Caste and Action in the Bhagavad Gita6 min read

“The action in accordance with one’s innate disposition,
O son of Kunti, though accompanied with imperfections, One should not give up;
For all undertakings are surrounded by imperfection, As afire with smoke.”

This Gita text is addressed directly to the disciple Arjuna, whose mother was Queen Kunti of the Kshatriya or warrior caste. The previous verses, and others in the Gita, lay down certain actions as proper to the four castes.

To the Brahmin: calm, self-control, austerity, purity, patience, uprightness, knowledge and actual experience, faith; To the Kshatriya: heroism, fire, firmness, skill, not fleeing in battle, generosity, natural authority;

To the Vaishya (artisan): economic production and trade; To the Shudra (servant) : service.

In his commentary Shankara explains that these actions are proper to each class because of the innate disposition of its members, and this is due to the dynamic latent impressions (sanskaras) laid down by action in previous lives. Together they make up the deepest layer of personality, technically called faith.

The idea in the Gita and the commentary is quite different from the view that birth from warrior parents, say, automatically qualifies one for the warrior class, and that this is the only basis of qualification. In the Gita, what puts one in a class is the deep tendency towards the ideals and virtues of that class. In the case of a Brahmin, the impulse towards knowledge and spiritual experience are central to his makeup; as Manu says, a Brahmin without spirituality, and a model elephant made of leather-there is nothing there but the name.

There was always a struggle between this true psychological typing, and the mechanical basis by inheritance alone. There is something similar in the development of the ideal of the gentleman, from its original sense of being born in a good family to Chaucer’s `he who behaves gently is a gentleman’.

In the Gita, the actions proper to each class form a group; it is not a question of single actions but of the whole current of life. For instance, the perfect self-control of the Pharisees who, when Pilate told them he was going to run a new road across a corner of the Temple court and that anyone who stood in the way would be cut down, stood with necks bared calmly awaiting death, is not the same thing as the bravery of the Norman troubadour Tailleferre, who at the battle of Hastings rode out alone towards the Saxons. He was throwing his sword up into the air and catching it, singing songs of chivalry. He cut down two men who came out against him, before charging into the middle of the Saxon host where he was at once killed.

The bravery of the Pharisees was an expression of their uprightness and faith, whereas Tailleferre was expressing herosim, fire and so on as ends in themselves.

The whole trend of the Gita analysis of the actions of the castes is that they should reflect the inner disposition, not outer birth. It is true that the same karma which leads to the particular inner disposition will tend to produce circumstances where it can find expression, which may well mean birth in a family where the parents are of the same class. But this is not necessarily so at all.

The actions proper to the classes are not exclusive; it is a question of the centre of gravity of the whole life. The Gita warns not to undertake the role of a class different from the one for which he is naturally fitted, in the belief that the other role will do `more good’. This would mean a constant weighing up of the results, and anxiety about failure. The verse quoted at the beginning shows that all actions have some imperfections attached to them; but if a man is performing those actions proper to him, he will not be anxious about their results.

Once the path of yoga is entered upon, a new cause begins to operate, namely dedication of the actions, and their results, to the Lord. Although Arjuna is still told to pursue his warrior role, in addition every one of the virtues of the Brahmin is prescribed to him somewhere in the Gita; the Gita also directs the karma yogi to service of the teacher, in verse 34 of Chapter IV, and the same to one on the path of knowledge, in Chapter XIII, verse 7.

Now the second half of the verse. Why, after all, cannot there be a perfect action, with no defects associated with it? Dedication of the results of actions to the Lord is helped by the realization that all actions are attended by some imperfections, as a fire by smoke. If actions–even the best of actions-are accompanied with the thought `I am doing good’, the benevolent man may become depressed. For instance UN medical teams, working in primitive areas, have greatly reduced infant mortality by giving some simple instructions to the midwives. Yet it was found later that the population of the villages had not increased.

The reason was, that there was not enough food to support any more; so the babies saved at birth died a lingering death of starvation a little later.
Even when actions are completely successful in actualizing their hoped-for results, there may be unforeseen and unwelcome effects.

A saying of the Soto Zen sect is, “Eighty per cent is perfection”. They do not explain these phrases, but one commentary runs something like this:

`Do things well. But not very well. If you do a thing well, others will see it and think, “Yes that is a good job, that is what I should have done if I had been doing it.” But if it has been done very well, they may have doubts whether they could have reached that level. Then some of them may try to find something wrong with what you have done. If they cannot find anything wrong with it, they will try to find something wrong with you. If they cannot find something wrong with you, they will invent something. And that is bad for them. So don’t put them in that situation.

`There is also the effect on you. If you have done something well, you finish it and forget it. But if you have done it very well, you are much more liable to begin to think, “Why, I have done that really very well.” And then perhaps your stride will lengthen a little, and your voice will be heard afar. And that will be bad for you.

‘So do things well. But if you do them very well, be very careful too!’

© Trevor  Leggett