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.)
In the present article, BG1, I discuss the methodology of this detailed study and the verses that talk about restrictions on inter-varNa (or inter-caste) marriage in the Gita. The implication of these verses is that inter-varNa marriage is prohibited when the man is of a lower varNa than the woman, because the children of such inter-varNa unions are cast out of their own varNas, and hence there is no one to perform the monthly and annual rituals for the peace of the departed ancestors, which will result in those souls descending to hell and the entire family sinking into sin.
Before I start listing the caste-related verses, I would like to explain some of the methodology I have used here.
My position on scripture is that when a work of scripture is examined, all of the scripture is relevant and significant. Thus, I do not subscribe to the position that some of the scripture is important and other portions are unimportant and can be ignored. Unless a religious authority explicitly declares any portion of a scripture invalid, my position is that it has to be considered in determining the stand of that scripture on an issue. Thus, I have examined every verse in the Gita to examine any connection with caste-based discrimination. I have presented the verses that deal with caste-based discrimination here, which number 39 out of the 700 verses in the Gita.
I first present each selected shlOka (verse) in four ways. The first is the original verse in Sanskrit; the second is the transliteration of the verse in English; the third is the word-by-word translation of the verse into English; and the fourth is the free translation of the verse in English. The transliteration is my own; the word-by-word translation and free translation are obtained from a well-known website on the Bhagavad Gita.
In addition, I also show interpretations of each verse from six very famous and highly respected commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. The six commentators are:
- Adi Shankara (788-820 CE), the foremost Shaivite saint, and the main proponent of the Advaita (non-dualism) school of Hindu philosophy. Adi Shankara wrote the first commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. His commentary is highly respected, and has been referred to by all later commentators, even if they differ with him on some or many aspects.
- Ramanujacharya (1017-1137 CE), a well-known Vaishnavite saint, and the main proponent of the Vishishtadvaita (non-dualism with qualifications) school of Hindu philosophy. His branch of Hinduism is called the Sri Vaishnava tradition.
- Madhvacharya (1238-1317 CE), another well-known Vaishnavite saint, the main proponent of the Dvaita (dualism) school of Hindu philosophy. His branch of Hinduism is called the Brahma Vaishnava tradition.
- Shridhara Swami (dates unknown), a representative of the Rudra Vaishnava tradition of Vaishnavism. This school was founded by Vishnuswami (again, dates unknown) and is the proponent of the Shuddhadvaita (pure non-dualism) school of Hindu philosophy. Another descendant of this school is the Pushtimarg school of Vallabhacharya, a branch from the Vishnuswami sect.
- Acharya Keshava Kashmiri (dates unknown, but suspected 15th century CE), a representative of the Nimbarka tradition, also known as the Kumara Vaishnava tradition or the Hamsa Vaishnava tradition. This tradition was said to have been founded by Nimbarka, and is the proponent of the Dvaitadvaita (dualism and non-dualism at the same time) school of Hindu philosophy. Followers of the school of Gaudiya Vaishnavism believe that Keshava Kashmiri later became a disciple of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), the founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.
- Sant Jnaneshwar (1275-1296 CE), a Shaivite saint belonging to the Nath Yogi tradition, and a proponent of the Advaita philosophy (non-dualism). Jnaneshwar’s seminal work, the Bhavartha Dipika, also known as the Jnaneshwari, is a Marathi translation and commentary of the Bhagavad Gita, and is considered a milestone in Marathi literature.
The commentary of Adi Shankara has been translated into English from Sanskrit by Alladi Mahadeva Shastri (Mysore, 1901). The commentary of Jnaneshwar has been translated from Marathi into English by Ramchandra Keshav Bhagwat (Samata Books, Madras, 1954). Both these books were freely available for download in pdf form on the internet. The commentary of the four main Vaishnava traditions – the Sri Vaishnava, Brahma Vaishnava, Rudra Vaishnava, and Kumara Vaishnava Sampradaya, are available together, in English translation, at a well-known site on the Bhagavad Gita.
Not all commentators offer interpretations for every verse considered here. After sharing the commentaries available for each verse, I offer an overall conclusion on the meaning of each verse or group of verses, on the basis of the literal translation and the different commentaries.
Why are these interpretations necessary? They are necessary because poets write for the audiences of the day, and assume the audiences are aware of the context in which a verse is written. Unfortunately, those like us, who read the same verses 2500 years later, may not find the context obvious. Therefore, when there is a single line pregnant with meaning, it is very important to understand the context. Scholars study a verse in the overall context of the poem (the Bhagavad Gita), in the overall context of the containing epic (the Mahabharata), and also in the overall context of other Hindu scriptures, to understand what a particular word really means. This is why I have looked at multiple interpretations (from different scholars) for each verse.
There are many grammatical, spelling, or syntactical errors in the English translations of the commentaries, available online (in case of the four Vaishnava traditions) or in books (in case of Shankara and Jnaneshwar). There are also some syntax and grammar errors in the free translations at the website mentioned above. Often, the English in the free translations and the translations of the commentaries is hard to understand, because of excessively long compound and complex sentences. In all such cases, I have corrected or simplified the text so that the meaning will be clear, while taking care not to change the meaning. I have also simplified the text in cases where the wording is very archaic or convoluted, because modern audiences cannot understand some of the English used. Having said all this, I hasten to add that I have made only the most minimal modifications that were necessary for clear understanding of the commentaries - not a word has been changed if it was not absolutely essential. Those in doubt can consult the original references on the websites and in the books to verify for themselves that the meaning is intact.
One of the defences often given by the Hindu right wing today regarding appraisals of the caste system and its relation to Hinduism proper is the suggestion that caste is an invention of the British and/or the Muslim invaders; that, prior to the arrival of Islamic and British conquerors on Indian soil, there was no caste discrimination in Hinduism; and that, therefore, this is a purely foreign invention. To avoid contamination of this article by such British/Islamic influences, I have chosen most of my interpreters of Hindu scripture from the first millennium or fairly early in the second millennium, well before Hinduism could be contaminated by outside influence (note that even the Delhi Sultanate, which was the first Islamic empire in North India, only began in 1192 CE), so that the state of “unadulterated” Hinduism can be observed. For this reason, I am not including any recent commentaries. This also has the salutary effect of removing any modern, politically expedient interpretations.
When dealing with passages from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, which I will do in other articles in this series, I will not examine each verse word by word, nor will I consult multiple interpretations to understand them. This is because many of the descriptions of caste-based discrimination in them run to several pages. The meaning of the text, therefore, is never in doubt.
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 first set of caste-related verses is contained in the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, verses 39-41, when Arjuna tries to explain to Krishna why he believes that war is undesirable, because the death of the men in the family leads to corruption of the family due to inter-varNa (inter-caste) mixture of men and women. In a later passage (3-24), Krishna echoes Arjuna’s concern about the pollution of castes by inter-caste unions. The overall conclusion for this set of verses is first presented, followed by a discussion of individual verses and their meanings.
Before proceeding, the reader is advised to peruse the section in Part II on the difference between jAtis and varNas, if not already done so.
The concern is clearly that a man of a lower varNa, say a Vaishya or a Shudra, may forcefully take an unprotected woman of a Kshatriya varNa, no matter what jAti within their respective varNas each may belong to.
The danger of such a union is the birth of “unwanted children” who are cast out of both the varNas of their parents, and hence unfit to perform the duties of their varNas, leading their ancestors to fall down from the heavens into hell.
The mixture of varNas also destroys the time-honoured traditions whereby different varNas are kept separate and have their separate duties. (as in 1-42: utsAdhyantE jAti-dharmAha kula-dharmAha ca shAshvatAha).
Thus the intermixture of varNas leads to the destruction of Hindu society.
What these verses tell us is the rigidity with which inter-varNa barriers were seen.
Arjuna’s chief concern in verses 39-43 is the sin that might occur due to killing the males of Kshatriya families in battle, which was about to happen in the Kurukshetra battle. What sin is he talking about? He is worried about the males of the families in this conflict being killed, leaving women vulnerable. He speaks specifically (as in 1-40: adharma abhibhavAt kRuShNa praduShyanti kula-striyaha) of the “pollution of the women of the family.” What does Arjuna mean by the pollution of women? He is worried about varNa-sankarah, the intermingling of varNas leading to “unwanted progeny.” In other words, the great sin he fears is that there might be a mixture of varNas. The concern is clearly that a man of a lower varNa, say a Vaishya or a Shudra, may forcefully take an unprotected woman of a Kshatriya varNa, no matter what jAti within their respective varNas each may belong to. The danger of such a union is the birth of “unwanted children” who are cast out of both the varNas of their parents, and hence unfit to perform the duties of their varNas, leading their ancestors to fall down from the heavens into hell. The mixture of varNas also destroys the time-honoured traditions whereby different varNas are kept separate and have their separate duties (as in 1-42: utsAdhyantE jAti-dharmAha kula-dharmAha ca shAshvatAha). Thus the intermixture of varNas leads to the destruction of Hindu society.
What these verses tell us is the rigidity with which inter-varNa barriers were seen. If a woman of a Kshatriya family were to have intercourse with a man of a lower varNa and produce “unwanted offspring” – the “intermixture of varNas” - it was seen as a terrible sin that would damn not only those who are guilty of performing this act, but also all the ancestors of the family (as in 1-41: patanti pitarO hi EshAm lupta-pinDOdaka-kriyAha).
One might argue that these are the words of the imperfect human, Arjuna, not of the God Krishna; but keep in mind that Krishna, when replying to Arjuna in what follows in the Gita, never once says Arjuna is wrong in his concerns about the intermixture of varNas. He proceeds to assuage him about every other concern, such as killing people (by saying the AtmA is immortal), such as coveting a kingdom (by saying Arjuna should fight without concern for the reward), and so on. But he does not invalidate Arjuna’s concern about intermixture of varNas and jAtis.
On the contrary, Krishna himself echoes the same concern in 3-24, where he says (utsIdEyur imE lOkA na kuryAm karma cEd aham; sankarasya ca kartA syAm upahanyam imAha prajAha) that if he stopped doing his prescribed duties (since he is God in a human incarnation, he must follow the duties for his varNa), then ordinary people will also stop doing their duties, and that would mean that people of different varNas might intermarry (sankaraha) and cause the “pollution” of the varNas by creating “unwanted children.”
कुलक्षये प्रणश्यन्ति कुलधर्माः सनातनाः।
धर्मे नष्टे कुलं कृत्स्नमधर्मोऽभिभवत्युत।।
kula-kshayE praNashyanti kula-dharmAha sanAtanAha
dharmE naShTE kulam kRutsnam adharmO abhibhavati uta
kula-kṣhayE—in destroying the family; kula-dharmAha—the spiritual traditions of the family; praNashyanti—perishes; sanAtanAḥa—forever; dharmE nashTE—when spiritual values are destroyed; adharmaha—unrighteousness; abhibhavati—predominates; kRutsnam uta kulam—the entire society.
With the destruction of the family, the spiritual traditions of the family perish forever; when spiritual values are destroyed, then unrighteousness predominates the entire society.
When the spiritual traditions and spiritual values are destroyed in society, unrighteousness predominates and the surviving family members become degraded.
Now the evil consequences of war are described in detail, with this verse beginning with kula-kshayE praNashyanti . The compound word, kula-dharmAha, means the righteous family traditions prescribed in Vedic rites, such as the fire ceremony (agnihOtra) and others of this nature. Due to the destruction of the dynasty, there is a lack of qualified family members who are knowledgeable enough to have them performed. When dharma, or righteousness, is absent, then adharma (unrighteousness) appears, apprehending the remaining dependents, along with the whole family, destroying the foundations of society.
Some may ponder just what sin Arjuna is describing. This is now revealed in this verse. In a dynasty, it is the father that is the foundation of the family. He ensures that the tradition of the members is maintained, and, in addition, is the support of all the members. In times of war, it is the father who goes to fight; sometimes the older sons, who are the fathers of the future, also go to war. If they are slain in battle, it is understood that the family is effectively destroyed, and righteousness, along with the age-old family customs and Vedic traditions, eventually ceases to exist. The women and children are then not properly protected, having lost the shelter of the father. Therefore, they are overcome by the realities of basic survival, and become victims of unrighteousness.
Fire is produced by rubbing together pieces of wood, and when it gets ablaze, the entire wood is gutted; in the same way, when there arises jealousy, resulting in the mutual slaughter of family members, great sin is created, and the whole family gets burned. Where such sins, leading to destruction of the family, take place, the family's traditional religion disappears, and there build up in the family anti-religious tendencies.
Arjuna is concerned about how war will lead to the death of the male heads of the families. With no males to protect the families, two adverse consequences arise. One is that there is no one to perform the prescribed daily, monthly, and yearly rituals. This leads to adharma. The second one is that the women and children of the families have no male to protect them from other males. This too leads to adharma, as Arjuna describes below.
अधर्माभिभवात्कृष्ण प्रदुष्यन्ति कुलस्त्रियः।
स्त्रीषु दुष्टासु वार्ष्णेय जायते वर्णसङ्करः।।
adharma abhibhavAt kRuShNa praduShyanti kula-striyaha
strIShu duShTAsu vArShNEya jAyatE varNa-sankaraha
adharma abhibhavAt — when unrighteousness becomes predominant; kRuShNa—O Krishna; kula-striyaḥa—the women of the family; praduShyanti — become polluted; strIShu duShTAsu — from the pollution of womanhood; vArShNEya — Lord Krishna, descendant of the vruShNI dynasty; varNa-sankaraha — unwanted progeny; jAyatE — are born.
O Krishna, when unrighteousness is predominant, then women in the family become polluted, and from the pollution of womanhood, O Krishna, undesirable progeny are born.
The sinfulness alluded to in the previous verse, leading to the degradation of the females in the family is being described here.
When adharma, or unrighteousness, controls the decorum of a dynasty, the females in the family unavoidably become unchaste, and their wombs subsequently become contaminated. Because their husbands violate the injunctions of the scriptures and engage themselves in committing sinful activities and in destroying the dynasty, the females of the family, without proper guidance and adequate protection, will become depraved and wanton, disregarding the etiquette of morality and decorum; and thus degenerating, the females of the family will soon become degraded.
Deliberating further, Arjuna determines that when unrighteousness becomes predominant in the family due to the loss of the father, who ensures the continuation of the family customs and the propagation of the Vedic tradition, the females of the family become easily accessible and are placed in conditions of compromise. From this polluted and degraded position arise undesirable progeny. The purpose of Arjuna addressing Lord Krishna by the vocative vArShNEya is to remind Him that He took birth in the exalted royal vRuShNI dynasty, and as such, should be fully aware of all these things.
In such a state, common sense, reasonable conduct, and duty – all naturally leave us far away. Snuffing out a lamp and moving out in the dark would naturally make one grope and fall down even on a plane level. In the same way, on the extinction of the family, there perish also the families’ immemorial rites and customs. What else could be left behind except sin, when the restraint over the mind and senses ceases, and the women of respectable families become corrupt? The best and the worst get mingled; so also all the castes get intermingled; then naturally, all castes and prescribed duties get entirely dislocated.
Just as the crows from all directions flock together seeing a (rice) oblation placed in an open space, in the same way great sins enter into irreligious families.
The original translation from the website I have used translated “jAyatE” as “comes into existence.” However, a more precise translation of “jAyatE” is “to be born,” and I have therefore replaced “comes into existence” with “to be born.” Also, the word “praduShyanti” was translated as “become degraded,” but a more accurate translation of the word is “become polluted” (in modern Hindi, “pradUShaN” is the word for pollution), and so I have made the change.
In the previous shlOka, Arjuna talked about unrighteousness predominating when the males of the family are killed in war. Here he is more specific about his concern, which is that without males to protect them, the women will become “polluted” by having intercourse with men of other castes (actually the concern is specifically men of lower castes, as several explanations in other sources, such as the Mahabharata and the Manusmriti show – and this is also supported by Jnaneshwar’s interpretation, where he talks about the “best and worst” getting mixed; given that the Kshatriya Varna is lower only than the Brahmin Varna, this can only mean that Arjuna is worried about Kshatriya women being impregnated by Vaishya or Shudra men), which leads to “varNa-sankaraha” – which has been translated by many commentators as unwanted progeny, but that is not a very precise translation, because clearly, from the root of the word, that compound word means “mixture of varNas” – so there are “unwanted” children, but that is because they are children of inter-varNa unions. The reason that “varNa-sankaraha” is translated as “unwanted children” is that the “mixture of varNas” does not happen merely with sexual intercourse – it happens when that intercourse results in the birth of a mixed-varNa child – who is unwanted, for the reasons listed below.
This tells us about the restrictions on inter-varNa unions in the society of those times. In the next verse, Arjuna tells us why those children of mixed-varNa unions are unwanted.
सङ्करो नरकायैव कुलघ्नानां कुलस्य च।
पतन्ति पितरो ह्येषां लुप्तपिण्डोदकक्रियाः।।
sankarO narakAya Eva kula-ghnAnAm kulasya ca
patanti pitarO hi EshAm lupta-pinDOdaka-kriyAha
sankaraha — such undesirable progeny; narakAya Eva — certainly creates a hellish situation; kulasya kula-ghnAnAm ca — for both the family and the destroyers of the family; EShAm – their; pitaraha – forefathers; patanti hi – certainly fall down; lupta-pinDa-udaka-kriyAha – due to the cessation of performing offerings of food and water.
Such undesirable population certainly creates a hellish situation for both the family and the destroyers of the family. Their ancestors certainly fall down due to the cessation of performing offerings of food and water.
When this happens, there is an intermingling of castes, and the ancestors of these destroyers of the family fall from heaven as they are deprived of their periodic ritual offerings of food and water.
When there is a resultant intermixture of castes, due to the destruction of the family structure, those who are responsible are damned to hell. But not only these ruinous family members; their forefathers are also sent to hell due to the cessation of the ritual offerings of food and water that are no longer given, due to the fact that there no longer exist any male descendants to perform such rites.
The result of undesirable progeny due to the intermixture of castes is that those who follow the family customs and honor the age-old Vedic traditions are replaced with those that do not. This causes a degradation in society, and leads the family to a hellish existence.
Not only these (offsprings of intermixture of castes), but the anscestors of such a family also suffer, because there is no descendant qualified to perform the propitiatory rites prescribed in Vedic scriptures, such as shrAddha and tarpaNa. Being deprived of these oblations due to the absence of qualified progeny, as a result of destruction of the family structure, the ancestors fall down from heaven and go directly to the hellish planets.
Then the whole family, as also the destroyers of the family, both have assuredly to go to Hell. See, if the whole lineage gets sunk down in this way, then their Manes (ed: spirits of the ancestors, also known as pitrIs in Hinduism) that have already gone to Heaven, do also sink down. When the day-to-day, and occasional (religious) duties cease to be performed in various ways, then who would offer to the Manes the tilodaka (water and sesame mixed together), what would the forefathers do without it, and how could they continue in Heaven? And so, they too return to the family.
Even as a serpent bites only at the toe-nail, but the poison spreads out to and makes the entire body, including the hair on the head, to suffer the pangs; in the same way, these sins make the entire family sink into Hell.
So in this verse, Arjuna’s concern about the “unwanted children from inter-varNa unions” becomes clear. What is the problem with these “unwanted children”? This issue of inter-varNa marriage is discussed in detail in other parts of the Mahabharata as well as in the Manu Smriti. Essentially, the children of a union between a higher-varNa woman and a lower-varNa man are cast out of the varNas of both parents – they become part of a varNa that is lower in status and purity than both the parent varNas. These mixed varNas do not have the right to perform Vedic rituals. For instance, if a Brahmin woman has sexual union with a Shudra man – which would not happen normally when she is under the protection of her Brahmin husband, but which could happen if her husband dies and she is unprotected – the child now belongs to a new varNa known as cAnDAla. cAnDAlas are considered a very low varNa, and are only considered fit to serve at crematoria. Obviously, they have no right to study the Vedas.
Now, in Hinduism, it is believed that the spirits of the dead, known as the pitrIs (in the West, they are known as the Manes), need to be given offerings, and the Gods propitiated in their favour in monthly (tarpaNa) and annual (shrAddha) ceremonies involving the offering of water, rice, and sesame seeds. These offerings are what Arjuna refers to as “pinDa-udaka-kriyAhA.” pinDa-udaka refers to the rice and sesame balls that are offered to the pitrIs. Arjuna is concerned that because the children will be essentially cast out the varNa, the monthly and annual offerings to the pitrIs will cease. The Vedas say that if such offerings are not made, then the pitrIs will sink from the heavenly abodes that they have risen to, as a result of their good deeds on earth, after their death, and will immediately sink to hell. Thus, not only will the family of the Kshatriya women and the lower-caste men who engage with them in inter-varNa unions go to hell, but so too will their ancestors.
This is the reason why Arjuna is worried about unprotected women having unwanted children.
दोषैरेतैः कुलघ्नानां वर्णसङ्करकारकैः।
उत्साद्यन्ते जातिधर्माः कुलधर्माश्च शाश्वताः।।
dOShair Etaihi kula-ghnAnAm varNa-sankara-kArakaihi
utsAdhyantE jAti-dharmAha kula-dharmAha ca shAshvatAha
dOshaihi — such heinous deeds; Etaihi kula-ghnAnAm — by all these destroyers of the family; varNa-sankara kArakaihi — gives rise to a population of undesirable progeny; utsAdhyantE — completely eradicating; shAshvatAha — the time-honored; jAti-dharmAha kula-dharmAha ca — spiritual traditions of the family and nobility of lineage.
Such heinous deeds by all those destroyers of the family gives rise to a population of undesirable progeny, completely eradicating the time-honoured spiritual traditions of the family and nobility of lineage.
The sinfulness referred to is being concluded in this verse. The traditions of the caste or tribe and the family are destroyed, lost, forgotten and disregarded. This also includes the four AshRamas or prescribed orders of life, being brahmacArya, or celibate student life; gRuhasta, or married house-holder life; vanaprastha, or preperation for spiritual life; and sannyAsa, or total renunciation from material life and complete attachment to spiritual life.
Now, the conclusion of the sins that have been previouly delineated before are being described. jAti-dharmAha refers to the duties of the Kshatriyas and others. kula-dharmAha refers to the traditional practices observed by a particular family. utsAdhyantE means when these are eradicated. The use of the word ca, meaning "also," indicates that AshRama-dharma, which constitutes the rules of righteousness governing the relationship between Brahmana the spiritual order, Kshatriya the warrior order, Vaishya the mercantile order and Shudra the worker class is included here as well.
In the previous verse, the effects of the intermixture of castes, as described in the Vedic scriptures regarding the ancestors, has been determined. Now Arjuna describes the misery experienced for those who are responsible for causing this intermixture of castes, beginning with dOshair Etaihi. Due to these evils, the essential duties prescribed in the Vedic scriptures for the four castes, which are the authorised and proven means leading humanity to the highest good, and which are faithfully instructed by holy sages and spiritual masters, are all forsaken.
See Lord, there gets committed one more sin here in that the immemorial rites and customs get annihilated by sinful contagion. Just as an unfortunate fire in one's house consumes also the surrounding houses, in the same way, those that establish contact with sinful families also get similarly affected by the contact with the sinful.
In the previous verse, Arjuna explained the adverse consequences of inter-varNa unions on the persons engaging in those unions, as well as on their families and ancestors. Now he expands his concern to talk about the effect of these transgressions on society as a whole. He says that such a population of “unwanted” children, resulting from inter-caste unions, will mean the destruction of the time-honoured traditions of jAti-dharma (the duties of the castes) as well as kula-dharma (the duties and traditions of the family), and the destruction of society as a whole, as children from these mixed unions will not be able to follow the traditions of jAti-dharma and kula-dharma. I have used the word “inter-caste” here rather than inter-varNa, since Arjuna himself refers here to jAtis and not to varNas. As the commentators have said, the concern is that the time-honoured duties of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras (which will be elaborated by Krishna in Chapter 18) will no longer be observed, and society will deteriorate.
उत्सन्नकुलधर्माणां मनुष्याणां जनार्दन।
नरकेऽनियतं वासो भवतीत्यनुशुश्रुम।।
utsanna-kula-dharmANAm manuShyANAm janArdana
narakE niyatam vAsO bhavatI iti anushushRuma
janArdana – Lord Krishna, destroyer of the atheists; anushushRuma – I have heard from the learned; iti – that; manuShyANAm – those persons; utsanna kula-dharmANAm – whose spiritual family traditions have been destroyed; niyatam – perpetually; bhavatI – become; narakE vAsaha – residents in hell.
O Krishna, I have heard from the learned that those persons whose spiritual family traditions have been destroyed perpetually become residents in hell.
Persons “whose family traditions have been destroyed” also refers to “those whose caste and heritage has also been lost.” We have heard from the authoritative sources of the Vedas scriptures that those addicted to vice, who perform no expiation nor feel any repentance, go to terrible hells full of misery.
Here by the word kula dharma (getting spoiled), Arjuna also means jAti dharmah, meaning the duties of each caste, and AshRama dharma, meaning that the relationships between the castes are indicated as well. anushushRuma means we have heard in the line of paramparA disciplic succession that persons who are addicted to sinful activities, yet who do not make atonement or repent, are damned to excruciatingly painful and terrifying hells.
Arjuna is supporting his argument by affirming that he has heard from respectable sources in disciplic succession, that those who are responsible for destroying righteousness reside permanently in hellish existence. Therefore, this decision to fight is not the wisest of choices.
Arjuna said, “The whole family, being affected by various sorts of sins, is damned to suffer dreadful Hell; and once one gets there, there is never any escape from there and in this way, the fallen family suffers throughout all eternity."
With this shlOka, Arjuna concludes his plea to Krishna on why war is evil, as seen from its deleterious consequences on society as a whole. He says that in families where jAti dharma, kula dharma, and AshRama dharma – the duties of different varNas and castes, the spiritual traditions of the family such as performing tarpaNa and shrAddha, and the tradition of the four stages of life – celibacy, married life, retirement, and renunciation – where all these are not observed, the entire families sink into hell for eternity – so he has heard from wise sages.
उत्सीदेयुरिमे लोका न कुर्यां कर्म चेदहम्।
सङ्करस्य च कर्ता स्यामुपहन्यामिमाः प्रजाः।।
utsIdEyur imE lOkA na kuryAm karma cEd aham
sankarasya ca kartA syAm upahanyam imAha prajAha
cet – if; aham – I; na kuryAm – cease to perform; karma – prescribed actions; imE lOkA – the inhabitants of all the worlds; utsIdEyuhu – would be put into ruin; ca – and; aham – I; syAm – would be; kartA – the cause; sankarasya – of unvirtuous population; ca – and; upahanyam – would destroy; imAha – all these; prajAha – living entities.
If I cease to perform prescribed actions, the inhabitants of all the worlds would be put into ruin, and I would be the cause of unvirtuous population, and would destroy all these living entities.
What would happen if Krishna ceased to do his prescribed duties? Lord Krishna states that the world would degenerate and decay, due to the absence of prescribed Vedic activities, and that He would be the cause of the pollution of traditional values of the masses and the destruction of society.
If Lord Krishna of infallible will, the Supreme Lord of all, and in whose control the entire phenomenal display of the total material creation is created, maintained and preserved, by His inconceivable potency – if He were not to conduct Himself seriously, and were to omit performing prescribed Vedic activities for the benefit of all the worlds, then others, seeing Lord Krishna's indifference, would also conduct themselves indifferently, following His example.
When Lord Krishna took birth, seemingly as a human being, as the son of the great righteous King Vasudeva, he conducted Himself in all ways and manners as appropriate for his position in society as a prince of the royal Kshatriya, or warrior class. If Lord Krishna acted otherwise, all mankind have would begun to imitate Him, thinking that such actions were virtuous - the worthy actions of a worthy son from a worthy father, the righteous King Vasudeva. In this way, Lord Krishna is explaining that if He failed to perform Vedic activities, mankind, following His example, would be led in a negative way into a hellish perdition, unable to purify themselves enough so they could achieve Atma-tattva, or soul realization. This would be considered as a very serious offence, and Lord Krishna would be at fault.
By not setting the example of what is righteous, and by not following the traditions and customs established by performing the activities prescribed in the Vedic scriptures, all humanity would deviate from righteousness, and become totally lost. If Lord Krishna failed to respect the injunctions and prohibitions of the Vedic scriptures, then the whole world would take that to be the standard of righteousness and the final verdict. There would soon ensue the mixing of classes, and a mixture of moral and immoral standards in the class of pure and righteous people, leading to the complete degradation of society. Lord Krishna is stating that, if He failed to follow and perform the Vedic injunctions, then it would be the cause of the destruction of society. This is the purport. Also, if Arjuna who was world-famous for never having been defeated in battle, and who was the brother of King Yudhishthira, famed for his righteousness – if Arjuna refused to fight and protect dharma or righteousness, then many other worthy and noble Kshatriyas, who were protectors of dharma, might follow his example, and might also renounce their prescribed duties, and refuse to protect righteousness. This would bring destruction to the balance of the world, and ruin to the welfare of the people. Thus, it can be understood that, for specially qualified people, prescribed Vedic activities must be performed for the benefit of the entire human race and the welfare of the world.
It is proper that people who follow the example of Lord Krishna are correct in their actions, as He is omniscient and the creator of all. But because He is the Lord of all, what would be wrong if He was not to engage Himself in actions?
Explaining this, Lord Krishna uses the words imE lokA utsIdEyuhu, meaning the inhabitants of all the worlds will be destroyed. If Lord Krishna, the Supreme Lord and foremost on the path in knowledge of yOga, or the uniting of the individual consciousness with the ultimate consciousness – if He would refrain from performing prescribed Vedic activities, people would follow His example and refrain from performing such actions too; and they would deviate from their duty and deviate from dharma or righteousness. Then Lord Krishna would be to blame, as the example of renouncing actions is not inspiring and beneficial for the worlds. When the duties of society are not followed, there is confusion in society, and such confusion leads to a laxity in moral standards, resulting in the mixture of different castes and unwanted children. The purport is that great harm would be caused to the people and society if Lord Krishna were to refrain from actions, and so He always performs responsible actions for the welfare and benefit of the world.
If I should not perform action, then there would be no action conducive to the continuance of the universe, and all these worlds would fall into ruin. Moreover, I would be the author of confusion of castes, and thereby destroy these creatures. Thus, though working for the welfare of the creatures, I would bring about their ruin—which would be unbecoming of me, their Lord.
Suppose, on the other hand, you — or suppose, for that matter, any other man – thinks that he has achieved his ends and has realised the Self – even so, he should work for the welfare of others, though for himself he may have nothing to do.
Were we, in the fullness of our satisfied being, to remain absorbed in the state of the Self-realization, how would the common people fare in life's journey? The common people look up to us, observe how we act, and learn from us how to conduct themselves well. This social order, that has been established today, should not be disturbed. Therefore, O Arjuna, those especially that are powerful and are all-knowing should not abandon actions.
The same concern expressed by Arjuna in 1-39 to 1-43 is now being echoed by Krishna himself.
Krishna is trying to motivate Arjuna to fight, telling him it is his duty to fight. So he gives an example. Since Krishna is God himself, and is the sustainer of the Universe, he says that he needs to set an example. He cannot rest easy simply because he is God. If he were to stop doing his own duties, then others, following his example, will stop following their divinely-ordained duties that have come to them from the Vedas. Thus the entire Vedic order of society will be destroyed. This is what Krishna means by saying imE lOkA utsIdEyuh – the whole world will be destroyed – not physically, but morally.
It is interesting that, of all the moral lapses that could occur if people stopped following the religious teachings in the Vedas, the one that concerns Krishna the most – so much so that he needs to make a special mention of it – is the now familiar phrase, “sankaraha.” As we know from previous verses in this section, this refers to the mixing of varNas, and the children born of inter-varNa unions – what the translator refers to here as “unvirtuous population.”
The fact that Krishna equates the ruin of society to inter-varNa unions tells us how seriously the prohibition on inter-varNa (or inter-caste) unions was taken in those days, and how central it was to the maintenance and preservation of Vedic society.
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.