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 a 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.
The current article (BG0) is a concise summary of the ideas in the Gita discussed in this seven-part series that follows this article. It does not discuss chapter and verse, but presents the main ideas in an easily understandable way. It is designed to serve as an introduction before one wades into the more detailed discussions in BG1-BG7 (Parts III to IX of the Overall Caste Discrimination Series).
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. The ideas are presented from the point of view of Arjuna, who is debating as to whether a war in which his close relatives and teachers will have to be killed is worth fighting.
To this, Krishna tells Arjuna that he would not be killing anyone, but only their bodies, as their souls (AtmAs) are immortal. Krishna informs Arjuna that the soul is reborn again and again in physical bodies, and the goal of human existence is to exit this cycle of birth and death, known as samsAra.
He tells Arjuna that Arjuna should not fight for gaining any wealth, land, or kingdom, but fight this war because it is his duty as a Kshatriya to defeat evil, and he should do this as an offering to God, to Krishna himself, with no desire for the rewards that accrue from his actions (nishkAma karma).
Arjuna then asks Krishna why it is his duty to fight for good over evil, and Krishna informs him that He (Krishna) has divided humanity into four varNas - Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, and assigned duties for each of them in consonance with the fundamental, pre-natal qualities of their souls, known as guNas. These guNas have been fashioned in a person by his actions over millions of past lives. A person gets the birth that is consistent with the guNas he possesses. There are three fundamental guNas that are, in order of descending merit, sattva (goodness), rajas (passion and activity), and tamas (darkness). An AtmA with a preponderance of sattva gets born as a Brahmin (priest/teacher), because the duties of Brahmins (teaching, learning, devotion) are consistent with that guNa; an AtmA with a preponderance of rajas gets reborn as a Kshatriya (warrior/king), because the rAjasik qualities of passion and activity are consistent with the duties of warfare and rulership; one with a combination of rajas and tamas, but with rajas dominating, is born as a Vaishya (merchant/farmer), because the passion for money and the activity needed for obtaining it are consistent with mercantile professions; and one with a preponderance of tamas is born as a Shudra (servant castes), because the indifference to learning, lack of faith, and laziness renders such a person incapable of any duty except servitude. The duties of a varNa are therefore consistent with the quality of the AtmA — only an AtmA which has the appropriate guNas to discharge the duties of a varNa is born into that varNa. Krishna also informs Arjuna that under no circumstances must one do the duty of a varNa other than his own, for he would incur sin. Given all these arguments, Arjuna agrees to fight.
Hence the foundation of the Gita is that a person is born into a varNa because of the guNas associated with his AtmA, and has a dharma, a duty associated with that varNa, that he is divinely ordained to follow. It is because of this that Arjuna has to fight in the war, even though he would very much prefer to be a sage and meditate on Krishna, on God, and attain mOksha, or release from samsAra — he was born a Kshatriya, and fighting for good over evil is his divinely-ordained duty.
Thus, without varNa-based discrimination (division of duties according to varNa), Arjuna could never be persuaded to fight in the Great War of the Mahabharata. Caste-based (or, more precisely, varNa-based) discrimination is therefore at the heart of the arguments of the Bhagavad Gita.
Background of the Bhagavad Gita
In a Nutshell: The Role of Caste in the Gita
Why Should Arjuna Kill his Relatives?
Will AtmAs perennially Remain in the Cycle of samsAra?
Why Must Arjuna Covet a Kingdom So Badly?
Why is it Arjuna’s Duty to Fight as a Kshatriya?
Why is One’s varNa-Based Duty Fixed?
Is There No Way Out of This?
Implications of the Message of Gita on the Role of Caste
“Duty” is Only Defined Within a varNa
The varNa System Maintains Social Order
Inter-varNa Unions are Restricted
The Relation Between varNas and jAtis (Castes)
A More Detailed Exposition
Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism – The Full Series
Note on Gender Conventions
Glossary of Important Sanskrit Words Used in the Gita
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 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.
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.
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.
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 AtmA is eternal.
Krishna answers that Arjuna would be killing nobody, as there is a distinction between the body and the soul (Atman or AtmA) (See Glossary) – the body perishes, whereas the AtmA is eternal. So he cannot possibly kill Bhishma, Drona, or his cousins, because all he can kill are their bodies. Their AtmAs are immortal. Just as a person casts off old clothes and puts on new clothes, the AtmA 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.
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.
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 paramAtmA. brahman (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 AtmA 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.
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 the divine Krishna.
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 the divine Krishna. (kAma is the Sanskrit word for attachment; hence nishkAma means “without attachment.”)
Krishna explains that he, as the Supreme Consciousness in the Universe, has partitioned society into the four “varNas” – groupings based on birth-based professional categories.
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.
One is born into a varNa, and cannot change it in his lifetime … All he can do is do his duty to the best of his ability, do it with no attachment to the rewards of his actions, and do it as service to God.
Krishna explains that he, as the Supreme Consciousness in the Universe, 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 entire set of rules 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.
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.
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 the Supreme Consciousness, 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?
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 natural elements: air, fire, water, earth, and ether; but it 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. 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 – sattva, rajas, 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 rajas, tamas, and sattva.
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 rajas and tamas combined equally 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.
Krishna 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.
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.
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.
Over millions of rebirths, an AtmA can achieve the highest birth, corresponding to the purest of the sAttvika (endowed with sattva) guNas, and prepare itself for mOksha, provided that, in every birth, the jIva associated with the AtmA, obeyed its varNa dharma, was devoted to God, and prayed to God for helping its AtmA become free of samsAra – for such a feat (of exiting samsAra) is only possible by divine Grace.
From this description, it should also be obvious that changing one's varNa is not possible without rebirth.
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 AtmA 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 AtmA have not happened in just one life, erasing them will also not be easy in one birth. It will likely 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 AtmA 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 AtmA has had many births in the past where the jIva it was attached to performed very virtuous deeds; and by doing so, they have brought the AtmA very close to the possibility of exiting samsAra.
In this way, over millions of rebirths, an AtmA can achieve the highest birth corresponding to the purest of the sAttvika (endowed with sattva) guNas, and prepare itself for mOksha, provided that, in every birth, the jIva associated with the AtmA, obeyed its varNa dharma, was devoted to God, and prayed to God for helping its AtmA become free of samsAra – for such a feat (of exiting samsAra is only possible by divine Grace.
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 restricted, 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.
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 necessarily what one is intrinsically good at.
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 AtmA.
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 necessarily 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 varNa 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 “prescribed” vocation of being a soldier.
The Gita’s prescription for mOksha 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 AtmA.
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.
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.
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 rewards arising from 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 mOksha from samsAra, the cycle of birth and death? 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 AtmA within oneself and, later, understand that the AtmA 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 in my next birth 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 intermarriage of persons belonging to different varNas, when the man belongs to a lower varNa than the woman, is clearly seen as prohibited and sinful.
The reason for this prohibition should be fairly obvious to the reader by now. If one's birth in a certain varNa is a reward or a punishment for actions done in previous births, then one cannot be allowed to short-circuit the process by marrying someone from a different varNa. Such an action would be contrary to the divine law propounded by Lord Krishna.
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, when the man belongs to a lower varNa than the woman, is clearly seen as prohibited and sinful.
The reason for this prohibition should be fairly obvious to the reader by now. If one's birth in a certain varNa is a reward or a punishment for actions done in previous births, then one cannot be allowed to short-circuit the process by marrying someone from a different varNa. Such an action would be contrary to the divine law propounded by Lord Krishna. As punishment for such an action (which clearly used to happen in those times despite the prohibition, as is evident from descriptions in the Mahabharata), those who did marry across varNas were excommunicated from both varNas, and their children thrown into a varNa that was lower than either of the parents' varNas.
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.
It must be remembered, that varNa is simply a superset of jAti … So, if “intermixture of varNas” is a bad thing, so is “intermixture of castes.”
The only exception is that the Gita says nothing about “intermixture of castes” when both the castes being mixed are within the same varNa.
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.” The only mitigating fact is that the Gita lays no restrictions on marriages between people who belong to different jAtis within the same varNa.
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.
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 and would amount to adharma.
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.
The institution of caste (or varNa) is therefore the philosophical foundation of the Gita, and by corollary, of Hinduism itself as described by Krishna in the Gita.
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 jIva is perishable; the AtmA is immortal. The AtmA is reborn in body after human body in a repeating cycle of birth and death, called samsAra. The objective of human life is the union of the individual AtmA with the Supreme Consciousness, paramAtmA, and thereby escape (mOksha) for the Atma from the cycle of birth and death. For this, one must engage in the faithful performance of one’s divinely-ordained duty, dharma, related to the varNa of one’s birth, with no expectation of the rewards that may accrue from that duty.
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 – sattva, rajas, 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.
The institution of caste (or varNa) is therefore the philosophical foundation of the Gita, and by corollary, of Hinduism itself as described by Krishna in the Gita (since what applies to Arjuna applies to all Hindus).
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:
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.
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 I: ISM: Introduction, Summary and Methodology.
- The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part II: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. BG0: Summary Article.
- The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part III: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. BG1: Detailed Exposition: The Intermixture of varNas.
- 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.
- The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part V: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. BG3: Detailed Exposition: The Three guNas of Human Nature.
- The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part VI: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. BG4: Detailed Exposition: The Duties of the Different varNas.
- The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part VII: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. BG5: Detailed Exposition: The Nature of the Shudras.
- The Scriptural Sanction for Caste-Based Discrimination in Hinduism. Part VIII: The Bhagavad Gita, As It REALLY Is. BG6: Detailed Exposition: 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. BG7: Detailed Exposition: Summary and Conclusions.
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.
As this is a blog written in English, but discusses deep Hindu concepts, a glossary is in order. It must be remembered that the translations provided are approximate. A comprehensive description of the terms mentioned here will be found in the different articles themselves, where terms like guNa, karma, AtmA, and paramAtmA, for example, are discussed threadbare. But this glossary should still serve as a useful starting point for those who encounter unfamiliar Sanskrit words.One other point should be mentioned. English has been spoken in India for more than 200 years now, and in the process, several English words now have their own unique Indian connotation. The word "God," for instance, is seen by most English-speaking Indian Hindus as meaning the Hindu concept of God, and no Indian is likely to confuse this with a Judeo-Christian conception of God. So this God is what Indians think of as bhagvAn, not the God of Abraham. Several other English terms used here have a unique Indian conception. "Soul," for instance is understood by practically every English-speaking Hindu in India to mean the Hindu concept of AtmA. So while the use of words like "God" and "soul" may confuse a non-Indian, the meaning is amply clear to an Indian. For the non-Indian, the articles give ample clarity on what these terms mean.
- Actions that are in violation of one's prescribed duty or dharma.
- ashvamEdha yajna
- Horse sacrifice performed in Vedic times.
- Evil demigods, children of the sage kashyapa and diti.
- Ignorance: that which obscures the intelligence and thereby prevents the AtmA from achieving mOksha.
- Learned and scholarly teacher.
- Laziness, indolence.
- One of the four stages of life, namely brahmacArya, gRuhasta, vanaprastha, and sannyAsa.
- Atma tattva
- Realization of the AtmA within the body as distinct from the physical body.
- The undying eternal spirit within the jIva or embodied spirit, a part of the Universal, all-pervading consciousness, brahman or paramAtmA, often translated in English as soul (the closest western concept, though distinct from it).
- Devotion; in particular, when used as bhakti yOga, the discipline of devotion to attain the realization of the Supreme Consciousness.
- One of the four Ashramas, or stages of life, the stage of bachelorhood and studentship.
- The all-pervading, supreme consciousness in the Universe.
- Same as brahman; different from Brahma (capitalized), which refers to the creator.
- The highest of the four varNas: the varNa whose duty it is to study the Vedas, teach and worship. Same as Brahmin.
- That part of the intelligence that discriminates and judges; see also manas.
- A varNa outside the four main varNas, formed from the offspring of brAhmaNa mothers and shUdra fathers. Their job is to serve in crematoria.
- The institution of the four varNas of brAhmaNa, kshatriya, vaishya, and shUdra.
- A demigod, an offspring of the sage kashyapa and aditi. devas rule the heavens.
- Duty. Often qualified to understand exactly what duty is being referred to, but usually means varNa duty. See also jAti dharma and kula dharma.
- Twice-born, referring to the fact that the first three varNas, namely the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, and the Vaishyas, are twice-born because they are invested with the sacred thread, which is considered equivalent to being reborn.
- The second Ashrama of life: the stage of being a householder.
- The pre-natal, inborn quality of a person - one of the three fundamental qualities of a person - goodness, passion, or ignorance.
- The "golden egg" or "golden womb," the origin of all life in the Universe. Also used to refer to brahma.
- Caste, a subset of varNa.
- jAti dharma
- The duties of one's caste that one must always perform.
- The embodied life form, which is formed of material constituents (prakRuti and the spirit (AtmA).
- The AtmA that resides within a jIva. Used to differentiate it from the Supreme Soul, paramAtmA.
- Spiritual knowledge.
- jnAna yOga
- The discipline of uniting the individual AtmA with the Universal brahman through the path of spiritual knowledge.
- Two meanings. Simple meaning is "actions." More complex meaning is "actions done in previous births that have reactions in the present birth."
- The second of the four varNas in the caturvarNa system: the warrior castes.
- The "field" of activities - the human body and mind.
- The "knower" of the "field of activities," i.e., the AtmA.
- kula dharma
- Duties to the family or the family line.
- Divine play of the God Krishna, whose purpose humans cannot easily fathom.
- That part of the intelligence that senses and processes. Contrast with buddhi.
- Illusion. That which clouds the intelligence from realizing the spiritual truth.
- nishkAma karma
- Actions that are done without desire for the rewards accruing from those actions.
- The all-pervading, Universal, Supreme Consciousness. Same as brahman.
- Offerings of rice balls to the spirits of the departed ancestors.
- Spirits of departed ancestors.
- Material nature. Formed of the five elements: air, fire, water, earth, and ether, and three more elements: manas, buddhi, and ahamkAra.
- Heedlessness, carelessness, neglectfulness.
- Same as Atma.
- One of the three fundamental qualities, or guNas, of human nature. rajas is the mode of passion and activity, of doing things for the rewards that one gets from them.
- Endowed with raja guNa.
- Intermixture (usually of varNas).
- The cycle of birth and death that AtmAs keep going through until they attain mOksha.
- Impressions on the present life from actions, good or bad, in past lives
- The fourth and final stage in the life of a Hindu: the stage of withdrawal from society, retreat into the forest, and solitary contemplation of brahman.
- The highest of the three fundamental qualities (guNas) of human nature, the quality of goodness.
- Endowed with sattva guNa.
- Hindu scripture.
- The fourth, and lowest of the four varNas in the caturvarNa system. The only duties of the shUdras are to serve the other three varNas, because they are supposed to have a preponderance of tama guNa, that makes them unfit for any other duty.
- A varNa outside the caturvarNa system, who is an outcast from society and only has the duty of guarding over the dead. They are supposed to eat the flesh of dogs.
- One of the three fundamental guNas (qualities - see guNa above) - the guNa of ignorance, superstition, darkness, laziness, and sleep. Also called tama guNa.
- Endowed with tama guNa.
- The third of the four varNas in the caturvarNa system. They are supposed to have a mixture of rajas and tamas guNas, with rajas dominating. Their duties are agriculture, cow protection, and trade.
- The third Ashrama in Hindu life, when one retires from active life and starts focusing on the Supreme Soul while still remaining part of society.
- One of the four main four varNas of brAhmaNa, kshatriya, vaishya, and shUdra. There are other varNas outside the caturvarNa system.
- varNa dharma
- The set of duties that accrue to a person as a result of the varNa that he belongs to.
- varNAshrama dharma
- The set of duties that accrue to a person as a result of the varNa that he belongs to and the stage of life (Ashrama) that he is currently in.
- varNa sankara
- The intermixture of varNas.
- See samskAra.
- Sacrifice to the Gods.
- A discipline, science, or method. In the context of the Gita, refers to the various disciplines or methods by which one can achieve the union of the AtmA with the paramAtmA.
- A person of discipline. One who is practising a yOga.
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)