Understanding the concept of Varna as it appears in Hindu scriptures
Understanding the concept of Varna as it appears in Hindu scriptures- I

A thorough examination of Hindu scriptures will clearly reveal that the scriptural conception of Varna has no resemblance to the present practice of caste system.

‘Varna’ is a much misunderstood concept. It is often equated with the ‘caste’ and the ‘caste system’ and is considered as the root cause of discrimination and oppression present in the Indian society. Yet, a thorough examination of Hindu scriptures will clearly reveal that the scriptural conception of Varna has no resemblance to the present practice of caste system.

Santana Dharma or Hinduism perceives human life as very precious, which an individual (Jivatma) gets after great effort. Adi Shankaracharya for example writes in his Vivekachudamani that among all living creatures, birth as a human is very rare (1). The importance of human life lies in the fact that humans alone have a fully developed intellect and free-will, which they could use to fulfill their desires and attain happiness. But, desires, by their very nature cause bondage and sorrow (2).

People forever hanker behind different desires, some they achieve, some they don’t. When desires are not achieved, they lead one to sorrow; even when desires are achieved, happiness will not stay for long! In either case, there is no attainment of permanent happiness for those who single-mindedly pursue worldly desires. Therefore, to attain a state of permanent happiness, one must transcend desires and reach desirelessness (3).

Hindu scriptures conceive this ultimate state of permanent happiness, bliss, and desirelessness called as ‘Moksha’ or liberation from bondage, as the ultimate goal of life; and proposes a system of four-fold goals of life, called Purusharthas, that both helps individuals to fulfill their desires and at the same time slowly transcend them. The four-fold goals of human life are- Dharma (duties/righteousness), Artha (wealth), Kama (desires) and Moksha (liberation).

Moksha is placed at the end as it is the ultimate goal, and Dharma or righteous duty is placed at the beginning to stress on the fact that without being accompanied by Dharma, all other three goals will never truly fructify. Wealth and desires unrestrainingly pursued, without care for righteousness of such actions, or the wellbeing of others, will ultimately end up in sorrow, and will not assist in taking one towards Moksha. Similarly, without a practice of Dharma, there is no purification of mind that frees one from desires, and hence there can be no Moksha for such a person. Hence, Srinivasa Rao in his paper ‘Sadharana Dharma’ states: “Achieving moksha becomes possible only when a life pursuing desires (kAma) and wealth (artha) has been led consistently within the framework of dharma. Dharma thus plays a very crucial role in not only ensuring a good life here and now, but also in enabling one to attain the state of supreme good or liberation, from which there is no lapsing back to karma and rebirth. (4)” In other words, Dharma or righteous duties are central to Hindu worldview and practice.

Hinduism divides human duties- Svadharma/personal duties of all individuals- into two categories- Samanya Dharma (common duties) and Vishesha Dharma (Special duties ). Common duties (5) refers to the tenets of virtues like truth, non-injury, cleanliness, non-stealing, self-control, etc. Vishesha dharma refers to special duties that are unique to each individual and depends upon different factors like individual’s temperaments and inner callings (Varna), station in life (Ashrama), time (Kala), location (Desha), emergency situations (Apad-dharma) etc. Among all the above factors, Varna and Ashrama are two factors, which are central to the practice of Vishesha Dharma, because without a determination of an individual’s temperaments and station in life, a tailor made ‘Vishesha Dharma’ cannot be proposed for every individual. In other words, it is in the context of righteous duties (Svadharma) that the concept of Varna and Varna Vyavasta (system of Varna) must be understood.

Varna in conception

The term ‘Varna’ is derived from the verbal root word ‘Vr’, which means to choose, to cover, or color and it refers to the svadharma (personal duty/purpose of life) chosen by each individual in his/her life according to his/her inherent nature (Svabhava, Guna) or it may refer to the Svabhava itself that drives him/her to spontaneously choose particular actions as his/her Svadharma.

Rigveda (Purushasukta Verse 12) speaks about how different Varnas are nothing but designations for different Svabhavas of people by symbolically describing different Varnas as emerging from different limbs of Purusha (Brahman). In this verse, Rigveda employs the model of the human body to describe a conception of human society rooted in Svabhava and Svadharma in an organic manner. Manu Smriti (1.87) describes about how Brahman allotted different Svadharmas (personal duties) to people born with different Svabhavas (inherent nature) for the sake of protecting and sustaining the Universe. Similarly, Bhagavad Gita also speaks about creation of four Varnas based on Guna (natural qualities and tendencies) and Karma (personal duties) (4.13) and that the duties have been allotted based on the Gunas that arise from Svabhava (18.41). Bhagavata Purana (11.17.13) stresses that the four Varna’s that originated from the Supreme Purusha are to be recognized/designated by their Atma-achara (natural activities or personal duties according to inherent nature i.e. Svadharma). Mahabharata (12.188) assigns a color to each Varna that symbolically represents the attributes/Svabhava associated with that Varna, reflecting the three qualities of the nature (Prakriti): Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.

From the above, it follows that Varna is a designation that refers to Svabhava (inherent nature) of an individual; Varna classification is a conceptual classification of people based on their Svabhavas and whose sole aim is to identify what Svadharmas are applicable to whom, what duties will grant overall welfare to people with which Svabhavas; and Varna Vyavasta or Varna system is any practical model, any framework that facilitates each individual to choose and practice the Swadharma that is applicable to them (or allotted to them) based on their inherent Svabhava, without any ambiguities or hindrances.

Therefore, it clear that neither the Varna classification nor the Varna Vyavasta is based on any artificially constructed social stratification factors like caste, class, race, or ethnicity, etc. Instead, Varna classification is a conceptual classification that perceives the presence of different set of temperaments in different people. It then seeks to do the following:

  1. Identify the different temperaments of individuals
  2. Classify people into different conceptual groups according to different temperaments as per their inherent nature and capacity
  3. Propose different duties/actions suitable/applicable to each group, such that people belonging to them attain overall wellbeing by performance of those duties and support the society as a whole

This conceptual Varna classification, when practically implemented in the society so that each person’s Svabhava is identified and he/she is facilitated to perform their Svadharma accordingly, it becomes Varna Vyavasta or the practical Varna system.

Elements of Varna Vyavasta

There are three elements or stages in the implementation of the ideals of Varna : Identification of the Varna of any individual, Classification of the Varnas, and Assignment of different duties to individuals exhibiting different Varna.

Identification: If, the conceptual Varna classification has to be implemented on the ground, the very first thing that is required is a mechanism to identify the Varna of an individual. Bhagavad Gita, as quoted before, says that Varna classification is based on differences in the Gunas that arise from Svabhava and the duties that have been adjoined according to those Gunas. Thus, identification of Svabhava/Guna becomes crucial for designating a particular Varna to an Individual. The scriptures have elaborated upon what temperaments constitutes what Varna. But, before getting into it lets briefly look into the factors that cause an individual to get a particular Svabhava.

The Svabhava of an individual is determined by two components: the Svabhavas (Guna/Varna- natural tendencies) of the parents that one inherits, and the Samskaras (mental impressions) that one inherits from past lives and both components are again determined by Prarabdha Karmas- the allotted fruits of previously committed actions that determines where one takes birth, what Svabhava one exhibits, etc. It is for this reason, ‘Birth’ or ‘Janma’ was used as an identifying factor for determining Varna. But, here the reference is to the ‘Prarabdha Karma’ and the Svabhava one inherits due to Prarabda and not a reference to being born in a tribe, caste, class, or family. Varna refers to the Jivatma (the individual soul) and not simply to the body or social responsibility.

Classification: In regards to the classification of people into various Varnas, based on their Guna-Svabhava, Hindu scriptures say that there are only four Varnas, i.e. clear cut divisions of Svabhava (Manu Smriti 10.4): Brahmanas, Kshtriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Adi Shankaracharya, while commenting on Bhagvad Gita (4.13 & 18.41) says that Brahmana is a designation given to one in whom there is a predominance of Sattva; Kshatriya is one in whom there is both Sattva and Rajas, but Rajas predominates; in Vaishya, both Rajas and Tamas exist, but Rajas predominates; and Shudra is one in whom both Rajas and Tamas exist, but Tamas predominates. These Gunas are revealed by the natural temperaments and behavior exhibited by the person.

Elaborating on this, Bhagavada Purana (11.17.16-19), lists what temperaments and behavior indicates what Varna designation to be assigned to a person. It says: the control of mind and senses, austerity, cleanliness, satisfaction, tolerance, simple straightforwardness, devotion to God, mercy, and truthfulness are the natural qualities of the Brahmanas; dynamic power, bodily strength, determination, heroism, forbearance, generosity, great endeavor, steadiness, devotion to the Brahmaṇas and leadership are the natural qualities of the Kshatriyas; faith in God and Vedas, dedication to charity, freedom from hypocrisy, service to the Brahmaṇas and perpetually desiring to accumulate more money are the natural qualities of the Vaishyas, service without duplicity to others, cows and gods and complete satisfaction with whatever income is obtained in such service, are the natural qualities of Shudras.

Therefore, the scriptures clearly give a wide framework by which people can be designated and classified according to their inherent temperaments. But, this four-fold classification is essentially a conceptual classification based on four ideal Svabhava conditions (i.e. Having a clear cut predominant Guna and a secondary Guna) and may not always reflect a ground situation, especially in Kaliyuga in general and at present times in particular, as society stratified along caste, profession, and political lines (rooted mostly in colonial discourse), and the concept of Guna and Svadharma no longer drives the society.

Nonetheless, this four-fold Guna based Varnas and the assignment of ideal duties that a person with a particular Svabhava must practice, will act as general guidelines, which would not only help societies to evolve their own practical models according to their own unique social conditions, it will also help each individual to understand his/her place in life and Dharma, such that each person may choose his/her Svadharma according to his/her Svabhava and attain material and spiritual success.

Notably, the Varna model places Knowledge, particularly Spiritual Knowledge (Adhyatma Vidya) or Transcendent Knowledge (Atma Vidya) at the top, like the head of a human being and a whole framework has been conceived wherein all other mundane activities be it politics, commerce, or labor, act as tools to facilitate individuals to eventually reach the ultimate goal of Transcendent Knowledge and Liberation. In fact, a clear correlation between the four Varnas and the four Purushartas (goals of life) can be established. Though, the four purusharthas are equally applicable to all human beings irrespective of their Varna, there is also a clear correlation between the Svabhava of a person and the Purusharta he is most likely to consider as central to his life.

Shudras who are simple minded common folks have a mundane and worldly outlook. Thus, their primary concern is often limited to their everyday life, family, children, security, and happiness. In other words, their primary goal is ‘Kama’ or fulfillment of worldly desires of themselves and their families. It is for this reason, Shudra Varna is also considered to have only one Ashrama (stage in life) of Grihasta (householder), wherein they can satisfy their worldly desires including sexual ones. Similarly, Vaishya Varna is associated with the Purusharta of ‘Artha’ (gathering of wealth), because their Swabhava drives them to pursue wealth and prosperity; Kshatriya is associated with Dharma, because their foremost duty is the protection of Dharma and the welfare of citizens, and not pursuance of personal desires or wealth; and Brahmanas are associated with Moksha, because it is the ultimate calling of the Brahmana and they are by Svabhava spiritual in outlook. In fact, Vajrasucika Upanisad (Verse 10) says, a true Brahmana is one who has established himself in Brahman (i.e. Attained Moksha).

Therefore, unlike the materialistic world order that predominates the Western Thought, the Varna model honors Karma, Dharma, and higher consciousness, and Varna combined with Ashrama (stages in life) system facilitates each individual to accomplish all the Purushartas (life purposes- righteousness (dharma), wealth (artha), desires (kama), and liberation (moksha)) in life.

Assignment: After successful identification and classification of the Varnas of people, the final stage is the assignment of duties or Svadharma for each person according to his/her own inherent temperaments. Bhagavad Gita (18.42-44) assigns following duties to people exhibiting different Varna Svabhava. Brahmanas are assigned: control of the internal and external organs, austerity, purity, forgiveness, straightforwardness, Jnana (Knowledge of the scriptures), Vijnana (experiential understanding of what is presented in the scriptures) and Astikyam (faith and conviction in the truth expounded in the scriptures regarding God, etc.), as their duties. Similarly Kshatriyas are assigned: heroism, boldness, fortitude, capability, and also not retreating from battle, generosity and lordliness; Vaishyas are assigned: agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade; and Shudras are assigned service as their duty.

Manu Smriti (1.88-91) has further elaborated the duties for people having the four Varna Gunas thus- teaching and studying, sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms) as duties of Brahmanas; protection of the people, giving charity, to offer sacrifices (Yajnas), to study (the Veda), and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures as duties of Kshatriyas, to tend cattle, giving charity, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land, are the duties of Vaishya; and serving the other Varnas, i.e. rest of the society by means of various professions like arts, sculpture making, wood carving, etc. (See Manu 10.100).

It is clear from above that the duties assigned to people are a) in sync with their inherent temperaments, b) duties further seek to reinforce and strengthen the already present inner talents and temperaments, c) through performance of these duties, though different for different persons, all will attain complete success and overall welfare (Gita18.45).

It is also clear that the duties assigned are more of a general nature and do not as such refer to any particular profession . A Brahmana Varna person may be a teacher teaching wide range of subjects, or a priest at a temple, or a Ritvik, etc. who performs Yajnas, or simply a researcher, or a scientist. Similarly, a Shudra may well have been a painter, wood carver, architect, sculpture, labor, artisans, etc. In other words, Varna grouping is not same as Kula-groupings or groupings according to clans and /or skills/professions (some of which have attained the character of caste in modern society). Similarly, Varna grouping is not as such related to ethno-cultural Jati groupings as well (though the term Jati as used in Manu Smriti is a reference to Guna and at times synonymous with Varna and not as a reference to ethno-cultural identity). More importantly, Varna has no correlation to the concept of caste or caste identities as understood in present society, which is mostly a colonial construct and superimposition on Indian society.

However, it must be conceded that when this Varna framework is practically implemented, it is bound to result in overlapping with different social groupings and identities- be it social-economic groups, ethno-cultural groups (jati), or groups based on clans and/or professions (kula). But, the mere presence of such overlapping does not mean that Varna is identical to social stratification in the lines of castes, Jati, or kula. Instead, Bhagavad Purana (7.11.35) explicitly states that a person’s Guna must be the driving factor behind assignment of a particular Varna to him, irrespective of the social class, he is born into. Therefore, Guna that arises out of Svabhava, alone is the criteria for Varna designation, and the purpose of the whole system is to facilitate each individual to identify and choose Svadharma that is applicable to him.

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With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His latest book “Musings On Hinduism” provides an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. Tweets at @nkgrock