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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

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


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


The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism

Part IV

The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is

BG2: Detailed Exposition: The Creation of the Four varNas

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 05 April, 2017


Bhagavad Gita Series Abstract

This series on the Bhagavad Gita is part of a larger 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? Or is it simply a social custom arrived at by distorting the scriptures?

A key attendant question is: Is caste, according to Hindu scripture, a rigid status that accrues to an individual only by virtue of birth in that caste, and hence unchangeable during that person's life? Or, is it a more fluid descriptor of a person that can change during a person's lifetime? In other words, is caste birth-based, or can it be earned?

To examine this question, I investigated every verse in the Bhagavad Gita that has any relationship to the issue of varNa, the overarching concept that contains the concept of caste, and subjected each of these verses to a detailed analysis, using both the literal meaning of the Sanskrit shlOkas as well as the commentaries of highly respected commentators on these verses. I viewed the verses both in isolation and in the overall context of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as in the overall context of Hindu theology and philosophy. The results of my study are presented in this seven-part series (BG1 to BG7), which is part of my larger series on caste in Hinduism.

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, the birth-based caste system 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. The system, therefore, is expressly sanctioned in the Bhagavad Gita.

In this seven-part series, I present the original Sanskrit text of each verse discussed, its transliteration, its word-by-word meaning, its free translation, and the commentaries of six major interpreters of the Gita: Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Shridhara Swami, Acharya Keshava Kashmiri, and Sant Jnaneshwar. Based on all these, I draw overall meanings for each verse, and overall conclusions for each group of verses. Finally, I draw overall conclusions on the scriptural sanction for caste-based discrimination in the Bhagavad Gita.

A concise summary of the ideas in the Gita discussed in this seven-part series can be found in BG0 (Part II of the larger series.)


Current Article Abstract

In the present article, BG2, I discuss one of the most important verses on caste in the Bhagavad Gita: verse 13 from Chapter 4 of the Gita. In this verse, Krishna talks about how He created the four varNas based on the guNas and karmas of individuals. The import is that one is born into a certain varNa because of the accumulated guNas of their soul, based on their karmas in millions of past births. Krishna also says that although He is the originator of the four-varNa system, He is not responsible for who is born in which varNa – that is exclusively the consequence of people’s actions in their past births, and so Krishna cannot be blamed or credited for that.


Table of Contents


Sources, Methodology, Transliteration Scheme, and Numbering Scheme

The methodology and sources used for the analysis of the verses in the Bhagavad Gita have been already presented in Part III, including brief backgrounds of the commentators and their philosophical leanings. The overall framework of this entire series has been presented in Part I of this series. The transliteration scheme used here can be seen in Part II of the series. A glossary can also be found in Part II.

The overall conclusion for this article is first presented, followed by a discussion of individual verses and their meanings.

The numbering scheme followed in this entire "Caste Discrimination in Hinduism" series is that each article has an number in the overall sequence of articles in the "Caste Discrimination in Hinduism" series, represented by Roman numerals. Within the larger series, individual series articles, dealing with individual scriptures, are numbered using scripture initials and Arabic numerals. For instance, the articles in the Bhagavad Gita series are numbered as BGN, where N is the number of the article in the Bhagavad Gita series.


The Creation of the Four varNas: 4-13

Overall Conclusion: The Creation of the Four varNas

This is a very important verse in the Gita, and has been extensively studied and quoted. A reading of the different commentaries will also reveal the difficulty in understanding this verse, which is pregnant with meaning. One can see the subtle differences in meaning that the commentators have taken from this verse, especially from the second line of the verse (tasya kartAram api mAm viddhi akartAram avyayam).

Although Lord Krishna is the originator of these four orders, He is not to be held accountable for the imbalance in society, as this is due to the prenatal disposition of all beings, based on their activities and subsequent reactions in each life.

— Acharya Keshava Kashmiri, commentary on Verse 4-13

This verse illustrates the importance of understanding spiritual shlOkas in the context of the overall work and also in the overall context of Hindu theology. One cannot simply take the dictionary meaning of the terms in a verse and think that one has understood the verse. For instance, the first line of this verse (cAtur-varNyam mayA sruShTam guNa-karma-vibhAgashaha) says, “I created the four-fold classification of human society into varNas, based on differences in guNas and karmas.” What do guNas and karmas mean? A dictionary lookup will tell us that guNa in Sanskrit simply means quality, and that karma simply means action.

This has led many to attempt to misleadingly translate the first line of this verse as “The four orders of human society, the varNas, were created by me based on differences in human qualities and actions,” where qualities and actions are interpreted to mean everyday qualities and actions that one develops in life from habit or training. Thus, in this simplistic interpretation, one would say that some qualities of human beings are bravery/cowardice, intelligence/stupidity, curiosity/indifference, activity/laziness, calmness/quick-tempered nature, faithfulness/faithlessness, etc. One would also interpret karmas as daily actions, or even professional actions. So karma might be interpreted to mean that as a merchant, my karma is to sell objects; as a teacher, my karma is to teach people; as a soldier, my karma is to fight for the country; as a carpenter, my karma is to build furniture, and so on. Using this simplistic interpretation of the highly loaded words karma and guNa, some have attempted to claim that all this verse says is that the four varNas are free associations of people with similar qualities and professional activities.

Thus, this interpretation would argue that Brahmins are a free association of those who have been born with the inherent qualities of intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and a tendency towards faith and good behaviour. Kshatriyas, similarly, might be thought to be a free association of those born with qualities of bravery and an active disposition; Vaishyas, those who naturally possess an ability to do business and transact commerce; and Shudras, those who do not have such high intelligence as to do the kinds of actions that the first three varNas can do, and so do menial tasks because that is all their qualities – dull, ignorant, of inactive disposition – allow them to do. Indeed, many modern gurus have tried to misinform Hindus with exactly this interpretation.

Nothing could be farther from the spiritual truth of the Gita.

The underlying assumption is that the system, having been created by Krishna, who is God Himself, works perfectly, and therefore only an AtmA that has sattva guNa imprinted on it will be born in a Brahmin family; only an AtmA that is deserving of and having the qualities requisite for a Kshatriya birth will be born in a Kshatriya family; and so on.

The souls of those born as Brahmins are, therefore, inherently superior to the souls of those born as Kshatriyas; which, in turn, are superior to the souls of those born as Vaishyas; and which, in turn, are superior to the souls of those born as Shudras, since the content of sattva continually decreases as one moves from Brahmana to Kshatriya to Vaishya and to Shudra, and the content of rajas and then tamas associated with these souls correspondingly increases.

The caturvarNa system, therefore, is a system of discrimination based on birth.

To understand the true intent of the first line of this important verse, we need to understand what the highly loaded terms, karma and guNa, mean.

Although karma, as per the dictionary, simply means action, in Hindu theology the word is often loaded with extra meaning. karma means the actions done by one in a previous birth or in several previous births. This concept is known even to the lay Hindu in India. Often, Indian movies show the hero lamenting over his bad luck, only to be told that it is the result of his previous birth’s karma. The Gita uses the word karma both in its bland, dictionary meaning to mean action, as well as the more loaded meaning, implying actions done in previous births. Which is used in a certain verse depends on the context.

In this verse, the meaning of the word karma in this context is the more loaded version. This is clear from the interpretations of the different AcAryas (teachers) quoted here. For example, Ramanuja says in his commentary to this verse (see below):

The wonderful variety of creation as demigods, humans, animals, etc., are beings created by the effects of their own karma, or present reactions to previous actions, either by merits or demerits. In as much as one’s own activities determine their karma, activating the reward or punishment one will receive, so too is this totally determined by each individual themselves, and thus Lord Krishna is no way answerable to the reactions living entities bring upon themselves by their actions.

Similarly, Keshava Kashmiri says (see below again):

Although Lord Krishna is the originator of these four orders, He is not to be held accountable for the imbalance in society, as this is due to the prenatal disposition of all beings, based on their activities and subsequent reactions in each life.

Similarly, guNa is also a loaded term in Hindu theology. Although, going by the dictionary meaning, guNa could mean practically any quality of a human being, in fact, in a theological context, guNa refers to one of the three basic qualities: sattva, rajas, and tamas. sattva is the quality of goodness; rajas is the quality of activity and passion; and tamas is the quality of darkness or ignorance. These qualities are not ones that a human develops in his life, but are “pre-natal” qualities that are imprinted on the soul.

The commentaries of all the AcAryas say the same thing. One example is the commentary of Keshava Kashmiri, who says:

These were created according to the natural qualities of their pre-natal disposition, and classified accordingly to their corresponding birth. The Brahmins have the pre-natal quality of sattva, or goodness, the Kshatriyas have the pre-natal quality of rajas, or passion, being dominant and sattva being subordinate, the Vaishyas have the pre-natal quality of tama guNa, or ignorance, with rajas being subordinate, and the Shudras have the pre-natal quality of ignorance.

The import is that, based on the past karmas of the jIvas (embodied souls) that a soul has been associated with in previous births, an AtmA (soul) has a preponderance of sattva, rajas, or tamas, and based on these guNas, it is given a higher or a lower birth in society, consistent with the guNas it possesses, to obtain a good varNa match with the inherent qualities of the soul and the duties expected of it. As Shridhara says below,

The Brahmins or priestly class have a preponderance of sattva guNa, or mode of goodness, and having their mind and senses under control their duties are to spiritually guide mankind in righteousness. The Kshatriya, or royal warrior class, possesses some sattva, but have a preponderance of rajas guNa, or mode of passion, and their duties are to protect dharma or righteousness from the influence of evil, and to protect humanity from demoniac forces. The Vaishyas possess some rajas, but have a preponderance of tama guNa, or mode of ignorance, and their duties are farming, agriculture, trade, and cow protection. The Shudra, or lower class, possess only a preponderance for tama guNa, and their duty is to serve the three previous classes to earn their livelihood.

To enable the jIva to do duties consistent with its fundamental nature (defined by the guNas), which in turn has been shaped by the actions (karmas) in its millions of past births, it is given birth within the varNa that best corresponds to its guNas. Hence, a jIva that has an AtmA that is suffused with sattva guNa is given a birth as a Brahmin, so that the individual may be best able to fulfil his or her divinely-ordained duty as a Brahmin. The same holds for the other three varNas. If an AtmA is suffused with the tama guNa, then it is steeped in ignorance, and so cannot do the duties of a Brahmin, a Kshatriya, or a Vaishya. Such a jIva is considered incapable of even understanding the Vedas, and hence learning is forbidden to it. Such a person, therefore, takes birth as a Shudra, and spends his life serving the other three varNas doing menial tasks for them.

As several AcAryas say about the second line of the verse, the import is that although Krishna has created these four varNas, He is not responsible for who is born in which varNa. That is purely the result of the guNas that are attached to each soul, as a consequence of the karmas of the embodied souls (jIvas) the soul was attached to in its millions of past births – if the AtmA is associated with good deeds in past births, it automatically attains higher births; and if it is associated with bad deeds in past births, it automatically attains lower births. One cannot blame God for his low births in life – it is he alone who deserve the blame for not living his past births well.

As Ramanuja says in his commentary below, quoting from the Vedanta sutras:

The Supreme Lord can never be reproached for what seems to be partiality and injustice, seen as rewards and punishments, because the results for all human beings are determined solely by their actions.

The underlying assumption is that the system, having been created by Krishna, who is God Himself, works perfectly, and therefore only an AtmA that has sattva guNa imprinted on it will be born in a Brahmin family; only an AtmA that is deserving of and having the qualities requisite for a Kshatriya birth will be born in a Kshatriya family; and so on.

The souls of those born as Brahmins are, therefore, inherently superior to the souls of those born as Kshatriyas; which, in turn, are superior to the souls of those born as Vaishyas; and which, in turn, are superior to the souls of those born as Shudras, since the content of sattva continually decreases as one moves from Brahmana to Kshatriya to Vaishya and to Shudra, and the content of rajas and then tamas associated with these souls correspondingly increases.

The caturvarNa system, therefore, is a system of discrimination based on birth.

One is automatically regarded as having a superior soul if one is born a Brahmin; one is automatically regarded as having a soul enveloped in idleness, darkness, and ignorance if one is born a Shudra. And this must be so, because if the system works correctly, only souls enveloped in darkness would ever be born as Shudras; and given that the system was created by Krishna, by God Himself, it must work correctly. Therefore, people should not complain about their low station in life, because all this is their own fault for not having lived good lives in past births.

This interpretation of this verse is the right one, not only because several AcAryas have stated this in their interpretations of this verse, as can be seen below; it is the right one also because, in several other verses in the Gita, Krishna himself re-emphasizes this message. The AcAryas, therefore, are not presenting their own independent, fanciful interpretations of a simple two-line verse; they are simply stating what Krishna Himself has stated in other parts of the Gita, and using those verses to interpret this verse. I will explain this in other passages, especially those from Chapter 14, where Krishna explains the nature of the three guNas (guNatraya-vibhAga-yOga), and other verses, in Part V and Part VI.


Chapter 4, Verse 13

Original Sanskrit Shloka

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः।
तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम्।।

Transliteration

cAtur-varNyam mayA sruShTam guNa-karma-vibhAgashaha
tasya kartAram api mAm viddhi akartAram avyayam

Word-by-word Translation

cAtur-varNyam — the four divisions of human order; sruShTam — were created; mayA — by Me; guNa-karma-vibhAgashaḥa — according to differences in quality and activities; kartAram api — although the creator; tasya — of this; viddhi — know; mAm — Me; akartAram — as the non-doer; avyayam — being immutable.

Free Translation

The four divisions of human order were created by me according to differences in quality and activities; although the creator of this, know me as the non-doer, being immutable.

Commentaries

Shridhara

Some beings perform actions with desire and others perform actions without desire. Thus, the difference in actions, although subtle, can be discerned. Amongst the performers of actions without desire, like the Vaishnavas and Brahmins, there are further classifications such as uttama, or superior, madhya, or good, and kaniShTa, or average. How is it, that Lord Krishna, who is the originator of all these classifications, is free from any partiality? The word cAtur-varNyam specifically denotes the four classes of Vedic culture only. The Brahmins or priestly class have a preponderance of sattva guNa, or mode of goodness. Having their mind and senses under control, their duties are to spiritually guide mankind in righteousness. The Kshatriya, or royal warrior class, possesses some sattva, but have a preponderance of rajas guNa, or mode of passion, and their duties are to protect dharma, or righteousness, from the influence of evil, and to protect humanity from demoniac forces. The Vaishyas possess some rajas, but have a preponderance of tama guNa, or mode of ignorance, and their duties are farming, agriculture, trade, and cow protection. The Shudra, or lower class, possess only a preponderance for tama guNa, and their duty is to serve the three previous classes to earn their livelihood. So although Lord Krishna is the origin of them all, it should be understood that He is not affected by any of them; the reason being that He is immutable, imperishable, eternal and transcendental to prakRuti, or material nature.

Madhva

The four orders, descending in purity from sattva guNa to rajas guNa to tama guNa, have been described here. Those in sattva guNa are the Vaishnava devotees of the supreme Lord Krishna, possessing tranquillity and self-control. All others, as their sattva decreases, are in tama guNa in descending order. Thus, sattva guNa is determined by one’s ability and capacity to be a devotee of Lord Krishna; the further away one is from this, the deeper one is covered by tama guNa. Thus, this is the difference between them and occurs naturally due to their character and disposition. The differences and conditions acquired due to birth should be understood to be merely a designation, as devotion to the Supreme Lord Krishna has been seen to arise and manifest in all four orders of existence. Amongst some, it is more potent and in others less so, and even these differences happen naturally according to an individual’s inherent attributes. Although the resplendent Supreme Lord reveals He is kartAram or the origin of all creation, He also reveals He is akartAram or not originated from any source. He is independent in Himself, and not created from anything. The adjective api used here is to show this special attribute: that there is no creator for Him.

Ramanuja

The entire material manifestation, from Brahma down to a blade of grass, has been divided by Lord Krishna into the four-fold divisions in accordance to their natural dispositions and qualities. For humans, they are Brahmin, or the priestly class, Kshatriya, the royal warrior class, Vaishya, the farmer and trading class, and Shudra, the servant class. This is in conformance with their material natures being in goodness, passion or nescience, which subsequently qualifies them for the type of occupation they engage in their life. Creation implies all the universes which He sustains and maintains as well, causing them to manifest and unmanifest.

Although He is the origin of all these activities, He should be known as not being the doer. This is because the wondrous activities to be found in creation, although originated from Lord Krishna, do not bind him as He is not the doer. The wonderful variety of creation as demigods, humans, animals, etc., are beings created by the effects of their own karma, or present reactions to previous actions, either by merits or demerits. In as much as one’s own activities determines their karma, activating the reward or punishment one will receive, so too is this totally determined by each individual themselves, and thus Lord Krishna is no way answerable to the reactions living entities bring upon themselves by their actions.

There is another reason Lord Krishna is not the doer as well; and that is that all the embodied beings, assuming various and diverse forms, get endowed with limbs and senses to enjoy material objects, being interested in the rewards of their actions. Consequently, pursuing this, they trap themselves in samsAra, or the cycle of birth and death, in the material existence. It is all of their own doing, and Lord Krishna is not responsible for the desires the living entities choose to pursue. In the Vedanta-Sutras, which are aphorisms exegetic of the 108 Upanishads by Veda Vyasa, it states in II.III.XXXIV that: The Supreme Lord can never be reproached for what seems to be partiality and injustice, seen as rewards and punishments, because the results for all human beings are determined solely by their actions. In the act of manifesting the creation, Lord Krishna is the original source, but the instrumental cause is prakRuti or material nature itself, and the determining factor for all beings is that they come into their various existences as a result of their own karmas. Except for the will from the original source of Lord Krishna, no other cause is needed to manifest myriads of marvellous creations represented by unlimited and diverse variegated beings. This is because all embodied beings accept a form in accordance to the inherent primal force of their past karma.

Keshava Kashmiri

If not everyone worships Lord Krishna, and so many more are worshipers of other religions and denominations, then why is this imbalance so prevalent in society? This verse refers to the four orders of Vedic culture, exclusively being the Brahmins, or priestly class, the Kshatriyas, or the royal and warrior class, the Vaishyas, or farming and trading class, and the Shudra, or the servant class.

These were created according to the natural qualities of their prenatal disposition and classified accordingly to their corresponding birth. The Brahmins have the prenatal quality of sattva, or goodness, the Kshatriyas have the prenatal quality of rajas, or passion being dominant and sattva being subordinate, the Vaishyas have the prenatal quality of tama guNa, or ignorance, with rajas being subordinate, and the Shudras have the prenatal quality of ignorance.

Any other classification outside of these four cannot be claimed to be originated by Lord Krishna. Although Lord Krishna is the originator of these four orders, He is not to be held accountable to the imbalance in society, as this is due to the prenatal disposition of all beings based on their activities and subsequent reactions in each life.

Adi Shankara

What is the foundation of the law that the respective duties of the several castes and religious orders obtain only in this world of men, but not in other worlds?

Or, the question may be put thus: It has been said that men, split up into the communities of several castes and orders (varNas and AshRamas), should follow Thy path in all things. Why should they necessarily follow Thy path only, but not that of any other? The answer follows (in this verse.)

The four varnas have been created by Me, Ishvara, according to the distribution of energies (guNas) and of actions. The energies are sattva (goodness), rajas (foulness, activity), and tamas (darkness).

The actions of a Brahmana (priest), in whom sattva predominates, are serenity, self-restraint, austerity, etc. The actions of a Kshatriya (warrior), in whom rajas predominates and sattva is subordinate to rajas, are prowess, daring, etc. The actions of a Vaishya (merchant), in whom rajas predominates and tamas is subordinate to rajas, are agriculture, etc. The action of a Shudra (servant), in whom tamas predominates and rajas is subordinate to tamas, is only servitude. Thus have been created the four castes according to the distribution of energies and actions.

This fourfold caste does not exist in other worlds. Hence the limitation "in this world of man."

Jnaneshwar

The four castes namely Brahmins, etc., that exist, have all been created by me according to their classified qualities and actions.

Due consideration has been given to the actions that have taken place through the support of the primal nature (prakRuti) and the admixture of the guNas (constituent-aspects). They are in their primary essence all of one and the same stuff; but they came to be classified into four castes by reason of their own qualities and actions, O Arjuna, and consequently I am not the doer (author) of the four castes-institution.


Acknowledgments

I would first and foremost like to thank my wife, Sandhya Srinivasan, for giving me unstinting support in the many months and years it has taken me to do the research for this article series and write it, even though it took me away from her and our daughter for extended periods. Without her constant, unwavering, and enthusiastic support, this series would not have been possible.

I also owe thanks to Sandhya for being a strong intellectual partner in this endeavor. She has been very kind to spare time from her busy schedule to read every word of every article that I have ever written for my blog, and offer careful, considered, and critical feedback on them. Her inputs on this caste-discrimination series in the form of feedback and suggestions have been invaluable.

One friend without whom this series would not have been possible is Ganesh Prasad. He has been a source of constant encouragement, and his unflagging enthusiasm for the project allowed me to continue with it even at times when I started to wonder if the effort was at all worth it. In addition, Ganesh has been very patient and thorough in proofreading every line of every article in the series, and offering extremely valuable feedback that has greatly improved the series, from as far back as 4 years ago when he read the first draft of this series, to the final posted articles now. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

I would like to thank Dileepan Raghunathan for his help in understanding some passages in the Gita. I would also like to thank Ramdas Menon for helpful comments and feedback on the articles in this series, and for his strong encouragement and support of this series in particular, and my writing in general.

Lastly, I would like to thank the many people with whom I have had vigorous arguments on this topic, on Facebook and WhatsApp. Some of those arguments took up entire weekends, but they ended up clarifying my thinking immensely and helped me sharpen my positions.

Any errors or mistakes in this article, however, should not be attributed to any of these people, for such errors and mistakes are entirely my own fault. The contributions of my kind and patient friends and family have been only to enhance this humble work.

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.

Indexes



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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