* श्लोक १३ *
चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागश: ।
तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥ १३॥
The English word ‘caste’, comes from the Spanish/Portuguese word ‘casta’ which means race, lineage or tribe. During the Spanish colonization, the word caste was used to refer to pure European, or indigenous or African descent. So, in the understanding of the word casta, there was hierarchy.
But caste is not जाति nor वर्ण |
When there is reference to the caste system, especially in the context of India, there is an uncomfortable moment/discussion.
There is no Sanskrit equivalent translation for caste.
The word used by भगवान् श्री कृष्ण is वर्ण |
भगवान् says that I have created this वर्ण system.
Therefore, we must look at वर्ण apart from our concept of caste, through a de-colonial lens.
De-coloniality refers to re-learning the knowledge of the indigenous culture, that has been pushed aside, forgotten, buried, discredited due to the different forces of modernity and colonialism. So, the historical perspective should be kept aside.
भगवान् श्री कृष्ण says that He created this वर्ण system for the better functioning of society.
But in the 2nd line of this verse He explains that even though I am the author of this 4-fold division, may you know that I am अव्ययम् (not subject to change), and I am not the doer. In this way He refers to the absolute reality.
So what is this चातुर्वर्ण्यं i.e. this 4-fold grouping?
भगवान् talks about the division that He created in society based upon the criteria of-
गुण is often translated as quality, but this is not an accurate translation.
गुण is 3-fold ~ सत्त्व, रजस्, तमस् |
माया शक्ति is the शक्ति of भगवान् | माया’s nature is त्रिगुणात्मिका i.e. in the form of सत्त्व, रजस्, तमस् |
So, that which is at an individual level is also at a macro-level. So, all forms are सत्त्व, रजस्, तमस् |
With respect to the grouping of individuals, there is a division of गुण-s involved.
सत्त्व stands for clarity, knowledge, balance, an emphasis on धर्म |
रजस् is activity, desire, excitement.
तमस् is inertia, inactivity, sleep, confusion. Babies or people who are ill, will have a predominance of तमस् because they are sleeping all the time. They need that.
All these 3 गुण-s are present in every person. And we strive towards having more सत्त्व, but this cannot be done without रजस् and तमस् |
Based on this गुण division, there are 4 personality groups-
1. सत्त्व > रजस् > तमस्
This is an emotionally mature person, a person given to धर्म and who thinks of values, and is inclined towards मोक्ष |
2. रजस् > सत्त्व > तमस्
Here रजस् is predominant so the person runs about doing a lot of activity, and is fired by ambition. And when that ambition is directed towards the welfare of others, then these people can become very good leaders.
3. रजस् > तमस् > सत्त्व
Here रजस् is predominant, and it is backed by तमस् | So, there is ambition, but not enough thinking, or there is some confusion. Or the person is using the power that they have to go after power & money without much consideration for others.
But because this is further backed by सत्त्व, the person does not cause too much havoc.
4. तमस् > रजस् > सत्त्व
If तमस् is predominant, then this person is not thinking very clearly. Or, has delegated thinking to others, and so only executes what is told to be done.
At its worst, these people could be criminals, because there is not much thinking involved.
Or at best, they could be simple employees who don’t have much ambition. So, they do the least minimum possible, or they do for somebody else.
These combinations of people are based on गुण-s.
If a तमस् > रजस् > सत्त्व person wants to change, they cannot immediately become सत्त्व-predominant. This combination is seen in people who are clinically depressed. The way to सत्त्व is through activity.
So, if the person is dull, reading will not help. First the person should get up and go for a walk, so that there is more circulation and movement, and then through doing one’s कर्म, and not running away from it, slowly with time the person gets to the सत्त्व > रजस् > तमस् combination.
Additionally, some गुण combinations are not possible, e.g. सत्त्व > रजस् > तमस् | Because if there is a predominance of सत्त्व with clarity on what, why & how I am doing, with an emphasis on धर्म, this cannot be followed by तमस् | Because तमस् stands in opposition, since it stands for inertia, inactivity. If one is clear, one will not duck responsibility, so the next गुण has to be रजस् | Also, तमस् > सत्त्व > रजस् is not possible, as if there is so much confusion and not thinking, inertia/laziness/apathy/indifference, then it cannot be backed by सत्त्व |
If one is going through a phase of inertia, or apathy, one should not be harsh on oneself and think that I am तामसिक् | We all have our phases, but we should not languish in that phase. We just need some movement to snap out of the phase of inertia, laziness or apathy.
In the वैदिक् society,
1. सत्त्व > रजस् > तमस् are called ब्राह्मण or brahmin.
So, whenever ब्राह्मण is praised in the शास्त्र, the group is not being praised according to the कर्म performed, but rather the शास्त्र is praising the one who is a ब्राह्मण by गुण |
That person has a lot of सत्त्व | सत्त्व does not come from eating ‘सात्त्विक् food’ – actually this focus indicates रजस् |
2. रजस् > सत्त्व > तमस् are called क्षत्रिय-s.
3. रजस् > तमस् > सत्त्व are called वैश्य-s.
4. तमस् > रजस् > सत्त्व are called शूद्र-s.
This is the division of society based on गुण-s.
So, one should recognize one’s गुण-s and where one stands. These combinations are not set in stone. There can be a lot of changes during the course of one’s life. Changes definitely happen during the course of a day- initially there is सत्त्व where one is fresh, looking forward to the day, and eager to absorb and learn. Then, there is a rise in activity with रजस् | Then by the day’s end, one winds down as तमस् sets in with good fatigue after a day’s work. So, there is a play of सत्त्व, रजस् & तमस् even during the day.
A society is divided into groups according to कर्म | There cannot be a class-less society. The communists have tried this and have failed. There must at least be a minimum of ruler-ruled classes. The divisions do not mean that there is no equality, but there is difference in terms of skill, function and duty.
1) So, the duty of the first group i.e. ब्राह्मण-s is to pursue knowledge, teach, officiate at different rituals. And much of their life is devoted to prayer for the welfare of society.
The person would have worked very hard for self-mastery i.e. शम, दम, and would have studied the वेद, and served as a purohit.
Society requires ब्राह्मण-s to officiate in different functions.
Nowadays, all educators, teachers, purohits, priests, writers, judges, would be considered as brahmins in terms of कर्म |
It required twelve (12) years of full-time study of a particular discipline to be considered a master.
2) क्षत्रिय-कर्म or the warrior class. Their job is to maintain law & order and defend the country against external aggression. Their life would be dedicated to discipline, strategy, politics, understanding and protecting धर्म and the वेद, and the rest of the population.
As a क्षत्रिय, Arjuna’s duty was to rule and protect in terms of administration, judiciary, defense etc. In any society, the warriors are required.
3) वैश्य-कर्म i.e. the business community or the entrepreneurs. They would be those involved in business, industry and farming, dealing with commerce, wealth, farms, agriculture and cargo transport. They would contribute a great deal to the economy.
4) शूद्र-कर्म are those whose duty is to serve. They provide the hands and legs, eyes and ears for the others. Without शूद्र-कर्म, nothing can be accomplished. In any society, we require शूद्र-s. शूद्र-s were not untouchables. They were those who could help set up, or work for a business/industry. They also did menial jobs. A lot of us who work in the corporate sector, who can be hired/fired, and are working for someone and serving a particular cause are doing शूद्र-कर्म |
This entire कर्म division was designed because the entire वैदिक् society was oriented to मोक्ष | There was no hierarchy. Each group/person was proud of whatever skills they had.
The pursuit of कर्म योग does not depend on the कर्म one does, but it depends on how one does the कर्म |
So, one could be a brahmin by कर्म e.g. by teaching, but one could be a वैश्य by गुण –
If one is commercial, with their eyes only on the bottom-line, and one charges a premium for the services/products rendered, and disregard those who cannot afford.
Or, one could be a brahmin by कर्म, but a शूद्र by गुण because one is very lazy, does not want to do, doing the least minimum, not answerable/accountable.
So, this 4-fold division is based on both one’s गुण and कर्म | And there can be several different combinations.
In our culture, we see that though many saints did simple jobs, they were ब्राह्मण by गुण, e.g. Sant Namdev who was a tailor, Sant Tukaram worked in the farm, Sant Kabir was a weaver, and the 63 Shaiva saints in South India.
So, though these people did शूद्र-कर्म, they are highly revered.
This 4-fold division emphasized the role of duty/कर्तव्यम् | In this way, कर्म योग was relatively easy for someone born into a structure where the duty was clearly defined, as one would just work with the spirit of ‘whatever is to be done’.
E.g. One is born into a carpenter’s family. Therefore, one starts to do carpentry at an early age. One is socialized into this work through family-life, and also inherits the genes for this work. So, even at a young age, these people are skilled craftsmen. So, one is born into this family, and one continues to do the same occupation as one’s parents. Because, the pursuit was for excellence. And, अर्थ/money was not the driving factor.
The principle of धर्म was foremost ~ whatever I am doing, how do I bring धर्म into it. And धर्म was done with the ultimate intention of aspiring for मोक्ष |
So, this may sound idealistic, but it was a good system and it worked at that point in time.
It was not a society based on competition. All groups were considered important and necessary for the functioning of society. So, looking down on a particular group, or elevating a group to a pedestal was not done.
But historically, subsequently, a lot of abuse has happened. Because people forgot what the original teaching was.
If one looks at the Mahabharata, we see Dronacharya who taught Arjuna and the others about warfare. Dronacharya was a brahmin by birth (his father was a teacher), but he was the greatest क्षत्रिय of all times, so much so that he taught क्षत्रिय-धर्म to Arjuna & the others.
Further, भगवान् वेदव्यास who we deeply revere and worship annually on Guru Poornima, he was according to today’s standards, an illegitimate son of a fisherwoman and a Rishi. He is the Guru of all Guru-s who has codified the वेद |
So, in terms of the जाति, He may have been born as a शूद्र, but by गुण, He has brahmin गुण |
Or, Rishi Valmiki was initially a robber indicating तामसिक् कर्म & गुण | But, Ratnakara, after performing many years of Raama जप went on to become a great ऋषि, and eventually wrote the Ramayana. Rishi Valmiki remains deeply revered.
So, the association of शूद्र and untouchability came in only because of the degeneration of society and the attempt by Lord Risley who tried to club 1000s of जाति-s into वर्ण-s and created a hierarchy.
Even so, the caste system is not to be blamed on the British or the Portuguese.
Due to abuse of power, there has been degeneration of this system. This should not be denied nor whitewashed.
But we should be allowed to tell our history. This system should not be articulated/reformed by other cultures. Any reform that needs to happen, should happen internally.
The idea of untouchability cannot arise in a culture where all that is here is ईश्वर, as one does not treat another human being as lowly.
So, however we allowed ourselves to be manipulated, now this वर्ण-system has been on the decline. Some people will romantically say that we must go back to the वर्ण system, but we cannot go back, because there is not enough understanding about it, and most people will not want to go back.
The takeaway point from this teaching of भगवान् श्री कृष्ण is that we recognize why the whole system was made i.e. for the smooth functioning of society. Any society that has these groups and more, will function in a harmonious way. No group is superior or inferior to the other.
E.g. The person who sanitizes the surgical instruments in the operating theatre is as important as the surgeon. There is the story of patients who went blind after they had eye surgery performed with un-sanitized instruments.
So, the work of every group is important, there is dignity of labour.
Now, there is a decline in the attitude of ‘us versus them’ in India and throughout the world, due to the rise of education, organizations, and some attempts at affirmative actions of reservations etc.
So, with this understanding of गुण & कर्म, we should reflect on what is the वर्ण that I belong to, and with respect to जाति i.e. whatever family I have been born into- what am I proud about, and what might I be embarrassed about.
Because this वर्ण or जाति identity is an important part of our धार्मिक identity.
So, we should own up what is wonderful about belonging to a particular जाति |
And we should also strive towards becoming more of a brahmin by गुण i.e. having more सत्त्व, clarity, knowledge and determination to do the right thing i.e. to follow धर्म |
One’s कर्म can be anything- one can be a doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, but the point is- can there be more सत्त्व, with a move towards more clarity & knowledge. And one should consider, how can I use any कर्म that I perform as an offering to भगवान् | Because the कर्म that I do is my कौशलम् – it is what I excel in, it is my contribution to भगवान्’s symphony. And at the same time, I also learn to accept the different results/situations as प्रसाद/कर्मफल from भगवान् |
Although it is an important part of my identity, and I use it to function effectively, I also have to be able to see that I am free from all the गुण-s & कर्म -s. But, unless I live through this identity, and not fight shy of it, nor boast about it either, but have some balance about it, I will not be able to discover the truth.
For people belonging to other cultures, and may have grown up in another religion, it is also worth thinking about- what I am proud about, what I am embarrassed about, and what have been my reasons for moving away from what I have been born into.
Because having clarity in this is very important. Because decisions must be made after having thought through this.
Otherwise, neither will I gain what Hinduism has to offer, nor will I gain what the religion of my birth has to offer.
The purpose of this entire discussion is –
(i) One owns up their identity based on one’s वर्ण | Especially if one lives in India, there is a chance that one either feels superior or inferior depending on which वर्ण one belongs to.
And वर्ण is often confused with जाति |
(ii) The caste system is thrown at India as the worst thing ever of India. But, the truth is that we don’t know enough about the original teaching and we tend to confuse it with the historical perspective.
So, as practicing धार्मिक people, we need not whitewash nor deny this. We have to be open to seeing what happened historically, but also know the original teaching.
(iii) By knowing the combination of these गुण-s, our motivation is to move towards having more सत्त्व गुण | Because ब्राह्मण across the शास्त्र is defined as सत्त्व गुण प्रधान (predominance).
All of the Gita Amrtam students have a predominance of सत्त्व गुण because one is studying the Bhagavad Gita~ desirous of knowledge, wanting to know oneself, living a धार्मिक/fulfilling life i.e. one is clear about one’s priorities, though there may be scope for more growth.