely enveloped by sattva guNa. Even being 95% sattva does not ensure that you will escape rebirth.

That is why the system of guNas and varNas that Krishna describes is such a useful concept in maintaining the social order. The varNa system and the system of guNa-based rebirths is a system of rewards and punishments. I may not achieve mOksha in this lifetime even if I do good deeds, perform my Vedic duties as part of my varNa, and engage in constant contemplation of God. However, I know that in my next birth, owing to the guNas arising from my good karmas in this birth, I will have a better shot at attaining mOksha. Perhaps I will be born into a family that constantly engages in the study of the scriptures, in praising God, in deep meditation on the Supreme, and this might help me get closer to achieving the union of my AtmA with the paramAtmA.

On the other hand if, despite having been born in exactly such a family in this birth, one engages in activities related to the nature of passion and ignorance rather than goodness, one risks being born in the next birth in a much worse birth – better or worse being determined by how easy it will be for one to achieve the ultimate purpose of uniting with the Supreme consciousness. A child born in a family that devalues learning (such as a Shudra family, according to the Gita) is less likely to develop his or her mind to penetrate through the illusion of the world and achieve mOksha than a child born in a family where concepts of spiritual enlightenment are well-known and where members are encouraged to achieve the spiritual goal of every human and achieve mOksha.

The varNa system therefore acts as a carrot-and-stick measure for motivating the behaviour of people belonging to Hindu society, and to ensure that the social order is not disturbed. The varNa system tells those in the lower social strata that they cannot blame anyone for their low status except themselves; for, had they lived virtuous lives in their past births, they would not be in this situation. They must have led lives of passion and ignorance to end up in a low social stratum. And likewise, they must not resent those, such as Brahmins or Kshatriyas, for their higher status in society – for their higher status is not due to any favouritism, but due to the good deeds that they did in their past lives.

Inter-varNa Unions are Forbidden

There is one additional thing I must add here on the role of caste in the Gita. This is not central to the main discussion between Arjuna and Krishna, but it a concern that Arjuna expresses in the first chapter, “The Lamentation of Arjuna.” This is when Arjuna starts expressing his doubts as to whether engaging in this war, this great carnage that will destroy the families of all who are enmeshed in this conflict, is a good thing to do.

He talks about how, when the men in the family die, the women are defenceless, and might end up marrying men of lower castes, resulting in the “mixture of varNas” (“varNa-sankaraha”), which would lead to great sinfulness. The intermarriage of persons belonging to different varNas is clearly seen as prohibited and sinful. While one could argue that these are words spoken by Arjuna and not by the God Krishna, it is notable that while Krishna responded to all of Arjuna’s other concerns in this chapter, such as the killing of his relatives, the killing for greed of the kingdom, etc., by saying that Arjuna would not be killing anyone because the soul is immortal; or that he should fight, but not fight for the kingdom but to do his duty as a Kshatriya; he remains silent in agreement with Arjuna on the issue of the “mixture of castes.” He never tells Arjuna that the intermixture of castes is not a bad thing. His silence is a tacit endorsement of Arjuna’s words. One could argue that the “defilement” of a body by “intermixture” is a small concern compared to killing; yet the feeling one gets on reading these passages is that Arjuna is speaking what is generally accepted to be true when he says that the “intermixture of castes” is an undesirable evil. In addition, Krishna himself expresses this same concern in 3-24.

The Relation Between varNas and jAtis (Castes)

One might be tempted to argue that all the discussion in the Gita has been purely on varNas and not on jAtis. It must be remembered, that varNa is simply a superset of jAti. Therefore, if there is a restriction, for example, on a Shudra man marrying a Kshatriya woman to prevent the “intermixture of varNas” that Arjuna so fears in Chapter 1, then of course that applies to every Shudra jAti and every Kshatriya jAti. So restrictions on varNas directly amount to restrictions on jAtis (castes). So, if “intermixture of varNas” is a bad thing, so is “intermixture of castes.”

And this applies to all the discussion on varNa in this chapter. Thus, if Brahmins are said to possess a higher level of sattva relative to rajas and tamas, it means, of course, that every Brahmin jAti is more sAttvik than any Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra jati. And any Shudra jAti is, by definition, more tAmasik than any Brahmin or Kshatriya or Vaishya jAti. These are very important facts, for these are value judgements on a people and a community. They play a very important role in the social perception and treatment of a caste or a community.


A careful study of the verses in the Bhagavad Gita reveals that caste is at the very foundation of the Hindu social order. The Hindu concept of varNa is a superset of the modern concept of caste.

The body is perishable; the soul is immortal. The soul is reborn in body after human body in a repeating cycle of birth and death. The objective of human life is the union of the individual soul with the supreme consciousness, and thereby escape for the soul from the cycle of birth and death. For this, one must engage in the faithful performance of one’s divinely-ordained duty, related to the varNa of one’s birth, with no expectation of the rewards that may accrue from that duty.

Krishna’s answers to Arjuna make it very clear that Arjuna should fight because it is his divinely-ordained duty to fight, being born as a Kshatriya. He is not allowed to do the duty of another varNa – to give up arms and become a sage, for example – because not doing the duty assigned to one’s varNa would be incurring sin.

Arjuna, like anyone else who is born in a varNa, has only been born in that varNa because of the cumulative impact of his actions in all his previous births. Because of one’s previous births, one acquires a certain accumulation of the three qualities of material nature, the guNas – sattvarajas, and tamas. One is born as a Brahmin if his AtmA has a preponderance of sattva imprinted on it; one is born as a Kshatriya if his AtmA has a preponderance of rajas imprinted on it; one is born as a Vaishya if his AtmA has a mixture of rajas and tamas, with rajas dominating, imprinted on it; and one is born a Shudra if his AtmA has a preponderance of tamas imprinted on it.

Thus, Krishna’s arguments to convince Arjuna to fight are based on the foundation of caste-based (or, rather, varNa-based) discrimination. Arjuna must fight because he is born as a Kshatriya, and he has been born this way because of the qualities of his soul, arising from actions in past births. And he cannot perform the dharma of another varNa, because that would be incurring sin.

Thus it is clear that without caste, without varNa, the entire basis of Krishna’s arguments to convince Arjuna would become untenable.

Caste (or varNa) is therefore an inalienable part of the Gita, and of Hinduism as described by Krishna in the Gita (since what applies to Arjuna applies to all Hindus).

A More Detailed Exposition

In this article, I have described the message of the Gita and the role of caste in it. To keep the article short, I have not included actual verses from the Bhagavad Gita in this article. 

However, serious students of the Gita, and those readers who may be unsure of the assertions in this article, will want to see the exact chapter and verse of the various points I have made. 

For this reason, the verses I am referring to, along with their transliterations, word-by-word translations, free translations, and commentaries of six great interpreters, along with my own conclusions and commentary, are given in a seven-part series that immediately follows this article. This detailed exposition on the role of caste in the Bhagavad Gita clearly shows how caste-based discrimination underpins the entire basis of Hinduism. 

The seven parts of the detailed exposition are organized around the following topics:

1.     The Intermixture of varNas
2.     The Creation of the Four varNas
3.     The Three guNas of Human Nature
4.     The Duties of the Different varNas
5.     The Nature of the Shudras
6.     Seeing the Universal Consciousness in All Life
7.     Summary and Conclusions


I would like to thank my wife, Sandhya Srinivasan, for reading several drafts of this document and giving me valuable feedback. I would like to thank Ganesh Prasad for reading an early draft of this document and offering some valuable suggestions. I would also like to thank Dileepan Raghunathan for helpful discussions in understanding certain passages.

Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism – The Full Series

This is an evolving list. More titles will be added as they are published. This list is the current list of published articles.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part III: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (1/7): The Intermixture of varNas.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part IV: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (2/7): The Creation of the Four varNas.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part V: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (3/7): The Three guNas of Human Nature.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part VI: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (4/7): The Duties of the Different varNas.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part VII: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (5/7): The Nature of the Shudras.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part VIII: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (6/7): Seeing the Universal Consciousness in All Life.

The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part IX: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. Detailed Exposition (7/7): Summary and Conclusions.

Note on Gender Conventions

A small note on gender conventions adopted in this series: While every effort is made to avoid the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to both males and females by using plurals, the use of “one,” and other devices, there are many places where it becomes necessary to use “he,” “him,” “his,” etc., to refer to both men and women, to prevent the text from becoming too complicated. There are two reasons for this.

One is that the only alternative to using “he” as a neutral pronoun is to use the modern “they” in singular usage, which I believe to be ungrammatical, and which anyway does not have universal acclaim, especially from American writing style guides, which I prefer to follow.

The other, and more important, reason is that Hinduism, like most religions, is patriarchal. The scriptures speak only to men; the duties laid down are only for men. For example, the duty of a Brahmin was to be a teacher and a priest; but women were barred from being teachers or priests – or even getting an education, for that matter. The duty of Kshatriyas was to fight, to protect, and to rule – but women were not allowed in the army, nor were they allowed to rule. The duty of Vaishyas was to do trade; yet the traders were all men. Only men were invested with the sacred thread that allowed one to learn divine knowledge from scriptures. The only role of women was to support men in all their endeavours, and to be good housewives and mothers. So using the male pronoun, “he,” is to be consistent with Hindu scripture.

I have quoted many translations of commentaries written by other authors. In all such cases, I have not modified the gender convention which the author of those translations have preferred, and have not bothered to make it consistent with my approach.

Note on Transliteration Scheme

The transliteration scheme used herein is a modification of the standard Harvard-Kyoto scheme for ASCII transliteration of Devanagari script. The following tables detail the transliteration scheme.
Note that several words that have gained currency in English texts are used with their popular spellings and not spelled with their correct transliterations. Examples are Brahmana (brAhmaNa), Kshatriya (kShatriya), Vaishya (vaishya), Shudra (shUdra), Krishna (kRuShNa), Veda (vEda), and Mahabharata (mahAbhArata).


Nasals and Aspirates:


Conjunct Consonants (Partial List):