VARNA BY BIRTH OR NOT? EITHER WAY IT IS WRONG BUT SHASTRAS SAY IT IS BY BIRTH – PART 2: JERRY THOMAS
Modern Hindu cults such as Arya Samaj, or certain sections of ISKCON, and polemists such as Rajiv Malhotra promulgate the view that Varna system is a classification of vocation based on qualities and has nothing to do with ones’ birth. In fact, bizarrely, they also accuse Britishers of creating rigid varna system or caste system. On the other hand, orthodox and mainstream Hindu representatives such as Shankarachyara of Kanchi or Shankarachyara of Puri clearly refutes such views and establishes that varna system is by birth marshalling evidence from Hindu scriptures. Equally interesting is that the fact that these orthodox and reputed spokespersons of Hinduism blame British era for weakening the traditional varna or caste sytem. In this three-part series, Jerry Thomas weighs the arguments and points that without any iota of doubt varna system is by birth. Part 1 examines whether is any merit in the argument of those who argue that varna is by occupation. Part 2 raises an important question as to whether varna is justifiable even if it not by birth. Part 3 looks at the evidence of varna by birth.
PART 2: IF VARNA IS NOT BIRTH, WILL IT BE STILL JUSTIFIABLE?
Having seen in Part 1 that there are no solid arguments for the case against varna by birth, we concluded by stating that if varna is not by birth, will it be still justifiable.
We have seen Rajiv Malhotra quotes Gita 4:13 where it says varna is created as per guna and karmas. In fact, this is probably the most popular verse for those who argue that varna is not by birth. Let us agree with them for argument’s sake.
However, let us ask the question about gunas. When Sree Krishna says in Gita that he created fourfold varna through three gunas and karmas, what does he mean by gunas?
In answer to this, Gita says that there are three types of gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas.
Sattva is often translated goodness, rajas as passion and tamas as ignorance, lethargy or evil passion. Further, each of the four varnas, as per their hierarchy are said to have one of these gunas predominantly. Brahmins are said to predominantly possess Sattva with a little quality of rajas, Kshatriyas having predominantly rajas with a bit of Sattva, Vaishyas having rajas with a bit of tamas, and Sudras having predominantly tamas with a bit of rajas.
Sudras are the ones who serve others and who does the manual labour. Even if one agrees for arguments sake that varna is not defined by birth but gunas and karmas in this life, is there any justification for categorizing those who do manual labour or provide service to others as possessing tamas gunas?
Is this teaching not the cause of seeing labourers as if they are not equal to others in India? Is not this teaching leading to the discriminatory attitude against manual labourers and people who provides service to others? Is not this unscientific attitude leading to belittling people who engage in manual labour, a curse in India?
In fact, defining these three gunas and categorizing varnas in to these gunas are explicitly done by Gita itself and commentators across the Hindu sects agree with it,
Gita 14: 5-10 explains these three gunas and their definitions and Gita 18 categorizes varnas into these three gunas. Let us read the text of Gita before we look at the commentaries.
Transliteration, Synomyns and Translation by Srila Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON are provided below:
Gita 14: TEXT 5
sattvam rajas tama iti
dehe dehinam avyayam
sattvam—mode of goodness; rajah—mode of passion; tamah—mode of ignorance; iti—thus; gunah—qualities; prakrti—material nature; sambhavah—produced of; nibadhnanti—does condition; maha-baho—O mighty-armed one; dehe—in this body; dehinam—the living entity; avyayam—eternal.
Material nature consists of the three modes-goodness, passion and ignorance. When the living entity comes in contact with nature, he becomes conditioned by these modes.
Gita 14: 6
tatra sattvam nirmalatvat
tatra—thereafter; sattvam—mode of goodness; nirmalatvat—being purest in the material world; prakasakam—illuminating; anamayam—without any sinful reachon; sukha—happiness; sangena—association; badhnati—conditions; jnana—knowledge; sangena—association; ca—also; anagha—O sinless one.
O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode develop knowledge, but they become conditioned by the concept of happiness.
Gita 14: TEXT 7
rajo ragatmakam viddhi
tan nibadhnati kaunteya
rajah—mode of passion; raga-atmakam—born of desire or lust; viddhi—know; trsna—hankering; sanga—association; samudbhavam—produced of; tat—that; nibadhnati—is bound; kaunteya—O son of Kunti; karma-sangena—association with fruitive activity; dehinam—of the embodied.
The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this one is bound to material fruitive activities.
Chapter 14: TEXT 8
tamas tv ajnana-jam viddhi
tan nibadhnati bharata
tamah—mode of ignorance; tu—but; ajnana-jam—products of ignorance; viddhi—knowing; mohanam—delusion; sarva-dehinam—of all embodied beings; pramada—madness; alasya—indolence; nidrabhih—sleep; tat—that; nibadhnati—binds; bharata—O son of Bharata.
O son of Bharata, the mode of ignorance causes the delusion of all living entities. The result of this mode is madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.
Gita 14: 9
sattvam sukhe sanjayati
rajah karmani bharata
jnanam avrtya tu tamah
pramade sanjayaty uta
sattvam—mode of goodness; sukhe—in happiness; sanjayati—develops; rajah—mode of passion; karmani—fruits of activities; bharata—O son of Bharata; jnanam—knowledge; avrtya—covering; tu—but; tamah—the mode of ignorance; pramade—in madness; sanjayati—develops; uta—it is said.
The mode of goodness conditions one to happiness, passion conditions him to the fruits of action, and ignorance to madness.
Gita 14: 10
rajas tamas cabhibhuya
sattvam bhavati bharata
rajah sattvam tamas caiva
tamah sattvam rajas tatha
rajah—mode of passion; tamah—mode of ignorance; ca—also; abhibhuya—also surpassing; sattvam—mode of goodness; bhavati—becomes prominent; bharata—O son of Bharata; rajah—mode of passion; sattvam—mode of goodness; tamah—mode of ignorance; ca—also; eva—like that; tamah—mode of ignorance; sattvam—mode of goodness; rajah—mode of passion; tatha—as in this.
Sometimes the mode of passion becomes prominent, defeating the mode of goodness, O son of Bharata. And sometimes the mode of goodness defeats passion, and at other times the mode of ignorance defeats goodness and passion. In this way there is always competition for supremacy.
After providing value based gunas with Sattva as the pure goodness and tamas as ignorance and evil, Gita goes on to categorize four varnas into combinations of these three gunas. We can read that Gita 18.
Gita 18: 41 – 45: Discriminatory Categorization of Varnas as Per Gunas
sudranam ca parantapa
brahmana—the brahmanas; ksatriya—the ksatriyas; visam—the vaisyas; sudranam—the sudras; ca—and; parantapa—O subduer of the enemies; karmani—activities; pravibhaktani—are divided; svabhava—own nature; prabhavaih—born of; gunaih—by the modes of material nature.
Brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras are distinguished by their qualities of work, O chastiser of the enemy, in accordance with the modes of nature.
samo damas tapah saucam
ksantir arjavam eva ca
jnanam vijnanam astikyam
samah—peacefulness; damah—self-control; tapah—austerity; saucam—purity; ksantih—tolerance; arjavam—honesty; eva—certainly; ca—and; jnanam—wisdom; vijnanam—knowledge; astikyam—religiousness; brahma—of a brahmana; karma—duty; svabhava-jam—born of his own nature.
Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness-these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.
sauryam tejo dhrtir daksyam
yuddhe capy apalayanam
danam isvara-bhavas ca
ksatram karma svabhava-jam
sauryam—heroism; tejah—power; dhrtih—determination; daksyam—resourcefulness; yuddhe—in battle; ca—and; api—also; apalayanam—not fleeing; danam—generosity; isvara—leadership; bhavah—nature; ca—and ksatram-ksatriya; karma—duty; svabhava-jam—born of his own nature.
Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.
krsi—ploughing; go—cows; raksya—protection; vanijyam—trade; vaisya-vaisya; karma—duty; svabhava-jam—born of his own nature; paricarya—service; atmakam—nature; karma—duty; sudrasya—of the sudra; api—also; svabhava-jam—born of his own nature.
Farming, cattle raising and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labor and service to others.
sve sve karmany abhiratah
samsiddhim labhate narah
yatha vindati tac chrnu
sve—own; sve—own; karmani—in work; abhiratah—following; samsiddhim—perfection; labhate—achieves; narah—a man; svakarma—by his own duty; niratah—engaged; siddhim—perfection; yatha—as; vindati—attains, tat—that; srnu—listen.
By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. Now please hear from Me how this can be done.
In fact, it is not merely the text that speaks about. Premodern Hindu commentators on Gita had understood it to be so.
Commentaries on Gunas and Their Association with Varnas
The Bhagavad-Gita With The Commentary Of Sri Sankaracharya, Translated Into English By Alladi Mahadeva Sastri for Gita 4: 13
Gita 4: 13. The fourfold caste has been created by Me according to the distribution of energies and actions; though I am the author thereof, know Me as non-agent and immutable.
The four castes (varnas, lit., colours) have been created by Me, Isvara, according to the distribution of energies (gunas) and of actions. The energies are Sattva (goodness). Rajas (foulness, activity), and Tamas (darkness). The actions of a brahmawa ( priest ), in whom Sattva predominates, are serenity, self-restraint, austerity, &c., (xviii. 42). The actions of a kshatriya (warrior), in whom Rajas predominates and Sattva is subordinate to Rajas, are prowess, daring,. &c., (xviii. 43). The actions of a vaisya (merchant), in whom Rajas predominates and Tamas is subordinate to Rajas, are agriculture, etc. (xviii. 44). The action of a sudra (servant), in whom Tamas predominates acid Rajas is subordinate to Tamas, is only servitude. Thus have been created the four castes according to the distribution of energies and actions. This fourfold caste does not exist in other worlds. Hence the limitation “in this world of man.” (iv. 12).
(Objection) : —Oh ! then Thou art the author of the act of creating the four castes, and as such Thou art bound by its effects ; wherefore, Thou art not the eternal Lord nor the eternally unbound.
(Answer): —Though I am the author of this act when viewed from the standpoint of Maya, still, know thou that I am in reality no agent and therefore not subject to Isawsara. Action without attachment does not bind the soul. Since I am not in reality the author of those actions of which you think Me to be the author.
Sri Vaisnava Sampradaya: Ramanuja, Ramanuja’s Commentary (Commentaries on Gita 18: 41 (https://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-18-39.html)
The word svabhava means one’s inherent nature. This inherent nature arises from samskaras or past impressions and karma or reactions from past actions and is the root cause of determining birth as a Brahmin. The three gunas or modes of material nature arising from prakriti or the material substratum pervading all existence are determined by karma and samskaras as well. The predominating attribute of the Brahmins or spiritual class is sattva guna the mode of goodness. The predominating characteristic of the ksatriya or administrative class is raja guna the mode of passion. The predominating characteristic of the vaisyas or mercantile class is tama guna mixed with raja guna and the predominating characteristic of the sudras is only tama guna. Duties and responsibilities vary according to position and status in society as assigned by the Vedic scriptures. It is the Vedic scriptures which defines what qualities are possessed by Brahmins and what are the duties proper to their status as well as what occupations they may engage in. This Vedic directive applies to the other orders in society as well.
Rudra Vaisnava Sampradaya: Visnuswami, Sridhara Swami’s Commentary (Commentaries on Gita 18: 41 (https://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-18-39.html)
It could be postulated that if everything physical such as actions, agent, agency, rewards, etc. are comprised of the three gunas or modes of material nature then how is it possible for jivas or embodied beings to achieve moksa or liberation from material existence. In order to resolve such speculations and concisely describe the essence of the entire Bhagavad-Gita which illustrates that jivas can achieve moksa by knowledge from the Vedic scriptures taught by the spiritual preceptor and the grace of the Supreme Lord derived from performing prescribed Vedic activities according to qualification as a matter of duty or worshipping the Supreme Lord Krishna with bhakti or exclusive loving devotion.
Now Lord Krishna commences a new theme with this verse explaining that the duties of the different classes of Vedic society such as brahmana or priestly class, ksatriya or royal and warrior class, vaisya or agricultural and mercantile class as well as sudra or menial worker class which is the only one not qualified to take part in any Vedic activity as they serve the other three classes. The duties enjoined for all the classes are clearly delineated and itemised with distinct divisions. The typical duties of all the four classes will be described according to the predominating influence of the three gunas which manifest the corresponding nature determined by the tendencies acquired in past lives and the impressions from the attendant karma or reactions to actions. The brahmins have a predominance of sattva guna, the ksatriya’s a predominance of raja guna with a little sattva guna, the vaisyas with raja guna mixed with tama guna and the sudras with a predominance tama guna and a little raja guna.
We have that premodern great commentators of Gita are unambiguously boxing shudras as having tamas guna.
It is not just premodern commentators, but even modern commentators such as Srila Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON also commented in the same way. Read Purport by Srila Prabhupada for Gita 4: 13:
GITA 4: 13 PURPORT
The Lord is the creator of everything. Everything is born of Him, everything is sustained by Him, and everything, after annihilation, rests in Him. He is therefore the creator of the four divisions of the social order, beginning with the intelligent class of men, technically called brahmanas due to their being situated in the mode of goodness. Next is the administrative class, technically called the ksatriyas due to their being situated in the mode of passion. The mercantile men, called the vaisyas, are situated in the mixed modes of passion and ignorance, and the sudras, or laborer class, are situated in the ignorant mode of material nature. In spite of His creating the four divisions of human society, Lord Krsna does not belong to any of these divisions, because He is not one of the conditioned souls, a section of whom form human society. Human society is similar to any other animal society, but to elevate men from the animal status, the abovementioned divisions are created by the Lord for the systematic development of Krsna consciousness. The tendency of a particular man toward work is determined by the modes of material nature which he has acquired. Such symptoms of life, according to different modes of material nature, are described in the Eighteenth Chapter of this book. A person in Krsna consciousness, however, is above even the brahmanas, because a brahmana by quality is supposed to know about Brahman, the Supreme Absolute Truth. Most of them approach the impersonal Brahman manifestation of Lord Krsna, but only a man who transcends the limited knowledge of a brahmana and reaches the knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krsna, becomes a person in Krsna consciousness—or, in other words, a Vaisnava. Krsna consciousness includes knowledge of all different plenary expansions of Krsna, namely Rama, Nrsimha, Varaha, etc. However, as Krsna is transcendental to this system of the four divisions of human society, a person in Krsna consciousness is also transcendental to all divisions of human society, whether we consider the divisions of community, nation or species.
Here we repeat our concern. Even if varna is not birth (which it is), it is still indefensible as there is no justification for considering those who do manual labour as ignorant and filled it with lethargy etc. Hence, varna system is totally an indefensible system and must be discarded without any justification. However, to deny and reject varna system is to abandon the entire Hinduism itself.
Knowing this, modern pseudo scholars like Rajiv Malhotra comes with ludicrous redefinition of shudra without even an iota of evidence.
Rajiv Malhotra, an expert in churning out blatant lies, writes in “Varna as Form of Capital” (https://www.speakingtree.in/blog/varna-as-a-form-of-capital):
Shudra varna is the divine manifested as service to others. Shudras must display obedience, attention to detail, and selfless dedication. They carry out with precision what the other three cosmic principles require. Nowadays, with nepotism and materialism turning varna into birth-based caste oppression, shudras are often impoverished and exploited.
Varna should not be confused with jati, which generally refers to a community that perpetuates itself through biological descendents. Over time, as jatis became specialized professionally, they were reified into the caste system.
The table below highlights the main characteristics that were expected of each varna.
- Abstract thinkers
- Opinion makers
•Protectors of others
- Powerful, in control
- Orators, debaters
- Resilience amidst danger
- – Negotiators
- Wealth managers
- Creators of perfect forms
- Sophisticated sensory cognition (surgeons, potters, craftsmen, instrument makers, performers, artists)
While it is another matter that majority of the Indians due to varna system never had high standard of living and led an improvised lives through millenniums, we will focus on varna system now. All that Rajiv Malhotra has done is to borrow heavily from the language of Judeo-Christian cultures and tried to whitewash an otherwise indefensible Hindu varna system. However, here also these categorization does not make any sense. Can’t artists (who are shudras as per Rajiv Malhotra) be intellectuals and opinion makers? Can’t surgeons, potters, craftsmen be employers, competitive and philanthropists?
In fact, to refute Rajiv Malhotra, one need not cite any major acharyas but only the modern commentators that he himself has produced as worthy experts for his case.
Swami Chinmayananda, whom Rajiv Malhotra, produced as an authority, puts it well. In Bhagvadgita on Caste by Rajiv Malhotra https://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_es/s_es_malho_caste_frameset.htm , he had adduced quote from Swami Chinmayananda. I paste that below to refute Rajiv Malhotra’s article “Varna as Capital”.
[“The Holy Geeta”, Commentary by Swami Chinmayananda. Published by Sri Ram Batra, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Bombay, India. Pages 233-235 .]
Literal translation: “The fourfold-caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of GUNA and KARMA.”
…”This complete definition of the Varna not only removes our present misunderstanding but also provides us with some data to understand its true significance. Not by birth is man a Brahmana (Brahmin); by cultivating good intentions and noble thoughts alone can we ever aspire to Brahmanahood; nor can we pose as Brahmana merely because of our external physical marks; or bodily actions in the outer world. The definition insists that he alone is a Brahmana, whose thoughts are as much Sattwic, as his actions are. A Kshatriya is one who is Rajasic in his thoughts and actions. A Sudra is not only one whose thoughts are Tamasic, but also he who lives a life of low endeavours, for satisfying his base animal passions and flesh-appetites. The scientific attitude in which this definition has been declared, is clear from the exhaustive implications of the statement: “ACCORDING TO THE DIFFERENTIATION OF “guna” AND “karma”.”…
As per Swami Chinmayananda, Sudra’s thoughts are tamasic and lives a life satisfying base animal passions and flesh-appetites. aligns Gita 14: 8 “O son of Bharata, the mode of ignorance causes the delusion of all living entities. The result of this mode is madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.”
Hence, we note that there is no justification for varna system even if it is not by birth.