Monday, October 17, 2011

Understanding Varna ("Caste System")

Harih om. This piece was summarized (in 2011) from memory, after listening to Swāmi Paramārthānanda ji's talk on Varṇa in the introductory series to Vedānta, therefore all credit belongs to Swāmiji, and any fault found therein is mine alone

Varna is one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts in Hinduism, and as a result has a lot of stigma attached to it. "Caste System" is a very poor translation for varNa. This article aims to explain it in sufficient detail.

In the Vedas, material success is not neglected, and is also given mention along with spiritual success, but mere materialistic goals are meaningless. They should be equally balanced with spiritual goals.

 Nothing works well without an infrastructure. We need it for almost everything; ranging from the educational system, to the transportation system, for the smooth functioning of society. The infrastructure given in the vedas is the varNa dharma, which is a sociological scheme for the growth of society as a whole.
It is a fourfold division known as varNa vibhAga (division). The vibhAga is done based on three criteria.
The first criterion is an individual’s guNa vibhAga; division based on his mental attribute/aptitude. The second is karma vibhAga; division based on his profession, and the last is the jAti vibhAga; division based on his parentage.
Based on guNa vibhAga, people are classified into guNa brAhmana, guNa kshatriya, guNa vaishyA and guNa shudrA

To understand subsequent topics better, it is imperative to give a short intuitive explanation of what ‘guNa’ is. A loose translation of the word guNa would be quality/attribute. Everything that is objectifiable in this universe, is endowed with these three guNas. They are sattva, rajas, and tamas. It is not possible to accurately define the guNas, and so we will make an attempt to understand them as intuitively as possible

Sattva guNa:
This includes knowledge, intelligence, purity, wisdom, peace, stillness, serenity, quietude, solitude, spirituality, chastity, divinity and so on.

Rajas guNa: 
This includes activity, motivation, strength, vigor, motion, desire, energy, fire, change, transformation, passion, restlessness and so on.

Tamas guNa
This is a lack-luster state that deals with lethargy, indolence, laziness, inertia, dullness, and etc.

Whilst to an outsider, a sattvic person sitting in quietude, may appear the same as a tamasik person sitting in indolence, the sattvic individual is doing so with his intellect being in complete control of his action, whereas the tamasik individual is doing so involuntarily, as a slave of the mind. 

This functional division of the human mind (antahkaran) will be elaborately dealt with in the topic of ‘sukshma shariram’
So returning back to our classification of personalities based on guNas (guNa vibhAga)

1) A brAhmana has a predominance of sattva, with lesser amount of rajas, and least amount of tamas. He is known as a sattva pradhAna personality.

2) A kshatriya has a predominance of rajas, with lesser amount of sattva, and least amount of tamas. He is known as a shuddha rajas pradhAna personality.

3) A vaishyA has a predominance of rajas, with lesser amount of rajas, and least amount of sattva. He is known as an ashuddha rajas pradhAna personality

4) A shudrA has a predominance of tamas, with lesser amount of rajas and least amount of sattva. He is known as tamah pradhAna personality.
Hence based on these guNas we will now give a short explanation of their personalities.

guNa brAhmana- being a sattva pradhAna personality, he loves spiritual pursuits, withdrawal, contemplation, knowledge. The pursuits of the other goals are only incidental, that come as a part and parcel of human life.

sanyAs appeals to such a mind, renunciation is welcome. While solitude is a dreadful thing for most, such a spiritual person rejoices in it.

2) guNa Kshatriya- dynamic personality; Outgoing, active and highly motivated in a selfless way. He has a selflessly motivated mind that works in the direction of exercising his power in service of others.

3) guNa vaishyA- selfishly dynamic personality; business oriented, for service of oneself and for one’s own family.

4) guNa shudrA - no motivation either for materialistic or spiritual goals. Passive and lethargic, his main goal in life is mere survival, with neither the inclination towards knowledge like the brAhmanas, desire for social service like a kshatriya, nor desire for self gain like the vaishyA. This sort of personality is most animalistic of all, known as guNa shudrA.

Thus we see that the predominance of certain guNas endow an individual with different types of personalities. In an ideal situation, a person is most fit to perform a job which corresponds well with his personality. 

In an ideal situation, a person is most fit to perform a job which corresponds well with his personality. This gives rise to a division based on one’s occupation (karma vibhAga)

1) a karma brAhmana is assigned the task of learning and teaching scriptures. Not only is this work extensive, but also very intensive. Someone needs to teach vedas, and  it is a highly responsible task, where not only does one need to learn the scriptures very well, but a detailed knowledge of  sanskritam, treatises on logic, and other related works are needed too. Such a teacher must also be able to express the knowledge of shAstra effectively, and be up to date in order to be able to communicate it to a generation of modern minds- old wisdom in a new package.

2) A karma kshatriya is responsible for preservation of law and order, public service etc. Jobs dealing with governance fall into this category. Ministers, police officers, legislators are a few positions that a karma kshatriya holds. Though this is far from the case today, in an ideal situation, the job of a kshatriya is to selflessly serve people.

3) A karma vaishyA is responsible business oriented work; commercial activity such as trade, farming, banking, shop-keeping etc. A vaishyA contributes to the economic growth of the society.

4) A karma shudrA performs all forms of unskilled or semi skilled labour. He is neither adept with the scriptures; like a brAhmana, nor qualified enough to protect the society; like a kshatriya, nor does he possess business acumen like a vaishyA.

There is a lot of stigma attached to the term shudrA, but taking a look at society objectively, we come across some people who are academically interested, some who are endowed with strength and possess a disposition to serve others, some who have a capacity to handle business, and then we have some who are some aren’t. Based on each individual’s qualification, they are thus classified

Third division is based on one’s ancestry- jAti vibhAga

1) jAti brAhmana, born in a brAhmana family
2) jAti kshatriya, born in a kshatriya family
3) jAti vaishyA, born to a vaishyA
4) jAti shudrA, born to a shudrA

A person born of one jAti may not necessarily be of the same varNa by guNa or karma.
Birth does not give anyone superiority or inferiority. This is called the caste system, which has been plaguing society, and wrongly tarnished the Vedas in the eyes of those who are not familiar with the guNa based and karma based classification.

Based on scriptural reference, some argue that shudrAs are born from the feet of brahmA ji, and hence they are discriminated against. This too is a fallacy, because after all, it is the feet that we first reach out to touch and seek blessings from. The correct way of understanding the symbolism is as follows:

brAhmanas are depicted as born from the head of brahmA ji, symbolizing that they are the teachers and preservers of knowledge, as knowledge is stored in the head.

kshatriyas are depicted as born from the chest of brahmA ji, because the chest is a symbol of virility, thus symbolizing their strength and their status as protectors of society.

vaishyas are said to be born from the stomach of brahmA ji, because it is through their very economic activity that society can feed itself, and also due to the fact that farmers, who are producers of food, are vaishyAs.

Lastly, shudrAs are said to be born from the feet of brahmA ji, because the feet represent labour. It is the feet that take us around from place to place, and shudrAs represent this section of society.

If such symbologies are misinterpreted they can prove to be detrimental to one’s attitude towards religion. There is nothing unholy about feet. Even shankarAchArya is called bhagavadpAda, not bhagavadashirAha.

Scriptures abound with examples where the focus is on one’s personality, and not birth.
prahlad, son of a rAkshasa went to become one of the most revered individuals in our culture

Even sage vAlmiki, author of the epic poem rAmAyana, was considered occupationally a forest bandit, but later through his own change in character, became one of the most venerated sages, as did the son of a fisherwoman; sage vyAsa, who was respected for his merits as a teacher of brahma vidyA, and compiler of the vedas.

We have no choice over our birth, but we do have sufficient choice over our profession, and absolute choice over our character, thus it is one’s character that primarily determines his varNa.